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.

 

An Exploration of Kosmische Musik Essentials (2 of 2)

Welcome to the conclusion to my 2-part feature on kosmische essentials.  First, an apology to readers who expected to see Neu’s first two albums, La Dusseldorf, Faust, and Harmonia.  I fully recognize the importance and grand influence of these artists, however they’ve thus far been absent from my collection.  They will surely be added in due time, but for now we’ll begin with another essential – Germany’s Can.

Can recorded three milestones of krautrock between 1971 and 73 – namely, Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi, and my favorite – Future Days.  Fans may argue that their debut album Monster Movie was a far more important record, but these three albums feature some of the most mind-blowing tracks I’ve ever heard.  This is effectively the opposite of Kraftwerk.  Instead of Ralf and Florian’s polished industrial mechanized music, Can offers chaotic, psychedelic tunes and spontaneous lyricism that made them icons of the genre.

These are the United Artists marbled vinyl pressings from around 2009.  I’m uncertain whether or not these are authorized reissues, but no corners were cut on the quality of either the heavyweight gatefold jackets or the quality of the colored vinyl.  Absolutely essential.

Can - Tago Mago

 Can – Tago Mago (1971)

Can - Ege Bamyasi

Can – Ege Bamyasi (1972)

Can - Future Days
 Can – Future Days (1973)

Popol Vuh is another artist with a dauntingly extensive catalog of albums.  I’ll highlight my personal favorite – Hosianna Mantra – minimal choral music from Germany recently reissued by a small independent record store in Spain.  The pressing restored the original album art (after the 1980s American issue replaced the gorgeous cover with a boring large yellow circle).  Better still, the disc shipped with a bonus 7″ single and a poster, limited to 500 copies worldwide.  Wah Wah Records continues to release long out-of-print titles and is a label well-worth exploring.

 Popol Vuh - Hosianna Mantra 07 Seven Inch Sleeve

Popol Vuh – Hosianna Mantra (1972)

Another essential deep into the territory of Berlin School ambience is Manuel Gottsching’s Inventions for Electric Guitar from 1975.  This, in my humble opinion, is space rock perfection.  An expert’s blend of guitar, trance inducing rhythm, and delay and echo effects.  There’s really very little else happening on this record, but Gottsching transports the listener to the furthest reaches of outer space.  This is music for interstellar travel.


Manuel Gottsching - Inventions for Electric Guitar

Manuel Göttsching – Inventions for Electric Guitar (1975)

And Inventions became the precursor to Gottsching’s most important work – E2-E4 from 1984.  Allmusic was spot-on when they described the record as sounding like the house music of the 20 years that followed its release.  Gottsching focuses all his energy on the delicate interplay between guitar loops, drum synths, and sparsely-interjected tones from an accompanying synthesizer.  This is pure trance… from 1984.

Manuel Gottsching - E2-E4

Manuel Göttsching – E2-E4 (1984)

But perhaps no individual had as expansive a solo and collaborative catalog in the Berlin School than Klaus Schulze.  Irrlicht (1972) was Schulze’s first official solo album, recorded just a month before Zeit.  This is cerebral, classically-influenced cosmic music – a magnificent milestone of the genre.

Klaus Schulze - Irrlicht

Klaus Schulze - Irrlicht

Klaus Schulze – Irrlicht (1972)

If you buy only one Klaus Schulze record, (and there are well over 100), please consider the massively successful double LP – X from 1978.  X is hypnotic and entrancing modern classical music and is universally acclaimed as one of Schulze’s finest efforts.  The album is subtitled, “Six Musical Biographies” as each track is named after one of Schulze’s greatest inspirations.  This is not passive listening – these songs, many in excess of 20 minutes in length, are engaging explorations of synthesized sound.

Klaus Schulze - X

Klaus Schulze – X (1978)

Also recommended are Schulze’s 12-volume collaboration with Pete Namlook – The Dark Side of the Moog series, and for the fan who has everything-Schulze, I encourage you to look into The Ultimate Edition – a 50-disc collection of box sets featuring numerous live and non-album recordings.  It clocks in at 65 hours of material and I love cuing it up at work to transform my 9-5 into a calm and meditative atmosphere.

Here I’d like to touch quickly upon a non-German record that was really in the spirit of what Schulze and his fellow Berlin-schoolers were up to in the late 70s.  Steve Hillage, one of the primary figures of the Canterbury scene in the UK recorded Rainbow Dome Musick for the Festival for Mind-Body-Spirit in 1979.  While not geographically qualifying as “Berlin School,” it is most definitely of the same caliber as its German counterparts.

The album features Hillage on guitars, the Fender Rhodes, and ARP and Moog synthesizers.  A smattering of Tibetan bells and the sound of a running stream make the album approach the then-budding territory of New Age music, but Hillage’s musicianship and penchant for the avant-garde exempt the album from the flood of forgettable New Age music of the era.  If you like Schulze’s solo work, you really should check out Rainbow Dome Musick.

Steve Hillage - Rainbow Dome Musick

Steve Hillage – Rainbow Dome Musick (1979)

 I always end my multi-album features with something unique – and this is no exception.

Public Service Broadcasting is a London-based duo who create retro-futuristic electronic music much in the spirit of classic krautrock.  They use samples from old public information films, archival footage and propaganda material, to (quote) ‘teach the lessons of the past through the music of the future’.  PSB combines classic synths with banjo, ukulele, sax and trumpets all propelled by a nearly-motorik beat.

Public Service Broadcasting - Inform Educate Entertain

Both their album art and their music bear the streamlined magnificence of the Futurists.  My two favorite selections are The War Room EP and their first full-length release, Inform, Educate, Entertain.  I’ve also just pre-ordered their exciting new record scheduled for release this February.

Public Service Broadcasting – Inform Educate Entertain

But to close with a proper German record, I can’t leave out my recent acquisition from December of 2014 – GAS.  Wolfgang Voigt’s legendary titles released under the Gas moniker were combined in an abbreviated double LP, Nah Und Fern in 2008 on the Kompakt label.  Recorded between 1996 and 2000, Gas is perhaps the ultimate vision of the Berlin School’s musical philosophy.  To recap the brilliant descriptions from critics upon its release – zero-gravity club music, tunes for lucid dreaming, underwater techno, or as Wire put it, “an outdoor rave, heard floating through the air from a neighbouring village.”  This is precisely the sound of Gas.

Gas - Nah Und Fern

Gas – Zauberberg (1997)

Gas – Königsforst (1999)

Gas – Pop (2000)

My next German music purchases will likely include the first Cosmic Jokers LP, Schulze’s Timewind, and Froese’s solo debut – Aqua on the Brain label.

I hope these featured essentials are helpful to anyone venturing into kosmische music for the first time.  Have I left out any of your own favorites?  Let me know!

This Week’s Listening – Early Krautrock, Proto Ambient, and Musique Concrete

Many discographies have been added to the Archive since the last post, so I’ll dive right in and highlight some of the more memorable recordings I’ve heard as of late.  I’ve been exploring my library of over 100 Nurse With Wound albums and singles, and especially enjoyed Shipwreck Radio Vol 1, which was recorded in Lofoten, Norway between June and July of 2004.

The opening track is a slow build of metallic clamor with a few melodic notes and minimal percussion which gradually become lost in the cloud of noise.  It’s beautifully rhythmic atonal music which I grooved along with for the full 15 minutes of the track.  Great stuff.

Next I finally added Jean Michael Jarre’s classic [1978] Equinoxe and [1976] Oxygene LPs to the digital side of my library.  I hadn’t played his albums in at least five years and it was wonderfully refreshing to hear them on my new Denon rosewood turntable, particularly as my Focal floor speakers perform better in the new, smaller space.  Deep sawtooth waves reverberated from my concrete walls and created a lovely bass pocket right in front of my velvet sectional.  I couldn’t ask for anything more.
I’m still building my Jean Jacques Perrey collection, which began with my acquisition of Perrey and Kingsley’s The In Sound From Way Out.  Moog Indigo is another classic I’m after, featuring the hit, “E.V.A.”  And Perrey recorded a musique concrete electronic album in 1963 – Musique Electronique du Cosmos which I’d love to pick up as well.

On to more modern recordings – I’ve loved the first two LPs by minimal drone artist, Black Swan since their release in 2010 and ’11.  Black Swan composes what are perhaps the finest modern classical works I’ve ever heard.  Quite sadly, the Wikipedia, allmusic, rateyourmusic, and discogs offer absolutely no information about the artist.  And the Black Swan official homepage presents little more than snapshots of their minimal but breathtaking album covers.

Fortunately, a user review from Discogs sums it up nicely:

The anonymity of this New York-based artist has an effect on the listening experience. The music is given the right to exist on its own, as if it had always existed. It stakes its claim in the mind, making the listener a collaborator in a seductive narrative-noire that travels through a hall of horrors and memories, an escort to a final resting place. One might encounter spirit animals, forgotten lovers, faceless apparitions, leviathan rifts, or a cozy blanket of stars. It is easy to become comfortable in the soothing darkness, and when it seems like eternity has arrived, Black Swan pulls the plug.

And so I was absolutely floored when the artist posted a first-ever listen to a pre-Black Swan double album they, (he? she?) produced all the way back in 2001.  The previously-unreleased album is called Alone Again With the Dawn Coming Up: A Tribute to the KLF.

It took a moment for the sheer awesomeness to fire across my synapses.

BLACK SWAN… POSTED A 12-YEAR OLD TRIBUTE RECORD… TO THE KLF.

In its entirety.  For free.  Complete with album art (a la Chill Out.)

Once you’ve scooped your cerebral matter off the back wall of your room, head over to swanplague.com/ and download it NOW before it disappears.

AloneAgainWithTheDawnComingUp_WEB

The moment Black Swan decides to release this gem on vinyl, I plan to hire a private detective, discover the true identity of the band, drive to their house in NYC and order a copy in person.

It’s that good.

And the Chill Out tribute serves as a perfect segue into our next featured rare recording – The KLF Recovered & Remastered EP -4.

“Oh,” you say, casually.  “You mean the [2012] 6 EP limited edition set of the KLF Recovered & Remastered which you featured in your previous post?”

It’s actually one mark better than that – as this is from the new series-in-progress of “MINUS” releases.  The first came out in August of 2012 – KLF MINUS-ONE featuring four new mixes of “It’s Grim Up North.”  You can order it here.

The latest disc in the series is [2013] MINUS-FOUR (The KLF Remix Project Part III).  Watch this link for copies to surface.

I’m through the first three tracks at the time of this posting and have loved every second of it.  Just as with KLF 006 RE (Live From the Lost Continent), this is a disc that requires that you:

1. Turn off all the lights
2. Put on you finest circumaural studio monitors
and
3. Turn it up to eleven.

Cheers to Mr. Ward for your magnificent work keeping the KLF alive into the new millennium.

The next minimal techno masterpiece to land on my doorstep was Pantha Du Prince’s
[2007] This Bliss [DIAL LP09].  Have a listen to “Walden 2.”

And just a few days later – Aphex Twin’s legendary [1994] Selected Ambient Works Vol.2 (2012 3LP reissue) was waiting for me when I got home from work!  Here is “Blue Calx.”

Other ambient space music treasures of the week include Tangerine Dream’s [1985] In the Beginning 6LP Box Set (COMP), which includes:

[1970] Electronic Meditation
[1971] Alpha Centauri
[1972] Zeit
[1973] Atem
[1973] Green Desert (Released 1986)

This is, by far the most affordable way to pick up all the early (pre-sequencer) Tangerine Dream  for under $75.

699255

And finally, I must highlight a few early krautrock records which approach Berlin School space music territory.

The first is Cosmic Jokers’ [1973] jam session – The Cosmic Jokers.  This is the krautrock super-group that never was, and an album that never should have been.  Thankfully, it was captured to tape and commercially released, so track this baby down and order a copy!

The next gem is Popol Vuh’s [1972] Hosianna Mantra – the most spiritual German ambient album ever conceived.  I’ll let the album speak for itself.

Also featured this week is Mr. Klaus Schulze.  Schulze worked on the first Tangerine Dream record and the first Popol Vuh LP before setting off on his own legendary solo career.

My favorite album from his extensive discography is his first record – the proto-ambient/proto-drone, Irrlicht from 1972.

I’ve also picked up [2000] The Ultimate Edition 50 CD Box Set and will report my findings once I’ve put a considerable dent into the collection.

And finally, after hearing what is quite possibly the greatest Kraftwerk live concert of all time (K9 Radio Bremen, Germany 1971), I was astounded to find the limited-edition Russian clear double LP in a record shop ACROSS THE STREET FROM MY APARTMENT this afternoon.  Here’s the full show, and remember – this is Kraftwerk before synthesizers and sequencers became their trademarked sound.

That’s This Week’s Listening!  And as always, I welcome my readers’ own recommendations for similar recordings.

Thank you.