When was the last time you heard or saw an autoharp? Perhaps it was when your 80 year old kindergarten teacher busted one out for sing along time. Or maybe you come across one now and again at your local second hand store. It is indeed rare to see an autoharp as a focal instrument in any form of musical display much less as the primary instrument of a psychedelic rock group. Yet this in fact was the case with the New York City based group Michaelangelo.
Primary composer and group member Angel Autoharp (surname Peterson) blended the unique ring of the autoharp with psychedelic and progressive rock elements with the help of guitarist Steve Bohn and the fantastic rhythm section of Robert Gorman on bass and Michael John Hackett on drums.
The group's sole release strikes one as supremely unique even for the psychedelic times in which it was released. Not because it was outlandishly bizarre, but because it was such a very pure musical vision. This album does not succumb to any radio friendly formulas yet it does not attempt to be overtly far out cither. Angel best describes it in her own words. "I played music because I loved it. and I wanted everyone to hear the autoharp".
Angel began playing music in grade school and always had an inclination for composing her own material. "I had violin lessons for three or four years and I was pretty bored with playing the classics and one time I came into my violin instructor's class and showed mm a piece I had written for the violin and he rapped me on my knuckles with his little baton and said. 'You don't write for the violin you play the classics. You are trying to make the violin a fiddle.' And so I dropped the violin."
But Angel was not deterred. Shortly after she taught herself how to play the piano and when it came time to go to college and moving into smaller places she decided to take up the more portable autoharp. "I bought an autoharp and learned how to play it in my bathtub in my dorm room1 I put it up to my ear and played it upnght and absolutely fell in love with the sound and started writing for it and my whole goal was to nave people hear just how wonderful the autoharp sounded."
Angel started playing the local Greenwich Village coffee house circuit and had a chance encounter with The Lovin Spoonfj s John Sebastian, who was also an autoharp enthusiast. "He did something really amazing Angel recalls, he had it amplified and he had actually worked with someone and designen a pick-up that picked up all 36 strings". Angel was thrilled at the prospect of amplification which would make it all the more plausible for her to share her love of the auto harp with mere people so she quickly installed a pick up and sought out the perfect amplifier.
"I went through a bunch of amplifiers and the only one that really sounded good was called a Magnatone and it had a pseudo Leslie effect so it could sound like an organ . Angel was set to share the magical sounds of the auto harp with all of those who wandered in Greenwich Village and she hit the scene with fervor. "I played for four years en McDougal Street, doing nothing but instrumental - just me and my Magnatone."
Meantime in midtown Manhattan there was a young musician by the name of Bob Goanan who had come down to Greenwch Village and was taken by the young harpist and recalls. "She played such fascinating songs". The two quickly hit it off and formed a duo playing local gigs as an instrumental act. when they caught the attention of a young copywriter by the name of Earl Carter who happened to work at Columbia records. Carter was intrigued by the duo's unique sound and knew of another duo who might feel the same way.
This duo were electronic classical music producers Rachel Elkind and Wendy Carlos who had recently had immense success with a classical album that utilized the moog synthesizer to it's full capacity called Switched On Bach. Elkind and Carlos liked the group and thought it would be a fantastic project for them to work on, and they in turn took it to Columbia records. Angel and Bob quickly formed a band, as Bob recalls. "I worked at a music store in midtown and my co-worker Steve became the guitar player, and then we got a drummer.
Angel had lyrics but we never sang any of them in our act and so we all arranged the songs". Angel adds, "Every song was basically written as an instrumental and then I added vocals to some of it, I didn't have a lot of confidence as a singer, but when we added other people we started singing." Michaelangelo was what Angel had called her autoharp and that in turn became the name of the band.
Angel's compositions now flourished into full psychedelic folk-rock songs while maintaining the integrity of the auto harp that was so very important to her. With guitarist Steve Bohn and herself trading lead vocals, Angel also proved that she was a wonderful lyricist: "I had written poetry since grade school, so I wrote all the lyrics for the songs".
The pairing of this very unique band who featured a unique instrument as their focal point with the production team of Rachel Elkind and Wendy Carlos who were pioneering the electronic music movement were a match made in heaven. Yet as the story goes with all those who are slightly ahead of their time, the world may not have been quite ready for it and Angel adds with profound insight. "Every time you play something that's a little out of the norm or a little different, people are very suspicious, when they go to listen to music they want to hear things they've heard before, then they can compare you to other people.
If you do something new it's greeted with silence, and I've had that all my life". Yet if anyone were to be able to understand this creative and distinct music it would be Rachel Elkind and Wendy Carlos. Rachel Elkind for starters was unique, based on the fact that she was a woman working as a music producer alone, but in addition to that working alongside her partner Wendy Carlos the two explored new musical horizons using electronic instruments like the relatively new Moog Synthesizer.
Wendy Carlos was born Walter Carlos until she had a sex change operation in 1972. She studied music and physics at Brown University and earned her masters in composition at Columbia Univeristy. She had become friends with the inventor of the Moog Synthesizer, Robert Moog, and was one of the first composers to buy one of his creations.
Elkind and Carlos would famously go on to work with Stanley Kubrick on his films A Clockwork Orange and The Shining utilizing the unique electronic tonalities and compositional techniques they had developed. Michaelangelo started recording at the Record Plant in New York City. However the vocals, overdubs and one of the tracks, "Take It Bach", were recorded and mixed at Rachel and Wendy's infamous home studio in a brownstone on the upper west side.
Bob Gorman also notes, "Wendy had an affinity for the natural sound quality in the circular staircase in the house, so all of Angel's vocals were recorded in there." But as much as the band were blessed by being able to work with some ot the most progressive and talented producers the industry had to offer it may have also been a curse. Bob Gorman recalls. "Clive Davis was the president of Columbia Records and politically he was not fond of Rachel and Wendy because of the fact that Switched On Bach was so successful and he didn't have his hands in the pie, because it was independently produced by Rachel and Wendy's production company.
And so he never totally got behind us". Angel also offers some insight. "Rachel was the first independent producer who wasn't a staff producer for Columbia Records. Also she was a woman and her and Clive Davis just had it out all the time. He could not stand the fact that she was calling the shots. Rachel was a very strong willed independent woman and back then you just didn't do that. There weren't women in the music business back then unless you were a fine singer or Janis Joplin or something."
Due to the turmoil within the label Michaelangelo's debut failed to get the proper attention from the label needed to help reach audiences. Angel recalls. "He [Clive Davis] only pressed about two or three thousand albums, he refused to put them in stores. He was trying to get back at Rachel is what it was. for political reasons everything was squashed". Bob Gorman recalls. "The single was released from the album and it got Gavin Pick Of The Week, so it started to take off with its own wings.
But then it was squashed by the courtesy of Clive Davis because he thought it would start taking off on its own and he - being president of Columbia Records and pretty much being at odds with Rachel and Wendy - said. This is not going any farther, this is it. this is not my production and whatever you want to call it - jealousy or spite - he pretty much made it go away."
Michaelangelo continued to play promotional college tours but because the album was not readily available to audiences the group were not making any money and this eventually took its toll on the band. Angel recalls. "The band dissolved because you know all our wonderful expectations, nobody got paid, they all went their own ways. I ended up marrying my road manager and moved to Florida.' Bob Gorman fulfilled his dream of moving west to California, which is what the opening track "West" so vividly depicts.
While the band was short lived Angel continued to play music in Florida, but was disheartened by the experience. "Because it was the south anytime I'd play one of my classical instrumentals. they would not know what to do and people were yelling 'Play Jimmy Buffet'". Well, that's enough to make anyone retire! Angel opened a business and continues to live in Florida. The songs on this album somehow reflect the true essence of the term "outsider art". Angel Peterson was a young artistic soul who was exploring music on her own terms and following her heart.
While the group's career path may have been tragically flawed it certainly does not take away from the validity and wonderful charm of this work. From the classically inspired songs like the beautiful "Take It Bach" to the story of a day in the life of a young person striking out on his own 'Son (We've Kept the Room Just the Way You Left It)" this album is sure to strike a chord in your heart - just like it has done mine - and we are certainly happy to be sharing it with you.
by Tiffany Anders
1. West - 2:49
2. Come to Me - 1:56
3. This Bird - 3:19
4. Son - We've Kept the Room Just the Way You Left It - 4:25
5. Medley: Take It Bach/Michaelangelo - 5:30
6. It's Crying Outside - 3:53
7. 300 Watt Music Box - 2:39
8. Okay - 2:00
9. Half a Top - 3:05
10.One Voice Many - 7:10
All songs written by Angel Petersen
*Robert Gorman - Bass
*Michael John Hackett - Drums
*Angel Petersen - Electric Autoharp, Vocals
*Steve Bohn - Guitars