Lockdown Relief: Four Outstanding New Books for the Hardcore Synth and Software Enthusiast
Synth and Software contributor Mark Jenkins provides some exciting page-flipping adventures to keep you off the streets and out of trouble.
Under lockdown conditions there’s nothing better than staying home with a good book. Happily there have been some excellent Synth and Software-relevant releases over the last few months.
PATCH & TWEAK with MOOG
The original “Patch & Tweak” book by Kim Bjorn and our own Chris Meyer, from Denmark-based publisher Bjooks, covered techniques for using modular synthesizer systems, oriented mainly (though not exclusively) towards Eurorack systems.
This full color hardback issue, with high quality illustrations and an overall presentation best described as sumptuous, is a Moog-centric re-visiting of the original book. However, there isn’t a strict limitation to Moog gear, as there are many references to interfacing Eurorack and other systems.
Still, Moog Music can be considered the originator of all modular system designs, and they’ve launched further modular and semi-modular instruments.
They’ve also re-issued versions of the early modular systems, but semi-modular keyboards such as the Matriarch and Grandmother are wholly new. These instruments are covered in the book, along with the Mother32 (an expanded version of the Werkstat kit-built synth), Subharmonicon, and DFAM percussion synth.
In a solid hardback format with a foreword by film composer Hans Zimmer, the book offers a timeline of Moog instruments and over 100 tips for patching the current batch of instruments. Composers, including Suzanne Ciani and the “Stranger Things” team Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, are interviewed, as well as more avant-garde sound creators Daedalus, bana haffar, Sarah Schachner, and many more.
The same publisher still offers the original “Patch & Tweak” book by Bjorn and Meyer, along with other titles worth mentioning. “Push Turn Move” by Kim Bjorn, with a foreword by French composer/producer Jean Michel Jarre, covers interface design of everything from the tiny Pocket Operator series of digital synths to large modular systems. It contains interviews with instrument designers and the musicians who have helped bring their creations to life.
And “Pedal Crush,” also by Kim Bjorn but this time with Scott Harper, looks at using stomp box-style effects in all sorts of musical applications. Those who live outside Denmark will be happy to know that the company ships internationally.
DEEP DISTANCE – The Musical Life of Manuel Göttsching
This slimmish 150-page paperback by Christian Wheeldon with photos is the definitive study of a deeply influential synth and guitar performer.
Göttsching played in blues bands before helping to form the psychedelic rock group Ash Ra Tempel in Berlin. As other members left, Göttsching carried on with the band name – later as Ashra – adding sequencers and synthesizers to his flowing lead guitar sounds. The classic Ashra albums on Virgin were “New Age of Earth” and “Blackouts.”
In this period, Göttsching used a very distinctive musical setup. A Farfisa Syntorchestra provided thin, precise string chords and some lead sounds like oboe, flute, and electric piano. For his trademark incredible bass patterns, he used an ARP Odyssey played by an ARP Sequencer.
Some percussion came from a very rare punchcard-programmable drum machine, the Italian Eko ComputeRhythm (also used by Jean-Michel Jarre). It was so futuristic-looking that it often featured in Italian sci-fi movies as a piece of spaceship instrumentation. Göttsching’s guitar soared over all this.
Wheeldon also chronicles the re-expansion of Ashra into a 3-piece band featuring original drummer Harald Grosskopf and techno performer/producer Steve Baltes. They performed extensively in Japan.
The book is more or less official, since all the significant musicians involved were interviewed directly. There are some great insights into moments like the creation of “E2-E4” – an improvisation that was later regarded as a highlight of minimalist music.
Wheeldon’s writing style is easygoing, and there are extensive indices and lists of websites and other sources of information. There’s no straightforward discography as such, but all this information is on Göttsching’s own website, and the book can be ordered direct.
HAWKWIND: DAYS OF THE UNDERGROUND
Hawkwind is a band that has worked hard on gaining US acceptance for 50 years. But they’ve dominated – having effectively created – the UK’s space rock scene throughout that time.
In case you’re not familiar, Hawkwind sounds like Status Quo, or The Scorpions, or some other heavy rock band, layered with synthesizers, sequencers, and abstract noises. They don’t sing about love and dancing, they sing about space flight, psychosis, needle guns, fantasy warriors, and silver swords.
This new title by Joe Banks, subtitled “Radical Escapism In The Age Of Paranoia,” is a 480-page slab of a book that includes comprehensive lists of relevant information at the end.
Elsewhere Banks interviews almost every significant member and contact of the band, with the exception (if I understand it correctly) of founder Dave Brock, who nevertheless is credited for help and support.
And help and support would definitely be needed to comprehend the incredible family tree of the band, which has had dozens of members over the years, some of them departing and returning several times. Multiple spinoff bands are outlined, though Banks mainly covers the period from the late ’60s to 1980. After that time the tree becomes even more incredibly complex, and perhaps a companion book about the later years is called for.
Although Hawkwind produced some credible albums later on, the early works “In Search of Space,” “Doremi Fasol Latido,” “Hall Of The Mountain Grill,” and “Warrior At The Edge of Time” outlined in the book remain definitive.
In between all these sneaks “Space Ritual,” the double album often acclaimed as being the best live album ever released. This is an epic, non-stop compilation of songs, sound effects, poetry, crunching guitars, wah-wah saxophone leads, and warbling synthesizers.
Two main aspects define the sound. Early Hawkwind had no lead guitarist, with occasional moves from rhythm by Dave Brock playing minimalistic non-melodies. And the abstract synth effects from an EMS VCS3 synth are combined with less identifiable swoops and glides. These simply come from a physics lab test oscillator coupled with a Copicat tape echo. It’s a soundscape never quite reproduced since – even by the many tribute bands setting off to sound exactly like Hawkwind.
Notably, Hawkwind’s early bassist was Lemmy, who went on to form Motorhead, maybe taking some of the band’s early heaviness away with him. Meanwhile, apart from Brock, saxophonist Nik Turner or multi-talented Robert Calvert often sang vocals.
Banks transcribes interviews with many other members, including drummer Alan Powell who played on “Opa-Loka,” Atypically for its time, that piece sounded like a krautrock, minimalist synthesizer piece. In fact, Banks is very detailed on the huge variety of sounds coming from a band that was usually pigeonholed as heavy rock.
“Days of The Underground” is a great read, and very generously illustrated. The book is from Strange Attractor Press, distributed by MIT Press.
TIMES & SOUNDS
Jan Reetze’s hardcover book from Halvmall is about Germany’s “krautrock” scene. But it specifically sets off to show how such an innovative area of music could derive from more conventional pop and jazz, covering the cultural movements behind the music as a whole.
So alongside a foreword by H-J Roedelius – who performed in Kluster, Cluster, Cluster & Eno, Harmonia, and plays solo to this day – you’ll find consideration of early rock ’n roll and jazz clubs, classical experimentalist Karlheinz Stockhausen, and more.
Indeed, the book opens with “It’s all about the music – but wait, is it really?” So you’ll read much about German politics and society from the period (1945-1990).
Helpfully the book opens and closes with maps, one of political and social movements and one of band connections. This really helps to pin down the individual contributions of the Berlin School (Cluster, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Ash Ra Tempel), the Düsseldorf group (Kraftwerk, Neu!, La Düsseldorf), the Köln set (Can), musicians from Munich, and many others.
“Times and Sounds” offers scores of black and white photos alternating from concert pics to album sleeves and posters (mostly pushed right up to the outside edge of a page, which is a bit disconcerting). No color here, but there is a bound-in bookmark – you wouldn’t want to fold the page corners on this impressive tome – and a comprehensive index.
Reetze achieves what he sets out to accomplish, but you have to be interested in the approach. From this book you can learn as much about the Munich Riots as you can about albums by Satin Whale, as much on terrorist Andreas Baader as on composer Eberhard Schoener. But interestingly, as if to redress the balance, the publisher’s website does offer a whole bonus chapter of album sleeves.
For those on a budget there’s an e-book version for only 10€ (about $12.15). This seems to be the first production from Halvmall, and it’s incredibly impressive.
Mark Jenkins is the author of “Analog Synthesizers” (2nd Edition, Focal Press 2019) and of “Tangerine Dream: 50 Years”, “Klaus Schulze: 50 Years” and “Kraftwerk: 50 Years” (ZyXyZ Books).