sometimes a niche collector’s item can also be a lovely thing in and of itself. This is true of Jean-Jacques Perrey et son ondioline, the first release from the new Forgotten Futures record label set up by Wally De Backer (Gotye).
Perrey was a pioneering electronic artist, the sole virtuoso of the early vacuum-tube-based synthesiser, the ondioline, and in the 1960s one of the first users of the Moog. The music for which he is best known is often comical and boisterous and frequently makes use of tape loops of animal noises and other odd sounds. In albums such as The In Sound From Way Out! (1966, with Gershon Kingsley) and Moog Indigo (1970), he presented both catchy melodies of his own and cheeky reinventions of older material, such as the updated version of the Cygnets’ Dance from Swan Lake on In Sound… and, on Moog Indigo, a recording of ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ using samples of real bees.
The A-side of Jean-Jacques Perrey et son ondioline collects rarities, many previously unreleased, from the early part of his career, when he was often not playing his own compositions but contributing his skill on the ondioline to the work of others. Having recently read Dana Countryman’s biography of Perrey, Passport to the Future, I get the sense this album could be the answer to a Perrey fan’s wish list: many of these pieces of music are mentioned in it as episodes in Perrey’s colourful story. Here is ‘L’âme des poètes’ from 1951, on which he and his ondioline supplied Charles Trenet’s wish for ‘the sound of a soul’ (Countryman, p. 25); here is the theme from Dandelion Wine, the 1967 musical based on the novel by Ray Bradbury for which, again, Jean-Jacques played ondioline (the composer was Billy Goldenburg: Countryman, pp. 126-7). However, despite the range of dates and composers, and despite the obscurity of some of the tracks – dug up from personal archives, often painstakingly restored from acetates – the resulting album is far more than a collection of curiosities. All the tracks are engaging, some are truly beautiful, and they are skilfully sequenced to present a cohesive progression of tone and mood. In contrast to Perrey’s better known albums, that mood is often one of wistful sweetness.
‘L’âme des poètes’ quickly became my main earworm from the album. I was struck by how the ondioline in it doesn’t sound so much like a violin as a very early recording of a violin. I wonder if it already sounded that way in 1951? Because this is a song about how the echoes of art linger sweetly through time, and that nostalgic sound seems immensely appropriate. Of course now the song itself, in its style and the smoky recording, is deeply nostalgic and evocative of mid-century France (a context known to me chiefly through film and through shorthand signals such as this type of music). Layers upon layers of gentle longing and memory.
Next but one before ‘L’âme des poètes’ in the running order, ‘Danielle of Amsterdam’ sounds like the theme song for a 1970s sitcom (it was actually the theme from a film), narrowly holding onto its dignity; following it, ‘Cigale’ has more poise, of an old-fashioned, ballroom-dancing kind: purple rinses on holiday in Blackpool. ‘Chicken on the Rocks’ is irresistibly exuberant and funny, as is ‘Barnyard in Orbit’ (a different version to the one on In Sound From Way Out!, with, according to De Backer, a sprightlier performance; I also notice a different style of stereo mix with less hard panning to left or right). ‘Visa to the Stars’ and ‘Pioneers of the Stars’, the second and last tracks on the A-side, both have a brave quality with galloping guitar lines evocative of westerns. ‘La Vache et le Prisonnier’ and ‘Dandelion Wine’ are both fragile, yearning melodies. ‘Sérénade à la Mule’ is cautiously jaunty. ‘Mars Reflector’ is sustained more by sparse texture and disjointed angles of sound than by melody and effectively portrays the floating strangeness of outer space.
The second side of the record is taken up with a demonstration disc of the ondioline, restored from the single known copy. Perrey takes us through some of the sonic possibilities of the instrument and it’s a fascinating insight into its huge range of tones, as well as a chance to hear his voice speaking out of the past. If only we could see exactly what he was doing with the controls. The slider marked ‘D’ seems to be popular.
All of this comes in a physically beautiful and (joy of joys) richly informative package. The booklet offers a wealth of photographs, an introductory essay by Simon Reynolds, and notes on each track by De Backer. The essay outlines Perrey’s early career and positions him as an electronic pioneer concerned not so much with ‘alien zones of sound’ but with connecting new technologies back to human emotions; we’re given a small thesaurus of terms to alert us to what Perrey offers: ‘humour, romantic yearning, wistful nostalgia, insouciance, and frivolity’. The track notes burst with enthusiasm but also with detail. One has a sense of the patient work that has gone into all this – the exploration of boxes and artefacts, the labours of engineers – and of the tempting wealth of further material waiting to be quarried.
Wally De Backer has been promoting Jean-Jacques Perrey’s music with performances (at National Sawdust in Brooklyn in November 2016 and at Moogfest on 18th May), radio appearances (2nd November and 16th November), and a Spotify playlist. His Facebook post about Jean-Jacques Perrey et son ondioline is worth a read. From his remarks at Moogfest, it seems another Forgotten Futures release, a reissue of Perrey’s album of sleep music, Prélude au sommeil, is almost ready to go.