Project Symbiosis

Various Artists - Project Symbiosis

One of electronic music history’s dependable certainties is its seemingly limitless capacity to reveal a treasure trove of enthusiasts, marginal figures and experimenters whose endeavours casually disrupt our carefully-curated notions of what happened when and by whom; these figures occupy a weird, amorphous hinterland bordered on the one side by the early works of John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Groupe de Recherches Musicales or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and on the other side by the later ‘standardisation’ of electronic music through synthesizer technology.

Malcolm Pointon (1940 – 2007) was one such individual. Pointon was a Cambridge lecturer and classically-trained pianist, whose importance and legacy were actually hiding in plain sight, albeit not his early, pioneering electronic experiments in the 1970s: Pointon was the subject of two moving documentaries in 1999 and 2007 that told of his suffering with Alzheimer’s, which would claim his life just after the second film aired, sixteen years after his diagnosis at the unthinkable age of just 51. Those films, in many ways, did much to raise the profile of a still incurable disease and the impact it has on families and its sufferers, as seen through the lens of Pointon, his wife, Barbara and his two sons.

Writer, researcher and electronic music historian Ian Helliwell has arguably done for Pointon’s musical influence what Paul Watson’s films did for his stolen final years. Through his Tone Generation broadcasts, documentary film Practical Electronica and Tape Leaders book, Helliwell has highlighted, with exceptional detail, the work of frequently overlooked hobbyists and enthusiasts, amateur instrument builders and electronics fanatics like Pointon; a group of unsung heroes whose dexterity with a soldering iron contributed to the tangle of patch cables, valves and transistors that is electronic music’s less-than-linear history. Helliwell curated some of Pointon’s recordings for Electromuse, released in 2016 by the Public Information label, with all proceeds going to the Alzheimer’s Society. These were thrilling recordings built from tapeloops and home-built bits of equipment, for the most part realised in Pointon’s shed.

Ian Helliwell

Electromuse was the title of Pointon’s column for Practical Electronics (PE), one of a number of hobbyist magazines that Helliwell began collecting in earnest as part of his research. “Malcolm penned his Electromuse columns for PE in the early to mid-70s,” explains Helliwell. “These tied in with two electronic construction projects – the PE Sound Synthesiser and the Minisonic – both of which were designed by Doug Shaw with input from Pointon.”

“The composition of ‘Symbiosis’ was an interesting venture. For once I had to think in terms of musical material which could be bent to accommodate anyone who wishes to recreate it, from the skilled musician to the enthusiastic amateur. The form of the piece is quite straightforward: it begins quietly, gets louder and quicker, settles in the middle, gets quicker again and returns again to nothingness; beginning, middle and end.”

– Malcolm Pointon ‘Symbiosis Intro’ from Electromuse (Public Information, 2016)

One of the pieces on the Electromuse LP was ‘Symbiosis’, a piece presented with a graphic score to accompany the Minisonic project that had been published in June 1975 in Practical Electronics. “To me, it seemed a fascinating proposition in a mainstream hobbyist magazine,” enthuses Helliwell. He’s correct: the idea of something so bold and artistically adventurous in a magazine you could pick up in any WH Smith on any suburban British high street does seem remarkable, but it was also surprisingly practical. The Minisonic itself was a stylus-operated device and hardly the easiest thing to play; it was intended to be built by enthusiasts whose focus was more on its construction and not necessarily for people like Pointon who could confidently follow a conventional score. Thus a graphic score – in this instance a relatively straightforward musical diagram as opposed to a highly conceptual set of instructions in the style of Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise – would enable non-musicians to conjure some sort of passable musical output from their jury-rigged Minisonic construction, specifically droning textures, oscillating sequences, heavy blocks of sound and wandering, unstructured melodies.

That universality caught Ian Helliwell’s attention. “On the one hand it all tied in so well with my research and interest in electronic music,” he says. “But being unable to read conventional music notation myself, it had an even greater resonance. It meant that properly scored piece of music was now feasible for me to follow and interpret – at least in theory.”

Using the carefully-preserved reel-to-reel recording of ‘Symbiosis’ that Barbara Pointon had kept within her late husband’s archive, Helliwell was able to compare the score against Pointon’s version, and he was drawn to how readily it matched the visual appeal of Pointon’s instructions. “Several years after first hearing Pointon’s original, I was contacted by electronics constructor and musician, Paul Williams,” recalls Helliwell. “He shared with me a recording of ‘Symbiosis’ he’d made in 1978, and it was most intriguing to compare the two interpretations. This was the catalyst I needed to inspire me to record my own version in 2017.”

Helliwell’s version of the score saw him deploying his own, self-built electronic instruments. “The Minisonic was intended to be played with a Stylophone-type pen making contact with a conductive strip,” he explains. “I’d previously built two Hellitron Stylus machines that operate along those lines. Although a rhythm is not in Pointon’s score, as such, I also used my Percussimate rhythm machine, initially to keep time. In the end I decided it sounded very effective in one section and it had to stay in the recording.”

After that, the germ of an idea formed in Helliwell’s mind: he would reach out to friends, likeminded soldering enthusiasts and other electronic musicians. “I simply approached people I was friends with, or I knew a little bit, and who I felt would be a good match for this kind of challenge,” recalls Halliwell. “I wanted musicians with an affinity with experimental sound, and who had an interest in older equipment and something of the history of electronic music. It was entirely up to them how they approached the graphic score and what gear they used.”

The results have been compiled on CD released by Helliwell earlier this year called Project Symbiosis, placing Malcolm Pointon’s original, Paul Williams’ piece and Helliwell’s own alongside new versions by the likes of Resonance FM’s Daniel Wilson, Apollo 440 co-founder James Gardner and Steve Duckworth, who used to build the types of projects documented in Practical Electronics back in the 1970s. Paris-based Peter Keene approached his version with such purity that he went so far as to build his own Minisonic using circuit diagrams sent to him by Helliwell.

Another contributor was 808 State’s Graham Massey. “I haven’t really used graphic scores before,” he says. “My first attempt at ‘Symbiosis’ was a bit loose and Ian had me redo it, which I was grateful for. The second attempt I was much more focussed, as I delved deeper into the score.”

If using a graphic score was a new thing for Massey, the culture of home-built electronics wasn’t. “I was in an electronics club at high school,” he recalls. “Also, my dad worked in electronic engineering, so he would build stuff like radiograms in the shed. He built me a fuzzbox with an audio oscillator in it and my first guitar amp was a repurposed PA system from the McVities biscuit factory with a long-wave radio built in, with a massive tannoy horn attached. Then there was a telephone rotary dialler gate device that we used on my electric violin, and he built The Astroban, an electric mono string guitar with telephone pickups at either end. That’s been on a lot of my records over the past thirty years.”

Massey was keen to approach his version of ‘Symbiosis’ with a reverential nod toward the equipment it was originally designed for. “I wanted to use a synth I have called the E&MM Spectrum,” he says. “Electronics & Music Maker was an electronic music magazine from the 70s, and this synth was a kit that you built monthly. I didn’t build it – someone gave it to me – but this seemed in keeping with the project, and it has some really nice modulation possibilities linked in stereo. I also used a little bit of the ARP 2600.”

(c) Graham Massey
Performing ‘Symbiosis’ at Graham Massey’s studio. EM&M Spectrum (lower left) and ARP 2600 (centre), with Pointon’s score for ‘Symbiosis’. (c) Graham Massey

Brighton sonic adventurer and one of Ian Helliwell’s Tone Generation collaborators Simon James opted not to use his trademark Buchla system for his version of ‘Symbiosis’. “I used a Roland System 100 on loan from my friend Pablo at Toy Drum studio, and I also used a Roland Space Echo RE-201. The combination worked really well. The System 100 is such a rich synthesizer.”

James had also never really worked extensively with graphic scores before. “I did a live Theremin performance with Ian and Sarah Angliss a long time ago where we had the graphic score running on a screen in front of us and we all played along,” he recalls. “I remember the combination of that screen and a mirror ball making me so dizzy that I nearly fell off the stage. I joke that I have a mirror ball ban on my rider since then. But while I haven’t done many graphic scores, I’ve done music inspired by architecture, which often means using the shape of a structure or building and representing that with sound elements. In The Shadow Of The Skylon or pieces from my Shenzhen / Shanghai – China release are good examples of this.”

Roland System 100 (c) Simon James
Roland System 100 (c) Simon James

The idea of sitting through ten versions of the same piece might seem a little daunting. The reality is that each of these interpretations are, in their own way, improvisations based on visual cues rather than the generally faithful playing you’d hear with multiple versions of a classical piece. Pointon’s score even includes an instruction to improvise – slowly – around a specific cluster of notes, a process that would be familiar to him from being an accomplished jazz pianist, itself a relatively playful concept within a genre of music that has a tendency to lean toward rigid, grid-like forward motion. “It’s fascinating to hear all the versions,” reflects Graham Massey. “To me it feels like a road map seen through different lenses.”

“Overall, I wanted to reflect something of the analogue DIY sensibility of yesteryear, but mixed with a contemporary approach,” concludes Ian Helliwell. “Even though ‘Symbiosis’ is 45 years old, I felt that it still has a modern relevance, and could even be used in schools nowadays to introduce pupils to electronic sounds and ways of putting them together.”

Project Symbiosis was released 6 January by Helliwell Industries in a limited edition of 100 CD copies, incuding comprehensive liner notes and a reproduction of Malcolm Pointon’s score. Buy Project Symbiosis through Bandcamp.

Ian Helliwell’s website, containing comprehensive details of his various projects and Analogue Sound Workshops in Brighton can be found here.

Donate to the Alzheimer’s Society here.

Words: Mat Smith.

With sincere thanks to Dave Clarkson and also to Simon James for suggesting this feature.

(c) 2020 Further.

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