Too palatable and too cutting-edge to find a real audience
In 1971, a trio of Canadian hippies creating instrumental electronic music on a fledgling record label found themselves with an unexpected hit in their theme song for “Here Come the Seventies,” a TV documentary series that attempted to predict the technological and social changes coming in the new decade. The band was called Syrinx and the song—titled “Tillicum” after Tillicum Bay, British Columbia, where leader John Mills-Cockell had spent some idyllic days—was included on the their second release, Long Lost Relatives. Syrinx, though, wasn’t a one-trick pony and “Tillicum” wasn’t all that representative of their musical standards. At the time, the song must have seemed very futuristic with electronic wind sound effects and burbling Moog synthesizer overlaid with cheerful sax, the whole effect like a chorus of singing robots. Heard now, over 40 years later, it sounds incredibly cheesy, yet it reached #38 on the Canadian charts. It was much less substantive fare than the rest of their catalog, all of which has been reissued under the title Tumblers from the Vault, along with a few extras and an extensive booklet with photos and historical essay.
Before Syrinx, Mills-Cockell was a university music student and teacher in Toronto, and a member of the bands Kensington Market (for one album) and Vancouver’s psychedelic Hydro Electric Streetcar. During this period, however, it’s his work with the multi-media art project/band Intersystems that’s now considered the most noteworthy. The conglomeration released three unconventional albums and their 1968 Art Gallery of Ontario show featuring Mills-Cockell was reportedly the world’s first live performance of synthesizer music. Whether this is completely true or not is debatable, but regardless, he was a pioneer in the electronic music field, and with Doug Pringle on electric saxophone and Alan Wells on percussion he soon formed his own band.
The name Syrinx was chosen due to the word’s multiple meanings, chief among them the allusion to Greek mythology in which the nymph Syrinx, pursued by the god Pan, is transformed into water reeds by helpful river nymphs in order to escape. Pan huffs and puffs across the reeds in frustration, resulting in a musical sound, and thus we have panpipes. There are no panpipes in Syrinx’s music, but there are plenty of unusual sounds, some seemingly drawn from antiquity and others sleek and ultramodern.
Syrinx was the second artist signed to the new True North label, a strange home for them as True North soon created a name for itself based primarily on folk and roots music with artists such as Bruce Cockburn and Murray McLauchlan. Still, label owner Bernie Finkelstein was known to take chances in the name of art, and Syrinx was one of them.
Labels small and big were making commercial gambles in this fertile time for music that pushed beyond pre-existing boundaries, with “krautrock,” jazz fusion and the first inklings of ambient and electronica all happening. Syrinx had affinities with all these genres, but always had a foot in the pop world as well. Besides “Tillicum,” there’s the wistful, nostalgic “Hollywood Dream Trip” with its melodic chord sequences and the gentle swaying “December Angel,” which was used by numerous ballet companies throughout Canada.
The three musicians venture further afield from these more restrained and structured compositions when they incorporate elements of free jazz and Middle Eastern music in “Ibistix.” Pringle’s saxophone there and on “Syren” is especially potent and evocative, at times sounding like Pharoah Sanders playing in a bar on one of Saturn’s desert moons.
Syrinx was adept at these high energy songs as well as more moody and ethereal pieces, which would be called ambient or new age today. “Melina’s Torch,” “Field Hymn” and “Father of Light” are relatively short examples, while the epic (and epically titled) “Chant for Your Dragon King” gives Mills-Cockell plenty of room to stretch out in this mode. His Moog, in fact, dominates all of Syrinx’s music but rarely overpowers the material. Only occasionally, such as in “Tillicum” and parts of both “Aurora Spinray” and “Appaloosa – Pegasus,” does his instrument sound gimmicky, like he’s a kid with a new toy.
For some reason, RVNG Intl. has presented the two Syrinx albums in reverse order, with the tracks from Long Lost Relatives coming before the self-titled debut. The remainder of the reissue includes a small selection of extra cuts, most interestingly a version of “Better Deaf and Dumb from the First” with extended lyrics and vocals showing what the band could have sounded like if they had a singer, and “Stringspace,” the four-part suite from their second album, performed live with the Toronto Repertory Orchestra in 1971.
Syrinx disbanded in 1972 after only a two-year run. Mills-Cockell went on to do solo work, scores for theatre, dance, film and TV. Pringle did the same, in addition to founding a new wave/punk band called the Poles which had a Canadian hit with “CN Tower” in 1978. Both are still active and exploring the intersections of technology and music. Percussionist Wells died of cancer in 2010.
In retrospect, Syrinx was alternately too palatable and too cutting-edge to find a real audience. They were not part of a larger scene like Germany had at the time with Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream, Can, and Faust. They also incorporated no guitar, which created limits to their acceptability by a rock audience. Though they opened for Miles Davis on his Bitches Brew tour, their music wasn’t jazz (then again, Bitches Brew wasn’t considered “real” jazz at the time either). Unclassifiable as they were, Syrinx was ahead of their time in many ways, presaging the now commonplace marriage of electronic and computerized technology with music. Fans of Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno, Jean-Michel Jarre, Michael Oldfield and newer artists such as Tycho and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith should find plenty to enjoy in Syrinx.