Music of Technology: Milton Babbitt and the RCA Mark II

Back in my high school years, when rave went mainstream, I asked a friend, who was a standout cellist, what he thought of electronic music. He said, “Do you mean the stuff composers were doing in the late fifties and early sixties? It was kind of a fad.” I nodded to disguise the fact that my classical knowledge amounted to the soundtrack of the film Amadeus; however, this factoid was archived in my brain when I took the leap from avant-garde rockers to modernist composers and heard Milton Babbitt’s synthesizer opera Philomel (1964).

Babbitt was as academic of a composer as one can get: mathematician, Princeton professor and 12-tone serialism chauvinist, he is nevertheless most known for the punk rock sounding essay “Who Cares if You Listen?” which caused a lot of angry letters to the editor of High Fidelity magazine in 1958. Although he later claimed that the editor changed the title from “The Composer as a Specialist” his stance against the popular is strident and approaches the great American taboo of elitism:

“And so, I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition. By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.”

And what electronic media did Babbitt withdraw to? A research synthesizer larger than your studio apartment. The RCA Mark II was golden age Cold War technology, implemented to demonstrate American exceptionalism and maximize efficiency, the latter of which Babbitt was most interested in. Why deal with an orchestra and conductor when you can get exactly what you want? It is rumored that Igor Stravinsky, no stranger to music controversy, suffered a stroke when witnessing Babbitt operating the paper tape binary sequencer of the RCA Mark II. Did he believe that the end of the composer was nigh, or entertain visions of complete creative control?

Fifty-three years later, Babbitt’s Philomel is an epoch of classical music when electro-curiosity ruled the academy. The incredible soprano Bethany Beardslee thrusts her voice between the pulses of the RCA Mark II to tell Ovid’s myth of violence and metamorphosis. Bleeps and bloops stand in for rousing crescendos. Mathematical sequences upstage the drama. But for all the rigor that early electronic music exudes, it doesn’t seem out of place in the current music landscape. An uncompromising artist can be popular and voluntary withdrawal from the public hasn’t stopped many “outsider” musicians from getting heard. Even more important, the offspring of technology like the RCA Mark II has allowed the public to be the composer. It’s highly conceivable that a modern day Bethany Beardslee could lay down a version of Philomel with a Casio SK-1 and Garageband in her bedroom, which is something I would care to listen to.

Richard Lloyd, Guitar Player

Richard Lloyd was a guitar player in the band Television. Not the rhythm guitar player. Not the second guitar player.


One of the two guitar players in the band.

He and the other more well-known guitarist Tom Verlaine took turns taking solos when the band played or recorded. The solos are credited in the liner notes for both of the band’s original two albums, Marquee Moon and Adventure. Despite that simple fact (and the songwriting credits) what is never made clear to the listener is what an integral part Lloyd played in the sonic construction of each song. He was the sinew and the strength on which each songs was constructed. He attacked the melody and drove it home.

He was the heart of the Television engine.

This was only made clear to me by seeing the band perform live during a 1992 reunion tour. I was a bit shocked to see and hear Richard Lloyd plays riffs and refrains in the songs that I had in my mind attributed to Tom Verlaine. Mister Verlaine for the most part played rhythm guitar parts so he could sing and took the occasional closed eyed solo.

In the meantime, in each song, all of what I considered to be signature little bits and hooks were sent flying into the air and our ears from the fingers of Richard Lloyd.

Television is not a jam band, not a groove band. They are a band that builds on a solid foundation of interlocking guitar riffs. one guitar playing a part, while a second guitar plays something that compliments or fills in from what the first guitar part has not played. Thus filling the space over a steady beat by the drummer and bass player. By this measure Richard Lloyd was the more important guitar figure in the band, as he was the one responsible for many signature parts throughout the songs, while Tom Verlaine was often playing rhythm guitar, singing lyrics, and then coloring songs with an unusual solo.

On the occasion when Lloyd took a guitar solo, as in “See No Evil”, the lead off track from the album Marquee Moon, it is a burst or explosion of pent up force, peeled off of taut strings.

After the band’s second record Adventure the band faded out somewhat and broke up.

Both of the guitarists recorded solo records in 1979– Tom Verlaine’s album being somewhat reminiscent of Television, featuring a couple of songs that the band had performed live but had never recorded in the studio, while Lloyd’s solo album, entitled “Alchemy” was a bit of a departure, a bit more poppy than one might have expected.

It was not until 1985 that the integral part of his partnership with Tom Verlaine began to be apparent to myself, with the release of his second solo record Field Of Fire.

It is an album strewn with interlocking guitar parts, riffs built upon opposing riffs, and ripping muscular solos, a definitive piece of work by a musician on sure footing with his past efforts in his prior band, embracing what he had built in the past, and owning it. I came to understand over the years with subsequent albums, and seeing Television perform reunion shows, that every aspect of “Television-esque” guitar on his solo records was not derivative, but original, as he was in fact the instigator of what I have come to know as a style.

I am happy to say that he has been quite a bit more prolific than his former band mate, having released a number of solo records (one of which is the Jimi Hendrix covers album The Jaime Neverts Story), plus he has been a guitar player for hire for the likes of Matthew Sweet and reformed Cleveland pre-punk legends Rocket From the Tombs, taking the place of now sadly deceased Peter Laughner.

On October 24th 2017, his memoir Everything Is Combustible was published and placed onto retail bookstore shelves. As I write this piece, I am about one third finished with the book. It’s a  truthful document of a unique individual, whom I am pleased to say has made me happy hundreds of times over with his recorded legacy. An influence that has been felt all around the world by virtue of his key part of being the band in the early CBGB’s scene, which went on to include The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, etc. The force of this music inspired or influenced kids in the U.K. to form bands such as Sex Pistols, The Clash, Subway Sect and the Buzzcocks, as well as inspire the likes of Echo & The Bunnymen, R.E.M. and many more bands.

Marquee Moon consistently places on lists of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll records, or lists of best debut albums, and will no doubt continue to be discovered and re-discovered as long as there is music.

Thank you Richard Lloyd!

Olivia Newton John – A True Story

I was impressed. She swam with dolphins! Could I be Olivia? I wrapped a white headband around my knotted mane, hoisted leotards and leg warmers over my limbs, then dropped the needle. Toes tapped in place. Dolphin. Guitar. Waves. Drum. Dolphin. Guitar. Waves. I shook my hips sideways, remembering moves from kindergarten dance class, mostly bland choreographies plucked from a book. I could do better. I held my breath and waited for her to start singing. One. Two. Three. Across the room I bounded in cartwheels, belting along. Imaginary dolphins at my side, ocean waves too.

Show Review: Screaming Females – Mississippi Studios

Indie rock? Sure, whatever you want to call it. The Screaming Females remind me a lot of Sleater-Kinney for two reasons. First, their sound leans more towards harder rock played with determination. Second, Marissa Paternoster’s voice is unmistakeable. The classifications and influences aside all you really need to know is that the Screaming Females rock and you should go see them.

Michael Abbate on bass and Jarrett Dougherty on Guitar played wonderfully in sync and set the foundation for the band’s sonic experience. They play with a confidence that sets the stage for Paternoster’s guitar to rip and riff as she wishes. More importantly it grounds their songs as Paternoster’s voice pierces the music and commands your attention.

The highlight of the show was “Glass House,” off the new album All at Once.

The first part of the song began with Paternoster on stage alone as the rest of the band took a breather. As she began, the song allowed Paternoster to showcase her talent as a powerful singer. Her voice overflowed with sorrow, supported only by her melancholy guitar. Abbate and Dougherty joined her on stage and the song soars into the refrain  “my life is this glass house/ impossible to get out.” That song was something special and confirmed that the Screaming Females are only expanding their talents and continuing to bring their fans new music that stands on its own.

Ghost Songs

*Disclaimer: I’m just a human, but decided to write this post in the voice of a ghost. Happy Halloween!

I love when October rolls around. It’s the one time of year when even the non-believers sort of, at least kind of, acknowledge the idea of ghosts. Yes, I am a ghost.*

October: Finally a chance to shine, even if I’m just a shade. When my ghost-hand whispers across your sleeping face at exactly 3:33 AM, maybe you’ll think twice before assuming it was all just a dream.

(It was me!)

Why am i here?

I recently began wondering what I am and why I’m here. While contemplating my existence, I thought about ghost songs. Some of our oldest ghost stories were passed forward through time by way of music, contained and carried within song.

Margaret and William

Perhaps the most storied ghosts in songs are called Margaret and William. I have yet to find examples of them being ghosts at the same time. Sometimes Margaret is the ghost, and sometimes it’s William. Sometimes Margaret isn’t even called Margaret, which is probably pretty confusing for William.

Margaret and William just can’t seem to find middle ground, no matter what variation songwriters explore. Their relationship consists of haunting one another, and sometimes William saying, “And let me kiss those cold corpsy lips,” which is probably one of the creepiest pickup lines I’ve ever heard (and I’m a ghost*).

Margaret is called Little, Fair, Proud, and sometimes even Pretty Polly. It’s unclear how Pretty Polly was derived from the name Margaret, though this strongly suggests she’s associated with Pretty Polly from the traditional murder ballad, which has a less romantic, less ghostly story behind it.

William is always referred to as Sweet, whether ghost or alive, and so is presumably one of the best ghosts or living beings you could run into. Maybe just don’t let him kiss you. Fortunately, he’d probably say something super awkward and ruin the mood with his morbidity before this would even become a possibility.

Also, if Margaret really is related to the Pretty Polly of the murder ballad, then Sweet William could very well be a close relation to her cruel killer, Little Willie. Not so sweet after all, William?

The Songs

Here’s one variation on the star-crossed love story of Margaret and William. It’s called “Sweet William’s Ghost”, performed by the UK folk group The Spinners**. The intro to this recording even briefly describes the history of William and Margaret in British folk songs.

**Note: This is a folkier, and lesser known The Spinners from the UK, not to be confused with the Detroit R&B group The Spinners who recorded such nostalgic, soulful favorites as “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” and “I’ll Be Around” in the early 1970s.

The English folk song “The Unquiet Grave” is thought to be related to “Sweet William’s Ghost”. Here’s Shirley Collins, who played an important role in the English Folk Revival of the 1960s.

Here’s one starring Margaret: “Little Margaret” by Karen Dalton. This version was recorded privately by Dalton and her close friend, Joe Loop, while ensconced in a cottage in Boulder, Colorado in 1962/1963.

Buffy Sainte Marie also sings of Margaret in her 1966 song “Lady Margaret”. This if off her third album, Little Wheel Spin and Spin.

Here’s a nice list on different variations of Fair Margaret and Sweet William.

Wuthering Heights

Some aspects of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights appear to be inspired by William and Margaret’s story. Heathcliff might be the super angsty shadow version of Sweet William. They both enjoy kissing the cold corpsy lips of their lost loves – though Heathcliff passionately shakes Cathy’s corpse in his arms, and curses her to haunt him and never find peace, while Sweet William falls asleep with Margaret’s corpse in his arms, usually after kissing her three times. As a ghost*, I’m kind of disturbed by both scenarios.

In 1978 Kate Bush wrote a hit song from Cathy’s perspective. Cathy’s very cold, and won’t Heathcliff just let her in through his window so she can grab his soul away? Soul grabbing is so romantic and not scary at all. Come on, Heathcliff, what do you say?

If you’ve never seen the music videos for “Wuthering Heights” they’re must-sees. Here’s a version to start with.

Final thoughts

I still don’t understand why I exist, and what a ghost really is, but may we all spend some quality time with our ghostly loves as the veil between worlds thins for the holiday season. Happy Halloween!

A Short History of Tuareg Music

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ibrahim Mouhamadine about the political and cultural context of Tuareg guitar music. Western audiences are clearly increasingly entranced by this music, as evidenced by the buzz around releases and live shows byTinariwenBombinoMdou Moctar.

The transcendent sounds of these bands, however, belie the turbulent origins of this music. As Mouhamadine says, the music of bands like Tinariwen originally served as “the newspaper” for people, who did not always have access to other forms of media, whether due to political repression or nomadic lifestyle. Tinariwen’s music was initially in the form of cassettes, copied and passed hand to hand, spreading their message of independence and support for the Tuareg people.

The Tuareg people (also known as Imuhagh or Kel Tamasheq) are traditionally nomadic, whose domain preceded the modern nations of: Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Burkina Faso. As the independence movement of the 1950s and 1960s led to the area being divided among these five nations, the Tuareg people did not gain their own majority country. In 1958, representatives of the Tuareg asked French president de Gaulle in 1958 not to attach their territory to Mali.  Three years after Mali declared independence in 1960, the first Tuareg uprising took place.  The Malian army suppressed this rebellion, killing and imprisoning its leaders and persecuting their supporters. The father of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, one of the founding members of Tinariwen, was killed in 1963 (he was memorialized in the band’s song Soixante Trois).

Due to famine in the 1970s and 1980s, many of the population shifted more towards Libya and Algeria. In 1980, Muammar al-Gaddafi invited young Tuareg men then living illegally in Libya to joint the military, with the promise that he would help them regain territory for their people.  Gaddafi sent them to fight in Lebanon and Chad though, leading many Tuareg to desert, returning to Azawad (in Northern Mali) and Azawagh (in NW Niger) to form a new resistance effort. Original members of Tinariwen were part of this movement, joining the Libyan army in 1980, but returning to Mali by 1990 to focus on using music as their means to support the Tuareg cause. Originally, the band were unofficially known as Kel Tinariwen — or “people of the desert” (Tinariwen being the plural of tenere (desert)) in the Tamashek language. In 2001, Tinariwen’s album the Radio Tisdas sessions was their first recording to be released outside of North Africa.

In 1990, Tuareg people in Mali and Niger claimed autonomy for their homeland, “Tenere.” They fought with the militaries of both countries. Peace agreements (1992 in Mali, 1995 in Niger) called for decentralization of the national powers and the integration of the Tuareg into the national armed forces. In 1995, Mano Dayak, one of the Tuareg rebel leaders, who had refused to accept the terms of the agreement, died in a plane crash while on the way to meet with the prime minister of Niger. Tinariwen later dedicated a song to him. 

In 2006 there was a new uprising led by those who believed the peace agreements did not actually lead to meaningful benefits for the Tuareg. For France, there were potential economic benefits to ongoing instability and insecurity, as the situation kept other foreign countries coming in to extract uranium.

In 2010 a secular peace movement to gain autonomy from Mali became the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad). Two years later the MNLA declared independence for Tuareg territory. This conflict was co-opted by Al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups (Ansar-Din and MUJAO), who attempted to take over all of Mali. Their efforts to create an Islamic state led to outlawing of music and persecution of musical groups. The famed Festival of the Desert in Timbuktu, which has featured many of the musicians of the area, was forced to cease due to concerns about safety. This also led to the The French army invading and pushing back these groups, leaving a UN peacekeeping force still in place. However, the remote nature of the area allows pockets of radicals to remain.

A selective list of other groups:

Imarhan Timbuktu


Group Inerane




Etran Finatwa

Afous d’Afous

Have a listen to dj brzy’s show on Tuareg music.

Show Review: Boris at The Doug Fir Lounge

Boris is like a slow rolling ball of thunder and lightening. If you are unfamiliar with the group, Boris is a Japanese experimental doom metal band. As they took the stage Monday night, a billow of fog flooded the stage. Lights placed behind guitarist Wata and bassist Takeshi Ohtani streaked through the smoke and set the mood for what would be a doom metal spectacle. When Takeshi Ohatani walked on the stage with his double-neck bass I admit a part of me was wishing we were in for some Spinal Tap-like spectacle but no mini stonehenge was forthcoming. Quite the opposite, it is clear that Boris takes their refined theatrics seriously. The fog and lights all contributed to the feeling that I was witnessing a lightening storm unfold on stage at doom metal speed. That is to say, very slowly.

A lightning storm is not complete without its share of thunder and Boris certainly brought the thunder. Bass guitar and bass drum worked tirelessly to keep your whole body in full vibration for the duration of the performance. Most of the performance flowed seamlessly from one song to the next without a break to let your bones settle. The fog machines were similarly unrelenting. By the last 20 minutes of the show the Doug Fir was so foggy the lights became even more dramatic as they sliced and strobed through the fog to ensure the storm roiled on. At the same time Boris (of course all dressed in black) became harder to see, particularly the the drummer Atsuo Mizuno who was a pleasure to watch as he seemed to be guiding this tempest as it rolled over the audience with his command of the drums, huge gong, and theatrical use of the hand cymbals.

At times the music slowed to a crawl. Then surged forward, vaulting into crescendos of doom metal ecstasy. All the while maintaining a tangible connection with the audience through the unrelenting inescapable vibrations. It was impressive both for its refined spectacle but also for its uniqueness. I have seen my fair share of doom/stoner/sludge metal shows but none like this. Boris is not meditative. The music does not drone or repeat itself enough to lull one’s mind into meditation. At the same time, the vocals contributed to the stormy mood and also severed any developing monotony in the storm as incomprehensible wailes emanated from the stage. It was an impressive performance, one I was glad to experience. I found it to be interesting and exhilarating in portions but also strangely unexciting during other portions.

If you are a fan of doom metal or experimental music I would recommend witnessing Boris for yourself. I enjoyed the portions that were filled with heavy doom riffs but found myself less excited for the experimental, noise, and atmospheric portions of the performance. I take that as an indication of my own personal preference. If you are a lover of both doom metal and experimental music then Boris may just be your perfect storm.

Boris is currently on their 25th anniversary tour promoting their new album entitled Dear.

Bell Biv DeVoe – A True Story

Bell Biv DeVoe

Mini skirts were in at the time. Even for us girls, barely 12. We shimmied short hems up chilly driveways and blue spruce trees. Hands around hips, grabbing. Do Me Baby blared through rugged PA speakers and all of us unglued ourselves from walls and bleacher seats onto slippery dance floors. Boys elbowed their way through other boys to get to the prettier girls who would say yes and no in a blink. Mountain kids assumed this was the music of the big city. We wanted to be there, as part of those free bodies roaming night’s streets without parental supervision. We danced until sweat poured from our prepubescent pits. We danced in groups. We danced alone.

5 questions with Always Missing of Ducks On The Water, Geese On The Move

5 questions with Always Missing of Ducks On The Water, Geese On The Move:

How did you hear about Freeform Portland?

Well, as an avid radio sifter, I found freeform whilst scrolling through one day shortly after I moved to Portland back in September. I believe it was a Mount Eerie track that lured me in. From then on it became the only station I preferred. I kept listening and purely through good timing I heard that freeform was accepting DJ applications. As someone who 1)Constantly listens and finds music & 2) gets bummed out (selfishly) when I am not in control of the music (at least a little bit) around other people, I immediately took action and applied. Luckily that opportunity visibly arose the day before the deadline cutoff.

How did you come up with your DJ name?

For a while I was identifying myself & my music as “Sempre Saudade” which sort of translates to “always missing,” but a friend of mine who grew up in Brazil and speaks Portuguese informed me that saudade doesn’t necessarily mean what I was trying to convey- although it’s loose meaning is the feeling of missing something or someone nostalgically even though it may have not existed at all. So grammatically speaking, the phrase was bunk. To keep the omnipresent meaning that I felt from “saudade,” I simply translated it to a less emotionally packed (not really) english version.

As for my show name, I am extremely birdy and in love with fragmented sentences so Ducks on the Water, Geese on the Move was born. Also, I often find myself sitting by water watching ducks move as I listen to music.

You have a Saturday afternoon show, but you fill-in on a lot of late-night timeslots.  How are your fill-in shows different from your regular shows?

I am currently answering these questions during a 4-6am slot as the sun is rising. I don’t mind showcasing my more industrial harsh ambience taste during any of my shows being that my playlists are usually all over the place. Right now I am playing Milkweed / It Hangs Heavy by Pharmakon and it’s all I could ever hope for. Sometimes I follow up stuff like that with Alice Coltrane. I do try and save my vinyls for my 2-4pm slot.

What band(s) did you think you would play the most on your show and what band(s) do you actually play the most?

I thought I’d play way more Björk (because she is my all time favorite) but I tend to slip her in to my playlists rather sparingly. Mostly I play music that I’m either finding the day of, or music that has become a set of favorites. If I do like an album, I won’t play the majority of it but spread it throughout different shows. For instance, I’ve been doing that with Essaie Pas, Fall of Saigon, Damien Dubrovnik, Drew McDowall, Pharmakon, Puce Mary, HTRK, Anika, Suicide, Ela Orleans, Grouper, Sun Ra, etc……

What are some shows you like on Freeform Portland?

Ohh I love Softer Side Of DoomEarth Time RadioJourney Into SpaceStatic AtomizerTurtles Have Short LegsUniversal SoundRadio 859 … but there are so many more that I’ve yet to discover. Every time I put on the radio I’m usually instantly impressed or curious!