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

Revolution Starter Kit

I’ve just returned from antiquing escapades with my lady friends and brought home several groovy treasures!

I picked up my first-ever Pharoah Sanders record – a mint first press of the legendary Karma LP featuring “The Creator Has a Master Plan.”

I also snagged original copies of Jimmy McGriff’s deeply-funky Soul Sugar LP and a newly traded in first press of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s noise pop debut, Psychocandy from 1985.

Before I left I also grabbed a clean copy of The Trouser Press Guide to 90s Rock – a mammoth oversize reference text of 2300 of the greatest punk, grunge, indie-pop, techno, noise, avant-garde, ska, hip-hop, new country, metal, roots, rock, folk, modern dance, and world music recordings from the decade of my high school years.

It’s the first time I’ve considered buying a critical text on rock music (I usually prefer 20th century classical and jazz), but this seemed an excellent starting point.

AND as a nifty bonus, from the Devil’s Library section of the antique mall I picked up a (R)evolution: A Journal of 21st Century Thought zine from The Anarchists of Chicago in the early 1980s which features a piece by Aleister Crowley.

‪#‎sh*tyoucantbuyatthemall‬

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Project Pin Drop: Silence in the Lab

Upon moving Innerspace Labs into the office in the home I purchased, it was instantly apparent that something needed to be done.  The larger open space and hardwood flooring acted as a resonating chamber for my already thunderously loud server.  The resulting noise dominated the room, inhibiting my enjoyment of the sparse, ambient soundscapes I often play as an sonic wallpaper while I work.

Submitted for your amusement, here is an actual recording of my server churning away at idle with accompanying footage of a military subject in a wind tunnel.

I considered multiple potential solutions.  Dampening pads for the tower would only muffle the noise.  Liquid cooling is not my forte.  And replacing the power supply, heat sinks, and case fans was a mess I didn’t want to get into.

And then came the epiphany.  I consulted a few wise colleagues regarding hardware specs and invested in a certified refurbished last-gen HP thin client.  Fitted with an inexpensive wireless adapter, the troublesome tower was tucked away in a spare overhead cupboard well out of earshot of my office. (Don’t worry, I’ll work out ventilation in the days ahead).  The thin client, free of moving parts, operates in absolute silence – a drastic departure from the sonic assault that was my server.

Here’s a look at my desktop – no tower to be seen (or heard!)

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And here, stealth-ly tucked behind Beethoven is the client.

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The server now occupies this overhead cupboard, where it actually drowns out the sound of the massive appliance below it.

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I’m proud to declare Project Pin Drop an absolute success!

Published in: on October 27, 2015 at 7:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ambient Sound for Study or Sleep

As I entered the final days before I move into my first home, I began to contemplate the changes to the sonic space of my studio. I anticipated that the new space would likely be devoid of external noises and the familiar nuanced sounds of other persons moving about in the residence. I also considered the longing I’d felt for the bustle of a metro village cafe – something I’ve yet to find locally befitting of an eccentric like myself.

So it appeared I’d a new project on my hands – to archive a bank of ambient noise to calm me and to promote productivity in my new home. Astonishingly, (as I’d never searched YouTube for ambient field recordings before), there was an incredible bank of 6-10 hour environmental recordings available, and all of it for free. I extracted the audio from each, archived my favorite selections, and put together a playlist for my readers to sample for themselves.

The playlist includes:

  • the sounds of drafting a dissertation in a university library
  • various intensities of rain in a variety of environments, from city streets to the inside of a vehicle in evening traffic, and from a tin roof to the inside of a camper’s tent
  • room-expanding noises from several coffeehouses.
  • and it ends with a soothing, 8-hour train ride

Explore my playlist below. I’d welcome further recommended environments if you have any to share!

Published in: on September 12, 2015 at 5:32 pm  Comments (2)  
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Experimental Music Haul 2.0

I’ve started volunteering at the Bop Shop and they let me browse the special collections section (items for sale on the website) and I’ve found some remarkable LPs.

The first item I picked up was Morton Subotnick’s The Wild Bull.  I asked, “so is it true that I can pick up just about any release on the Nonesuch label and know that it will be fantastic?”

Moments later, I had my answer.  I found a double LP boxed set titled, The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music by Beaver and Krauss.  It was composed on one of the first Moog synthesizers built by Bob Moog and includes a syllabus to guide the listener through a collection of sound concepts and the language of electronic music which was altogether new to the world when the record was released.

One of the 20th century music experts working in the shop smiled and told me that the Guide was an essential starting point for my early electronic library and that had the album been produced in a more limited run, it would be considered a holy grail.

Click on the back cover shot for a high-resolution photo and check out the track listing for a better idea of what this collection offers.

Next I asked if by chance the store had a copy of George Harrison’s noise record, Electronic Sound.

Sure enough, in the special collections area there were not one but three copies!  The first was $25 but had needle wear and audible surface noise.  The $40 copy was a Japanese import in NM condition and it played magnificently.  I opted for the second disc and after researching the recording I learned that Krauss actually composed and performed an entire side of the album but was never credited on the release.

The final treasure came when I inquired about a collection of experimental releases from the French label, Prospective 21e Siècle from the 60s and 70s.  I was surprised to hear that the owner of the shop recalled the label and remembered seeing a few discs come into the store at one time or another.  We searched through the “to-be-filed” shelves and to my absolute surprise found FOUR of the label’s releases tucked away on the top shelf!  Most were $50 apiece and in excellent condition.  After quickly sampling these discs I picked out three and added them to my pile.

I plan to rip these rare albums to FLAC just as soon as the McIntosh pre-amp and power amp arrive.

Prospective 21e Siècle – Boucourechliuv

Prospective 21e Siècle – Clavencin 2.0

Prospective 21e Siècle – Ohana

I made two additional discoveries this week as well.  The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble has released two albums, each in the area of New Music.

The first was a performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.  It was an excellent performance of the classic piece, but the second release is what really grabbed me.

In C Remixed is a 21st century re-imagining of Terry Riley’s groundbreaking minimalist composition.

Below is a sample – Jad Abumrad’s mix

And the other discovery was the work of Pauline Oliveros.  I began exploring her tape music from the 50s and 60s but was most impressed with her work with The Deep Listening Band during the 1990s.  The album, Ready Made Boomerang was recorded in a two million gallon cistern which has a reverberation time of 45 seconds!

I’m hoping for a vinyl re-issue of this release.

I’ll be heading back to the Bop Shop this Saturday so stay tuned for more!