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Alison Tavel Finds the Truth About Her Synth Pioneer Father (With Help From Peter Gabriel) in New Film ‘Resynator’: ‘This Is Not the Story I Was Trying to Tell’

Alison Tavel, whose father died in a car accident when she was an infant, grew up with the family stories that her dad was a charming genius and the creator of an early music synthesizer he had dubbed the Resynator.

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The truth was more complex. Discovering that truth led Tavel on a decade-long journey to create the documentary Resynator, which premieres Sunday (March 10) at the SXSW FIlm & TV Festival.

“This is not the story I was trying to tell,” Tavel tells Billboard, explaining how she planned to share a little-known piece of music technology history involving her father Don Tavel. Instead, she also created a family history with deeper impact. Resynator is a film that explores the connections between mental health and creativity, against the backdrop of musical invention.

“This is a search for your dad,” Peter Gabriel — Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer-songwriter, and one of the few early users of the Resynator — says to the filmmaker, who visits Gabriel’s offices in London — 37 years after her father made the same trip.

Alison Tavel describes in the film how, after her father’s death, she grew up in a loving home, “a magical world,” with her mother, who remarried, and her stepfather. She narrates the documentary, often addressing her late father directly. “Dear Don, you’ve missed a lot over the years,” she says. “I’ve always loved music. And everyone told me — I got that from you.”

Growing up with those family stories of how Don Tavel “invented the synthesizer” in the 1970s, she wanted to write a school report in fourth grade on her father’s achievement. She opened an encyclopedia to the entry for “synthesizer” — and read instead of the well-known success of Robert Moog. “I didn’t do my report on the synthesizer,” she says. It would be years before she thought of her father again.

Tavel worked for a music publisher, then as an assistant and later a road manager for Grace Potter. And at age 25, in her grandmother’s attic, she discovered her father’s invention packed away in a cardboard box.

“I was looking for a keyboard, because that’s what I thought a synthesizer was,” she says in the film. “And then, I pulled out this black, rectangular box, with a bunch of knobs on it. From what I can remember [being told], it’s a ‘rack mount, monophonic, instrument controlled, pitch-tracking synthesizer.’ But I don’t know what any of that stuff means,” she says, laughing.

More simply, “it’s like a cool blend between a synth — which is, by definition, a synthetically derived sound — but it’s being triggered by an organic instrument,” says Potter’s engineer and husband Eric Valentine. “So it’s this really interesting combination.”

In the film, Potter offers Tavel clear advice: “I just think you should get as many people to play with this thing as possible and see what comes of it,” she says. “See what it sparks,” says Potter.

Among the artists and performers seen interacting with or commenting on the Resynator are: musician and actor Fred Armisen, Onnie McIntyre of the Average White Band, producer Butch Vig, Wally De Backer of Goyte, Rayna Russom of LCD Sound System, drummer Kenny Aronoff, WIll Gregory of Goldfrapp, Adrian Utley of Portishead, Mike Gordon of Phish, Rami Jaffee of the Foo Fighters, and Jon Andersen of Yes.

“Your dad was creating something that was the beginning of a lot of things,” says Andersen. 

In one of the film’s most moving segments, Tavel brings the Resynator to Colombia to the studio of Latin Grammy-nominated producer and musician Christian Castagno. Playing guitar through the device, he declares: “It clearly has that old school, textured, beefy sound,” gesturing with his fist. “It’s a super-trippy machine. Synthesizers that I’ve encountered could almost be thought of as domesticated animals. And here, this thing is like a wolverine or something.”

The film takes a somber turn when Alison Tavel seeks out one of her father’s friends: Gordon Baird, the co-founder of Musician magazine (which was under common ownership with Billboard during the 1980s). She discovers that her father was visiting Baird in the days before the car accident that took Don’s life. And she learns for the first time of her father’s depression and emotional turmoil.

“I was so shocked,” recalls the filmmaker. “I called my mom and she revealed that there’s this letter: `Please read, come home and read this letter.’” Her father had described the family roots of his emotional struggles and the difficulty of acknowledging that pain.

In a director’s statement for the film, Alison Tavel says of her father:

“He was not this picture-perfect, famous and accredited master of music; he was a small-town, hustling man striving for success in order to feel loved and accepted. He was broken, confused and insecure. He was likely a genius – that part seems true, but he still couldn’t figure out how to be loved. It led him to depression, abuse and a bad marriage – and it may have led him to suicide.”

Alison also received perspective and advice from Gabriel. Just as her father was always looking to the future, the rock legend said, Alison should do so also — by converting the hardware of the Resynator into software for musicians. “I want to see my dad’s work fully realized — something he didn’t get to see for himself,” she says.

“I made this film for me, for my friends and my family —and for my father,” says Tavel. “But I need to share it publicly because I think that there are universal themes here. It’s about family, about figuring out who you are—and who the people you love are—through your own lens.”

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