Music, Musings, History, and News
I recently wrote album liner notes about Emerald Web, for a vinyl double album release of two of our vintage albums, "Sound Trek" and "Valley of the Birds", in Europe .
This is a story about the short period of time when we were composing and recording those 2 albums (1979-1981). It contains a lot of technical info, but it also describes our life and adventures. It’s a little slice of the whole story of that time.
Emerald Web was a band that released 12 albums, performed in concert 1977-1990, and composed film scores for PBS, Apple Computers, Astronomer Carl Sagan, and more. The husband and wife duo, Bob Stohl and Kat Epple, co-composed an innovative blend of “Electronic Space Music" mixed with acoustic instruments. Their first album, “Dragon Wings and Wizard Tales” was released in 1979. Later albums include “Whispered Visions,” "Sound Trek,” "Valley of the Birds,” “Traces of Time,” “Nocturne,” "Lights of the Ivory Plains,” "Catspaw,” "Dreamspun,” and "Manatee Dreams of Neptune.” Two of their additional albums were created in collaboration with other artists: “Aqua Regia” with Barry Cleveland and “Strategic Structures” with legendary visual artist Robert Rauschenberg.
Commentary by Kat Epple of Emerald Web about these two albums:
Emerald Web’s music is difficult to categorize.
Perhaps it’s because our music didn’t originate from the love of one specific genre of music. It was influenced by a wide variety of music, books, science, art, and nature.
The intention of our music was to tell a story and to transport the listener to another place and time. Our storylines are diverse, and each listener hears a unique narrative.
Reviewers and music critics have written that Emerald Web’s music has elements of fantasy, science fiction, spirituality, outer space, gothic, world music, classical music, and electronic music. Well, it’s probably true, since those are all themes that fascinated Bob Stohl and me.
Although our music was synthesizer-based, we also incorporated flute, native instruments, other acoustic instruments, noise, orchestral scores, and Musique Concréte.
A Sense of Place
Events in our lives, and the people and places that surrounded us at the time, inspired and influenced our music and gives it a sense of place. This can be heard on each of our albums. For example, our first album was written when we were living in a haunted mansion.
In 1978, our friend and Executive Producer, Paul Leka, asked us to house-sit “The Colgate Mansion” in Sharon, Connecticut, which he had recently purchased. Built in 1906, the Colgate Estate included 100 acres of land, horse stables, a library, billiards room, and a massive reflecting pool. In the early 1900s, it was known for its notoriously Gatsby-esque opulent parties and famous visitors. Since the deaths of the ill-fated Colgates, it was reportedly haunted. In addition to being far away from another human being, the countryside mansion was also far from television broadcast towers. This was long before the internet. So when not composing, we read books as we sat facing the giant antique mirror’s reflected images and warped glass, distorted with age. The books we read those months were The Earthsea Trilogy and The Tolkien Trilogy. We lived in the mansion over the summer of 1978, just the two of us, on that huge estate with the ornate Corinthian pillars, massive wrought iron gates, ghosts, macabre mirror, and bats flying through the grand halls, as we composed music for our first album, “Dragon Wings and Wizard Tales.” The dragons and wizards, who lived in the books we read, and the fantastical setting where we lived, certainly changed the music by adding dark colors and twilit landscapes.
When the major record company we were in negotiation with pulled out to sign Disco artists instead, we released “Dragon Wings and Wizard Tales” on vinyl in 1979. The album sold in record stores such as Tower Records, under the category of Progressive Rock, Fantasy Rock, or Psychedelic, although none of those categories quite fit the music.
Our amazing time in the mansion came to an end when Ace Frehley from KISS arrived to record his album there.
We soon found our next home, a log cabin on a beautiful lake in upstate Connecticut. It was there, in our 4-track home studio, surrounded by nature, that we recorded our second album, “Whispered Visions.” Reflecting our surroundings, the music was dark, serene, and ethereal. We recorded late at night when the cabin had cooled from the summer heat, and the sounds of night nature whispered through the window screens.
The album was released in 1980 on cassette and began selling in a new music genre, New Age!
This new music distribution channel sold primarily through New Age book stores, spiritual centers, and New Age Festivals, and not generally carried in record stores. We were delighted our “Electronic Space Music” could be included in this new music category.
Because cassettes were the preferred format for the New Age market, it was easy for independent artists to introduce their music to distributors and retail outlets. For those of us not yet selling large quantities, we could duplicate our own cassette albums, 10 or 20 at a time, and ship them more easily and cheaply than vinyl.
In our log cabin, we duplicated cassettes in “real time,” then packed boxes to ship to distributors and stores in New York City, and Los Angeles, with the bulk of them going to San Francisco. One day, as we packed up another order for 50 cassettes to ship to a San Francisco distributor, I laughed and commented that we should just move to the place where most of our fans live—San Francisco.
We decided to make that move, gathered our very limited financial resources, loaded the van with as much music, recording, and camping equipment as would fit, and drove from Connecticut to the San Francisco Bay Area, playing concerts scheduled along the way. Someday, I would like to write a screen play about this trip, with its elements of undaunted optimism. The story centers on the adventures of a cross-country road trip in a faltering old van, the concerts and people we met along the way, the scenic beauty of the countryside, and a young couple in love. I can already hear the film’s music score!
Shortly after we arrived in California, Bob and I were invited to stay temporarily at the White Crane Silat Indonesian martial arts ashram, located on several wooded acres in the Berkeley Hills. Overlooking San Francisco Bay, the ashram was owned by Grandmaster Suhu Subur Rahardja, and his wife, Louise, who both lived in Indonesia. Although I was expecting our accommodations to be a bed in a bunkhouse setting, instead, we were shown to a beautiful garage apartment, built into the hillside, where we could stay for a few days while searching for an apartment to rent. Within days, Max, a teacher from the school, knocked on our door to tell us that Suhu had called from Indonesia to say that he wanted us to stay on in the apartment, and we didn’t need to look for another place to live…. and Suhu and Louise hadn’t even met us yet. It was then that Bob and I began our years of training in Silat, the remarkable Martial Art form that was taught at the ashram.
That is the story of how we ended up living in the “Valley of the Birds,” which is what they called the wooded acres nestled on the hillside between freeways and city streets. A small stream with fresh water for the birds to bathe in and drink, trickled down the hillside, and trees provided shade and comfort. The area came to be known as the Valley of the Birds, because birds of all types visited there to escape either the stress of the city or to rest due to the arduous work of migration. It was said that the birds also flew to this tranquil place to die. The energy there was extraordinary and inspiring.
A few years after we moved into The Valley of the Birds, the property was sold, and Bob and I prepared to move away from our beloved home. On the day the new owner took possession of the property, we heard a knock on the door, and expected an eviction notice. Upon answering it, we met the new owner of the property, Adam Osborne, inventor of the personal computer. We were delighted when he asked us to continue to live there in the apartment in the Valley of the Birds (but that is another chapter).
The first album Emerald Web produced after moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, was “Sound Trek.” In fact, the album cover by Karl Cohen shows a UFO flying over the Bay Bridge. In the background of the photo you see the Berkeley/Oakland hills where our apartment, recording studio, and the Valley of the Birds were located.
At that time, the Bay Area was the epicenter of the New Age and Space Music movement. The radio show, “Music from the Hearts of Space" broadcast late-night from KPFA-FM Berkeley, California, and played the music of Emerald Web regularly. The program quickly gained popularity and became widely syndicated.
The rapid growth of the technology and film industries made it an exciting time to live in the San Francisco Bay area. Bob and I perpetually researched the cutting edge of music technology and collaborated with visual artists, engineers, animators, scientists, electronic music instrument designers, authors, video artists, film directors, musicians, spiritual leaders, and martial artists.
The title of this album, ”Sound Trek”, was partly inspired by our excitement about the work we were doing with audio, and interfacing it with the other disciplines. These collaborations were an excursion into unknown territory with audio—a sound trek.
Well, the title was also inspired by our love of the original Science Fiction TV show, “Star Trek.” We often performed our “space music” for Star Trek and Star Wars conventions. At that time (1980-1983), there was a lot of exuberance about Star Wars, and the conventions were fantastic fun!
In addition to Star Wars/Trek Conventions, our concerts took place in a variety of alternative venues, such as: New Age Music Festivals, New-Thought churches, Spiritual Centers, Yoga Studios, coffee houses, book stores, and science-based venues such as The California Academy of Sciences, Morrison Planetarium, The Exploratorium Science Museum, Chabot Astronomical Observatory, The Oakland Zoo, and a Concert for Peace in an abandoned underground Nike Missile Site.
We were invited to perform at these science venues because of our friendships with scientists, being fans of their work, and our collaborations on projects that involved science and music.
Emerald Web performed live on stage with a wide array of synthesizers, sequencers, acoustic instruments, audio effects, and mixing board. It was a lot of technology for us to manage during live performance.
Sound engineers often found it challenging to mix our live music because it was difficult to quickly determine which synthesizer was creating each sound, and to know what would be musically happening next. So we mixed our own sound on stage while performing.
Although each song had a consistent melody and structure, we purposely changed it from one performance to the next, in order to keep it fresh, interesting, and evolving. We didn’t use pre-recorded tracks. We maintained the artistic space to musically react to the audience, light show, or dancers.
An added complexity to our live performance set-up, was that our sequencers at that time had volatile memory, which means when powered down, all sequencer information was erased. To prepare for a concert, we had to arrive early to set up, play in the sequencer parts on keyboard, program the synthesizers, and get a sound check.
Losing electrical power before or during the concert was a concern. If someone accidentally flipped off the electric switch, tripped over the electric cord, or if there was a momentary power failure, we would have to reprogram all the notes, timing, tuning, tempos, etc. This happened several times just before the theater doors opened, and I remember reprogramming sequences in headphones as the audience members were being seated.
One of the synths that I played in concerts was an Arp 2600 that consistently drifted out of tune. I used the technique of manually tuning the oscillators "on the fly" as I performed on stage with it. The synths on “Sound Trek” were monophonic keyboards (except for the RS-202), and were programmed using rotary knobs, sliders, and patch cables.
Bob was renowned for his playing and programming of the Lyricon Electronic Wind Instrument. The Lyricon is an unusual hybrid synthesizer/woodwind instrument that uses additive synthesis, and a bass clarinet mouthpiece. Bob created a variety of sounds on it such as oboe, synthesizer, cello, electric guitar, French horn, and contra bass. Because of Bob’s mastery of the instrument, Emerald Web was sponsored by Computone, the company that created the Lyricon.
In performance, and when recording in the studio, Bob and I switched between many different instruments. Often, I would play a sustained music bed, or sequence on a keyboard, then, while holding down the sustain pedal, I would go to the next instrument, program the new sound on it, adjust the mixing board, and begin playing it as I released the sustain pedal on the original synth. We had to make sure when setting up microphones, keyboards, and mixing board on stage, we both could reach everything from our sustain pedals.
Some of the Instruments we played on these two albums or played on stage at that time include:
Bob Stohl: Lyricon 1 and Lyricon 2 Electronic Wind Instruments, MiniMoog, Sequential Circuits Pro-1, Roland RS-202 String Ensemble, ElectroComp 500, Oberheim DS-2A Sequencer, flute, bass recorder, "Flute Electronique,” percussion, voice, and shakuhachi flute.
Kat Epple: Arp 2600, EML Synkey, Roland RS-202 String Ensemble, Vako Orchestron, Lyricon 2 Electronic Wind Instrument, Oberheim DS-2A Sequencer, Vocoder, piano, flute, bass recorder, percussion, voice, electronic flute, and mesquite flute.
After a year of living amidst this exhilarating San Francisco Bay Area scene, we began recording the “Valley of the Birds” album in our 4-track reel-to-reel recording studio.
Usually the first two tracks to be recorded included a live mix of the sequencers, synthesizers, and keyboard parts with effects. If either of us made a mistake on this music bed track, we had to start over again. Because nothing was synced, matching up the sounds and effects for punching in a track was not really an option.
The next tracks to be added were flutes, Lyricon, and any melodic keyboard part both Bob and I would play simultaneously on the remaining two tracks. We used two tracks rather than one for this pass, in order to have separation, and to get a discreet stereo image. Essentially, the music on many of the pieces on these two albums were recorded as two stereo tracks. As we recorded a track, we changed from one instrument to another, programmed the synths, mixed the sound, added effects, and monitored the VU meters to prevent overload, peaks, and distortion.
The “Valley of the Birds” album was released on cassette in 1981 and includes a lot of music we performed live in concert.The album was very well-received, and our music became widely-distributed internationally.,
Emerald Web later released eight more albums, signed with record labels, and played concerts around the US.
Through the years, many of our fans found it important to tell us about the profound connection they had with our music. Some were fascinated by the fantasy themes such as on the “Dragon Wings” album, others found the spiritual elements of the music resonated with them, and many were intrigued by the science, technology, and interstellar space elements.
More recently, I receive emails from people telling me how important our music was to them at a crucial time in their lives. Some of the emails are from original fans from the 1980s, recounting a memorable concert or experience; others are new fans who have only recently heard Emerald Web for the first time. I appreciate it when listeners take the time and energy to let me know how the music of Emerald Web has impacted them.
Bob Stohl and I were music partners, friends, and partners in life. We continued to live and work together until his accidental death in 1990.
Currently, I perform a blend of World, Electronic, Ambient, and New Age Music in concert, and compose music for albums and film scores. In my extensive travels around the world, I collect indigenous flutes and use them in my compositions.
I hear music in my dreams.
of the music duo Emerald Web