Often a person working outside the limelight of notoriety creates something influential. Composer, educator, and author Allen Strange (1943-2008), who died on February 20 at the age of 64 after a bout with cancer, was one such person.
Strange's innocently titled book Electronic Music: Systems, Techniques, and Controls (Wm. C. Brown Co., 1972) was published at a time when sophisticated electronic music-making instruments were finally becoming affordable to everyday musicians. It not only introduced in layman's terms the components and techniques used in creating and processing sound, but, just as importantly, suggested the vast possibilities that electronic instruments offered. For example, his “Miscellaneous Equipment” chapter included a description of a multihead tape-loop board, while his “Live Electronic Music” (“Performance Electronics” and “Scores for Analysis and Performance” in later editions) chapter provided installation and patching diagrams from actual compositions that combined photocells, contact mics, tape decks, and synth modules. The possibilities seemed endless, and they were as exciting then as circuit bending and game-controller hacking is to many musicians today.
Although Strange noted that he would not “attempt an aesthetic appreciation of electronic music” in his book, it was clear to many readers that his approach had West Coast leanings, exemplified by the instruments created by Donald Buchla, which eschewed conventional keyboards as controllers and went beyond the basic VCO-VCF-VCA paradigm of sound building.
In one chapter, he said, “In the early days of electronic music, composers were limited to very basic classical techniques that were quite time consuming, and often the end results did not justify the means involved. Because of limited techniques, and in part due to interest in serial and pointillistic techniques, the composer was still quite concerned with conventional composition processes, and the nature of the sounds were many times of a secondary concern.” Strange advocated a holistic approach to electronic music that wasn't precious or created by men in lab coats — a direction that went against the dominant paradigm of serious music in the late '60s and early '70s.
In fact, Strange's own prolific output often had a refreshing element of humor and playfulness. He was just as likely to offer up an homage to Johnny Cash or Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys as he was to Bach. (One of his last works, Brandy, was based on the Brandenburg Concertos.)
Strange was a founding member of the Electric Weasel Ensemble with Buchla, utilizing several Music Easels in live performance. He even wrote the instrument's dense but intriguing manual, Programming and Meta-Programming the Electro-Organism. With his wife, violinist Patricia Strange, he cofounded the live-electronics quartet Biome, which used the band members' biorhythms to control EMS Synthi AKS synthesizers. Together they authored The Contemporary Violin: Extended Performance Techniques (Scarecrow Press, 2001), designed to shake up string players in much the same way that Electronic Music did composers. Beyond the influence of his books, Strange inspired generations of musicians while on the faculty of San Jose State University for 32 years.
Throughout his life, Strange had an independent, maverick spirit that was evident in his work. “There's a quote in his obituary that, when asked as a child what he wanted to be when he grew up, he answered, ‘A criminal,’” Patricia Strange recalls. “His music is very much that of being the outlaw, of doing something totally different.”
Although I never met Allen Strange, I've felt his influence throughout my career and have met many others who feel the same way. My hope is that his legacy will continue to inspire artists to take chances, to go beyond the conventional, and to learn all there is to know about the music technology we work with.