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Dorothy Moskovitz & The United States of Alchemy, "Under an Endless Sky"

Under an Endless SkyDorothy Moskovitz was the singer in The United States of America, a short-lived group which made one legendary self-titled album. That was in December 1967 and she later became a member of Country Joe McDonald's band, sang live jazz, composed for children, commercials, theater, and became an elementary school music teacher. Her return on Under an Endless Sky, recorded with Italian electronic composer Francesco Paolo Paladino and writer Luca Ferrari is astonishing, and never more so at the moment around two and a half minutes into the opening title track when we hear Dorothy Moskovitz sing for the first time in a very long time*. If her voice once sounded cooler and more urbane than Catherine Ribeiro's, more innocent and intelligent than Grace Slick's, in 2023 it has a crumbling beauty and defiant timbre usually associated with Robert Wyatt or Nico (who apparently once tried to join TUSoA). Comparisons are entertaining but also odious; Moskovitz is a strange, distinctive treasure, perhaps unique.

Tompkins Square

The United States of America is indeed a legendary recording, and I realize that term is overused nearly to the point of being meaningless, but the record holds up more than fifty years later. The group had some fairly obvious 1960s politics at their core, but also a serious avant garde intent in their sound. They dispensed with electric guitars in favor of strings, keyboards, and primitive improvised electronics. Electrical engineer Tom Oberheim was commissioned to make a ring modulator and aerospace engineer Richard Durrett built electronic oscillators into a monophonic synthesizer. An octave divider was applied to electric violin, drums wired with contact microphones, and slinkies hung from cymbals for a musique concrète effect. Group leader Donald Byrd—previously a member of the Fluxus movement which included John Cage and La Monte Young—also threw in references to older American music such as ragtime, country blues, and—perhaps in a nod to Charles Ives—marching bands.

Moskovitz studied at Barnard College where she was taught by Otto Luening, the composer of such works as Gargoyles for Violin & Synthesized Sound and Sounds of New Music to demonstrate the potential of synthesizers and the electronic music editing techniques. She had also sung in a group with Art Garfunkel. At that time, ditching the guitar for electric harpsichord, organ, calliope, piano, electric bass, percussion, and the aforementioned primitive synthesizers, was close to sacrilege. Amidst all that—and the unfunny rejection of bourgeois hippie idealism—the beauty and integrity of Moskovitz's singing stood out and still does. She even makes "Love Song for the Dead Ché" sound absolutely great. It is a cracking album. If distorted electronic pseudo-classical discordant psychedelic elegance, albeit legendary, is not your thing, well it should be.

Moskovitz, Paladino, and Ferrari bring serious intent to Under an Endless Sky. Paladino's incredible album Doublings & Silences Vol.I and his work with Pier Luigi Andreoni is definitely worth checking out. Ferrari's choice of subjects for the biographies he has written (Third Ear Band, Tim Buckley, Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart, Nick Drake) gives strong clues to his lyric writing for Moskovitz. There is a marvelous feel to this album, not least as virtual textures are balanced by strings, woodwinds and percussion as if making a similar machine/human balance. Naturally, Moskovitz is central to proceedings but not in an artificial way. The fragility in her voice is matched by lyrics acknowledging the complexity of human existence. The paradox is that she allows resignation and inescapable fate to sound perfectly natural, calmly singing of being "afraid, insecure, under an endless sky". Even the bleak content of "My Doomsday Serenade" sounds bearable as she tells it "no recriminations then, only measuring the weight of my soul" because "denial and contrition don't amount to much at all."

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*In 2021, Moskowitz sang on Todd Tamanend Clark's Whirlwind of the Whispering Worlds as well as The Secret Life of Love Songs with Tim Lucas, but I haven't heard these, nor her collaboration with Peter Olof Fransson.