Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The even more experimental side of Zappa keyboardist Don Preston

Posted By on 07.31.12 at 12:31 PM

I've never developed much of a taste for the music of Frank Zappa—sacrilege in some quarters, I know—so I didn't really get familiar with longtime Zappa keyboardist Don Preston until I heard him on some great 80s records by Los Angeles clarinetist and bandleader John Carter, in particular the expansive live quintet album Comin' On (Hatology), with coleader and cornetist Bobby Bradford. Preston played piano on the record, as well as some pretty spaced-out synthesizer lines that still rattle me when I listen to them now. Over the years I came across Preston's name on a wide variety of recordings, including the Carla Bley and Paul Haines masterwork Escalator Over the Hill and albums by John Lennon, Robby Krieger, the Residents, and Eugene Chadbourne. But some of his most radical work was released only earlier this year on Filters, Oscillators & Envelopes 1967-82 (Sub Rosa), a bracing collection of experimental electronic music.

Preston created the blandly titled opening piece, 1967's "Electronic Music," on a homemade synthesizer and recorded it at New York's Garrick Theater, where the Mothers of Invention played six nights a week. According to his liner notes, Preston spent three months preparing the 15-minute work using a Fender Rhodes, a Theremin, an Echoplex, and the homemade synth, which used 40 oscillators and six filters; the end result is a vividly pulsing series of spaced-out tone bursts that seem to ricochet, collide, and morph in deep space, with each new episode billowing organically out of the previous one. There are clearly keyboard-derived patterns, as you might expect from a trained pianist, but most of the sounds are viscerally abstract.

Preston recorded the seven-part "Analog Heaven" in 1975 after acquiring his first Moog. For this piece he "spent several months figuring out the patches I would use and how I would change them to produce the wonderful morphing ability of those analogue synthesizers." He also used a Mini Moog, an E.V.I., and an Echoplex, and his ideas had developed along with the technology. The suite is more subtle, churning, and fluid, but as with the earlier music you can tell that Preston didn't come out of an academic electronic-music lab—there's something intuitive and lived-in about his material. Below you can check out "Analog Heaven #3," a drifting, almost gentle assortment of bloops, stinging tones, and isolation-tank weirdness. The final work, 1982's "Fred & Me," is a collaboration with percussionist Fred Stofflet. In the notes Preston explains that he wanted to do something with the found percussion he'd collected over the years, which he lists as "3 resonant drive shafts, 14 railroad cleats, 12 leaf springs and assorted pieces of aluminum." Considering such instrumentation, it's hardly surprising that the 20-minute effort is rich with industrial humming and ringing—it's often hard to tell Preston's contributions from Stofflet's. The back CD cover includes extracts from the liner notes of the Mothers album Uncle Meat, where Preston wrote, "We have to train ourselves. So that we can improvise on anything: a bird, a sock, a fuming beaker. This is, this too can be music. Anything can be music." He clearly followed his own advice.

Today's playlist:

Anne Guthrie, Perhaps a Favorable Organic Moment (Copy for Your Records)
AGF, Beatnadel (AGF)
Momo, Serenade of a Sailor (Pimba)
Walter Beltrami, Paroxysmal Postural Vertigo (Auand)
Booklet, Booklet (Jedso)

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