Don Preston: Just Another Duo From LA
Although his CD, Hear Me Out (Echograph, 1997) regularly shows up at Amazon.com for more than fifty dollars, his Cryptogramophone session remains close to his heart. "I did a great trio album," he said, "Transformation (Cryptogramophone, 2001), and I only say that because it got picked album of the year by National Public radio, and it got five stars in Downbeat, and it's one of the best sounding albumsif not the best sounding albumI've ever done. It's remarkable how the recording's so good. It's with Alex Cline and Joel Hamilton. Joel is great and Alex is amazing so it was a wonderful day we spent recording it. All of us were in good shape, we all knew all the music, and we just went through it. I don't think we took more than two takes of anything, and mostly everything was one take. It was really a treat; we did it at Chick Corea's studio."
From left: Bunk Gardner, Don Preston
In addition to solo projects and recording several sessions with the ultimate Zappa veterans' band, the Grandmothers, Preston has been invited to lecture on music at such institutions as Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Sarah Lawrence, and ..."a lot of schools back east, a few out here, a couple schools in Europe. I had about four different lectures I would do. One was the creative force that we deal with when we try to create something, write something, or improvise, and that we have to get in touch with that part of ourselves that helps us. That's what I do. So I try to convey that in words, and it's not easy. That's one lecture I was giving, another is on the history of synthesis, mostly analog synthesis. Some early digital which disappeared.
"One of those things had the biggest advertising campaign, gorgeous brochures and everything, and this guy who created it, there's this big picture of him with his glasses held together with a safety pin, and underneath it says, 'genius.' I thought that was hilarious. I found out where this guy was, it was outside of Vegas. I was going through there at one point, so I got the guy's address and called him and asked if I could come over because I would be interested in buying one. 'Oh yeah, come right over.' So, I went over there, and the picture of the synthesizer was this sleek modern design like a Porsche with keys. When I got there, it was like the inside of five computers and they're all bread boarded together. Then, there was like the inside of some keyboard he'd gotten hold of, and I will say it was impressive, although it only had about three or four sounds that you could get out of it. But, they were digital sounds, and at the time there wasn't anything digital out there, except maybe the DX 7.
"But first you see the brochure, then you go to this hotel room, or motel room, and what it was, one of the big hotel chains was getting rid of all their old computers, you know, the ones they use at the front desk. He was turning them into synthesizers, but he hadn't even gotten to that point yet. He was still trying to figure out how to make it work. It was just all this stuff that didn't look like anything, that could work. And he did have quite a few problems just getting a sound out of it. And it never went anywhere, it just kind of disappeared after awhile. That was kind of a strange experience."
Preston created his first synthesizer in 1965 and it looked like an old phone switchboard, with a web a cables and cabinets. Preston reflected on changing technologies. "I think it happened like that because it was logical step," he said. "I mean look at computers, they've gone so far in such a short amount of time. They keep going leaps and bounds every year. You buy a computer, two years later it's obsolete.
"There's a great movie, Our Man Flint (1966), and the first 15 minutes of that movie is in a huge room full of electronic equipment and huge spools of tape. Huge room full of computers, and all they come up with is one little card with holes punched in it that says, 'Yeah, Flint is our man.'
"I had a Pet computer made by Commodore. It was quite large, but it only had 8K memory. It had a cassette interface. If you wrote a program, because you couldn't buy one, you could store it on a cassette. It was amazing what you could do with just 8K. I mean 8K, I've got more memory in my watch. It's ridiculous.
"It's kind of ruined the record industry. But, there's plus and minuses with that. I have a fairly sophisticated studio, although it's outmoded by at least five years. My board is getting old and starting to make its own sound. But I have produced some pretty good stuff in here, and then you can burn your own discs. Io Landscapes (Landscape, 2004) has never been pressed, I just burn them when I need them. Having them go through CDBaby, people can just buy a track, or just [spend] nine dollars if they want to buy the whole CD."