Reflective Music – Learning How To Listen All Over Again

It began with a revisitation to Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel / Why Patterns? album. Headphones fit cozily around my ears, I’d decided to disappear from my office environment one Sunday afternoon and explore the more thoughtful headspace afforded by Feldman’s tranquil piano melodies. I was instantly transported, and the record prepared me for some reflective and solemn music to while away the hours at my desk. Resultantly, I soon found myself compiling a list of essential listening I was keen to either revisit or to explore for the first time in the spirit of that mood.

Rothko Chapel

Morton Feldman – Rothko Chapel / Why Patterns?

The list would be a survey of key recordings of German ambient music both classic and contemporary. Berliner ambient essentials including:

  • Nils Frahm – Wintermusik and the post-minimalist Felt LP
  • Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds collaborative work, Trance Frendz
  • British-German composer Max Richter’s 8.5-hour post-minimal ambient opus, Sleep, as well as his critically-acclaimed Memoryhouse and The Blue Notebooks LPs
  • Thomas Köner (a member of Porter Ricks and Kontakt der Jünglinge) – Permafrost
  • Cluster & Eno’s self-titled 1977 album recorded in Cologne
  • Eno/Moebius/Roedelius – After the Heat, featuring the haunting album-closers, “The Belldog”  and “Tzima N’Arki”  
  • Alva Noto – Xerrox Vols I & II (the sound of desolation, itself)
  • Highlights from Wolfgang Voigt’s recordings under the Gas moniker – Pop, Königsforst, Zauberberg, and his triumphant latest effort, Narkopop
  • Popol Vuh’s choral classic, Hosianna Mantra
  • Klaus Schulze’s space music debut epic, Irrlicht from 1972
  • Hans Zimmer’s score to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar
  • Favorites from Tangerine Dream – the albums Zeit and Phaedra
  • And for a taste of ambient darkjazz, Bohren & der Club of Gore’s Black Earth LP

I was awestruck by the listening experience of the first three recordings, so much in fact that I remained with them for the duration of the week. I spent days and nights immersed in Richter’s Sleep, never tiring of the fundamentally succinct central theme which carries throughout the entire opus. And even now, six days later, I am still reveling in the gentle elegance of Frahm and Arnalds’ pastoral melodies.

But more importantly, I found that I was not engaging these works as I had so often approached 20th-century music. I confess that I’ve routinely engaged recordings in an overtly-academic fashion. I obsessed over structure, form, and socio-cultural context. I preoccupied my mind with where each composition fell in relationship to the artist’s other works. I examined music so critically, that I failed to experience it emotionally.

There were notable exceptions to this standard – particularly those ambient recordings I chose to engage through music meditation. When consuming specific works of consequence for the first time, (and again thereafter if they became beloved favorites), I would don my circumaural cans, swaddle myself in blankets, extinguish all lamps, lay still in bed, and let the music fill me. The most recent album to receive this treatment was Brian Eno’s monumentally intimate album, The Ship from 2016.

What I found so arresting about these contemporary releases from the top of my list was that they explored the ambient genre differently than by their vintage predecessors. I quickly surveyed the albums and discovered that I had developed an affinity for post-minimalism. Borne of a reactionary movement to the impersonality of minimalist works in the 1960s, these artists aimed to resolve minimalism’s often cold and over-intellectual nature by introducing more expressive qualities, often evoking the body and aspects of sexuality. The resulting works are intimately affecting, soothing, and serene with more organic sonic textures than the mechanics of traditional minimalism.

It was that very quality which inspired in me such a novel and emotional response. Frahm’s Felt LP exquisitely embraced these organic elements, captured in its unique compositional process.

Felt.jpg

From the ErasedTapes label’s website:

Having recorded his last album live in a large, reverberant church, Nils Frahm now invites you to put on your headphones and dive into a world of microscopic and delicate sounds – so intimate that you could be sitting beside him.

Recorded late at night in the reflective solitude and silence of his studio in Berlin, Frahm uncovers a new sound and source of inspiration within these peaceful moments:

Originally I wanted to do my neighbours a favour by damping the sound of my piano. If I want to play piano during the quiet of the night, the only respectful way is by layering thick felt in front of the strings and using very gentle fingers. It was then that I discovered that my piano sounds beautiful with the damper.

Captivated by this sonic exposition, he placed the microphones so deep inside the piano that they were almost touching the strings. This brought a host of external sounds to the recordings which most producers would try their hardest to hide:

I hear myself breathing and panting, the scraping sound of the piano’s action and the creaking of my wooden floorboards – all equally as loud as the music. The music becomes a contingency, a chance, an accident within all this rustling. My heart opens and I wonder what exactly it is that makes me feel so happy.

It is his emphasis of those very sounds, which in traditional recording would be trimmed away as nuisance rather than beauty, which make Felt such an intimate and captivating listen. To quote a card from Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck – “Emphasise the flaws.” I found myself holding my breath so as not to miss the curious “non-musical” sounds present in the recording. I permitted the music to create a space for pure experience, rather than considered analysis, which I found immeasurably rewarding and satisfying.

And it is that exemption from quantification – the absence of left-brained cognitive study which freed my mind to just enjoy the music.

I don’t feel compelled to pore over academic texts examining post-minimalism. I feel no urge to read critical papers from music journalists on the merit or inferiority of works of this musical category. I just want to experience it. And that is wonderful.

 

Midnight on Mars: Ambient Worlds

Checking in for the Playlist of the Day! Tonight – Midnight on Mars: Ambient Worlds.

The list comprises the work of 1300 artists and clocks in at 2,794 hrs 29 mins. It’s a collection of the finest LPs from nearly a century of ambient music.

NP: Fripp & Eno’s “The Heavenly Music Corporation (Reversed) Pt 1”

Inspiration or Obsession? Underworld, Freur, Karl Hyde, and Tomato

A theme was introduced for the day’s posts in a vinyl community today which led me to take a few updated snapshots of my collection.

The theme was 90s Techno and Dance Music, and it seemed as good a time as any to share my ever-growing collection of the Underworld family of albums and singles.

As many of my readers know, Underworld’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman is perhaps my all-time most beloved LP.  For those not familiar with its significance in my life, it was the very first record I ever heard which wasn’t top 40 radio rock and it blew my mind.

The progressive-house rhythms of Rick Smith and stream-of-consciousness lyricism of front-man Karl Hyde were the catalyst for my exploration into the history of electronic sound and pursuit of the avant-garde. I would certainly not be who I am today without that record.

The stunning album art of Dubnobass was also the work of Hyde’s own graphic design company – Tomato, which counts among their many clientele Nike, Levi, Adidas and many other big names looking for fresh, exciting design in the 90s.  Tomato was the direct inspiration for me to pursue a degree in graphic design and visual communication – a decision which set me on a path to meet many of the most important people in my life. 

Below is my collection to-date.  This includes the albums and singles by their first band (not counting their brief one-off as Screen Gemz) – a synth pop group called Freur.  Freur was originally named with an unpronounceable squiggle depicted on the clear 7″ picture disc below.  Freur is best-known for the hit, “Doot Doot.”  Also featured below are Karl’s more-recent solo effort and collaborative project with Brian Eno.

Brilliant stuff!

Underworld 1of4

Underworld 2of4

Underworld 3of4

Underworld 4of4

Underworld has explored a wide-range of sonic styles from their early synth-pop days to the present.  Perhaps their best-known trademark sound is that of the hit single, “Born Slippy.Nuxx” – a b-side which gained significant exposure with its appearance on the Trainspotting soundtrack.

But the tracks which first-grabbed my attention were those from the Dubnobass years.  From the album’s opening stead-paced club track, “Dark and Long” to the high-energy pairing of “Rez/Cowgirl.”

Here is the anthem performed live on the Everything Everything tour.

And check out the strikingly-different ambient soundscape, “To Heal” from the Sunshine soundtrack.

And finally, if you fancy a more-worldly mesh of Fela Kuti and Steve Reich, here’s the latest single – an instrumental collaboration with Brian Eno.

I have some exciting original material in the month ahead that you won’t want to miss, so stay tuned!

Strange Things are Afoot at the Circle K

Ladies and gentlemen, I am writing to you in a state of pure euphoria.  I am awestruck by the explosion of recent musical events.  So much, in fact, that I must present the latest news to you in three parts.

These three posts will come once every five days as I do my best two maneuver about the chaos that is relocating my audio lab.  In just four days, I will take command of a new home with a dedicated audio engineering and listening space, in the company of my beloved lady and fellow music critic.  These are exciting times, but all my own excitement pales before the news that greeted me upon returning home from work this evening.

ENO & HYDE 2014

The words stared back at me from my monitor, and it took several self-checks to ensure that I had, in fact correctly deciphered and interpreted the Roman glyphs before me.  The article which followed confirmed the headline, and I found myself slipping into a Zen-like ancient ancestral hunter-gatherer trance.  In a few swift motions I seized my credit card, connected to UnderworldLive, converted GBP to USD and locked in my pre-order.

The day has finally come.

After Karl Hyde collaborating with Brian Eno for This is Pure Scenius in 2010, producing acoustic-ambient-art-rock for the masses, and after the release of Hyde’s first solo record, Brian and Karl teamed up again in late 2013 and have just publicly announced the pending release of their first collaborative record – Someday World.

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The 2LP is scheduled for release May 5th, 2014, but those who reserve their copies in advance will receive downloads of 2 pre-release tracks, the first of which will post March 4th.  The gatefold double-LP is sure to be a milestone of music history, perhaps the first of its kind since Byrne and Eno released My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  In fact, an article on the official UnderworldLive website described Eno and Hyde discovering a mutual love of afrobeat… so there may be a hint of Ghosts detectable in the DNA of the new release.

Shipping included from the UK, Stateside buyers will secure a pre-order for just over $49 USD – a small price to pay for such a piece of history.

And UnderworldLive has kindly offered a high-res promotional wallpaper shot of the gents for you to gaze upon while you count the seconds until your copy arrives.

I honestly cannot express my excitement at learning this news – Hyde was the first piece of music I heard in my life which was not from a top 40 radio playlist, and Eno is responsible for initiating me into the world of cerebral, contemplative sound art.  And now, they’ve cut a record together.

See you in 5.

Eno-Hyde-2014_Credit-Perou_Web