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.

A Momentous Discovery and a Wish Fulfilled

The last two weeks of January have been beautifully inspiring.  A further exploration of choral works at the recommendation of a fantastic fellow classical connoisseur led me to revisit Arvo Pärt’s Da Pacem.

Harmoni Mundi - Arvo Part - Da Pacem

I was instantly enamored by the sacred sounds of The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the fantastic production quality of the recording.  And I was duly delighted by the discovery that the release was issued by the Harmonia Mundi label (from which I’d recently acquired the 20-volume CENTURY I and II early music catalogs).  This remarkable music set the stage for a brilliant musical revelation – one that carried with it emotive and intellectual majesty I’ve not experienced since my first listen to Eno’s Airports.

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The revelation arrived in the form of a fated discovery of Germany’s Harmonia – the supergroup of Dieter Moebuis of Cluster (synthesizer, guitar, electronic percussion, nagoya harp, vocals), Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Cluster (organ, piano, guitar, electronic percussion, vocals), Michael Rother of Neu! (guitar, piano, organ, electronic percussion, and vocals), and eventually, Brian Eno (synthesizer, bass, vocals).

Their small but influential discography was produced by Conny Plank, who produced works by Neu!, Cluster (almost becoming a member of the band), Ash Ra Tempel, Can, and Guru Guru.

In December of last year, Larry Crane interviewed Michael Rother for TapeOp.com and discussed the formation of Harmonia, their work, but it was an article published January 20th of this year in The New Yorker titled, The Invention of Ambient Music that first introduced me to Harmonia.  The article cites a video interview from 1997 in which Bowie named some of his influences, including Kraftwerk, Neu!, and Harmonia.

An inspiration good enough for the Thin White Duke is certainly one worth exploring, so I wasted no time in queuing up Harmonia’s first album, Musik von Harmonia, released in 1974 on the classic Brain label.

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Instantaneously I knew I’d found something exceptional.  The tracks were united in a consistent theme – instrumental exploration of subtle, ever-shifting sonic textures – an electronic realization of Satie’s vision of furniture music.

On the surface the work might initially appear uneventful, dull, and lacking in focus or direction.  There are no lead vocals and no primary melodic structure. However these seemingly detrimental characteristics are precisely what contributed to their greatness and lasting-influence in the world of ambient music and beyond.  

Eno has stated that Harmonia was “the world’s most important rock band” in the mid ’70s.  Daniel Dumych elaborates in his article for hyperreal.org: “Perhaps Eno’s reason for praising Harmonia so highly was that their music fit the requirements of ambient rock. Its music was equally suitable for active or passive listening. The careful listener found his/her attentions rewarded by the musical activities and sounds, but Harmonia’s music was also capable of setting a sonic environment.”

In John Cage’s classic Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music (Folkways FT 3704, 1959), he observes:

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

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Cages words accurately describe a first-listen to Harmonia’s music, (only I was instantly receptive to the “subtle, ever-shifting sonic textures” to which I alluded above.)  Headphones donned and eyes closed, I laid in bed and soaked in every note of the Harmonia catalog.  By its conclusion, I’d scoured the web for information on available recordings in a vinyl format and was astounded and elated to learn that only three months prior (to the day, in fact), a massive deluxe 6LP box set celebrating Harmonia’s complete recordings had just been issued by Grönland Records in Germany!

The teaser video for the set:

The set, titled Complete Works, contains all the released material from 1973 to 1976, including their 1976 collaboration with Brian Eno and four unreleased tracks (Documents 1975).  Also included are a 36-page booklet, a concert poster, a pop-up, and a digital download code.

harmonia set
Overcome with excitement at this fateful cosmic alignment of circumstance, I sprang from my bed, and quickly dialed my contact for German import vinyl and limited edition recordings.  The set was not intended for distribution in the US, and copies had already sold out from the Grönland Records website.  Thankfully, my contact came through for me and within a matter of minutes I’d secured a copy for my library.  It just arrived in the States and I couldn’t be more delighted.  

Below is a video of the unboxing of this wonderful box set.

It’s truly remarkable to experience this sort of exhilaration over a newly-discovered artist.  As an archivist with well over 100,000 recordings in my library, there are moments when I fear I’ve exhausted the 20th century of all its surprises.  But, like I was by my first experience listening to Harry Partch, I am once again awakened to the magnificence of our greatest century of cultural artistry.

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