Oh man. Eno playing an EMS VCS3.
That synthesizer single handedly steered me away from music education and into composition and performance. My alma mater has (had?) one in their music studio and, as the only student at the college who had any interest in taking Intro to Electronic Music, I was given free reign to play with it and all the other great vintage gear in the studio (tape machines, Yamaha DX7 IIFD, some primitive orchestral sampler MIDI box… all kinds of great inspiring stuff). All that gear, combined with the realization that I just didn’t feel comfortable standing in front of a classroom full of kids, led me to give up on music education (though I still earned the degree).
I would spend, quite literally, all night locked alone in that studio playing with the VCS3. That joystick was badass and the routing matrix was a much better solution to patching than the cables typical of other modular synths, and the Ring Modulator was brilliant.
I still miss cranking the volume up, manually syncing those three oscillators, patching them into the filter, and slowly sweeping through its frequency range. I swear the whole music building would vibrate.
That tactile control of synthesis - the feeling of the knobs and dials and switches in your fingers - is something I’ll never forget. Just looking at this gif I can still remember how smoothly those 30 year old pots turned, with just the right amount of pressure and resistance so that you actually had to put some effort into the action. Goddamn. I need to contact them and see if they still own it.
Only in dreams
Hmmm. What do you do when someone on Facebook suggests you become friends with an ex-girlfriend from college that:
- Denied knowing you even existed when she was asked about you by your best friend (himself a stranger to her) a few months after the relationship ended…
- Hasn’t spoken a word to you since the breakup occured (about 8 years ago, including the duration of our senior year of college)…
- Is now married with a baby…
In August of 1997 I began my undergraduate studies at Nazareth College, in pursuit of a degree in Music Education. The music department was housed in the Arts Center, and the students would relax, study, eat, drink, makeout, and do all that stuff which college students do, in the lounge. The lounge was a cramped space located in the belly of the Arts Center. In the center of the lounge there was a large, rectangular wood table that was surrounded by stackable plastic chairs of varying colors, and the exterior perimeter of the room was defined by several very small closets that lined the long edges of the table.
Some of these closets were locked; some of them unlocked; all of them full of clutter. It was an accumulation of mess and disorder that had clearly been under construction for well over a decade. All of them had windows on their tall, narrow doors, and they each had a small incandescent bulb that would illuminate their interiors. A logical thought would be that they were to be used as practice rooms, but no sane person would dare enter a space of such size and proceed to practice trumpet, or flute, or even vocal work. The original intent of these closets is still a mystery to me.
As busy as we were - music majors are notoriously bogged down by the vast amount of curriculum they need to cram into 4 years at a liberal arts school - we still found time to sit around in that lounge and procrastinate. In an almost ritualistic manner, we’d find ourselves turning the knobs of every closet door - hoping that one day we might find a previously locked closet, unlocked. We could see piles and piles of boxes and papers stacked within these rooms, but never could we get to the potential treasures that lie within.
One afternoon during the fall semester of 2008 some friends and I were relaxing in the lounge - likely wasting time before one of our numerous zero-credit courses. Almost subconsciously we’d scoot around the room and test the knobs, squeezing behind classmates sitting in the yellow, and orange, and lime colored chairs. On this day, I was moving south to north along the western wall when I came upon the second to last closet - a closet that in the past had always been locked; today the knob turned. With a resounding thunk, the knob turned with my wrist, and a clamour arose among the classmates who shared in the ritual. I slowly pushed the door inward, reached inside, and flicked on the light. The filament fizzled as it sprang to life for the first time in what must have been many months, if not many years.
We spent the next hour or so tearing apart the contents of this closet. One person would go in and start passing boxes and binders and folders out of the room as the others laid the items out on the large table. I was the person responsible for passing the last box out through the narrow door. After I had distributed the contents, I performed a final visual survey of this closet. That which was once stacked floor to ceiling with stuff was now empty. But, there was one last thing that caught my eye. Sitting there, right in the middle of the floor, was a small rectangular block of wood. The block was approximately 3/4” wide by 1/4” thick by 1.5” long. It’s edges weren’t sharp. It was green. It was clearly a toy of some sort - perhaps used for impromptu stacking competitions or for the construction of colorful little castles - and it was now mine. I picked it up, examined it quickly, and then slid it into my left pocket.
We continued rummaging through our booty, finding musical remnants of all sorts: method books promoting posture and techniques that were far from what would now be considered good practice, rusty ligatures and musty reeds, ancient NY State Curriculum documents, and so on. Yet after digging through it all, no one found any other blocks. We stacked everything back into the closet and proceeded on to our next class, or lesson, or rehearsal - all of us feeling accomplished and content that we had finally explored yet another chapter of Naz Music history. That night I returned home and emptied my pockets onto my dresser as I always did. Out of my right pocket I removed my default tube of ChapStick® (Medicated) and from the left I pulled a guitar pick (.88mm Dunlop Nylon) and, the green block.
The next morning I got dressed and filled my pockets with what I had removed the previous night, including the green block. As I am a creature of habit, and my OCD can control numerous minor aspects of my life, this routine would continue on a daily basis. Without exception I would carry the green block in my left pocket, from the moment I put my bottoms on to the moment I took them off. The green block was with my everywhere I went, and it became as much a part of my identity as my glasses, at least in my eyes. I felt naked without that block in my pocket.
Through the years, there would be days when I would misplace this block. I worked through college and through 2005 at a golf course, which included almost daily usage of gas and electric golf carts. There would be times that I would park the cart after a long bumpy ride on the course and not realize until I returned home that the block had wiggled its way out of my pocket. Imagine my frustration and aggravation that I had lost the green block while driving across hundreds of acres of grass. But, like geese flying south or the tides moving in and out, I would always stumble upon the green block. I’d return to the course the next day and look in all the cracks and crevices around the seats of the golf carts until I would find the block wedged in there. I’d then grab it and stick it right back in my left pocket, relieved that I felt complete again. The block would fall out into couches and cars, and it took countless trips through the washing machine, but no matter what, I would always find it; it always came back to me. It soon started to show its age. The green had faded from a bright and brilliant pine to a dull and faded pear. Yet, the fading color revealed the true grain of the wood, as unique as a fingerprint.
One evening about a month ago I returned from a round of disc golf at a local park. At home I changed out of my shorts and into some pants, yet, when I reached into the left pocket of the shorts, the green block wasn’t there. I must have checked the pockets on those shorts 15 times. I check the pockets on the pants; I checked all the bottoms I had worn on previous days of the week; I checked the top of my dresser; underneath it; all around it. I checked my car, my couch, my bed, the washing machine - but it was all for naught. It was gone.
It’s still gone. For 10 years - more than 1/3 of my 29 years - I carried the green block in my left pocket. For 10 years, if I misplaced it, I would find it - or it would find me. Now after a month without it, my pocket still feels empty, my hand still reaches down and expects to find it, and I still feel naked.