Synth Pioneer John Mills-Cockell Of Syrinx On The Rise And Impact Of Electronic Music

I was first introduced to Syrinx via the song “Hollywood Dream Trip.” A few notes in, and I was instantly transported by the hypnotic Satie-like melody and pastoral thoughts the piece brought to mind. Eager to hear more, I dove deep into the band’s hybrid sound — an unclassifiable blend of world music, free jazz and chamber music and marked by prominent electronic elements. Further research led me into the broader work of Canadian composer John Mills-Cockell, the mastermind behind the project, whose early sonic adventures are currently the focus of the JMC Retrospective.

Between 1968 and 1972, Mills-Cockell found himself involved in two of the most disruptive and compelling projects to emerge from the electronic music world at the time, and the legacy of both still resonates today. Within the multimedia collective Intersystems, Mills-Cockell was the first to use a Moog synthesizer in a live setting, accompanying the creations of installation artist Michael Hayden, poet Blake Parker and architectural designer Dik Zander. Intersystems was shortly followed by Syrinx, which started as a solo project and unfolded into a masterfully melodic trio. Syrinx gained high popularity, particularly in Canada, and the band was invited to open for Miles Davis on the Bitches Brew tour, as well as play bills with Ravi Shankar.

Mills-Cockell’s approach to the fusion of the electronic and acoustic worlds disrupted the fad of integrating electronic elements to the rock and pop sounds that was en vogue in the ’60s and ’70s. Working with the lyrical and poetic textures allowed by his Moog modular synthesizer IIP, he organically worked electronic and acoustic elements together into a majestic, timeless sound. Last year, the esteemed Brooklyn-based record label RVNG Intl. released Tumblers From The Vault, a collection of Syrinx’ entire recorded legacy back in October, with the aim to introduce Syrinx to new audiences and reinforce their pioneering role in inventive expressions of sound.

Earlier this month, I sat down with John in Durham, North Carolina where he participated in a couple panel discussions and performed with the new configuration of Syrinx as part of this year’s Moogfest programming. It was an opportunity to look back on the story behind this short-lived yet highly influential project, Syrinx, and learn more about John’s process in revisiting the material over four decades past its initial release. Read our conversation below.

Last year, RVNG released the whole body of work that you put out with Syrinx about forty years ago. I’m curious to know what the process behind the re-release has been. Did it seem that now, particularly, was the right time to do it?

Doug Pringle — the original sax player from Syrinx — and I, at various times over the last twenty years have tried to put together and reissue the project. Really, it took the right combination of personalities and elements for it to happen. I heard Matt from RVNG say to someone the other day: ‘It was seven years ago that I first got in touch with John, and he basically just told me to jump in the lake, that he wasn’t interested.’ So that’s where it began. I get emails all the time saying ‘Syrinx changed my life.’ Really? Thank goodness, right, that there are people out there who are listening. I never thought much of what we were doing, I have to say. For me, that’s what we did and that was that.

Right. You were following your own path as an artist, and didn’t think twice about it.

I didn’t think there was anything special about what we were doing at all. Every few months Matt would send me an email, and I would ignore it. I’ve been involved with theater projects, film projects, and I was always busy. Then, about three or four years ago, I was -– and I still am –- working on an opera that I had initiated probably eight years ago now called Savitri And Sam. It’s a story that happened in Northern B.C. and had been in the news, about a father who killed his daughter. They were Indian South Asian immigrants from Punjabi background. They were living in Kitimat, way up in Northern BC, which is a strongly First Nations part of the country. The girl falls in love with a Haisla boy in high school, they have to run away, and it ends up with the 17-year-old girl dead and the father’s actually now in jail. I based my opera on the dynamics of the different ethnic backgrounds and just the murder itself. What leads a father to do that?

In the midst of it, I called up William Blakeney, who remasters music for Musicworks Magazine in Canada. I had all the music, but I knew it could sound better than it did in terms of the quality of the sound.

He said, ‘Why don’t you come to Toronto?’ In the course of doing that, he got this idea that we should also do a JMC retrospective. He said ‘Bring all your stuff that you’ve got in storage here into the studio. We’ll see what’s there.’ And I kept finding things I didn’t know I had. First of all, we did the Intersystems recordings, which is a three LP set. We got in touch with Alga Marghen Records in Milan, Italy and they issued this amazing 132-pages book that goes with the three records. Then, the obvious next step was Syrinx. Just as we were getting to that point, we get another note from Matt and Bill goes, ‘Look John, this is going to go worldwide. This is a very respected label. Get real.’ And I did. They’ve done an amazing job getting the word out. I mean, look at the responses here, the things that I’ve done, people are interested in it. That’s working with Matt, he’s got this ineffable quality of knowing what he likes and why.

Definitely. I think it comes from the way he dedicates his time to his passions. His work with RVNG is really pure and earnest. A couple of days ago you were part of a conversation with Animal Collective here at Moogfest. When you started making music, you were a pioneer in the synth world. With Intersystems, you were the first to use a modular synth in a live music performance, and that was in 1968. Nowadays, the electronic element is a given in almost any musician’s studio and live setup. How do you feel about that?

It’s actually overwhelming, I don’t feel connected to it that much. Now everything is electronic, whether because it’s processed or it’s simply in digital media. It’s so total and I’m astonished at the way that personal computers, electronic devices have completely transformed our lives in ways that we don’t understand. Back then I was just doing what I was interested in doing. I didn’t feel it was anything special, it was just me. I was a maverick and there was nothing cool about it.

The sound of Syrinx is particularly hard to categorize. I am curious to hear more about your approach to composition. The Syrinx records are a perfectly-balanced blend of organic analog elements –- in particular Alan’s percussions -– paired with layers of electronic sounds. I was wondering how much of what we can hear in the final tracks was already written or mapped out prior to recording, or if any, if not most of it, was the result of improv sessions?

After Intersystems was done, I moved out to the West Coast for a while. Alan happened to be there as well at that point. We were good friends and often got together. I would go into the studio and Alan would just show up and we’d play. There were compositions, but the form of them was much more organically improvised. Alan and I just had fun doing that. Often we had a friend of ours, Riccardo –- a dancer and choreographer with the Toronto Dance Theater –- who would show up at the studio and dance as we were playing. It was beautiful. Then I came back to Toronto and Alan stayed there. The first day that I got back, I was offered a job at this restaurant by the University Of Toronto. I set up there and started playing that night. Somehow Doug Pringle came in and said, ‘Do you mind if I sit in with you? I’ve got my sax here.’ He did, and it kept happening every night. Gradually we put a setlist together. Really, it all just happened spontaneously, it was just the right combination. [Both the band and the music], so much of it was luck.

When I listen to the music of Syrinx, each piece is its own contained dream-like world. Beyond the conceptual titles that you gave to the compositions, I was wondering if you also associated them with specific visuals or narratives.

I think the titles convey that, like “Appaloosa – Pegasus” for example, it is a dream image, and I think a lot of them are. “Field Hymn” comes from a really specific situation: I was working at the National Arts Center in Ottawa on the first play I had ever been asked to do music for, and me and this woman were tented in a farm near Ottawa. We were in a field, and it was beautiful. I actually composed the piece there using my recorder. That’s why the tune is so simple, it’s just pure diatonic or whatever recorders are tuned to. “Melina’s Torch” is the same, it came from a play called Party Day that was done in Ottawa. The song is dedicated to Melina Mercouri, the Greek actress, because she was a character in the play. That song has been with me ever since. It’s just got this very kind of Greek flavor to it, in the melody. The kind of freedom of the rhythm of it… I love playing it and every time it comes out really different.

You mentioned the upcoming release of the rest of the JMC Retrospective, which is comprised of the material from the Heartbeat years, as well as the Savitri And Sam opera. It seems that you have your hands on a lot of projects. What is the next thing that we can expect to hear from you?

I most definitely want to continue with the live presentation of Syrinx. William is a superb saxophonist, I want to continue working with him, same with Rick who is an amazing percussionist. I’m really happy with the new configuration. I’ve also got a three day video shoot that I’m doing in Victoria soon. It’ll be just a live recording in context with one or two other artists that I want to work with. And of course, the opera that I mentioned as well as the one that I’m working on with my friend, [the French-speaking novelist France Ducasse], called Kid Catastrophe. I’m actually going to visit her tomorrow in Québec City.

It’s a lot of projects!

I’ve never had so much to do before. I’ve always been busy, but now I’ll really have to pick and choose.

In a way you’re going back to your initial endeavors. You worked a lot by yourself for years, and now you’re back into the collaborative world.

Certainly and I’m very excited about it. But you have to, in order to do that you need to, spend time by yourself, and make sure that there’s water in the well, as it were.

Tumblers From the Vault is a collection of Syrinx’s two albums, 1970’s Syrinx and 1971’s Long Lost Relatives, along with unreleased material. It is available via RVNG Intl on 2CD, 3LP and digital formats. For more information on John Mills-Cockell and the JMC Retrospective go here.

Thank you to John and his partner Jean for their time and kindness, and Matt Werth and Phil Tortoroli at RVNG Intl. for facilitating this interview on a busy Moogfest schedule.