André Mayer, Musicworks, no 71, 1 juin 1998

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.

Appleton and Harrison’s work can be truly held up as visionary