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.

George Winston Live in Concert: Music for Contemplative Solitude

Given my predilection for 20th century classical, ambient, and drone music I seldom have the opportunity to experience my favorite artists performing live as few visit the States, (or in many cases they stopped breathing many years ago). So when I learned that George Winston, legend and icon of Ackerman’s Windham Hill record label was offering a concert performance in my fair city I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

For the few of my readers yet unfamiliar with Winston’s beautiful music, on his website he describes his style as “rural folk piano.” Rateyourmusic.com tags him as Neoclassical New Age, Christmas Music, Modern Classical, and Jazz and employs descriptors including, “pastoral, peaceful, passionate,” and “bittersweet.”

Winston has two primary concert themes – a Summer Show and a Winter Show, each showcasing selections from his catalog related to those seasons. This week I had the pleasure of attending The Summer Show which was a treat as I’d previously gravitated toward his autumnal and wintery early recordings like his certified triple-platinum 1982 classic, December. This concert offered fresh, new content from one of my favorite pianists in an intimate live setting. And intimate it was, indeed! Only twenty or so rows of folding chairs were set up immediately in front of the stage and there were but two hundred in attendance and I was honored to be among them.

Initially I’d wondered if the experience would be a drowsy evening of so-called new age key-plinking, but it was nothing of the sort. Winston live would never be mistaken for a Steve Roach sleep concert – even at 70 and in his health condition Winston was lively, spirited, bursting with zestful energy, and his performances were dynamic and varied tremendously as he transformed from interpreting one musical period or performer to the next.

The performance featured not only standards from his early Windham Hill repertoire but also Winston’s own stylistic interpretations of Vince Guaraldi’s jazz, the classic stride-piano technique of numerous New Orleans R&B pianists like Henry Butler, James Booker, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, and John Cleary, Hawaiian Slack Key solo guitar, (a unique fingerstyle tradition of the island), and Winston’s distinctive harmonica stylings as well.

For Christmas of 2013, Jay Gabler penned an incredibly thorough feature on Winston published by Classical MPR. The article summarizes the Winston concert experience so effectively that little more needs to be said so I will encourage my readers to visit his full original write-up. But a few of his key remarks really touch upon what I appreciated specifically about this concert experience so I’ll share a few excerpts.

One particularly captivating number was “Muted Dream,” from his latest 2017 effort, Spring Carousel – A Cancer Research Benefit, which sounded like a prepared piano composition. (George manipulates the strings inside the piano during the piece.) Gabler describes the technique thusly:

Winston acknowledged the influence of towering minimalist composer Steve Reich; in a Cage-ian flourish, Winston sometimes reaches inside the piano to mute the strings as he plays. Winston also shares the interest of minimalist composers — and, by extension, ambient musicians such as Brian Eno — in crossing the boundaries of genre to grab rhythmic ideas from jazz, from pop, and from international musical traditions.

And regarding the fascinating slack-key style:

Winston is a practitioner, fan, and preservationist of guitar music played in the Hawaiian slack-key tradition; with its open tuning and alternating-bass pattern, the slack-key style is just the kind of thing that might interest 20th-century musical adventurers from John Adams to Sonic Youth.

Of Winston’s harmonica playing, Gabler notes:

Harmonica is yet another of George Winston’s musical interests; he offered a sample of his technique at the Fitzgerald, and his approach is fascinating. As Winston plays, he effects rapid dynamic changes; he doesn’t sound like Larry Adler or Little Walter so much as he sounds like a Steve Reich tape loop in which a snippet of sound is played over and over again at different pitches and tempos, creating a hypnotic effect that can be disrupted by sudden stops, starts, and reversals.

But my favorite segment of the feature is Gabler’s summary of Winston’s characteristic and trademark sound:

Winston’s music sounds distinctly urban, with its smooth sonorities and delicate textures, but it evokes a sense of the rural and the vernacular in its sense of suspended time, of burbling placidity that flows like a brook rather than marching like a fugue.

Quite poetic! For those musicians among my readers curious about Winston’s choice in instruments, the Summer Show program included the following information:

Instruments:

Piano: George Winston plays Steinway pianos

Guitar: Martin D – 35 (1966) with a low 7th string added

Harmonica: combining Hohner Big Rivers with key of low D Cross Harp reed plates

Winston has released fourteen solo piano albums, as well as four benefit EPs and five soundtracks, and the concert inspired me to venture further beyond my familiarity with his early Windham classics to explore his complete catalog.

It was equally wonderful to experience him playing early staples like the hauntingly captivating and magical “Woods” from his very first Windham Hill release, Autumn (1980) and “Variations on the Kanon” (by Pachelbel) from December live, up close, and personal. He closed with a Doors cover, as featured on his album, Night Divides the Day – The Music of the Doors released in 2002, and for his encore concluded with a charming traditional fiddle tune, “Sandy River Belle.”

It was a concert to remember, and instantly became one of my favorite live music experiences. An RYM user described Winston’s music as that of “contemplative solitude” and it was precisely the medicinal music I needed at this transitional time in my life. Thank you, George.

Will Pop Eat Itself? – A Contextual Examination of The Golden Age of Sample Culture

Every once in a while, a book finds its reader, in a strange and inexplicable fashion. I happened upon Will Pop Eat Itself? while visiting a massive three-story used bookshop in Niagara Falls with a friend. I wandered to the basement after requesting the lights be switched on by the proprietor, and quickly found myself in the music section where the title practically leapt off the shelf insisting that I pick it up.

A quick scan of the back cover seized my attention as The KLF were mentioned repeatedly, and leafing through the pages I beheld countless references to their work. And no fewer than three paragraphs into the first chapter I found the author drawing comparative parallels between postmodern music and Finnegans Wake. I absolutely needed this book in my life. I read it voraciously in the days ahead, pacing myself to take careful notes.

What made my discovery particularly serendipitous was that I was at the very same time exploring other historical examinations of sample culture, most notably Benjamin Franzen’s 2009 documentary film, Copyright Criminals which tells the story of the golden age of sampling – precisely the period about which the book was written.

Jeremy J Beadle - Will Pop Eat Itself

In the introduction, Beadle states that “If you really want to know what’s going on in a society look at its popular culture” and that pop had invariably always been eating itself. He cites Elvis’ covers of other musicians and how “Rock Around the Clock” was just a rework of the earlier hit “Shake Rattle & Roll” as early examples. Beadle presents one of his main points here:

‘Pop’ as we understand it was – whether you date it from Haley, Presley or some other more recondite marker of your own devising – born around 1955 or 1956, and reached a point where it seemed exhausted about thirty years later. The digital sampler proved the ideal tool for pop to take itself apart, thus arriving at modernism and postmodernism simultaneously.

He asks, “is there any future in this autocannibalism? Or is this idea that pop will eat itself a much older one than we realize?”

1. Things Fall Apart

The first chapter wastes no time in diving into the history of artistic self-consumption. Finnegans Wake is offered as an early example of how popular culture can be enlightening and how every artefact somehow reeks of the period of its creation. Other significant works cited include the cultural escapism of Gone With the Wind and The Sound of Music.

Beadle begins to examine the temporal nature of cultural phenomena, describing the disintegration of cultural hegemony – the Soviet Union lasting fewer than 75 years and America’s economy being mortgaged to the Chinese. He notes how the sixteenth century established forms of tonality were rejected by the composers of the Second Viennese School and explores medieval allegorical writings segueing to staples of modernist literature to contextualize the evolution of the arts. Henry James’ In the Cage and The Golden Bowl, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Joyce’s Ulysses are visited to frame the deconstruction of literary tradition and cultural ideals.

And with the birth of the gramophone record, the teenager, disposable income, and the consumer came the concept of the pop star. Beadle explains:

The pop-star business was the child of two particularly twentieth-century phenomena – the technology of recording and mass marketing.

And succinctly describes the dilemma of pop thusly:

Pop music is after all a necessarily limited form – a simple, memorable melody, which requires a relatively simple tonality and series of tonal relations, usually over a regular four-in-a-bar beat. There is only a limited number of permutations through which these basic requirements can be met. And when forms are exhausted the tendency is to turn inwards.

Beadle closes the chapter demonstrating that, with the advent of the sampler, pop music endeavored to rip it all up and start again, just like The Waste Land, Schoenberg, and cubism – examples he explores in greater depth in subsequent chapters.

2. Bricks in the Wall of Sound

The second chapter explores milestone events which shaped the nature and influence of the gramophone record. At the outset Beadle explains that the sampler empowered the producer to emerge as the artist themselves and cites several pivotal moments of recording history. The first example he offers is Caruso’s 1902 performance of ‘Veste la giubba’ where the recording offered listeners the closest thing to the real experience of a live performance. He goes on to describe Walter Legge’s notorious recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – likely the first known example of ‘dishonest dubbing’ wherein the voice of Legge’s wife was substituted for the credited performer in order to hit the highest notes of the piece. And with Culshaw’s recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle for Decca, Beadle explains, the studio became an art form itself rather than merely a tool, as studio effects rendered a produced recording arguably superior to that of the concert hall experience. The production wizardry of Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, and George Martin are discussed, as well as Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland, (each of Motown fame) and a host of others.

3. Stars on 45

Pressing on through history, Beadle describes how punk briefly revitalized the concept of the single in the uncertain marketability of the post-Beatle age. Anti-racist sentiment helped usher in the reggae revival and the rise of ska with 2-Tone Records. The Jam similarly spearheaded the mod revival.

The chapter explores the Stars session musician medley phenomena in parallel to the birth of the political soundbite era of Margaret Thatcher, before moving onto the image-focused pop icons of Michael Jackson and Madonna. He closes with a summary of other aspects of the mid-80s musical landscape, from Christmas novelties to dance pop, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Wham!, and the academic wave of British art-school neo-minimalists.

4. Scratching Where It Itches examines the emergence of the scratch-mixing DJ, the birth of rap, and Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s visionary sampladelic work as The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. A brief history of black music is chronicled, from early spirituals to jazz to blues, then onto reggae and ‘toasting’, funk, and eventually to DJ and rap culture.

5. Kick Out the JAMs dives into the anti-song anti-instrument philosophy of Drummond and Cauty’s first album, 1987 (What the Fuck Is Going On?). Their outright cynicism and straightforward purloining of other artists’ work was a direct challenge to copyright and Beadle notes that “for all its cynicism about much contemporary pop music and public attitudes, [was] a deeply serious social and political statement.” Only 500 copies of their debut single, “All You Need is Love” were produced, and all were court ordered to be seized and destroyed elevating the cult iconic status of the duo. The chapter analyzes the raw and subversive nature of The JAMs’ 1987 and gives the record the detailed examination warranted by such a surreally iconic moment in contemporary music history. Beadle observes, “The point about this chaotic collage – chaotic in the sense that no apparently consistent frame of reference is maintained – is precisely that the listener is left without an objective correlative.” The epitome of postmodernism.

6. Hitting the High-tech Groove (Not Entirely Legally) provides a history of the sampler and examples of its execution from the author’s own experience in the studio. Beadle touches upon “The Singing Dogs (Medley)” novelty recordings, early synths, the Mellotron, and the Fairlight before describing the studio production process of his own experiments using an Apple Macintosh and an Akai S100 sampler with an 8MB board for the sample bank. (This was, after all, 1990.) It’s amazing to reflect on what was achieved with such minimal computing power at the dawn of the digital age.

7. Pump Up the Volume considers the single of the same name that Beadle argues marked pop music’s advance into modernism. He parallels its revolutionary impact to that of Schoenberg’s aforementioned chromaticism and to Picasso’s post-impressionist creations in that each of these artists purified their respective artistic landscape by reducing visual and auditory objects to their constituent elemental parts, abandoning conventions, and starting anew. Beadle critically examines the studio perfection and the artistic merit of this watershed recording. He concludes the chapter posing questions to the reader about the artistic merit of sampling, noting that any critic claiming that samplers merely reuse prior materials would have to say the same of Eliot’s The Wasteland or Joyce’s Ulysses, and that the very same could be said of Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Mahler, Beckett, and countless others.

The remaining chapters further contextualize the then-emerging story of sampling. 8. Dirty Cash outlines the flood of sampler cash-in records that followed the release of “Pump Up the Volume.” 9. Mix-omatosis examines the decline of the pop single around 1989 and the nostalgia-soaked commercialism of the era’s advertising, and the hollowness of the Jive Bunny phenomenon. 10. And The Law Won (But the Jury is Still Out) presents several examples of sampled music in the courtroom, including the Biz Markie case and the DNA remix of “Tom’s Diner.” But it is the book’s finale which properly and most thoroughly addresses the question of the title.

The final chapter, 11. Justifiable or Just Ancient? is a fantastically analytical framing of The KLF’s later catalog. Here Beadle approaches the exhaustive and intricate cultural contextualization later perfected by John Higgs in his book, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds. Beadle notes that “As The KLF they have managed to create a myth which is self-propagating, self-sufficient, self-consuming, and self-referencing,” which is precisely what makes the duo’s zenarchistic career so fascinating to critique and to curate.

Beadle concludes touching upon other artists who at the time were employing the sampler more as a natural production tool than a novelty and appropriately discusses the gritty, anti-consumerist recordings of the band Pop Will Eat Itself. He surmises that the sampler will find greater acceptance into the rock ethos in the years ahead and closes the text re-examining the question of the book’s title. Beadle successfully reinforces the twin points of his primary theme – that the sampler is a viable tool for composition, and that pop inevitably MUST eat itself by its very nature. Thus, Beadle demonstrates that the sampler is the most important creative innovation of the postmodern age and a principal figure in the future of music.

Will Pop Eat Itself? stands as a fitting historical document of the events and philosophies of the golden age of sampling, and is a wonderful addition to The Innerspace Labs’ library.

The Sound of Homecoming: The Complete Collaborations of Harold Budd and John Foxx

2018 has been a year of great personal development and growth, and as such, I’ve found myself time and again seeking warm, familiar tonalities rather than venturing into the unfamiliar and novel territories I’d explored in the years prior. I found it comforting to revisit long-standing favorite composers who created a sense of returning home each time I revisited their catalogs. That is precisely what made this latest discovery such a joy for me at this point in my life.

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Harold Budd is unquestionably one of the foremost veterans in the field of ambient composition. His trademark soft-pedal technique is instantly captivating and calming, and while he may not be breaking any new ground in the genre, that’s not what his listeners are seeking. Budd commands a mastery of his craft seldom matched in his field, and he’s consistently delivered quality contemplative soundscapes for nearly fifty years.

At 81 years of age, Harold Budd has shown no sign of slowing down. He’s collaborated with numerous artists, including Brian Eno, Robin Guthrie, The Cocteau Twins, Clive Wright, Eraldo Bernocchi, Bill Nelson, Andy Partridge, Daniel Lentz, Fila Brazilla, & U2. Budd retired briefly in 2005 but quickly returned to composition and released ten more albums and this magnificent new acquisition in the years that followed. I’d always wanted a vinyl keepsake of Budd’s music, but much of his catalog was limited to compact disc, including the Budd Box seven-disc set. That what made this discovery an exciting addition to my library.

From the original VinylFactory announcement in September:

Translucence, Drift Music and Nighthawks are being released on limited edition 3xLP by Demon Music for the first time.

Translucence / Drift Music is a 2003 double studio album from ex-Ultravox frontman John Foxx and ambient composer Harold Budd. Minimalist composer Ruben Garcia joined the duo to feature on their third album Nighthawks.

The triple vinyl package also features artwork by Jonathan Barnbrook, the graphic designer who created the Grammy-winning art for David Bowie’s Blackstar.

This box set features the complete Budd/Foxx recordings – seminal collaborations of the ambient genre. Nighthawks is dedicated to Garcia, who sadly passed away in 2013. At the announcement of the box set, Popmatters.com noted that, at the album’s 142-minute runtime, you’re going to need a lot of candles. They called the set, “lovely and provocative” with occasional chromatics and discord. “The City Stops for Snow” was described as “painting a picture of urban stillness” with its interplay of tiny overtones over top the many sustains and echoes.

This is the first time these recordings have been available on vinyl, and Demon Records did an exquisite job. The discs are 180g heavyweight vinyl, housed in a rigid slipcase. This release also comes with a limited print signed by John Foxx.

Harold Budd & John Foxx - Translucence Drift Music Nighthawks Box Set

Rateyourmusic user, dvd offered some valuable insight about the impact of this music on the listener:

It is very strange: after I listen I find it really difficult to recall any more specific details of the music itself. … The music is so transparent, like there is nothing to grab onto, and it just sort of drifts in and out on the edge of consciousness on its own. Maybe this is not a bad thing for ambient music, and likely part of what the creators were going for based on the title(s). For all its subtleties, the music still feels like it has some power over my mental state, as if it puts me in sort of a weird trance: something that’s vaguely serene and beautiful.

Paste Magazine shared similar remarks about the tranquil calm of this set, calling it “almost unbearably beautiful.” The impressionistic nature of the soundscapes was described as evoking images of “silhouettes of birds cutting across an early evening sky or slowly floating on a quiet, still body of water” and “tramping through a blanket of white on a quiet boulevard.” This is precisely the sort of contemplative music which brings me that feeling of homecoming.

I discovered Budd’s compositions early in my musical journey, initially through his collaborations with Brian Eno. The Pearl and The Plateaux of Mirror were albums I instantly knew I needed to have on vinyl, and they were followed shortly thereafter by an original pressing of his critically-acclaimed collaboration with Cocteau Twins for The Moon and The Melodies. But other than the aforementioned titles and a pressing of The Serpent in Quicksilver, I’d never been able to find a release on vinyl that truly felt like it celebrated and showcased Budd’s best work. And sadly the Budd Box has only been issued on CD. So imagine my excitement at discovering this recently-issued collection of the complete Budd & Foxx recordings!

Mike Powell of Pitchfork fittingly described Harold Budd’s characteristic sound as existing “in that misty place between ambient, new age, and minimalist composition, where everything is gentle and nothing lasts for long.” Powell described Budd’s quietly recognizable style as “intimate and intuitive; fragile but warm; seductive but just a little bit mysterious, like the soft tinkling of a presence in the next room.”

But perhaps the most fitting description comes from the set’s designer Jonathan Barnbrook who explains:

These are pieces that I return to again and again. Separate from his (John Foxx) more electronic work, they have a humanity and serenity that only comes with a great musician working in collaboration with others greats in an empathetic, understanding style. The music has a delicate, reflective quality – of human beings that have lived life and realise the beauty of it all, the joy and the suffering. They ask us to stop and consider, and that despite it all we should never desire to change a moment of it.

TheQuietus published a wonderful interview with John Foxx at the launch of this box set. His remarks revealed much about the albums’ composition and his thoughts about their collaboration. Foxx stated that he, “especially wanted to extend the harmonics of the piano strings resonance and sonic decay and use that as a live, real-time expansion of the sound.“ He went so far as to call Budd “a modern-day Satie.”

And describing the production process, Foxx said:

We also used another completely unique property of recording – reversed time. By reversing sounds and recording reverbs, then playing them forward and applying further layers of reverberation, you can enrich the already extended harmonics. You also have the miracle of reverberations moving simultaneously forward and backwards in time, and a truly complex interplay and texture going on between them. We took all this layering and multiplying as far as we possibly could, while still observing the delicacy and emotional tone of the pieces. All you have to do is listen and feel.

Allmusic.com summarized Budd’s sound as “distinctively dreamy, often extraordinary and occasionally ominous” and likens his technique to that of Erik Satie and Claude Debussy. Budd’s slowly morphing reverberant and shimmering atmospherics certainly have an impressionistic quality, and the parallels drawn to these greats are not inapt.

To those who might precipitously dismiss these works as simple new age music, I’d offer this closing remark from The Brighton Festival’s Guy Morley who said, “I think the impact of Harold is yet to be realised. Tonally, Harold has always come from a very deep and instinctive place. You don’t need a degree in composition. Its simplicity belies its originality.”

By any measure, this box set is a fantastic keepsake for anyone who enjoys the godfathers of ambient music.

Tracklist:

LP 1 / Translucence

1.Subtext
2.Spoken Roses
3.Momentary Architecture
4.Adult
5. Long Light
6. A Change In The Weather
7. Here And Now
8. Almost Overlooked
9. Implicit
10. Raindust
11.Missing Person
12. You Again

LP 2 / Drift Music

1. Sunlit Silhouette
2. The Other Room
3. Some Way Through All The Cities
4. Stepping Sideways
5 A Delicate Romance
6. Linger
7. Curtains Blowing
8. Weather Patterns
9. Coming Into Focus
10. After All This Time
11. Someone Almost There
12. Resonant Frequency
13. Avenue Of Trees
14. Underwater Flowers
15. Arriving

LP 3 / Nighthawks

1. Down A Windy Street
2. Now That I’ve Forgotten You
3. The Invisible Man
4. Fugitive Desire
5. From Then To Now
6. When The City Stops For Snow
7. The Shadow Of Her Former Self
8. Music For Swimmers
9. Lovedust
10. Nighthawks

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!

Transformative Soundscapes – The Latest from Innerspace Labs

This week arrived two absolutely astounding additions to our library.  Each is a milestone in its own right so I’ll waste no time getting right to them.

The first is a modern classic from the legendary NinjaTune label.  Originally released in 2004, Skalpel’s self-titled double LP was repressed through beatdelete in 2013. The DJs behind Skalpel, Marcin Cichy and Igor Pudło were dissatisfied with the humdrum music of their native Poland.

Skalpel Polish Jazz

“The Polish music scene is very poor at the moment. Nothing really interesting happens. The majority of music on TV and radio is kind of ‘World Idol’. Very little individuality – just copies of American music.” (interview, R4NT.com)

Their response was to create their own sound – “resurrecting the dusty & smokey spirit of polish jazz of 60s and 70s, re-imagined for 21st century audiophiles.” (NinjaTune.net)

I’d nearly pre-ordered the 2013 180g 2LP beatdelete reissue when it was announced, but had let the opportunity pass.  Thankfully, a member of one of the vinyl communities I frequent recently posted a shot of the album which inspired me to give it a second listen.  I was camping at the time, but came prepared with my Sennheiser circumaural studio monitors.  Around 11pm I laid back, closed my eyes, and lost myself to the album.  The 5-wheel camper and fold-out mattress was instantly transformed into something more like this:

Dimly-Lit NightClub

By the middle of the third selection, I’d already tracked down a sealed copy and processed my payment – certain that this was an essential for my library.

Mr Tim G – my sincere thanks for re-opening my ears to this album!

Skalpel - Skalpel

 

 The second (and equally-outstanding) recording is a selection from minimalist composer, Terry Riley’s catalog.  I already have A Rainbow in Curved Air, The Church of Anthrax (with John Cale), The Ten Voices of the Two Prophets, and know very well that I need his most-celebrated work – In C.

But this particular record – Persian Surgery Dervishes, had escaped my radar.  It was only after I saw numerous copies surface among members of a social network that I decided this was something I needed to hear.

Terry Riley

At first listen, I was completely enveloped in a wash of pulsing electric organ loops.  Each side-long track sounds as if it were an exercise in the tape loop technique developed by Riley and Pauline Oliveros (later popularized by Fripp and Eno).  However, the rapid, cyclic melodies heard on each side of the album are in reality two LIVE solo performances of Riley in LA and in Paris performing on a just-intoned Yamaha organ.  Even more astounding is that the second performance sounds far different from the first, but is simply Riley demonstrating the importance of improvisation.  The two recordings are each of the same composition.

Terry Riley - Persian Surgery Dervishes sm

Dervishes is beautifully meditative and is really an album you can loose yourself in.  Like most great minimalist compositions, the listener loses their sense of time and the piece becomes the atmosphere of the room.

Special thanks to all of the users who posted their copies of this exceptional record – Andrew G, Tintin E, Andrew T, Luke B, Chris A, and likely many others!

Now get lost.

New Year’s Concert – Music of Terry Riley

Ladies and gentlemen – it has been an outstanding start to the new year.

I received an invitation this morning from the Music Director of the UB Symphony Orchestra to attend a local musical Happening.

Daniel Bassin conceived and organized the event which took place this afternoon, January 1st at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo.

The Happening united a number of musicians, some natives of the city and others from around the country.  Together they performed Terry Riley’s iconic piece, “In C” in this, the 50th year since its composition.

The first recording of “In C” was produced with Riley and The Center of Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY-Buffalo in 1968 so it was a fitting selection to kick off the local Happenings series.

From Mr. Bassin’s event summary:

Part composition, part improvisation, never the same twice, and beautiful to experience in person in a fine acoustic like our church’s sanctuary, this piece was composed in 1964 and first recorded by the composer alongside Buffalo’s Creative Associates in 1968.

“In C” consists of 53 composed musical melodies and gestures which players are to perform sequentially with one another, but each individual only moves on from melody to melody on their own, thus creating musical textures which are alternatingly delicate and dense, lush and hypnotic.

In the spirit of the original Happenings of the 1960s, audience participation was encouraged, and several children in attendance enthusiastically manned tambourines and standing drums adding a free and youthful energy to the performance.

Terry Riley In C Daniel Bassin Buffalo NY

Children were happy to lend a hand!

The UUCB was a fantastic acoustic space for the event, and Bassin encouraged listeners to roam freely about the church to experience the various changes in sound perspectives.  One guest was delighted to discover an inviting bass-pocket sensation by hanging her head between the church’s pews.

Overall the Happening was a great success.  We joined the performers for lunch following the event and discussed Bassin’s plans for future Happenings, one of which will feature the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

I am honored to have been a part of the first of what I’m sure will be many successful performances.  Mr. Bassin is providing a valuable contribution to the local music scene and I can’t wait to see what else 2015 will bring.

Happy new year everyone!