Digital Moonscapes comments

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Digital Moonscapes, by Wendy Carlos, 1984
The liner notes for Moonscapes are 6 pages long. A good percentage of this is spent with Wendy complaining about how much she dislikes synthesizers and how difficult it is to compose music on a computer. It took me a while to understand that what she wants really is an “orchestra in a box” (her words). That is, she’s expecting synthesizer software to provide her with perfect replications of classical acoustic instruments. And that’s not really what synthesizers are about. She talks about “the industry saying that synthesizers have infinite potential, and they don’t,” as if the electronic music instrument developers are deliberately raising her expectations regarding real-world instrument emulation, and then dashing them by making synthesizers that aren’t emulators. This is like going out to buy a $5,000 gaming PC just in order to balance your checkbook and organize your recipe cards. It’s not the right tool for the job. You want unreal sound? Get a synth. You want an “orchestra in a box?” Get an emulator and a good sequencer package.

Granted, she was working on Moonscapes in the early 1980’s, and instrument emulation still had a long way to go to get to the level it’s at today, and there were more hardware sequencers than software ones at that point. But still, if you want an orchestra, it really makes more sense to go out and hire one, than it does to try to emulate it in software that’s still in its infancy stage. Synthesizers have their place in music, but I don’t think classical music is part of that. Well, at least not in terms of producing straight harp, harpsichord and clavichord voices. They’ve done a great job in hard rock, and a serviceable one in gimmicky classical (i.e. – Tomita), but I’m just not seeing a clear justification for electronic emulation in traditional (in the Bach, Beethoven, Mozart sense) classical. Yes, you can do it, and strictly from the “how can we benefit from this” viewpoint it’s worth trying. But don’t take the disappointment so seriously if it turns out to not be a perfect match right out of the box.

Anyway, I’m studying synths and electronic music from a student’s standpoint, and Switched-On Bach does have its place in synth history. I can’t get my hands on the original S-OB recording, so I’m looking at Wendy’s other productions to see what she’s doing with electronics. I asked for anything by her for Christmas, and I received a used copy of Digital Moonscapes as a present last year. Again, I’m hoping for frequency sweeps, pitch bending, vocoding, detuned harmonic beating, whatever. What I get on this disc is traditional strings, percussion and wind instruments that could have come from any Guitar Center store.

The concept is in the same vein as Holst’s The Planets, in two sections. The first is Cosmological Impressions, made up of Genesis, Eden and I.C. (Intergalactic Communications). The second is Moonscapes, with Luna, Phobos and Deimos, Ganymede, Europa, Io, Callisto, Rhea, Titan and Iapetus. I’m not that well-versed on classical, so I don’t know if this is a tone poem or not. But, to me it kind of tells a story. At a minimum, the music does give impressions of moons, planets, astronomical stuff, whatever. However, Holst was influenced by the astrological side of the planets, and Wendy is presenting more of an astronomical view of episodes from the Bible, and some of the moons in our solar system.

Ok, about the music. You know, I really don’t know how to start on this. Every time I sit down to really listen to this CD, my mind wanders off and nothing registers anymore. It’s classical music, in the vein of Bach, Holst, those other guys, and there are some echoes of The Planets, but it’s just too “pretty” for me. I can’t cope with pretty music. Give me Night on Bald Mountain, the 1812 Overture or Carmina Burana. That I can listen to all day. Moonscapes? Elevator background music.

Summary: Digital Moonscapes is a classical composition by Wendy Carlos, using electronic synthesis systems and sequencers to provide impressions of the Book of Genesis, Eden, and various moons ala Holst’s The Planets. It sounds like something conducted with a full orchestra, and most of the instrument voices sound like real-world instruments. If you like classical, and Holst, you may like Digital Moonscapes. If you’re a student of the Moog and similar synthesizers, there’s probably nothing here for you.

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