Switching On Soundtracks
Updated: Jun 22
My Adventures in Underscore, part 3 - A magical new sound tickles my fancy.
You wouldn’t expect a couple of eighth graders to come to blows over a musical instrument. I certainly didn’t expect a long-simmering feud between two of my classmates to result in one of my biggest disappointments of the year. Especially since I was on the verge of making a significant discovery, the culmination, really, of several years of exploration.
As the 1960s came to a close, my musical tastes were expanding. I still loved TV music, and enjoyed the never-ending parade of themes, especially the sci-fi/action stuff by Johnny Williams on shows produced by Irwin Allen. I was growing more interested in pop music, and even sent my self-addressed, stamped envelope to WABC radio for their list of the top 100 songs of the year. I adored the novelty one-shot “In the Year 2525” by the improbably named Zager and Evans, and was comforted to see that soundtrack music from The Archies, Hawaii Five-0 and Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet all made the cut.
But there was another musical itch that Top-40 radio couldn’t scratch (and nobody likes the sound of scratching records, anyway.) I had recently become aware of a new sound, one that wasn’t especially popular or well known, but that made my ears prick up and the hairs on the back of my neck tingle.
A commercial that was in heavy rotation on Channel 5 that summer commanded my attention. I may not have been particularly interested in the New York City Botanical Gardens, but every time that spot appeared on the TV, I stopped to listen. A tone that was somewhere between an elevator chime and a harpsichord (which had a brief resurgence in the ‘60s) played out a catchy little ditty. I was struck by how many notes were in the melody, and how it seemed familiar somehow, but strangely alien at the same time.
It would remain a mystery for several years, but to this day I have never forgotten it. That strange tonality reminded me of another favorite TV theme, which also gripped my imagination. Walter Cronkite followed up his long-running history program Twentieth Century with a short-lived series that spoke directly to me, called The 21st Century. The intro was simply a visual countdown from the years 1967 to 2001, resolving into the title of the show. But the pulsating theme, shot through with electronic stingers, grabbed me. It seemed to say, THE FUTURE IS COMING. And I was going to be a part of it.
I didn’t know how that percolating, buzzing music was created, but everything about it excited me. And to be honest, it scared me a little. I had recently seen two major motion pictures depicting the journeys of astronauts into the future and beyond, and I was still rattled by them. Those movies also had some pretty avant-garde soundtracks, and I quickly came to associate eerie, atonal sounds and exotic percussion with my favorite genre of entertainment.
Regardless, it was now 1969, and the future was here. Astronauts were landing on the moon, and I had my own portable reel-to-reel tape recorder to capture the music that intrigued me. (I only had two tiny reels of 1/4” tape, each enough for about 10 minutes of recordings, so I had to be selective.) After a week of anticipation and cajoling, I convinced my parents to let me attend a movie alone for the first time. To commemorate this event, I smuggled my recorder into the CORT Theater in downtown Somerville, for what I expected would be an amazing afternoon.
There was a new movie about Apollo astronauts, and I was there for the opening weekend. I sat in the front row, head tilted back, with the recorder in my lap and the little square microphone clutched in my left hand. As the Columbia Pictures logo faded from the screen, I watched the earth appear, as seen by astronauts from space. The actors names appeared in succession, with an unusual accompaniment. It was that strange tone again, rising in pitch and speed. I didn’t have the words for what I was hearing, but I was transfixed by a series of beeps, chirps and buzzes that transported me to outer space. I was a lone astronaut on a new adventure, and the whole thing was so exciting I called Mom and asked her to pick me up after the second show off that afternoon.
(Listening today, there’s nothing very musical about these sounds, which were an aural collage of pre-existing sound effects. They were certainly a novelty at the time. The same can be said about the movie itself, a rather dull procedural of space rescue slightly enlivened by the use of authentic NASA hardware, and a lot of familiar character actors. But no less an artist than Alfonzo Cuaron loved this film enough to quote it in Roma and remake it as Gravity, so I stand in good company.)
I was now an unabashed fan of electronic music from the dawn of its technology. And the technology was about to become a lot less mysterious, as my eighth grade class was taking a field trip to The Franklin Institute in downtown Philadelphia. The bus ride was more entertaining than usual because Gary and Norm were engaged in a surreptitious spitball fight. They ducked between volleys to avoid getting caught, and we all laughed at the show. After an hour’s journey, we filed into the auspicious, pillared temple of science and invention.
The museum had plenty to see, and more than we were allowed to explore, as Sister Juliana and our two chaperones kept us on a tight leash. There was a partial Boeing 707 airliner that I desperately wanted to explore, but it was closed for repairs. And a replica of John Glenn’s Freedom 7 space capsule that we could ostensibly sit in—except that it would take too long for everyone to get a chance. So no one was allowed! How is that fair? I wondered.
After lunch, we stumbled into a new, temporary exhibit. On a riser along the back wall was a wooden box resembling an altar, with a curious logo of stacked letters that spelled “M-O-O-G.” My pal Gary was on the platform, tinkering with knobs and controls on the box. And out of a rather battered speaker came THAT sound. The high-pitched tone, like the one in the commercial, the TV show, and the movie. I rushed to the platform, and read the placard that explained that this was called a “synthesizer” invented by a man with the curious name of Robert Moog.
My mind raced with this new information and I sidled up next to Gary who was still goofing around with the dials. I was disappointed to discover that this exhibit had seen better days, with half of the dozen knobs broken off or taped over. I could see why it was in such sorry state—Gary was twisting one knob back and forth like a maniac, to make a sound like a drunken ambulance. I tried to get him to settle down, so that we could explore all of the potential in this magic box. But he was having too much fun, and a minute later, I was getting elbowed out of the way by his nemesis, Norm.
The two adversaries quickly got into a shoving match. I encouraged them to calm down before we got caught, but it was too late. Sister J’s black habit fluttered wildly as she stormed into the room, clapping her hands and crying out “Boys! Boys, stop that and come down now!” I watched as years of programming kicked in and Gary and Norm stopped in their tracks. They trudged down the platform, exchanging dirty looks. I turned back to the synthesizer, which was finally within my grasp, when I heard Sister’s voice, “That means you too, Mr. Sikoryak.”
Needless to say that I spent the rest of the afternoon hoping for another chance with Mr. Moog’s invention. It was not to be. I was deeply disappointed, not just because I missed my chance to try out this incredible device. I was disappointed in Sister Juliana, who had actually made a big impression on me. She spent an hour of class time to introduce us to Georges Bizet’s Carmen, which was a pretty racy choice for Catholic school. She explained the story of the opera, introduced us to the ideas of motifs and melody, harmony and orchestration. That one lesson changed the way I listened to music, and the music that I listened to. Unfortunately, Sister didn’t put much stock in electronica.
It would be years until I put all of the pieces together. That TV commercial featured “Two-Part Invention in B-Flat Major” by Johann Sebastian Bach. It was performed on a Moog synthesizer by the trailblazing artist Wendy Carlos. She created the soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange, which led me to discover her album Switched On Bach and other re-imagined classical music. Imagine my surprise, decades later, to discover that she also turned down the offer to create an electronic score for Marooned, the very space picture whose artless beeps and boops had so entranced me as a kid.
Electronic instruments and other innovations would really explode over the next decade, and I found unique sounds everywhere. I loved the Theramin in soundtracks like Hitchcock’s Spellbound and the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” Keyboard-driven bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer were right up my alley, giving rock music a pretentious twist and calling it “progressive.” And of course, low-budget sci-fi and horror flicks would lean heavily on the sounds of the synthesizer to create an otherworldly atmosphere on-the-cheap. I was ready for all of it.
If only I could have had five minutes on that platform in Philadelphia. Then I could have made it for myself.
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