SXSW 2024: Resynator Intrigues

Alison Tavel directed an intriguing documentary premiering on March 10, 2024 at SXSW  about her father’s invention, the Resynator, one of the first synthesizers, a pioneering step forward in electronic music. Her father, Don Tavel, then 36, died in a car crash in 1988 when Alison was 10 weeks old. Don, a trailblazer in the field of electronic music, was a genius pioneer in advancing electronic music.

Don Tavel began working on the Resynator at age  25 after graduating from the University of Indiana. He played 17 different instruments. A music professor at the University of Indiana’s Department of Electronic Music Engineering called Tavel’s invention “a seminal moment for music technology.” Don’s goal was to push the musical envelope and create a way for a musician to “play” or sing into the machine and have it electronically altered in a manner that also retained some semblance of the musician’s original voice or instrument, unlike other synthesizers that simply mimicked the sound of a particular instrument or voice.

"Resynator" at SXSW 2024
Resynator at SXSW 2024

Alison works for singer/songwriter Grace Potter. In the course of this journey back in time to attempt to discover who her father really was, she speaks with musicians like Kenny Aronoff (drummer for John Cougar Mellencamp), Peter Gabriel, Ornie McIntyre of the Average White Band, Butch Vig (Nirvana, Garbage), Money Mark of the Beastie Boys, Fred Armison, and Rami Joffee (Foo Fighters). All her life, Allison had heard stories about her father’s encounters with famous artists like Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Peter Gabriel and Paul McCartney. She never knew whether these stories were true or simply family legends.

The film begins as a mystery about the electronic instrument Don Tavel invented. The Resynator was abandoned for decades and ended up stashed away in a box in Don’s mother’s attic in Indianapolis, Indiana. Finding this “lost Indiana Jones-like item” begins as a straightforward investigation. Utilizing old family film of her father and using voice-over, Alison shares the many positive family stories about her award-winning father.

Then, things take a very different turn. The information shared by Don’s former friends, family and colleagues leads to a very dark place and creates a story that is real, raw, and honest.

There are so many things about Don’s family that, as they emerge, puzzle us. For instance, Don had an identical twin brother, Ron—R.J.—but Alison never met him. In fact, when Ron, 64, does meet  Alison for the first time, he tells her, “When Don died, our Mom wrote me out of her life.” Who does that? Why would someone do that? No answer.

Alison’s Grandmother Kitty Tavel says, “When you walk out that door, if you do good it reflects on us. If you bring shame, we share your shame.” She is an imposing, but less-than-warm matriarch. Alison admits, “There were so many things I couldn’t talk about around Grandma Kitty.” (now deceased.)

Alison Tavel and Money Mark of the Beastie Boys with the Resynator.
Money Mark (Beastie Boys) and Alison Tavel with the Resynator.

For the first time, Alison learns less-than-positive things about her genius father. His mercurial temperament had never been previously discussed. Letters that Don left say, “I must not allow myself to ruin the last half of my life. I felt unloved my entire life…Instead of love, I got awards. I have never been able to make you love me.” These gut-wrenching peeks into the psyche of Don Tavel reduce Alison’s mother, Tamara, to tears.

Alison ends up taking the Resynator all the way to Minca, Columbia for repairs and, later, to such venues as the NAMM show, where it was demonstrated in 1980, 44 years earlier.

We learn that only 2 completely functional Resynators were made, although there were 6 prototypes and 200 were ordered, but not produced (3 ordered by Peter Gabriel). Colleagues share stories of how Don seemed to lose enthusiasm for the project after a 1982 trip to London to demonstrate the instrument for Paul McCartney. The friction between Tammy and Don is fully revealed to Alison for the first time. We hear more questions than answers.

At various points, clever animation is used to fill in the story blanks. Danny Madden did a fine job with the animation, and the music, supervised by Chris Ruggiero, is excellent. Especially touching is audio of Alison’s father singing Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” at film’s end.

This documentary was a true revelation; the synopsis doesn’t hint at the plot twists to come. Don Tavel crashed his car on November 28, 1988. He was declared brain dead on December 3, 1988. Alison had just reached 2 and ½ months of age on September 14, 1988. By all accounts her life growing up with her mom and stepfather Alen Rosenberg, who entered her life in 1997, was idyllic.

CONCLUSION

Alison Tavel of "Resynator."
Alison Tavel, Director of “Resynator” at SXSW 2024,.

The SXSW documentary “Resynator” is both enlightening, informative, and interesting on two levels: the musical level and the psychological level.  While it is true that those only interested in the technical origins of electronic music might be less interested in the psychological discussions, the one hour and 36 minute film is well worth watching.. It is a major achievement for Alison Tavel, musician/filmmaker. It makes us hope that the Resynator will rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes and potentially achieve the acclaim that was denied it during Don Tavel’s life

 

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About Connie Wilson

Connie (Corcoran) Wilson (www.ConnieCWilson.com ) was the Quad City Times film and book critic for 15 years and has continued reviewing film uninterruptedly since 1970. She also publishes books in a variety of genres (www.quadcitieslearning.com), has taught writing or literature classes at 6 Iowa/Illinois colleges or universities as adjunct faculty, was Yahoo's Content Producer of the Year 2008 for Politics, is the author of It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now, and writes on a variety of topics at her own blog, www.WeeklyWilson.com. Weekly Wilson is also the name of her podcast on the Bold Brave Media Global Network on Thursday nights at 7 p.m. (CDT).