Dark Ambient’s Terminus Void Returns with Origins Unknown

I’m thrilled to share the news of the release of Terminus Void’s second album, Origins Unknown. My readers will recall my recent artist spotlight showcasing his debut release, Interstellar. After encouraging the artist to send the album to Stephen Hill of the long-standing radio program, Hearts of Space, he followed my suggestion and was featured on PGM No. 1314, Stellar Quest! We couldn’t be more pleased to have exposure to a global audience of discerning space music listeners!

Given the incredible impact of Interstellar, I had great hope for his second effort. Thankfully, I couldn’t be more elated with the resulting recording. Origins is hauntingly epic, from the opening drones of “Discovery” to the concluding atmospheric majesty of the album’s finale, “Memories of Rain.” Fantastically transportive, the listener is suspended in a state of experiential cosmic serenity for the entirety of the listening journey. Origins is cinematic dark ambient space music at its finest.

With his second effort, Terminus Void brilliantly channels the otherworldly film score work of Vangelis with incredible adeptness and impressively artful proficiency. This is particularly evident with the aforementioned closing selection, complete with Bladerunneresque rainfall, soaring synths, and choral effects employed throughout the track. 

Origins Unknown was mastered in 24-bit hi-res audio, (unlike its predecessor, Interstellar which was mastered at 16-bit), and is officially available in lossless archival FLAC and WAV. Listeners are encouraged to secure the album at the best quality offered and to take it in using their finest listening equipment so that none of the subtly nuanced spatial qualities are lost on this exceptional recording. This is an album that, like Interstellar, rewards dedicated and attentive listening.

The album’s namesake track is masterfully alienesque, brimming with lavish extraterrestrial vitality but sufficiently understated so as not to disrupt the shadowy, spectral quality of the album as a whole. 

“Dark Outpost” paints a vividly ethereal tenebrous expanse – truly an effective soundscape for dark ambient voyages. And surprising cinematic elements are introduced to heighten the excitement of the album-length saga.

Each track effectively adds its own unique properties to the crepuscular ambient odyssey that is Origins Unknown. Nothing is extraneous, wasted, or omitted, making for a most-satisfying musical venture from start to finish. Origins is a triumphant successor to Terminus Void’s debut, and reinforces that he is a potent and compelling figure in the dark ambient scene today.

Check out Terminus Void on iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify, Bandcamp, Amazon and other online distributors. Or visit https://terminusvoid.com/

Artist Showcase: Terminus Void

I am honored to have the unique privilege of showcasing an emerging and impactful ambient artist operating under the moniker, Terminus Void, who is about to release his second full-length space music album, Origins Unknown. Origins follows the composer’s self-released debut album, Interstellar from 2021 issued in the middle of the global pandemic. The album’s transportive interstellar journey serves as a brilliant offering of experiential escapism to transcend the anxieties and troubles of the modern world.

From the composer’s official one-sheet press release:

Interstellar

The debut album by Terminus Void, Interstellar, is a dark ethereal journey to the deepest reaches of interstellar space with emotional and cinematic undertones.

Interstellar is an immersion for the senses, a gentle glide across an ambient wave of deep undulating bass and atmospheric chords. Haunting instrumentals and an ensemble of choral voices and ancient heraldic horns carry you deeper still on your inward journey. Interstellar is an auditory odyssey of humankind’s journey into the cosmic unknown.

About the Composer

1983 would be a monumental moment when J. Ronald Smith, an American electronic music Composer based in Seattle,Washington, was introduced to the nationally syndicated broadcast, Hearts of Space, created by Stephen Hill. Smith was awe inspired by music composers such as Michael Stearns, Brian Eno, Steve Roach and Evángelos Papathanassíou of Vangelis. Hill’s early broadcasts of these electronic music pioneers instilled a passion for Smith and opened a window of possibilities for him in this new experimental genre of music. In 2021, Smith founded Terminus Void to share this passion that has been nearly 40 years in the making.

I had the pleasure of engaging a dialog with the composer and he shared some of his insights and inspirations for his music project. He said that Interstellar was an enormous learning curve which he has honed and refined for the follow-up Origins Unknown album. But by no means does this suggest that Interstellar is in any way amateur or primitive. Contrarily, Smith demonstrates a magnificent proficiency in ambient soundscape composition from the very first track on his debut.

After only a few communications with Smith, it was instantly apparent that he is no dilettante by any stretch of the imagination. Smith expertly incorporates his penchant for the sciences into his musical efforts. When detailing the inspiration for Origins Unknown, he explained that the title track was inspired from Louis & Bebe Barron’s pioneering works featured in the 1956 film, Forbidden Planet. On this track, Smith incorporated into the baseline modified audible wave instrument recordings from the Juno spacecraft as it passed through the magnetosphere of the Jovian moon, Ganymede on June 7, 2021.

Smith’s passions for science and space exploration have been lifelong. Over twenty years ago, he constructed a radio telescope from a satellite TV antenna, microwave amplifier and a HAM radio receiver. This fact provides a glimpse of the artist’s technical proficiency and celestial-focused scientific intellect, and reveals that the idea to process these auditory frequencies into music had been there for some time. He was kind enough to expound his compositional methodology thusly:

In preparing my second album, I did take into account the interview of BeBe Barron from 1997 by Eric Chasalow. Specifically, her and Louie’s interpretation of Norbert Wiener’s theory of cybernetics as applied to music. I was impressed by the unpredictability and randomness of the electronic notes as they developed and processed the various pitches of the circuits. It was their freeform approach to these new “space sounds” that conducted the purposeful manipulation of circuits to ultimately “self-create” electronic notes. Their musical pioneering is inspiration enough, but then to apply a composition around those sounds that is both enjoyable and exciting in its strangeness, its beauty, and its soothing cosmological feel on the ear is the inspired approach I strive to attain. Like them I feel I am discovering new sounds to manipulate and self-create from the randomness of quite literally, thousands of possibilities of today’s modern synthesizer equipment along with the new discoveries in the astronomical sciences.

As one example, I took the following recording from the Juno spacecraft (https://youtu.be/_09R6jIo74U), slowed the audio and tempo down over 1000% and reprocessed it multiple times using crystallizers, flangers, shimmer modulators, echos and of course massive reverb. In the spirit of Bebe and Louie Barron’s works, the end result is an auditory experience that took on a life of its own. This was then utilized as the central focus of the track as I developed the rest of the piece with traditional and VTS synthesizers.

As Smith mentioned in his artist Bio, the Hearts of Space radio program was an incalculably influential force on his decision to begin creating his own soundworlds. He outlined this inspiration, touched upon some of the equipment he utilized to craft his music, and detailed what he desired to achieve through his composition. Smith explained:

I again can not stress enough the effect Stephen Hill’s broadcasts had as the primary influence for a lifetime’s passion of ambient space music. I was seventeen in the Winter of 1983 when I first experienced HOS. It was ’Transmission’ 11, “Innerspace Realms”. I can only describe the experience as a mind-awakening journey. Regrettably, it wasn’t until this past year that I dedicated myself to my passion as a composer. However, these past few years have given way to introspection. I felt the time was right to step into an auditory space I can share with others and offer a momentary interlude from everyday life.

The goal of my music is to take the listener on a journey by telling an emotional story within each track and expand on that theme through the album as a whole. Many of the themes center on mankind’s sense of exploration and wonder; on one’s hopes and dreams of the future, fears of the unknown and ultimately overcome and carry on.  

The debut album, Interstellar was an introductory sampling of that journey and I feel the second album, entitled, Origins Unknown will exemplify this even more as it will be more auditory focused with a natural sense of organic flow. As for the sound of Terminus Void, I have incorporated  a variety of synthesizers, VSTs, and filters. Some of the more prominent acoustic voices you will hear include the Sequential Prophet 6 and OB6, Moog Sub 37, Roland Jupiter 8 and VP03 along with the Arturia CS-80 V3. 

Following a dedicated listening session with Interstellar, I encouraged Smith to send a promotional copy to Stephen Hill, remarking that his music would sit brilliantly well alongside space music veterans like Steve Roach and Robert Rich. And Interstellar‘s selections, “Lost In Time” and “Arrival Home” capture a serene luxuriance reminiscent of Vangelis’ timeless score for the film, Blade Runner. While ambient music is notoriously difficult to articulate, I’ll do my best to highlight what I enjoyed of Smith’s work with the hope that I can inspire my readers and fellow ambient music lovers to explore this exceptional work.

I should call attention to a difference in the mixing of the material offered on the official Terminus Void YouTube channel and the content on his final albums. Smith explains that, as an incentive to his YouTube subscribers, he uses the channel to publish pre- album release tracks and that they are published as they are composed and recorded. He notes that these are non-mastered tracks and in some instances they are different from the final production in terms of length or tonality. For the truest Terminus Void experience, listeners should seek out and purchase the final mixes.

Check out the pre-mastered version of the title track from Terminus Void’s debut LP, Interstellar below.

I’ll offer a brief examination of Interstellar

“Interstellar” is the title track and lead single for the album. Beatless, though grounded with a few anchoring bass tones, we embark into the inky-black depths of space. There is an elegant timelessness to the piece, just as the absence of day and night in an extraterrestrial journey removes our perception of its passage. The work is brimming with anticipatory excitement of the voyage that lies ahead. It is a perfectly-fitting opener to the album. This serves as an exquisite introductory selection to the artist’s oeuvre.

“Distant World” opens with haunting spectral dissonant tonalities. The sparsely-placed heavenly and alienesque timbres suggest that this may serve as a science-fiction anthem for a yet-unnamed cinematic masterpiece. We are entering a world unknown.

“Arrival Home” features majestically suspended chords and a lone synthesized disembodied vocal. Its seraphic and gossamer quality truly marks our celestial homecoming.

“Beyond Static Tolerance” introduces a fixed low-frequency sequencer pattern beneath the drifting fleeting choral tones occupying the upper register of the spectrum. The track evokes feelings of isolation and suspense as the traveler awaits the climax of their cosmic journey. Expertly-mixed NASA communication samples appear toward the end of selection enhancing the experience.

“Darkness” is dark ambient music at its most superlative. And clocking in at over eleven minutes as the album’s longest track, it rewards careful attention in your finest circumaural headphones. At times I wondered whether futurist role-players might find this album useful to enhance the atmosphere during their gaming sessions. “Darkness” especially might lend itself to such an effort. The best ambient music functions well in both dedicated conscious and background listening, and “Darkness” works fantastically in an array of listening environments and conditions.

“Nothing In The Way” returns the listener to a rhythmic territory with a classic synthesizer pattern and soaring minimalistic melodies. The deep-voiced narration element dramatically complements the suspenseful quality of Interstellar. Whether intended to inspire feelings of weightlessness or timelessness, the theme of space travel is masterfully executed here and throughout the album.

“Lost In Time” is steady and rhythmic, but maintains the empyrean thematics employed consistently in all of Smith’s work. The track conveys a gaze toward the heavens, inviting the listener one final time to leave terra firma behind.

“Distant World – (Epilog Mix)” closes Interstellar. The alien landscapes are carved and charted to remain in our memory long after the album session concludes. The traveler’s odyssey is complete.

Terminus Void’s 2021 debut album, Interstellar

There are countless metaphors for the spacetime journeys offered to us by ambient space music artists like those showcased on Hearts of Space, and all of them are actively employed in each weekly segment of the show, now at over 1,300 episodes and counting. It is so exciting to discover a new musician who himself professes to draw inspiration from those very transmissions, and who successfully crafts soundworlds on par with the greatest veterans of the genre. What Terminus Void succeeds at accomplishing with his transportive music is to highlight the certitude that these impressioned interstellar journeys are, in truth, journeys within. As I said, I encouraged Smith to send his work to Stephen Hill, and hopefully he’ll find new fellow sonic travelers through playback on a future transmission of the program. 

On February 10, 2022, Smith posted a pre-mastered demo of the title track from his upcoming second album, Origins Unknown to YouTube. It is a superb specimen of dark ambient space music, richly-organic, rewardingly nuanced, and introduces the listener to a vast and intricate world of cosmic exploration.

Of the track, YouTuber, Paradigm writes: 

“I love those hidden gems where, once slowed, become something else entirely. Good job! It really encapsulates the beauty, strangeness, and terror that outer space has to offer.”

Tune in to the new demo here:

What I found most captivating about Terminus Void’s ambient style is its balance of classical sophistication and cinematic intrigue. It’s that property which inspires me to return to these songs again and again.

I was absolutely delighted to experience this music. The compositions are magnificently meditative, and certainly reward careful headphone listening. Terminus Void is otherworldly cosmic space music, and it’s the subtle and slowly-unfolding properties which make the works so enjoyable. These are intimately ethereal, transcendent, and heavenly soundscapes. Highly recommended!

Terminus Void’s music is now available on iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify, Bandcamp, Amazon and other online distributors. Or visit https://terminusvoid.com/.

I’ll close with a personal comment from Smith, who concluded a letter with a touching statement about my work as an archivist. I believe it sheds some fantastic light on the mark of his character. Smith remarked:

It has been a pleasure speaking to you over these past few emails and I look forward to staying in touch and reading more from your blogs. I find your collections not only fascinating but also they are an equally important preservation of the cultural arts for future generations of listeners.  And, most importantly, they connect people, as evident in this conversation, in a world that seems to be separating us from one another on a daily basis. Your timing is brilliant!

Thank you, J, for the kind words and for the important music like yours that we need in the world today.

Watch https://terminusvoid.com for an official announcement of the release of Origins Unknown slated for release this April.

UPDATE: I’m delighted to share, after I recommended that J Ronald Smith send his album along with my article to Stephen Hill of Hearts of Space, that he did so and Hill generously featured Terminus Void on PGM No. 1314, Stellar Quest! We couldn’t be more pleased to have exposure to a global audience of discerning space music listeners!

A New Favorite From Steve Roach – Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces

I’ve been spending the past few weeks building and exploring an archive of ambient music veteran, Steve Roach’s vast catalog. So far I have his first 161 major album releases, but Roach has at least 199 credited to his name, 18 of which were released this year alone, so it’s quite an undertaking.

I researched various forum discussions, ambient charts, and album reviews to determine the best point of ingress for such a large discography. Steve Roach is best-known for two particular albums – Structures From Silence from 1984 and Dreamtime Return first issued in 1988. These are Berlin-Schoolesque tribal ambient records which I enjoyed but I was more interested in exploring something along the lines of beatless freeform drones so I dug deeper. I queued up the more noteworthy of his collaborations, namely those produced with fellow-ambient-guru, Robert Rich. This included both Strata and Soma from 1990 and 1992 respectively and both issued on the Hearts of Space label. I also surveyed a number of multi-disc box sets Roach had issued for a sampling of multi-hour-long mixes as soundbeds for sleep.

Initially, because I had queued these albums in the chronology by which they were originally issued, the first several hours of content were rendered inaudible. This was due to the overall mastering volume of the albums increasing as the decades progressed, in line with the loudness war and trends in mastering. Because of this, as I’d set my amplifier volume so that the loudest selections didn’t disturb my rest, for the first few nights I didn’t actually hear some of the albums in the playlist. I decided to repurpose the list as a soundscape for my work day where I could adjust the volume as needed and give the releases proper attention. I’m so glad that I did!

That’s how I discovered the majesty of Roach’s Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces 4CD box set from 2003. Parts one and two of this set were simultaneously issued as separate 2CD releases but they are far-better experienced in the Complete Edition box set. The set clocks in at a total runtime of just over 4 hours and 55 minutes, and is wonderful for both sleep and as a background soundscape for productivity. I’ve been playing the set on repeat daily and nightly for the past week and really enjoying it. 

I researched the details of the release and compiled a few remarks highlighting the merits of the set, where I found others had described its qualities far better than I ever could. I found some information on the Projeckt record label’s website as well as a dedicated discussion thread on headfi dot org.

The official press release for part one of the album from the official Bandcamp page states:

Moving into the majestic realm of pure, non-rhythmic electro-acoustic soundworlds, Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces is a stunning 2-CD release marking a new milestone in Roach’s history as a true artist of sound. His landmark statements – including Dreamtime Return, Magnificent Void and Structures from Silence – are all parts of the uninterrupted flow building to this release. After a recent run of rhythmically fused CDs, Roach moves into awe-inspiring sonic immersion, delving into a spiritual dimension of sound. Nearly 5 years in the making, this release offers a listening experience beyond entertainment and pop culture appeals, creating a new sense of ‘ambient orchestration’ through a constantly shifting flow of sounds and textures that enters a sacred realm of music.

And ambient music guru, John Dilberto of Echoes – The Nightly Music Soundscape radio program wrote upon its release:

After dark descents into the abyss on The Magnificent Void and Midnight Moon, Steve Roach lightens up the textures a bit on Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces . The mood harkens back to his influential 1984 release, Structures From Silence, but the atmospheres are more textured and layered while melody is virtually non-existent. And while Structures had a slow motion pulse, Mystic Chords hangs rhythm free. It floats in a space of richly detailed, but minutely shifting sound constructs that owe more to Gyorgy Ligeti and Mark Rothko than early Roach touchstones like Klaus Schulze and Salvador Dali. Roach is creating a free fall through space, less rooted in the pulsing techno-tribal sound of his 1990s music, and more ecstatic in its evocations of something beyond. He carries you to groaning turgid depths, then lifts you as electric guitar glides and synthesizers gurgle, shudder, and swell in an Aurora Borealis of sound.

I was also glad to see that Stephen Hill of Hearts of Space radio offered a few words on the album as well. He said:

Abandoning all conventional notions of music as melody, harmony and rhythm, Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces allows the listener blissful hours on the high frontier between deep listening music and the spirituality of pure sound.

By any measure, Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces is a masterwork from an ambient virtuoso with a career spanning four decades of musical composition. The box set is an instant favorite for focused or background activity. Curious listeners can check out the Hearts of Space broadcast #665 which originally broadcast on May 30, 2003 and was dedicated to showcasing highlights from this release.

I look forward to exploring the rest of my Steve Roach archive and acquiring the 18 releases he’s issued this year for further listening. 

An Ambient Milestone – The First-Ever Vinyl Issue of Oliveros’ Deep Listening

Exciting news to start off the new year! A classic recording of the ambient genre has been issued for the very first time on vinyl by Important Records. The Massachusetts-based label has issued special releases from artists including Daniel Johnston, Boris, Coil, and Japanese noise musician Merzbow and specializes in indie rock, electronica and avant-garde music.

The label’s official website posted the news in early December and quickly sold out of the gold edition on the evening of Wednesday, December 18th. The official release date is January 31, 2020 but pre-ordered copies shipped January 6th to arrive well in advance of the official date. (This copy arrived Friday, January 10th.)

From their announcement:

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Deep Listening, we offer you the definitive double LP combining the classic, complete original 1989 release with selected tracks from the Deep Listening Band’s 1991 album The Readymade Boomerang.

This elegant double LP is packaged in a gatefold sleeve with original and updated recollections from the performers, the recording engineer and a mesostic from John Cage, to which these recordings are inextricably linked.

Recorded in a cistern, this double LP reverberates with brilliant sonic clarity and masterfully improvised performances combining live electronics, vocals, trombone and accordion. Deep Listening is a classic in the fields of improvisation, minimalism, ambient/drone and modern classical.

Listen with attentiveness, listen while lying down, listen with headphones – as recording engineer Al Swanson entices the listener to become a virtual performer in selecting the many different ways to perceive these phenomenal tracks. Whatever you do, listen deeply.

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A quick summary for those not already familiar with the band – 

Deep Listening Band was founded in 1988 by Pauline Oliveros (accordion, “expanded instrument system”, composition), Stuart Dempster (trombone, didjeridu, composition) and Panaiotis (vocals, electronics, composer). Oliveros was a central figure in the development of experimental and post-war electronic art music and a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Wikipedia notes that:

[Oliveros] coined the term “deep listening,” a pun that has blossomed into “an aesthetic based upon principles of improvisation, electronic music, ritual, teaching and meditation. This aesthetic is designed to inspire both trained and untrained performers to practice the art of listening and responding to environmental conditions in solo and ensemble situations”

Pauline’s mantra, exquisitely realized on this recording, was to “Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening”. 

Deep Listening Band recorded the album in the 2-million-US-gallon Fort Worden Cistern in Port Townsend, WA on October 8, 1988. The cistern has a 45-second reverberation time. AllMusic describes the unique sonic characteristics of the recording as follows:

The unlikely instruments — primarily accordion, trombone, didjeridu, and voice — produce sustained tones that are subtly modulated by the extraordinary acoustics, making it often seem as if there were more instruments present, or as if this music has been electronically processed — neither of which is the case. All the music was improvised on site, with the musicians banging on metal pipes and found objects on the final track. The effect is remarkable, immersing the listener in a hypnotic field of shifting resonance, in a truly profound experience of deep listening.

This pivotal and iconic recording was originally only issued on compact disc in the US on New Albion records in 1989 so it is a great honor to finally have it receive the double-LP vinyl treatment just in time for the album’s 30th anniversary. The bonus selections from The Ready Made Boomerang and the mesostic from John Cage are wonderful additions for this special release and an exciting way to begin 2020!

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Robert Rich – Premonitions 1980-1985 4LP Set

Just arrived at Innerspace Labs – hand-numbered copy #114/500 of Robert Rich’s Premonitions vinyl box set.

A veteran of the minimal drone genre, Robert Rich has been a major figure in the ambient music scene for forty years. I maintain a complete discographic archive of Rich’s 63 full-length releases totaling 72 discs of content in lossless archival FLAC including the seven-hour Somnium and eight-hour Perpetual: A Somnium Continuum sleep concert DVDs. However, very little of Rich’s extensive catalog has ever been available in the vinyl format. 

In an interview with Anil Prasad for the web-based music magazine, Innerviews Rich remarked that he wanted to work beyond the ~20-minute limitations of an album side so he gravitated toward cassette releases early in his career and later to DVD-audio. Presently, the only two of his releases currently listed for sale on Discogs’ used record marketplace in the vinyl format are Numena from 1987 and Stalker (with Brian Lustmord) from 2018. So I was absolutely delighted to discover the Premonitions 1980-1985 collection offered on vinyl directly from Rich, himself!

In a letter to Rich’s listeners on his official website, he writes:

Here’s one for the folks who keep asking me whether I’ll release an album on vinyl. Four discs of music from my formative years, most of it never before released. It also contains the strongest sections of the 1984 “Live” cassette, and the cyclic introduction from the original “Inner Landscapes.” I made new 24/96 digital transfers from original master tapes. It’s coming out in Germany on the label Vinyl On Demand (VOD122), and I’ll import 40 copies for listeners here in the USA. International shipping will be expensive for this, as it’s big and heavy, so I request to my European, Asian and Canadian listeners that they go directly to VoD to order the set. It’s at this link: http://www.vinyl-on-demand.com/-1-402-472.htm 

If you are in the USA and you want to reserve one of these 40 copies of “Premonitions”, for purchase through our order form, you can use the CONTACT link up above on this site, and let me know your name, email, and shipping address. I’ll contact you when the records arrive. The price will be around $75 plus shipping. If more than 40 of you want to reserve a copy, I might be able to import more, but it will help me to know how many because they are a bit expensive. Thanks for listening! – Robert

And from the Notes section of the compilation’s entry at Discogs:

This 4LP box set focuses on Rich’s early stage of composition and performance,1979–1985. Most of this music is previously unreleased, or came out on limited cassettes from the UK Auricle Label or Swedish Psychout Productions, which later became Multimood, and released his album “Numena” in 1986. Edition of 500 copies.

Discogs member, Richard Gurtler drafted a contextual review of the set which is also featured on the official Bandcamp Page for the release as well as on Robert Rich’s website. In his introduction he writes:

This amazing sonic document was released at the end of April 2014 on German Vinyl-On-Demand label run by Frank Maier, who passionately focuses on releasing various limited vinyl editions, which are mainly taken from various rare tape releases or feature unpublished material. VOD’s catalog includes huge list of artists from industrial, noise, avantgarde, ambient… scene and each release with its packaging is a true piece of art. “Premonitions 1980-1985”, released as a 4LP Box Set in limited edition of 500 copies with extensive liner notes about each track and including an official hand-numbered certificate card for each customer, is no exception, a pure visual bliss awaits after its unwrapping!

But the most in-depth details on this fantastic release are provided by the Vinyl-On-Demand site linked in Rich’s letter. It offers Rich’s own liner notes on every selection featured in the set –

Selene & Ether 27:05

Recorded in summer of 1980 with Paia modular, newly acquired Prophet 5 and homebuilt Radio Shack analog delay, recorded direct to cassette at home. Unreleased until now. This was my first recording that ever got radio airplay, from “Music From The Hearts of Space” on KPFA in Berkeley, CA. I think that was around my 17th birthday. A note to myself inside the cassette case reads, “The sound first dwells in darker figures that sometimes inhabit dreams, then slowly lifts, collecting energy from harmony. The last is a sea of time, the atmospheric pillow.” An almost Vangelis-like grandiose middle section was a rare departure for me. Until I got the Prophet 5 I could never attempt a sound like that. 

A little story about this synthesizer: I was still 15 years old when I made friends with a college DJ named Rick Huber, who also worked at synth company Sequential Circuits. I wanted to start a band making noisy improvisations, so Rick introduced me to his co-worker Rick Davies. (We remained life-long friends, and made some rather embarrassing musical experiments with co-conspirator Jon Spencer.) Sequential’s Prophet 5 was the first polyphonic synthesizer with digital memory, and it was very expensive in 1978. Unfortunately the first version of the Prophet was quite fragile and broke constantly, almost impossible to calibrate, and plagued by catastrophic component failures. Sequential offered an upgrade to their early customers, offering to exchange (for a fee) any Rev.1 Prophet 5 for an improved Rev.2. Then they sold the fragile Rev.1’s to their employees (the only people who could keep them running) with a promise not to re-sell. The company never wanted to see them again. My friends at Sequential purchased a handful of these lemons, and kindly snuck one into my hands. Selene and Ether was one of the very first things I recorded with it.

Collage for Low Tones 18:35 1980

Recorded summer of 1980 direct to cassette, an improvisation with analog delay and Paia modular. I had completely forgotten about this recording until I started going through archives for this release.

I built the analog delay from a circuit board sold through Radio Shack, called the “Electronic Reverb” kit. Nineteen years later (1999) I began to get back into analog modular synths after meeting Paul Schreiber, who had recently started a new modular company called Synthesis Technology. As Paul and I became friends, I learned that he once worked for Tandy Corporation, designing kits for Radio Shack. Paul had in fact designed the analog delay kit that I used so heavily during these early years. The instructions suggested modifications to allow feedback into self-oscillation, and a switch to slow down the clock, creating a very grungy echo. These modifications turned the delay into a crazy oscillator, one of my main instruments for creating noisy pieces like this one.

Ghosts 8:42 1980

Inside the cassette box where I found this recording, my notes say: “Ghosts is a sound collage consisting of many layers of randomly tuned sinusoidal frequencies, whose amplitudes were also randomly chosen. The sound was inspired by multiple resonances of the wind through a certain cave in the Sierra foothills.” I think I was being a bit coy, as it sounds to me like an improvisation with Prophet 5 and Paia modular synth using resonant filters imparting different pitches from a pink noise source.

Clouds  26:15 1983

I remember being quite happy with this drone improvisation when I recorded it, but I never officially released it because some other pieces around that time felt more like a breakthrough. Apparently I made cassette copies for a few people to hear, as I have seen pictures of handmade tapes with this on them, called simply “Modal Improvisation.” This performance employs a resonant all-pass filter using a Curtis chip that I built onto a blank circuit board, responsible for the shimmering stepped tones of the low drone.

Nocturne 25:40 1983

I remember working for several weeks to prepare the elements for Nocturne. I did not have a multitrack recorder at the time, but I had two cassette decks and a reel-to-reel. I assembled extra layers onto cassette, in order to mix to 1/4″ reel while performing live instruments. I remember this piece being much harder to create than others at the time, and it felt less satisfying to me when finished. The original tape is 40 minutes long, and I wanted it to feel completely calm and stable, yet slowly changing around the steady drone, a sort of infinite music, acting in a certain way upon the mind only when played for very long durations. Alas, in the thirty years since attempting this sort of trancelike effect in very slow music, my attention span has gotten shorter, and I am rather surprised to look back at my youthfully obsessive attention to microscopic details.

Live in Monterey CA September 15, 1983 25:30

These are the beginning and ending sections of a two hour ambient concert performed at an art exhibit opening by painter Todd Friedlander. Most of the performance consisted of nature recordings combined with very quiet drones. The closing section was an interpretation of the piece “Nocturne” that I had recorded the previous month, but that piece sounded different each time I played it.

Live at Stanford University CA, March 13 1984 25:27

This “concert” actually took place in my dorm room at the co-op house where I lived during my third and fourth years at university. I recorded most of Trances and Drones here (when I probably should have been studying.) My roommate Miguel Helft patiently tolerated my pile of electronics that cluttered the room. A few friends asked me if they could listen to me play, so I made this casual home concert for three or four people, and recorded it to my new Revox B77. The 90 minute recording turned out better than expected. 

Early in my efforts to release my own music, I made friends with an ardent listener in Köping, Sweden named Hans Fahlberg. After he discovered my first release Sunyata, Hans began writing me letters with funny cartoon illustrations of laughing heads prancing around naked on tiny legs. After I released Trances and Drones, Hans wrote me asking if I had any unreleased music, as he wanted to start a cassette label. This would be his first release. I didn’t feel that my earliest experiments were suitable, so I sent him edits of the two live recordings that appear here. These became Robert Rich Live, catalog 001 on Psychout Productions. Hans soon changed his label name to Multimood Records and released my first LP Numena, and many excellent albums by artists including Peter Frohmader, Roedelius, O Yuki Conjugate, Paul Schütze, Jeff Greinke, and others.

In the late 80s, the Freeman brothers in the U.K. replicated small quantities of Live and Inner Landscapes for their Auricle label. Among my early releases, Live was the only one that I did not remaster for CD, because I felt that it would not hold up to digital scrutiny. This vinyl version is the first official reprinting since those cassettes.

3A Guitar Drone 8-15  14:46  1983

I don’t actually remember playing this. I discovered it while digging through the archives. I found several pieces from the summer of 1983, all untitled and described as “guitar drone” or “guitar rhythm.” Most of them sound similar to each other. It appears I was aiming for a certain relationship between the echoed strumming and the cloudy loops made from brushing guitar strings lightly. I recorded two of those attempts to reel-reel tape, so I presume those were more “serious” or premeditated, while this version only shows up on a cassette master, like a practice version or an afterthought. Among the different attempts, this may be the most interesting, although perhaps not the highest fidelity.

CCRMA Voices  7:22 1984

This is one of the few computer compositions that I finished while taking the computer music course at Stanford’s CCRMA, the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. It uses Bill Schottstaedt’s PLA language to create a simple two-operator FM voice, with random pitch, duration and inflections within the range of a human voice. 

Inner Landscapes Introduction 9:12 1985

This comes from a live concert performed in Berkeley, CA, later released as the 90 minute live cassette Inner Landscapes. In the late 1990s, Mike Griffin at Hypnos approached me about remastering some of my early work for CD. Inner Landscapes and Sunyata seemed worthy candidates at the time. I had to remove some material from Inner Landscapes to get it to fit onto CD. Except for this sequencer improvisation at the start, the remainder of that concert was deep and very slow; so I decided to cut this piece and keep the CD consistently deep and atmospheric. This intro remained an orphan until now. 

Manna 17:15  1980

Here’s another piece that I forgot about. It comes from the burst of recordings I made as soon as I got the Prophet 5 in 1980. This uses a patch technique called “random arpeggio” where each voice fades in and out at different rates by its own modulations, sounding a bit like tape loops. The bleepy tones come from the Paia modular, with tape echo adding its telltale warble. 

Robert Rich @ 2007 Nearfest

This historical artifact offers a rare glimpse at an ambient master’s earliest work, composed using his first synthesizers at the age of 17 while attending Stanford University. In his Interview For Ambient Visions in January of 2005 Rich described how, at the age of 13, he used his savings from two years of paper routes and gardening money to purchase and construct PAiA modular synths, and eventually graduated to a Revox B77 half-track 1/4″ reel-to-reel, a pawn shop lap steel guitar, and a Sequential Prophet 5 rev 1. In the interview Rich states that he began to experiment with alternate tunings as he was inspired by Harry Partch and Terry Riley. The recordings from this set explore Rich’s development as an artist during this pivotal period.

How could I pass it up? 

The Challenge of Articulating Abstract Music

Luigi Russolo - Music (1911)-1.jpg

I’ve read a number of texts on experimental and ambient musics, whether academic, philosophical, or critical, and have always admired when the author finds creative and insightful phrasings to discuss soundscapes where very little is happening on a superficial level. Sparse, minimal drone works are characteristically challenging to describe, so I take note when a journalist does an exceptional job at painting a conceptual, impressionistic image of a recording for those who might be curious to explore it, inspiring new listenership.

Kyle Gann published a fascinating mathematical examination of early minimalist music in his essay, Thankless Attempts at a Definition of Minimalism which provided many of the descriptors I incorporated in my personal response to the oft-posed question, “what kind of music do you like?” My general reply:

I particularly enjoy minimalist music – compositions which employ static harmony, quasi-geometric transformational linearity and repetition, gradual additive or permutational processes, phase-shifting, and static instrumentation. I am captivated by the metamusical properties which are revealed as a result of strictly carried-out processes. Many of these recordings explore non-Western concepts like pure tuning, (e.g. pure frequency ratios and resonant intervals outside the 12-pitch piano scale), unmetered melodies like those of Carnatic ragas, and drones.

As Roland Barthes describes, “…it is each sound one after the next that I listen to, not in syntagmatic extension, but in it’s raw and as though vertical signifying: by deconstructing itself, listening is externalized, it compels the subject to renounce his ‘inwardness.’” (Listening 259)

I’ll provide below a few examples of music criticism which exemplify this particular talent. Each inspired me to revisit the classic work they describe and rekindled my appreciation for the music. The first is an excerpt from Philip Sherburne’s recently contributed article published by Pitchfork on May 5th of this year celebrating Aphex Twin’s epic, Selected Ambient Works Volume II from 1994.

Then, as now, the first thing you become aware of with Selected Ambient Works Volume II is its purity, its starkness, its emptiness. There have been quieter records, more minimal records, more difficult records. But few have done so much with so little; few have shown less interest in being any more forthcoming than they are, in meeting the listener anywhere near halfway, in making the slightest attempt at articulating their own ambiguous emotional terrain. SAW II can be warm and it can be chilly; it can be sentimental and it can be forbidding, but it would be hard to call it expressive, exactly. A little like those samples of Mars’ terrain thought to contain evidence of amino acids but which turned out to be merely tainted with the sweat of some careless lab tech who didn’t pull his gloves on tight enough, Aphex Twin’s creation frequently seems only accidentally contaminated by human emotion. Whatever you feel when listening to it—well, that’s on you.

The album opens with a subtle tension: soft synth pads, the most basic, three-chord progression imaginable, cycling uneventfully round and round, while a breathy syllable—a voice, or something remarkably like one—bobs overhead, like a loosed balloon rapidly fading from view. Lilting harp accents turn to steel drums and back. The voice is detuned by just a few nearly imperceptible cents; the delay lags almost unnoticeably behind the beat. It’s a child’s lullaby turned queasy, a music box with a whiff of attic mold.

That tension—between disturbing and reassuring, trouble and calm, mutation and stasis—is the album’s defining characteristic. Across its 23 (or 24, 25, or 26, depending upon the format and edition) mostly untitled tracks, the balance tends to tip from one extreme to the other, like someone nervously shifting body weight from foot to foot. Some tracks, like #3 (known by fans as “Rhubarb”) are soft and consonant, welcoming as a well-kept lawn; others, like #4 (“Hankie”), with its bowed metal and whale-song laments, are deeply unsettling. The lilting chimes of #7 (“Curtains”) suggest a fairground populated only by tumbleweeds; the slow-motion grind and whirr of #22 (“Spots”) might be a chopped-and-screwed edit of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. #23 (“Tassels”), recorded on an EMS Synthi, one of the first synths the young artist ever bought, might come closest to James’ description of the album, in an interview with David Toop, as being like “standing in a power station on acid”: “Power stations are wicked. If you just stand in the middle of a really massive one … you get a really weird presence and you’ve got the hum. You just feel electricity around you. That’s totally dream-like for me.”

The four tracks that open CD2 (both the US and UK editions; tracks #13-16 of the digital release) make for a particularly compelling stretch. “Blue Calx”—the only song to bear an official title, it originally appeared on the 1992 compilation The Philosophy of Sound and Machine, credited to Blue Calx—is surprisingly pretty, placid, dreamlike. #14 (“Parallel Stripes”) delicately balances the album’s most tactile tones—I imagine metal shavings dancing across a magnetic field—with a meandering hint of melody. The shuddering, clanging “#15 (“Shiny Metal Rods”) is a tumultuous counterbalance to the album’s gentlest passages, the closest James comes here to the jagged techno of his earlier singles. And #16 (“Grey Stripe”) is pure filtered white noise; it might be the dying breath of a distant star.

The other example is taken from David Stubbs’ 2018 examination of the history of electronic music titled, Mars By 1980:

Certainly, as a young man, I played my vinyl copy of Kontakte to friends as a sort of test, which I rather hoped they’d fail, enjoying a hollow and slightly pyrrhic feeling of superiority when they did. Even fellow music journalists regarded the music as a sub-Clangers farrago of sonic nonsense, cerebral snake oil perpetrated by mad Germans on po-faced, pseudo-intellectual dupes.

Some of them, though, have since come around, not least because the ubiquity of electronica and ambient has sophisticated the collective sound palate; or because of the undiminished capacity of the piece to astonish and impact. I’m playing it now as I type. In its deep background, a vastness murmurs; then, a sudden asteroid splash of concrète makes a crater in the cerebellum. Recessions, a nervous tinkle of percussion, a distant pulse like a receding spacecraft that, in a trompe l’oreille, is actually closing in. Pianistic anxiety. Serrated fragments of metal, ancient drones, sudden fresh, cold waves. Whiplash intensity, particles illuminated by explosive flashes. Rumbles and signals from alien sources, unpredictable and irregular, but which seem premeditated, operating on a higher plane of thought. Long-extinct stars flickering obscurely. Diagonal bursts of radiation. Sudden catastrophes whose immolation leaves no afterburn, just a void. Single piano notes, isolated and disconnected from their original keyboard context, lost in space. Growling electric currents like approaching waterborne reptiles, changing course at the last second. Decelerations, then another crash-landing, sidelights whirling. Moons spinning off their axes. Cosmic birdsong. Oscillations, impossible droplets, curlicues, sparks.

Coiling sine waves, slowing and rearing like aliens right up in your face, probing and examining you as you try to remain stock still. A more regular broadside of events, constructions of stone and metal floating at speed from all angles, against a backdrop whose indifference and omnipresence is represented by a wispy perma-drone. Sabre squabbles, multiple collisions, scorched aftermath; a laser bolt between the eyes, the scatter of cerebral matter. Untranslatable alien exclamations writ large in carbon tags. Fresh Big Bangs, new universes. Inconsequential clatter, like spinning coins coming to rest. A dance of percussion and piano, brief echoes of Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître. Then, radioactive glitter in the eyes. An aluminium chorus, glass waves, siren calls, revolutions of light, varispeed. An ending, without resolution or arrival, whose fadeout merely indicates that we’ve been staring through the window at processes that are both permanent and infinite. (Stubbs 108-110)

These examples actively engage the reader and inspire listeners old and new to explore or to revisit the works they describe. I aspire to do the same with my journaling and to find novel and effective phrasings to articulate the beauty of the music I share. If just one listener develops an appreciation for a work because of something I’ve written, then all my efforts are worthwhile.

Russolo, Luigi, 1885-1947; Music
Luigi Russolo, Music, 1911

More Minimal Ambient Classics

A visit to the legendary Bop Shop in my old home town of Rochester, NY yielded two delightful surprise acquisitions. The first was one of the three of Harold Budd’s 1970s and 80s classic output missing from my vinyl collection – Abandoned Cities. (I now need only The Pavilion of Dreams and The White Arcades to complete my collection.)

Harold Budd - Abandoned Cities

The other was an equally unexpected but similarly important work of early ambient music – a German import from Grönland Records combining two classic recordings of Can’s co-founder, Holger Czukay with the great David Sylvian.

Plight & Premonition / Flux & Mutability is a double reissue and remaster of their late-80s collaborations experimenting with abstract ambient soundscapes which are sparse, sombre, and atmospheric. Pitchfork contributor Robert Ham remarked that these recordings laid “the groundwork for years of ambient music that would follow.”

David Sylvian & Hogler Czukay - Plight & Premonition and Flux & Mutability

“Each feature two long instrumental works built around drones from a synthesizer or guitar interrupted by random shortwave-radio intrusions and occasionally disorienting tape edits.”

The first disc, Plight & Premonition, originally released in March of 1988, comprises drones of harmonium, synthesizer, piano, and guitar. The second disc, Flux & Mutability followed in 1989. Allmusic describes its ambience as “deep, expansive atmospheres with eerie samples and vacuous walls of sound” and calls the album “an important selection for fans of electronic minimalism.”

Both the Budd classic and this new remaster from Grönland are exquisite additions to my library of pioneering early ambient music. My next ambition is to secure a copy of the Editions EG 1981 reissue of Budd’s debut on Eno’s magnificent Obscure Records label in 1978. The Pavilion of Dreams is ethereal, holy, and exquisitely beautiful and has been a long-standing favorite recording of mine in the realm of the genre’s origins.

Drone Adventures in PaulStretch – Music for Airports Reconstructed

OpenCulture recently posted a feature on a SlowMotionRadio’s stretched and slowed interpretation of Brian Eno’s seminal ambient album, Music for Airports transforming it into a 6-hour meditative drone. But as the track was a YouTube link, it was pretty much useless if the listener wanted to be able to do anything on their device during the 6-hours of playback. Ripping audio from YouTube results in low-bitrate audio so I reconstructed the 6-hour drone myself in Audacity. I figured if I was going to reproduce it from scratch I may as well use the highest quality source so I opted for the lossless DSD 2004/2009 remastered edition by Simon Heyworth of Super Audio Mastering of the original 1978 album and stretched it to the same target duration of the 6-hour video.

The result was vastly different from the YouTube version, due to both the lossless quality and my opting for the remastered source. The attack and decay of each note are vastly more dynamic and nuanced whereas the low-bitrate YouTube video is more of an auditory haze. Perhaps some will prefer it that way, but I was keen to try my hand at the task and am pleased with the results.

I’ve exported it as both archival FLAC and as a high-bitrate 320CBR MP3.

Here’s the YouTube version which inspired the project tonight.

Unexpected Musical Magic

This evening’s musical discovery was entirely unexpected but has transformed my night.  An album was featured in a community I frequent and my eyes went wide at its summary. Free improvisational kosmische progressive electronic drone music? Sign me up! The album was Automaginary – a 2015 collaborative effort from two Chicago artists, Bitchin Bajas and Natural Information Society.

It was an absolute delight to be introduced to a quality release which encompasses a trifecta of my favorite musical styles. From the first note, this triumph embodies all of the elements I enjoy in a composition.

I’m always working to refine my response to the dreaded, “so what kind of music do you listen to?”, and in the past, I’d been unable to summarize in fewer than 286 words for those unfortunate enough to pose the question. My most recent revision resulted in an abbreviated, (albeit painfully incomplete) explanation of my listening tastes clocking in at a mere 73 words, which coincidentally nearly describes the music of this fantastic recording to a “T”. I said:

“I particularly enjoy minimalist music – compositions which employ static harmony, quasi-geometric transformational linearity and repetition, gradual additive or permutational processes, phase-shifting, and static instrumentation. I am captivated by the metamusical properties which are revealed as a result of strictly carried-out processes. Many of these recordings explore non-Western concepts like pure tuning, (e.g. pure frequency ratios and resonant intervals outside the 12-pitch piano scale), unmetered melodies like those of Carnatic ragas, and drones.”

Nearly all of those concepts are employed exquisitely on Automaginary, with the additional beauty of sparse electronic and organic atonal treatments which expand the transcendental atmospheric listening space even further. There are distinct nods to many of the greats here – La Monte Young, Riley, Conrad, Ravi Shankar, in addition to hints of inspiration from Coleman, early krautrockers, and even 1960s psychoacoustic recordings. While there is nothing terribly novel about this particular album, it is a magnificent execution of the post-minimal drone ethos and a wonderfully immersive listening experience.

Tune in!

The Innerspace Labs Top 100 Albums

Recently a vinyl community I frequent held a month-long event where members shared their Top 30 LPs. I had a wonderful time coming up with my list and writing small reviews for each title. Unfortunately, I had a terrible time limiting my list to just 30, and it quickly grew to a Top 100. (And even then, I’ve cheated here and there with multi-disc box sets and discographies.)

But it all seemed too good not to share here at Innerspace so please enjoy a gallery of 100 of my favorite albums. Mouse over any thumbnail for artist and title info and click any image to expand and view the full-resolution photograph. All albums are presented alphabetically by artist.

Have I made any glaring omissions? Any indisputable electronic classics? Let me know! Perhaps we’ll have to push it to 200…

Enjoy!