**Black Vinyl** Ned Lagin's Seastones is a pioneering electronic composition interweaving metaphors from nature, science, art and music and the origins of music. Reflecting the technology, science, modern art, new ecological awareness and optimism of the times and culture, Seastones embodies the history of electronic music by taking full advantage of tape music, analog synthesizers, and computer technology to create pieces that are dynamic, rich, and deep.
Originally released by the Grateful Dead's Round Records in 1975, Seastones' reputation as a gem of electronic music was further enhanced by the celebrity of the musicians who contributed to the source material. Seastones musicians include Ned Lagin (processed piano, clavichord, organ, prepared piano, electric piano, synthesizers), Jerry Garcia (processed electric guitar, pedal steel guitar, voice), Phil Lesh (processed electric bass), David Crosby (processed electric guitar and vocals), Grace Slick and David Freiberg (processed vocals), and Mickey Hart and Spencer Dryden (percussion).
This new LP presents two crafted Seastones sets (Sets 4 and 5, 18 tracks) drawn from the entire Seastones composition and contains gorgeous extended processed vocals by Garcia, Crosby, Slick, and Freiberg, and beautiful abstract instrumental passages by Lagin and all. Lagin is considered a pioneer in the development and use of minicomputers and personal computers in real-time stage and studio music composition and performance. He had classical music training in piano, counterpoint, harmony, orchestration, composition, and the history of music. Growing up in 1960s New York he was deeply influenced by modal and free jazz, and by modern art. Lagin studied jazz improvisation, arrangement, and piano and played in small jazz groups and a big band. Seastones was influenced not only by modern jazz and forms for improvisation, but also by Lagin's studies of early, Renaissance, and 20th century music. He was a touring, studio, and guest keyboard player with the Grateful Dead from 1970 to 1976. Seastones composition began in 1970, while Lagin was attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1974, with a minicomputer and an E-mu modular analog synthesizer, Lagin was able to play a polyphonic keyboard and hybrid computer-controlled instrument, as well as create simple generative musical processes. The normal controls found on the analog synthesizer were customized to accept computer control and the system was large enough to input audio and control voltages from the other musicians' instruments. This means that the synthesizer controls which were processing the incoming audio from the musicians could be controlled by what the artists were playing. These control voltages and timing signals derived from the amplitude envelope shapes of what the musicians played, as Lagin puts it: "... became the sources of modulation that are the imprints, the musical touch and articulation, personality and presence of each musician. Interweaving multiple musical identities within an interconnected group. Ensemble interaction and improvisation through instrument and compositional interconnection."
Each track on Seastones is what Lagin refers to as a "moment form". Each track is self-contained, like a sea stone on the beach, a moment in time full of feelings and meaning, an entire world unto itself. Again, Lagin:
"Each stone on a fragment from another place and time. Some are just one mineral, some made of many; some are crystalline; some magnetic; some meteorites from the birth of this solar system or the universe; some contain fossils of ancient lives and little life form's, their stories are imprinted. Ephemeral existence." "Like real sea stones, the Seastones moment forms are each a placetime, a time island, a droplet of time. They are composed and synthesized and skeletal improvisational forms. Some moment forms are ideogrammatic; the communicate their own self-contained structure, each a sensuous object in and of itself. Some of the moment form compositions are individual, some are related." "Some are metaphoric abstracted forms derived from geology, and natural history and paleontology, electronics and electricity, organic and biochemical synthesis, physical processes, mathematics, physics and quantum mechanics, language and linguistic structure, and different forms and perspectives from pictorial (and abstract) visual art (paintings - cubism, pointillism, impressionism, expressionism and color field). And some from the sea with tonalities that are complex ocean surface and deep wave forms and currents, with the superposition of many waveforms from many sources. Some moment forms are just one waveform cycle."
While there were bushels of pioneering electronic composers active in the mid 1970s, few modular synth players performed their compositions to full arenas and put out nationally distributed quadrophonic LPs. When Seastones, Ned Lagin’s sole album of “biomusic,” was released in 1975, it received enough FM radio play to edge into the outer boroughs of Billboard’s charts despite its pressing in SQ quad, one of three quad competitors that would die in brutal mid-’70s format wars. Though the mix promised stereo compatibility, most turntables rendered a murky presentation of Seastones’ already obtuse music. A 1990 CD realization, meanwhile, accidentally deleted the track breaks. But a crystalline new mix, available only through Lagin’s website, presents a vastly expanded and rearranged two-CD iteration of Seastones, gorgeously reanimating one of the most misunderstood and literally misheard projects in the rock/experimental family tree. Between 1970 and 1975, Lagin and Seastones arrived at what Brian Eno and others would later call “generative music.” Running modular-synth signals through chains of effects and gates—often involving other musicians as filters—the M.I.T.-trained biologist created what he called “moment forms,” not intended to be listened to in any fixed order. Broken down for the first time into 83 unnamed individual tracks, ready for shuffling at the highest possible fidelity (or cherry-picking one’s favorites) the new Seastones is an ever-changing carousel of surprising sound sculptures, tangible and visceral, often exquisitely delicate—and nearly all unsuited for anything other than total foreground listening, linear only if a listener is willing to commit to a stroll through Lagin’s creations. While some moment forms seem to anticipate Eno’s own experiments with atmospheric music, they disappear into Seastones’ constant reminders about the beauty, power, and sometimes discomfort of pure sound.
Though the original Seastones would find an audience among experimental-music heads and noise connoisseurs, it would likewise remain in the record-collecting memory due to its other feature: an all-star lineup, albeit one with a major caveat. It features significant participation by the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, and Mickey Hart; Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick; the ever-game David Crosby; and others. As the Dead’s in-house modular-synth genius, Lagin performed with the Dead live—check out 9/11/74—and in the studio, and these appearances would cement him as a glowing avant-garde node within the Dead’s music when the band got hip again around the turn of the 21st century. Throughout 1974, Lagin and Lesh would perform unannounced through the Dead’s mammoth Wall of Sound speaker array, making music that was often a combination of minimalist, rumbling, and disconcerting, sometimes moving from harsh and expressive noise to sublime space jazz. Trending Now Explore Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (in 4 Minutes) Yet, with a few notable exceptions, these marquee names are virtually unrecognizable except as their most distilled musical personalities, their egos subsumed into the larger creation.
On the original, not even Lagin’s name was on the front cover, with Lesh receiving a large-font second billing on the LP sticker itself, though not here. Originally issued on Garcia and Ron Rakow’s independent label Round Records, Lagin’s music would confound generations of Deadheads, though it would also inspire at least one Ph.D thesis chapter and the detailed chronology NedBase. Perhaps best listened to in the dark on headphones, or sitting directly between properly cranked speakers, Seastones offers a variety of synaesthetic vistas: cybernetic pebbles skipping across a digital pond and over the event horizon (“Track 79”); interdimensional pipe-organ swells (“Track 57”); modular synth beats only a knob-tweak (and bass drop) away from a modern dance floor (“Track 05”); conversations in impenetrable tongues (“Track 06”); cackling insect reveries (“Track 80”); an all-too-brief three-minute movement of Yayoi Kusama-like dots (“Track 70”); bursts of fine-grained static (the 17-second “Track 17”); the rush of ocean in a seashell (“Track 54”); and much more. Very occasionally, recognizable human voices emerge, like the unmistakable quizzical smokiness of Grace Slick, delivering Joycean wordplay (“Track 20”). The double album’s pick hit, as it were, is “Track 66”: Jerry Garcia intoning half-sung poetry (in variations on the original LP’s back cover), a performance as psychedelic as it is tender, his voice merging seamlessly into Lagin’s electronic tapestry. The culmination of a half-decade of work at M.I.T., Brandeis, and in the wilds of Marin County, the new edition of Seastones is Ned Lagin’s opus, a vast and beautiful musical universe. Ranging from seven seconds to 10 minutes, the 83 non-linear segments of Lagin’s “open form mobile composition” are microcosmic windows into his world. In expansive liner notes peppered by quotes from ecologist-activists like Rachel Carson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lagin patches the long-tail forces of natural history to the moment-form technical specs of his sound-making tools—including modular synths by E-mu and Buchla, a pair of Arps (2500 and Odyssey), and an Interdata 7/16 processor that Lagin programmed directly in machine code and assembly language. All of it comes glowing with the optimism of the age, combining 20th-century modernism with the San Francisco psychedelic renaissance. The latter was then reaching its apex, rock’n’roll’s pre-punk aspirations still pointing towards the society-changing visions of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog as much as the avant-garde atmospheres of Seastones, with its musical ecologies and systems harmonies. It was all destined to go awry. Lagin would walk away from the Dead world only months after the album was released, resurfacing last year with his first new public work since the ’70s in the form of new photographs, art, writing, and an eclectic, beguiling album called Cat Dreams, less like the atonality of Seastones and perhaps more like what Jerry Garcia might have done had he pushed more rigorously into the age of MIDI.
A quiet and almost secret coda to an age of unimaginable creative ambition, Seastones remains an island of sound removed from the classic-rock archipelago, hewn by waves and now separated by time. “Seas tones,” as Lagin sometimes spells it, the moment forms collected along the shore. The music remains fully mysterious, but no longer impenetrable. Cleaned up, with nearly a half-century more of electronic pioneers behind it, the 21st century Seastones is more knowable than ever—sensations to link the ear and brain on an even more faraway beach.
During the set breaks of 23 Grateful Dead shows between June and October of 1974, audience members who didn’t take the opportunity to hit the snack bar or the restroom were treated to a short-lived phenomenon called Seastones. Electronic music composer Ned Lagin, who had already been contributing to Dead music since 1970, was joined onstage by bassist Phil Lesh and, depending who felt like it, other members of the Dead, to engage in a mini-set of music that some fans found fascinating and trippy and others—well, let’s just say not everyone loved it. An album, simply titled Seastones and released in 1975 on the Dead’s Round Records, presented a small section of the larger work, and featured guest appearances by Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, Grace Slick and others. In 2018, a new two-CD collection presented more of the original Seastones—nearly two hours of it. Now, some of that music has come to vinyl for the first time, initially for Record Store Day 2020. Suffice to say that the “new” Seastones doesn’t expand the definition appreciably; it’s more of what was introduced 45 years ago, and those who got it then may welcome these other compositions (and it is largely composed music, not improvised), while those who found it irritating back in the day are unlikely to be swayed. Those who have never heard Seastones, however, and who are predisposed toward edgy, early computer/synth-based music, may want to take the plunge: Lagin was, without a doubt, an innovator in his chosen discipline, as his was music challenging and “out” enough to grab the interest of members of the Grateful Dead during a period when they were each trying on different musical clothes to see what fit. Seastones’ visit to Dead-land didn’t last long, but its impact was significant—just listen to any “Space” segment of a Dead show and its influence is there.