By Richie Unterberger
It's hard to imagine now, when the synthesizer is a dominant instrument in popular music, as well as film soundtracks and commercial jingles. But back in the late 1960s, it was a new, exotic creature, one that few musicians owned, and even fewer knew how to play. Among the very first to master and popularize the sounds of the Moog synthesizer were Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause. Their debut album, The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music, was something of a primer for the sounds the instrument could make. Though largely devoted to demonstrations of specific sounds, it ended up making far more of an impact than the usual instructional record did, enjoying healthy sales and helping to spread the use of the synthesizer within the music industry.
Beaver and Krause
introduced to each other by Elektra records founder and president Jac
Holzman, who was looking to use the synthesizer in an astrological
concept album the company was producing, The Zodiac -- Cosmic Sounds. They
were in some respects an unlikely pair. Beaver, a conservative
Republican, had been doing sound effects for movies. Krause, more than
a decade younger, had been in the Weavers briefly in the early 1960s,
as well as a folk duo with Bonnie Dobson; he'd also done some
free-lancing at Motown, and studied electronic music at Mills College
in Oakland. But the two hit it off, and after demonstrating the Moog at
a booth at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, they found a lot of work
contributing to both rock albums and films. It was while sitting
together with Krause on a plane ride to the Monterey Pop Festival, in
fact, that Holzman conceived of the idea for The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music.
"We felt that any number of companies represented possibilities," responds Krause today when asked whether Elektra was felt to be a natural home for the duo's first album. "But Jac, at the time, seemed to express the levels of creative energy, imagination, and interest unmatched at that moment by any of the other A&R reps. On the other hand, with the exception of the deal he made with the Doors, he had a reputation as being one of the stingiest in the business, evidenced by his $2000 advance to us. Despite the fact that the album was on the Billboard [Classical] charts for 26 weeks, we never received a dime of royalties to this day."
Adds Bernie, "Neither Jac or us had a clue what we were doing and what the potential market was, although Jac apparently had a gut instinct about it. Paul or I certainly weren't thinking in those terms. Our objective was to get the information out there about synthesis of sound and new definitions of music that resulted from its introduction (i. e. music = control of sound)." The information wasn't solely contained on the vinyl. The double LP was accompanied by a scrupulously notated 16-page booklet, described as a "syllabus" in the introduction, that Krause wrote to detail signal generators, voltage control, modulating, filtering, synthesis of sound, and studio equipment's role in the recording and live performance of electronic music.
"I am an inveterate technophobe and was completely daunted by the Moog when we got it," explains Bernie. "The text, which mostly I wrote, comes from long one-on-one sessions with Paul, as he struggled to come up with new terms to better and more simply explain the art and craft of synthesis. I took the cassette recordings of those sessions and reduced them to the text in the booklet almost as a class paper by which I learned to grasp and apply the concepts. The reasoning: if I could explain and do it, any fool could. Paul had a tendency to obscure the concepts he didn't understand by framing them in obtuse and arcane terminology. Knowing of his tendencies in this direction, I constantly had to ask questions to get clarification on all those points until we came to a consensus and clarity."
As for how the sounds on the album were selected and recorded, "We went through each module on the Moog, one by one, and explained the functions inherent in each. The sounds themselves were selected from the four possible outputs of the oscillators (sine, triangular, continuously variable rectangular, and sawtooth). From these, either individually or in combination, we selected and used the sounds as examples. The only challenge of Moog synthesizers at the time was the relative instability of the oscillators, which tended to drift in pitch. So we constantly had to retune the machine. Otherwise, no problem."
Most of the two-disc set's four sides were brief, less-than-a-minute tracks sonically illustrating numerous examples of electronic sound, subdivided into sections documenting "signal generators," "control generators, "frequency modulation," "amplitude modulation," "ring modulation," "amplitude modulation," "ring modulation," "filtering," and "tape delay." Even with the numerous individual tracks, and the many bands of silence separating them, the album's running time is on the short side for a double LP. Krause confirms this was done to help ensure that the sonic range of the sound was as full as possible, as longer vinyl LP sides tended to cut down on that quality when they were mastered. "We and the mastering folks were not sure how the more robust signals of the synthesizer would affect the limits of track width and depth, so we purposely kept it on the short side," he elaborates. "Also, this was the first release to use Dolby noise reduction during the recording process. And finally, it wasn't a 'listening' type of album."
Indeed, there was but one actual electronic composition, "Peace Three," which opened and closed the record. In a lengthy April 1968 review of the LP, The New York Times singled out "Peace Three" for special praise, effusing, "Thoughtfully simple both on paper and to the ear, 'Peace Three' goes along pleasantly in a quasi-pop style, appearing at the start of the first record relatively unadorned then repeated at the end of Side Four in an embroidered version. An excellent idea, and one that might have been explored further, since most listeners who show any interest in such a record will be capable of following simple musical notation." As to why there weren't more compositions on the record, observes Bernie, "For some reason, now long forgotten, we did not feel that this particular album should be a compositional showcase for our work. Some of that type of effort appeared on [the late-'60s album Beaver and Krause did for Mercury], Ragnarök and for future titles like In A Wild Sanctuary."
Elektra was no stranger to experimental recordings, even though it was known mostly as a folk and rock label. In addition to the aforementioned Zodiac, the company had issued numerous sound effects LPs. Even by the standards of those previous ventures, however, The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music was unclassifiably different. "It was odd, off the wall, and way out of the box," says Krause. "But, because of Holzman's extraordinary level of credibility at the time, pretty much anything he put his hands to turned to some kind of positive result." As recording artists, Beaver and Krause would continue to develop their pioneering sounds in unexpected ways over the next few years, not for Elektra, but usually for the Warner Brothers label -- a journey that can be followed on Collectors' Choice Music's reissues of three subsequent albums by the duo. -- Richie Unterberger
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