A German physicist updates Bach with synthesizers
For years, The A.V. Club has delved into cinematic history’s dustbin with Films That Time Forgot, but far more records are released every year than films. If cinema has a dustbin of forgotten films, music has a giant Dumpster. In Albums That Time Forgot, we examine records few people would remember.
Artist: Jon Santo
Album: Plays Bach—Synthesized Electrons (1976)
Label: MCA Records
Wait, who? Jon Santo. Maybe people know him as Bert Brac? Or Ralph Bonda, Phil Moss, or Hans Meinhardt? According to the Internet, the man in the frilly cravat on the back cover has a lot of aliases, Jon Santo simply being the one for this album. His real name is Andreas Beurmann, a German physicist and musicologist probably inspired by Switched-On Bach, the collection of synthesizer Bach music that came out of nowhere in 1968 to go gold and win three Grammys. Whereas Switched-On Bach used a Moog and was recorded on a monophonic system, Synthesized Electrons has a whole schematic on the back showing Beurmann’s exact studio setup—a technical way to say, “That’s nice, Switched-On Bach, but I’m onto some next-level shit.”
Well, the back cover puts it more academically. “Jon Santo displays in this album all the articulation and modulation of timbre possible within the frame of this particular program. He is using the great variety of controlled electrons in his grasp.” Santo apparently wields these electrons like some kind of comic-book supervillain, only his bidding entails performing the works of Johann Sebastian Bach.
From the liner notes: “TO ENJOY THE POWER AND RICHNESS OF THE SOUND COLOURS YOU SHOULD TO LISTEN TO THIS PROGRAM WITH A HIGH LEVEL OF YOUR AMPLIFIER!” There could be no more academic way to say, “Play it loud, bro!”
Key songs: “Sarabande,” “Adagio A-Minor,” and “Prelude C-Minor,” which show just how far synthesizers have come since the mid-’70s: They all sound like disembodied soundtracks to the original 8-bit Nintendo system, though the opening of “Prelude C-Minor” has a nice Kraftwerkian ominousness.
All of the tracks are pleasant, but dated in their blatant attempts to “update” classical music for this modern age. The notes on the back cover make it sound like all that’s keeping the masses from going crazy for classical music is “contemporary” instrumentation: “The demands for this new type of music become more and more imperative. There are not only the young people, but also the older ones and the many classic enthusiasts who catch hold of this refreshingly contemporary music.”
Nothing’s more contemporary than going sub-atomic while describing art. Just after proclaiming Synthesized Electrons as an “audacious look ahead,” the liner notes explain the “secret” is “hundreds of thousands of commanded electrons and a lot of triggered wave signals.” Apparently that’s self-explanatory, because it offers no further explanation of what the hell that means. (Electrons and wave signals—of course!) But don’t think it’s all precision, no passion: “And even heart and soul, those basic preconditions for any good music, were sent through the wires. And this again makes this music so pleasant, so easy to listen to or say so human.” Or say so human?
Can easily be distinguished by: The cover portrait, which turns Santo’s head into an asteroid or something, with his hair full of craters and what looks like a mini version of himself playing atop the whole thing.
Sign that it was made in 1976: The cover typeface is all ’70s futurism, like someone thought, “In the future, this is how letters will look.” Now it just looks like something from the title screen of an Atari 2600 game.