This was written in response to a couple of requests I received via electronic mail. It describes some of the background of the Flee Past's Ape Elf album released on Twin/Tone around 1979.
I went to Hampshire College in 1972. I was not a musician (played some folk guitar), but I was interested in all kinds of music and when I found out there was an electronic music studio I signed up for the electronic music class. The first year I mostly did electronic stuff, although it was different from other work that was going on there at the time in that I did most of the composition at the editing block or the mixing board rather than on the synthesizer (an ARP 2500). Progress towards graduation at Hampshire is driven by a series of projects called "division exams." A 15 minute piece I did that year, called Asafoetida, served as my Division One exam in Humanities and Arts. ( Byron Coley has a copy of that and has been making noises for a while about putting out an album or CD of that and some other stuff that was done at Hampshire in the early 70s, but I wouldn't hold my breath.) The class was taught by Randall McClellan, but I did most of my work with the assistant, John Kilgore and my advisor, Jim McElwaine. (John worked at Apostolic studios in the late 1960's when the Mothers were recording there and appears on the cover of Lumpy Gravy as "all night John.")
In those days I was probably most influenced by Frank Zappa's collage stuff on Uncle Meat. Revolution #9 was the first tape piece I ever heard so I am sure it affected me. I also particularly liked Poeme Electronique by Varese and other older electronic stuff of that sort. I was also affected by the covers of the Mothers albums - both the references and the artwork by Cal Shenkel. Probably my favorite album in those years was Lick My Decals Off, Baby. Oh, and of course I was influenced by stuff William Burroughs wrote about cut ups. (I sent a copy of FPAE to Burroughs and got a letter back indicating that he liked it. I have always regretted that I never followed up on that.)
One day in the Second year I came into the studio and found a big pile of 1/4 inch tape sitting in the middle of the table with a note on it from Kilgore that said, "Robbie - Knock yourself out." It was a recording of some kind of natural history TV show. A friend of mine and I chopped it up into tape loops that eventually became "Coarse Fish." I no longer remember the order of this stuff, not that it matters. The second thing I worked on was Dime Operation, which generally got a pretty good response because it is pretty goofy. Around the same time I did a bunch of electronic drone stuff that was pretty run of the mill and I don't think I kept any of it. With one exception. I had a really long feedback loop running around the studio. I had it going through a couple of Scully decks with some of the heads on playback feeding back into other record heads. It was supported by a bunch of mike stands around the room. At some point the tape pulled over one of the stands, but it didn't fall to the floor, it just stretched the tape. The result was the last cut on FPAE - The Persistence Of Fred MacMurray. At the time it was more commonly referred to as the "garbage horns."
The following year I did most of the rest of the stuff that wound up on FPAE. The one that took the longest to do and the most work was Mondo Stupid. A bunch of people, but mostly my roommate Chris Osgood (later in the Minneapolis group the Suicide Commandos) recorded ourselves saying dopey things and then played those tapes backwards and tried to imitate what that sounded like. Then we recorded our imitations and played that backwards. I don't know that the result is particularly enjoyable to listen to but I put a lot of effort into getting the rhythmic effect I was after. The back of the tape was pretty much solid white with splicing tape. My favorite thing I did that year appears on the record as "Sput" but it never really had a title. In contrast to Mondo Stupid, which took months, it only took a couple of hours one afternoon.
After I graduated I lived with my parents in NYC for a while and recorded "Shear Madness" and "Hold Everything" on a cheap Akai home deck. That was sometime around 1976 or 1977. Then I stopped making sound collages for about a decade. Sometime around 1977 or 1978 The Suicide Commandos made two singles so I asked Chris what it would cost for me to make a single. Chris helped me get 500 copies of Dime Operation backed by Trapped Heir Suite and Sput pressed. When the package arrived my father told the delivery man that he must have the wrong address. I am glad I was home.
I have always liked the way the Orchid stuff sounds when played back on really cheap cassette recorders. I think this is because so much of it is voice taken from radio and television and cheap tape recorders act as compressors that accentuate exactly the right range for that kind of material. At any rate I gave a copy of the tape to Mark Mothersbaugh when Devo played at Max's Kansas City shortly after they put out their first single. I gave a copy to Tom Herman of Pere Ubu, probably at CBGB. (Hard to remember. I saw the Ubu's a lot when they toured with the Commandos. Amd my memory of the decade could be clearer. I may have given it to David Thomas. Who knows.) Mark told me that he used to play the tape over the PA before Devo performed at concerts in Europe. I probably gave it to other people. I don't remember. Byron gave a copy of the single to Captain Beefheart when he interviewed him for New York Rocker. I never heard whether he liked it or not. BNC also gave him a copy of Good Morning Mr Walker by Joseph Spence. I never heard whether he liked that or not, either. He said I had the right kind of eyes for a person who would make music that he would like. I was flattered. Somehow or other some of my loops wound up under a drone at the beginning of the second track (maybe the first track?) of Mesh and Lace by Modern English.
In the late seventies Chris was working with Paul Stark who was one of the founders of Twin/Tone records. He suggested doing an album of my stuff. They did it. Initially they said they were pressing 1000 copies. I had a conversation with Peter Jesperson of Twin/Tone a few years later that led me to believe that they may have made more than that, but it can't have been many. The Twin/Tone website says 750.
Where the names came from: I was visting Jim McElwaine at his house over by UMass, and a friend of his, Lew Spratlan , who was a professor of music at Amherst came over for the evening. Lew and Jim knew each other, I believe, from the Yale school of music where Jim got his masters degree. At any rate we were hanging out listening to the tapes when Lew turned to Jim and said, "You know? We should apply to Yale under an assumed name, say 'Orchid Spangiafora' and send these tapes as the example of the applicant's composition work. We can each write recommendations and have X and Y write them also. What do you think?" I didn't know what he was talking about. Turned out he was joking with Jim. Basically the four people he was referring to (himself, Jim, and X and Y who I no longer remember) all had graduated from Yale Music and gone on to get reasonably prestigious jobs at in various music departments at other schools. The guy who would review the application was a very straight classical musician who was a friend of theirs and they knew that he would have no idea what to make of the "Orchid" tapes. But they also knew that he couldn't turn down the recommendations of these four alumni. At any rate, as far as I know, "Orchid Spangiafora" was just a name that Lew pulled out of the air while making this joke, but Jim and I started using it when talking about the tapes and it stuck, so I used it for the album. Conveniently, it doesn't appear to be a real name, so searching for Spangiafora on the web turns up a lot of relevant hits.
Also, a large group of us were into palindromes at the time. (May a moody baby doom a yam.) Jim and some other people came up with the idea of a palindromic novel which they called Flee Past's Ape Elf. Obviously it was never written. There was a story. It involved apple crisps, an ape, black velour and a subway. Anyway, that is where I got the title. The line in the middle of Radios Silent "sometimes the ape did not know what to do" comes from Jim outlining the story line for the palindromic novel.
Some more trivia. They guy at the top of the stairs on the front of the record is me, and the guy running down the street is Byron Coley. (A rock writer these days. You can hear him tormenting Ed Benfey in Trapped Heir Suite and saying "Normal? Phone phone phone" in Flee Past's Ape Elf. Ed founded a motorcyle club on Long Island. I lost track of him ages ago.) I am also in the TV set in the collage on the back cover along with Chris Osgood.
I stopped doing anything music related. I learned to program and got jobs as a COBOL and PL/I programmer for the City of New York Medical Assistance program, a Unix system administrator and C programmer for Yale's computer science facility, a similar job for the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Penn, and then several jobs in the computer industry following that. When I was working at Penn I put together Radios Silent on the same home Akai deck I had used ten years earlier (the technical details are in the Sonic Circuits liner notes.) I have usually said that this was around 1989. Thinking about it more carefully I realize that I was still living on Butler Avenue in Center City, Philadelphia, so it must have been in 1987 or 1988. I was not very happy and was drinking pretty heavily when I made that tape. In 1997 a friend forwarded me an announcement that the American Composers Forum was looking for material for Sonic Circuits V. I sent in a tape of Radios Silent and it was accepted. Strangely enough it was mastered by Paul Stark, the same guy who produced FPAE. More recently a 50 second piece appeared on Fifty/Fifty published by Some Assembly Required
Since then I have fooled around with sampling using Cool Edit
on a run of the mill PC. (In the 21st Century I now use Sound Studio
on a Macintosh, but what's the diff, Ex?) I have four or five new pieces, but
I don't know that I consider them finished or that they will
ever be released. (Actually, as of this writing I have no idea what
I was referring to. A bunch of stuff was sold through
in around 2000, and all of that has found its way onto the web
in the usual places. FPAE can be purchased via iTunes or Twin/Tone
or stolen from somewhere else with very little effort...)
Note: this page was originally written sometime back in the 1990s. I stumbled across the article in Downbeat in January 2011 and decided to at least try to clean up some of the broken links since the article contains this URL. A lot of the original images are gone - lost with the original version of the site hosted at an ISP in Philadelphia when I moved to the west coast. While I was in here I added a few lines to bring things up to date, but I mostly left things alone.
That's all for now. Maybe more later.