Musician Kevin Braheny was in high school when he realized that his love for creating music also had a significant impact on others: The public performance of his first original orchestral composition had brought tears to the eyes of the audience. He pursued formal training at a Chicago music college where he was taught to learn and play every string, wind, and brass instrument available. But despite the broad tonal palette of those common instruments, his mind was filled with musical sounds beyond those tones, and he was driven to find a way to produce them.
When Berklee College of Music would not transfer his music school academic credits, he opted instead for warmer climes and moved to L.A. Just before relocating, Braheny seized an opportunity to take a local college course in basic electrical theory – Ohm’s law, circuits and capacitors – knowledge that would soon be put to good use. Complementing his interest in the emerging field of electronics and inspired by the otherworldly Switched On Bach recordings, Braheny had also begun to experiment with modulating frequencies into complex musical tones with an early Electro-Comp synthesizer.
Once in L.A., he hooked up with electronics genius Malcolm Cecil, one of Stevie Wonder’s producers and engineers, with whom Braheny shared an interest in music synthesizers. Cecil owned a gigantic, three-section synth called TONTO and needed an assistant to help him with it and several other projects. Braheny jumped at the opportunity and ended up learning engineering during recording sessions with top artists such as The Isley Brothers by “asking as many questions as I could without becoming a nuisance.” He also began writing soundtracks for short Disney educational films as well as playing keyboards with various jazz groups around town. But it was when Cecil introduced him to electronics innovators Serge Tcherepnin (creator of the Serge Modular) and Rex Probe (who currently manufactures the Mighty Serge) that Braheny’s real synthesizer passion was ignited.
Today, Braheny is not only considered one of the pioneers of early commercial synthesizer technology, but is also known as an innovator of synthesized music and one of the creators of the genre known as “space music.” He composed, played, and engineered the music for solo albums such as The Way Home, Secret Rooms and Rain, collaborations Western Spaces and Desert Solitaire, and soundtrack Galaxies.
SuperConsciousness Magazine spoke with Kevin Braheny Fortune about the early years when synthesizers were just emerging as bona fide and accepted musical instruments, and his “space music” compositions and recordings.
SC: Serge Tcherepnin is considered one of the great geniuses behind the early modular synthesizers of the early 1970’s. What was it like working with him?
KB: Serge was great at explaining things. As I watched what he was doing with circuitry, it started to make more and more sense to me. When I began working for Serge, I helped him to build his early systems and then started prototyping things for him, something I had also been doing for Malcolm [Cecil].
Back in those days, oscillators, [tone producers], especially the Moog oscillators, were temperature dependent, not very stable and didn’t stay in tune. What would happen is that at a gig someplace, you’d tune everything up behind the curtain, the curtain would open and then when all the hot lights would start beating down on the instruments, the synthesizer would wander out of tune. It was frustrating. Malcolm wanted a stable oscillator so Serge built the “New Timbral Oscillator” (NTO), originally for Malcolm, which I prototyped.
SC: What did prototyping Serge’s synthesizer entail?
KB: Serge designed the circuits, came up with a schematic, and then handed it to me and said, “Build this.” Working off that schematic, I took all the resistors and capacitors and lined them up on a circuit board. Prototyping, though, is different than doing production. When prototyping, you want to be able to access certain important test points or substitute different parts and that has to be easy to do.
It was great because I was in the middle – both learning how Malcolm wanted it to work and how Serge wanted it built. Malcolm was doing some design mostly having to do with trying to develop a polyphonic keyboard so that more than one note could be played at the same time. Serge was exploring all the different kinds of modules – tone producers, tone shapers, plus the technical things having to do with time – all the various little things that go into making sound.
When people think of synthesizers these days, they generally think of them as just another keyboard instrument. But back then, I thought of them as an unlimited tonal palette.
SC: Back then, synthesizers didn’t usually interface with a keyboard.
KB: Digital technology and MIDI would eventually become the standards for electronic music, but when I started with synthesizers, they barely had keyboards with them.
Those early synthesizers created by Serge and others were all dials and patch chords and the trick became how to control them.
I used to do whole concerts and create sounds from scratch while performing – modulating this and this to get that. I could hold a sound in my mind and my hands would find what I needed to do to create that sound. It was like both hemispheres of my brain were really cooking to maintain that connection to the creative flow while patching chords and twiddling knobs.
SC: When prototyping all this new technology, how did you conceive of using it for your own music compositions?
KB: In music school,
I wanted to get my hands on the technology to create those kinds of sounds – my own sounds – and get beyond the tonalities of other instruments. I was hearing a palette of unlimited possibility and my focus was to create music with that palette.
Having built my synthesizer, I knew what all the knobs and switches did and I knew there were seemingly limitless combinations of things I could do to create sounds. What started to form for me was kind of a language between that technology and the sonic vision that I was holding or tapping into and I no longer had to intellectually think about which knobs would do what.
Over time, my connection with the technology extended into other areas of my life. For instance, I would hear sounds in nature and then would immediately see the “patch” – the circuit that would generate that on the synthesizer.
SC: How did you experiment and develop that intuitive relationship with sound?
KB: I used to play live music for Emilie Conrad’s Continuum Movement classes. Back then, she was exploring how the body works through movement and micro-movement and a lot of her focus was on healing. I had just built my synthesizer and brought it to this beautiful room with four speakers, one in each corner.
I would talk to Emilie before class, and she would explain what she was working on, then I would start patching the synthesizer with the sounds that would come to me. There would come a point when the class would stop and Emily would speak a little bit, then everyone would clear off the floor and Emily would move into a demonstration with a distinct focus on the consciousness of that movement. She would set the energetic tone and then have the class move into that energy.
Meanwhile, I’m playing music on the synthesizer and sometimes on my soprano saxophone. At times, I would even walk through the room and play those sounds very close to people’s bodies. [quote]Because I’ve always been able to see energy fields – lines of energy and colors and shapes around people – I would watch what would happen with certain sounds or tones or intervals. It was an incredible laboratory because while I’m there creating this sonic support for what’s going on, I’m also looking at how it affected the different groups of people.[quote] I would pay attention to how the energy field in the room would change as well as what I was experiencing in my own body. Then maybe I’d turn a knob to make another sound. I did that for about four years a couple of times a week.
I’m very grateful for the learning from those experiences. Those weekly “live” performances helped me to develop a richer palette in sound and music as well as the emotional dynamics of the experience of sound. It also gave me a window into its timelessness because of the kinds of sound and the depth to which I could go into them.
SC: You are also known for your skill with the electronic wind instrument. Can you explain a little about that instrument?
KB: I helped the designer, Steiner, to prototype and build that instrument also. It’s played by blowing air through a tube, which then triggers the electronic key’s responses. The instrument can be programmed with a full range of sounds – everything including a cello all the way up to a flute. Once I had built mine, I recorded with it immediately and can be heard on The Way Home and Western Spaces. It’s amazing how expressive the instrument is and continues to be one of my favorites.
SC: How do you perceive “space” in terms of music?
KB: In the history of musical instruments, one of the earliest known that achieved the effect of “space” was the lyre. When you plucked the string, it would resonate in such a way so that there would be a reflection/contemplation time for the length of that tone. Later, with the harp or piano, you could play a chord and that chord could ring a really long time. Between reflection and contemplation is created that feeling of space.
My Secret Rooms album was a testament to our innate ability to perceive whether we are in a little closet full of clothes or in a big open cathedral. Our ability to do that is due, in part, to the reflection of sound waves coming back to us. Sustained sounds stimulate reflection and that reflection time is important because that’s the time the brain takes to contemplate that sound. The experience of reflection or contemplation really opens up another dimension or space in music.
There is also an alchemical aspect to the music and that occurs in our perceptions – from time, which is personal, to timelessness, which is transpersonal.
Space music for me is very visual and when effective, sets the stage for creating imagery as well. I perceive that what is “conveyed” is the vibrational canvas of possibility that is now in the domain of the one experiencing it. Chords and intervals have colors and we have the capacity to perceive those colors.
Ultimately, I perceive that the creation of music is all about love – the love of the electrons, the love of the music, sound and the space between the sounds. Music is only heard when it passes through the air – rich with fields of invisible particles. Then it’s gone and there’s nothing left except what has been imprinted or decoded or perceived about it. For me, whatever spiritual insights I can impart through my sounds, through my music, that is a love song.