Syrinx: The way the future used to sound

One can’t write objectively about friends, especially when those old friends are beloved pieces of music.

I’m very fortunate to get all sorts of wonderful recordings through the mail.  One of the best things about the summertime, when there are fewer concerts, is that I have a chance to catch up a bit on my backlog.  I recently had the chance to explore music I first heard in my youth through one of those windfalls in the mail.


Tumblers from the Vault from Syrinx

Tumblers from the Vault tumbled into my life, a Syrinx retrospective of the years 1970 -1972.   Syrinx can be understood as a pop music band, comprised of three people

  • Composer & synthesizer pioneer John Mill-Cockell (aka “JMC”)
  • Saxophone player Doug Pringle
  • Percussionist Alan Wells

But while they’re understood to be a band I think it’s a misnomer to think of their compositions simply as pop music.  Or maybe it’s just that I see depths I never noticed when I first encountered them.  Hindsight has a way of being 20-20, to fill in gaps of understanding. When I first heard this music I was moved, excited, but also stirred by the ambiguities of the music.  I recall getting lost in the sensations without understanding how they did it. At times I could tell that there was electronic music, but it was rarely foregrounded, instead blending into a mix.

My headline comes from my first encounter with Syrinx, namely “Tillicum” a piece used as the theme for a CTV series called “Here Come the Seventies.”  I had such a serious obsession with the opening theme, that sometimes I’d stop watching the show after I’d heard the theme.

The only thing I can compare this to is my first experience of Walter Carlos (later Wendy Carlos) via A Clockwork Orange. I had never heard or felt anything quite like that. I think it’s fair to say that Syrinx were ahead of their time, and even now have a remarkable freshness to their sound.


Composer, musician, innovator, teacher John Mills-Cockell

At times you’re hearing something resembling world music, with melodic turns and chord changes suggestive of other cultures and musics.  Some of their music resembles the pattern music of Philip Glass, which is especially interesting when one realizes that his first big recordings happen later.  I’m not interested in questions of who influenced whom, not when so many musicians seemed to get to the same sort of sound.  There are also melodies that remind me a bit of Frank Zappa, although not nearly as jagged or angular.   What Zappa and JMC have in common is a classical background.  Nobody talked about crossover in 1970, but that might be a relevant concept for composers making music that seemed to bridge cultures or disciplines.  I’m reminded also of Mark Mothersbaugh, whose work is boldly post-modern in his playful use of sounds and textures.  Mothersbaugh, Zappa & JMC made music that was considered legitimate as serious or classical music, yet also had credibility in the pop music realm.

Many millennials grew up listening to JMC’s music for The Stationary Ark, a regular series on TVO.

You may recall that a few years ago I interviewed JMC when workshopping his opera Savitri and Sam with a libretto by Ken Gass.  I’m hopeful that the opera will eventually get a full production. What’s clear when I think of S & S, in context with Syrinx is simply that JMC manages to be accessible.  While I love Zappa he is guilty of some of the most effete artsy writing, admittedly full of wit & unpredictability.  JMC seems more secure, less anxious about the need to seem brilliant, and so more confident as he gives us music that is at times pleasant and tranquil.

The same secure melodic gift is there in his Stationary Ark music, as it is in the Tumblers CDs. Of course I should be careful to credit all three of the members of Syrinx, a tuneful and rhythmic treasure.

I want to quote directly from their press release:

1) One modest task of Tumblers from the Vault is to reinstate Syrinx to their place in the wider canon of groundbreaking music so their story can be appreciated beyond the limits of Canadian notoriety
2) Unlike so many turn of the ‘60s experiments fusing rock and pop music language with new technology, Syrinx was never excessive in expressing their vision of what electronic music could offer. Instead, they blended these sounds in a holistic way, allowing the acoustic and electronic textures to create one organic voice. They opted to foreground the lyrical and poetic content of their compositions rather than their innovative techniques.

This is such a Canadian story, don’t you find? If they were Americans or Brits, they’d be much more famous. And their self-effacing approach to composition is quintessentially Canadian.

Tumblers from the Vault can be obtained here.

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2 Responses to Syrinx: The way the future used to sound

  1. The Zappa connection is interesting and somewhat surprising. I first heard recordings (Freak Out, I think) in 1967 when Intersystems partner Michael Hayden was showing off his new Dayton Wright electrostatic speakers (which he still has). The following (i think it was), Zappa played U of T Convocation Hall. He began sound check at 2 pm and didn’t stop playing until midnight, never said a word to the house. So, was he an influence on Syrinx? The idea seems absurd to me because Zappa was a consummate virtuoso in every way.

    A previously unreleased version of Theme from A Stationary Ark is to be released hopefully before the end of the year, as part of Heartbeat Anthology. It may not be quite what you expect, but if you are interested, I’d like to send you the audio file, nicely restored, not yet remastered, from a reel-to-reel tape recorded in Heartbeat Studio in 1975 (or so).

    Your articles on music and other matters of interest continue to enrich my inbox!

  2. barczablog says:

    Thank you John! My commentary feels like two dimensional oblique observation at best, whereas you saw it and continue to live it up close.

    So….I brought up Zappa because you & he seem to have followed parallel paths, as though it was something in the air or in the zeitgeist. Pardon me if it seemed I was suggesting imitation. I’m more interested in imagining how you put music down on paper or into a sequencer or mixer than to suggest similarities. You both gave quirky shapes to your melodies, making fascinating unison phenomena that ride above complex and/or atmospheric rhythmic backgrounds. and had distinctive chord changes one doesnt’ hear in commercial rock music. As with Debussy, I think it’s useful to look at the composition in terms of figure-ground relationships, as though it were a piece of visual art. But (as i think i said) Zappa seemed way too busy showing off his complex ideas (let alone his virtuosity), whereas yours were more elegant and intelligible. I find your music induces calm, not unlike new age music, and/or some of Philip Glass. I don’t think i was talking about influence, because if i were –speaking of the one person who i thought really was influenced– Glass may have been imitating you. But he also went to study with Ravi Shankar, and –as i said– the inter-cultural thing was in the air already with the Beatles in 1967, to name one obvious (but seminal) example.

    The Stationary Ark theme is a very different phenomenon, being wonderfully suitable for its subject and of course the medium. I find that tune seems so child-friendly, so gentle, that even though one only finds paraphrases on youtube from others (imitating you or transcribing you), they are all so gentle and accessible, we could be listening to something meant for Sesame Street. You wrote something wonderfully suitable for the material in the Durrell documentaries.

    And then there’s Savitri & Sam…. hoping to see / hear that produced one of these days.

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