Looking at the music of Dutch rock band Focus, started in the late sixties by Thijs Van Leer (b /31/03/48) with Jan Akkerman (b 24/12/46). Van Leer still performs and records under the name today (official site here). Akkerman's site here.

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20090126

Track by track 81

Archive number: 81
Title: Indian Summer
Main Album: Focus (1985)
Track number: 4
Genre: Progressive Rock Instrumental
Studio: Studio Spitsbergen, Zuidbroek, Groningen, The Netherlands (mixed at Dureco Studios, Weesp, The Netherlands)
Length: 05' 49”
Composer: Jan Akkerman
Musicians: Jan Akkerman - Synthesiser Guitar, drum machine, Acoustic guitar; Thijs Van Leer – Keyboards inc synthesisers, Flute; Tato Gomez – Bass; Ustad Zamir Ahmad Khan - Tabla; Fairlight programmed by Ed Staring.
Producer: Ruud Jacobs with Jan Akkerman, Thijs Van Leer and Theo Balijon
Engineer: Emile Elsen, Jan Akkerman and Theo Balijon
Label: Mercury (Phonogram)/Vertigo
Date of recording/release: Recorded 1985 Released LP/CD -1985 CD – 1989
Alternative version: None
Notes: Van Leer took us to Russia and Argentina, here Akkerman turns to India for inspiration. First we hear a sitar-like lead guitar backed by synthesised drums and electric bass (00:00-00:51). From 00:51 Van Leer's keyboards join in with brass and flute sounds of a grand, more western sort. From 01:29 things get very eastern with an energetic flute-led, tabla-backed sound. An Indian-sounding guitar or keyboard also features. From 02:00 a Spanish guitar can also be heard as can other more conventional guitar sounds as the piece moves on. At 02:53 the tablas become more prominent again as the previous themes continue. There is a distinct slowing down from 03:34 in keeping with the flute style. However, just when the music is about to die things revive again with brassy keyboards and later guitar (eg at 05:06). Eventually we come to the final melt down, the end of which is punctuated by a final strong synthesised drumbeat (05:47-05:49).
Note on tabla (from Wikipedia)
The tabla is a popular Indian percussion instrument used in classical, popular and religious music of the Indian subcontinent and in Hindustani classical music. The instrument consists of a pair of hand drums of contrasting sizes and timbres. The term tabla is derived from an Arabic word, tabl, which simply means "drum".
The instrument's history is uncertain and has been the subject of sometimes heated debate. The most common historical account credits the 13th century Indian poet Amir Khusrau with its invention when he split a single Pakhawaj drum into two parts. However, none of his writings on music mention the drum. Another common history suggests that the tabla is thousands of years old, yet critics assert this is mere conjecture, based on slipshod interpretations of iconography. The most reliable historical evidence places its invention in the 18th century. The first verifiable player of tabla was Ustad Sudhar Khan of Delhi.
The smaller drum, played with the dominant hand, sometimes called dayan ("right") but correctly the "tabla" is made from a conical piece of mostly shesham or teak and rose wood hollowed out to approximately half its total depth. One of the primary tones on the drum is tuned to a specific note, thus contributing to and complementing the melody. The tuning range is limited though different dāyāñs are produced in different sizes, each with a different range. For a given dāyāñ, to achieve harmony with the soloist, it will usually be necessary to tune to either the tonic, dominant or subdominant of the soloist's key.
The larger drum, played with the other hand, is called bāyāñ ("left"). The bāyāñ has a much deeper bass tone. It may be made of brass (most common) or copper (more expensive but generally held to be best) while aluminium and steel are often found in inexpensive models. One sometimes finds wood used (especially old bāyāñs from the Punjab). Clay is also used, although not favoured for durability (generally found in the North-East region of Bengal).
The playing technique for both drums involves extensive use of fingers and palms in various configurations to create a wide variety of sounds. On the bāyāñ the heel of the hand is also used to apply pressure, or in a sliding motion, so that the pitch is changed during the sound's decay. This "modulating" effect on the bass drum and the wide range of sounds possible on the instrument as a whole are the main characteristics that make tabla unique among percussion instruments.
Both drum shells are covered with a head (puri) constructed from goat or cow skin. An outer ring of skin (keenar) overlays the main skin and serves to suppress some of the natural overtones. The two skins are bound together with a complex woven braid that also gives the entire assembly enough strength to be tensioned onto the shell. The completed head construction is affixed to the drum shell with a single continuous piece of cow or camel hide strap laced between the braid of the head assembly and another ring (made from the same strap material) placed on the drum's bottom. The strap is tensioned to achieve the desired pitch of the drum. Additionally, cylindrical wood blocks (ghatta) are inserted between the strap and the shell allowing the tension to be adjusted by their vertical positioning. Fine tuning is achieved by striking vertically on the braided portion of the head with a small hammer.
The skins of both drums also have an inner circle on the head, the syahi ("ink"). This is constructed using multiple layers of a paste made from starch (rice or wheat) mixed with a black powder. The precise construction and shaping of this area allows modification of the drum's natural overtones, resulting in a clarity of pitch and a variety of tonal possibilities unique to this instrument. The skill required for the proper construction of this area is great and is where the quality of a particular instrument is most likely to differ.
For stability, each drum is positioned on a toroidal bundle called chutta or guddi, consisting of plant fibre or other malleable material wrapped in cloth.

20090123

Track by track 80

Archive number: 80
Title: Le TangoMain Album: Focus (1985)
Track number: 3
Genre: Progressive Rock Instrumental
Studio: Studio Spitsbergen, Zuidbroek, Groningen, The Netherlands (mixed at Dureco Studios, Weesp, The Netherlands)
Length: 04' 49”
Composer: Thijs Van Leer/Roselie Peters
Musicians: Jan Akkerman - Synthesiser Guitar, drum machine; Thijs Van Leer – Keyboards inc piano and synthesisers; Sergio Castillio – Drum fills; Fairlight programmed by Ed Staring.
Producer: Ruud Jacobs with Jan Akkerman, Thijs Van Leer and Theo Balijon
Engineer: Emile Elsen, Jan Akkerman and Theo Balijon
Label: Mercury (Phonogram)/Vertigo
Date of recording/release: Recorded 1985 Released LP/CD -1985 CD – 1989
Alternative version: Van Leer has recorded this number more than once elsewhere
Notes: Van Leer has said that he heard the Polish-American pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) saying how much he loved the tango (it is in a 1969 documentary on his life L'amour de la vie). It led Van Leer to write this number with his then wife. Here, we begin with loud guitar and drums from Akkerman (00:00-00:12) but the track quickly slips into the familiar tango rhythm, provided chiefly by Van Leer's piano (00:13-00:38). From 00:39 and a torpedo-like sound that occurs again at times (eg 01:03, 01:36) the two elements combine, staccato rhythm predominating over slight melody (00:40-02:38). A much faster guitar-led section follows (02:39-03:08) before returning to the previous staccato style. Not really getting anywhere the track begins to fade from about 04:30.

Note on the tango (from Wikipedia)
Tango is a musical genre and is used for its associated dance forms. It is traditionally played by a sextet, known as the orquestra typica (2 violins, piano, double bass, 2 bandoneons). Earlier forms of this ensemble sometimes included flute, clarinet and guitar. Tango music may be instrumental or include a vocalist. It is well-known across much of the world, along with the associated dance, which originated in (lower-class districts of) Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay. Early tango was sometimes known as tango criollo.
The music derives from the fusion of various forms from Europe. Jorge Luis Borges (El idioma de los argentinos) writes:"Tango belongs to theRio de la Plata and it is the son of Uruguyan “milonga” and grandson of the “habanera”. The word Tango seems to have first been used in connection with the dance in the 1890s. The music's deep roots cannot be fully known but it is safe to assume that it is a combination of musical traditions from Spain, West Africa, Central Europe and North America, in chronological order.
Even though the present forms are 19th century, there are records of 18th and early 19th century tango styles in Cuba and Spain, while there is a flamenco tango dance that may share a common ancestor in a minuet-style European dance. All sources stress the influence of the African communities and their rhythms, while the instruments and techniques brought in by European immigrants in the second half of the 19th century played a major role in its final definition, relating it to the salon music styles.
The first tango ever recorded was made by Angel Villodo and played by the French national guard in Paris. Villoldo had to record in Paris because there was no recording studio in Argentina at the time. Early tango was played by immigrants in Buenos Aires. The first generation of tango players was called "Guardia Vieja" (the Old Guard). By the end of the 19th century, the music was heard throughout metropolitan Buenos Aires. It took time to move into wider circles. In the early 20th century it was the favourite music of gangsters who visited the brothels, in a city with 100,000 more men than women (1914). The complex dances that arose from the music reflect the habit of men practicing tango together in groups, expressing both machismo and sexual desire, leading to the form's distinct mix of sensitivity and aggression. The music was played on portable instruments (flute, guitar, violins, etc). The organito, a portable player-organ, broadened the popularity of certain songs.
Like many forms of popular music, the tango was associated with the underclass, and the better-off Argentines tried to restrict its influence. In spite of the scorn, some were fans. A poem describes the music as like the "all-absorbing love of a tyrant, jealously guarding his dominion, over women who have surrendered submissively, like obedient beasts".
The tango has attracted many musicians and has become part of the repertoire for some classical musicians. One of the first classical interpreters to "cross over" was baritone Jorge Chamine, who worked with bandoneonist Olivier Manoury. Since then, Yo-Yo Ma, Danile Barenboim, Placido Domingo, etc, have performed and recorded tangos. Among classical composers who have written tangos are Albeniz (in España 1890), Satie (1914), Stravinsky (1918) and John Cage (1984). Many popular songs in the US have borrowed melodies from tango.

20090119

Track by track 79

Archive number: 79
Title: King Kong
Main Album: Focus (1985)
Track number: 2
Genre: Progressive Rock Instrumental
Studio: Studio Spitsbergen, Zuidbroek, Groningen, The Netherlands (mixed at Dureco Studios, Weesp, The Netherlands)
Length: 03' 47”
Composer: Jan Akkerman
Musicians: Jan Akkerman - Synthesiser Guitar, Acoustic guitar; Thijs Van Leer – Synthesisers, Flute; Fairlight programmed by Ed Staring
Producer: Ruud Jacobs with Jan Akkerman, Thijs Van Leer and Theo Balijon
Engineer: Emile Elsen, Jan Akkerman and Theo Balijon
Label: Mercury (Phonogram)/Vertigo
Date of recording/release: Recorded 1985 Released LP/CD -1985 CD – 1989
Alternative version: Akkerman incorporates a version into a suite on Live at the Priory
Notes: In the House of the King tradition, this track begins briefly with harp-like synthesiser (guitar?), 00:00-00:05, before breaking into first a more soaring (00:06-00:38) then a more jazzy flute-led element, backed by synthesised and acoustic strummed guitar with percussive sounds (00:39-01:45). When this breaks down we are back with the more soaring (01:46-02:18) then more jazzy flute parts again (02:19-02:34). Next comes a guitar and (slapped-thigh-like) percussion section with guitar harmonics (02:35-02:49) and a brief drum fill (02:50). Finally we head back to the soaring flute lead (02:51-03:40) and end with the flute backed by bubbling synthesisers.
Note on King Kong (from Wikipedia)
King Kong is the name of a fictional giant gorilla from the fictional Skull Island, who has appeared in several works since 1933. These include the groundbreaking 1933 film, the filmremakes of 1976 (and then 2005) and numerous sequels. His role in the different narratives varies from source to source, ranging from mindless monster to tragic antihero. The rights to the character are currently held by Universal Studios, with limited rights held by the estate of Merian C Cooper (the originator of the character).

Track by track 78

Archive number: 78
Title: Russian Roulette
Main Album: Focus (1985)
Track number: 1
Genre: Progressive Rock Instrumental
Studio: Studio Spitsbergen, Zuidbroek, Groningen, The Netherlands (mixed at Dureco Studios, Weesp, The Netherlands)
Length: 05' 50”
Composer: Thijs Van Leer
Musicians: Jan Akkerman - Synthesiser Guitar, drum machine; Thijs Van Leer – Keyboards inc piano and synthesisers; Tato Gomez – Bass; Fairlight programmed by Ed Staring.
Producer: Ruud Jacobs with Jan Akkerman, Thijs Van Leer and Theo Balijon
Engineer: Emile Elsen, Jan Akkerman and Theo Balijon
Label: Mercury (Phonogram)/Vertigo
Date of recording/release: Recorded 1985 Released LP/CD -1985 CD – 1989
Alternative version: None
Notes: This is the popular Focus style but without the yodelling. The track is introduced with what appears to be a synthesised guitar, slow and moody, backed by synthesised keyboards and a drum machine (00:00-00:52). It moves to a guitar-led section (00:53-01:54) where the piano can be heard backing up the main theme. At 01:55 a faster section with synthesised timpani cuts across things (01:55-02:33) before a move back to the slower yearning melody (02:34-03:33). The quicker piece is then repeated (03:34-04:13). At 04:13 we move into another melodic section (04:13-05:30) that picks up on some earlier themes before an abbreviated quick-paced segment comes in for the last time but soon fades (05:31-05:50). Perhaps the Russian part of the title acknowledges a debt to Tchaikovsky or someone similar.
Note on Russian Roulette (from Wikipedia)
The term is used for a potentially lethal game of chance in which participants place a single round in a revolver, spin the cylinder, place the muzzle against their head and pull the trigger.
Russian suggests a country of origin and roulette refers to the element of risk taking, the spinning of the revolver's cylinder being reminiscent of the spinning of a roulette wheel. The game's form can be as varied as the participants or their motives (displays of bravado, suicide, etc), but typically a single round is placed in a six-shot revolver resulting in a 1 in 6 (c 17%) chance of the revolver discharging the round. The revolver's cylinder can either be spun again to reset the game conditions, or the trigger can be pulled again. Using revolvers with fewer chambers (typically 5) or increasing the number of rounds are variations that increase risk.
Legends abound regarding its invention. Most, predictably, are set in Russia or occur among Russian soldiers. In one, 19th century Russian prisoners are forced to play the game while prison guards bet on the outcome. In another version, desperate and suicidal Russian Army officers play the game to impress each other. Whether Tsarist officers actually played it is unclear. If the game originated in real life behaviour not fiction, it is unlikely that it started with the Russian military.
In Russian literature a book entitled
A Hero of our time by M Lermontov (1840, translated Nabokov 1958) mentions Russian Roulette. Russian roulette was made famous worldwide by 1978 movie The Deer Hunter, which features three soldiers captured during the Vietnam war and forced to play Russian roulette as their captors gamble on the results. Their captors demand an especially brutal variation of the game: continuing until all but one contestant is killed. The game takes place in a bamboo room above where other prisoners are held, so that the losers' blood drips down on future contestants. Several teen deaths following the movie's release caused police and the media to blame the film's depiction of Russian roulette for inspiring the youths.

Focus and synthesisers 1985

Though never exactly at the very cutting edge of technology, in their day Focus were not slow to use musical technology as it became available. Van Leer used the Mellotron on the first albums and later various synthesisers and other electronic keyboards. Akkerman similarly used various guitar pedals and both an electric sitar and a talk box on Mother Focus alongside rhythm or drum machines. It is no surprise then that when the two reunited for an album in 1985 both brought fairly state of the art synthesizers to the table, namely the Fairlight CMI and the Roland G-707 in combination with the GR-300 and GR-500. It was also Akkerman who programmed the Linndrum. The LinnDrum is manufactured by Roger Linn's Linn Electronics was released in 1982 as a successor to the Linn LM-1. It had 15 drum sounds sampled from real drums, a sequencer for programming rhythm patterns and five trigger inputs.

The Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument)
This was the first polyphonic digital sampling synthesiser. Designed in 1979 by Fairlight founders Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, it was based on a dual microprocessor computer designed by Tony Furse in Sydney, Australia. It rose to prominence in the early eighties and competed in the market with New England Digital's Synclavier. Both instruments featured in the work of famed eighties producer Trevor Horn.
The first people to buy the Fairlight were people like Herbie Hancock, Peter Gabriel, Todd Rundgren and Stevie Wonder. Among the first commercially-released albums to incorporate it were Kate Bush's Never for ever (1980) and Jean Michel Jarre's Magnetic Fields (1981). Another early user was Alan Parsons (Sirius, Eye in the sky) and later Yes. It can also be heard on U2's The unforgettable fire (1984).
The Fairlight was a development of an earlier synthesiser, the Qasar M8, an attempt to create sound by modelling all of the parameters of a waveform in real time. Unfortunately, this was beyond the available processing power of the day, and the results were disappointing. In an attempt to make something of it, Vogel and Ryrie decided to see what it would do with a naturally recorded sound wave as a starting point. To their surprise the effect was remarkable, and the digital sampler was born.
By 1979, Series I was being demonstrated but sound quality was not quite up to professional standards, having only 24kHz sampling. It wasn't until Series II (1982) that this was rectified. In 1983 MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface – an industry wide digital system) was added with the Series Iix. In 1985 Series III supported full CD quality sampling (16bit/44.1kHz).
The Fairlight ran its own operating system (QDOS a modified version of Motorola MDOS) and had a primitive (by modern standards) menu-driven GUI. The basic system used a number of Motorola 6800 processors, with separate cards dealing with specific parts of the system, such as the display driver, keyboard interface, etc. The main device for interacting with the machine apart from the keyboard was a light pen, which could be used to select options presented on a monochrome green-screen.
The Series III model dropped the light pen interface in favour of a graphics tablet built into the keyboard. This model was built around Motorola 68000 processors, running Microware's OS-9 Level II operating system (6809 version). One of the Fairlight's most significant software features was the so-called "Page R", a real time graphical pattern sequence editor, widely copied on other software synths since. The feature was often a key part of the buying decision of artists.
The Fairlight CMI was very well built, assembled by hand with expensive components and consequently highly priced (c £20,000 for a Series I). Although later models, adjusting for inflation, were getting comparatively less expensive as the relevant technology was getting cheaper, competitors with similar performance and lower prices started to multiply. Fairlight managed to survive until the mid-eighties, mainly bidding on its legendary name and its cult status, sought after by those that could afford its prices.
Fairlight went bankrupt a few years later owing to the expense of building the instruments. As a last-ditch attempt to salvage a small something, the final run of machines were marketed as word-processors. Peter Vogel said in 2005 "We were reliant on sales to pay the wages and it was a horrendously expensive business ... Our sales were good right up to the last minute, but we just couldn't finance the expansion and the R&D."

The Roland G707 Guitar synthesiser
The Roland Corporation is a Japanese manufacturer of electronic musical instruments and similar items founded in 1972 by Ikutaro Kakehashi. Since 2005 its HQ has been in Hamamatsu. It has existed in different forms since 1960, making it one of the oldest still-operating manufacturers of musical electronics, and has survived changes in technology to become one of the most noteworthy and widely-used brands in electronic music and production today.
In 1977 the Roland GR-500 became the first commercially available guitar synthesiser. The synthesiser module included bass, solo synth and string sounds based on previous orchestral and analogue mono-synths from Roland. There are a number of sliders to adjust the VCO, VCF, VCA and LFO sections, but no memory to store your edits. The synth module is controlled by a "highly modified" guitar. It utilized a special pickup system that connected to the synth module via Roland's own 24-pin interface and controlled it using CV/GATE signals generated by the guitar's pickup system while playing the guitar. In addition to the modified pickup, there were magnets under the face of the guitar that could increase its sustain. Performance accuracy was "iffy" but good for 1977 and pre-MIDI. It was used by Lou Reed, Jimmy Page, Mike Rutherford (Genesis) and others.
The G-707 model, which is a guitar, first appeared in 1984 and included MIDI. The addition of a stabiliser bar running from the top of the neck to the bottom made it look quite different to previous models. The bar was created supposedly to defeat "dead spots" on the guitar where a neck might not send full tracking info to the floor unit. The originally designed tremolo unit featured 16-millimetre ball bearings on the pivots and the roller bridges to keep the strings in tune at all times. The G-707 had a maple neck, rosewood fingerboard, alder body and the stabiliser was made of expanded ABS resins. It came in three colours: Silver, Red, and Black.