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SYNERGY

  Larry Fast has been pushing back the boundaries of electronic music for over 30 years now. Best known for his solo project Synergy, he's also worked with countless other artists in just about every musical field you could imagine & was a guiding light behind the development of synthesizers such as the Memorymoog. CARL JENKINSON thought an interview was long overdue & fired off a few questions which Larry, ever the gentleman, was happy to answer....

EN: Larry, it's been 33 years now since your debut album 'Electronic Realisations For Rock Orchestra' was released. Since then you've released many other albums, made music for Disney projects (if I remember you saying at Alfa Syntauri correctly) & worked with such artists as Peter Gabriel, Art Garfunkel, Barbra Streisand, Transvision Vamp (have to admit, that one was a surprise!), Blue Oyster Cult & the progrock band Nektar, to name just a few. How do you look back over your musical career? With a good deal of satisfaction, I'd guess?       

Larry: It's been quite varied and that's a good thing. It's meant that I'm rarely bored. Of course I have my own inclination toward instrumental electronic music, but there have been many other projects (ones that you didn't mention) like the many R&B and even hip-hop acts who I have worked with over the years. If I had been an insular member of a single prog band I would never have been exposed to other influences and different ways of approaching creativity. It all makes more a broad learning experience.

EN: So how did you originally get involved with making electronic music? It must have been something of a niche interest given the scarcity & complexity of synthesizers back then.       

Larry: It was a natural outgrowth of my twin interests in electronics and in music which go back to my earliest childhood hobbies. During the early days of hifi and stereo in the late 50s and early 60s the perfect juncture was music reproduction and recording. I was an avid experimenter and electronics builder in those days, even as a kid. As I learned more, got proficient in my instrument lessons, and especially discovered rock and roll, I wanted to use electronics to make music. In the mid 60s as the first Moog modules became available I wanted to use those or something like them to create music. The concept of the studio as an instrument always appealed to me and this looked to be a perfect way for me to pursue that. However as a cash-poor student I couldn't afford these first commercial products. Instead the electronics hacker side of me rose to the challenge and I built some of my own devices instead.

EN: I believe you were in some bands before Synergy. Could you run us briefly through them, do any recordings exist from these days? Any kind of success, etc?       

Larry: Actually, no. I had a band with some college and high school friends in the early 70s which I had hoped would have some measure of success. We made a valiant attempt and even had a development deal with Warner Brothers, but they opted not to pick up the project. The band broke up and the members went on to other careers with great success. The outgrowth of that experience, only several months later, was my Synergy project. Though there were some studio demo recordings of the band, they have never been released. I might explore remixing them someday, but it's not on my current project list. "Legacy" from the first Synergy album reuses some of the themes that I wrote for pieces that the band did.

EN: At the time many musicians were using synths to create a completely new kind of music but on 'Realisations...' the style of the album as a whole & in particular the version of Richard Rogers' 'Slaughter On Tenth Avenue' made it seem as if you were making the point that electronics could create traditional music too. Was this actually your intention at the time?       

Larry: To some degree. I was also reacting to what I saw as "modern" electronic music that spoke to the academic goals of using computers and synthesizers to make "new" music, but didn't really do what I felt that music should do which is to touch the listener's emotions. That could be lush and romantic and it could be scary and fearsome, but it shouldn't be the dry extrapolation of a formula derived as a hypothetical and then executed as an academic exercise because that was the limit of the composers imagination or technical skills with the new media. Yet those cold and inhumane expressions of music were the types of creations that were stamping electronic music with an unfair moniker as cold machine music. That's not to say that there isn't any place for that genre, but it shouldn't be the dominant categorization.

EN: Each of your early albums up until 'Chords' had a comment about there being no guitars. Why did you feel it was so important to make these comments?       

Larry: It was a joke. The early Queen albums of the period had the comment "...and nobody played synthesizer"; perhaps the first expression by guitar bands of a counterrevolution against electronics. I had to take a stand for my constituency. On 'Cords', there was guitar synthesizer so it was time to call off the battle.

EN: Your second solo album 'Sequencer' was recorded after the House Of Music studio had a bit of a refitting. Did this plus the additional experience you had gained by then allow you to expand your sound to any extent?       

Larry: Back then going from 16 to 24 tracks really helped. Probably the most important thing was the ability to record sounds in stereo, or to create bounced submixes in stereo. That widened the soundfield to the listener in a different way. The 16 track 'Electronic Realizations' relied more on deep echoes to achieve a lush soundscape, but at the expense of some clarity in the mix. From 'Sequencer' on, the finer degree of control in creating the stereo soundscape became something that I used in my productions. Of course, having more tracks to play with also helped in creating a richer orchestrated sound for layering the monophonic modular synthesizers of the day but that was soon offset by the coming of polyphonic synthesizers like the Polymoog and Prophet 5, and a few years later MIDI-based sequencing and preproduction.

EN: What prompted you to record covers of 'Classical Gas' & 'New World Symphony' for this album?       

Larry: The New World Symphony was something I had always loved going back to my earliest childhood piano lessons. That had been on the "must record" list from the beginning. 'Classical Gas' was the record company's idea to chase a hit single. I went along enthusiastically with the A&R suggestion, and if I had really had an objection I could have stopped the proposal at any time. We did have some success in various markets so I can't fault the idea but it was the only time that I can recall that a repertoire decision like that ever came up. I probably would not have come up with the idea on my own, though.

EN: At this time your music was being used as part of a Laserium show; the exposure that this provided must have been beyond reckoning, I guess.       

Larry: The exposure from use in Laserium was very helpful in bring the Synergy project in to broader recognition. I'm sure that a lot of people who might not have otherwise encountered my music were introduced to it through those planetarium shows. Initially Laserium licensed some tracks from 'Electronic Realizations' for use in their music-based shows. Later we were in discussions about a scripted show that they were looking to present. I developed some concepts based on the script which never got produced. I think that whole show concept was eventually scrapped. However, the rainforest sequence in 'Sequence 14' on 'Sequencer' came from that script exploration.

EN: As I mentioned earlier you've worked with a great number of well-respected artists. Could you give us a brief rundown of your work to date & any particularly memorable music that came from these collaborations?       

Larry: It's easier to just focus on some of the better-known artists. I believe that I've been connected with over 250 projects at this time so a rundown is very difficult. And some were of much longer standing like Peter Gabriel which covered numerous albums and years of touring worldwide. That collaboration has so many high points that it's very difficult to narrow it down. Nevertheless, some pieces that stand out were created quickly but remain favorites like the 'answer horn' line on 'Solisbury Hill' but others like 'No Self Control' from PG3 took months of finessing to take their final production form. Others that made a big impact like Bonnie Tyler's 'Total Eclipse of the Heart', especially the big cathedral organ solo (which was actually a Moog Modular and Prophet 5) probably came together in under an hour. The same goes for some of the Foreigner songs like 'Urgent', 'Juke Box Hero' or 'Waiting For A Girl Like You' which were all done in a few days. On the other had, some of my work with Nektar, with whom I've had an ongoing relationship closing in on 35 years at this point, like the 'Recycled' album took months and work in several countries to complete. But for all of those higher-profile recordings (I often hear 'Shock The Monkey' or some Hall & Oates track on the radio), there are those projects that are not as well known for which I have a lot of fondness. That includes tracks like Kate Bush's 'Breathing' or many songs, some co-written with Annie Haslam.

There were two projects with singer Helen Scheneider including a song cycle of Kurt Weill's music on which I provided electronic orchestration. And I served as producer on Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan's solo album. That's not to overlook Richie Sambora's blues explorations on his solo album 'Stranger In This Town'on which I did synthesizer programming. (I am from New Jersey and all of us locals cross connect so I've got ties to the E Street Band and Southside Johnny, too). Additionally, I can't leave out this decade's work with the Tony Levin Band for which we were nominated for a Best Rock Instrumental Grammy award. My friends in the band and I have been playing together since we formed the core of the Peter Gabriel Band for a decade starting in the 1970s. I'm proud of nearly every track we've recorded. And if you want to put my session career to shame, talk to Tony Levin or Jerry Marotta from the TLB. They've played with everyone from John Lennon and Paul McCartney, to Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Paul Simon, Indigo Girls, Sarah McLaughlin, David Bowie and list too long to even contemplate printing here.

EN: You've also done some soundtrack work, including the sci-fi film 'The Jupiter Menace' which was released but were there any others? Is this something you'd have liked to have got into in a bigger way?       

Larry: I haven't done that much film work. There were a few others for the European market or cable TV, but I haven't made it a career focus (at least so far). My lawyer and I explored the options many years ago, but at that time it would have involved relocating to Los Angeles and giving up the touring an recording that were taking much of my time in New York and the UK. I have since had experience as part of the production of independent films in the New York area. Working as a music supervisor with composers hired by the director gave me an insight into how other members of the film producer team view the music component. The lawyers and financiers generally do not give much thought to the music and that explains a lot about how difficult the business is for all but the most successful Hollywood composers. Still, I would like to work on some films, likely independent productions based on the US East Coast, but not at the expense of a more extensive composing career.

EN: Is that right yuo were also involved with the development of the Polymoog synth?       

Larry: To a limited degree at the end of the project. I still have one of the six original prototypes which I took out on the road with Nektar (prior to the public launch) and used with Peter Gabriel. It was more a matter of late beta-testing by me on a product that was almost ready for production and later providing some degree of publicity at the product's launch. To a greater extent I was involved in the Memorymoog project about five years later. My involvement extended to voicing about a quarter or a third (I don't remember) of the factory voices which were provided in the instrument's memory when it shipped. I had access to the instrument in its earlier development stages and provided comments on my wishes and recommendations to the design group.

EN: Your work in the 80s, particularly on tracks such as 'After The Earthquake' & "Eagles And Falcons' (both from the 'Audion' album) & the mighty 'Metropolitan Suite' saw you recreating the sound of the orchestra & even 1920s jazz styles even more faithfully. Was this the result of the music technology finally reaching the required standard that allowed you to more fully achieve your musical aims?       

Larry: It was both the equipment becoming more sophisticated and my ability to write for its capabilities more effectively. By the time of 'Metropolitan Suite' I moved to creating the compositions entirely on a MIDI sequencer and then recording the end results (for my first time) on a Sony model 3324 digital multitrack tape machine.

EN: 'Metropolitan Suite' is, without doubt, a mighty & yet intricate masterwork. How did you go about putting such a magnum opus together & actually recording it?       

Larry: 'Metropolitan Suite' was a real transitional period in recording and electronic instrument technology. I was still using fully analog monophonic Moog modular systems (though with a MIDI to CV/trigger converter), I was using hybrid digitally controlled analog instruments like the Prophet 5 and Memorymoog, fully digital devices like Yamaha DX and TX synthesizers, and a second generation sampler, the Emulator II which had my sounds from the Fairlight CMI transferred. Some percussion sounds originated in a digital LinnDrum. I was using some custom software I had written for my Apple II computer to manipulate and control the MIDI data. The whole system was synced to tape (both analog for the test runs and then Sony digital for the actual recording) using another computer running a SMPTE to MIDI system that John Simonton at PAiA had designed.

For the record, the final recordings done at House of Music, were nothing more than capturing months of refining the compositions in MIDI as executed by the systems through a classic analog Neve 8078 recording console to a Sony 3324 digital multitrack.

The suite's concept was to capture the vibrancy of New York as it grew into the modern metropolis it has become during the first decades of the twentieth century. I wanted to capture the essences of that Gershwin-esque era, but paint the sounds with new colors and in sonic media that wouldn't have existed at the time. A new take on some old themes. Writing the pieces wasn't that much different from all of my previous work, but the ability to use the MIDI sequencing as a 'music word processor" made the ability to refine and reimagine the music so much easier than it had been when building the sonic layers playing them one at a time to multitrack analog tape.

EN: I often wondered if this work might have been performed by an actual orchestra (perhaps with some kind of visual accompaniment to illustrate the whole concept). Was this ever a vision of yours or has anything like it ever actually happened?       

Larry: It hasn't yet, but it would be interesting to hear it some day. Of course I have orchestral sonic layers in mind when voicing my electronic orchestra, but it isn't an exact match by any means to the instrument distribution of a conventional ensemble. If someone wanted to finance the kind of performance you mentioned, I'd be happy to grant the licenses to make it happen.

EN: Around this time you started the fairly short-lived Audion label, devoted to the best in 'New age & electronic music' & releasing, among others, albums by Barry Cleveland, Don Slepian & the British duo Wavestar. I remember at this time a lot of major labels started 'new Age' labels but very few of them lasted beyond a year or two. How did Audion first come about & what was your thinking behind it at its genesis?       

Larry: I think that I've been given too much credit (or blame) for Audion. The label was the creation of the Jem/Passport group of labels in the US which was the label and distribution that handled my releases at the time. I offered the name and the logo concepts, but the underlying structure was already well-beyond planning when I got involved. The label group had jumped onto the New Age bandwagon, but were looking for a twist to differentiate themselves from other labels. I was asked to become involved to give some A&R direction to the signings. Naturally in the screenings of potential acts for the label I gravitated toward the more electronic artists. But the day to day operations, marketing and dealmaking were all done by the existing label personnel.

I didn't have final say in anything though I did have some influence in the decisionmaking process. Unfortunately, about three years into the label's existence, the parent company, distributor Jem Records ended up in financial difficulty and went out of business. The warehouse and distribution business was about 90% of Jem's revenues. The 10% that the Passport label group generated was always profitable and self-sustaining, but wasn't able to carry on alone once the parent company was gone. We had some good releases which you mentioned and some others in the pipeline which never came out. Roger Powell had a very nice project in the works and a composer named Russell Brower was creating some very interesting recordings. Russell later went on to do some great things for Disney and for high end videogames.

EN: I was lucky enough to see your excellent gig at the Alfa Syntauri Festival in The Netherlands back in march 2002. It seems as if Synergy gigs are a rare occurrence but is this actually the case & how do you manage to replicate the rich Synergy sound without resorting to playback (which was the case on this day).       

Larry: The appearance are very rare, though for many years I was doing one Synergy piece, "Flight Of The Looking Glass" as a solo spot in the Tony Levin Band set. More recently we've been doing a band version of another one of my pieces "Phobos" which is a real highlight of our concert set. But that festival in the Netherlands was for all practical purposes the first ever full Synergy concert appearance. I'm scheduled to do something similar at the 2008 NEARfest in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. It's not easy to play the pieces in realtime and make them have any resemblance to the sound of the crafted studio projects. But I don't want to give up the sound that is my trademark so I use a variety of computer assistive techniques. I don't play any actual sound recordings of the tracks--that would cross the line for me. But I do have many of the parts tied together via MIDI and controlled by software so that I can play the fun parts in real-time.

I also make it so that one key will fire many other sounds and parts so that a lot of sonic activity is going on from a lot less apparent keyboard activity. I had to reconstruct every last part that had been created and programmed in the pre-MIDI days on analog synthesizers in my more recent vintage digital instruments for each and every song to be performed. That was the only way to make switching that many complex patches on the fly possible. There was no practical way to use the older analog devices in doing this kind of performance. It's very fussy and time consuming way to prepare for a concert, but very rewarding to execute once the work has been done.

EN: 'Metropolitan Suite' was the last all-new Synergy album to be released but since then virtually your whole back catalogue has been re-released (with extra tracks in most (all?) cases) by the British Voiceprint label & you also took the chance to re-record some of your older works using up-to-date equipment for the 'Reconstructed Artifacts' album. What prompted you to do this?       

Larry: 'Reconstructed Artifacts' happened by accident during the preparation for that first festival appearance. Once I had re-created all of the sonic structure of the tracks in the digital instruments, it was a small step to simply use the reconstructed sounds to re-record the pieces. I was very surprised at how the same pieces of music translated across the decades and generations of analog synthesizers to mostly digital programming on newer instruments and still retained the essence of what I had created years ago. It was something that I enjoyed doing and it seemed quite natural to make the new recordings available. The reissues on Voiceprint are a way to keep the catalog alive through a label with worldwide reach and a distribution. That makes it possible for people looking to revisit the music, or those who never had a chance before, to be able to find Synergy recordings. The bonus tracks are a value added feature for people who might already own an earlier LP or even some of the earlier CD versions. Unfortunately, there isn't much that hasn't been released sitting in the vaults, so I ended up using earlier versions of some of the familiar tracks; some are even development demos that I made early in the writing process. They're really more of curiosities than serious alternative versions.

EN: Did delving into these older works bring up some strong memories & perhaps make you rethink the future of Synergy in any way?       

Larry: Not all that much. I've put my energies the better part of the last decade into touring and recording with the Tony Levin Band. It's been enormously satisfying, but with the other obligations in my life it hasn't left a lot of time for new Synergy work. That said, the revisiting of the older material was a pleasant surprise. Most of the pieces have aged very well and I was very happy to find that my focus as a composer is somewhat independent of the specific instruments and recording tools available at any one point in time. Drastically evolved tools over the thirty plus years have not altered the core of the compositions that I like to do, only the techniques and recording quality have been refined and improved over that time.

EN: As well as making music I believe you also work with the Sound Choice Assistive Listening company, providing audio transmitters for the hearing disabled. I guess this must be a project close to your heart?       

Larry: It is for several reasons. First of all, music and sonics are fundamental to what I do. I have really empathy for anyone who is unable to share in the quality of life that a diminished ability to hear imparts. Anything that can help out, even bringing better intelligibility to the spoken word is something that I'm glad that I can help with. Another reason is that I get to use my skills in audio design to create products that are useful to other people. Another factor for me is that it is a field in which I can still do creative electronic design and see something manufactured in which I had a direct hand in engineering. That was something I did quite a lot in the analog synthesizer and recording studio days. Now, with large software companies dominating the creation of the tools that so many of us use in making recordings, that hands-on work with a hot soldering iron doesn't happen as often. It's very difficult for an individual composer to have enough hours in the day to do both computer coding to make something useful and maintain a professional music career. I've opted to focus more on the music than writing software. But the work with Sound Choice gives me those more traditional hardware design opportunities that don't exist in the same way they once did.

EN: I'm quite sure that the future will see you keeping as busy & as productive as ever. What plans are there in the pipeline?       

Larry: There is at least one live appearance scheduled for the spring of 2008 for the NEARfest festival. The Tony Levin Band is on hiatus for a while and I am hoping, but not promising yet, that there will be new Synergy material created which will find its way to the public. Sound Choice has also kept me busier with product designs and other technical issues than I had expected when I first became involved. That appears to be continuing.

EN: Before we close, these last words are yours......       

Larry: Another of my interests is history and historic preservation. I do some volunteer work with architectural and artifact preservation and in my area of New Jersey which includes important sites such as Historic Speedwell where the telegraph was developed in the 1830s and the Thomas A. Edison laboratory sites where everything from the the electric light, to movies and especially the phonograph was invented. The future has caught up with us technology preservationists who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the exciting ongoing projects is located in North Carolina. That's the Bob Moog Foundation which has among its goals the preservation and eventual museum display of Dr. Robert Moog's significant electronic music developments. It was transformative to my life and I'm trying to give back in whatever small ways that I can to the Moog legacy.

FEATURE WRITTEN AND CONDUCTED BY: Carl Jenkinson 

Copyright 1999-2015 ELECTROGARDEN.COM, All Rights Reserved.
This feature may not be reprinted in any fashion, either in part or in whole without written consent from ELECTROGARDEN.COM.

 

ARTIST VITALS

ARTIST: SYNERGY
PLAYERS: LARRY FAST
LOCATION: NEW JERSEY, USA
LABEL: VOICEPRINT
DISCOGRAPHY: ELECTRONIC REALIZATIONS FOR ROCK ORCHESTRA (1975)
SEQUENCER (1976)
CHORDS (1978)
GAMES (1979)
COMPUTER EXPERIMENTS VOL.1 (1981)
AUDION (1981)
THE JUPITER MENACE OST (1982)
SEMI-CONDUCTOR (1984)-DOUBLE COMPILATION WITH 2 UNRELEASED TRACKS
THE METROPOLITAN SUITE (1987)
ECONSTRUCTED ARTIFACTS (2002)
EMAIL: synergy@synergy-emusic.com
WEBSITE: www.synergy-emusic.com
www.voiceprint.co.uk

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