If you’re over the age of 35 and you saw who I’m writing this article on, you probably just went “Wait, what? Why?” If you’re under 35 and don’t listen to The Adventure Zone and you saw who I’m writing about, you probably just went “Wait, who?” In a rare departure from talking about upcoming chiptune releases, I thought I might take a moment and talk about one of the early Moog synthesizer pioneers whose music has largely been out of print for the last ~40 years in hopes that a look at this particular time capsule might have some worthwhile stories to tell us in this modern era. Today’s article is on the rerelease of Mort Garson’s ‘Plantasia,’ courtesy of Sacred Bones Records.
Let me put a question to you: How can music be ubiquitous but not popular? Or to say it another way, if you were a child in America in the 1990’s, you might remember that The Weather Channel played a lot of smooth jazz, but you almost certainly had no idea who composed it, right?* I find the work of Mort Garson to be much the same way. It’s rare to find someone actually talking about Garson’s work, not because of the lack of access to it – although until YouTube came along, that was definitely a limiting factor as most of his music has been out of print longer than I’ve been alive – but rather because his music is inherently engineered to be passive, to be taken in while doing something else. It not supposed to be the focus of what you’re doing, but rather the pleasant accompaniment.
Mort Garson’s commercial music career, once he embraced the Moog, was writing easy listening music. He wrote game show themes, scores for D-list movies and A-list book readings, and even the American moon landing, helping to solidify the association of synthesizers and space together (which means he’s basically responsible for our last compilation). His personal projects, however, were much more high concept (pun intended). He composed music inspired by the zodiac and wrote covers and parodies of musicals, in addition to what we would probably refer to these days as much more proggy and psychedelic explorations of the occult. His music may have inspired the likes of The Moody Blues and even a particular Legend of Zelda song, but to sit and listen to his music on its own without doing something else almost feels wrong somehow, like you’re committing some great sacrilege by actually stopping to fully focus on the music with 100% of your attention.
But if nobody told you, it’s the age of sin now baby, and I aims to commit me some sacrilege on this here music blog.
The eponymous track on ‘Plantasia’ has all the trappings we might expect from a track serving as the entry point to a larger journey – a simple melody in the A section that builds into a triumphant B section, but what Garson sacrificed by following an easy compositional formula he more than makes up for in the complexity of the instrumentation. Bearing in mind that the hardware had been around for a grand total of about a decade by the time this album came out, the variation in the airy bell tones, the beefy brassy organ, the tight string-y bass parts and the theremin-esuqe lead in the second and third pass of the A and B portions is simply amazing.
‘Ode to an African Violet’ is my favorite track on the album. The focus synthesized percussion really makes this track shine – and not just actual designated “percussion sounds” but even the heavy staccato attacks for the bass and the lead later on really help keep the track driving forward despite its rather low energy. The layered harmonies that make up the first few seconds and continue to float upon the percussive bits are a smooth, buttery accompaniment.
If you wanted a track that is the most indicative of Garson’s other work, ‘You Don’t Have to Walk a Begonia’ is it. It’s simple and whimsical. It sounds like a jingle for your local grocery store. It’s a little more robust than his game show work, but it’s clear this song, perhaps more than all the rest here, is Garson’s “go with what you know and improve on it” song.
As the store page for Sacred Bones Records says, the album was originally available at the Mother Earth Plant Boutique in California and as a gift for purchasing mattresses at Sears. I won’t go too much into the history of the release, as Andy Beta has done a wonderful job on that store page and Sean Cannon over at Discogs has a great writeup about this particular reissue which itself links to several very cool pieces about Garson himself. I encourage you to go read both. I’m extremely thankful to the good folks at Sacred Bones for giving me a legal way to own ‘Plantasia’ that isn’t exorbitantly priced – as the Discogs article points out, this particular album has jumped astronomically in price over the last few years, and it’s great to be able to own a high vinyl (or CD, for that matter) without selling one of my organs to get it.
So why is it, then, that Garson’s name is essentially lost to the ages while his contemporaries like Wendy Carlos and Jean-Jacques Perrey enjoyed more fame? What can we take away about his process that is still applicable in the modern era? I think the concept of “fame” is literally the key here. Garson knew the music business – he went to Juilliard and spent a number of years as a composer and arranger for pop music after World War 2. When he embraced the synthesizer, he turned his vast knowledge and skill towards only taking jobs that let him make the music he wanted. As a result, he enjoyed a few decades of heavy production with the synthesizer after several decades of work in other fields. He never strove for outward fame, instead taking work that presumably interested him while still paying the bills, and he kept getting work because the people who did know his worth kept coming back to him because his unique sound was exactly what they knew they needed. In short, he was good at what he did and he networked with the right people to keep himself paid without letting his ego get the better of him while still maintaining a lifelong passion for his craft. Easy, right?
*Whoa, you came this far to check my footnote? Rad. Take this Wikipedia link. You’ll thank me later.
You know, since you’re down here already, check out this cover of the eponymous track on ‘Plantasia’ by Griffin McElroy – I mentioned that he’s who I have to thank for knowing about Mort Garson’s work, so I feel it’s only right to link his tribute as well.