'Sequencer, pulser, preamplifier, envelope detector and balanced modulator; oscillators, gates, envelope generators and filters; facilities for mixing, monitoring and reverberating'...what am I talking about? The Buchla Music Easel, of course, a rare instrument owned by Charles Cohen. He also 'owns' it in the modern sense of the word, as this album proves. The language of synth technology is pure gobbledygook to me and I suspect I'm not alone in that. As with amazing magic tricks, though, I'd rather not know how it's done. That and the fact that I'm lazy when it come to studying anything.
In 1982 the Affinity label released a Cecil Taylor album called Student Studies. One track's called Amplitude, a piece of music that has never ceased to amaze me since I bought it back then. Amplitude is a word that crops up in the language of the synthesizer. Cecil Taylor is a name that crops up in the Wikipedia entry for Charles Cohen. Apparently he's influenced Cohen, which makes sense when you know that Charles has spent many years improvising 'live' on the Buchla.
But don't let Cohen's Improv background fool you into thinking that The Middle Distance consists of 'difficult', tortuous knob-twiddling (OK,you may not be adverse to that). Personally, I enjoy hearing a machine being driven to it's limits and have travelled to Atlantis with Sun Ra on more than one occasion. I suspect Charles Cohen has too. Here, his excursions on a wobbly rail, to use a Cecil Taylor title, are frequently tempered by a Pop sensibility. That's Pop as in micro melodies stripped to the bone and driven by the bubbling energy of a Buchla in good hands.
Camera Dance, for instance, played for a 1983 Performance Art piece by Jeff Cain, is so catchy it could have been a Pop hit in a parallel universe back when synths crashed the charts. Cohen reshapes and rebuilds whilst dicing and slicing, dropping to the bare bones of a beat before fleshing the whole thing out again. Like the old Rave formula of tease and release - feel the rush! - but in a far more refined manner, designed for sophisticated cosmopolitan clubbers, on Saturn.
UTEP 1 and 2 are both studio pieces from 1980. They sound more pared down that most things here, but that's no criticism. Less, in this instance, allows the purity and warmth of the Buchla sound to shine through. They remind me of an earlier age, when synths were all the rage as joyful toys for remaking Pop hits or a conjuring up a Classical gas.
'Multiple correlations between a performer’s actions and the Music Easel’s responses are readily implemented, enabling a degree of expressive articulation heretofore impossible with electronic instrumentation.' (My italics). So says the Buchla site. The cold mechanics act of Krafwerk's man machine act are one thing, but Cohen's music is expressive and articulate, just as the Buchla allows it to be. OK, if you don't like synths and feel that true musical expression can only exist on, say, a sax, guitar or piano, you'll find that difficult to believe (and I don't know what you're doing reading this blog). A closer listen (headphones are a must) to this music, however, reveals that articulation.
The opener, Club Revival Performance, is a fine example of Cohen's feel for the machine. Like mechanical Gamelan (?) via Ganymede, the piece unfolds, its rhythmic layers luring us in with patterns that prance and dance delightfully. In contrast, the earliest piece, Dance of the Spirit Catchers (1979), sounds more raw, almost post-Punk by comparison. The insistent hook worms it's way into your brain, whipped on by tinny percussive whacks and wrapped in warped bubbles and squeaks. By the end it sounds as if the machine said 'I'll take it from here' before running on of it's own accord.
As you'll hear on the next release in the planned trilogy, Group Motion, Cohen is capable of taking sound deeper than most of what's on offer here. Not that this material isn't satisfying; it's brought nothing but pure pleasure to these ears over the last week. However, we get a hint of things to come on two tracks. Sonomama's Koto-style passages are brilliantly arranged on a piece that shifts gears in an East-meets-West fusion somewhere in space, with an occasional dramatic undertones. It won 2nd place when entered for the Roland Synthesizer Competition in 1981, which makes me wonder what the winner sounds like because it must be one hell of a masterpiece to beat this.
The Middle Distance track stands out for being far darker than anything else. Exploiting space as the best acousmatic exponents do, it leaves everything to the imagination and is enhanced by Jeff Cain's piano-playing. It may have been conceived for one of his performance pieces but stands alone superbly and creates a similar mood to those made by modern exponents of dark spatial soundscapes such as Raime.
Coincidentally, Don Buchla's first instrument was created 50 years ago, so it's fitting that Morphine boss Rabih Beaini should be releasing this music now. If Charles Cohen's time has come with regards to greater exposure it's certainly better late than never. An essential purchase.