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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Electronic music band Swarmius borrows from Bach in first-ever single


Swarmius performs at the Cutting Room. From left, Geoffrey Burleson, Todd Rewoldt, Michael Couper and Joseph Martin Waters. (Photo credit: Amy Hecht)

Joseph Martin Waters was all set to release a new album by his acclaimed electronic music ensemble Swarmius until personnel and repertoire changes--and recording technology--got in the way. But rather than wait for the Swarmius III: Trans Classical album release date—Jan. 27—people who pre-order the album can immediately download its single "EeOoEe."

The San Diego-based Swarmius actually premiered "EeOoEe" at its Oct. 21 gig opening for Project/Object—The Music of Frank Zappa, featuring Ike Willis and Don Preston at New York's Cutting Room, where Waters proclaimed it the album's "instant gratification single."

"It's based on the wild Phantom of the Opera toccata, 'Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565,' composed by a fiery young Johann Sebastian Bach," says Waters, professor of music composition and computer music at San Diego State University, identifying the piece by its famous usage in the 1962 Hammer Film Productions adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera.

"Although it was composed to be performed via pipe organ in a gothic cathedral of the early 1700s, Bach's spooky opening motive somehow evokes imagery associated with ancient pagan rituals of the aboriginal Germanic tribes who occupied Europe before the Christian era. Embedded deeply into the geography of the land, passed down epigenetically in the DNA of the inhabitants, the spirits of that earlier mythology never disappeared. They lie under all the European Christian holy days, providing the subtexts, the scariness, the sexiness and the super power."

"I realize that the piece is actually foreboding, associated with darkness, power and mystery--and a prediction of dark times ahead," Waters continues. "The opening musical motive is bold, audacious and overarching, and casts a musical shadow like an enormous raven, glaring down from a perch high above. The raven cry—'EeOoEe'--is like Poe's 'Nevermore,' and the Django Reinhardt interlude is a reminder of the dark shadow that an ascendant Hitler cast over an uneasy Europe prior to World War II."

Often, Waters notes, "we are not aware of what we are doing when we do it. I had no idea the [Bach] piece had such a dark relevance, but it has long been associated with darkness, the mystical and the occult—combined with a whiff of scandal and with an echo from antiquity. And as it was composed by a teenage genius 300 years ago, the iconic toccata seemed a perfect vessel to merge with creatively in creating a time, genre and culture-melting work, imbued with shades of light and dark, showcasing the ultra-eclectic musical approach of Swarmius and our new album."

"EeOoEe" is actually the first-ever single for Swarmius, the core of which consists of conductor/programmer Waters and saxophonists Todd Rewoldt and Michael Couper.

"We wanted to give the audience at the Cutting Room a chance to take something home with them after our performance," explains Waters. "Originally we had planned the release of the full compact disc of the entire album to coincide with the Cutting Room show, but personnel changes over the summer, and a desire to add two new acoustic tracks—'Summer' and 'Cherry Blossoms'--delayed completion. But what really threw a monkey wrench into the works was my good friend, composer, coder and producer Chris Warren, who agreed to listen to the tracks in July and provide feedback."

The mixes were fine, Warren ruled.

"'But why are you brick-walling everything?' he asked. By this he was referring to a mastering technique used in the last 10 years, where high-end digital processing software is used to push the average level of recording tracks to a much higher volume level than had ever been possible before. As a result, there's been an inflation of average loudness on recorded music because of the software--sort of everybody turning the mix up to 11 in a race to be as loud as possible, for fear that if your tracks are not as loud as the previous guy's tracks, people might turn them off on their earbuds. While quite amazing technically, the software produces tracks that have no dynamic range, where there are no quiet sounds. Everything is audible in the mix, but nothing is subtle."

Warren felt that the Swarmius tracks "sounded so 2016," says Waters, "and that 20 years from now I'd regret it. I was pissed off at him, but after considering it for about a week, I realized he was right, and set about re-mastering the entire album."

But much to Waters' dismay, "when I removed the super-fancy multi-band mastering limiters, the mixes completely fell apart. I panicked, and spent the next two months painstakingly going through each piece, sometimes more than 100 tracks per piece, making minute adjustments and tweaking everything. It was grueling, but now that it's finished I'm very proud of it. The mixes are tight, punchy and they breathe. They are plenty loud, but at times whisper quiet. There is air and light between the notes. So, in the end, I did not have the album ready until one-and-a-half weeks before the show at the Cutting Room--not enough time to produce a physical CD, let alone distribute advance copies to folks in the media to generate some buzz about the new album."

So it was decided to postpone the Swarmius III release until after the election.

"Tracey Miller, our publicist, felt it was sucking the oxygen out of everything, and that it was better to wait 'til after Christmas, when all of the famous people put out the Christmas albums--and after the inauguration on Jan. 20," says Waters. "So we released a digital single the date of the Cutting Room performance as an incentive for people willing to pre-order the album."

But choosing a single wasn't easy.

"It was tough to choose just one tune to represent the entire album," says Waters. "In the end it was a process of elimination combined with an insight into the simultaneous uniqueness and familiarity of 'EeOoEe,' as Bach's Phantom of the Opera toccata--his most famous work, and one that I think everybody recognizes: Somehow it's built into our cultural DNA at this point."

Waters' version is "not simply an arrangement--of which there are many--but rather a time traveling deconstruction/reconstruction of Bach's spooky toccata, with a wormhole midstream to 1930s Paris, the nest between wars of the sumptuous pre-Bop gypsy jazz of Django and Stephane Grappelli--albeit done with saxophones dancing between syncopated contemporary synthesis-laden beats."

Swarmius's "retelling," he says, "is not intended to be parody--but it does have fun with the audacious material. In view of the election, where we are faced with an uncertain future dominated by a true sociopath in the White House, our allusions to an unsettled Paris between the world wars have gained unexpected new ballast and poignancy. Learning to cope with the reality of a monster is a frightening new challenge. The role of the artist as seer of the future and interpreter of the present has never been more urgent."

The only mystery left, then, is the single's title.

"The motive is a call--like the wild call of an apocalyptic bird," reveals Waters."It's sung by saxophonist Todd Rewoldt, with the syllables 'ee-oo-ee.'"




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