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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Pauline Oliveros - Deep Listening 2LP 01-10-19 02.jpg

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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

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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!

Music for Spaceports

For the last two weeks, I’ve been listening again and again to the latest two promo albums from M.Ward’s ‘Recovered & Remastered’ series and the new 10 CD ‘X-Series’.

The first specimen I ingested was the monumental 10th Anniversary Overhaul of 4ORBIDDEN MISSION.

Ten years ago, M.Ward’s remix project was privately circulated and limited to an estimated 22 copies. Bootlegs eventually surfaced and were exchanged for large sums of money, but the originals seldom changed hands and the music was lost for a decade.

This new 2CD edition is unmixed, vastly superior in sound quality, and a fantastic overhaul of the original 4OM recording. The tracks have all been lovingly tweaked, with any quality issues finally resolved, providing a gorgeous listening experience. There was also a 3rd disc with the original 4OM which included a 54-minute mix of ‘Huge Ever Growing…’ This mix was only ever meant for that set. There is a possibility that this mix will also get the 10th Anniversary Overhaul treatment and appear somewhere in the future?

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The 40M Overhaul is brilliant, and if you’re a die-hard fan, you already know that you need this mix in your life.

But it was the second double-disc promo which intrigued me the most. The set arrived, like 4OM, in a modest cardboard 2CD sleeve, stamped with the title:

THIS IS NOT WHAT SPACE IS ABOUT
FULL-LENGTH UNMIXED 2CD
* PROMO USE ONLY *

As a tremendous fan of the original TINWSIA single CD promo, (cat# KLF MINUS-SIX), I couldn’t wait to survey this deluxe and expanded edition. I set aside some serious time for interstellar travel. No lights, minimal external stimuli, just me and my passive noise cancelling circumaural monitors.

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Listening to this expanded edition of Space was like settling in for a screening of 2001. Man has several rituals which must be performed to prepare himself for the journey which awaits him. Secure in my sleep chamber, I slowed my breathing and heart rate and engaged the auditory systems which initiated the listening sequence of Disc 1.

Looking back, my memory is foggy from that initial experience. There were so many sensations – moments of elation and of anticipation… but like all of the most gripping and affecting events of our lives, the exact moments blur into a vaporous and intangible haze. But it’s just as well – the incorporeal recollection is befitting of the ethereal magnificence of the recording, and enhances its metaphysical transportive effect.

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The printed insert from the TINWSIA 2CD

Upon the conclusion of Disc 1, I opened my eyes, slowly, and reacquainted my body with the sensations and properties of the physical world. I needed a cerebral and sensory palate cleanser after the first leg of the voyage, so I shook off the space dust and had a little walk about the house.

Thirty minutes later, I felt stable and tranquil enough to complete the mission. I returned to my listening pod and initiated Disc sequence 2. This time, the musical events seemed more tangible and distinctly formed. Perhaps Disc 2 was more eventful than the sparse drone openness of the introduction. Or perhaps the human mind simply requires a certain duration of preliminary exposure to adapt to a sensory foray of this nature. Whatever the case, I had a heightened sense of awareness and elucidation concurrent with the events of the second recording and I enjoyed it all the more for this revelation.

To describe the particular events of the album would be unproductive, as the very thing which makes the experience so fantastic is that so much of what transpires will be the conjurings of each listener’s own imagination. The soundstage is filled with curious and distant sounds, as well as familiar fragments from the original source recording. And every bit of it is a thrill.

There have been numerous attempts to re-envision milestone recordings of ambient music as a contemporary response to the vision of the original composer. There have been countless trance and ambient tributes to The Dark Side of the Moon, alternative, remixed, and reimagined scores for classic films like Blade Runner and Nosferatu, and (perhaps most notably), The Black Dog’s Music For Real Airports served as a modern interpretation of Eno’s seminal ambient masterpiece.

jimmy-cauty-spaceThe original Space LP (1990)

To speak concretely and critically of this recording, I can say with great certainty that it rivals not only M Ward’s original This Is Not What Space Is About mix, but that it more compellingly captures the essence of interstellar travel than did Cauty, himself in 1990 with Space. Do not misunderstand me – J. Cauty’s record is, in and of itself, a milestone of both the KLF’s legacy and of the history of ambient music as a whole. For its time, it was the best and defining realization of its genre. But the Full Length Unmixed 2CD Promo of This Is Not What Space Is About is the most effective fulfilment of Cauty’s vision. Every ambient music listener should cash in their worker units and buy a ticket for this incredible cosmic journey.

It’s one hell of a ride.

A Bit of Desolation to Still the Mind

Things have been really crazy lately with all the wedding preparation, so I’ve found myself setting aside an hour at the end of each day to slow everything down, read or write, and to play some pulse-slowing field recordings and ambient music to steady my mind.

One album that I keep returning to, sometimes multiple times in a row is a collaboration between Biosphere and The Higher Intelligence Agency called Polar Sequences released on the highly sought-after Beyond label.

The album is an exceptional example of arctic ambient – with its cold and desolate air and a meditative, drone-like quality.

The liner notes reveal that the album is, in fact, a live recording capturing concert performances of the two artists together in Tromsø, Northern Norway from 1995.

‘Tromsø, 70 degrees north, in the Arctic region, in the middle of the most active northern lights zone. In summer time, land of the midnight sun. In winter, total darkness.

In October 1995, as part of the annual Polar Music Festival, Geir Jenssen of Biosphere and Bobby Bird of The Higher Intelligence Agency, were commissioned by Nor Concerts to collaborate together on a musical project to take place in Geir’s home town of Tromsø, Norway. The brief was for them to perform three concerts, using sounds sourced from the area as the basis of the music – the machinery of the local mountain cable lift, the snow, the ice etc…

The performances from which this recording is taken, took place on top of a mountain above Tromsø, in a cabin reached by the cable car, in which the audience were transported up the mountain in turn.’

The album was originally issued in a limited run of 5000 in 1996, and later reissued on Headphone Records in 2003.

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Give a listen to the opening segment, “Cimmerian Shaft”

and to the stark album closer, “Meltwater”