It was nearly midnight. I was walking down Telegraph Avenue when I suddenly encountered a stream of unidentifiable musical timbres and textures. Looking around, I traced the sounds to a large wooden instrument being played by a man with a red beard. He was striking and stroking the instrument's many strings with peculiar apparatuses attached to his eight fingers— thin, six-inch-long rods with bow hair tied to the ends of them—and the music sounded like an orchestra comprised of instruments from alien worlds.
Michael Masley had recently relocated to the Bay Area from a small Michigan town, and he was sustaining body and soul by playing for tips. He had devised and perfected his unique “bowhammer” approach to cymbalom playing while serving as summer caretaker at a private fishing lodge, and subsequently followed his muse to California in search of opportunities.
Masley's thing was improvisation. He was unconcerned with musical formalities— it was stream-of-consciousness, pure and simple. His music wasn't simple-minded or self-indulgent—it possessed a unique harmonic consistency, and frequently conveyed an emotional depth that touched even casual listeners.
I was recording my Mythos album at the time I met Mike, and I invited him to participate. He made significant contributions to that album, and soon thereafter we formed an improvisational duo called Thin Ice. At my suggestion, he recorded an album of his own at the studio we’d been working at, with me manning the recorders and organizing the production. The results became his first cassette release, Cymbalom Solos.
Cymbalom Solos was recorded “live” directly to a classic Ampex AG-440 analog two-track, with most of the fade ins and outs occurring in real time. Because they were first (and only) takes, the recordings fully captured the immediacy of the performances. There were some close calls, though, such as the long fade-out on “Survival in a House Darkening” which was completed just as the tape was running out!
Nearly two decades after the original release of Cymbalom Solos, the music sounds as vital and inspired as ever. I love this album, and am proud to have been a part of it.
—Barry Cleveland August, 2003
Guitarist Barry Cleveland is an Associate Editor at Guitar Player magazine, and author of Creative Music Production: Joe Meek’s Bold Techniques (Mixbooks). He has released several solo and ensemble recordings, including Volcano and the 2-CD Memory & Imagination in 2003. Visit barrycleveland.com for details.: