An individual exhibiting such uniqueness or individuality that he or she will cause a roomful of bar cronies to exclaim, "That's one interesting motherfucker!" Actual sexual relations with one's mother are not required.
Years ago, when I was around the age of 20, I stood in the middle of a Radio Shack in Honolulu Hawaii, staring unblinkingly at the images in front of me. Was I so high on LSD that I thought the 9 Volt battery display had become a demon god ordering me to kill? No, that wouldn't happen for another four years. I was in fact watching a crazy collection of computer animation vignettes called "Beyond the Mind's Eye."
The animations in "Beyond the Mind's Eye" (easily found on youtube) seem antiquated compared to the detailed and realistic fantasy worlds Hollywood's current CGI experts routinely bring to life. The graphics have a certain boxiness and their movements are somewhat stiff and robotic. But, back in the day, I found the videos mesmerizing. They were captivating montages of strange creatures interacting across bizarre worldscapes. And all of it set to music.
The music of "...Mind's Eye" was unlike anything I'd heard. Like the animation, the music was futuristic and high tech. It had clearly been developed using synthesizers and drums machines of the day. In style, it was was accessible, but by no means pop music (though it seemed at least distantly related to New-Wave pop that had proliferated in the 80s.) Some of the sounds carried a classical music influence, others straight up rock, others still God knows what. But all of them were driven by great, memorable melodies.
As the final credits for the video rolled, I learned the music had been composed by Jan Hammer. I was somewhat familiar with Hammer. He had done the weekly score for one of the great cop shows of the 80s, Miami Vice. Several of his instrumental tunes for that show, like the main title theme and a somber piece titled "Crockett's Theme”, had transcended television and become radio hits.
I also knew of Hammer because he was acquainted with a friend of my mom's. This friend, Carol, a prominent denizen of the New York jazz scene, had told me of Hammer's rise as a jazz prodigy after he agilely escaped the Russian invasion of his home country of Czechoslovakia in 1968. She'd even given me a copy of an album Hammer had recorded in the 70s called "Black Sheep." (The album was pure rock, and Carol, an unapologetic jazz snob, gave it to me while stating, "Of course this does nothing for me.)
"Black Sheep" was an eye-opening album for me. It was a straight-ahead rock album except for one thing: there were no guitars. Instead, Hammer duplicated the sound of electric guitars to near precision by using keyboard synthesizers running through guitar effects. This is more difficult that it might sound. Not only did Hammer copy the timbre of electric guitars, but he played the way an electric guitarist would play. The fret board of a guitar lends itself to certain licks and melodies that no keyboardist or saxophone player would ever use. Hammer had clearly studied these “guitaristic” stylings and had added them to his playing. For example, guitarists often employ what are called string bends to raise a the pitch of a note so that it sounds like a moaning vocalist. Traditional keyboards have no way to duplicate this effect but Hammer had mastered the use of the modulation wheel that had been added to synths to emulate this sort of thing*.
* In a Rolling Stone interview, Hammer commented, “I had this frustration with the fixed pitch of a piano. You couldn't bend notes. There was no vibrato, no flirt, no slide. All the other instruments — violins, guitars — they could do it. The human voice, too.”
This proclivity for technological experimentation and innovation has defined Hammer’s career, both to his benefit and detriment. Rock music has always had a troubled relationship with technology. On one hand, rock music is entirely dependent on the development of technology. Electric guitars are clearly the product of 20th century tech, as are amplifiers, effects pedals, recording studios and various other tools. But rock purists often view technology as corrupt. (It probably has something to do with the often high cost and complexity of technological instruments which put them out of reach of the “common man.”) And no instrument suffers from this accusation more than the keyboard synthesizer.
What we call the modern synthesizer first appeared in the popular music in the 1960s. As per the name, synthesizers don’t produce sound the way conventional instruments do, but rather they “synthesize” sound using electronic signals. As a result, synthesizers can produce a number of unworldly and unusual tones that cannot be produced via traditional instruments. In the 60s, experimental musicians embraced the synthesizer and used it to create at-the-time, unheard of styles of music. For example, the sounds Moog synthesizer helped defined the music known as Psychedelia. (Jan Hammer used a mini-Moog synthesizer while playing with the 70s fusion group Mahavishnu Orchestra.)
Most synthesizers are capable of generating interesting, exotic and sci-fi tones but they do have a synthetic sound. With traditional instruments, sound vibrations (what we hear as notes) are created by plucking a string or blowing air through a chamber. This creates sound waves that vibrate at a certain frequency. What isn't always understood by non-musicians is that traditional instruments actually create many sound waves at once. There's the main vibration, called the fundamental, and various additional vibrations, the overtones. The relationship between all these vibrations is, on traditional instruments, subtly fluctuating. It’s affected by the air density of the space the instruments are played in, the temperature and various other factors. Because of this constant variation, traditional instruments have an organic sound similar to that produced by a human voice.
Early synthesizers could only produce the fundamental of a note and this resulted win a rather steril sound. At a later point, overtones were added in but in a very static way. The prominence of one overtone compared to another would not fluctuate over time. We are just now entering the age where these problems are being solved (at least to the discretions of most people's ears) but during the 70s-90s, while Hammer was in his heyday, these were continuing problems. Synthesizer music of the era could sound intriguing or futuristic but it never quite sounded real in the way organic music (e.g. that produced by horns, guitars and pianos etc.) sounds.
Hammer dealt with this challenge in a number of ways. For one, he often utilized standard guitar effects like reverb, delay and distortion on his keyboard tone, which “humanized” it. He also became a skilled user of the synthesizer mod wheel that could be subtly tweaked to add in the timbral fluctuation traditional instruments have. And, third, Hammer just plain embraced the somewhat alien sound of synthesizers. He deliberately beefed up the robotic quality when it made sense, as it often did in the futuristic “Beyond the Mind’s Eye” vignettes.
Because of all this, Hammer has been always somewhat ahead of his time. His music never quite fit into the contemporary moment (though his Miami Vice tunes came close) but now his style of music is quite routine. The popular genre of instrumental music called synthwave emulates the Hammer sound (as well as the sound of other 80s composers.) Additionally, synths are the driving force behind modern pop music (Katy Perry, Rihanna, Bruno Mars, etc.)
Jan Hammer is still out there composing though he’s less prolific than he used to be. Perhaps he’s content to let the current culture catch up to his music.
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at firstname.lastname@example.org
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