Since you can’t peel back the YouTube algorithm, there’s no telling how we wound up staring at western Canada circa the mid-80s. But how else would you come across an obscure independent engineer who quietly released a solo album of electronic music produced on an instrument of his own design and construction? A good decade or so before people were tossing around the term Eurorack, TJ Lawrence’s Delta Music Research Modular synth was an analogue wonder that failed to appear on the electronic music radar.
Tim Lawrence grew up as an unsung prodigy of sorts, teaching himself how to play Bach in a mostly unmusical household in Winnipeg. “He was always interested in music and science,” says his sister Bonnie. “As a teenager he had a lab in the basement with a lock on the door. Our poor dad didn’t know anything about it, until he nearly blew himself up.”
A disciple of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and King Crimson, Lawrence experimented with LSD before he arrived at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. Whatever training he got was apparently sufficient for him to construct polyphonic digital/analogue hybrid modular that by all accounts is an extremely accomplished piece of kit. Whatever music scene existed in Calgary in the early 80s didn’t spawn much, if any, ink in the glossy music rags of the day, but that didn’t deter Lawrence from composing the outstanding material that wound up on ‘Illuminations’ – his only commercial release.
Pitched somewhere between Harmonia and peak Christoph Franke-era Tangerine Dream, both sides of this private pressing could easily stand alongside the best works of Suzanne Ciani or Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company. That might have seemed “quaint” in a post DX-7 world, but in reality it was akin to putting out a collection of fiddle tracks with an instrument carved from a hand-raised spruce.
Not many Delta systems have survived, but the 1100 model that lives in the National Music Centre in Calgary, is in great nick and has been used by composers like Keith Fullerton Whitman.
Following a long struggle with schizophrenia, Tim Lawrence died in 2008. His sister reveals an extensive reissue campaign is underway. But until then, trolling YouTube or Discogs for snatches of Lawrence’s brilliance is the best you’ll be able to do.