Union of Sound Synthesists

25 september 2006

I’m looking for all kinds of informations about the lovely-named organization Union of Sound Synthesists, that splintered from the British Musicians’ Union in the early eighties or late seventies over a controversy about electronic music instruments ­- a story that I briefly referred earlier this summer in my speech at the Reboot conference:

During the early eighties, the American Federation of Musicians fought against use of synthesizers to mimic string and wind instruments, in the name of employment. One idea, seriously considerated in several countries, was to impose a special fee on synthesizers, to make them less attractive and to support orchestras with ”real” instruments.
The London chapter of the British musicians’ union went one step further, demanding a complete ban on synthesizers – which caused a split in the union, as musicians affirming electronics started their own Union of Sound Synthesists (USS).
Both electronic musicians and DJ:s were labelled as sell-outs playing the game of commercial interests. The unionist resistance against the synthesizer was rooted in an idea about how capitalists tries to lower production costs, just for their own profit.
The basis for that argument, was the hegemony of a very narrow definition of a musical performer: Only people mechanically controlling the production of sound in an instrument, like a violin or a saxophone.
But that narrow view was soon to be undermined by a number of experiments in hacking and indeterminacy, that explored the sonic machines as something else than just representational technologies. DJ:s hacked the turntable, transforming it into an instrument of musical production /…/ The Roland TB-303 was designed to reproduce the sound of a bass-guitar, but was hard to configure and made interesting mistakes. Soon the misuse became the norm, as the unique squelching sounds produced by its filters came to define a whole genre of music – acid house.

This mentioning of USS was based on some findings in my research about the Swedish Musicians’ Union’s attitudes towards ”mechanical music” and reproducibility. Anyway, not much more is available. On the web there a single reference: synthesizer player Mark Cocking claims to be one of the founders (”in the 1970s”) of the USS, adding: ”The wounds were promptly healed when it was realised that the Synthesiser was a legitimate instrument in its own right.
Also, there’s a short notice from year 1983 in the archives of Musical Times:

The Union of Sound Synthesists has issued a detailed press release concerning the Musicians’ Union attitude to the use of synthesizers and other electronic instruments in recorded and live performance; it is available from the USS, PO Box 376, East Molesey, Surrey KT8 90JB.

That press release – or any other material from or about the USS (including names of artists that were members) – would be highly interesting. Anyone knowing more, please feedback!


One Response to “Union of Sound Synthesists”

  1. […] Idag den 31 oktober kan vi fira tjugofemårsdagen av en symboliskt viktig händelse i musikhistorien. För precis ett kvarts sekel sedan släppte nämligen det sheffieldska synthpopbandet Human League sitt album Dare!. Om vi idag mest associerar låtar som Don’t You Want Me till dansgolvsnostalgi, inser vi kanske inte hur de elektroniska popdängornas succé skakade om musiketablissemanget.The rock establishment were horrified at the lack of conventional instruments and a bitter debate developed over fears that the new technology would banish guitars forever. In a move against synths, the Musician’s Union even began a campaign in the light of Dare called ‘Keep it Live’. They believed that the keyboards could compose melodies ‘at the touch of a button’ thus making session musicians redundant. /…/ The UK singles chart prior to Dare had previously been dominated by tired old guitar heroes and dreary ballads that belonged back in the 70’s, when Dare hit the airwaves it provided a sound that was years ahead of its time. The album was to change people’s perception of pop music forever.Framgångarna för Dare! provocerade alltså brittiska musikerfacket till en ny offensiv mot “den mekaniska musiken”, som man uppfattade som ett hot mot “riktiga” musikers arbetstillfällen. Fackets negativa inställning till synthar ledde till och med till en tillfällig utbrytning med det ofantligt sköna namnet Union of Sound Synthesists. Även inom Svenska Musikerförbundet betraktades synthpop med mycket stor misstänksamhet vid denna tid. Året 1982 konstaterade Musikern att nu gäller “bara synt-pop. Skivbolagen har kört fram artister som t ex Human League”.Typiskt för den fackliga attityden var att se elektroniska instrument som ett krasst påfund från profithungriga skivbolag, vilka genom en långt driven mekanisering helt enkelt ville pressa ner kostnaderna för att skapa musik, på de levande musikernas bekostnad. […]


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