In the press
Appleton, an American pioneer of electronic music, might be best known for co-designing the Synclavier and as a founding member of the CIME (International Confederation for Electroacoustic Music) and the SEAMUS (Society for ElectroAcoustic Music in the United States). His academic and theoretical associations aside, Appleton has a welcome sense of humor. Take Newark Airport Rock, a witty 1969 piece in which comments on “the new electronic music” were collected during a random survey of passengers and strung together with a jumbled quasi-Beat arrangement of Moog squiggles and sequenced electronics. Some of the opinions are extremely funny (a few favorites are the clueless “You’ll hear it when you want to hear it,” and “We get enough of that in the Army!,” “You mean that stuff we hear on the airplanes?”), others are surprisingly perceptive and revelatory — and the teens who declare that it’s “with-it!,” “really neat!,” “cool,” and “a beautiful thing… really nice” give the burgeoning artform a rather prescient stamp of generational approval. San Francisco Airport Rock, a 1996 sequel constructed with reactions gathered during another (more recent) impromptu survey, finds that not as much as changed as we’d like to think, despite the apparent assimilation of electronic music into the culture of popular music. Again the teens seem most receptive, whether commenting on e-music’s noted drug-friendly aspect or on the potential for self-expression in the Computer Age, and the adults tend to be more readily dismissive — “Like the music in the elevators?,” “Oh, it’s not real!,” and the popular “I prefer music played by musicians without computers” — with the notable exception of one woman who “met Moog when he first came out with the synthesizer” and a man enamored of e-music’s disreputable sibling, New Age. Name recognition is up — one surveyee impressively namechecks Koyaanisqatsi — and, rest assured, Gen X still deems it “great,” and — yes, “cool.” Even if one girl thinks it “sucks,” a trenchant insight which Appleton accents to especially humorous effect. Twenty years later, and it appears that the “new” electronic music still has a way to go in terms of mainstream acceptance. The other pieces on Contes de la mémoire span Appleton’s prolific career and include both his “signature” works — Chef d’œuvre, a bustling concrète abstraction composed in 1967 exclusively using the sounds of the Andrews Sisters singing in an ad for Chef Boy-Ar-Dee (you have to love this guy!) — and music of more recent vintage (Appleton’s comparatively solemn electronics-and-tape paen to a friend’s Russian heritage, 1993’s Dima Dobralsa Domoy). With Appleton’s music, whether dating from the earliest days of his experiments with electroacoustics in his Dartmouth University tape studio (Georganna’s Fancy  and Spuyten Duyvil ) or witnessing the refinement and maturity of his compositional techniques, there is always an extraordinary energy. Timbres swell and scatter; archival recordings and extremely active electronics react to convey a sense of excitement and urgency (CCCP (In Memoriam: Anatoly Kuznetsov) , prefiguring Dima Dobralsa Domoy and paying homage to the Russian writer’s courageous defection). Among Appleton’s most advanced “tape-studio” pieces, Times Square Times Ten presents Manhattan, 1969, in exacting cross-section, a musical excavation of the City from its busy streets to the subterranean whispers of life in its subway belly. Cutting a vertical swath of city-life with observant precision, Times Square Times Ten is the City in miniature — a sonic core-sample so studiously idealized that it could only have been crafted artificially. Another of Appleton’s older tape constructions, 1970’s Homage To Orpheus revisits the acousmatic tinkles and chimes of Nordheim or Bayle, so convincingly in fact that the composer confesses to feeling distanced from it, and that it “almost sounds like music composed by someone else.” No such comment can be made about In Media Res, a pinnacle of Appleton’s digital abstractions. Over nine minutes of gorgeous rippling sonorities, bagpipe-like drones and agitated multitracked synthetics — brought to a sudden close after a section of itchy organ-toned polyphonies. A startling piece of digital composition and yet another example of Appleton’s warmth and irrepressible humanness, qualities so critical to the ageless appeal of his innovative œuvre.
American Jon Appleton and Brit Jonty Harrison are pioneers of electroacoustic music, and the pivotal moments of their enterprising work are marvellously captured on these two retrospectives issued by the empreintes DIGITALes label.
Both artists are preoccupied with texture, and as such, few traces of melody or even conventional structure are to be found in their compositions. As with most experimental music, the focus is on the listener’s reaction to the sounds as opposed to the composer’s delight in making them.
The most illuminating composition on Contes de la mémoire is Newark Airport Rock written in 1969, for which Appleton approached unsuspecting travellers and asked them “What do you think about the new electronic music?” Their responses ranged from unbridled enthusiasm to outright repulsion. (Someone even asked Appleton whether he meant “elevator music”) Out of these sondry reactions Appleton created a dynamic collage of voices that he set to spiky jazz — the effect is fascinating. The first track on Contes de la mémoire, San Francisco Airport Rock, reprises this experiment twenty-seven years later (this time set to a canvas of ambient music). Whether or not it was the desired result, the only difference in these compositions is the vernacular of the interviewees — the lesson here seems to be that the acceptance of electronic music is still far from complete. (One chap emphatically said “I like real music by real musicians,” as sly an indictment of electronic music as has ever been uttered.) Appleton certainly had a stake in the matter, having helped design the Synclavier, the first digital synthesizer.
Contes de la mémoire also includes Dima Dobralsa Domoy (1993), which tells, through a variety of both organic and electronic tones, the tale of one Russian’s search for home. Appleton expands on a pet theme namely, the political oppression of artists — on the track CCCP (In Memoriam: Anatoly Kuznetsov), which is a memorial to Russian writer Anatoly Kuznetsov, who defected to the West. The track deftly combines Kuznetsov’s voice with soundbites of Stalin, Tolstoy, Radio Moscow, and Russian folk music to create an intensely emotional environment. But the most subversive track on this compilation is probably the last one. Chef d’œuvre, written in 1967, takes a jingle for Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee performed by the Andrews Sisters, and distorts it with vocoders and various other effects, resulting in a wildly delusional aural document that at once celebrates and lampoons classic Americana.