|In his 1980 Polyphony Magazine review of the LP The passion and transfiguration of a post-apocalypic eunuch (Opus One #59), Robert Carlberg stated that "only from a university electronic music studio (in this case Yale) could you get a concept album about eunuchs and cockroaches after a nuclear war. Fragments of jazz, rock, and Zappaesque humor are combined with an unrestrained students' verse." Given the intense, heartfelt effort I'd invested in the project, I didn't appreciate the terseness of his critique or its dismissive tone, but thirty-plus years on, I have to admit that he pretty much got it right. Technically crude and ham-fisted as satire, the most endearing feature of this "degenerate oratorio for a degenerate age" (as it describes itself in the score) might ultimately be its weirdness. Not inscrutable, head-scratching weirdness like outsider art or Tiny Tim, but weird like Ed Wood directing a Mel Brooks movie: you see where the gag is going, but the acting is wooden and the timing is off, and the punchline lands with a thud. What was I thinking?|
|The Passion was composed as street theater suitable for performance by non-professionals at anti-nuclear demonstrations, and thus the score is heavy on text and illustrations, with relatively little music notation. In retrospect, the prospect of mounting a nuanced improvisational performance in the midst of the chaotic, emotionally charged, and potentially violent environment of a political demonstration seems idiotically naive or naively idiotic, but there you go. I was 23 years old; aside from participating in a couple of low-risk, low-attendance, non-obstructive events on public property, I wasn't what you'd call a radical activist.|
|During the final week of December 1977, I invited Mark, a prodigiously gifted guitarist, bassist, and improviser, to join me in New Haven to lay down tracks for a studio version of the Passion. The Yale campus was serenely deserted during the inter-semester holiday, and I was able to monopolize the School of Music's electronic studio without interruption. We let the tape roll and winged it, Mark mainly on guitars and bass, me on piano and percussion, giving in to the most indulgent excesses of post-hippie era free improv. Some of it was brilliant (pretty much everything Mark took the lead on), and much of it trivial and silly. After accumulating an absurd amount of raw audio, I buckled down to editing and mixing the mess in an attempt to mold it into something coherent. By contemporary standards, the studio's multitrack resources were meager (a one-inch 4-track analog deck and a quarter-inch 4-track analog deck), a situation that required repeated bouncing in order to achieve layering, always at the expense of sonic clarity and mixing flexibility. But in spite of such technical handicaps, I found this stage of the process the most exhilarating, as I happily spent undisturbed hours in the studio with the splicing razor. As anyone who has ever been totally absorbed in a mixing project knows, undisturbed hours are the death of objectivity and perspective. When I finished, I found myself with an hour-long monument that I was convinced was a work of genius.|
|The first public airing was at a Yale composer's forum, a meeting for students and faculty during which scores and recordings of students' work were critiqued. Nobody fled the room during playback, and nobody said anything negative when it was over. Whether that show of tolerance was a sign of enthusiasm or of exhaustion, I'm not sure, but I am pretty certain that the work caught everyone off guard, because up to that point I was pigeonholed as a composer stuck in the stodgy modernist mainstream. In this case, weirdness played to my advantage. Jacob Druckman told Yale publicist Gene Cook about the Passion, and Gene taped an interview with Mark and me for his radio show. I still have an audio tape of the interview, but I refuse to listen to it because even though I don't remember what I said, I'm sure that I was insufferably witless and snarky in the way that twenty-somethings who think they're clever can be. Not long afterward, the Passion was broadcast complete over the Yale FM airwaves on a show hosted by one of the School of Music student composers, and it may have been that experience that persuaded me that I had a hot property on my hands. I needed a label and a distribution deal.|
|I was introduced to the wacky day-glo world of Opus One Records when company founder Max Schubel, a composer in his own right, delivered a guest lecture at the Eastman School of Music where I was an undergrad. Opus One was devoted exclusively to new music and had subscription arrangements with academic music libraries around the country, and was thus suited to my current objectives. Max and I negotiated. Given the length of the Passion, I thought that the way to go would be to issue a double album, but Max wisely advised me to pare it down to 40 minutes so the work would fit on a single disc. He also advised me to do something about the narration, which was amateurish and often indecipherable. I engaged the services of a Yale undergrad with acting ability to supplant my faulty diction, after which I remixed the master tape and delivered it to Max. The terms of the deal were that I would fund all production costs (my grant application to the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund for Music went nowhere), and I wouldn't make a cent off sales since I'd be getting a pile of complimentary discs in lieu of royalties. There went my yacht. He also told me that his girlfriend hated the recording. Okay, let's do this thing!|
|Besides being a fine musician (and now, world-renowned luthier), Mark is a talented graphic artist. He designed the album cover as an elegant ink drawing, which Max proceeded to colorize in trademark style with fluorescent dyes. Garish. The album was manufactured and added to the Opus One catalog, copies ended up in a few libraries, there was some airplay in the New York metro area, and there was a dribble of attention from the music press. Besides the Carlberg review in Polyphony quoted above, Jim Aikin wrote in Contemporary Keyboard in 1981, "It can safely be predicted that you won't know quite what to make of this... excellent but thoroughly mad amalgam of Frank Zappa, the Firesign Theatre, and maybe Stockhausen." The remaining inventory that wasn't sold eventually made its way to cut-out bins across America. I'm proud to say that you can still find copies at second-hand vinyl shops online; apparently you can't even give these things away. When I moved to New York in 2004, I heaved my few remaining copies into the dumpster.|
Before we closed the books on the LP deal, Max warned me that I might someday look back on this eccentric, youthful venture and regret being associated with it. Since I never cultivated much of a professional reputation to begin with, that hasn't been an issue.
In the early 1990s I toyed with the idea of redoing the whole thing, exploiting the power of MIDI, sampling, pitch correction and digital recording to achieve the kind of professional-sounding results I could only have dreamed of in the stone-age 70s, but I decided against it. The work was the flower of a bygone era, and a slick update would be pointless and sterile, as opposed to being what it currently is: pointless and whack. But whack for the ages.
Below are links to the original, unabridged, pre-LP version of The passion and transfiguration of a post-apocalyptic eunuch, not heard in public since 1978. Huzzah. I have to confess that the digitization of the analog master was done under less than ideal conditions. I would have preferred to have extracted the audio according to archival standards and practices, and posted it online in uncompressed digital format, but dictates of economics and practicality intervened. For one thing, I only had a quarter-track machine at my disposal to play back the half-track master, and for another, years in storage had been unkind to the tape stock. Both Scotch 3M and Ampex had modified their manufacturing process in the early 1970s, introducting a new binding formula to glue the oxide layer to the substrate, a binding that over the years would absorb moisture from the air and turn it into goo that would stick and slough off onto tape heads when the tape was played back. You can occasionally hear the effects of "sticky shed syndrome" in these audio files, but for the most part, the tape fed through the playback deck acceptably with a little manual intervention on my part. In order to suppress some of the audio muck already present on the master tape and added during transfer, the 16-bit 44.1kHz digital file was post-processed with sonicWORX noise reduction software before finally being compressed into the mp3s posted here.
Strictly speaking, this isn't quite the unabridged pre-LP version: a couple of segments have been edited out for copyright reasons: the I Love Lucy Theme, which also appeared on the LP and for which I paid mechanical rights (a tiny snippet is included at the very beginning of the 6th track), and an instrumental version of the song Paper Moon, which did not appear on the LP. That's show biz.
Prelude In Plastic (5:10)
The long crescendo at the very beginning is a time-reversed piano chord played triple-fortissimo and fading to silence. Audio degradation due to sticky shed syndrome and print-through is particularly apparent in this section. In retrospect, I'd say that the free improv in this track is too long (or not long enough, depending upon my state of intoxication).
Big Beef (2:09)
Culvert City Androids (7:23)
The ring-modulator effects were achieved with a Bode pitch shifter. I love Mark's raga-esque guitar solo, and the violin solo played pizzicato guitar-style. Absolutely brilliant.
Nuclear Pigs, Part One (5:27)
A new, slick version of the Nuclear Pigdance can be heard here.
I Love Loosely (Prelewd) (2:55)
At the 2-minute mark on this track you will hear the sound of a rotary-dial phone in operation. We still used rotary-dial phones in 1977. The voice recorded at the other end of the line saying "hello" is my brother, a Yale PhD whose area of specialization is high energy physics. Just thought you'd like to know.
I Love Loosely (Concussion) (9:53)
Rich music, all the time.
Nuclear Pigs, Part Two (2:41)
I should never sing in public.
Disco Plotz And Demise Of Big Beef (4:16)
Stupid is as stupid does.
Evolutionary Etude (4:38)
Beautiful guitar solo by Mark.
The Mastadon Reunion (8:48)
Another nice solo by Mark. Some sticky-shed artifacts at the very end.