Human Emotion and Synthetic Sound


  Jazz Development in Britain

A batch of record albums I received quite recently, intended for review, contained one bearing the sleeve title "Moog Espana"- Spanish music produced on a Moog synthesiser. The sleeve describes the performance as being of "Old Spanish favourites played in an exciting new way" but, during the past five decades, I have heard them all played with more fire and sincerity by groups of musicians of varying nationalities.

For example, the original Savoy Orpheans in the mid- 'twenties made a much better job of "Valencia", both the groups of Red Nichols and Louis Armstrong in the mid- 'thirties gave better performances of "The Peanut Vendor ", and the Ambrose Orchestra, also in the 'thirties, used to play a really thrilling arrangement of de Falla's "Ritual Fire Dance".

This may read like the die- hard conventional musician protesting against the intrusion of the scientist into the second oldest profession, but my protest is not. against the inevitable experiments of the scientists so much as about the implication of those who encourage him to believe that he has succeeded in reproducing and even surpassing by electronic means the sounds produced on acoustically played musical instruments. Before I go any further, and for the benefit of those readers who have not read about or heard the Moog synthesiser, I should fill in the information that this electronic instrument was developed by one Robert Moog (pronounced Moag) in his New York studio at Trumansburg.

The sleeve note of the "Moog Espana" album informs us that "Theoretically, the Moog synthesiser can reproduce any sound in nature. . ." and that it ". can also produce tones unheard of in nature." Although I would not argue with the second of these claims, I would question whether the first is anywhere near achievement- at the same time recognising that ultimate achievement is probably inevitable. The synthesiser cannot yet play chords; so if you want a sequence played in harmony, the sleeve note informs us " . . you must first play one line of harmony and tape it and then overlay another line, and another line, and so on".

Without having technical knowledge, I suspect that this kind of overlaying accounts for some of what sounds like ragged "team" work as well as, in places, erratic tempo in the "Moog Espana album, in which the synthesiser is "played" by Sid Bass. For some time past, however, I have had in my record collection a more impressive example of the use of the Moog synthesiser in an album bearing the title "The Well- Tempered Synthesiser", in which arrangements of a number of works of four of the great composers of the Baroque period were made for the synthesiser and played by Walter Carlos. There are four sonatas by the younger Scarlatti, who was a virtuoso of the harpsichord, the "Water Music" of Handel, the fourth Brandenburg Concerto of J. S. Bach and two works by Monteverdi, who was in fact born during the latter part of the Renaissance period.

The first of these consists of the six movements of his "Orfeo" Suite, whilst the second is his "Domme Ad Adjuvandum" from the 1610 Vespers, in which Carlos contrives to introduce a brief impression of human voices. To give the reader some idea of the complexities of the synthetic reproduction of music, I will quote Carlos's own description of the technique he used in the production of this passage. In his contribution to the sleeve note he wrote :" The Chorale `Cantus Firmus' in the Domira Ad Adjuvandum represents a first- order experiment in crossing the gap between vocal and instrumental media, and it contains some of the most complex sounds I have obtained on the present synthesiser.

The voice- like articulations here required a careful tuning of nearly every module on the synthesiser and were performed by a practised co- ordination of hands and feet to select pitch, vibrato, loudness, portamento and two vowel- producing resonances, each of which was adjusted for maximum expressivity on the six vocal parts: Soprano 1, 11, Alto, Tenor Baritone and Bass." One might be tempted to ask why all this hard and skilful work should be considered necessary when human instrumentalists and vocalists can obviously produce a better and more satisfying sound, but such experiments have been taking place for many years past. There were, for example, during the early part of the present century, a group of Belgian musicians working hard in their attempts to produce synthetic music.

Their names and years of birth were as follows : Maurice Shoemaeker and Francois de Bouruigon (1890), Jules Strens (1892), Theodore Dejoncker (1894), Marcel Poot (1901), Gaston Brenta (1902) and Rene Bernier (1905), but what success they had is not known- at least to the writer. In the days before tapes, any venture into the field of overlaying must have been extremely difficult and the mind boggles at the thought of these seven industrious gentlemen getting busy with stacks of phonograph cylinders or even the earlier type of discs, although the thought does bring to my mind the experiments of a professional colleague around 1937. He was known as "Tickle" Markwick and we were at the time members of Jose Norman's Latin- American Band at the old Bristol Grill in Mayfair. "Tickle" played trumpet, saxophones, clarinet, piano, drums and bass and also owned some home recording equipment of a type that enabled him to produce aluminium discs.

I recall that, by cutting dozens of discs for the purposes of overlaying, he managed to produce a record of "Tiger Rag" on which he personally played all the parts. I never did find out how he
derived his nickname, or what he did with his spare time ! There may be, I think, fields of employment where musicians need to be apprehensive about the synthesiser's possible use- no matter how far the music it produces falls short of their own. But in the fields where music is played and used for serious listening they should be able to hold their own, for no matter to what extent the present shortcomings of the synthesiser are corrected, the one element that it cannot produce is human emotion.

Think, for example, of the rapport that exists between the conductor of a symphony orchestra and its members, the members of a chamber group, or the members of a jazz group, and ask yourself how the synthetists are going to feed such a quality into their computers. If you back a first- class recording artist with the skill of an equally first- class arranger and a first- class orchestra, in one of the better recording studios. they can hardly fail to produce a good performance— provided the composer has done a good job in the first place. This is rather like feeding all the correct information into a computer and getting the right answer. There, however, the similarity ends. For the one vital ingredient lacking in a computer is the warmth of human emotion. Which; after all, is what music is all about.