Tuesday, 22 December 2009
41. 1975 Moog Polymoog, Benge (2008)
When I was a little girl – three, perhaps four – my father bought a personal computer. This was 1981 or 1982, the very early days of technology weaving its ghostly way into our ordinary lives. I can't remember if the Spectrum 48K was Dad's first system, but it's the one I remember fondly, its black, rubber keys like velvet under chubby fingers, the tape recorder next to it holding games on cassette – football and cricket acted out in stick figures and formulas, space creatures zapped into pixellated glitter by deadly bytes. My father teaching me to rewind these them all to the start, press LOAD, two quotation marks, RETURN. The screen flashing cyan and black like a stormy sky, then yellow and black like a feverish bee, bleeps and beeps bringing their contents to life.
I loved these sounds as much as the programs themselves. I loved the strangeness and sweetness of sine waves, the way they instantly created a very different kind of world. My father taught me how to make my own tunes with them, using the BEEP command on the Spectrum, and I would spend the hours after school sitting on his lap, learning about the pitch and the length of notes, and translating them very slowly into co-ordinates through BASIC, squealing as they came through the speakers when I pressed the keys.
I still think this is why electronic music has always moved me so much, why it tugs at my synapses, why it sets butterflies swirling in my stomach – especially as it reminds me of Dad, who died a few years later. It is my link back to him, to the geeky side of me that often gets forgotten, to the person who always found excitement in new things, who would have adored to see the world developing as quickly as it did.
In my twenties, at the same time as I started thinking about Dad again, I started exploring these sounds again. Electroclash had rekindled my love for the sounds of computer music, and I went a bit silly for 8-bit and minimal techno. Then I fell for Krautrock and prog, the eerie lullabies of theremins and Moogs. I wrote an article for the Guardian about library music, I went down to Wadhurst to visit Ron Geesin and his music barn full of Fairlights and VCS-3s, and I hungered to hear strange machines – to be the receiver for their ghostly, lovely calls.
And then, late in 2008, suddenly living on my own and cocooning myself in sounds, Benge released Twenty Systems. Benge was Ben Edwards, a musician who collected analogue synthesisers, and this was his history of the way they developed, year by year. It killed me. It was warm, soulful and beautiful – I adored the itchy, doomy pulse of 1968 Moog Modular, beginning the album with menace and mystery, and the soft loveliness of 1978 Roland 100M, an instrument the same age as me.
But the 1975 Moog Polymoog was my favourite. In my mind, Benge had set it off gently, its soft sequenced melodies performed by little wooden creatures, its tune like the memory of an Afrobeat song slipping into a minor key. When Dan and I got back together a few months later, he told me that he'd liked this record too, and when I asked what his favourite track was, he said it was this one. This was a good sign, I thought – that something so simple but so sublime, so humble but so heavenly, could strike a similar note in the two of us.
This is still one of my favourite pieces of music from the last ten years, which is strange for something so short and so small; something intended to be shown as a demonstration of the abilities of an odd musical instrument. But when I hear its soft machinations, there is something almost godly at work in it. It is the sound of innocence reasserting its hold on our memories, reminding us that childlike wonder can still be with us as we get older, and how it can still bring people together.