February 25, 2019
Released In 1976
Released By Homewood Records
It’s rare that I come across something that I became as obsessed with as I did with Mort Garson’s Plantasia. This record was the only thing I listened to for two straight weeks this past fall. We had it in my house on loan from my buddy Doug (who runs a record store called Rocket Number 9 in Kingston, NY) and everything about it was just screaming for me to take it home. The font, the artwork, the subtitle “warm earth music for plants and the people who love them.” Just as a visual object alone, the LP jacket was like, my favorite thing I’d ever seen.
I figured it would be perfect for me because I have a lot of plants. They are all in various states of sadness, but there are a lot of them; it’s really the only non-necessity I spend any money on. When I moved into my new house last winter, the plants got even sadder because there’s barely any natural light; we are surrounded by trees and the house is old and doesn’t have a lot of windows. So, the first time I put Plantasia on the turntable, I was really hoping it would turn things around for the little guys. I’m not sure that it did, but it really lifted the spirits of the humans they live with.
The whole record is just synthesizers, these beautiful suites that are modern and classical and a little jazzy at points. It’s really like nothing I had ever heard before or since. Each song is meticulously crafted yet super dreamy. Garson juxtaposes this cerebral and skilled execution with these really rather simple and natural movements. It reminds me a lot of Bach; there is so much math and logic to his compositions, but it’s also full of whimsy and beauty and life. It’s really special music. And there are these blooming sort of sunbeam sounds that come out of the clouds every once in a while, they sound like cartoon laser sound effects (but musical) and when you hear those, it really feels like sunlight. Not sure if my plants got the message, but I certainly did.
Recently I was in Brooklyn and I saw a flyer that said “Help Us Find Plantasia,” and people were searching (desperately enough to make a flyer) for this record because it is so rare and so wonderful. I had no idea it was that hard to get your hands on a copy of this thing. Sometimes I kick myself that I didn’t buy it outright, but maybe it’s better that I had it for just a little while and it brought some sunshine into my house and now it has moved on to someone else’s.
Electronic pioneer. Compositional virtuoso. Horticulture votary.
Dear delightful daisies, Plantasia is a quaint record. No, my alliterative introduction wasn’t just for kicks. Did you know, according to Jason Ankeny of AllMusic, this less-than-30-minute album was created by Garson as a musical work “designed to boost the growth of indoor plants?” Not a botanist myself, I wouldn’t know the exact empirical effects of Garson’s writings on any of the many flower varieties mentioned in Plantasia‘s track listing but, it’s no secret that people have been doing things like playing classical music to stimulate their plants’ development for a long time now. So, why not believe that something engaging but soothing and gentle like a Moog could help enhance a green thumb? Everything about Plantasia exudes calmness and pleasant intentions. The synthesizer tones throughout are soft dynamically, rounded in tonal shape, and melodically just quirky (read: full of odd intervals and unexpected accidentals) enough to keep intrigue running on a comfortable level without ruining the easy-going vibe or putting anyone down for a nap due to monotony. The Moog provides an instrumental backbone from the beginning to the album’s end, acting almost like a sonic counterpart to the concept common denominator of plants and flowers. The flow up and down the many octaves and pitches — from the thinnest of highs to the widest and most warbly of lows — takes things from there and helps unfurl in the mind’s eye, the colors for each plant dedicated track. The flexibility of the synth tones work also well as the audible representative of Garson’s plant list because the unpredictable and occasionally twisty nature of stem growth pairs well with the long sustaining (for plants, long growing), bendable quality of Moog tones. The whole album is slightly strange, also evoking thoughts of the soundtracks chosen to back scenes in old movies that feature the introduction of unfamiliar alien life. And while plants aren’t foreign, your less-than-common plant species like the “Spathiphyllum,” “Maidenhair,” and “Savage Snake Plant,” could be perceived as alien-like for sure. After all, there are a myriad of flowers in the world and some only bloom one time in years upon years, like a surprise alien encounter. Blink, you’ll miss it, and some people might not believe what you have to tell them afterward! Lucky for you, Plantasia doesn’t disappear after one listen so when you’re done being strangely amazed, you can recommend and show this album to all your friends.
Sunlight pools in the little swells of the woods behind my house. Spiny little burrs from sweetgum trees scatter over the concrete floor, with the intermittent whips of wind adding new, leafy additions every so often. It’s my office, where I normally write, and while I’ve enjoyed so many albums back here, Mother Earth Plantasia is, naturally, extremely fitting. This calm-inducing little dream of an album was composed completely with Moog synthesizers, something that surprised me on first listen as the pan flute and lyre type instruments were more what I expected. The juxtaposition of synthesized sound to create an album “for plants and the people who love them” is delightful all by itself, not to mention the tame, happy swirls of this music. Non-linear for the most part, loopy and repetitious, it is soothing in the way the sway of the car’s undercarriage on a long road trip can be, lulling you into its spare 30 minutes so it passes in what feels like moments. Garson creates here music, indeed, for plants, the people who love them, and virtually anyone who gives just the first track a cursory listen.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Having never heard nor heard of Mort Garson, I went into this listen with few, if any real, expectations. The title of the album, as well as a few of my lingering pretensions against electronic music, kept me a bit skeptical over whether or not I would be able to get into this one, but the first few seconds of Mother Earth’s Plantasia shattered all of my pre-listen judgments. Regardless of any other genre classification it may fall under, this album is very, very seventies. Tracks like “Baby’s Tears Blues” could’ve easily shown up on a Chicago or Little River Band record, alongside contemporary, or soon to come, hits of the decade like “Saturday In The Park” and “Reminiscing.” But “Baby’s Tear Blues” also stands as somewhat of a jazz exception on an album heavily steeped in classical music progressions and soft rock instrumental bedding. Tunes like “Symphony For A Spider Plant” merge space-sounding key parts with contrapuntal lines, in a sort of experimental, easy-listening oxymoron that makes Mother Earth’s Plantasia come across as In a Silent Way’s less schizophrenic cousin. Track to track, this record kept me guessing, yet still stands as a cohesive musical statement, from the start of “Plantasia” to the final seconds of “Music To Soothe The Savage Snake Plant.” I was interested enough to research more about Mort Garson after listening (and by research, I mean scan the Wikipedia page), so this certainly won’t be the last time I listen. Also, if they happen to remake Lord Of The Rings in the 2070s as a medieval space opera, I hope they find a way to incorporate this record into the soundtrack.
This might come as a surprise to people who know my work but are not close friends with me; I’m a big ‘ol nerd for Moog records from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Along with anything off brand Star Wars, NASA, or outer space related, I’ve been listening and collecting weirdo synthesizer records since I was a kid. Wendy Carlos hooked me young with Switched On Bach. Before I could fully appreciate Kubrick’s films, I was fascinated with her soundtracks to A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. Japanese composer Isao Tomita is another favorite of mine. I buy any TOMITA album I don’t already (think I) own. “Snowflakes Are Dancing” (arrangements of Claude Debussy’s work) and “Holst: The Planets” are a good gateway drug into his world. On the more experimental side of this coin is Morton Subotnick. His album Silver Apples Of The Moon is considered to be the first album of electronic music commissioned by a major label, even though The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds was released a few months prior. While Mort Garson’s work is familiar to me, I’ve never stumbled across a copy of Mother Earth’s Plantasia. All of these musicians were pioneers of the new and exciting world of electronic music and the music from this forefront is still constantly being sampled in new works. Everyone from The Avalanches to DJ Shadow has borrowed from Mort Garson’s catalog. You can hear Dick Hyman’s “Moog – The Electric Eclectics Of Dick Hyman” on Beck’s “Sissyneck” and Tomita “Passepied” is featuring on Wiz Khalifa’s “Goin Hard.” Even CBS commissioned Mort to create the opening and bed music for the Apollo 11 coverage, possibly forever linking the electronic sounds of Moog to otherworldly landscapes. Mother Earth’s Plantasia might be the most perfect example of a quirky art album that any novice music listener can get into. The concept is super basic and very relatable, albeit odd. The memorably sweet melodies will let your guard down so you can easily get swept away into the world of plant growing. I can hear the influence this album and its ilk had on the music of 8-bit video games that came shortly after. Particularly the original Legend Of Zelda theme song and soundtrack for NES. The second half of Plantasia gives me Candy Claws Hidden Lands vibes, which is a record I pull out once a year around the holidays because it transports me to a magical winter wonder land. “Ode To An African Violet” reminds me of the classic era of The Residents (Duck Stab, Eskimo, The Commercial Album), who started just a few years after and certainly followed the experimental footsteps of Garson, Carlos, and Subotnick. Thank you for suggesting this album, Laura. I really enjoyed digging farther into this world. I don’t know if my plants care one way or another about this album, but I can tell you my cat doesn’t like the high pitch singing bird sounds of the opening track. So, I guess we can rule out that this record is not for cats.
The Moog synthesizer, an analog electronic sound generator that Garson championed here and throughout the rest of his musical work.
Like the plants Mort Garson’s wondrous electronic music was supposed to help grow, listening to Mother Earth’s Plantasia has spawned many tendrils of thought in my mind. For one thing, Garson was a little more than two months older than my father, who was born September 1st, 1924, which has me thinking about how wide the influence of a generation can be. Our editor Doug Nunnally was so convinced that I was already a fan of Mort Garson’s Mother Earth’s Plantasia, that I hated to tell him I’ve never heard of it — but not as much as I hate the fact that I could have been listening to this delightful album for decades! Reading a little about the album led me to this fantastic playlist created by another fan of electronic music. I am familiar with every artist, especially Raymond Scott, whose Soothing Sounds For Baby seems a direct antecedent of Plantasia — except Mort Garson! How does this happen? Maybe it’s because Moog masterpieces like Plantasia were a mere sideline for this extraordinarily talented and well-traveled man. He was a veteran of both Juilliard and WWII, composer of soundtracks, musicals, and pop songs (including the delicious “Our Day Will Come,” so memorably covered by Isaac Hayes and then sampled dozens of times), who was also a go-to arranger and piano player for many producers. No matter — I’m now a committed fan of Plantasia, which seems to carry through the optimism of the ’50s and ’60s into the ’70s, when it was in very short supply after Vietnam, Altamont, Nixon and too many assasinations. Thanks to Laura Stevenson, I now have a new place to go when escape is the only option and I need to nurture the little green leaves in my soul that are in danger of curling up and blowing away.
In a decade or so of digging through records at thrift stores, I’ve come across a few treasured artifacts of electronic music’s early days. They’re not the kind of albums you reach for when the in-laws are over for dinner, or when you’re unwinding after a long day. They’re curious. One is The In Sound From Way Out! — not the Beastie Boys album of the same name (and of similar cover art), but the Jean-Jacques Perrey/Gershon Kingsley collaboration released in 1966. It’s a pretty wacky listen; conventional pop instrumentation combines with sound effects (like the cooing baby sound later used in Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?”), early synthesizers, and tape loops to create… well it’s something. More a demonstration than what you might consider a collection of songs. Another is Snowflakes Are Dancing, a 1974 album of Debussy tone paintings recorded by Isao Tomita. It’s a much more cohesive listen — no zaniness, just Moog synthesizer and mellotron mimicking the sonorous swells of French (don’t call it) Impressionism. In truth, one reason it sounds so cohesive is that, by today’s standards, the technical space Tomita was working within in the early 1970s was extremely limited. But he pushed outward at those limitations, and mad scientists like Isao Tomita and Mort Garson made that space bigger by experimenting. Mother Earth’s Plantasia was released just two years after Snowflakes, and both ask a question that innovators like Garson and Tomita know as a perfectly valid answer: Why not? Why not see what Debussy sounds like with electronic orchestration? Why not see if a Moog can help a plant grow? I decided I loved Plantasia within seconds because I heard in those opening moments the same ambitious, visionary creativity that I admired in these other thrift store gems. That’s what makes these albums so curious. It’s not their strangeness; it’s that their creators were doggedly searching for what was next — for what would or could populate the wide-open frontier of electronic music. A quick epilogue about music for growing plants: A few years ago, I crate-dug a copy of a 1970 album literally called Music To Grow Plants, which is credited to Dr. George Milstein. The cover looked campy as hell, and it even had an original (and intact!) seed packet tucked in the jacket. Regrettably, I sold it to a record store here in town for trade-in. Listening to Mother Earth’s Plantasia reopened that scar. The moral of the story: When you find something weird — truly and wonderfully weird — hold on tight and never let go.
In November of 1988, I went to the mall with my new step-mom and she told me I was going to have to keep a secret. She was buying an NES for the family for Christmas, and wanted to make sure I didn’t blow it before the big morning arrived. I kept that secret, eschewing cash bribes from my dad and step-siblings to tell, because I just really wanted my new step-mom to like me. She didn’t. I knew that long before she and my dad got married, but I kept hoping I could do something to change that. In my mind, keeping her confidence would be enough to turn things around. Christmas morning arrived, and I was so proud when I watched my dad unwrap it cause it had been so hard to keep something from him. He set it up, and everyone had a great morning playing Duck Hunt and Wizards And Warriors… except for me. My dad had handed me the controller at one point, but before I could even wrap my fingers around around it, his new wife snatched it away and said “no, she’ll break it” and I was never allowed to play. As an adult, I’ve attributed my disinterest in video games to just being bad at them. My hand eye coordination is terrible, and I get motion sickness from most modern first person games. But if I’m being completely honest, a lot of it goes back to that long ago Christmas morning where I was forbidden from touching the console, because I would break it. I never look up information on bands or albums before writing about them here, mostly because I think part of me feels like it’s cheating? But I made an exception this week for Mort Garson’s Plantasia, because I was certain it had been the score to a video game I’d watched (but never played) as a kid. I was wrong, but it still feels right to me and I think I’d enjoy giving the game this isn’t the score to a shot.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
Let me begin, as I so often do, with an anecdote largely unrelated to the album of the week and say how cool I think it is that Laura Stevenson is contributing to OYR this week. I won’t say that I’ve followed her career closely (Cocksure fell through the cracks for me even though I remember listening to “Torch Song” several times the day the single was released), but I have been listening to her on-and-off for almost half my life. A few weeks ago, I saw Jeff Rosenstock play three out of the four nights in a row at the Bowery Ballroom (in an unfortunate twist, I did not attend the final night, which just so happened to be the night that Laura was the opening act), and seeing him so many nights in a row got me to reflect on discovering Bomb The Music Industry! at a young age and how much their music and ethics shaped me. I can specifically remember listening to a bootleg where Jeff and Laura explained the meaning behind “Free Bird! Free Bird!” and I’m pretty sure that song alone helped push me toward being a slightly better person in regards to understanding that female musicians are, you know, musicians. (Not that I think I would definitely have become someone who had shitty attitudes toward women, but I did listen to a lot of music at the time that didn’t exactly have the best role models for young men who were still grappling with puberty and sexuality.) (That song also taught me to not be that guy that shouts “free bird” at shows). Annnnywayyyyy, my point is that I think it’s cool that Laura Stevenson picked a record for us because I feel like she helped play a key role in my development as a person. Now on to the album itself. Mother Earth’s Plantasia is a pretty cool record. I don’t have a whole lot of reference points for moog-heavy based instrumentation, so it’s probably not surprisingly that the two prominent thoughts that I had were “Devo” and “soundtrack.” The lack of guitar driven compositions and the slow crawling intro of “Plantasia” in particular reminded me of the intro to Duty Now For The Future (or maybe it’s just because I was listening to Devo this past week, take your pick). Sprinkle in the inherently sci-fi like vibes of the moog synthesizer and all I could think about was how much songs like “Symphony For A Spider Plant” or “Music To Soothe The Savage Snake Plant” are taken from a score to a movie that doesn’t exist (the two titles even feel like they’ve got a connecting thread that weaves some kind of a narrative). Similarly, “Concerto For Philodendron & Pothos” gives me an unreleased video game soundtrack feeling, although that could be because it vaguely reminds me of “Zelda’s Lullaby” for about four seconds, which, as it turns out, is still long enough for me to think about The Legend of Zelda. Even the album’s cover inspires a soundtrack-like feeling. Mother Earth’s Plantasia might not be the type of movie that I would necessarily watch on my own, but probably one that I’d check out after a strong recommendation from a friend or artist I like and admire.
I can’t keep plants alive. No matter how many times I get a houseplant or flowers to spruce up the living area, they end up dying. And no matter how hard I try to keep them live and vibrant, I apparently don’t give them enough water or put them in a spot without adequate sunlight or the cats chew on them which results in me frantically google searching to see if my fancy new plant just poisoned them. But maybe they just weren’t receiving a specific type of care. I didn’t even stop to think that plants would enjoy music as much as I do. That was dumb of me. Plants are living things and need musical expression just as much as the warm-blooded mammal would. In comes Mort Garson’s 1976 record Mother’s Earth’s Plantasia, a 30-minute psychedelic journey into “warm earth music for plants… and the people who love them,” as the liner notes proclaim. Garson, a Juilliard-trained musician who fell in love with the newly developed Moog synthesizers, became one of the pioneers of early electronic music thanks to records like these. The trippy, ambient music was created to help plants grow and feels like an operatic exploration with each listen. From the opening track, “Plantasia,” that welcomes them to the bright sun of a brand new day to upbeat tracks like “Swingin’ Spathiphyllums” to melancholic songs like “Rhapsody In Green” to my personal favorite “You Don’t Have To Walk A Begonia.” I feel like I’m on a personal journey with these plants as they thrive and go on grand adventures. It’s almost like they are living beings with complex emotional feelings. Now, off to get a new houseplant…
Not many photos of Garson have survived and almost all feature him alongside a Moog synthesizer, further linking the two innovators.
Fun fact: my Super Nintendo from 1992 still works. Through the years it’s traveled around the country with me as I moved and it’s always been there for me, like a comfort blanket. (By the way: I never understood the craze over the Mini SNES. Just go buy an OG console on eBay. It’s cheaper and, more importantly, it’s available.) My SNES’ survival for this long is a testament to the idea that taking minimal care of things you own can ensure they last — even if that means the item in question sits in a box for years at a time. I might be a different person if I’d never had the chance to play Super Mario World or Super Metroid. Both had outstanding soundtracks — as most SNES games did, even the bad ones — and were as important to the game as the gameplay. And if Plantasia were a game, it’d have a pretty great one, too. If you never heard a note of Mother Earth’s Plantasia and just looked at the song titles, you’d think it was a video game. “Baby’s Tears Blues” is clearly the obligatory underwater level where you drown in the first ten attempts, because of course you do. (Oddly enough, the music for “Ode To An African Violet” seems a better fit for a water theme.) “Swingin’ Spathiphyllums” is the auto-scrolling, high-in-the-sky platform level where timing is everything, and, again, is where you die the first dozen or so times you play it. And, of course, “Plantasia” is the music for the title screen that kicks everything off and sets the tone. It’s the place where you choose one or two players. It’s where your journey begins. It’s where your life begins, whether you’re a human or an earthworm or a plant.
Saint John, New Brunswick can be a grim city. Located in the eastern side of Canada, the city has a long history of labour and industry in a region otherwise best known for fishery and forestry. A giant Irving Oil refinery looms like a dark city from dystopian science fiction at the city’s’ edge and closer to the water that image is further bolstered by a seemingly relentless fog which looms for the majority of the time, even when the sun unsuccessfully beats down upon it. It is not uncommon to leave the neighbouring city, Fredericton, in the brightest of sunlight and by the time you reach Saint John, you find yourself enveloped in a cold, damp fog which weighs heavily on the soul. Surprising then that the city gave rise to a musician who not only put the famous Moog synthesizer on the map, but did so in a way that seems almost optimistic and soothing. He later moved to the even larger dystopian metropolis of New York and despite being called away to military service somewhere in the middle, he’s made a solid career out of electronic music in a time when the only place electronic music seemed to fit were the sort of futuristic science fiction and space movies that seem bizarre in retrospect. This is where Mother Earth’s Plantasia differs though. At just under 30 minutes, it features the same echoing whistles, eerie solar winds, and shimmering arpeggios one might expect from ’70s sci-fi movies or modern sci-fi parody, but somehow he manages to compose it in a way that sounds oddly cheerful. The album even has its romantic and reflective moments but, generally speaking, this is a 30 minute journey worth taking and Garson himself, who went on to an unusual and prolific career in the years since its release in 1976, calls it one of his favourite works. In as much as music needs a context within which to be enjoyed, it’s hard to know where this fits. It’s not dance music electronica and there is no discernable beats to be found. It’s also not the sort of jazz you might throw on at a dinner party. It’s become something of a collector’s item as the Moog is one of the first analog synthesizers to have a profound impact on the sound of an era. Mother Earth’s Plantasia, an album inspired by and apparently written for plants and the people who love them. In fact, it’s exactly what I’d put on if I were making my way through the anti-gravity tubes on my way to the biodome for a moment’s solitude among the clone trees and the onboard hydroponic systems. Or perhaps you just doze off to it’s charming beauty and dream about electric sheep.
Believe it or not, I listen to records like this all the time, for hours on end. For hip hop beatmakers, post 1998, legends like the late great J. Dilla, Nottz, and DJ Scratch turned once off-the-radar Moog records into sample gold mines. The first time I heard Nottz’ genius chops of Dick Hyman’s “Topless Dancers Of Corfu” for Busta Rhymes’ “Where We About To Take It,” I lost my damn mind. At first, I thought the source material had to be some sort of primitive video game. Or maybe he found some obscure Steve Miller live recording, and chopped the sounds from there? At the time, Steve Miller Band and The Doors were probably my only reference points for use of what I would later discover was the Moog synthesizer. It’s a brilliant piece of gear, not only for its unique sound, ease of use and hand made quality, but more importantly, for its literally endless possibilities. For those that aren’t familiar with the Moog synth, it’s a hybrid of keyboard and mixing console that gives the user the capability to take a very simple keyboard patch and seamlessly turn it into his or her own dream-like creation through a series of knobs, buttons and interconnected circuits. Each modified sound was completely unique as, up until a relatively short time ago, there was no way to “save” your customized sounds. The second you turn another knob even the slightest degree, you have created an entirely new sound. Having listened to countless Moog albums, it’s obvious that Mort Garson was a virtuoso of his time. A mad scientist who was also an early adopter of new musical technology. Mother Earth’s Plantasia features a smooth, well-produced cleanliness that often evaded its predecessors. To me, it sounds like Garson had truly mastered the instrument by 1976, a full decade after Robert Moog introduced us to what it meant to be “far out.”
I’m not quite sure “mad scientist” fits Mort Garson. It’s been used in this issue freely, and you’ll also find it in the vast majority of articles that either examine Garson’s work or mention him briefly in relation to another point or subject. And I get it. He experimented with electronic music from its early debut into the modern conscience, pushing it to its limitations to create something familiar yet unique, earthlike yet alien. The concept of this record alone paints the picture of someone holed up in a lab with a synthesizer ruggedly hooked up to a plant incubator. But I’m still not buying the mad scientist moniker here. Sure, a mad scientist can be much more than the kooky old dodger with balding, gray hair, big glasses, and an over-sized lab coat. (Just look at SNL’s brilliant and unnerving sketch from a few years ago.) But at their core, a mad scientist seems to be looking to corrupt the basis of nature. For a record that’s marketed so narrowly towards plant lovers, that almost seems like a disqualifier. But even if you tack on a broader definition, someone just looking to create chaos or corrupt the status quo, Garson still doesn’t fit that. It’s not even close really. Listening to Plantasia, a record so rife with wide-eyed amazement, you get the sense that Garson is just an artist. Granted, an artist with extremely limited peers operating decades before his time, but still just an artist. And it’s the artist touch here that makes Plantasia so engaging and captivating. It evokes memories of sci-fi exploration or medieval adventure. With no words and garbled direction, he’s constructed a world that never ceases to amaze, even if it’s most affecting at its more minimalist and intimate moments. Though this is clearly a lost gem – with Discogs pricing starting around $400 – it’s hard to imagine that this record specifically didn’t have influence on a generation of songwriters and composers. There’s at least one person we know listened to this record — Koji Kondo, the famed Nintendo composer who’s been immortalized thanks to his work in the iconic series, The Legend Of Zelda. Pair up “Concerto For Philodendron & Pothos” and Princess Zelda’s theme from Ocarina Of Time and you’ll instantly hear the influence. You don’t even have to look hard for it – here’s a video laying it out, and there are pages of search results from people stumbling upon this record who come to the exact same conclusion. Many video game composers are also labelled as mad scientists for their ability to craft intricate and elaborate soundscapes to match gameplay through little direction. But like Garson, they too are artists, studying just as dutifully as the electronic pioneer once did and casting a thin yet expansive net of influence over the next several decades of musical creation.
Here’s To Them by Rawtekk
Chosen By Darryl Wright