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.

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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.

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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.

 

Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra – World of Funk (2011)

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World of Funk is a highly-engaging triumph of world-infused funk. From the opening seconds of the record, the instrumentation is instantly intriguing. Shawn Lee holds nothing back with an impressively vast array of instruments here, and assisting musicians aside, Lee is quite a one-man show. Elliot Bergman plays kalimba, Stuart Bogie on alto clarinet, Andy Ross is on flute and saxophone, Michael Leonhart plays cornet, trumpet, mellophone, and vibraphone and Dom Glover is on trumpet. But Lee steals the show playing sitar, ektar, balaphone, tanpura, kalimba, steel drum, castanets, cithara, vibraphone, xylophone, bulbul tarang, charango, bouzoki, talking drum, and udu all over this record, giving it a rich, dimensional worldly flavor. The five vocalists further contribute to its brilliance with echo-laden eastern-influenced crooning and a sprinkling of funky tropicalia.

The album offers a lush textural soundscape which classies up any space it occupies – a rich sonic wallpaper deserving of the attention of any aspiring bohemian.

“Nao Vacila” is a powerfully funky track, with Bardo Martinez on the organ and bluesy guitar from Clutchy Hopkins, and Michael Leonhart firing off shots on the trumpet. And the fun low-fi retro-Latin stylings of “La Eterna Felicidad” would be perfectly at home on a record by A Band of Bees. The organ really locks in this track as a slow-groover.

From start to finish, this is a tour-de-force of heady, fat-bottomed funk with enough going on to keep you tuned in and jiving for the entirety of its nearly hour-long span. This is definitely an album worth picking up.

Modern Classical Highlights of 2016

A fellow listener mentioned last night that 2016 was a fantastic year for modern classical and its related subgenres. As a tremendous fan of the genre who has sadly neglected its exploration for the last several years, I instantly set myself to the task of righting this wrong.

A quick RYM custom chart instantly revealed new titles from modern classical mainstays which I know I’ll have to pick up – Iceland’s Jóhann Jóhannsson’s nineteen album discography, (most recently the Orphée album and the film scores to Arrival and Sicario), Ólafur Arnalds’ Island Songs, Max Richter’s Sleep Remixes, and Nils Frahm / Ólafur Arnalds’ Trance Frendz. Library Tapes’ Escapism also sounded good from a brief sampling, as well as the 2015 album Yume by an old favorite, Helios (and his latest work titled Sometimes performing under his Goldmund moniker). Both projects are long-standing favorites of mine.

In about 4 minutes, this friend’s comment inspired an entire weekend of exploratory listening. And this will be much-needed medicine for melancholy working through all that I have going on at present. Tune in with me if you’d like. It’s wonderful stuff. I’ll embed a few highlights below. Many of these are complete album playlists. Enjoy!

Salvador Dali RETURNS to Innerspace!

I’ve wonderful news, dear friends! Some of my long-time readers may recall that in August of 2012, due to financial struggles I had to part with a magnificent piece of music history – a rare copy of Salvador Dalí’s opéra-poème, Être Dieu. After discussing the piece with a fellow music lover, I revisited the market and as luck would have it, found what is likely the very copy I sold in 2012 available for purchase and at a very reasonable price. I wasted not a moment and placed my order, and today it arrived home safely!

For those not familiar with this ill-fated opera, the title translates to “Being God.” The six-part work features Dalí as God, Brigitte Bardot as an artichoke and Catherine the Great and Marilyn Monroe doing a striptease. (Because dadaism.)

Être Dieu suffered an astonishingly tragic history. It was originally published in an extremely rare 3LP box set by DCD, a small Spanish label with only 28 other releases to its name. It was re-released in a 3CD box published by German label Eurostar who subsequently went out of business, and there are few-to-no known performances of the work. Worse still, Dalí painted “Self-Portrait” (1972) to mark the composition of the opera, but the painting was auctioned by the United States Customs Service after being seized after Colombian drug lords tried to use the painting to launder money. (Salvador seriously couldn’t get a break!)

But a few copies of Eurostar’s deluxe edition survived. This edition is packaged in a blue velvet box set with a metallic gold engraving of Dalí’s signature, as well as a 326-page book containing scans of the original handwritten script, notes, and libretto in English, French, German & Spanish.

While Dalí, himself experienced great misfortune with this work, I am happy to report that good luck has come at last with its return to the Innerspace library.

Special thanks to the fellow listener out there who planted the seed of desire for me to reclaim this lost objet d’art!

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Published in: on February 28, 2017 at 5:06 pm  Comments (1)  
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Manhattan Research Inc: The Magic of Raymond Scott

 

Tonight’s magical listening comes following a heartwarming post by The Bob Moog Foundation and The Raymond Scott Archives. The Archives had recently published a recording of Bob Moog talking about his time with Raymond Scott in the 1950’s when Bob was barely 20 years old. Scott was one of the first musician clients that Bob had direct exposure to, and the experiences with Scott marked Bob’s early thinking about the expansiveness of the musical universe.

It inspired me to pull my copy of the Manhattan Research Inc 3LP set issued by Basta Records in The Netherlands to revisit the wonders of Raymond Scott’s work.

For those unfamiliar, you may know Scott from the recording, “Powerhouse” famously used in several classic Rube Goldberg machine sequences in Merrie Melodies cartoons. The track was also sampled in the intro of Soul Coughing’s “Bus to Beelzebub.”

Here is the original recording:

And here is an official “machine montage” cut by Warner Bros and hosted by The Ramond Scott Archives:

And Soul Coughing’s classic track:

Here’s my copy of the 3-volume set.

Fortunately, the entire set is archived on YouTube – check it out!

It is also worth mentioning that the set features a collaboration with a young Jim Henson from around the time of Henson’s existential college film, The Cube. You can watch the full film here –

The short was titled, LIMBO: The Organized Mind and an animation sequence was produced for it in the early 60s.

Enjoy!

Long Slow Slippy / Eventually But

I’ve just given a first-listen to Underworld’s limited edition special single for the new edit of “Born Slippy.nuxx” which appears in Trainspotting 2. The single arrived in a die-cut jacket with no inserts or download codes, confirming that this mix and its b-side are exclusive to this single. NME reported the tracklist for the movie soundtrack which features the b-side with a parenthetical ‘Spud’s Letter to Gail’ tagged onto the title, and a shorter edit of the a-side, “Long Slow Slippy” will appear as the album closer under the title, “Slow Slippy.”

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Side A is fairly cut and dry – it’s just born slippy.NUXX slowed down a bit. Not remarkable in its own right but perhaps it will have greater significance when I see its use in the film. (Sadly TS2 has yet to hit the States and I’d like to see it proper in the theatre.) The same goes doubly-so for the b-side.

While there is nothing quite as slippy as the original .NUXX, I am fond of a few oddball/fringe mixes which have surfaced over the years. The first is the “Dictionaraoke Remix” by Stop Children, from around the time AVid’s mixes were circulating. It’s basically a Google Dictionary recitation of Karl’s lyrics with the a canned backing beat. The mechanical delivery is really hilarious and worth checking out.

The other is “Born Sleepy”, an ambient downtempo interpretation of .NUXX. Nice for a bit of a wind-down. I don’t see it on YouTube at present but there are still copies kicking about.

But in my recollections of Slippy mixes past and present, there was a faint memory of Karl slowly speaking the lyrics in a measured, low-register tone – a track I hadn’t spun in years and couldn’t quite place.  Thankfully, a bit of digging through my collection, (I have 16 hours of Slippy mixes, alone) produced the track in question – it was an official mix released exclusively on the Born Slippy remix CD [V2 ‎– V2CP 166] issued only in Japan. The track is called “Born Slippy (Down Version)” and features the aforementioned ultra-slow vocals by Karl which work perfectly for this edit. Track it down – it’s really enjoyable.

dsc08424Where it all began – The original Born Slippy .NUXX on Junior Boys Own, UK May 1st, 1995 and the WaxTrax!/TVT US CD maxi single from 1996.

Avant-Pop… and Space Ghost

I took a trip out to my city’s antique mall this afternoon for the first time this year. When I arrived I was surprised to find two They Might Be Giants singles featuring exclusive tracks which were only otherwise available on the 1997 oddities compilation, THEN: The Earlier Years. (The set is fantastic – an absolute essential tour of the duo’s earliest recordings.)

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But the greatest value of my trip was, as always, my conversation with my favorite vendor, Bob the Record Guy. He always knows what titles to pull for me. I chatted him up for his knowledge about the music scene between 1976 and 1984, particularly the better parts of new wave, essentials of no wave, post-punk, avant/art-pop, and gothic/ethereal wave classics. He was happy to make a number of recommendations and sent me home with a few albums to get me started.

I confess that many of the artists and albums listeners take it as read that I would know are entirely new to me at present. Born in ’81, I was a touch too young for it all the first go-round and by the time I hit the age of history-combing musical discovery in college, the all-consuming craze was experimental electronic, ambient, and post-rock music. So while I’m well-versed in late-60s/early-70s synth music and 90s indie pop, my knowledge of that seminally developmental decade in between is limited to my memories of MTV flashback syndication and of dollar bin comp cassettes of 80s radio pop. (And damn it, I’m sick and tired of “Always Something There to Remind Me.“)

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Terrible cassette I purchased at a Lechmere department store in 1992.
From what Bob had immediately available, he sent me home with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s 1984 LP, Junk Culture, (with a startlingly-clearly labeled one-sided 7″ single). While the band’s first four LPs showcase OMD at the best, I was happy to pick up anything for starters.

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But it was the next record I was given which became my favorite discovery of the day. While discussing no wave and other manic, atonal music of the 80s, Bob pulled out a copy of Lounge Lizards’ Big Heart – Live in Tokyo (1986). He explained that, while the album is certainly a far cry from the aggressive dissonance of albums like No New York, that it might serve as a fitting introduction to 80s exercises in what Ornette Coleman termed, harmolodics.

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For those unfamiliar, wiki says, “Harmolodics may loosely be defined as an expression of music in which harmony, movement of sound, and melody all share the same value…” resulting in music which “…achieves an immediately open expression, without being constrained by tonal limitations, rhythmic pre-determination, or harmonic rules.” While I am well-acquainted with standards of free/avant-garde jazz, (I have many of the essentials in my record library), what I didn’t realize was how this philosophy had been embraced by Sonny Sharrock and utilized in his composition of the theme to Adult Swim’s Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Bob brought up the track as an example of harmolodics and spun several tracks from Big Heart which sounded quite similar to the theme. While the first two selections from Big Heart fall a bit flat, those patient enough to go deeper into the record will find that it is arguably the best effort of their catalog.

Home from our outing, I’m surveying my finds of the day and looking forward to more discoveries of albums I should have listened to ages ago. Bob also recommended that I explore the cassette-only label, ROIR (Reachout International Records) founded in 1981 for more great music. Thanks, Bob!

Something Special for Close Personal Friends of Al

I’m really upset with Pledgemusic because they know so very well that every few months, they shoot me an email saying, “Hey! Remember that thing you love? From way back in the day? Well check this sh*t out!” 

Pledgemusic is a direct-to-fan music platform, and their sole focus is raising funds for musicians. They don’t get their grubby hands into ownership or rights over the content, they encourage artists to contribute to charities as part of their projects, work with artists to offer all sorts of exclusive content to pledgers, and is accessible internationally to unite fans worldwide toward the creation of wonderful and unique musical items for the most rabid of a band’s fanatical followers.

Presently en route to my home is the Orb’s Further Adventures Live 2016 25th Anniversary DVD+3LP box set, which was my first encounter with Pledgemusic. But today, they popped up in my email saying… “Psssssst! Look at the thing!”

Now available for pre-order is something special for Close Personal Friends of Al Yankovic. Having grown up with every Al album from his self-titled debut to the present, my nerdcore childhood would never have been the same without him. And to celebrate his discography and 34 years of mandatory fun, Pledge has pulled out all the stops and created the ultimate Al treasure.

SQUEEZE BOX, as it is titled, contains all 14 studio albums plus a bonus Medium Rarities album of demos and rare tracks. All albums have been remastered and pressed on 150-gram vinyl. The set also includes a 100-page collector’s book of rare photos and memorabilia.

It is available in multiple levels of insanity, the highest of which includes a signed test pressing of your choice of any one of the original 14 studio albums, a Zoetrope-animated  turntable mat, retro-style “WEIRD Al” pennant, a magnetic build-your-own-Al, Commemorative t-shirt, and a CUSTOM PAIR OF WEIRD AL SOCKS!

And for $1500 they’ll ship you a signed test press of every one of the albums in the collection… though all 27 copies quickly sold out.

And, oh yeah, the entire set is packaged in a custom-created replica of Al’s signature accordion!

Shut up and take my money.

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An Epic Hip House Anthem

Just arrived from the UK – after years of stalking this rarity it’s finally mine. Distributed in France in 1991, this is the limited edition picture disc of the most monumentally epic hip house / electro-thrash single ever to destroy a pair of speakers.

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It is complete with relentlessly thumping dance beats, over-the-top sampled cheeseball guitar riffs, and Deep Purple’s Glenn Hughes screaming to the storm, “I WANNA SEE YOU SWEAT!” ad infinitum. Throw in the bizarre historical mythos of The KLF discovering the lost continent of America in the year 992 and you’ve got a ridiculous dance hit that only The KLF could concoct.

Don’t miss the insane video for the single – “America, What Time is Love?”

“This is what the KLF is about. Over and out.”

Electronic Love

I’ve just received the most WONDERFUL Christmas gift from one of my oldest and dearest friends. If every you’ve asked yourself, “what is the perfect gift for the audiophile who has everything?” this is precisely the sort of gift you should consider.

This is the Electronic Love Blueprint: A History of Electronic Music by the Dorothy design collective – an electrical schematic of a theremin mapping 200 inventors, innovators, artists, composers spanning the entire history of recorded sound. Key pioneers featured include Léon Theremin, Bob Moog, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk and Aphex Twin.

It loosely groups genres, from the obscure Musique Concrète (Pierre Schaeffer) to the better known Krautrock (Kraftwerk, Can, Tangerine Dream, Neu!, Faust, Cluster, Harmonia and Amon Düül II) Synthpop (Gary Numan, Human League, Depeche Mode, Yazoo and Pet Shop Boys) and Electronica (New Order, The Prodigy, Massive Attack, LCD Sound System and Daft Punk). There are also references to the experimental BBC Radiophonic Workshop and favourite innovating record labels Mute and Warp.

This metallic silver screen print on 120gsm Keaykolour Royal Blue uncoated paper measures 60 x 80cm and will be the pride of my listening room.

I’ve ordered a UK frame and can’t wait to display it!

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