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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

More Symphonic Music with Synthesizers

One of the most downloaded episodes I’ve done was the one called “Symphonic Rock with Electronic Keyboards” from February 2021. Creating a follow-up episode is long overdue. I’ve dipped into the Archives to find a whole new set of examples ranging from Tomita and Vangelis to more modern electronic music with a symphonic rock elements. I think of this as a journey through time and technologies, from analog to digital, all with a focus on making big sounds, often bombastic, colored with melodrama and the most synthetic orchestrations that electronic music can offer. All of that is said with great fondness, of course.

The order of these works was roughly chronological, moving from analog synthesis to digital sampling and final modern digital synthesis.

I began with a couple of shorter tracks by Isao Tomita, “Gardens in the Rain”, an arrangement of a Debussy work, and “The Old Castle” from Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussoursky. I think these are from Tomita first two albums of modular electronic music in 1974 and 1975. Tomita used an original Moog Modular synthesizer and about every gadget you could buy for it at the time. He had a bank of nine oscillators plus three oscillator controllers and a whole host of filter banks, sequence controllers, and envelope generators. Of particular interest is his use of the Moog Model 914 extended range fixed filter bank which had 12 band pass filters and 1 low pass and 1 high pass filter. What was unique about this Moog circuitry was that each of the twelve bands overlapped half an octave with one another. You could turn them all up and never get a flat signal, but essentially a blend of frequencies that could be fine-tuned using the rotary dials for an infinite number of variations. The output of this signal could also be fed to an attenuator and then added back to the mix to create a subtle, layered, and lush feedback effect. I think a lot of the whooshiness you hear in these works was attributable to this filter module. This unique sounding circuit was one of the most famous created by Moog and has been reproduced for Eurorack by Moog and Behringer.

Next, we heard “Strands of the Future” from the Swiss group Pulsar. This is more of an ensemble work and features keyboards including the Solina string synthesizer, Mellotron, and Moog in key sections to build that orchestral effect.

Following that was another major proponent of the symphonic keyboard sound: Vangelis. We’ll hear “Flamants Roses” from Opéra Sauvage from 1979, and by this time he was using the Yamaha CS-80 polyphonic synthesizer for much of his work. That’s the famous synthesizer he also used extensively for Blade Runner in 1982.

Speaking of the early 1980s, we had several examples of symphonic synthesis from this period, when samplers, digital synthesizers, and polyphonic keyboards were dominant. We heard a couple of overtures by Rick Wakeman from the film 1984 using the Prophet and RMI synthesizers and Hammond organ.

I wanted to make sure we heard something from Keith Emerson as well, so I included an unusual track from the soundtrack to Nighthawks in 1981 on which he played the Fairlight CMI and made use of its string section.

After Emerson, we heard the Fourth, Fifth, and Last Rende-vous from Jean Michel-Jarre making extensive use of the ARP 2600, Oberheim OBX, Yamaha DX100 synthesizer, the Roland TR-808 drum machine, and some interesting sequencing, plus a host of other keyboards all detailed in the notes to this podcast.

From Jarre, we moved to 2000 and heard a selection from William Orbit called “Ogive Number 1,” a modern classical work written by Erik Satie. I think this piece is more likely Orbit’s arrangement of "Ogive Number 2", not Number 1. But who cares? It’s lovely to hear the French musician electrified like this.

We then heard some rather downtempo symphonic synthesis from a UK album produced by Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri, Nobukazu Takemura. The piece is called “Empty Orchestra” and represents what happens when the performers are also DJ and remixers.

Finally, I wanted to include a piece by Sarah Davachi, a Canadian electroacoustic musician who blends classical instruments with electronics. The work is called “Magdalena” and you heard a blend of Mellotron sounds, Tape Echo, Korg CX-3 Electric Organ, Pipe Organ, Harpsichord, Piano, and ARP Odyssey Synthesizer.

In the background of the opening, I played a work by James Newton Howard called “Margaret I’m Home” from ‎1974. Before he was known for movie scores, Howard released this album of symphonic synthesis.


1. Tomita, “Gardens In The Rain (Estampes, No. 3)” from Snowflakes Are Dancing (1974 RCA Red Seal). "Electronic performances of Debussy's tone paintings." Performed, arranged, and electronically created by Isao Tomita, composed by Claude Debussy. Modular Moog synthesizer by Isao Tomita, with equipment listed as: Moog synthesizer; One 914 extended range fixed filter bank; Two 904-A voltage-controlled low-pass filters; One 904-B voltage-controlled high-pass filter; One 904-C filter coupler; One 901 Voltage-controlled oscillator; Three 901-A oscillator controllers; Nine 901-B oscillators; Four 911 envelope generators; One 911-A dual-trigger delay; Five 902 voltage-controlled amplifiers; One 912 envelope follower; One 984 four-channel mixer; One 960 sequential controller; Two 961 interfaces; One 962 sequential switch; Two 950 keyboard controllers; One 6401 Bode ring modulator; Tape recorders, One Ampex MM-1100 16-track, One Ampex AG-440 4-track, One Sony TC-9040 4-track, One Teac A-3340S 4-track, One Teac 7030GSL 2-track; Mixers, Two Sony MX-16 8-channel mixers, Two Sony MX-12 6-channel mixers; Accessories, One AKG BX20E Echo unit; One Eventide Clockworks "Instant Phaser"; Two Binson Echorec "2" units ; One Fender "Dimension IV;" One Mellotron. 3:41

2. Tomita, “The Old Castle” from Pictures At An Exhibition (1975 RCA Red Seal). “Electronic interpretations of works by classical composer Modest Mussorgsky.” Performed, arranged, and electronically created by Isao Tomita, composed by Modest Mussorgsky. Modular Moog synthesizer by Isao Tomita. Assume same instrumentation as above. 5:16

3. Pulsar, “Strands of the Future” from Strands of the Future (1976 Kingdom Records). Recorded in Switzerland, released in France. Drums, Percussion, Victor Bosch; Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Vocals, Gilbert Gandil; Flute, Solina Synthesizer, Roland Richard; Lyrics By François Artaud; Organ, Moog Synthesizer, Mellotron, Bass Guitar, Jacques Roman. 22:13

4. Vangelis Papathanassiou, “Flamants Roses” from Opéra Sauvage (1979 Polydor). "Original Music For Frédéric Rossif's Television Series.” Recorded in London, 1979. Composed, Arranged, Produced, synthesizers, piano, Fender Rhodes electric piano, drums, percussion, xylophone, Vangelis Papathanassiou; harp, Jon Anderson. 11:48

5. Rick Wakeman, “Overtures, Part 1 and 2” from 1984 (1981 Charisma). Part 1: Piano, Prophet Synthesizer, Rick Wakeman. Part 2: Organ, Piano, Prophet Synthesizer, RMI Synthesizer, Rick Wakeman. Bass, Runswick D., McGee R.; Bassoon, Sheen G., Hammond H. Cello, Truman B., Robinson M., Willison P.; Cello [Lead], Daziel A.; Clarinet, Weinberg T., Puddy K.; Drums, Tony Fernandez; Drums, Frank Ricotti; Fender Bass, Boghead, Steve Barnacle; Flute, Sandeman D., Gregory J.; Guitar, Beaky, Tim Stone; Horn, Thomson M., Easthope P.; Keyboards, Dave Crombie; Oboe, Theodore D., Whiting J.; Producer, Rick Wakeman Saxophone [Selmer] Gary Barnacle; Trombone, Hardie, Wilson; Trumpet, Miller J., Wallis J.; Tuba, Jenkins J. Viola, Newlands D., Robertson G., Andrade L.; Viola [Lead], Cookson M.; Violin, McGee A., Dukov B., Katz D., Bradles D., Clay L., Good T.; Violin, Leader, Rothstein J.. 5:12

6. Keith Emerson, “Tramway” from Nighthawks (Original Soundtrack) (1981 Backstreet Records). Keith played a Fairlight CMI on this track. The Fairlight was programmed by Kevin Crossley. Keyboards, Performed, Produced, Composed by Keith Emerson; Drums, Neil Symonette; Percussion, Frank Scully; Orchestral Percussion, Tristen Fry; Saxophone, Jerome Richardson; Trumpet [Lead], Greg Bowen. 3:25

7. Jean Michel Jarre, “Fourth Rendez-Vous” from Rendez-Vous (1986 Polydor). ARP 2600 synthesizer, Eminent organ, Matrisequencer, Roland TR 808 drum machine, Michel Geiss; Elka Synthex, EMS Synthi AKS, Oberheim OBX, Yamaha DX100 synthesizers, Matrisequencer, Roland TR 808 drum machine, Linn 9000 Electronic Drums, Jean-Michel Jarre. 3:59

8. Jean Michel Jarre, “Fifth Rendez-Vous” from Rendez-Vous (1986 Polydor). “Baby Korg” synthesizer, David Jarre; ARP 2600 synthesizer, Matrisequencer, Michel Geiss; Emulator II sampler/synthesizer, Dave Smith Prophet-5 synthesizer, Casio CZ 5000, ARP 2600, Fairlight CMI, Roland JX 8P, synthesizers, Matrisequencer, Jean-Michel Jarre. 7:56

9. Jean Michel Jarre, “Last Rendez-Vous: "Ron's Piece" from Rendez-Vous (1986 Polydor). Saxophone, Pierre Gossez; Elka Synthex, Seiko DS 250, Fairlight CMI synthesizers, Matrisequencer, Eminent organ, Jean-Michel Jarre. 5:45

10.William Ørbit, “Ogive Number 1” from Pieces In A Modern Style (2000 WEA Records). Recorded in England. Written by Erik Satie. Arranged, Programmed, Produced, Performed by William Ørbit. I think this piece is more likely Orbit’s arrangement of "Ogive Number 2", not Number 1. But who cares? It’s lovely to hear the French musician electrified like this. 6:45

11.Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri, Nobukazu Takemura, “Empty Orchestra” from Changing Hands (1997 Medium Productions Limited). UK album of downtempo electronic music with a classical flavor. Recorded in Kyoto and London. Composed, Performed, Produced by Nobukazu Takemura, Richard Barbieri, Steve Jansen. 14:11

12. Sarah Davachi, “Magdalena” from Antiphonals (2021 Late Music). Canadian electro-acoustical composer and musician who blends classical instruments with electronics. Mellotron (English Horn, Bass Flute, Clarinet, Recorder, Oboe, French Horn, Chamber Organ, Nylon String Guitar), Tape Echo, Korg CX-3 Electric Organ, Pipe Organ, Harpsichord, Piano, ARP Odyssey Synthesizer, Acoustic Guitar, Violin, Voice, Sarah Davachi. 10:12

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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