released November 5, 2021
PERFORMED BY ED HOWARD ON THE
SOMA LYRA-8 SYNTHESIZER ON
2 JANUARY 2021.
PUNCHED PEARL BUTTON SHELL FOUND NEAR
MUSCATINE, IOWA. FROM THE COLLECTION OF ANN HOWARD.
A couple of months into the pandemic. Father’s Day approaching. We typically keep our celebration small.
Dad had been telling me for several years about the “UFO tape” he had made with his students in rural Gothenburg, Nebraska, in the sixties. He had even tried to play it for me the previous Christmas. I heard about half of it (it’s on 2-track reel-to-reel, and his tape machine isn’t fully functioning). Through about six minutes of dialogue, foley sound, field recordings, and tape manipulation it tells the story of an alien landing and encounter with a group of students. Their studio was the French language laboratory, equipped with multiple tape machines, a record player, 15 student stations with headphones and mics, and the teacher station to route it all.
Not far off from what had been happening at the legendary San Francisco Tape Music Center, in a way.
That got me thinking, all of a sudden one afternoon as I sat on the front steps (nobody was going anywhere), about a parallel universe in which Dad got an EMS VCS 3 synthesizer (also called a “Synthi” or “Putney”) when they were new in 1969. I imagined him playing for hours, certain the instrument would have fascinated him. It had to be the Synthi, specifically. The lack of a traditional keyboard building experimentation into its basic operation, every different micro-tuning of the oscillators opening up new sounds, the absence of patch cables; all of these characteristics of the instrument felt perfectly matched to him.
Synthis, Father’s Day, the pandemic - how hard it can be to find excitement and fill the hours, even as I write this in the middle of the delta wave - they all mixed in my mind, and I wondered how I could actually give him the experience I imagined for him.
EMS still makes Synthis, but with a years-long waitlist and massive price tag they weren’t a fit for the moment. I asked for recommendations on a gear forum and while we discussed many fine instruments, none seemed right until allmonochrome suggested the Soma Lyra-8.
Father’s Day weekend approached.
Outdoors and observing social distancing, we gave Dad a new set of headphones first. Asked if he had any idea why we might do that, he said “A musical instrument?” which took me by surprise. When he opened the synth he got a huge grin on his face. He said he felt like a kid on Christmas morning, and he looked every inch of it.
Every time I called home through the summer and fall, I’d hear about what sounds he’d been making with the synth.
I ended up going home for the holidays to avoid a COVID-19 close contact, and packed my 4-track recorder. After many afternoons of discussion and experimentation, on January 2, 2021, Dad sat down and we recorded the album you hear. The session was short, only an hour and change. There are no edits or overdubs. We had only one brief conversation during the session, between the second (“Froth”) and third (“Swell”) pieces he recorded. I would call out when there were two minutes left on the tape, then one, then twenty seconds, ten, nine, and I’d try to keep my voice level as I wondered if he’d get out of the jam before the tape ended. Three times in a row he did, cutting it closer than I’d ever have myself. A true snapshot of an ephemeral moment.
The title Sea comes from his dream to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis. He had the letter from his Senator ready to go, but was not admitted due to his vision being less than a perfect 20/20. That requirement was dropped just a year or two later, but by then he was part way through college and on the path to a history degree, which would lead him into teaching, which would take him to Gothenburg and the French language lab where the “UFO tape” was made.
I’m grateful to be one of the few people ever to release their dad’s weird noise record.
- Howie Howard, 1 October 2021