David Sweet's Electronic Music Research Laboratories (Review/Interview)

by Jerry Kranitz

From Aural Innovations #4 (October 1998)

Though his recordings have yet to see a proper release, keyboard maestro David Sweet has been active in the New York area for many years playing electronic space music. With influences like Kitaro, Kraftwerk, Tomita, Yanni, and other electronic musicians, Sweet's music has a New Age feel, but is far more adventurous than that label implies. Melodically these influences are apparent, but Sweet incorporates enough electronic mind expansion and even a bit of outright freakiness that would appeal to readers of this magazine.

"Conceptually the music supports the U.S. space program", David says. For ten years David has played periodically, often at the Link Planetarium in Binghamton, NY. A video of one of David's planetarium performances shows banks of keyboards, lights, smoke, and the beauty of the planetarium, a scene that really sparked my interest in his music. To date Sweet has released two cassettes of his music: "Pioneer 7" from 1989, and "Musik Elektronen" from 1997. With a focus on simple, but gorgeous melodies, the music is soundscape spacey and even a bit like Pink Floyd at times.

But while I found the music immediately enjoyable it was the planetarium performance video that grabbed me as the ideal way to "experience" David's music. Lush keyboard orchestrations and beautiful melodies under the stars. An impressive footnote to Sweets history as a musician is that in 1980 he lost four fingers on his right hand due to an industrial accident, and a television news feature on David shows what appears to be effortless playing with the same hand.

Sweet is currently trying to find a means by which he can release and distribute his music on CD. Aural Innovations fired off some questions to the musician and here are his responses:

AI: Tell me about Electronic Music Research Laboratories. Is it a vehicle for the music of David Sweet or is it a larger project involving others?

DS: Electronic Music Research Laboratories was created to, at first, be the vehicle for my music, but has been used to produce music and services for other people's projects as well. These have been very simple and small projects, as my resources are somewhat limited. Mostly music for video presentations. It's still a one-man operation.

AI: You quote influences like Kitaro, Kraftwerk, and Yanni. Those artists, and your music itself, communicates to me a "more than New Age" style that is cosmic, imaginative, and uplifting. That is, melodically your songs grabbed me while simultaneously producing enough more cosmic sound manipulations to appeal to the space/psych fan in me.

DS: The aforementioned artists are my mentors, so to speak. I learned a lot from them and still do. I extrapolated techniques as well as how to construct musical arrangements. I take the best of what they did, merge it with my own creative ideas, and then hopefully my creations will reflect some of what they taught me.

A lot of "space" or "planetarium" music is designed as a mundane background hue to accent whatever the speaker is talking about. A lot of it is not for "show", or to be featured. My music IS designed to be featured, or as a compliment to whatever video presentation might be accompanying it. Some have suggested that certain selections might go good with training films or corporate presentations. I'll buy that, but the music CAN stand on it's own. I'll always try to incorporate as much analog sound as I can... It's just warmer. Digital gives structure, but sweeping an analog filter just sounds kewl!

I'll often find myself listening to older analog artists like Wendy Carlos or Larry Fast (Synergy) just to keep in touch with older technology. The "New Age" label is ok for those out there who need it to qualify my music, but I tend to refer to it as hard core Electronic. I try to make it as interesting as I can, but keep it simple.

AI: Tell me about your musical background. Did you start in bands and gravitate toward solo electronic performance?

DS: Actually the other way around. I've always been a solo artist, but as word of my abilities got around, I was asked from time to time to join a band here and there. My resources are somewhat limited, so usually I had to decline, as a keyboard rig is expensive to build and maintain. Once I did, though, I had a great time performing with other musicians. I did a stint in a band called "Punch Drunk Monkeys", a local band from Binghamton NY which is a hard-core punk/circus side-show oriented band featuring an angry clown. Quite a departure from electronic, but a fun and learning experience. I have only a high school music background... on trumpet, ironically. Reading music is just about impossible, and all of my compositions are free-form/improv in nature. Multitrack tape is my canvas, and musical structure is mostly formed from what's already laid down. It's quite simple, really!

AI: According to the newscast, after your accident the keyboard became part of your physical therapy. In what way did incorporating the keyboards into your recovery influence your music?

DS: As one might imagine, some dark works preceded the current crop of songs, many of which were sent to an early grave. Playing with only 1 fingers on one hand is quite a challenge. But no more challenging as teaching yourself to play music, I suppose. As I grew more proficient and confident, so did the quality of music. Sequencers are used, but only as source of repetitive riffs, and not as a playback medium. All works are recorded direct to tape/memory with no sequencer step entry programming of tracks. It's all in real time, folks. It tends to keep it simple.

AI: You said "Pioneer 7" was a "studio effort that went bust when a local indie record company went under". Were you expecting an album/CD release? Why so much time between "Pioneer 7" and "Musik Electronen"?

DS: Yes, "Pioneer 7" was to be an independent label release. A local record company went under just as my "album" (Pioneer 7) was finished. There was a speculation agreement with a small studio that did the work. So I ended up with a really good demo. I'm shopping it as well as a self-produced/recorded album around now (or will be as soon as I can get the CD master copied..$$$) and hopefully an indie or major label will want to work with me. An independent label in Greene, NY, Random Bullet Records, is currently helping with the arduous job of PR. As for the time lapse, again it's always money or the space to set up a studio. And if you're producing an independent release from your living room, time sharing space with housemates is at a premium, as well as is money for supplies. Such is the life of the independent artist...

AI: After seeing your video I found it hard to listen to your music without imagining myself in a planetarium. How important to the musical experience do you think performing live with the accompanying show is?

DS: A planetarium environment is nice, because it's relaxed, and it's very mellow and improvisation can go off on a long tangent, and it's ok to do that. But it's DARK! It's difficult to see the keys and controls. And stray light is not welcome in a planetarium. So the live parts have to be simplified a bit with perhaps one keyboard and voice presets well defined. Maybe next time I'll perform with night vision goggles on! Also, the engineers frown on a lot of intense low notes, that seem to shake the plaster from the ceiling... definitely NOT supposed to be part of the planetarium show! I tend to like a lot sub-harmonics. And the acoustics in a hemisphere are MURDER! You can whisper something, and 20 feet away, someone can hear you as if you're standing an inch from them. Then again, it can sound just plain terrible as you have to deal with phase canceling, standing waves and harmonic distortions, and the list goes on. A carefully planned PA goes a long way here. Careful planning can make a potentially disastrous show go quite well. But I digress. As for the visual atmosphere, it can be quite influential. Planetarium music is different than that of the other stuff that I do. If I'm in a mellow, drifting mood, which a planetarium environment can help put me in, I can perform in that medium quite comfortably. It's a fun show to do.

AI: How often to you get to perform live?

DS: Not very often. Not at all (my stuff) in the last 3 years. With no transport, monitor rig, lighting or the technicians to help me (cheaply!), I don't play live very much. There are not many venues in my area that will support this kind of music. We have to change that somehow. Future shows I hope will be more of a multimedia presentation, including a decent laser light show, large screen media, with lots smoke and mirrors as they say. That's where more of that green stuff (money) comes in I guess! I want the show to be "grand", something that demands and keeps your attention.

AI: I think in the newscast you mentioned trying to work with the NASA arts program. Anything ever some of that?

DS: Ever since the re-structuring of NASA, the art programme I think has been left in perpetual orbit-hold. However, some of my musical influence has to given to NASA animations... Voyager fly-by's, radar mapped imaging, etc.

AI: Are you a sci fi fan? If so, how does it influence your music?

DS: Yup! A lot of the low-tech sound effects might have subtly found their way into the mix. I have to admit that I'm a part-time Trekker, but a lot of influence comes from classics. Terminator, Silent Running, Andromeda Strain, The Starlost (oh boy!), Space 1999, and the like. But mostly, it's science facts that influence me the most. Cutting edge technology is very exciting, and influential.

AI: Any current/future news you'd like to share?

DS: My web site will hopefully be featuring Real Audio soon, so everyone can hear a couple of complete tracks. As for now, only .WAV snippets are available. Cassettes are still available direct from me, so curiosity seekers come hither!

For more information you can visit David Sweet's web site at: http://www.e-musiclabs.com. Since we profiled David in 1998, CD's are now available. And the news as of July 2004 is that Pioneer 7 will soon be reissued, newly remastered, by Random Bullet Records. You can also hear David's music at his site at his IUMA web site at: http://artists3.iuma.com/IUMA/Bands/David_Sweet.

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