Mu­sic cen­tre houses 1970s syn­the­sizer

Calgary Herald - - NEWS - ERIC VOLMERS

Ste­vie Won­der was in­tro­duced to TONTO on a swel­ter­ing Memo­rial Day week­end in 1971 in New York.

He was 21 years old at the time and had be­come in­trigued by Zero Time, a pi­o­neer­ing elec­tronic mu­sic record put out ear­lier that year by a duo called TONTO’s Ex­pand­ing Head­band. His bass player had played him the al­bum while they were tour­ing Canada.

The bass player was also friends with Mal­colm Ce­cil, the mu­si­cian and pro­ducer who had cre­ated TONTO and formed a duo with Robert Mar­gouleff. At the time, Ce­cil was work­ing in New York’s Me­dia Sound Stu­dios, which also housed TONTO or, as it was of­fi­cially known, “The Orig­i­nal New Tim­bral Or­ches­tra.” As the name sug­gests, TONTO is a com­plex col­lec­tion of syn­the­siz­ers or “or­ches­tra of syn­the­siz­ers.”

De­signed and de­vel­oped by Ce­cil over a num­ber of years, it was the first and largest “mul­ti­tim­bral poly­phonic ana­logue syn­the­sizer.” TONTO was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary in­stru­ment and, on that 1971 Memo­rial Day week­end, was about to make mu­si­cal his­tory.

“It was a real hot day, I had no clothes on at all,” says Ce­cil, in an in­ter­view with Post­media. “The door bell rings and I go to the win­dow. I look down and there’s my friend, Ron­nie, with this guy in a green pis­ta­chio jump­suit hold­ing what ap­pears to be my al­bum.”

He was told that Won­der wanted to check out TONTO. Ce­cil took him up to the stu­dio for what he fig­ured would be a quick demon­stra­tion.

“As soon as he re­al­ized it was all jacks and knobs and stuff, he knew this was not go­ing to be some­thing he could do un­aided,” Ce­cil says. “He says ‘Can we record?’”

By the end of the week­end, they had recorded 17 songs, in­clud­ing the 1972 clas­sic Evil. It was the be­gin­ning of a four-al­bum re­la­tion­ship be­tween Won­der, Ce­cil, Mar­gouleff and TONTO, which has been re­stored and is now housed at Stu­dio Bell, home of the Na­tional Mu­sic Cen­tre.

The ground­break­ing sounds of TONTO were at the cen­tre of Won­der’s wildly in­ven­tive out­put from 1972 to 1974. Mu­sic of My Mind, Talk­ing Book, In­nervi­sions and Ful­fill­ing­ness’ First Fi­nale, all clas­sics, were co-pro­duced by Won­der, Ce­cil and Mar­gouleff. Hav­ing been freed from his Mo­town con­tract when he reached 21, Won­der had years of pent-up cre­ativ­ity and was keen to have full creative con­trol of his mu­sic. TONTO was like a gate­way to the sounds he was hear­ing in his head.

“When he was 18, he re­al­ized he didn’t own his pub­lish­ing so he stopped play­ing his tunes,” Ce­cil says. “He hated the way he had been dealt with. What he had to do was play his tunes for his ar­ranger. His ar­ranger would take it away, ar­range it for or­ches­tra, they would go into the stu­dio with a pro­ducer, the pro­ducer would pro­duce the track and then would call Ste­vie in. The pro­ducer would tell Ste­vie how, what and when to sing and that was it. Ste­vie said ‘It’s noth­ing like the mu­sic in my mind.’ That’s how the al­bum got its ti­tle.”

Ce­cil is cur­rently in Cal­gary, about to start work on new record­ings with a Tribe Called Red, a First Na­tions elec­tronic mu­sic duo that will be the first mu­si­cians to use the re­stored syn­the­sizer at the Na­tional Mu­sic Cen­tre. TONTO, which has also been used on record­ings of Weather Re­port, Joan Baez, the Is­ley Broth­ers and Gil Scott-Heron, is at the cen­tre of a week­long cel­e­bra­tion at the Cen­tre. Dubbed TONTO week, the Nov. 14-18 event will put the “holy grail of syn­the­siz­ers” frontand-cen­tre.

The Na­tional Mu­sic Cen­tre ac­quired TONTO in 2013. At that time it was be­ing housed by Ce­cil in a con­verted barn in Saugerties, New York. It still worked. But keep­ing up its main­te­nance was be­com­ing too ex­pen­sive for Ce­cil to do on his own. He was also wor­ried that TONTO would not be kept in­tact af­ter he was gone, par­tic­u­larly since it was prob­a­bly worth more money in parts than keep­ing it whole. The 81-year-old fielded of­fers from the Smith­so­nian and Yale Univer­sity, among other in­ter­ests, but was never sat­is­fied that th­ese in­sti­tu­tions would main­tain it or even dis­play it prop­erly.

So he agreed to sell it to the Na­tional Mu­sic Cen­tre. Ja­son Tawkin, the cen­tre’s man­ager of build­ing au­dio, wouldn’t say how much it cost, but con­firmed it was less than what other in­sti­tu­tions were of­fer­ing and “sig­nif­i­cantly less than its value.” But Ce­cil was adamant that the cen­tre was the right fit for TONTO, an opin­ion that was strength­ened when he vis­ited his beloved syn­the­sizer’s new home.

Still, while oper­a­tional, it needed a lot of work. That fell to the cen­tre’s elec­tron­ics tech­ni­cian John Leim­sei­der. Leim­sei­der, who once played key­boards for Iron But­ter­fly and be­gan work­ing for the cen­tre in 2002, took more than a year to lov­ingly re­store TONTO, just one of many restora­tion projects he over­saw on in­stru­ments in the cen­tre’s col­lec­tion.

“One of the things you need for a mod­u­lar syn­the­sizer was patch chords,” Tawkin says. “I or­dered 800 me­tres of cable and we had a whole crew of vol­un­teers all help to make ca­bles. Now we have hun­dreds and hun­dreds of ca­bles. John re­placed ev­ery sin­gle jack in the in­stru­ment, where you plug your cable into. Ba­si­cally, th­ese cor­rode and there was 1,000 of them that he changed. We’re talk­ing 18, 19, 20 months, and a lot of parts that were near im­pos­si­ble to find.

“It was the kind of thing where John had to go to his net­work of tech­ni­cians and trade parts for parts just to get the parts to do it. A lot of com­po­nents had to be changed. A lot of re­cal­i­bra­tion. Some of the cus­tom stuff, he didn’t have schemat­ics for be­cause it doesn’t ex­ist. So lim­ited doc­u­men­ta­tion and, yeah, a lot of up­hill bat­tles.”

Trag­i­cally, Leim­sei­der passed away on Sept. 14, just two months be­fore he was to par­tic­i­pate in the Na­tional Mu­sic Cen­tre’s week­long cel­e­bra­tion of the re­stored TONTO.

“He al­ways told me that it was very im­por­tant to him that this stuff would get used,” Tawkin says.

“He didn’t put all this work into th­ese in­stru­ments so they would sit on dis­play. He wanted artists to come, use them, in­ter­act with them and that’s what has ba­si­cally hap­pened. It’s im­por­tant for us. That’s a pil­lar of our or­ga­ni­za­tion. What makes us unique in the world is that we hold th­ese col­lec­tions in trust for the pub­lic, the mu­si­cal com­mu­nity, and pro­vide ac­cess to artists that have unique, creative mu­si­cal ideas.”


John Leim­sei­der, right, worked for more than a year to re­store Mal­colm Ce­cil’s TONTO at the Na­tional Mu­sic Cen­tre.

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