The Intergalactic Sonic Travels of Robert Mason and His Synth

Stardrive – a name synonymous with a 70s jazz-rock fusion band, its self-titled album, and as the liner notes would have us believe, the “world’s first multi-voiced synthesizer that can be played like a real keyboard instrument….” This name also holds the frame to the only window allowing us a glimpse into the world of its creator; a man the internet knows very little about. Lucas Benjamin takes us along on his quest to uncovering the story behind an enigmatic keyboardist and inventor.

Robert Mason began his formal music education at 12 years old. By his early twenties, he had accumulated some impressive credentials as a keyboardist and composer, having studied at both the Mannes and Juilliard Schools in New York City, as well as the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio where he earned his bachelor’s degree in composition.

Opportunities brought Mason back to NYC, where he continued composing at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and for a number of years later, he worked in the studio with electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick at the New York University Electronic Music Workshop. There, he rubbed shoulders with innovative composers like Steve Reich and Paul Bley and expanded his repertoire to include mixed media concerts, rock band arrangements, collaborations with dance groups, and even a membership with Free Life Communications, a musicians’ cooperative formed amidst the revolutionary climate of the Vietnam War years.

Somewhere along the line, Mason outgrew the musical limitations of existing synthesizers available in the early 70s. These primitive monophonic synthesizers were not designed as instruments for performance, thereby confining their use largely to the studio. Keen to achieve more with a synthesizer, Mason set out to build his own. He started by making adjustments to the ARP 2500, including adding the option to use it as a polyphonic synth, a capability not yet possible at the time.

Two years and countless short circuits later, as recounted in the liner notes, “Stardrive” the synthesizer was unveiled together with a band of musicians assembled by Mason that bore the same name. Together, Stardrive became a pioneer in featuring a synthesizer as the lead instrument in live performances, supported by the more traditional sax, guitar and drums that typically make up a band.

As Mason described in Stardrive’s early promotional materials: “We are building toward a higher future, one in which music will be ultra-tech­nological and yet truly human. The path is clear – man’s collective knowledge is immense and continues to expand – unless we make music with it, it will only serve itself and stifle our joy – and without this joy a future harmony of men and machines is impossible.”

Mason released two albums with Stardrive. The first, Intergalactic Trot, released in 1973 on Elektra, was accompanied by incredible jazz musicians such as Michael Brecker on the sax and Steve Gadd on the drums.

It features four original tracks and two spaced-out covers of The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Sly Stone’s “Want To Take You Higher”.

 

Both albums are quite the trip, though as far as I’m concerned, Mason’s second self-titled album Stardrive, released in 1974 on Columbia, is the better of the two.

The tracks in Stardrive range from deep cosmic funk to jazz/rock fusion, with certain sounds resembling an amazing Japanese video game – all sprinkled with Mason’s unique intergalactic stardust.

There is a recurring theme in the three ballads of the album where Mason performs a synth solo – these standout moments are out of this world!

Ballad (I)

Ballad (III)

The track “Funkascensions” could best be described as cosmic jazz/rock/funk/fusion, or as I like to call it, so-many-different-elements-in-a-track-I-can’t-put-it-in-one-box-but-it-damn-sure-grooves.

“Air Sauce” remains my favourite. It sounds like it could be an unreleased gem by Herbie Hancock from his Headhunters era that had warped through a black hole before it got here.

At this point, we’ve gone more than 43 years back in time to the prime years of Robert Mason’s music career. Yet, we’ve not come any closer to an answer to the following questions. Whatever happened to Robert Mason and the Stardrive? Why hadn’t they gotten more recognition? By objective measures, Mason was a game changer who had taken the synthesizer out of its studio confines onto the stage, thus paving the way for more real-time electronic music performances to be made possible. Up till the second album’s release, the stars of Mason and Stardrive seemed destined to rise. Instead, both Mason and the band appeared to have fallen into obscurity with barely any news of them since.

An unverified claim on the internet could hold a clue to the missing puzzle piece.

Legend has it that back in 1974 at the Radio City Music Hall in New York, Stardrive was performing as the opening act for Jefferson Starship when their music rubbed a member of the audience the wrong way. This crazed individual had proceeded to jump on stage and ended up smashing both Mason and his synthesizer so badly that they never performed again.

I have personally tried to locate Mr. Mason himself, but to no avail. There’s been no leads thus far, and I am not even sure if he’s still alive. If anyone knows more about him or this story, please do contact me so that we can update this article.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this cosmic post. If you come across either albums, do get them before any future reissue drives the price of the originals sky high into the stratosphere.

 

 

Leer, King (1972, March 19). Stardrive: The Greening of Jazz-Rock Revisited. Changes Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.vasulka.org/archive/Kitchen/KC/KC009.pdf

(1972, April) Stardrive promotional material. Retrieved from:
http://www.vasulka.org/archive/Kitchen/KE/KE036.pdf