For all of the ways artists such as Kraftwerk and Devo increased awareness of the synthesizer, they may have done the instrument an injustice. These progenitors portrayed synth music as impersonal and robotic, all head and no heart. But in the hands of Tom Hamilton, the synthesizer is not a cold, dead instrument. The avant-garde composer utilizes the endless sonic possibilities of oscillators and filters to channel the unbridled human expression of a A Love Supreme-era John Coltrane or free-jazz saxophone expressionist Eric Dolphy.
"For me, some of the pleasure of doing music like this is to connect physical gesture to electronic process," Hamilton says. "I have a process going, and I use the keyboard as a controller to interfere with that process. What comes out of the instrument can be very automatic, but I'm kind of the wild card."
Hamilton's unique techniques are highlighted on Pieces For Kohn/Formal & Informal Music, a double-disc reissue released by the local label Kvist. "Formal & Informal Music is just a beautiful record," says Kvist owner John Tamm-Buckle. The album originally hit the presses in 1980, but its three-movement series, "Crimson Sterling," dates back to 1973. "Sterling" and Formal's title track both feature improvisations by Hamilton, percussionist Rich O'Donnell and wind-instrument chameleon J.D. Parran; Hamilton's squiggly programming serves as a backdrop. In the spirit of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, the expert lineup of Formal ignores preconceived notions about the role of an instrumentalist. O'Donnell is often in charge of the most melodic elements, while Hamilton handles the rhythmic aspects.
Kohn is comprised of composed reactions to the bold, abstract paintings of artist Bill Kohn. "It's not a question of accompanying the paintings like you would with another musician, it's taking the qualities I loved about the paintings and trying to make audible analogies," Hamilton says of his frequent work with visual artists. "You have to suggest the sound world rather than complete it, because the musical element can dangerously overpower the visual."
Despite only featuring half of the big picture, Kohn succeeds on a purely aural level. "Modhera" is a tranquil experience comparable to Brian Eno's Ambient 4: On Land. The bleeping soundscape of "Bonampak" feels like a suitable introduction to any Tortoise track. "Girnar" employs aggressive sawtooth waves à la Aphex Twin. Above all, the strongest testament to the greatness of Kohn is how it predated all of these reference points; Tom Hamilton originally self-released the record in 1979 during his eighteen-year stint in the St. Louis avant music scene.
"It's the craziest synth music," Tamm-Buckle says, describing Kohn. "When your average person thinks of synth music, this is not what they are picturing." Tamm-Buckle met Hamilton at his Kranzberg Arts Center performance about a year ago and pitched the idea of reissuing Formal on Kvist; it was Hamilton's idea to tie it together with Pieces For Kohn, an album the label owner was familiar with via a bootleg from a friend.
Currently a New York resident, Hamilton has reconnected to his St. Louis roots through the preparation of this reissue. "It's gotten me interested in the sort of sounds and techniques I was making again," he says. "Now we do all sorts of things with computers, but I want to limit myself again. It's kind of looking back to go forward."
Tom Hamilton's next move forward involves a performance of his piece "Separate Checks" at the Kranzberg Arts Center on May 8 alongside Formal collaborator O'Donnell, acclaimed local sax weirdo Dave Stone and upright bass/kalimba player Zimbabwe Nkenya. If the concert is a homecoming of sorts for Hamilton, it's also a going-away party for John Tamm-Buckle, who will be moving to his home country of Sweden in July. This will be the last release of the St. Louis era of Kvist Records.
Given these circumstances, Pieces For Kohn/Formal & Informal Music has a certain romance often absent in the avant-garde. It documents fleeting moments in St. Louis art. It gives our mostly landlocked little town its own pathway to New York and to Stockholm. It's proof that something as synthetic as knobs and cables can have its own way of touching the heart.