Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jordan Belson, Vortex and me

I first met Jordan Belson through my friend Stephen Hill, who had had a recording studio, Celestial Sounds, in the Mission District of San Francisco in the late 1960s, into the ‘70s.  Stephen had come to an event where I was performing with a Moog synthesizer, after which we became good friends and colleagues.  He was my sound engineer for many performances with the Moog, including the opening of the Oakland Museum in 1970, and the very first musical performance in a brand new University Art Museum at UC Berkeley in 1971. 

After meeting Jordan in Stephen’s studio, I visited him in his Montgomery Street digs on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco in 1970. 

I followed Jordan, dressed in white, his grey hair in a bun, through the garage to a nondescript door, and suddenly I felt like Alice, dropping through the looking glass.  Belson’s living quarters were tiny and very esthete, very Japanese, with wood floors and tatami mats and pillows. The environment was dark, yet airy, tiny, yet sparse and spacious, three rooms and a small kitchen. His back door led to a small area outside at the bottom of a narrow canyon of fire escapes with a tiny sliver of view of the Bay Bridge and the East Bay. 

Each visit began with a ritual smoking of the pipe and stories about what was happening in his world. I became something of an acolyte as well as a friend, spending many hours over many years sitting with Jordan and listening to his stories. 

My favorite moments would involve Jordan showing me the latest moments of film that he had created on his exotic, steam punk devices cobbled out of an old X-ray machine and various lens contraptions of his own devising.  Occasionally, he would show me one of the short films he had created. I saw “Momentum, Chakra, Light, Cycles and Music of the Spheres.”  He always claimed he wanted to create a piece using my music but the only time he ever included any sounds or music from me was for his six minute piece, “Light,” where a blurring sizzle of white sound I created animated a few moments of the film. Later, he was gracious enough to allow me to use his imagery in the San Francisco Synthesizer Ensemble’s Premier at Theater Artaud.
I was very proud to have contributed anything to his wonderful creations and was thrilled for him when Phillip Kaufmann tagged him to create visuals for “The Right Stuff.”

In 1974, Jordan suggested that I might be interested in reviving “Vortex,” a planetarium show that he and Henry (Sandy) Jacobs created in the 1950’s for the Morrison Planetarium in Golden Gate Park. Interestingly, I had seen one of the original performances in 1958, while still in high school, and was mightily impressed at the time—as were others who saw the show and went on to create light shows later in the ‘60s an ‘70s—people like Bill Hamm, Ray Andersen, Roger Hilyard, Jerry Abrams, Glen McKay, and other light show luminaries. 

In the mid 1950s, Jordan and Sandy set about gathering instruments and creating devices that projected colors and images onto the dome of the planetarium, images that transported the viewer from their mundane surroundings into another sensory world of light and sound.  Using ‘music concrete’ with pieces from Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gyorgy Ligeti, Vladimir Ussachevsky, David Talcott and other avant guard composers, they presented an other-worldly envelope that seemed to take one right out of your body and leave you suspended in a dimension of sight and sound alone. The planetarium was the perfect place for such an experience. The seats tilted back, the domed theater was light-tight and without much suggestion the perceived world would disappear and the audience could be put into a mild trance watching Duchampian graphics play across the sky with pulsating colors of different shapes matched by unearthly yet intriguing sound and music moving around the theaters’ 38-speaker system.  Transcendental.  

So when Jordan suggested that the show could be revived, I jumped on it. Not only did Jordan have the actual instruments from the 1950’s show, but one of his original helpers, David Porazzo, a planetarium illustrator, was excited to help revive the show that had inspired him as a youth. With the indispensable help of Stephen Hill as sound engineer, we set about recreating and then performing “Vortex” at the Morrison Planetarium in 1974.
After several months, the Morrison elected to install a cheap light show, Laserium, to help them fill their theater.  So we headed to up Canada to perform “Vortex” at the H.R. MacMillan Planetarium in Vancouver, BC. 

Jordan had warned us that there would be residual side effects of involving ourselves with “Vortex.” He was always quite cryptic about what those effects would be, saying simply, “Once you start that whirlwind going, you have to be very careful.” For the most part, the experience was gratifying. However, after Vancouver, the three of us did drift apart with some rancor and unpleasantness. Perhaps that could be blamed on getting too far inside the vortex. David Porazzo died several years after the show and Stephen Hill went on to create “Music from the Hearts of Space,” a seminal music program for radio. 

With the monies made from the “Vortex” performances I was able to purchase recording equipment from Japan. Some of that equipment led to being able to take a portable cassette machine on to the Golden Gate Bridge late one night in July of 1975 with Michael Phillips and Arnie Lazarus, and record the sounds of the Bridge. Thus beginning a series of events that continues to this day. 

For more about what the Synth Ensemble is up to today, follow this link.

For more information about Jordan Belson:

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