By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Most musicians start out as unwilling piano students or bedroom guitar shredders. But young Joseph Raglani's passion for sound didn't come through an instrument at all: It came through his family's Dictaphone, a bulky black box intended for voice recording, note-taking and dictation.
"I can remember the first time we got one of those as a kid, and I recorded my voice and listened back to it," recalls the 36-year-old Raglani, who uses electronics and synthesizers to record amorphous, largely instrumental pieces. "You know that whole thing where you don't believe it's your voice, like it just doesn't sound like you? For days I sat in my bedroom trying to figure out how they changed my voice."
This love of sonic experimentation has led the musician through fascinations with punk, psychedelia, art-rock, confessional songwriting and, finally, to the synthesized soundscapes that have brought him great acclaim. Last year Raglani rereleased his five-song album, Of Sirens Born, on the well-respected indie label Kranky Records, making him one of the most high-profile St. Louis acts in recent years to gain such exposure.
Raglani records a style of music that is normally relegated to small-batch releases on cassette and vinyl — in the past he has released music on tiny but influential labels such as Ides, Gameboy, St. Louis-based Kvist and his own imprint, Pegasus Farms — so having his disc available in record stores across the country (and beyond) is no small feat. But with the thrill of success comes heartbreaking agony. On May 16, as Raglani was beginning his first U.S. tour at Brooklyn's experimental-music festival No Fun Fest, his van was burglarized and all of his electronic gear — synthesizers, effects pedals, speakers, merch and more, all valued at nearly $10,000 — disappeared while Raglani stopped for dinner.
Any musician or artist can sympathize with the devastation that accompanies such a loss; the sentimental value of losing, say, your first electric guitar or a journal full of sketches is normally as great as the financial hit. But for a musician like Raglani, who uses vintage analog synths alongside newer (and pricey) boutique gear, these instruments can't be replaced with a trip to Guitar Center.
Among the treasures stolen were a Sequential Circuits Pro-One monophonic synth from the early '80s that he interfaced with his recently acquired pièce de résistance: a Moog Voyager Old School synthesizer. This keyboard is a modern update of the classic Minimoog, which many consider the quintessential analog synth. (Of the Moog, Raglani says, "it just blew me away" when he first bought it.)
The robbery's sting is especially severe, because Raglani had finally assembled his optimum live-performance rig after years of experimentation with different pieces. At a pre-theft gig in early April at the Billiken Club, opening for the Baltimore duo Beach House, Raglani performed on a low-lit stage behind a bank of synths and modules. Bearded, bedheaded and bespectacled, Raglani looked right at home behind his racks of gear, tangled in the rat's nest of patch cords and coaxing out sheets of sound with equal parts scientific method and artistic intuition. Although he triggered sounds and accompanying tracks from his iPod, he created much of the set on the fly. He has a bit of a mad-scientist quality to him in his performances, with the constant tweaking and manipulating that goes into each piece.
In conversations after the theft, he talked in a soft-spoken manner, oscillating between enthusiasm for future projects and a kind of bemused depression at the prospect of creating music without his beloved equipment. But the loss of his gear has forced him to ponder the importance of technology in his music — and raises larger questions about the relationship of the artist to the tools of his trade.
"The instrument itself is what directs me," Raglani explains. "With an acoustic guitar, I probably wouldn't spend too much time doing something crazily experimental with it; I would probably use it pretty conventionally." Indeed, he came of age playing Sonic Youth-inspired punk rock in high school and has an unreleased album of acoustic-guitar-based, singer-songwriter fare that he recorded under the title L'avventura. But it's electronic music that has captured his imagination the most.
"I've always been completely blown away by electricity," he explains. "Maybe that's why synthesizers are such an interest to me. With control-voltage synths, they are infinitely more expandable or tweakable. You can get the craziest stuff out of them by patching them into the wrong outlet or whatever."
In 2009 the idea of playing the synthesizer and playing the keyboard can seem interchangeable. For the most part, that's true — beginning in the late '60s, most synths came with piano keyboards to provide an easy-to-use, universal interface for the average musician. But when pioneers like Bob Moog and Don Buchla were first building the synthesizers that came to bear their names, they were huge, unwieldy monoliths filled with knobs, patch bays and matrices that recalled nothing so much as a telephone switchboard terminal. Synthesists sought to create music outside the strictures of the twelve-note scale, so keyboards were initially thought of as relics of Western music. Sound was a science, and the synthesizer was the lab that created, coddled and unleashed that sound.