Phillip Werren ‘Electronic Music’

The four-lp boxset ‘Electronic Music’ by Phillip Werren was originally released in an edition of just 100, and made the news recently when a copy sold for over £2,000

This album was first released in 1971, and it came out on CD in 2006, so obviously someone has put all the tracks on YouTube. It was re-released on vinyl in August by Manufactured Recordings. I’m not sure whether the vinyl reissue came about because the music is so good (and it is, all the pieces are amazing, it’s a brilliant boxset) or because it has become so collectible. A copy was sold for over £2,000 on Discogs, so it made it onto their most expensive records list that month, which brought it a lot of attention.

I bought my copy back in the 1990s at a record fair called the KUSF Rock ’n’ Swap, organised by the San Francisco University radio station. As far as I can make out, they’ve been running these record fairs since the 1970s. They happen four times a year. The dealers get there at five in the morning, and if you pay a bit more for your ticket, you can get in at seven. I think the reason a lot of people go as dealers is just so they can get in early and pick off the cream of the crop. I used to go to all of them in the 90s. It was a bit of a slog, getting up at six in the morning, and I’d always be there with all the other DJs in the area. A lot of the records I’ve talked about here came from there.

Anyway, I think I paid around $100 for my copy of ‘Electronic Music’. If it’s got electronic music written on it, I’m going to take a look at it. I didn’t know the name Phillip Werren, but I read the booklet inside and it listed all the equipment used. Buchla and Moog modular were mentioned, so I bought it. Turns out this was the only record he ever did.

Werren was born in 1942 and studied music at Princeton, getting his degree in 1964. In 1967 he started visiting electronic music studios around Europe and America. He was getting grants to go and record in the studios, which had the equipment he was interested in experimenting with. He went to the Radio Warzawa studio in Poland and the McGill Electronic Music Studio in Montreal. The booklet in the boxset acknowledges the support of the President’s Research Grants Committee of Simon Fraser University in the credits. The Simon Fraser University is in Vancouver. All the music was recorded between 1967 and 1971. His first piece of electronic music was ‘Polish Wedding Music’, which is on side two of record three. That’s the one he recorded in Warsaw. He then became composer-in-residence at Simon Fraser University’s Centre For Communications And The Arts in 1968. The sleevenotes say that his compositions were strongly influenced by the “rhythm of the West Coast, his collaboration with artists in other media, and his fascination with the occult”. The biggest work in the boxset is called ‘Phases’, there are three parts, and each one takes up a side.

They are based on the “poetic images of WB Yeats”, who was also obsessed with the occult, and especially his book ‘A Vision: An Explanation Of Life Founded Upon The Writings Of Giraldus And Upon Certain Doctrines Attributed To Kusta Ben Luka’. The other pieces are all music made for film, theatre and dance.

The occult influence has probably got something to do with the record fetching so much money, because it crosses over into the psych genre. The labels on the discs are proper hand-drawn psych jobs. Collectors of these records often pay very big money for desirable items.

Some of it was recorded here in San Francisco in the 1960s, using the first Buchla ever made. Gear like that tends to take you down the experimental route, whether you’re trying or not. The track ‘Vortex’ starts off minimal and ends up as a bunch of noise by the end. He was from Vallejo in the Bay Area, maybe that’s why I found a copy here. I’m certainly glad I did.

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