From Berlin to B5, via Portland

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The previous essay: About Elana’s involvement with this music

This portion of the site is about Elana’s life, but to understand what this musical innovation meant to her, I do need to concisely discuss some of the music and innovation itself. I’ll be brief so that no particular technology or arts background will be needed. Later I will add a separate section of the site for those who’d love to explore these production concepts in detail. Also, I’ll add the usual photos for more visual interest to this essay once I find appropriate material.

Much of this new approach to music came from the post-World War II Baby Boomer generation in Germany.

I’m still looking for the exact quote from one of the members of the band Kraftwerk, but from memory it went something like this:
“Those of us who grew up in Germany after the War looked around, and saw the destruction. It had come from having one man get up in front of the crowd, wave his arms around and everyone responded in unison. In our nation, we decided we didn’t want any more of that in politics! Some of us decided we didn’t want it in music, either. Since everything had to be rebuilt, why not rebuild music and the other arts too?”

So these rebuilders discarded giant orchestras – the groups of up to a hundred musicians that played elaborate music written out by one person (the composer), as dictated by one leader waving his arms up front (the conductor).

All of that was replaced with new instruments using technology, played by small groups of people working together to do something original. They were artist/engineers, which is why Kraftwerk named their group after a factory.

New types of sounds were made with new equipment, especially with analog modular synthesizers.
Analog simply meaning equipment built out of electronic components such as resistors and capacitors. This was before computers were affordable for individual artists.
Synthesizers meaning that using these electronic circuits, voltages were created to be plugged into amplifiers and loudspeakers.

This process created sounds generated entirely in the hidden realm of electronic waveforms rather than by people singing, or by traditional instruments based on motion of tangible, visible, physical stuff like strings, wooden or metal pipes, brass valves, drums, etc.

Modular meaning that these circuits could be connected and changed in many different ways, depending how they were wired together. The same collection of circuits could be plugged into one type of configuration, then, even in the same song, unplugged and repatched to make other types of sounds.

The larger modular synthesizers looked like a cross between a telephone operator’s switchboard and an aircraft pilot’s cockpit control panels.

In the early days of synthesizers this was how all sounds were made from scratch.

Later on, more convenient and more affordable synthesizers assembled some circuits into a portable case with the connections permanently wired together inside.
Still later, most musicians switched from instruments full of analog circuits to instruments with digital computer chips inside.
They then further switched from these digital instruments, to mostly using programs running on standard computers once everyday computers became powerful enough to make a variety of sounds. Instead of stacks of keyboards or equipment racks full of modules, sounds became even more abstract, the voltages for the loudspeakers generated by mathematical functions processed on computer chips.

But to this day, the settings that define a particular synthesizer sound are still often called a “patch,” even though in today’s equipment there may not be any need to plug in wires and turn knobs to get that sound turned on.

A driver using a manual transmission car, operating the pedals, has a close connection with their vehicle and the road. Closer than a driver using automatic transmission and cruise control. The early generation of electronic musicians literally had their hands on the knobs because this was the only way to make this new kind of music.

This didn’t only happen in Germany, but it happened there in a particularly influential way and some critics whimsically labeled these new sounds “Krautrock” or “the Berlin school.”

Included in this pioneering generation of extremely influential electronic musicians from Germany was the band Tangerine Dream. One of the members for over 25 years, who later left the group and relocated to Los Angeles for a solo career in film scoring, was Christoph Franke. He was one of the pioneers of a particular type of sound that powerfully grabbed Elana’s fascination.

Using analog synthesizers, with the modules patched together to make a very thick, rich, “dark” type of sound, he also plugged in an analog sequencer. This was a module with a row of knobs and a timer that used the voltage from one knob at a time, sweeping across the panel and then going back to the first knob to start the cycle again. This sequence of voltages controls the pitch, tonality or other aspects of the sound, depending how it is patched in with the rest of the synthesizer’s modules.

Chris Franke was one of the first, and one of the most prominent, to use this technology to make a hypnotic, bubbling, repeating bass line or harmonic pattern. The pattern was played by the machine with constant precision far beyond any human performer’s ability to maintain a perfect clockwork synchronization. By adjusting the sequencer’s knobs while the machine was running, each time through the pattern it could be slightly different or even suddenly switch into a whole new pattern.

At the same time the sequence was going, Franke and the other band members used additional synthesizers with music keyboards to play other melodies and harmonies live, and both keyboards and drum kits to add additional rhythms. Some of the live playing was planned, and much was improvised. Some of it also used traditional instruments like guitars and flutes, but with those sounds only the starting point for further electronc processing. This was the start of the Berlin school’s curriculum!

Chris Franke was not only one of the most significant artists for Elana to interview, he was also one of the first to develop a personal friendship with her. She was amazed that one of her artistic heroes would be interested in her own thoughts. Even though I haven’t met or interacted with him as of this writing in November 2015, he was also indirectly responsible for my meeting her: Franke was the composer for the science fiction TV series “Babylon 5,” Elana was involved with online publicity for Franke and the show.

My own friendship with Elana started through science fiction fandom. We both attended science fiction conventions near the town where we both lived at the time, and I attended a B5 launch party co-hosted by her and another mutual friend.

I saw her leadership of a fan community first through B5, and only later discovered her history with electronic music fandom.

There is much more that can be said about the artists Elana interviewed. Over time I want to add a page here for each of them, starting with her interview. For those who I can track down now, I’d like to continue with updates on their careers since then.

All of the few dozen artists she featured were significant. One other artist that I should definitely highlight as this new site begins is Mark Dwane, synth guitarist extraordinaire.

Using a music keyboard to control a synthesizer is not that difficult, as each key is already wired with an on/off switch or sensor. Keyboard players are very used to having some technical “stuff” between themselves and the notes, whether the complicated mechanisms of a piano, the bellows of a pipe organ, etc. Replacing mechanical complexity with electronic complexity is not a difficult shift in mindset for the player: press the key, a mechanism does something, and your choice of note pops out of the instrument!

Using a guitar to control a synthesizer is much more demanding on both technology and player. Each string needs a new separate sensor. Guitarists don’t push a button to start a note, they play with a wide range of techniques including strumming, picking with fingers, using a plastic or metal pick, tapping, letting only a portion of the string’s harmonics ring out, bending the string to change the pitch as the note progresses, etc.

The string sensors have to be wired to a computer system that measures the vibration of the string in order to calculate what note the guitarist most probably meant to play, plus what tonality and vibrato and slides they may have added to add further color to the note. Getting this calibrated to each player’s unique style is a challenge that requires patience, not something as obvious as playing a keyboard that happens to make a new type of sound.

Low sounding pitches have different string vibration patterns than high notes, requiring more time for the string to complete a cycle so that the sensors can measure its motion. This means that guitar synths have different response times depending what note was played, unlike a keyboard where every key has the same type of switch that can respond instantly.

Further, electric guitarists are used to having effects plugged in after their guitar, but the mindset is always to process the results of what their fingers did to directly manipulate the strings. The whole concept of “push a button and a note pops out” is totally foreign to the thought process of a guitarist. So the transition from having the strings generate the sound, to having the strings control a synthesizer, is a huge leap.

As I mentioned, Mark Dwane is one of the truly great pioneers of guitar synthesizer use for innovative and often rocking music. Elana’s interview with him was, I believe, his first published interview and introduced an entire generation of fans to his work. And his music continued to be at the top of her own personal playlists for the remainder of her life!

I included “via Portland” in the title of this page because that was Elana’s home town at the time of the newsletter… and explains the previous page’s picture of the Tangerine Dream concert at Portland, which was crucial to the start of Elana’s entire Electronic Dreams project… not yet knowing where the journey would lead, but determined to see how far she could take those explorations!

Around the time of the B5 series launch – and the launch party for science fiction fans in Portland – was when Elana withdrew from Electronic Dreams, due to the absence of a sustainable business model for the project. Although her reasons for leaving behind the music newsletter were primarily financial, she took it hard emotionally as though it was a great personal failure.

As a result of these feelings, she mostly didn’t keep in touch with the people who’d been involved with it. So, for example, I didn’t meet the artists she interviewed. In her later years, she reconsidered those choices. Feeling she owed explanations, she pondered how she might try to approach some of those people and somehow try to reconnect with them after such a long silence. She talked over those ideas with me, but unfortunately died before the letters and calls could happen.

I think she had in mind a more elaborate effort to make contact than was really needed. Even after some passage of time, I believe the interest, respect and caring for her still was strong enough that a simple “hello, I’d like to catch up” would have been enough to get started.

Perhaps she was already sensing that the end was very near for her. If so, that was sadly accurate.

Perhaps concerned that she might only have one chance to fully explain. If so, I think that was a mistake. It’s sad that in over-preparing for that one chance, she lost that chance.

This is how things stood at the time of her death, just under two years ago as I write this in late 2015.

Why the delay? Because of my own destructive life experiences, after she was gone, including cancer and homelessness. This terrible time fortunately is now behind me: read about it here.

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