On July 9, the experimental-music series Non-Event presents a concert by saxophonist, composer, and improviser Jorrit Dijkstra at Brookline’s Cafe Fixé. In addition to teaching at Berklee and the New England Conservatory, Dijkstra has another local connection in his toolkit: among various other instruments and electronics, Dijkstra plays the Lyricon.
The Lyricon was the first wind-actuated synthesizer — a woodwind-like instrument (it looks like a space-age clarinet) producing an electronic tone. It was invented by Bill Bernardi of Norwell, in collaboration with Roger Noble (who also once worked with Alan Pearlman, founder of ARP Instruments, another early synthesizer manufacturer). A metal spring in the mouthpiece registered lip pressure; a photocell, sensing fluctuations that a diaphragm caused in an LED’s intensity, measured air pressure. Those signals controlled an analog synthesizer adjusted by adding or subtracting overtones, like a drawbar organ.
Production of Lyricons debuted in 1974; early purchasers included Wayne Shorter and David Sanborn. The Lyricon I and its successor, the Lyricon II (which added a two-oscillator synthesizer) became common auxiliaries in ’70s and ’80s jazz-rock fusion — Spyro Gyra, Weather Report — and high-gloss pop. Through prolific bandleader and session player Tom Scott, the instrument’s most enthusiastic practitioner, the Lyricon had a prominent part in Steely Dan’s “Peg” — and a near-subliminal one in Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”
Nevertheless, Computone, the company Bernardi founded to manufacture the Lyricon, went under in the early 1980s. The market would come to be dominated by digital, MIDI-based wind controllers. As digital synthesis became the norm, though, experimental musicians came to rediscover the funky expressivity of analog synthesizers, the Lyricon included. Those that track one down can bring it to Norwell for service. Bernardi stockpiled spare parts, and still does repairs for players — and has a Lyricon III on the drawing board.