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.


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 (1 of 2)

Right around the new year, I set myself to the task of compiling my favorite German experimental LPs of the late 1960s and early 70s for a feature on essential kosmische musik.  Quite sadly, founding member of Tangerine Dream Edgar Froese passed away last month, and a showcase of music he composed or inspired is the least I can do in his honor.  Electronic and ambient music would surely not be where it is today without the contributions of this fantastic musician.

The feature will be presented in two parts, and the conclusion will feature some special recordings you may not have heard of so be sure to tune in for both installments.

Additionally, I intend for this to be a one-click introduction for those interested in exploring highlights of kosmische musik, so I will include embedded full-album YouTube videos for every album that I can so that listeners can read about and listen to each artist I present.

Both general krautrock and the Berlin School rose to prominence in the late 1960s and early 70s and each produced a number of influential records which helped shape the music of the decades that followed.

Amon Duul II - Phallus Dei

Phallus Dei by Amon Düül II was arguably the first proper krautrock record, but personally, I prefer pensive and cerebral space music to brilliant uninhibited freak-outs.

Amon Düül II – Phallus Dei (1969)

 And so, fittingly, I’ll begin with the aforementioned Tangerine Dream.  This is the “In the Beginning…” box set released on Relativity in 1985 which contains their first four albums – Electronic Meditation, Alpha Centauri, Zeit, and Atem, as well as the then-unreleased Green Desert LP.

Tangerine Dream - In the Beginning...

Dubbed “the pink years” for the pink ear on the original Ohr labels, these were early explorations in ambient music, and with each release they ventured further from traditional rhythms and meter into the outer reaches of space music.

All four titles are staples of the genre, and fortunately each was recently reissued on 180g vinyl in a gatefold sleeve in the UK by Esoteric Reactive.  I’m considering trading the set in for these new pressings.

Tangerine Dream – Electronic Meditation (1970)

 Tangerine Dream – Alpha Centauri (1971)

 Tangerine Dream – Zeit (1972)

 Tangerine Dream – Atem (1973)

 Tangerine Dream – Green Desert (recorded 1973)

Of course there were many other excellent TD titles released in the years that followed.

Universally-acclaimed classics include Phaedra, Ricochet (a live album), Rubycon, Stratosphere, Cyclone, and Exit.  These recordings of their first 10 years of activity were their finest and most exploratory works.

Cluster - Cluster IICluster II (1972) is another staple of the genre.  Phillipe of accurately summarized the album as “industrial and chaotic… a sonic meditation… and a pleasant cerebral massage,” an excellent summary of this album’s sound.  As Cluster II is more accessible than the mechanical noise of their debut LP, this is a great introduction to Cluster.  (But once you’re hooked you’ll need to go back and pick up their debut from 1971.)

Cluster – Cluster II (1972)

If you prefer a more organic flavor of ambient music, seek out Cluster & Eno from 1977.

Cluster & Eno

More sparse and delicate than the collaborations between Fripp & Eno just a few years earlier, Cluster & Eno is reflective, late night music.  Put it on and ponder your very existence in a vast and expansive universe.

Cluster & Eno – Cluster & Eno (1977)

 A follow-up collaboration was recorded in 1978, this time credited to Clusters’ members by name.  After the Heat is a rewarding experience for the patient ear.  It has a slow but steady pace and concludes with two outstanding tracks with vocals by Brian Eno.  “The Belldog” is a must for fans of any period of Eno’s music, and the closing track (whose title I will not even attempt to pronounce) features the lyrics to “Kings Lead Hat” played backwards… and it WORKS… because Eno.

After the Heat

Eno/Moebius/Roedelius – After the Heat (1978)

Kraftwerk, of course, played a critical role as krautrock’s mechanized ambassadors to the world. But before they developed their trademark sound with Autobahn and Radioactivity, they released Kraftwerk I and II (1970-72) These early records are much more organic and free-form than the Futurist sounds of their better-known LPs.  The albums feature multi-dubbed flutes, an organ, tape-music noise and drone soundscapes.  If you dig experimental tunes, these are classics.

 Crown - Kraftwerk I

Kraftwerk – Kraftwerk (1970)

Crown - Kraftwerk II

Kraftwerk – Kraftwerk II (1971)

These are the Crown label bootlegs on red & green vinyl.  The jackets are quickly identifiable by the really shoddy low-res prints of the original art but that aside, they’re an affordable way to get your hands on some early Kraftwerk. 

Ralf und Florian

Ralf and Florian (1973) was their 3rd LP (not including Organisation’s Tone Float) and features much of the same sounds heard on 1 and 2 but with a more structured and polished sound.

Kraftwerk – Ralf und Florian (1973)

 As I tend to gravitate toward more abstract music I don’t play this record as often as the others, but its historical importance and impact on the music which followed can not be overstated.

 Ralf and Florian was followed by the records for which they are best-known –

Kraftwerk – Autobahn (1974)

Kraftwerk - Autobahn

Kraftwerk - Radio-Activity

Kraftwerk – Radio-Activity (1975)

Kraftwerk - Trans Europa Express

Kraftwerk – Trans Europa Express (1977)

and the electro-pop staple, The Man-Machine.

Kraftwerk - The Man-Machine

Kraftwerk – The Man-Machine (1978)

I’ll end this segment appropriately with a solo selection from Tangerine Dream founder, Edgar Froese.  He released three primary solo recordings between I’ve seen this title turn up multiple times in the Youtube Vinyl Community.  Epsilon in Malaysian Pale is Edgar Froese’s second album, recorded in 1975.  The album consists of two side-long pieces – the first featuring the Mellotron and the second a rhythmic wash of ambient synths.  If you’ve been meaning to get into Froese’s solo work, this is certainly the place to begin.

Edgar Froese - Epsilon in Malaysian Pale

Edgar Froese – Epsilon In Malaysian Pale (1975)

These classics will serve as an excellent introduction to the genre.  Stay tuned next week for more fantastic essentials!

The First 800 Albums of 2013

I’ve been all over the ambient and experimental map these first two months of the year.  I recently revisited Boards of Canada’s extended catalog – 6 LPs, 4 compilation albums, 6 EPs, and two live sets (the Warp 10th Anniversary Party from ’99 and All Tomorrows Parties in 2001) and fell in love with the sound of early downtempo all over again.

For years I’ve loved Peter Gabriel’s fourth LP (in particular the tribal percussion on the track, “Rhythm of the Heat”) as well as the Birdy and Passion soundtracks from ’85 and ’89.  I decided it was finally time to acquaint myself with the rest of his discography, so I picked up a digital archive of his 14 studio albums, 17 singles, 11 remastered recordings, 6 official compilations and 6 live albums.  I have I-IV on vinyl, as well as the Birdy OST, and this archive will be the perfect way for me to identify which LPs to order next.

Also this past month I decided to explore the birth of IDM.  A quick bit of research uncovered the Artificial Intelligence series on the Warp label, which was the definitive collection of early intelligent dance releases.  The series included 8 discs issued between 1992-1994.  The selection below is by Link, which is one-half Tom Middleton who I remember from the Cosmic Fury DJ face-off  between Middleton and Fred Deakin of Lemon Jelly.

And after months of researching krautrock’s greatest recordings, I finally picked up 11 albums by Faust.  And thank god, because the search led me to the 1973 masterpiece collaboration of Faust and Tony Conrad titled Outside the Dream Syndicate.  This stripped-bare, minimalist record puts you into a trace and you slowly begin to feel the subtle nuances of the droning violin and the relentless percussion.  A most rewarding listen!  I promptly added Conrad’s debut LP to my shopping list.  It’s around $100 when it surfaces, so it appears I’m not the only fan out there.

Popol Vuh was another German 70s artist I discovered and enjoyed this past month.  I tried out their 27 LP catalog spanning 1970 – 1999 and (as usual) was most fond of their debut album – Affenstunde.  The album is a solid 40 minutes of droning proto-synth sounds and natural percussion.  Unlike the later work of Tangerine Dream, the album never sounds artificial or sequenced.  It remains organic from start to finish.  I’ll be looking for this album at the record show next month.

Just before the month began I went through the complete discography of Tangerine Dream chronologically by date of release to identify which albums from their vast catalog would best fit my library.  I picked up 206 discs, including all studio albums, all remasters, live LPs, soundtracks, singles, and solo projects by each member of the band.  A week into listening and reading I knew exactly what I wanted.  Their first four records were much more experimental and organic than the sequencer-based ambient work that they are best known for.  Long before they inspired the new age genre they were making crazy avant garde German music not unlike Popol Vuh.

Unfortunately, original pressings of these early albums would set me back $50 apiece and $100 for a clean copy of their debut LP.  After two days of research, I found the answer.

In 1985, Relativity Records pressed 3000 numbered copies of a box set called In the Beginning… which included their first four albums, uncut, and the previously unreleased Green Desert LP.  All of the original album art is included in the set along with a ten page book about the band.  Best of all – I secured a copy for a mere $25.  This was the PERFECT solution for my situation!


While I was on a German kick I decided to put the finishing touches on my Kraftwerk library.  I already had Radioactivity and Autobahn on vinyl so I picked up their first 17 albums digitally to see where I wanted to go next.  I instantly fell in love with Kraftwerk I and Kraftwerk II.  These were the experimental LPs they produced before Ralf & Florian secured their signature electronic sound.  Many reviewers write the first two albums off as “for-completists-only.”  I strongly disagree.  While of course these are no Autobahn, they are beautiful free-form experiments and I had to have them on wax.  After two days of exploring I settled on the Italian Crown label bootleg pressings which came with red vinyl and green marbled vinyl discs.  I found one seller with both albums so I saved on shipping and took the plunge.  They’ll be in the mail this week.

The other German group I had neglected for far too long was the band, Neu!  I’m listening to the six LPs they released between 1972 and 2010 (the most recent being a recording from 1986.)  I think I’ll have to agree with the majority of fans that their first two records from ’72 and ’73 are their best work.  I’ll be looking for original pressings at the record show as well.

I also picked up the fan-produced bootleg series of EPs titled, The KLF Recovered & Remastered.  The 6 EPs and 7th Special Remixes disc include magnificent independent remasters from the KLF’s deleted catalog.  These EPs are on par with the work Dr. Ebbetts and The Purple Chick did with the Beatles’ recordings.

KLF Remastered

The best disc by far is EP 6 – Live From the Lost Continent 2012, which is a simulated live stadium concert in which the KLF take the listener on a tour through their entire career.  It opens with the Rites of Mu and closes, appropriately with the KLF collaboration with Extreme Noise Terror at the February 1992 BRIT Awards.  This was the legendary performance where they fired blanks into the audience, declared that they’d left the music business, and dumped a sheep carcass at the doors of the building.  The sampled screams of the audience all throughout this hour-and-17-minute “performance” is true to form to what the KLF, themselves did with their Stadium House Trilogy and the entire concert is an absolute triumph.  Best of all, it lets long-time fans take part in one last show decades after Drummond and Cauty left the biz behind.

I have over 88 KLF albums and singles in my library, and EP #6 RE now ranks #1 on my list.  And thanks to EP #1, I’ve added the America, What Time is Love LP single to my shopping list.

Always on the hunt for more experimental music, I finally took the advice of my favorite record store owner and listened to Soft Machine’s first four albums.  I had discovered the Canterbury Scene.  More of a journalistic term than anything else, (like krautrock) it referred to a group of musicians around Canterbury who worked together in several bands around the time that the Berlin School was born in Germany.

I researched a list of essential artists and picked up their discographies.  This included Soft Machine, Matching Mole, Egg, Steve Hillage, National Health, Khan, Ash Ra Tempel/Ashra/Manuel Gottsching, Gong, Caravan and Henry Cow.

The organ work on Egg’s first LP is brilliant, and warranted repeated listenings.  I also enjoyed their post-break-up release, The Civil Surface from ’74.  Both have been added to my record show list.

Out of the 17 albums in Gong’s library, I found the Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy to be the most memorable.  Released between 1973 and 74 these were finally re-pressed in Italy in 2002 and have sold online for about $45 apiece for the re-issues.  Angel’s Egg (Radio Gnome Invisible Pt 2) seems to be their strongest record.

I was similarly floored by Ash Ra Tempel’s first two LPs.  If you like post-psychedelic drone, their early stuff is really worth picking up.  I’m going through the 49 LPs they released between 1970 and 2007 but so far Ash Ra Tempel (1971) and Schwingungen (1972) are my clear favorites.

The unfortunate thing about many of the Canterbury and krautrock artists is that there were no pressings made after their original releases in the early 1970s.  This means a listener may have to shell out one or two hundred dollars per album, which is why I’ve no reservation about familiarizing myself with their catalog digitally before making that kind of investment.

On to more contemporary sounds, I’ve been following the Electronic Supper Club series which is a great collection of live dj sets.  Of the thirty three hours of material available thus far, hour 30, “Set 2” is a memorable favorite – lots of deep house grooves which are great for both the dancefloor or the living room.  Click here if you’d like to watch the set.

That got me in the mood for more quality IDM, so I picked up 47 albums and singles by Aphex Twin.  I’m still trying to warm up to the fan-favorite, Selected Ambient Works Vol 2 which inevitably surfaces in conversations about all-time-greatest ambient releases.

I may also invest in a vinyl copy of Powerpill (the Pac-Man techno single) to add to my ridiculously large collection of Pac-Man Fever merchandise.  The Aphex Twin library is just over 41 hours worth of material so I’m sure I’ll find a few classic releases to order on wax.  (“Bucephalus Bouncing Ball” from Clint Mansell’s Pi soundtrack comes immediately to mind.)

Ever since I sampled Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach vinyl box set during my last pilgrimage to my hometown record shop I’ve wanted to learn more about his work.  I have 53 of his discs in my archive and I’m slowly making my way through the collection.  He seems consistent in his approach to music and his focus on short, repeated patterns gives it an almost drone-like quality.  Thus far the Einstein on the Beach 4LP set is my favorite so I will likely pick it up from the shop.  I only wish there were vinyl issues of the short pieces he composed for Sesame Street in 1979 for the animated shorts, The Geometry of Circles.  He wrote them while developing Einstein on the Beach, which is probably why that album remains my favorite so far.

I watched the stunning space madness film, Moon from 2009 this month.  Imagine a two-hour film with only one actor… and you’re on the edge of your seat the entire time.  What was most memorable about the film was the score – a simple oscillation of two notes on a piano that sticks in your head hours after the film has ended.  After researching the film I read that the melody was a metaphor for the conflict between the main character and his clone (both played by the same actor.)

I was surprised to learn that the score was written by the aforementioned Clint Mansell, the former guitarist for Pop Will Eat Itself.  He has written the scores for many films, including Black Swan (2010), Doom (2005) and the soundtrack I mentioned earlier – Pi (1998).  His more recent works have entered into modern classical territory, and I’m enjoying it very much.  I picked up all 19 of his scores and my vinyl copy of Moon arrived in the mail last week.

At the beginning of the month I was researching an old CD I remembered from 2000 – LTJ Bukem’s Journey Inwards.  I had recently heard tracks by Big Bud which had the same Intelligent D’n’B feel as Journey Inwards.  Sure enough, I learned that they were produced on the same label.  I quickly picked up the complete 94 disc catalog which included all of the Good Looking Records/Earth/Soul/Logical Progression/Looking Back/etc releases and I absolutely loved what I heard.  Shortly after listening to this collection I added Big Bud’s Late Night Blues LP to my shopping list.  The album plays like a live show in a small space-jazz club, and is great music to wind down to.

My exploration of space-jazz led me to a Various Artists collection called The Future Sounds of Jazz.  This series compiles the best electronic “future jazz” singles from 1995 – 2012 in a wonderful 21 disc set.  Nightmares on Wax became a fast-favorite of mine, and I will likely be purchasing their first two LPs – Caraboot Soul and A Word of Science.

The last new entry in my library this month was the result of my research into contemporary ambient sound.  I have approximately 830 ambient albums beginning with Erik Satie’s The Gymnopédies from 1888 and ending with Ulrich Schnauss’ A Long Way to Fall from 2013, but the majority of my ambient collection is what you would call “classic ambience.”

To get a better feel for more contemporary ambient recordings I researched a long-time favorite artist – Wolfgang Voigt.  He founded an ambient label in Cologne, Germany in 1993 and released collections of his favorite minimal and microhouse works on his label each year.  I picked up the 13 disc Pop Ambient set which began in 2001 and published their latest release last month.   It makes for a fantastic playlist, and is inspiring a number of future vinyl purchases.

So there you have it – the first 819 albums of 2013.  The year is off to a great start.  My research has yielded a list of must-have LPs which I’ve passed on to a record dealer who is traveling to Germany this week in preparation for the upcoming record show.  He promised to bring me back some great original pressings.  I’m looking forward to it!