Tom Hamilton – Pieces for Kohn/Formal & Informal Music (1976, 1981)

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by S. Victor Aaron

Not the bass player for Aerosmith, but a musician named “Tom Hamilton” with a more ambitious calling.

For more than forty years, the nonpop New Music composer and performer Hamilton has treated music as a laboratory for experimentation, and a pioneer of using electronics for anarchistic, fringe forms of music. Tom’s so far off ahead in the horizon that most musicians and listeners can’t even see him. Those who can, appreciate his inquisitive nature that leads to electronic sounds being utilized in the most innovative and stimulating ways. He has worked with not only other musicians, but operas, visual artists and photographers as well, reflecting his drive to meld audial art—music—with visual art. Basically, he’s built a career expanding beyond ideas first brought forth by electronic music composers like Stockhausen, Arel and Luening.

Just last year, I had the pleasure of covering an explosive and mind-blowing collaboration he did with guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil, called Shadow Machine. Eisenbeil brought out a facet of Hamilton that was a perfect match for Eisenbeil’s mannerisms dominated by exotic timbres and textures. But Hamilton’s work can’t begin to be adequately assessed on that collaboration alone. An examination of his oeuvre requires, at the least, a look at the primary work he did in the 70s while in St. Louis, before he moved to New York and became recognized worldwide for his leading efforts in the world of New Music.

Kvist Records has helped us to find out just how seminal Hamilton’s self-released and early, St. Louis-originated works were by re-issuing two of his grand projects of those times on CD, Pieces For Kohn and Formal & Informal Music. For admirers of analog synth-based electronic music from a time when ideas in this idiom were flowing like a fully-opened faucet, Hamilton’s vintage pieces are essential.

The earlier record that’s part of Kvist’s package, Pieces For Kohn is the result of an idea gestated by Hamilton and a St. Louis visual artist whose works he admired by the name of Bill Kohn. Kohn’s works are precisely described by Hamilton as combining “daring and vibrant color combinations to fulfill 3-D geometric and architectural compositions in paintings, prints and watercolors.” The four tracks the Hamilton created corresponds to four Kohn paintings Hamilton liked the most that were going to be presented at a St. Louis gallery. The compositions “Modhera,” “Bonampak,” “Girnar,” and “Fatehpur” matched the names of the paintings that inspired them. These pieces are sounds 100% generated from Hamilton, and just like the artistry of Kohn, he creates shapes that are mathematical, but splashes them with vivid, contrasting colors and adventuresome timbres. Within this design, the compositions are loose, unpredictable and probe differing areas of tonality. The chirps, beeps, ticks, rings, blurps and percolations sound random in isolation but taken as a whole make impressionistic audioscapes that each have distinct personalities.

The genesis for Formal & Informal Music, more specifically the composition of the same name, likewise came from an audio/visual collaboration with Kohn, but this time, Hamilton took the original music and transferred them in strands to endless-loop cassettes running on separate cassette players. This created an understructure of fixed, composed music on which he added layers of improvised flute and clarinet by JD Parran, and a wide array of percussion instruments supplied by Rich O’Donnell. Hamilton himself provided a E-mu microprocessor keyboard that he used for improvisation over the tape loops. The twenty-three minute opus journeys through gradually changing terrain as the three add their counterpoints to the basic tracks. This combination of structured (“formal”) and improvised (“informal”) music is an idea that’s not only central to the music on this album, but also an idea Hamilton has gone back to many times since then.

Formal & Informal Music also contains another suite, “Crimson Sterling,” performed over three movements. This piece was actually conceived back in 1973 but Hamilton didn’t record it until 1977. It nevertheless fits in perfectly alongside “Formal & Informal Music,” because Hamilton is again using Parran and O’Donnell to negotiate structured and free elements of new music with electronic washes and other effects. Compared to “Formal,” Parran and O’Donnell impose a larger presence and the electronics play a more supporting role for the first and third movements, making this piece subject to occasionally more abrupt shifts in moods. Acting almost as a segue way between the beginning and ending movements. Hamilton’s prepared synths make up the middle movement. The last movement is also distinguished by the use of tape echo, creating the illusion of there being more performers than there actually was. Nowadays such looping has become routine in music-making, even live, but this was still a new approach in 1977.

Taken together, Tom Hamilton’s Pieces for Kohn/Formal & Informal Music tells the story of his advanced and innovative world of music when his ideas were just coming into focus. The issuance of these works on CD’s fills a big hole in Hamilton’s currently available discography.

Purchase: Tom Hamilton – Pieces for Kohn/Formal & Informal Music

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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