Vol. 45 Issue 4 Reviews
Barry Schrader: Lost Analog

Ex Machina Productions, CD-1002, 2022

Available from Bandcamp, https://barryschrader.bandcamp.com/album/lost-analog; emp@barryschrader.com

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

CD CoverAll of the music on this album was composed between 1972 and 1983, created for four-channel audio using the Buchla 200 analog modular synthesizer. The album’s title refers to Lost Atlantis, a previous release by the composer, and the fact that, over time, parts of the compositions herein have been lost. Readers of this journal will no doubt have an appreciation for this situation. With each new operating system, platform, program version, or hardware upgrade information can be, and often is, simply lost by becoming inaccessible. On a personal note, Schrader writes in his liner notes: “As I write this, realizing that some of this music hasn’t been heard in public for almost fifty years, I’m taken back to much earlier days in my life and career, which, although remembered, are also lost, as are all of our pasts.” Composers of a certain age most certainly relate to this.

The album’s first piece, “Death of the Red Planet,” composed in 1973, comprises a part of a score, which the composer refers to as a “suite,” for the film Death of the Red Planet, one of the first to be created from laser images, which toured with a concert film of the progressive rock band Yes. To some, this may seem like a strange partnership, but in fact there are many examples of electronic music pioneers collaborating with progressive rock artists. The best-known example is probably between Bob Moog and the English keyboardist Keith Emerson. In the present case it is not difficult to hear similarities between the electronic textures of Rick Wakeman (Yes’s keyboardist) and Schrader. In his liner notes Schrader writes: “Whether or not the film still exists in its original format, I have no idea.” Additionally, this audio is all that remains of the original soundtrack.

“Death of the Red Planet” opens with a deep metallic rumbling supported by enhanced low-end frequencies. After about 40 seconds of this texture we encounter the sound of a loud explosion, which periodically re-appears, accompanied by wonderfully crisp amplitude modulation series, one wave after another. Other, explosive textures follow, some succeeded by long reverb tails or fades. The effect here is quite dynamic, suggestive of both subterranean and extraterrestrial formats, using sounds that are identifiable as being produced by a Buchla modular synthesizer. For example, we hear textural arpeggiation that sounds like it is simultaneously being controlled with knobs, buttons, and sliders but also at the edge of what is controllable on a modular device such as the Buchla 200, leaving the impression that it might burst into wails of feedback at any moment. One could say that this represents a dangerous listening experience, especially if one is seeking order and logical development.

The overall formal plan for this piece is mostly continuous, sounding like it was improvised in real-time. Toward the end, the texture effectively thins out, leaving a diminishing, and lengthy, trail of noise.

“Bestiary,” the second work on this album, is a five-movement work composed between 1972 and 1974, based upon medieval treatises about real and fictitious animals such as sea serpents, unicorns, and venomous winged reptiles known as basilisks. According to the liner notes, this work is the first work of Schrader’s “to fully incorporate… one of (his) main compositional concerns: the creation of new and transformational timbres.” At over thirty minutes in length this is the longest and most developed composition in this collection.

The first movement, “Introduction & Assemblage” cycles through a series of filter sweeps, carefully placed within a three-dimensional listening space, using various drones that become disturbed by noises and percussive sounds.

“Sea Serpants,” the second movement, uses some of the same sound-making approaches and wavelike development found in “Death of the Red Planet,” but stasis is pushed beyond a typical drone texture, creating an unsettling feeling. About two-thirds of the way through this sense dissolves, leaving a series of amplitude-modulated, high frequency sounds that can be said to resemble aquatic sounds from another planet.

The third movement, “The Unicorn,” begins with a contemplative, solitary environment. We hear materials overlapping, kaleidoscopically revolving around the compositional space. Other sounds are introduced as the texture evolves in subtle and unexpected ways. This movement demonstrates Schrader’s mastery of the Buchla 200, pointing to a wide range of expression of which it is capable.

“Basilisks,” the next movement, uses complex processing to create an unstable sonic palette, chock full of venomous winged reptiles that threaten to devour the listener. One is left with the perception of multiple banks of knobs being manipulated in order to create this kind of layered effect.

The last movement, “Return & Exit,” traces a conceptual line through inharmonically-rich timbres shaped with dynamic uses of filtering and amplitude envelopes. As in the opening movement, spatially located filter sweeps, disturbed by noises and percussive sounds, are heard in abundance. Added to this we hear pitch-oriented materials repeated against a backdrop of ‘rubbing’ noises and continual glissandi. Overall, this composition showcases the composer’s ability to create rich, evocative, transformational timbres within a large-scale formal plan.

The third work from this collection, “Classical Studies,” consists of three short pieces written in three conventional musical forms, in which timbre continually changes with each note. This piece is at times reminiscent of the pioneering electronic work done in the 1960s by Milton Babbitt and Vladimir Ussachevsky, but with a freer sense of how to control the variable components. One has the sense of the composition but the importance of the performance of the composition as well. The first movement attempts to tame the Buchla beast, by framing it via a canonic structure. The second movement offers up a rich palette of inharmonically-tuned materials to fill out a chorale structure in slow, yet continual, motion. And the third movement, “Perpetuum Mobile” lives up to its name. A wide range of varied timbres is heard in chaotic rhythmic structures that periodically get caught in repetitive funnels.

“The Moon-Whales Suite,” the last and newest work on this album contains three sections from a larger work for soprano and electronics, based on poems by Ted Hughes. Here, the sense of loss occurs because the master tapes for the electronics parts are no longer playable because of tape deterioration. “The Moon-Oak,” the first section, opens with a series of evocative timbres sounding like a cross between the well-known Karplus-Strong algorithm and a vocodor. Of its many attributes, the Buchla modular synthesizer excels at this type of hybridization, and the composer puts it to good use. The result is hypnotic, repetitive, yet varied. Toward the middle of the piece the texture builds into a loud, dense cloud of noise that evaporates into a more resonant version of the first part.

The second section, “The Moon-Bull” begins with a single, ominous tone that gradually branches out into a cluster of pitches. For most of the first half of the piece a subdued sense dominates. This slowly builds in intensity and then fades back down.

“Moon-Wings,” the last section heard here, demonstrates that the Buchla is equally adept at pitch and noisy materials. The result is unsettling and disjointed. Given the poet’s apparent abusive treatment of his wives (the first being Sylvia Plath) resulting in them both committing suicide, one wonders if a composition of electronic music based on Hughes’s poetry can ever be heard without this gory backdrop.

After hearing this album one is left with the sense that the works represent the composer’s successful ability to make subtle electronic music on a modular machine that was built to encourage its users to think “outside the box.” Each work has been carefully crafted, sounding poignant and suggestive of various landscapes and environments from the natural world, without the assistance of sampling technology. Long live the banana plug!