Charles Cohen has long been a part of Philadelphia’s varied art scenes. Yet, despite his white hair, he seems like an ageless sprite — occasionally making splintered electronic music with-and-for teens, occasionally playing in bars where young aficionados of his ragged brand of oscillating improvisation hang. Watching him readying for a gig or a recording — just him and his scuffed-up baby-blue suitcase filled with his rare Buchla Music Easel synthesizer and a handful of wires — is an art unto itself, one that’s only recently found him more popular than ever.
Blame a series of Morphine label albums of his past work (“The Middle Distance,” “Group Motion,” “Music for Dance and Theater,” a remixed 12-inch “Dance of the Spiritcatchers”) and the recently released “Brother I Prove You Wrong” — Cohen’s first newly recorded album in 30 years — as reasons why this kind soul has won popularity beyond critical acclaim. Performing shows throughout the globe has only brought his hypnotic sound waves closer to his crowd. Of his newly found fame, Cohen said softly, “My deceased mother came to me in a dream months after she died and gave me this message: ‘Live. Be happy. Forget the past.’”
Asked if he has listened to her, he replied: “I try.”
To get a better picture of Cohen — a gay gentleman in his 60s — and his importance to Philly’s wide-ranging scenes, jump back to his arrival: a fresh-faced technician who had just dropped out of graduate school in New York City, where upon he was offered a sound-designer job for Temple University’s theater department.
“Never played piano. Never studied music,” he said.
His background is dance and theater, as he started creating scores for various university productions as well as those for Group Motion, a pioneering contemporary West Philly multimedia movement-theater company.
“When the GM folks came to Philly from Berlin, they did Temple,” Cohen said. “It was a real eye-opener. I was already into electronic music as a hobby but here were serious artists making creative use of very ‘out’ music.”
Theirs was a marriage made in sonic heaven. Yet, the more he “composed,” the more bored he became with the hint of fleeting convention.
“It was fun but I moved on, as I eventually got frustrated with dance/theater collabs as too restrictive and time-consuming.”
What he didn’t mind being consumed by was endless improvisation, which brought him to the attention of Philly’s free jazz-playing crowd, as well as the instrument he’d make his bones playing — the then-rare (and now rarer still) Buchla Music Easel. Created by Don Buchla, the modular, non-keyboard instrument was made popular (if you could call it that) by Morton Subotnick on 1968’s heady “Silver Apples of the Moon.”
“When I heard that, I knew those were the kind of sounds I wanted,” Cohen said. “But, it took a year back then to find exactly what Subotnick was using, another year to find contact information about Buchla and another year to buy one.”
After Cohen got his Buchla, he never looked back — or, for that matter, used another instrument. Ask him if writers and critics often put too much emphasis on the instrument rather than the man behind it, and he too is quizzical.
“It is still an unresolved question in my mind as to how much of what I do is informed by the instrument. It is a totally unique synth and always generates a lot of buzz and I admit that has helped me find a unique niche.”
There were fleeting few opportunities to hear Cohen on an album: two efforts with Jeff Cain such as “Objects in Mirrors Are Closer Than They Appear” (1981) and “Remote Dreaming” (1986), as well as acoustic guitarist Linda Cohen’s “Leda” (1973). In the 21st century, Cohen could be heard on records from Philly bands like Color is Luxury and the freak folk-ist Espers when they made “The Valerie Project.”
Yet, rather than document himself on a bunch of records or make himself known in a careerist’s sort of way, Cohen chose to just play anywhere he could — punk clubs, LGBT hangouts, bars.
“I don’t ‘strive’ for particular gigs,” he said. “If the folks are nice and authentic, I’m interested in playing for them.”
Of pursuing his improvisational largesse as opposed to focusing himself on recordings, he said improv is more fun.
“I like music where I don’t know what’s coming. Besides, I have always been more fun-oriented than career-oriented. Plus, if I’m not playing, I’m content to just chill.”
Among Cohen’s wise sayings: “There is nothing wrong with nothing.”
He has little patience for TV, Hollywood, pop, fine dining, professional sports, interior design, shopping for clothes and sightseeing.
When Cohen mentioned, “Music is my way to party. I don’t think of myself as a terribly social person,” I go back to his playing for, and communion with, the Philadelphia gay community.
He has never considered himself as part of any “gay music scene,” but rather as a player who moves through various art scenes.
“I don’t hang out in bars unless I’m performing.”
It is only through the auspices of Morphine Records and its label bosses who discovered a Cohen sample during a rave that Philly’s boss of the Buchla is suddenly soaring career-wise.
“I had no expectation that the retrospective material would have any use after the particular production was done. When Morphine heard the stuff, they wanted to put it all out. I agreed and those releases got me a lot of recognition and invites to festivals and such.”
From there, he was encouraged to record and release new material — hence, “Brother,” along with other new material he is currently considering.
“Everything will be new from now on,” he said, pointing out a list of summer tour dates throughout the United States, Europe and very likely Japan (you can find his gigs at twitter.com/CBeepsAndBoops), as well as a stop at Bowerbird Philadelphia Double Decker Music Series on Aug. 23.
“A ‘career’ seems within reach now. Maybe I’ll give it a try. I’ve been presented with so many awesome opportunities in the last couple of years, it would seem a crime to not try and make the most of it.”