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Electronic music pioneer Jon Appleton dies at 83

A black and white phoot showing a man who appears white wearing glasses and sitting at a piano with his finger on a smaller instrument on top of the piano.
Dartmouth College, Courtesy
Jon Appleton playing the Synclavier, an instrument he helped develop and one of the first digital synthesizers. Appleton, who died Jan. 30, lived in the Upper Valley for decades.

An electronic music pioneer who lived for decades in the Upper Valley died last month.

Jon Appleton was an innovator in electro-acoustic music, using effects to warp and reshape natural sounds or field recordings. He also helped develop the first commercially-available digital synthesizer.

Appleton’s stepfather was a double-bass player with the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra, and he enrolled Appleton in piano lessons and encouraged him to write his own music, according to Appleton's website.

Appleton wrote music throughout college, and in 1963, when he was in his early 20s, he went to graduate school to study composition.

In a 2011 video, he said he gravitated towards electronic music because it offered "maximum freedom."

“I thought, what if you try this or try this, or recording voices over the telephone or going outside and getting sounds or mixing up sounds, cutting them up and taking the voice of one thing and connecting it with a sound of a door moving in another direction,” he said. “You can try anything.”

Jon Appleton: In His Own Words

Appleton was among the first wave of American composers to make electronic music, according to Greg Davis, a musician and owner of Autumn Records in Winooski. Davis said Appleton brought youthful, creative energy to his work.

“I think that's why he was able to bridge the gap between this kind of like, pop music and academic music world,” Davis said. “He was younger and he understood that the Beatles were just as important as Stockhausen."

Appleton's early music involved recording sounds on tape and then manipulating those sounds. In 2011, he said experimentation was a big part of his early work.

“So I start with an idea and say ... how could I get from point A to point B? By fading in, by cutting sharply, by introducing a third sound that sort of bridges a gap,” he said. “And it was just a technique that evolved from practice. And I had no rules to follow except the rules of what was interesting for me to hear.”

"I had no rules to follow except the rules of what was interesting for me to hear."
Jon Appleton

JJ Appleton, Jon’s son, said his dad was a driven and creative musician.

“When I think of him I think of not exactly playing by the rules; he wanted to push the boundaries of music,” JJ said. ”He was just a really encouraging person and he would pick up the phone to help his friends and his students.”

In 1967, Appleton started teaching at Dartmouth College, and he founded the Bregman Electronic Music Studio — one of the first such studios in the country, according to the college.

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During his early years at Dartmouth, Appleton also helped develop a new electronic instrument: The Synclavier, which was one of the earliest digital synthesizers.

It was built by Norwich-based New England Digital, which closed in the early 1990s. It became a popular instrument in the recording studio, appearing on records by Frank Zappa and Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Appleton took the Synclavier on tours around the country, mostly to colleges. JJ said his dad would have him help demonstrate the instrument.

“He'd have me come up out of the audience and play the Synclavier, and push the buttons that would activate the different sections of the little piece that I was doing,” JJ said. "He could be a bit of a showman too.”

"My dad … was a flashy guy, he would wear an all-white suit and go out and shake hands in front of Dan and Whit's and campaign around."
JJ Appleton

JJ said his dad’s "showman" quality came out in different ways, like in 1990 when Appleton ran for the Vermont state Senate.

“My dad … was a flashy guy, he would wear an all-white suit and go out and shake hands in front of Dan and Whit's and campaign around,” JJ said.

Appleton lost the race by about 1,000 votes.

In the latter years of his musical career, Appleton focused more on compositions for chamber ensembles and choral groups.

“I don't think that I possess much originality in my instrumental music,” Appleton said in 2011. “I think it's just very beautiful, it pleases me to write it, and it pleases me to hear it.”

Appleton died on Jan. 30 in White River Junction. He was 83.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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