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

05.31.17 11 months ago

Bart Schoales

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.

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