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Scott Paulson: Making Stylophone Hip Again

If you listen carefully you can hear the one note on David Bowie's "Space Oddity," a glissando followed by a squawk that constitutes possibly the most famous sound in Stylophone history. Kraftwerk would come along later and play more Stylophone on their Computer World, and Marilyn Manson used Stylophone on his "You Me and the Devil Makes 3."

They are not the only ones, but they are the most famous on the short list of Stylophone-ists.

The Stylophone is an electronic pocket organ that is roughly the same size as a transistor radio. It was invented by accident in the 1960s in Britain. Brian Jarvis who worked in the recording industry was repairing his niece's toy electric piano, as the story goes, because some of the keys had broken. He somehow learned that the keys could be put on a single circuit and activated by a metal pen, or stylus, to complete the circuit and make a single note.

The kid didn't get her piano back. But in its place, what she ended up with was far more entertaining.

Friends and family in fact dug the little girl's re-worked keyboard to the extent that Jarvis took encouragement and eventually went into business to mass produce his Dubreq (a name derived from the combination of two words: dubbing and recording) Stylophone. It was marketed as an instrument that anyone could learn to play. The only catch was this: it didn't sound very good.

But no matter. The gizmo sold 3 million units before Stylophone furor died down. It was gone from retailer's shelves by the 1980s, destined to become yet another eBay collectible. In 2007 the instrument was re-introduced in Britain and enjoyed a small, if steady resurgence.

"The reissue comes with a much-needed headphone jack," says Scott Paulson, "and an octave option, and an MP3 jack." Paulson plays concert oboe professionally, bari sax with Sue Palmer, and he works in the music library at UCSD. "That means you can plug an MP3 player into a Stylophone and play along to your favorite songs through its crappy speaker."

Paulson is known as a collector of musical oddities. His toy piano collection: "More than 200, but less than 300." He has a warehouse full of hundreds of sound effects instruments and noisemakers and bona fide musical instruments that get put to the test as part of his Teeny Tiny Pit Orchestra in which he and a handful of musicians soundtrack behind the screening of old silent films.

At UCSD Paulson hosts the Short Attention Span Chamber Music concert series and the annual Toy Piano Festival, now in its 12th season. He organizes displays in the campus music library of what he calls "educational toys and defunct media." To wit, he has curated collections of such oddities (or antiquities) as Morse code devices, the Theremin, and magic lanterns.

His new thing? The Stylophone.

Paulson shows up at my house in La Mesa late on a Monday morning in plaid shirt, chinos, sneakers, red ball cap, and round 1930s reading glasses. He has a shopping bag full of Stylophones. He pulls out a fully functional white plastic model that dangles from a keychain: "pocket-sized."

But the most advanced of the lot is a round-ish Stylophone with advanced technology. "You can make it act like a bass instrument or a drum machine." It has a sampling function as well. Paulson makes a drum loop sound, saves it, and taps out some dub bass against it.

"It comes with the pre-recorded voice of MC Zani. He's the UK Beatbox Champion."

He then pokes at the keypad and adds some Zani. It gets both annoying and cool at the same time, if you can imagine. He hands it over to me. I pick out "Yankee Doodle." It is fresh in my mind. My grandson and I were playing that on the piano just the day before, but flatting the 6th so it would sound, well, jazzy.

"Two people approached me with Stylophones in recent months," says Paulson. "Pea Hicks, the composer was first. He does sound design and he's got a band, works a bit in theater." Sean Ryan was next. "He said, have you ever heard one of these? I said let's do an exhibit." By now he has amassed dozens of them including a few vintage instruments.

"It's something everyone can play," Paulson says of the device that was originally marketed as a child's toy. "It's not so intimidating."

Scott Paulson's Stylophones will be on exhibit in the UCSD Library downstairs in the arts library area throughout the month of April. On March 28th at 12:30 Paulson will kick things off with a live Stylophone concert.

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If you listen carefully you can hear the one note on David Bowie's "Space Oddity," a glissando followed by a squawk that constitutes possibly the most famous sound in Stylophone history. Kraftwerk would come along later and play more Stylophone on their Computer World, and Marilyn Manson used Stylophone on his "You Me and the Devil Makes 3."

They are not the only ones, but they are the most famous on the short list of Stylophone-ists.

The Stylophone is an electronic pocket organ that is roughly the same size as a transistor radio. It was invented by accident in the 1960s in Britain. Brian Jarvis who worked in the recording industry was repairing his niece's toy electric piano, as the story goes, because some of the keys had broken. He somehow learned that the keys could be put on a single circuit and activated by a metal pen, or stylus, to complete the circuit and make a single note.

The kid didn't get her piano back. But in its place, what she ended up with was far more entertaining.

Friends and family in fact dug the little girl's re-worked keyboard to the extent that Jarvis took encouragement and eventually went into business to mass produce his Dubreq (a name derived from the combination of two words: dubbing and recording) Stylophone. It was marketed as an instrument that anyone could learn to play. The only catch was this: it didn't sound very good.

But no matter. The gizmo sold 3 million units before Stylophone furor died down. It was gone from retailer's shelves by the 1980s, destined to become yet another eBay collectible. In 2007 the instrument was re-introduced in Britain and enjoyed a small, if steady resurgence.

"The reissue comes with a much-needed headphone jack," says Scott Paulson, "and an octave option, and an MP3 jack." Paulson plays concert oboe professionally, bari sax with Sue Palmer, and he works in the music library at UCSD. "That means you can plug an MP3 player into a Stylophone and play along to your favorite songs through its crappy speaker."

Paulson is known as a collector of musical oddities. His toy piano collection: "More than 200, but less than 300." He has a warehouse full of hundreds of sound effects instruments and noisemakers and bona fide musical instruments that get put to the test as part of his Teeny Tiny Pit Orchestra in which he and a handful of musicians soundtrack behind the screening of old silent films.

At UCSD Paulson hosts the Short Attention Span Chamber Music concert series and the annual Toy Piano Festival, now in its 12th season. He organizes displays in the campus music library of what he calls "educational toys and defunct media." To wit, he has curated collections of such oddities (or antiquities) as Morse code devices, the Theremin, and magic lanterns.

His new thing? The Stylophone.

Paulson shows up at my house in La Mesa late on a Monday morning in plaid shirt, chinos, sneakers, red ball cap, and round 1930s reading glasses. He has a shopping bag full of Stylophones. He pulls out a fully functional white plastic model that dangles from a keychain: "pocket-sized."

But the most advanced of the lot is a round-ish Stylophone with advanced technology. "You can make it act like a bass instrument or a drum machine." It has a sampling function as well. Paulson makes a drum loop sound, saves it, and taps out some dub bass against it.

"It comes with the pre-recorded voice of MC Zani. He's the UK Beatbox Champion."

He then pokes at the keypad and adds some Zani. It gets both annoying and cool at the same time, if you can imagine. He hands it over to me. I pick out "Yankee Doodle." It is fresh in my mind. My grandson and I were playing that on the piano just the day before, but flatting the 6th so it would sound, well, jazzy.

"Two people approached me with Stylophones in recent months," says Paulson. "Pea Hicks, the composer was first. He does sound design and he's got a band, works a bit in theater." Sean Ryan was next. "He said, have you ever heard one of these? I said let's do an exhibit." By now he has amassed dozens of them including a few vintage instruments.

"It's something everyone can play," Paulson says of the device that was originally marketed as a child's toy. "It's not so intimidating."

Scott Paulson's Stylophones will be on exhibit in the UCSD Library downstairs in the arts library area throughout the month of April. On March 28th at 12:30 Paulson will kick things off with a live Stylophone concert.

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I was unaware of WHAT made that sound on Bowie's "Space Oddity," and was unfamiliar with this old toy-turned-tech - interesting stuff! San Diegans get a lot of musical mileage out of such recycled kiddie kitsch, such as the Pea Hicks/Rob Crow ensemble Optigonally Yours (using an old Mattel toy Optigon - http://www.sandiegoreader.com/bands/optiganally-yours/ ), the toy circuit bending antics of Beatrix*JAR ( http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/20... ) , and the demonic-sounding toy pianos that characterized local cabaret/goth rockers Tragic Tantrum (later known as London Below).

I need to dig out my old Furby and see if I can rewire him up to my old Yamaha DX7 keyboard and make my own Moogish muzik ---

March 17, 2012
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