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Jon Appleton, the composer who helped develop the digital synthesizer, is dead at 83

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

An electronic music pioneer has died. Jon Appleton helped develop one of the earliest available digital synthesizers. He was also an innovator in what he called electroacoustic music. He used effects to warp and reshape natural sounds and field recordings. Appleton lived in Vermont for decades, and Vermont Public Radio's Liam Elder-Connors brings us the story.

LIAM ELDER-CONNORS, BYLINE: Jon Appleton was among the first wave of American composers to make electronic music in the early 1960s, a time when more musicians were becoming interested in blending acoustic instruments with technology like tapes and synthesizers. In 2011, he made a video where he said he gravitated towards electronic music because there were no rules.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JON APPLETON: 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 or cutting them up? And you could try anything.

ELDER-CONNORS: His early music involved recording sounds and manipulating them. Take, for example, this recording provided by Dartmouth College Library. The 1967 piece is based on a radio jingle for frozen pizza.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEF D'OEUVRE")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) All it leads from Chef Boyardee (ph)...

TED LEVIN: At heart, he was a musical romantic.

ELDER-CONNORS: That's Ted Levin, a professor of music at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Levin says unlike some composers who made electronic music, Appleton was not obsessed with the technology.

LEVIN: His interest in electronic music was as a way to extend the expressive possibilities and potential of acoustic musical instruments and of the human voice.

ELDER-CONNORS: Appleton himself started teaching at Dartmouth in 1967 and founded the school's electronic music studio. During his early years there, Appleton helped develop a new electronic instrument, the synclavier.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ELDER-CONNORS: The synclavier was among the earliest digital synthesizers. It became popular in the recording studio, appearing on records by Frank Zappa and on Michael Jackson's "Thriller." J.J. Appleton, Jon's son, says his dad took the synclavier on tours around the country, mostly to colleges.

J J APPLETON: He would say, oh, it's not as complicated as it looks. Like, it's so easy, even a 9-year-old can do it. And he'd have me come up out of the audience and play the synclavier and, like, you know, push the buttons, you know, that would activate the different sections of the little piece that I was doing, you know, or whatever. And then so, you know, he could be a bit of a showman, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON APPLETON'S "PETITE SUITE FOR SOLO CELLO IN SEVEN MOVEMENTS")

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

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JON APPLETON: I don't think that I possess much originality in my instrumental music. I think it's just very beautiful. It pleases me to write it, and it pleases me to hear it.

ELDER-CONNORS: Appleton died on January 30 in White River Junction, Vt. He was 83.

For NPR News, I'm Liam Elder-Connors.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON APPLETON'S "THE SWEET DREAMS OF MISS PAMELA BEACH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.