Michael Czajkowski—
People The Sky

Released 1969 on Vanguard/Red Cardinal
The Seth Man, August 2004ce
Although the name Michael Czajkowski is virtually unknown outside of certain academic music circles, his “People The Sky” album was an advance reconnaissance into the burgeoning synthesizer scene of the late sixties. Ignorance of his work is understandable, as his entire back catalogue, comprised of just this one solo album plus session work on Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Illuminations” album, are but a pair of tiny blips in the universe of recorded electronic music. But the sounds and emotions he conjured up on these two albums were daring and exquisitely handled non-linear excursions rendered in a newly-discovered language that had only recently been invented. One cannot attempt to recount the story of Czajkowski without that of avant-garde composer Morton Subotnick, folk rock star Buffy-Sainte Marie and one of the earliest electronic keyboards, the Buchla synthesizer that linked them together without at least a cursory overview of the events that led to these pioneers and that unique musical apparatus crossing paths during their artistic pursuits of the late sixties.

It was more than a century of various innovations in compositions, instruments and electronic-based experiments that led to and directly inspired the RCA Mark II Synthesizer. Completed by Harry Olsen and Herbert Belar in 1955, this landmark achievement would set in motion all synthesizer developments to come with the earliest of these electronic keyboards located within the confines of state-operated, European and Japanese radio stations or studios attached to a handful of American universities. Operated by a small circle of technicians, studio engineers and professors, these machines were too expensive, too few and far too unwieldy to be used on a regular, freelance basis and it was not until the advent of transistor technology that a dramatic increase in the production of far more compact synthesizer units began. And although Robert Moog had already been constructing his own synthesizer modules, like their precursors they were usually fitted directly into studio consoles. But by 1961, the synthesizer first became recognised as both a standalone component as well as an independent instrument in its own right when a collaboration between electronic music equipment designer Don Buchla with composers Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender yielded the first major compact synthesizer module whose aim was to facilitate a far wider potential for recording as well as live performance. Buchla named the prototype ‘The San Francisco Tape Music Center’ in reference to Subotnick’s music studio. Subotnick quickly and poetically re-dubbed it the ‘Buchla’ and it was on this first finished prototype, the Buchla 100 that Subotnick began work at the aforementioned San Francisco Tape Music Center -- a studio workshop located at the San Francisco Conservatory which Subotnick and Sender established to meet the needs of a small group of composers and artists from nearby Mills College that included Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley and Anthony Martin.

At least as important as the sounds and the reduction of time spent on labour intensive overdubbing and manual tape editing, the creation of the Buchla stressed the interaction of the musician through its accessible front panel layout and musical controls. Its final modern flourishes featured a series of touch-sensitive metal plates placed at intervals in the place of a traditional keyboard while an interior analogue sequencer provided the further innovation of pre-programmed sound patterns that could be manipulated into endless varieties of rhythms.

Subotnick industriously split his time between duties at the Tape Center, teaching at Mills College as well as writing electronic scores for the Actors’ Workshop. When Lincoln Center opened in New York City, the Actors’ Workshop established a Repertory Theater there and offered Subotnick a position as musical director which he accepted alongside a residency at New York University’s School of the Arts. Upon relocating to New York City in 1966, Subotnick discovered that there was no performing music department at NYU so he promptly organised the Intermedia Program, a small studio located on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village which in time would prove to be the launching pad for a series of crucial Buchla synthesizer recordings (among them Subotnick’s own “Silver Apples Of The Moon” and “The Wild Bull” albums.)

Through the Intermedia Program, Subotnick would be introduced to other kindred spirits drawn by the allure of the Buchla’s raging textural and tonal possibilities; one of whom was academic music scholar and educator, Michael Czajkowski. With an extensively trained background that included completion of several stages of conservatory training and music studies focusing on theory and composition, Czajkowski’s involvement in NYU’s Intermedia Program led to performances of incidental electronic music at The Electric Circus1 children’s theatre which continued his education as both pupil and teacher within the context of the Buchla. On such occasions he would assemble a group of children into a circle and hand one of them a banana plug running from the Buchla containing a -12v dc current control voltage. After handing the last child in the circle a second banana plug, Czajkowski then instructed everyone to join hands and then to begin varying the pressure of their grasps. This caused the voltage heading back into the Buchla to fluctuate, resulting in producing a wild profusion of sounds that would change the signal’s volume, pitch and pulse -- not to mention causing instantaneous reactions of delight from his young ‘charges.’

Continuing a dual pursuit of teaching and performance, Czajkowski also provided electronic scores on the Buchla in collaborations with several avant-garde theatre and film productions. These mixed media events usually involving dance, song and video and for one live choreographed dance performance, he wired into the Buchla several large metal plates placed upon the stage floor so that when the steps of the dancers coincided with them, it produced astonishing tones at suitable intervals.

However, in terms of collaborations his best known works would be in the medium of recording. In 1969, Buffy Sainte-Marie had just finished recording her “Illuminations” album for Vanguard Records, which saw her ascending all her previous achievements. Aware of musical trends beyond folk, Sainte-Marie had glimpsed on the horizon the nascent electronic inroads and although her album was completed she expressed a desire to make it ‘spacier’ to arranger, Peter Schickele. With a parallel career on Vanguard under his nom de plume ‘PDQ Bach,’ Schickele also taught music at The Juilliard School where Czajkowski was a fellow colleague. Schickele consequently put Czajkowski in touch with Vanguard, who supplied him with the necessary reels and approval to proceed. Commencing work at NYU’s Intermedia Program, Czajkowski made it clear that his intent was to keep his contribution fully integrated into what had already been recorded which he achieved by taking elements of both the music and Buffy’s voice, then processed them through filters patched directly into the Buchla while unobtrusive electronic passages were laid down between tracks as crossfading links. Supplementing it all were additional synthetics and various tape manipulations that wove into the album stellar moments of otherworldliness that did not detract or distract from the songs in any way, but seamlessly added to them.

Upon hearing playback of the completed work, both Buffy and Vanguard president Maynard Solomon were delighted with the results. So much so that Solomon immediately offered Czajkowski the opportunity to record a purely electronic album for his label. Returning once more to the Intermedia Program, Czajkowski spent months recording, taking notes and overdubbing sections of Buchla arrangements until what appeared was an intriguing, rhythmically disjointed and abstract mosaic of the moment. Recorded on two-track stereo, side one of “People The Sky” was completely improvisational and aided only by notations made during previous experiments consisting of diagrams that recorded which inputs and outputs were to be connected by patch bay cords. And for the conceptual second side, Czajkowski drew inspiration from his classical background as well as his work with dance and theatre workshops. Taking the theme from Handel’s “Solomon” where Solomon calls for a full range of human emotions to be expressed, Czajkowski’s childhood friend Fred John Bethke worked this theme into his poem on the back sleeve above Czajkowski’s resume typeset in a futuristic stair-stepped sine wave pattern. But for all its influence, the sounds were not even remotely classical but more a lexicon of dynamics and constantly changing sequences of sound shapes.

Performed on the same model Buchla synthesizer Subotnick had used for his “Silver Apples Of The Moon” album, “People The Sky” contains other parallels. There was one continuous track per side (functionally named “Side I” and “Side II”) and it was even released on Vanguard’s classical Red Cardinal imprint much like “Silver Apples” had seen release on the Elektra offshoot, Nonesuch. But in the mind and hands of another artist, these similarities act as though in continuation of a recently-established post-McLuhanesque tradition of new art created with new instrumentation, new concepts of composition and new ideas as much as the title of the album points to new experiences and ways of looking at the world much like the soundtrack within. “People The Sky” passes through a succession of cross-hatched, stereo-panned clusters and mounds of round sounds that abound and melt into polyrhythmic sequences with little attention paid to convention or gravity (Since conspicuous differences between left and right channel signals often merge into a crowded town centre of spidery signatures, errant signals and oscillating extremes, stereo headphones have for me proven to be the most rewarding method of experiencing “People The Sky.”) New vistas appear throughout its flurry of complex, jarring exercises of raging instrumental experimentalism that boldly sustain the imagination from every ebb to flow.

By the time “People The Sky” was released in 1969, Morton Subotnick was already working with more expanded and upgraded models of the Buchla ‘Electric Music Box,’ while preparing several consecutive conceptual albums on CBS while Buchla himself was negotiating manufacturing deals with CBS/Fender for forthcoming electronic instruments. As abrupt as it may seem, 1969 would be the first and last year of Czajkowski’s recording career. Choosing education over performance, to this day he remains on the faculty at the Juilliard School in New York City in the music technology department teaching electronic composition with a far vastly different set of tools. But whether in twenty first century classes through digital means or in the sixties on analogue Buchla synthesizer, the lessons of Michael Czajkowski remain and are there to be experienced for those of us outside his classroom -- isolated to the confines of two remarkable albums that engage and intrigue to this day.

Special thanks to Michael Czajkowski for his time and assistance.

  1. The Electric Circus was a psychedelic discotheque on St. Mark’s Place located directly above The Dom, the legendary performance space of The Velvet Underground’s April 1966 Exploding Plastic Inevitable residency. In its day, The Electric Circus would host performances of a spectacular range of artists ranging from John Cage, Tiny Tim, The Doors and The Stooges. When Subotnick was hired by The Electric Circus in 1966 as their Director of Electronic Music, he contacted Don Buchla and light show artist Anthony Martin from the San Francisco Tape Center to fly out from the west coast for a series of performances. Buchla assisted Subotnick with technical aspects while Martin was responsible for large scale, psychedelic slide projections as can be seen on the front cover of Subotnick’s “Silver Apples Of The Moon” album.
    The Electric Circus was an amazingly psychedelic nightspot in its heyday and can be glimpsed in all its glory in the ‘trip’ scene in ‘Midnight Cowboy’. I passed it on many occasions in the early eighties when it was a low rent, drug-rehabilitation centre and once ventured inside to glimpse what remained of its former glory. Gone were the light shows and opulent op-art-ness but those pre-“2001” circular walls and curved pillars were still intact. It was beautiful, but unfortunately it was gutted years ago and has since been renovated into an up-market hair salon.