by Mike Alvarez
First publishing the San Diego Troubadour August 2010 Issue
Although Greg Amov was born in Los Angeles and eventually returned there as an adult, the electronic composer and musician spent his formative years in San Diego where his family still resides. While here he attended Patrick Henry High School and Grossmont College before pursuing higher musical education at UC Santa Barbara and Cal State Northridge. He was a solo artist as well as a member of the progressive rock trio Systems Theory in which he served as a composer and multi-instrumentalist. Though he sadly passed away last November after his second battle with cancer (just a few days shy of his 50th birthday), he left behind a body of work that includes three solo albums as well as a number of compositions with Systems Theory. His work could be described in a number of ways, as his influences were eclectic and far-reaching. Not surprisingly, he lists Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno, and King Crimson among them. Less obvious are the more acoustic song-oriented artists like Carole King, Pete Seeger, and Fairport Convention. It’s interesting to try and hear how they might have informed his music. Like many musicians of depth and substance, he was also well-grounded in the classics, so his tastes included such composers as Aaron Copland and Beethoven along with less well-known names like Arvo Paart and Hildegard von Bingen.
Having made his living as a software professional, Amov was very much at home using technology. As such, electronic looping and digital editing became as crucial to his creative process as actual instrumental performance. After capturing the sounds he needed, he meticulously crafted them into the ebbing and flowing colors of his musical visions. Although he brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to his art, he did not feel constrained by traditional forms. His compositions are as long as they need to be, frequently going well beyond the ten-minute mark. Listeners must be able to approach his work with a fresh and open mindset, eschewing conventional notions of songcraft. Because Amov made extensive use of looping technology, there is a lot of repetition although something new usually arises with each iteration. In this regard, one could justifiably make a comparison to someone like Philip Glass. Many of his arrangements and sonic choices create vistas that are vast and panoramic, bringing to mind Vangelis, another legendary electronic composer.
Experiencing Amov’s music is somewhat like watching a flower unfold. It requires patience and an openness to unexpected outcomes. Subtext is everything. At times it can be mood-setting, perfect for meditation, but always lurking behind it is an intelligent purposefulness that will reward the more attentive ear. His music is instrumental and consequently open to interpretation, but the titles he chose take their cue from the imagery and emotions they evoke. “Tokyo on Third” easily conjures a bustling Far Eastern metropolis, whereas vast echoing spaces and ornate embellishments are what define “The Cathedral at Ys,” his tribute to Claude Debussy. Science fiction, mythology, and technology are recurring themes, as evidenced by the extended tracks “The New Worship of Old Gods” and “Nightfall on Io”.
The Dark Within the Dark was his first solo release in 2001, and it certainly lives up to its name. Electronic synthesizers merge with other instruments and effects to create a sound that is unconventional, sometimes scary, yet always fascinating. He does not shy away from creating dissonance, often embracing it when a desired effect is called for. Huge washes of electronic sound cascade from all directions, often to the world music pulse of electronic and acoustic percussion. The futuristic and the primal intertwine to create a singularly unique emotional response. Exotic sounds from faraway places like the Orient and the Middle East make surprising guest appearances. While Amov composed and performed all of the music himself, it must be noted that his wife Diane, an accomplished flautist and writer herself, assisted with the cover art and song titles. Amov’s whimsical side takes center stage on his second solo album, Gecko Highway. It has a brighter, more rhythmically based sound with certain passages actually being danceable! Some of the songs have humorous titles like “The Flooka Sat on My Head,” “Gecko Highway,” and “Ma Belle Egg Shell.” A surprising R&B influence, complete with a sampled brass section, comes to the fore in the energizing “Tail Wags Dog.” Snippets of dialogue playfully pepper the album, proclaiming things like “That was interesting!” or “It’s a nuclear device....” While Gecko Highway still includes tracks that are darker and brooding, it’s gratifying to see him explore new ground as an artist.
Music was always in Amov’s blood, having come from a family of musicians and music lovers. His mother Diana teaches piano and his sister Rachel is a highly regarded violinist who performs regularly throughout the local area. While not a musician himself, his father Mel is a retired college professor who has loved classical and operatic music for his entire life. By all accounts, he is the kind of dad who was always tremendously supportive of his children’s musical pursuits. While Mrs. Amov started her children’s musical education at the keyboard, she reveals, “I encouraged him to play the violin because he loved it. But he eventually switched over to viola.” She credits a teacher named Tony Porto (conductor of the Grossmont College Sinfonia) with helping him to master that instrument early on. “He made music fun!” Greg continued to study the viola while attending college, although his father recollects that his temperament was not suited to a very strict and demanding instructor he encountered at Cal State Northridge. Mel Amov speaks proudly of his son’s intelligence and abilities. “He would have been a first class physicist; top scientists are all musical. There’s a connection between mathematical and musical ability.” Rachel fondly remembers her brother as being very encouraging. When she was very young he made a violin and bow out of newspaper to tide her over until she could get her own instrument. She returned the favor many years later by suggesting that he add more of a groove to his music, the results of which can be heard in the techno and R&B flavored beats in his later recordings.
His final album, the posthumously released The Noble Gases is a suite of compositions based upon the titular chemical elements. His lifelong best friend and Systems Theory bandmate Steven Davies-Morris spearheaded the effort to get it produced, mastered, and released, calling it “the work that Greg was most proud of.” Although divided into discrete tracks, it is intended to be heard as one long composition with no gaps between songs. The music is still as abstract as any that Amov has created, but there is an added dimension of rhythm and catchiness that makes it perhaps his most infectious. One can only speculate why the gas Argon inspired him to name the album’s most exuberant track after it. Following the otherworldly strangeness of “Helium” and “Neon,” “Argon” is a veritable dance party complete with funky guitar and horn blasts! He follows this with the highly charged “Krypton,” the exotic and leisurely “Xenon,” and finally the extended electronic jam of “Radon” before tying all of his themes together in Group Zero (The Noble Gases). It’s a fascinating final journey through the artistic mind of a man whom Rachel describes as “incredibly smart. He was a deep thinker who could sometimes be prone to depression, but he also loved puns and bad jokes. He was an awesome brother!”
I had the pleasure of running into Greg Amov at the 2005 CalProg festival, an annual celebration of progressive rock, the genre of music that is characterized by intricate compositions and virtuosic musicianship. Although Systems Theory is not a performing entity, he and Davies-Morris were present in the festival’s vendor room to market their music to listeners with a taste for the adventurous. All day long Amov easily struck up conversations with potential customers. An affable and engaging gentleman, he eventually talked me into buying his first two solo albums. My first impression was that they were rather impenetrable. Even his mother admits to being somewhat perplexed by his art. She sheepishly confesses, “There’s no tempo. There’s no ending!” And she has a point. But when subjected to deeper scrutiny, it becomes readily apparent that this is meticulously crafted music with a great sense of artifice and purpose. Within it one finds towering darkness as well as lighthearted whimsy. Amov was definitely not a commercially driven artist. He fully pursued his musical instincts with no compromises. His work demands that one let go of many listening conventions. Those who knew him best report that he was a multifaceted renaissance man possessed of great abilities as well as the frailties and insecurities that beset us all. Although he is no longer with us, one can still come to know him through the music he created. It is available for free download courtesy of Mike Dickson, the third member of Systems Theory. Links to it can be found at his website, http://mikedickson.org.uk/