Throughout the two decades of its active life, Electric Phoenix was unusual among independent electro-acoustic ensembles in that it was technologically self-sufficient. Not only did we have our own sound system, but my recording studios, first Persona Productions and then October Sound, gave us a fully equipped rehearsal space and recording venue. Eight out of the eleven LPs and CDs featuring the core ensemble of four voices were recorded, produced and mastered using our own facilities.

This began with the very first project, Henri Pousseur’s marathon Tales and Songs from the Bible of Hell (described above) and continued with EP’s Wergo LP, recorded in the theatre of the October Gallery and mixed below in October Sound. Our EMI LP, consisting of works by John Cage and Luciano Berio, was recorded in the generous acoustic of St. Silas, North London, by means of a unique digital over-dubbing procedure written up by Mike Skeet for Studio Sound, September 1985: ‘Ambisonics Round and Round’. It was a first in several respects, including the fact that it was a UHJ-encoded Ambisonic recording for a major commercial label, with the Soundfield logo prominently displayed.

After building himself a set of the vocal synthesizer boxes designed for Pousseur’s Tales and Songs, Rolf Gehlhaar made even more extensive use of them. Worldline was conceived as a piece in which the direct acoustic sound of the singers would not be heard at all. This ideal was often approached in public performance by isolating the singers in a semi-adjoining space and was ultimately realized in full in a BBC broadcast, recorded and mixed at October Sound.

Daryl Runswick’s first piece for Electric Phoenix made use of a fifty-second tape delay accomplished with two Revox tape recorders and a 5ftx3ft dump bin. During the next eight years that he was composing for Electric Phoenix, he gradually accumulated his own sophisticated assemblage of equipment, so that he was ultimately able to take away the recordings made at October Sound and do all the production work himself. With modern digital equipment, his final version of John Cage’s Solos for Voice 93-96 could be given an infinite number of widely varied performances.

The irrepressible Neely Bruce would stretch our technological and biological limits to the breaking point. A lecture I had recorded by William Burroughs on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse inspired us to invite four American composers to come up with a quartet of works based on this biblical source. Neely immediately latched onto the fourth horseman—Pale Horse, Pale Rider—representing death by pestilence. He arrived in London with the score of The Plague, a three-quarter-hour extravaganza based loosely on the tales of Boccaccio. It required an elaborite pre-recorded tape which was recorded somehow in our tiny studio, using the four singers, with Linda Hirst doubling on flute and Daryl Runswick on the electric bass with which he had long been identified. Neely and Daryl played the electric keyboards. Daryl rounded up two legendary rock musicians, Ray Russell, rhythm guitar and John Marshall, drums.

There was no time to write out complete scores, and so the instrumentalists performed like improvisatory baroque musicians from what was not much more than a figured bass. Most of the parts were recorded on single takes, with only one break point possible in the Herculean ordeal. With only eight tracks available on the studio TEAC, there had to be submixes, with their internal balance gauged against the parts that would be added later.

As the first performance in America grew nearer, the working days got longer. We were kept going by the conviction that it would be a remarkable piece, but also by the manic enthusiasm which drove Neely to habitual excess. Oblivious to human limitation, he kept thinking of improvements, each of which would only take an extra hour or so to accomplish.

The punishing schedule took its toll. Before or after the first performance, one by one we came down with a debilitating illness. I held out until after and then spent two days recuperating in the university infirmary with something indefinable but disabling. Was it all worth it? Speaking for myself, I still think of us as war buddies—survivers of a campaign in which the end product was not the slaughter of an enemy, but the unlikely creation of a magical experience. Neely’s premonition of biological disaster becomes more relevant with every passing day.

There was more to come. Neely Bruce’s settings of Michael McClure’s Eight Ghosts (1989) demanded a separate Yamaha SPX-90 for each singer, with over a hundred different recurring settings assigned in constantly changing order, advanced independently by means of four singer-operated foot pedals. The user-set memories became so full that the studio recording required hours of re-programming between sessions. Only one public performance was ever given, consisting of a couple of excerpts—a complete performance would have required yet another set of SPX-90s, already pre-programmed, with a laborious and danger-fraught changeover at the half-way point. Even the blithely challenging Neely never envisioned such a possibility. In these days of computerized control, such complexity is taken for granted, but a decade ago it was a ground-breaking achievement.

In the timing of their two-decade history, Electric Phoenix were doubly fortunate. First, it was a period during which there were concert promoters and funders on both sides of the Atlantic who encouraged musicians to seek their own identity rather than conform to an arbitrary quasi-populist model. Second, working like a string quartet (i.e. with rehearsal time not paid by the hour) and having freely available rehearsal/recording space, the ensemble could allow each project to consume as much time as it required and to set its own aesthetic parameters. In short, for twenty years Electric Phoenix could afford the luxury of habitual integrity.

John Whiting