by Mike G, June 2020
Behold, the long-awaited digital and vinyl debut of American duo Emerald Web’s new age classic Valley Of The Birds (1981), previously a cassette-only release almost lost in the mists of time. I spoke at length with band co-founder Kat Epple about her career, the album and the uniquely American musical era that birthed it.
Emerald Web? That new age band that did those TV soundtracks in the 80’s? The music on those Carl Sagen astronomy docos? Yep, that’s them.
Hardly the full story, of course. But the husband-wife duo of Kat Epple and the late Bob Stohl were exceptional in being one of the early American new age acts – pre-Yanni and the corporatisation of the genre – to achieve a degree of mainstream recognition. Both fine multi-instrumentalists and synth programmers with a strong ear for melody, they were in a way new age music superstars. During the duo’s 13 year existence their records sold well, their live shows were popular and they forged an extensive parallel career doing soundtrack commissions for film and TV.
Previously only ever issued on cassette on their own Stargate label, their reissued and remastered 4th album Valley Of The Birds is a small masterpiece of vintage synth-based ambient, capturing the band in it’s ascendant soon after they relocated from Connecticut to San Francisco. The Bay Area was the heart of North California’s burgeoning DIY musical movement in the early 80’s which, for better or worse, came to be known as new age music.
Into the valley
In the hills above Berkeley on the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay, there is – or at least was – a tranquil pocket of wooded acres nestled on the hillside between freeways and city streets. Through the middle runs a small freshwater stream which attracts birds to bathe and drink, and there are plenty of trees for shade and shelter. Birds visit to escape the stress of the city or to rest during annual migrations. It’s also been said by locals that birds come here to die.
This is the real valley of the birds. You won’t find it on Google Maps, and it appears to have no official designation. I suspect that if you stop any Berkeley local in the street today to ask about it, it’s most likely you’ll draw a blank. But as Kat has written: “The energy there was extraordinary and inspiring.” It was at a location nearby that she and Bob – quite unexpectedly – quickly settled and built a recording studio after they arrived from the East Coast in 1980.
“Bob and I needed to find a place to live as soon as possible”, she recalls. “We had very little money and no friends in the area who we could crash with for a night or two. Miraculously, we were invited to stay temporarily at the White Crane Silat Indonesian martial arts school up in the Berkeley Hills. I was expecting just a bed in a bunkhouse setting. Instead, it was this beautiful studio apartment, built into the hillside. The idea was to stay while looking for a place to rent. Then a few days later we were invited to live there. It became our home for the next 10 years.”
The first Emerald Web album produced in California was actually their third release Sound Trek (1980). It marks the point at which the disparate currents in their earliest music – synth-based psychedelia, spacey prog rock, jazz, ethnic music and environmental ambient – coalesce for the first time into consistently well-developed tunes. The cover art also captures the spirit and kookiness of the times: the Bay Bridge at night, over which flies…a UFO.
But it’s on the celestial Valley Of The Birds that their embrace and increasing command of a new generation of synthesisers is really apparent. Here they raised the bar further and, inspired by the extraordinary Bay area culture around them, created their greatest album.
But first, a little e-music history.
Technology and sound
In the second half of the 1970’s synthesiser technology became cheaper and therefore accessible for a lot more musicians. Contrast that with the late 60’s when first generation synths like the Moog were ruinously expensive, meaning even great European electronic bands like Cluster and Tangerine Dream were augmenting a rock-like ensemble with only pedals, tape effects and noise boxes on their earliest albums.
Based in Connecticut during this stage of their careers, Bob and Kat could now afford to buy some of these new generation synths, and they took their time.
“When Bob and I first met, we were both keyboardists and flute players, but not yet electronic musicians. We studied synthesisers together, and learned to program, patch, and play them over the years. As the equipment advanced, we continued learning and exploring. This was the cutting edge of music technology and we wanted to be there.” This exploration included buying the Electronic Music Labs SynKey 2001 released in 1976. The duo provided ongoing consultation and feedback to the designers at EML as the instrument continued to evolve. This pattern of relationship between the duo and the synth manufacturers would be repeated many times in the coming years.
This was also a time of controversy about synthesisers and electronic music, as hard as it may be to imagine such attitudes today.
Like synthpop’s impact in Europe and the UK, new age in America was one of the crucial genres where the technology found an open-minded audience in the late 70’s and early 80’s. “Many people disliked them because they thought that synths would cause orchestral musicians to become obsolete”, remembers Kat. “They believed synths would put all of the ‘real musicians’ out of work. In spite of that, the number of electronic music aficionados grew quickly.”
Indeed, there was no stopping the synthwave now.
Valley Of The Birds brings to an end a series of remastered and reissued Emerald Web albums which had previously long been out of print. I still have the original cassette that I bought as a teenager from a new age bookshop in Australia back in the 80’s (yeah, I hung out in new age bookshops in my college years). I can happily report that the new remastered release taken from the original analog master tapes is a significant upgrade in sound quality, 4-track imperfections and all.
Featuring vintage synths such as the Minimoog, Oberheim sequencer and ARP 2600, Valley Of The Birds – among its other virtues – is a monument to the hypnotic quality of simple arpeggios, stretched out over long distances, accompanied by either a looping chord sequence or sometimes no chord changes at all.
Some cuts have an extraordinary sense of mystery, deepened with whistling Minimoog melodies soaring above. “Rain Forest” and especially the title track layer gently rolling synth loops in between flute solos and lush underlays, stellar examples of how jaw-droppingly pretty Emerald Web’s music could be without tipping over into new age schlock.
The album explores more than just pastoral nature themes that its title suggests, most memorably pointing towards deep space on the 10-minute “Photonos”. It’s built on dark, throbbing bass and a single chord with improvised melodies atop, simple yet epic. Its ethereal textures resemble a noir-ish science fiction score.
“That one was created late one night in our home studio,” says Kat. “The pulsing bass sequence has an unsettling, driving feel. It pulls the rhythm forward without a break or moment to breathe. We had a penchant for music with a dark edge and you can hear it in that piece.”
The track was commissioned for use on many films, TV, and especially planetarium shows. “Film directors appreciated its shadowy sci-fi flavour. I remember one director listening to custom music that we created for him and saying ‘this new piece is really good but needs to be a little more Photonos-esque’.”
“Valley Of The Birds”
Counter-balancing the darker moods is the glorious title piece, the album’s opener which slowly reveals itself like a beautiful flower.
After releasing the album, the duo quickly realised this opening piece was special. Following performances at festivals and fairs, they would play the cassette at their vendor’s table and as people walked by, this was the track that would make people stop and listen. This was despite the often intrusive cacophony of the event. And if someone stopped, they often purchased.
It’s probably their best known and certainly one of their most layered pieces, full of kaleidoscopic colour. This and everything else on the album was recorded on a humble 4-track reel-to-reel tape, without the safety net of unlimited multi-tracks or tech like MIDI to preserve all the recorded parts in sync.
From the album notes:
“The first two tracks [on the 4-track] included both of us playing a live mix of the sequencers, synths and keyboard parts while adding processing and effects. If either of us made a mistake on the music bed track, we had to erase and start over again. Because this was before MIDI, nothing was locked in sync, so matching up the sounds and effects for a “punch-in” on the basic first track was not really an option.
“On the next tracks we added flutes, Lyricon, and melodic keyboard parts which both Bob and I would play simultaneously. We often used two tracks rather than one for this pass, in order to have separation, and to get a discreet stereo image.”
The sounds of the Lyricon – an early and unusual hybrid synth/woodwind instrument first released in 1974 – is all over Valley Of The Birds. It was Bob Stohl’s favourite instrument and the one with which he came to be most associated, even though both of them played it on stage and in the studio.
I ask Kat how she would describe this exotic e-music artifact to someone who’s never seen one. It’s a bit of a chameleon, because it’s not really just one instrument.
“Simply put, it looks like a soprano saxophone, and you blow into the mouthpiece to play it, though it doesn’t create any sound acoustically because it’s completely electronic. We designed a variety of sounds on it such as oboe, synthesizer, cello, electric guitar, french horn and contrabass. Emerald Web was actually sponsored by Computone, the company that created the Lyricon. So we helped promote it and provided suggestions to the designer Bill Bernardi as he developed the Lyricon 2. That’s also played on the album.”
The scene, the shows & the science
Emerald Web’s arrival on the West Coast in 1980 had its genesis is in a joke Kat made to her husband, after packing yet another round of cassette shipments back in Connecticut and noting that the biggest shipments were going to San Francisco. “We should just move to the place!” she said. And they finally did – loading up their van with music and camping gear and taking the great coast-to-coast American road trip, playing shows along the way.
Stephen Hill, host of the legendary Hearts of Space radio program which at the time had its home on Bay area station KPFA, remembers the newcomers. “The North California new age scene at the time was wide open and burgeoning. Bob and Kat were immediately accepted as members of a broad community of local musicians performing and creating recordings. Anna Turner and I played them regularly on our local KPFA show…they fit right in.”
The couple had joint passions for hard science and technology on one hand (astronomy, early computers), and on the other, the worlds of science fiction and fantasy. The world in which they landed was able, miraculously perhaps, to accommodate it all, as well as provide a perfect market for the music itself.
Unusually, Emerald Web also came to California as a live gigging band in a genre where many artists never ventured beyond now-affordable home studios. Unable to find gigs with traditional promoters and venues like bars, they took matters into their own hands and pursued alternatives. This not only included new age and alternative lifestyle fairs but, in a business-savvy move, led to trailblazing performances in places that had previously not hosted live music.
“We played all kinds of interesting venues,” says Kat. “The California Academy of Sciences, Morrison Planetarium, Chabot Astronomical Observatory. We knew many scientists which is how we got those kinds of gigs. We’d been working together on sound technology projects.”
Equally as novel was turning early Star Trek and Star Wars conventions into concert opportunities.
Kat recalls: “I remember looking out at our audience and seeing Klingon bat’leths, Starfleet tricorders, blasters, Wookiee bowcasters, light sabers and Tribbles. Bob wore an authentic flight suit. I had an ethereal flowing costume, not a specific character, more a generic alien enchantress.” Being tech and sci-fi nerds themselves, the duo found themselves among friends. But how did audiences react? “They were mostly young men, intelligent and soft-spoken in their everyday life. Most of them had never heard a live synthesiser band before and were very interested in our space music. There were lots of questions after our performances.”
Given the famously unreliable state of the era’s electronic instruments, pulling off a live Emerald Web performance around this time was deceptively challenging, however smooth it appeared to the audience.
With just two of them on stage, they had to work out ways to create continuity and fill out the sound, and devised an elaborate setup relying on sustain foot pedals and trigger switches. Sound engineers often were at a loss on how to mix a performance, so soon they ended up doing themselves from the stage. Kat’s Arp 2600 synth would drift out of tune unless she manually tuned the oscillators on the fly. Too bad if there was a power failure or someone kicked out a power lead before a show, because the memory limitations of their then-primitive sequencers meant they would lose everything that had been pre-prepared. On more than one occasion Kat found herself frantically reprogramming a sequencer on headphones as a concert was about to start.
Their live shows could be elaborate affairs, featuring collaborations with Bay area video artists, lighting designers, animators and dancers. In the new album notes for Valley Of The Birds Kat recounts one particularly trippy occasion at a local planetarium. “As we stood on the concert stage in the Morrison Planetarium star dome, above our heads planets spun, stars moved across the sky, comets streaked, meteors fell, celestial objects orbited, and argon laser beams flashed criss-crossing the dome to create a green matrix…sometimes I found myself holding tight to a keyboard or microphone stand in order to steady myself in this dizzying setting.”
A difficult transition
Fast forward a decade and many albums later.
Although corporate record labels had now hopped on board new age music, dictating terms and strangling the grass roots scene, the 80’s had been good to Emerald Web. “It didn’t change our music because we didn’t sign with any of the record labels that dictated what artists should create,” says Kat. As well as having their own label Stargate, they also recorded for two of the era’s great indie labels: Ethan Edgecombe’s Fortuna Records and Larry Fast’s Audion label. “They released whatever music we delivered to them. I remember Larry always wanted the artists to create music that was true to their own head and heart.”
Now, having received the offer of a generous advance from the Connecticut-based Scarlet Records to record their next album, and with their rented villa in the Berkeley Hills about to be sold, Bob and Kat said goodbye to California and moved back to the East Coast, this time to Fort Myers, Florida.
“The 80’s was a very exciting time in the San Francisco area, filled with innovation and the arts. I felt like I had been sprinting for 10 years. I needed some time away from the intensity of the city to pause, regroup and compose music. It was also a decade of the HIV/AIDS crisis which was a frightening and heart-breaking reality. We planned to move back to San Francisco, but never did.”
The album for Scarlet, Manatee Dreams Of Neptune, was finished and released, but it was to be Emerald Web’s last. In 1990 Bob Stohl died, accidentally drowning while doing underwater laps in their swimming pool. He was 35.
When an artist is no longer with us, their art often remains. In recorded music, it’s a legacy in sound, perhaps more intimate than video and certainly more visceral than musical notes on a page. What came up for her, I ask, going through the tapes again for the Valley Of The Birds reissue?
“After restoration of the masters, I listened closely to the music in headphones to check for dropouts. I unexpectedly heard Bob inhale just before he played a flute passage. It was a very familiar sound I hadn’t heard in decades.” She also searched through the original negatives and slides from that time to include on the vinyl album cover. “It was great to excavate those pictures, I hadn’t seen them in years.”
Back to 1990. Having lost her husband and creative partner, she soon discovered that the film and TV industry had entirely the wrong idea about how the duo’s creative partnership had worked. That is, Bob was the synth guy and she just played the flutes.
“Many of the directors who we had worked with were concerned that I couldn’t produce music without Bob”, she explains. “So now it was very difficult for me to find work in the field where I had been working for 20 years. It wasn’t a surprise that this was an assumption made by many people. There were very few women who were that combination of synthesiser player, composer and audio engineer at that time.”
She also told the Fort Myers Florida Weekly in a 2019 interview: “I had to prove that at least half of all of our work was mine. I lost so much of the momentum we had built. The film directors thought I would need a recording engineer and I told them, ‘I have one – it’s me.’ They thought I was just a girl and couldn’t handle it.”
Correcting the record
Time, then, to dispel a number of myths about Emerald Web.
One, that Bob Stohl did most of it. Not true. Kat was perhaps “the quiet one” but the duo was a collaboration in every sense. This myth about the division of labour in their partnership was actually quite widespread, not just confined to directors in the film and TV business.
“Bob and I both played synths and flutes. Anyone who saw us perform or talked to us about the music knew that we worked as a team of composers, performers, producers and engineers.” The misunderstanding was not just confined to Kat’s role, either. “Bob was also an accomplished flutist and shakuhachi flute player. He’s sometimes not given credit for that.”
She describes their working methods. “We collaborated very spontaneously. It was never competitive, always a discovery, it was fun. Sometimes we’d play and discover a theme or texture which would develop into a [instrumental] song. We usually recorded the rough idea on tape to remind us.” She says their compositional approaches differed significantly, but it worked. “Listening to those Valley Of The Birds tapes again I can remember which of us came up with the original bones of the music. The title track, for example, that’s more my style. ‘The Dragon’s Gate’ is more Bob’s sound.”
The second myth she would like laid to rest is that the band hailed from Miami.
Right coast, wrong state.
Bob and Kat did meet at a jam session at the University of Florida in the early 70’s. But after college they lived and performed in Connecticut for the rest of the decade, as well as doing session work in New York City. Then came their eventual migration west. Today she actually does live in Florida, but not Miami.
Here endeth the lesson.
Eventually, Kat Epple got her career back on track after the industry roadblocks she encountered in the 90’s. “It’s been frustrating at times, but I think women composers and musicians have an easier time being accepted now. Overcoming that obstacle helped me become a much stronger person.”
Today, she records music both solo and with others (check the glorious ambient-folk-world mashup from 2015 with Nathan Dyke called Elemental Circuitry), receives plenty of soundtrack commissions (lately from the BBC), plays live shows, and is a passionate flute collector and educator. I ask her about the collecting bug. “I travel a lot and a big part of the fun is discovering the music, musicians, and traditional instruments of a place. And using them in my music brings the sound of moving air and resonating wood into what’s otherwise electronic orchestrations.”
She’s agnostic when it comes to analog gear and the new soft synths and plugins, despite her roots in the classic age of synth hardware. In concert she uses both, as well metal audio sculptures and ancient flutes made of wood, silver, tin, bamboo, clay, and bone.
It’s all still new age music in a way, or in spirit at least. Unlike some other artists back in the day, Emerald Web never railed against the new age tag, which was controversial even in the genre’s pre-corporate infancy. She and Bob made it work for them, with its flat distribution structure, grassroots outlets and DIY self-published cassettes. “At that time, the new age music market was new and accommodating. The music styles were amazingly diverse. Chanting Tibetan bowl gong players, new age folk singers, acoustic piano players. We were delighted to be part of it.”
The reissued Valley Of The Birds is available via streaming, digital download and vinyl.
Vinyl at RecordStoreDay.com on August 29, September 26 and October 24, 2020.