Oct172016| October 17, 2016
Reinhold Friedl and Rashad Becker record all 92 pieces.
John Cage published Song Books in three volumes in 1970, as a collection of open works that took a vast number of radical forms, from compositions and graphic scores to musical instruments, Fluxus-inspired actions and, of course, songs.
Entering the studio, Reinhold Friedl and Rashad Becker – the go-to engineer at Berlin’s famous Dubplates and Mastering – recorded interpretations of every single piece in the right order. With Becker manning the live electronics and feedback cabinet, they created a series that is equal parts ancient field recording and surreal, post-industrial nightmare.
Described as “an early hymn to sonic freedom” the work sees the pair extract sound from a vast array of instruments, whether old and special microphones, toys, wooden games, metal objects, complex objects, contemporary electronic devices and even garbage.
The Complete Song Books is released on Karl Records on 16th November on double vinyl. Pre-order your copy here.
Jun082016| June 8, 2016
The electronic music pioneer reimagined.
London Contemporary Orchestra and DJ/composer Shiva Feshareki will perform a composition by electronic pioneer and BBC Radiophonic Workshop co-founder Daphne Oram later this month.
Part of Oliver Coates’ Deep∞Minimalism festival at Southbank Centre in London, Still Point will see Feshareki play an electronic manipulation of the original orchestra from three pre-recorded 78rpm discs on turntables, in duet with the live orchestra.
Never previously performed, the 1949 work is a perfect example of just how far ahead of her time Daphne Oram was, predating an entire generation of composers and artists in its radical use of live electronics, turntable manipulation and sampling of a live orchestra.
The show marks the latest incarnation of Feshareki’s ongoing work as a turntablist, which has been described by The Times as “exuberantly irreverent… virtuoso DJ-ing”.
Still Point will appear in the programme alongside performances of John Cage’s work for 23 stringed instruments and the music of another electronic pioneer Pauline Oliveros performed from a text score that’s treated with rocks specially sourced from the Suffolk coastlines.
Jun082016| June 8, 2016
The full story of that mythical meeting in Coney Island, told by the man who made it happen.
Mid afternoon on Sunday 8th June, 1986 and concert producer Rick Russo is looking nervously down the Broadwalk. Sun Ra’s vehicle is lost in Coney Island, and it’s getting dangerously close to the curtain call. Inside, roughly two hundred students, avant-garde enthusiasts and promenade day trippers are sitting in folding chairs eating popcorn under canvas posters heralding Snakeology, the Asian Flesh-Eating Fish, a Midget Kangaroo and a Mermaid Parade that hang from the ceiling of Sideshows By the Seashore. This former penny arcade and freakshow on the Coney Island Broadwalk is the unlikely setting for the avant-garde concert of the century.
“Through my own work as a composer, I had met both John Cage and Sun Ra separately in the 1970s,” remembers Russo, who produced the show with his now partner Bronwyn Rucker. Together they had started their own label Meltdown records, which would go on to release the original album the following year and needed to let people know. “I had the idea of putting both John Cage and Sun Ra together as a benefit concert to help launch the label.” It was one of the only records the label ever released.
Pressed in two editions of 1,000 records, John Cage Meets Sun Ra showcased “unedited segments” of the the historic concert and has, until now been the only document of the near-mythic encounter between two of the twentieth centuries most important avant garde musicians and musical philosophers. A holy grail record, with a reputation that precedes its scratchy forty minute performance, the complete concert is now being released for the first time, courtesy of Modern Harmonic records, who have salvaged a further twenty-five minutes of perviously unheard material and this extra-ordinary, never before seen video of the concert.
To tell the complete story, we tracked down Rick Russo and show attendee Howard Mandel, who wrote the album’s original liner notes. With Sun Ra driving round in circles on Coney Island, Rick picks up the story.
“It was only by chance, believe it or not, that Sun Ra made it to the venue – and there was no way of us communicating. While waiting for Sun Ra to arrive, I left the Boardwalk and went to Surf Avenue – that’s when I saw Sun Ra, flagged him down and directed his vehicle to the theatre – they were about to leave! John Cage, on the other hand, insisted on not being driven and wanted to take the subway from Manhattan instead, and had me draw a map on how to get to the theatre.”
Unsurprisingly perhaps, John Cage had never been to Coney Island before. But such, was the nature of the event; an uncanny combination of the banal and the sublime, described perfectly by Mandel: “one of modern music’s most insightful, iconoclastic theorists and one of its most outlandishly original visionaries, held in view of the Atlantic while beachgoers sauntered by.”
Interestingly, Ra and Cage previously had little or no musical contact, something utterly inconceivable today and a sign of just how independently these pioneers were operating. Ra “thought he had read” Cage’s collection of essays and writings Silence, and Cage needed to be told by Russo who this cosmic cape-clad pianist was he would be sharing a stage with. “He [Cage] was pleased to learn about Sun Ra’s pioneering use of electronics,” Russo explains. But the connection, it seems, ends there.
With the sun beating down outside, and the venue doors thrown open to the Broadwalk to an unofficial audience sitting cross-legged twelve rows deeps, the performance began. Rick Russo and Bronwyn Rucker banged a drum to call the proceedings to order. Mandel sets the scene: “A bare-chested black man with a hieroglyphics-marked terrycloth towel wrapped around his middle walked onto the cheaply draped stage holding a bowl of smoking incense in one palm, clasping an ankh with his other fist. Right behind him was Marshall Allen, Ra’s longtime alto saxophone-playing lieutenant.
“Allen raised an oblong black metal wind synthesizer – formally an EVI, electronic valve instrument – to his lips and blew a fanfare as crude and arresting as a blast from a ram’s horn, leaping immediately to blunt and piercing extremes of pitch and timbre. Then out came Ra, in a purple tunic with silver foil sleeves, a star-studded cloth cap on his head so that only a fringe of orange-dyed hair peeked out from over his ears. A tuft of neatly trimmed orange beard decorated his second chin. Alongside him was Cage, dressed as usual in faded blue jeans and a grey jacket over a blue denim work shirt. Cage sat at a card table, leaning in towards a mic on a stand. Ra stationed himself about four feet to Cage’s right, directly facing the audience from behind his Yamaha DX7 keyboard.”
Ra dominated the opening half of the show, leading the increasingly hysterical audience on a winding path of jazz-inflected synth swells, dissonant electronics and frenzied harmonic structures. As Tyler Fisher describes, despite the chaos “everything is going somewhere”.
Cage’s performance was not quite as theatrical. Moments of profound silence fill the room between vocal experimentations, Cage reading in the imagined vernacular of his poem Empty Words IV. As the video above testifies, Ra would often sit in, providing a sparse sonic bed from behind his synthesizer.
“When both John Cage and Sun Ra entered the stage together, I had a tremendous sense of relief,” Russo remembers, needing a moment to let the gravity of the situation sink in.
“It doesn’t get more avant-garde than having John Cage and Sun Ra “meet” in a converted penny arcade, now a sideshow theatre, in the middle of a legendary amusement park.” Further description seems unnecessary. The rest is mystery.
John Cage Meets Sun Ra: The Complete Concert is available to pre-order now ahead of its release on 24th June.
Jun022016| June 2, 2016
An avant-garde collaboration of mythic proportions.
In June 1986, two 20th century heavyweights John Cage and Sun Ra came together in a Coney Island freak show for a one-off performance that has assumed truly legendary status.
Recorded and subsequently released in “unedited segments” the following year by Meltdown Records, the collaboration at Sideshows By The Sea has become one of the most sought after records in either discography.
Rare documentary proof of what really happened when John Cage met Sun Ra, it’s a record replete with dissonant electronics, astral flourishes, vocal experimentations and, as you’d expect from Cage, moments of profound silence.
Following their series of Sun Ra 7″s, label Modern Harmonic now making the mythic recording available on vinyl once more, releasing the complete concert as a monophonic double LP set for the first time, featuring over twenty five minutes of previously unheard music, and accompanied by liner notes from writer Howard Mandel, who was in the audience that night.
John Cage Meets Sun Ra is available to pre-order now from Modern Harmonic. Listen to a good portion of the recording below.
Feb022016| February 2, 2016
We explore the history of turntablism, from its primitive beginnings with travelling showmen right up to contemporary sound installations and the DMC.
Words: Sophy Smith
Coined by DJ Babu of the Beat Junkies crew, the term ‘turntablism’ emerged in 1995 to reflect the artistic practices of the hip hop DJ and, specifically, to denote the difference between playing back records and using turntables to manipulate sound. What’s described as turntablism today however, extends beyond hip hop, and its history starts much earlier.
In fact the creative use of reproductive technology started early in the development of the equipment. From the mid-to-late 1800s, buyers of cylinder phonographs and graphophones were using the equipment not only to listen to pre-recorded music, but also to make their own vocal and instrumental recordings.
Both Edison’s phonograph and Bell-Tainter’s graphophone enabled sound recording as well as playback, with wax as the medium to allow the recording to be removed from the cylinder and stored for later listening. Although Edison didn’t foresee the creative and commercial potential of his invention, the first manipulation of recorded sound for the purpose of entertainment took place using his phonograph. Seventy years before hip hop turntablists, traveling showmen would, as the grand finale to an evening’s entertainment, instantly record a cornettist and then perform sped-up takes of the recording by turning the phonograph handle faster and faster.
When a commercial version of Emile Berliner’s flat disc gramophone was introduced in 1985, both the phonograph and graphophone lost appeal because the new flat disc could support longer, better quality recordings than the cylinder. The disc gramophone, however, lacked home-recording technology – instead it was restricted to playing the records that were commercially available.
With recording out, musicians began to experiment with the gramophone as a performing and composing device, and from this point we see the development of what we now call turntablism. Musicians from across the board began to experiment with the creative potential of the turntable, transforming it from a reproductive device and into to a musical instrument.
The background to the creative musical use of the turntable falls into several distinct histories. The work of hip-hop pioneers and radio/club DJs is well documented, but the other earlier, and equally important history, lies outside popular music, in the field of experimental music and installation art.
Experimental Music and Art
In the early part of the twentieth century, a handful of composers became interested in the creative potential of the phonograph or gramophone, and began undertaking small-scale experiments. Paul Hindemith’s Trickaufnahmen (trick recordings), for example, investigated the technical abilities of the gramophone as well as the performer with a range of sound manipulation techniques – including acceleration and deceleration of discs and the knock-on pitch changes, possibly even using two phonographs simultaneously.
These experiments set the foundation for visual artists Moholy-Nagy and Christian Marclay and composers Pierre Schaeffer and John Cage; four major turntable pioneers emerging from a range of musical and artistic backgrounds.
Moholy–Nagy, along with Oskar Fischinger and Paul Arma, attempted to alter the acoustic content of records before amplification by carving graphic structures into the grooves and running the record backwards against the stylus to scratch new patterns. Nagy hoped that his experiments with turntable music would result in the creation of a new musical language, through studying the graphic signs on the record.
Pierre Schaeffer, pioneer of musique concrète, also experimented with manipulating recordings by playing them backwards and forwards, juxtaposing sounds taken from their original time continuum, playing recordings at different speeds, and creating repetitive sound loops by breaking the groove at specific points.
Many contemporary turntablists manipulate the sound of records by creating repeating loops or ‘locked grooves’ and Schaeffer was the first to use this technique, pressing records with a groove that holds the stylus in a continuous cycle, looping the sound as the record rotates. This technique was used in Etude aux Chemins de Fer (1948) which was constructed from successive extracts of material made from manipulated recordings of steam locomotives at Gare des Batignolles, Paris.
In John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No.1 (1939), the records alternate between two speeds – 33 and 78 rpm – and rhythms are created by lifting and lowering the needle onto the record. Meanwhile in his work Credo in Us (1942) the player of the phonograph is instructed, “If phonograph, use some classic: e.g. Dvorak, Beethoven, Sibelius or Schostakovich” to add fragments of sound to the piece. His Imaginary Landscape No.5 (1952) work was composed for 42 records and 33 1/3 (1969) for twelve record players. This creative use of turntable technology also extended to the phonograph itself. In Cage’s Cartridge Music (1960), performers are directed to amplify small sounds using pick-ups taken from the tone arms of record players.
The idea of the record as basis for production is later found in the turntable music of artist Christian Marclay – his tribute composition John Cage for example is a recording of a collage made by cutting slices from a number of records and gluing them together to form a single disc. Marclay’s Footsteps also explores the effects of physically altering the record – three thousand five hundred records were used as flooring at an art exhibition over six weeks, packed in individual covers and then sold. For Marclay, these experiments that alter and distort the original recording highlight his understanding of the record as a constantly changing capsule of sound and he deliberately brings the residual sounds of pops, clicks and scratches to the foreground of the composition.
Reggae, Radio and Club DJs
Meanwhile in ’50s and ’60s Jamaica, musicians began a radical relationship with records that transformed recorded music into a live event. Until 1995 Jamaica had limited music copyright laws, meaning that soundsystem and reggae DJs could use records for their own creative ends. Through EQ alterations, sound effects and vocals, as well as pioneering tricks like the ‘rewind’ (spinning back a record to be repeated), DJ created original compositions using rhythm tracks from popular records.
Over in the States, early radio DJs played their part in developing turntable techniques. In order to enhance his promotions of records for example, Bill Curtis (veteran DJ for American station WUFO) began to manipulate the records he played, extending the record by slowing it down, repeating sections and/or talking over the track.
The first DJ to introduce mixing, albeit in a primitive sense, was Terry Noel, resident DJ at the ’60s New York nightclub Arthur. Working with a relatively simple set-up (having only a volume dial for each turntable), Noel subtly mixed tracks in a way never heard before.
Francis Grasso, resident disco DJ at The Sanctuary in New York, was arguably the first club DJ to manipulate recorded material for artistic purposes. Prior to Grasso’s turntable experiments DJs played records one at a time and club evenings lacked a cohesive flow due to the constant start-stop of three-minute records. Although Grasso was not the first DJ to mix two records together, he was the first to deliberately perfect beat mixing as a creative technique. In the 1970s, DJ Francis Grasso went on to introduce slip-cueing, which he had learnt from friends working as radio DJs.
Not far away, at the Paradise Garage, Larry Levan perfected the practice of constructing music from many different sources, blending rock, pop, electronica, soul, rap, funk and disco and in a similar vein Frankie Knuckles incorporated sound effects into his sets at the Warehouse, Chicago. In an unconscious nod to Pierre Schaeffer’s Etude aux Chemin de Fer, Knuckles played an extended sound effect of a speeding steam train, panning the sound from the front to the back of the club, giving the effect of a train ploughing through the dance floor.
During his time at the club Galaxy 21, Walter Gibbons developed turntable-based cut and paste techniques to manipulate small sections of drum breaks – the forerunner to the beat-juggling techniques used by contemporary hip hop turntablists. Walter Gibbons’ cut and pastes enabled him to construct small sections of music into an original whole at the turntable.
The 1970s and early 1980s witnessed a club-based popular music revolution that took DJs from using one turntable to two, and sometimes three, decks. These innovations, taking place as they did on turntables, established the concept of the DJ as music creator rather than solely player of records. and paved the way for the sound manipulation techniques and compositional processes of turntablist musicians.
Perhaps the best known examples of turntablism sit within hip hop, which has embraced the genre from its outset. Creating original music using records, turntables and microphones from the early 1970 onward, hip hop pioneers and visionaries developed many of the turntable manipulation techniques that are still central to turntablism today.
The story starts with Afrika Bambaata, who in the early ’70s transformed his street gang into the hip hop orientated Universal Zulu Nation. Bambaata became known as the “Master of Records” for the wide variety of music and break records he would blend in a DJ set.
One of Bambaata’s contemporaries, Kool Herc, pioneered the breakbeat ‘merry-go-round’ technique. Noticing that dancers would go nuts for drum sections of funk records, Herc began to play these sections back-to-back, elongating the break and ignoring the rest of the track. This breakbeat DJ style set the blueprint for hip hop production.
DJ Grandmaster Flash added to the growing body of turntablism tricks with his Quick Mix and Clock theories. With Quick Mix, passages of music are spun back to be repeated, whilst Clock Theory allows the DJ to identify key sections of the record by markings out the record label. Flash also developed punchphasing, in which shorter sound sounds are played over the breakbeat from another record, and backspinning which allows the turntablist to quickly rewind a part of the record.
Developed by Barry B (Get Fresh Crew) and Steve Dee (X-Men) in the 1990s, beat juggling also deserves a mention. Here new patterns are created by alternating between two identical records on different turntables.
And of course the most celebrated hip-hop technique is scratching, where the musician moves the record back and forth against the stylus whilst also cross-fading on the mixing desk. Legend has it that this was discovered, accidentally, by DJ Theodore in the early ’80s when his turntable practice was interrupted by his mother and his hand subconsciously rocked the record, producing a sound of its own.
These days there are dozens of scratch techniques – including (but by no means limited to): the baby, the tear, the scribble, the chirp, the transformer, the flare, the crab and the orbit.
Turntablism is still thriving today. In 2007 Gabriel Prokofiev composed Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra which, following its performance at the BBC Proms with DJ Mr Switch as soloist, has received critical acclaim. The fifth movement was recently included in the BBC’s classical music initiative Ten Pieces, designed to introduce a generation of children to classical music. The idea of accompanying an orchestra with a turntable is hardly new though – Hansjörg Dammert, composer and pupil of Arnold Schoenberg called for a ‘concerto for phonograph’ back in 1926!
Artist Janek Schaefer has used turntablism in his work throughout the past two decades. In 1997 he developed the triple tonearm Tri-Phonic Turntable, which is inspired by Philip Jeck’s piece Vinyl Requiem, itself created using 180 old Dansette record players. Schaefer’s first composition using the Tri-Phonic was made with a T.S. Elliot poetry LP – playing ‘Burnt Norton’ simultaneously with the three arms, staggering one after the other.
Schafer is also known, and received acclaim, for his sound installation Extended Play. Three solo string parts were recorded separately, edited, and cut onto vinyl. In the installation, three cello EPs, three piano EPs and 3 violin EPs play at either 33, 45, or 78rpm using nine retro record players. These play continuously, modified to pause in response to the audience moving around the exhibition, changing the composition for each performance.
Perhaps one of the best-known examples of contemporary turntablism though is the DMC World DJ Championships. An annual DJ competition hosted by Disco Mix Club (DMC) since 1985, DJs can enter as individuals or teams and are allocated exactly six minutes to perform original routines.
Originally sponsored by Technics, since 2011 the DMC Championship has permitted the use of vinyl emulation systems, alongside traditional vinyl, to balance traditional mixing and the popularity of digital playback.
As well as supporting established techniques, digital vinyl systems also include additional tools including those for re-editing, effects, tempo awareness, key-locking and they offer visual feedback as well as the ability to sync up with external hardware. Whilst the manufacturers stress the creative potential of these systems, some feel that artistic experimentation is limited with this new equipment, promoting a future haunted by ghosts of the past.
This feature is based on Sophy Smith’s Hip-Hop Turntablism, Creativity and Collaboration book, published by Ashgate (2013).
Cover Artwork by Hector Plimmer
Jan182016| January 18, 2016
As the music world mourned the loss of one of its greatest innovators, another quietly slipped away. There were no centre-pages spreads, magazine pull-outs or sold out records, but contemporary music will never be quite the same again without the great French composer, conductor and pianist Pierre Boulez.
Founding a centre for advanced acoustic research in Paris, he played a key role in the development of electronic music and will be remembered alongside John Cage for breathing life (and the fear of God) 20th century classical music, tearing through convention with a punk zeal, and even recording with Frank Zappa and his synth ensemble The Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort.
Words: Daniel Eisenberg
With the death of Pierre Boulez on 5 January, the classical music world has lost its greatest living musician. Born in 1925, Boulez came to prominence as a young man at a moment of revolutionary change in the history of Western art music. With Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Luciano Berio, among others, Boulez led the charge in the battle between innovation and tradition in the years after the end of the Second World War.
Not since Wagner had there been a composer who wrote about music in such radical and exciting terms. Unlike his gentle teacher, Olivier Messiaen, Boulez took no prisoners. There was an extremity in his written and spoken pronouncements in the decades after the war that marked him out as a hardline musical Jacobin (in an interview with Der Spiegel in 1967, he famously said that all opera houses should be burned down). His early insistence on total serialism as the only viable compositional technique and his utter disdain for any music written in a tonal or gradualist style, shocked and offended large swathes of the musical establishment and many never forgave him.
Their revenge was to brand Boulez’s own music as a kind of non-music, as ugly and rebarbative noise. Nothing could be further from the truth. For, though Boulez spoke of revolution, in his own mature music he entered into a complex and sensitive dialogue with the great Modernists, taking sustenance from musical languages as different as those of Webern, Berg, Debussy, Ravel and Bartok. His groundbreaking works of the fifties – Le Marteau Sans Maître and Pli selon Pli – have entered the canon as works of extraordinary delicacy, imagination, intellectual rigour and sheer sensuous beauty of sound.
As a composer, Boulez was an explorer, and after his early serialist phase he experimented with chance and improvisation as generators of structure and narrative, as well as with electronics and other innovative ways of making musical sound. In the early ‘70s, he got French government support to open an institute for the study and exploration of new forms of musical composition. IRCAM (next to the Pompidou Centre in Paris) hosted composers from all over the world, giving them access to the best performing musicians and the most advanced technical and computing resources. At IRCAM, Boulez himself was able to work with the spatialisation and manipulation of sound in real time – for example, in Répons, for six soloists, chamber orchestra and live electronics. (In 1984 he collaborated with Frank Zappa on a recording of Zappa’s work.)
Boulez’s concept of form as maze or labyrinth and of the compositional process as open-ended, fed his innate perfectionism. He was an inveterate reviser of his own work and he composed less over his long career than he might have wished. At the same time, his discovery of an immense talent for conducting took him increasingly away from composition. Nevertheless, it is no exaggeration to say that Boulez was the last of the great composer-conductors of the modern classical tradition, a tradition which began with Berlioz and Mendelssohn and, via Wagner, reached its apogee in the careers of Mahler and Strauss.
In the nature of things, it was Boulez the conductor that most people knew best. His pre-eminence in this field led to a supreme international career, as he took principal conducting positions at the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. His sojourn at the BBC (thanks to the far-sighted intervention of William Glock) constituted a golden age in British music, opening the ears of countless British listeners to musical worlds well beyond their comfort zone.
Boulez’s conducting style was singular. Unusually, he did not use a baton, conducting only with his hands. Such was his authority on the podium that he could command vast forces in huge musical works with an economy of gesture that was spellbinding. To watch him conduct The Rite of Spring or Bluebeard’s Castle or La Mer was to understand the very nature of musical energy. (There’s an incongruous 1968 film of Boulez conducting Debussy’s Jeux, where, dressed in white shirt and wearing shades, he looks like an extra from The Battle of Algiers or a traffic attendant directing the flows around L’Étoile).
Anyone lucky enough to hear Boulez conduct live, will never forget the revelatory nature of the experience. His performances, in an expansive repertoire that stretched from Wagner to Birtwistle, combined structural strength and transparency with breath-taking precision and delicacy. The accuracy of his ear was legendary and he could balance and adjust orchestral sound like no-one else. Whether in the gentlest or the most terrifying music, the effect was of unutterable beauty and power. Otto Klemperer’s verdict in 1973 remained valid until the day Boulez died: ‘he is without doubt the only man of his generation who is an outstanding conductor and musician.’
Rituel / Eclat-Multiples
(CBS, 1983) / Buy
Boulez Conducts Debussy with The New Philharmonia Orchestra
La Mer • L’après-midi D’un Faune • Jeux
(CBS, 1968) / Buy
Boulez Conducts Stravinsky with The Cleveland Orchestra
Le Sacre Du Printemps
(Columbia Masterworks, 1969) / Buy
Boulez Conducts Ravel with The Cleveland Orchestra
Daphnis & Chloé: Suite #2 / Pavane For A Dead Princess / Rapsodie Espagnole / Alborada Del Gracioso
(Columbia Masterworks, 1971) / Buy
Pierre Boulez, Bartok, Tatiana Troyanos, Siegmund Nimsgern & BBC Symphony Orchestra
(CBS Masterworks, 1976) / Buy
Boulez Conducts Varèse with New York Philharmonic
Amériques / Arcana / Ionisation
(Columbia Masterworks, 1977) / Buy
Arnold Schoenberg / Pierre Boulez / Yvonne Minton
(CBS Masterworks, 1978) / Buy
Anton Webern / Pierre Boulez
The Complete Works Of Anton Webern, Vol. 1
(Columbia Masterworks, 1978) / Buy
Photo: Susanne Schapowalow / Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt
Oct172014| October 17, 2014
One of the monolithic names in modern music, it can be a daunting and fairly thankless task trying to apply yourself to the work of John Cage without prior introduction, particularly when many of the best bits are so scarely sighted on vinyl. One such occasion however is The Vinyl Factory’s recent reissue of the landmark electronic music compilation Cybernetic Serendipity Music, and to put this in some kind of context we thought this would be a perfect opportunity to tackle the rest of Cage’s catalogue and asked Chris May to pick out ten essentials for the novice and expert alike.
Words: Chris May
As his contemporaries William S. Burroughs and Jackson Pollock were to writing and painting, so John Cage was to music – part supreme-iconoclast, part futurist. Although he lived before the ascendancy of the digital revolution, Cage (born Los Angeles 1912, died New York 1992) anticipated it. His experiments with electronica and turntablism were decades ahead of their time. His use of chance-determined composition – in which the composer follows decisions made by computer-generated or otherwise-random numbers – set the stage for the algorithm-driven generative music being championed today by Brian Eno. His use of prepared piano, silence, ambient noise, pure noise, loops, symbols-based notation and multi-media was similarly prescient.
Here are ten essential recordings of Cage’s music made between 1942 and 1992. A few are so rare as to be near mythic. You can listen to the selection below in one go or hear them individually on the following pages.
This week is Machine Music Week at The Vinyl Factory. See more content below:
Watch our short film on the story of the ICA’s groundbreaking early electronic music compilation Cybernetic Serendipity Music| October 13, 2014
The Institute of Contemporary Arts & The Vinyl Factory present Cybernetic Serendipity Music, the world’s first compilation of electronic music.
Reissued on vinyl for the first time since it was originally released as part of the ICA’s groundbreaking robotics exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity in 1968, Cybernetic Serendipity Music marks a crucial moment in the development of modern music, as the world stood on the cusp of a synthesizer-led electronic revolution.
The true breaking point between the mechanical, the analogue and the digital, it was the first record of its kind of bring together pioneers in music, science and the arts, with luminaries like John cage and Ianis Xenakis rubbing shoulders with inventor and composer Peter Zinovieff, whose installation in the exhibition presented computer-generated music to the world for the very first time.
In this short film we explore the influence of this landmark release with Peter Zinovief himself, who tells the story alongside contemporary artist and producer Russell Haswell, artist Yuri Pattison and Juliette Desorges, associate curator at the ICA’s new Reading Room exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity: A Documentation.
Cybernetic Serendipity: A Documentation opens on the 14th October and runs until the 30th November at the ICA in London, with the accompanying reissue released by The Vinyl Factory as a limited edition of 500 copies also available from the 14th October. Faithfully re-produced using original artwork and housed in a Garrod & Lofthouse-style sleeve, you can order your copy here.
More from Machine Music Week:
The Vinyl Factory to reissue the ICA’s rare collection of early electronica Cybernetic Serendipity Music| October 3, 2014
John Cage and Iannis Xenakis among contributors to the world’s first survey of experimental electronic and computer-generated music.
The Vinyl Factory are excited to announce the reissue of the ICA’s ground-breaking compilation Cybernetic Serendipity Music, originally released in 1968 to coincide with their exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity, which proved to be a landmark in the history of audio/visual art, and the first exhibition of its kind in the UK devoted to the relationship between music and early computers.
Both unique and extraordinarily influential, Cybernetic Serendipity Music captured a nascent scene on the cusp of a synth-led electronic revolution and was the only compilation of its kind to bring together the musicians, composers and inventors pushing the boundaries of early computer music on one record, a good six years before Kraftwerk’s Autobahn changed modern music for ever.
It documented a frontier spirit where pre-eminent composers John Cage and Iannis Xenakis rubbed shoulders with the likes of Peter Zinovieff, the founder of EMS and inventor of the game-changing VCS3 synthesizer, with music that was either composed by computers or, in Zinovieff’s case, even performed by them.
With only a handful of copies pressed and exclusively available from the ICA at the original exhibition, Cybernetic Serendipity Music has long held holy grail status among collectors and enthusiasts of early electronics, with the original record, on the rare occasions it becomes available, often changing hands for upwards of £150.
Now to mark their forthcoming archival exhibition of Cybernetic Serendipity in the Institute’s Fox Reading Room this autumn, The Vinyl Factory are teaming up with the ICA to reissue Cybernetic Serendipity Music on vinyl for the first time since 1968, faithfully reproducing the artwork – taken from one of Peter Zinovieff’s visual scores – and housed in a Garrod & Lofthouse-style sleeve in an edition of 500 copies.
Click here to pre-order a copy from The Vinyl Factory online shop.
Cybernetic Serendipity: A Documentation will open at the ICA on 14th October and run until 30th November 2014. Click here for more info.
See the full track list below:
Lajaren Hiller and Leonard Isaacson – Illiac Suite (Experiment 6)
John Cage – Cartridge Music (excerpt)
Iannis Xenakis – Strategie (excerpt)
Wilhelm Fucks – Experiment Quatro-Due
J.K. Randall – Mudgett (excerpt)
Gerald Strang – Compusition 3
Haruki Tsuchiya – Bit Music (excerpt)
T.H. O’Beirne – Enneadic Selections
Peter Zinovieff – January Tensions
Herbert Brün – Infraudibles
Oct012014| October 1, 2014
Richard Reed Parry reflects on 20 contemporary classical records that inspired his critically acclaimed debut album, released earlier this year.
A core member of Grammy award-winning rock band Arcade Fire, Parry had a recent change of direction with the release of Music For Heart And Breath – a collection of classical compositions. Not any old classical album mind, there’s a radical concept behind it: the performers wore stethoscopes and played in sync to their heartbeat, their breathing, or the breathing of those around them.
The music of John Cage, Brian Eno and Steve Reich, amongst others, attracted Parry to chance operations but he also was interested in creating music that felt connected to the body, music from within. These two ambitions led to the idea of involving involuntary body movements (like breathing, blinking and heart beats) into the musical process. Much of the music featured in the list that follows encouraged him to create music that presents a duality: performers with expert control meeting an element of chaos. A balance between musical control and intuition.
Watch Parry explain the concept in detail below:
Described by Parry as his “favourite quiet, beautiful, fascinating and compelling listening of the last many years”, these are some of the records that inspired Music For Heart And Breath
We’ve compiled tracks from the records into a playlist so you can listen in one go, but in a few cases tracks were unavailable so you’ll have to get a physical copy to explore those records. You can also listen to the tracks individually as you scroll through the records.
May302014| May 30, 2014
Originally published on FACT.
Words: Joseph Morpurgo
The great electronic albums of the 1970s get plenty of kudos – but what of their predecessors?
Casual accounts of the history of electronic music tend to point back to familiar sources: Suicide’s babble’n’hum; Cluster, Klaus Schulze and the rest of the Krautrock squad; the stygian mulch-music of early Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle; and of course Kraftwerk’s meticulous robot pop. Further back? Well, that’s when things tend to get a little foggy.
Experiments with recorded electronic music actually date back to the 1940s (hell, depending on how you define “electronic music”, they date back to the 1880s). As early as the mid-1950s, predominantly electronic LPs were already being pressed, marketed and sold to the a willing (if slightly confused) public. Half a century down the line, many of these records still sound fantastic. Some are fascinating relics with plenty to say to the contemporary listener; others sound impossibly ahead of their time.
The following rundown is limited to complete artist albums, as opposed to compilations or collections of stand-alone works. As such, important names perhaps more readily associated with the realm of “art music” – Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry and the GRM sect; Edgard Varèse; Iannis Xenakis; James Tenney; Alvin Lucier; Luciano Berio and plenty more – are respectfully put to one side. Similarly, dear quibblers, “electronic” has been broadly taken to refer to albums that put new synthesizer instruments or synthesized tones at their core. By that token, some exceptional albums (Terry Riley’s organ masterpiece A Rainbow In Curved Air; Steve Reich’s Live / Electric Music) are omitted, and rock and pop LPs that flirt with electronics without going the whole hog have also been left out.
Ground rules set – and inevitably occasionally broken – here they are: 15 essentials from electronic music’s Big Bang.
KID BALTAN & TOM DISSEVELT
The Fascinating World of Electronic Music
Some canny YouTube user has tagged a track from The Fascinating World of Electronic Music as “acid house from 1958″, clocking up a quarter of a million views in the process – and, as it happens, they’re not too far off the money.
Kid Baltan is the alias of Dutch artist Dick Raaijmakers, a cultural theorist, musical theatre composer, lecturer and engineer, whose whopping output stretches deep into the 2000s. Tom Dissevelt, meanwhile, started his musical life in big bands and orchestras – a similar situation to first-wave innovators like Raymond Scott, who composed the Looney Tunes music, and various members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Raaijmakers and Dissevelt crossed paths working at Royal Philips Electronics, the Eindhoven-based workshop that would eventually churn out the first cassettes and compact discs. There, the pair started producing speculative electronic pop music, built out of layered oscillator tones and acoustic sound sources. Their labours produced 1957′s ‘Song of the Second Moon’ – a propulsive track based around treated Ondes Martenot noises, and arguably the first electronic pop record ever made.
Baltan and Dissevelt’s music from this period was released in numerous editions and under different guises, but The Fascinating World of Electronic Music is the first release to pull their late 1950s compositions under one roof. The results – giddy, chirruping electronic pieces, arranged like pointillist dot paintings with a keen sense of rhythm – are still killer. Remarkably, much of these were also produced without any sort of keyboard or synth to hand. Raaijmakers’ legacy hasn’t been forgotten – Thurston Moore and Mouse on Mars are among those to have reinterpreted his work.
Herbert Eimert – Einführung (Deutsche Grammophon, 1957)
A passionate proponent of ‘pure’ electronic music, Eimert was the first director of Cologne’s hugely important Studio for Electronic Music. This early 10″ collection of beguiling machine mutterings is sometimes featherlight, often chilling.
Various Artists – Popular Electronics: Early Dutch Electronic Music From Philips Research Laboratories (1956 – 1963) (Basta, 2004)
Gargantuan overview of early material from the Philips Electronics lab, featuring work from Raaijmakers, Dissevelt and Henk Badings.
Perrey-Kingsley – The In Sound From Way Out! (Vanguard, 1966)
Lounge, bossa and yé-yé in The Happening Electronic Style, with added Ondioline. Cue montage of C-3PO pottering down Carnaby St.
An Electric Storm
White Noise were BBC Radiophonic Workshop icon Delia Derbyshire and classical bass player (and Derbyshire’s romantic partner) David Vorhaus, with added input from Derbyshire’s Unit Delta Plus associate Brian Hodgson. Really, though, the main spark behind An Electric Storm was Island Records boss Chris Blackwell, who slung these boffins £3000 to make a chart-friendly record steeped in experimental electronics. The punt paid off, creatively if not commercially – An Electric Storm is the exhilarating sound of experimental talents being given the keys to the city, and proceeding to paint it fifty shades of red.
An Electric Storm is pure Willy Wonka music – rich, maximal psych-pop, full of studio tricks and sleights of hand. Cheery (and sometimes cheesy) pop constructions are interrupted by blasts of horrid interference, or disintegrate entirely without warning. Filtered drum patterns twist, turn and mutate; pretty vocal lines – by Val Shaw and Annie Bird among them – are interrupted by strange industrial clangs (the kitchen sink being tossed in, presumably). Orchestral arrangements turn out to be layered bass parts, variously pitched up and down to resemble violins and cellos. Scorched earth exotica (‘Love Without Sound’), mangled doo-wop (‘Firebird’), and seventh-circle smut (‘My Game Of Loving’) – An Electric Storm is the sound of powerful imaginations going into overdrive.
Joe Meek – I Hear A New World (RPM, 1991)
Recorded in 1959 and covertly circulated ever since, I Hear A New World is one of the great early electronic pop albums – space-age skiffle, swamped in reverb and stretched beyond recognition by Meek’s innovative studio techniques.
Lothar & The Hand People – Presenting…Lothar and the Hand People (Capitol, 1968)
Twangy psych-rockers, fronted by a cheery Theremin called ‘Lothar’ – presumably better behaved than most telly-flinging frontmen of the era. Notable for their early use of the Moog in a psych-rock context.
The United States Of America – The United States Of America (Columbia, 1968)
How many John Cage students does it take to change a lightbulb? God know, but put them in a room with a stack of ring modulators, treated ‘electronic’ drums and a homebuilt Durrett Electronic Music Synthesizer, and they’ll turn out one of the most venturesome rock records of the late 1960s.
Silver Apples is, in sensibility and intent, a straightforward rock record – it just happens to be played on one of the weirdest electronic set-ups imaginable. Inspired by Sun Ra, NY musician Simeon Coxe cadged an oscillator off a friend, and learned his way around it by playing along to Rolling Stones records in his bedroom. Before too long, his garden variety rock’n’roll covers outfit had been transformed into a two man drums’n’oscillators beast, and one of the great cult bands of the era.
Silver Apples’ set-up centred around The Simeon – a gargantuan equipment rig that puts Rick Wakeman’s keyboard encampments to shame. The Simeon featured multiple pre-tuned oscillators routed through a telegraphy key, which Coxe then controlled using his feet, hands and, where required, forehead. Fuzz units, phasers and treated speakers were than bolted on to add character and texture to the sound. It was, by all accounts, a chaotic and haphazard set-up, and one that took many hours to set-up and dismantle.
Recorded in a four-track studio, the band’s debut album is a stunning collection of rickety electronic grooves and hydraulic wheezes – the sound of a steam-train chuffing off into the stars. Given the difficulty of achieving polyphony with an oscillator set-up, the compositions are often harmonically static, giving the record a driving, hypnotic quality. There’s not a bum track on it, and the best – ‘Oscillations’, ‘Lovefingers’, ‘Program’ (one of the first tracks of its kind to sample a radio broadcast) – combine rhythmic swagger with some good old twilight-of-the-Sixties paranoia. Suicide wouldn’t – couldn’t – exist without them.
Fifty Foot Hose – Cauldron (Limelight, 1968)
San Fran outfit with links to the iconic Mills College Tape Music Centre, and another outfit using homebuilt synthesizers within a rock idiom.
Fred Weinberg – The Weinberg Method Of Non-Synthetic Electronic Rock (Anvil, 1968)
Heavy on the synthesizers and spotted with little concrète flourishes, this breezy collection has plenty to recommend it – a cheerier alternative to Silver Apples‘ pulsing intensity.
Ron Geesin – A Raise of Eyebrows (Transatlantic Records, 1967)
Composer/goofball Geesin remains best known for his work on Pink Floyd’s Acid Heart Mother, but this debut solo LP navigates an enjoyable path between electronic tomfoolery, hippy-dippy songwriting and Goons-indebted wackiness.
Prelude Au Sommeil
(Procédé Dormiphone, 1958)
Jean-Jacques Perrey is principally known for his Moog recordings, whether working alone (1968′s The Amazing New Electronic Pop Sound Of Jean-Jacques Perrey) or in collaboration with Gershon Kingsley (1968′s furiously chipper The In Sound From Way Out). A famously colourful character, he’s worked with Walt Disney, been sampled by DJ Premier, and made a version of ‘Flight Of The Bumblebee’ with real bee sounds that everyone should hear at least once. Prior to that, though, Perrey was an early proponent – and arguably the great virtuoso – of the Ondioline, a proto-synthesizer from the 1940s.
Built by George Jenny, the Ondioline was a monophonic vacuum tube keyboard, encased in a plush wooden cabinet. The keyboard was mounted on springs, meaning the keys could be physically wobbled to create a vibrato effect whilst playing. A long metal braid also allowed the player to create limited percussive sounds. What it lacked in portability, it made up for in breadth of expression, with its many filters allowing for a wide variety of sounds; listen carefully, and you’ll hear its deep, wobbling tones in recordings by Blood Sweat and Tears and Kal Winding.
Perrey’s first LP, Prelude au Sommeil, was self-released and followed a stint with the (then massive) singer Charles Trenet. Intended for use in mental hospitals to calm agitated patients, it’s a collection of stately lullabies. The pace is glacial, and the effect is too – huge organ chords that drift like icebergs, catching and refracting the dawn light. Heart-shatteringly lovely, and surely one of the first ever chill-out albums.
Raymond Scott – Soothing Sounds For Baby (Epic, 1962)
Somnolent loop pieces to calm testy bairns, and a fascinating dry run for Scott’s avant la lettre sequencer, the Electronium.
Delia Derbyshire – The Dreams (radio broadcast, 1964)
Freudian fun from the Radiophonic Workshop, with interviewees recollecting night terrors (“I felt as if I was falling forever”) over swampy tape drones.
Jean-Jacques Perrey – Mister Ondioline (Pacific, 1960)
Forgive the deeply terrifying front cover and ever-so-eggy jauntiness – this France-only EP is an important example of early multitracked electronics.
BEAVER & KRAUSE
The Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music
If there’s any indicator of the strange cultural position the electronic album occupied in the late 1960s – somewhere between harbinger of the future and novelty turn – it’s The Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music: an audio manual for the Moog that somehow snuck into the Billboard Top 100 and stayed there for 26 weeks.
As a teenager, the Detroit-born Bernie Krause was a session guitarist for Motown, and played with folk outfit The Weevers. Ohio’s Paul Beaver, meanwhile, was an important early proponent of the the synthesized film score, working on soundtracks for The Munsters and My Favourite Martian. A Scientologist and noted eccentric, he played on records by The Monkees and The Byrds, and set up the Moog patch heard on The Doors’ ‘Strange Days’. The two crossed paths at Oakland’s Mills College, where they established themselves as busy Moog-players-for-hire.
The Nonesuch Guide… is essentially a whistlestop tour of the Moog Series II Synthesizer – an attempt to test and document its various functions. The Moog didn’t have a manual at this stage, so Beaver and Krause were proper journeymen, exploring the instruments’ limits and capabilities. It contains 68 short tracks over four sides – a menagerie of bleeps, wibbles, glides and FX. The record’s also bookended by a stunning original composition, ‘Peace Three’, which is only a kickdrum away from sounding like something on Apollo circa 1992.
Before Beaver’s death in 1974, the pair released a string of albums for Warner – bucolic 1970 LP In A Wild Sanctuary, 1971′s comparatively mystic Gandharva and 1972′s All Good Men. Like Cabaret Voltaire’s Chris Watson, Krause now dedicates himself to recording the sounds of the natural world.
Dick Hyman – Moog – The Electric Eclectics Of Dick Hyman (Command, 1969)
Over a run of albums for Moog, Hyman aimed to “humanize’ and “humorize” electronic music, and these slap-happy compositions tend to tilt towards the latter. Larry Heard enthusiasts will doubly dig ‘The Minotaur’.
Wendy Carlos – Switched-On Bach (Columbia Masterworks, 1968)
The indisputable Daddy of novelty Moog records, initially released, George Eliot-style, under the handle ‘Walter Carlos’. A major unit-shifter, and a three-time winner at the 1968 Grammy Awards.
A million-and-one novelty Moog records
Cf. Marty Gold’s Moog Plays The Beatles, Martin Denny’s Exotic Moog, Rick Powell’s Switched-on Country – and, courtesy of The Zeet Band, the immortal Moogie Woogie.
OTTO LUENING & VLADIMIR USSACHEVSKY
Tape Recorder Music
(Gene Bruck Enterprises Inc., 1955)
Holland had its Philips boffins, the musique concrète crew were clustered around Paris’ GRM, Stockhausen held court at his Electronic Music Studio in Cologne – and American electronic music’s founding home was the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre. Established by composers Milton Babbitt, Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening in Manhattan, the studio was the largest of its kind anywhere in the world – a grant-funded playpen dedicated solely to the potentials of electronically generated music, with the Brobdingnagian RCA Mark II synthesizer as its central jewel.
Ussachevsky was a very early adopter of the tape recorder as musical tool, producing tape works throughout the 1950s. Tape Recorder Music presents a 1952 recording at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, performed with Luening some years before the Music Centre came into being. In contrast to many concrète works of the period, there’s a charming melodic sensibility throughout: the pulsing flute tones of ‘Fantasy In Space’ still sound gorgeous, and the ambient ‘Invention In Twelve Notes’ is instantly transportive. It’s mind-boggling that this music is over 60 years old; Finders Keepers sub-label Cacaphonic have, with typical care and flair, since reissued it.
Karlheinz Stockhausen – Kontakte (Fratelli Fabbri Editori, 1969)
Not an album per se, but sits alongside Varèse’s ‘Poème Électronique’ as one of the most impactful and invigorating electronic recordings of its time.
Vladimir Ussachevsky – Film Music (New World Records, 1990)
Collection of two of Ussachevsky’s 1960s film scores: 1962′s No Exit and 1968′s Line Of Apogee.
Desmond Leslie – Music Of The Future (Musique Concrete, 1960)
Excellent late-1950s concrète experimenter. Once punched Bernard Levin on primetime TV.
THE WOZARD OF IZ
An Electronic Odyssey
West Coast Moog dude Mort Garson was another classical-to-electronics émigré: he studied at the Juilliard and earned his stripes in the 1950s as a session musician and arranger (collaborators included that great master of envelope-pushing electronics, Cliff Richard). His grandest achievement was 1967′s The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds, an important early Moog-meets-rock release for Elektra with contributions from Paul Beaver. Daft as a polka-dotted brush, the album is a conceptual suite centred around the 12 astrological signs – which, amidst psychedelic rock chaff and ponderous spoken word, features some worthwhile electronic interludes.
More fun, however, is the following year’s An Electronic Odyssey – a high-camp retelling of The Wizard Of Oz, credited to The Wozard Of Iz. Dorothy is presented as a pie-eyed peacenik on a journey through the technicolour world of the 1960s counterculture. Highlights include strobing proto-techno cut ‘Leave The Driving To Us’; ‘Never Follow The Yellow-Green Road”s cyborg chorus line; and the eerie soundscape work on ‘Man With The Word’. Top bad trip business, well-suited to Bernard Szajner fans.
More releases would follow in the 1970s, including the brilliant Black Mass – which trades the kookiness of his earlier works for something darker and stranger – and the bottled porno of Music For Sensuous Lovers, released as Z.
Emil Richards – Stones (UNI Records, 1967)
Probably the first rock album to feature a Moog, with added input from – you guessed it – Paul Beaver.
Bruce Haack – The Way-Out Record For Children (Dimension 5, 1968)
Haack’s masterpiece, The Electric Lucifer, wouldn’t arrive until 1970, but this frazzled album for nippers combines electronic experimentation and whimsy to great effect.
Mort Garson – Electronic Hair Pieces (A&M, 1969)
If wig-out wankery isn’t your thing, Garson’s Electronic Hair Pieces – which features pretty electronic covers of songs from the musical Hair – displays a lightness of touch that lifts it out of the novelty ghetto.
Charles Wuorinen – a disciple of Babbitt and Schoenberg – was one of numerous young artists to pass through the doors of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and, in the process, tinker with the RCA Mark II Synthesizer – or, as it was colloquially known, “Victor”. Although the Mark II’s capabilities are the stuff of legend – the story goes that Stravinsky, upon hearing about the instrument’s faculties, got so excited he suffered a heart attack – the actual compositions produced on the album were fairly limited. Wonderful works exist – see Babbit’s man vs. machine piece ‘Philomel’ (1964) – but Time’s Encomium is the release that shows Victor in full, impossible flight.
Time’s Encomium is a milestone album: it won Wuorinen a Pulitzer Prize in 1970, making him the youngest ever recipient of the honour. Recorded on four channels and rooted in serialism, it’s a two-part demonstration of the instrument’s muscle. The 15-minute first half starts gently, all wheezes and whistles, with prickly synth tones tentatively circling each other like leery cats in an alley. The second half has a faster metabolism, full of antsy note runs and tone clusters. Heavily processed using analogue studio techniques, it’s a highly expressive work, with remarkable poise and grace for something that was wrestled out of this.
Wuorinen’s subsequent output has been wide-ranging – an opera version of Brokeback Mountain, some essential percussion compositions (notably 1976′s Percussion Symphony) Time’s Encomium, meanwhile, was later remastered and reissued by John Zorn’s Tzadik imprint.
Richard Maxfield – Electronic Music (Advance Recordings, 1969)
A key figure in the Fluxus movement, Maxfield produced stark works using electronics and tape. Most are yet to see a proper release – and noise scrimmage ‘Pastoral Symphony’ in particular – punch hard.
Andrew Rudin – Tragoedia (Nonesuch, 1968)
Flitting, wittering electronics of some repute. Also on Nonesuch.
(WERGO, 1970) [rec. 1967]
Speaking to The Wire back in 2001, Swedish composer Folke Rabe reminded readers that minimal music could be “an enormously sensual experience”, and that rings true in Was?? – a synthesized drone album that makes you feel like you’re sinking into quicksand.
Rabe was an associate of some of the most important figures of the period, including Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros and La Monte Young. Recorded at the Swedish Radio studios in Stockholm in 1967, Was?? is constructed from layered harmonic sounds, largely made up from electronically generated tones. Rabe has described his methodology as an attempt to “hear into” the sounds, much as a physio might advise a stiff patient to breathe into an intractable muscle. Similarly, Was?? encourages the listener to become attentive to infinitesimal changes in pitch, to respond to the gentlest of inflections; when listening closely, these quiet drones becomes the setting for high drama.
Phill Niblock’s works for trombone are decent points of comparison, but there’s something particularly compelling about Rabe’s rejection of acoustic instruments – a monolithic quality, a sense that these sounds won’t rust or dissipate, but will glower on indefinitely. Trilbies off to Important Records, who put out an excellent reissue last year.
Rune Lindblad – Death Of The Moon And Other Early Work (Pogus, 1989)
Another key Swede, whose diverse 1950s compositions for tapes and instrumentation are collected here.
Salvatore Martirano – L’s GA – Ballad – Octet (Polydor, 1968)
Notable for the noisy, nasty ‘L’s GA for Gassed-Masked Politico,Helium Bomb,and Two Channel Tape’, featuring a narrator reading lines into a gas mask being pumped with helium. Like Was??, this is extreme music, albeit of a very different sort.
Man In Space With Sound
(World’s Fair Record, 1962)
Many electronic music milestones took place at technology fairs – the sort of places where the curious could goggle at outlandish inventions and state-of-the-art fripperies. The Novachord was unveiled at the New York World’s Fair in 1924; the famous Brussels World’s Fair in 1958, meanwhile, gave Edgard Varèse’s earth-shaking ‘Poème Électronique’ to the world.
Art Mineo’s Man In Space With Sounds was designed specifically for the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, where it soundtracked the Bubbleator ride. The Bubbleator was a colossal hydraulic elevator in the shape of a bubble, encased in transparent acrylic glass. Once inside, the surface of the glass would appear to warp and blur, giving the impression of seeing the world through a rainbow-coloured lens. Hawked as a souvenir from the exhibition, Man In Space With Sounds is wonderful document of early 1960s futurism.
For the occasional kitschy voiceover moment, a lot of this music is deeply eerie (and, in the case of ‘Mile-a-Minute’, punishingly discordant). Anyone touched or shaken by Mica Levi’s stunning Under The Skin OST will be similarly affected by opener ‘Welcome To Tomorrow’. It’s elevator music, Jim, but not as we know it.
Harry Revel & Leslie Baxter & Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman – Music Out Of The Moon (Capitol, 1947)
Hugely popular early Theremin album. Fun fact: Neil Armstrong took a copy with him on the Apollo 11 mission.
Paul Tanner – Music For Heavenly Bodies (unofficial release, 1958)
Heavily orchestrated album for electro-Theremin. If chipper exotica is your bag…
Dean Elliott – Zounds! What Sounds! (Capitol, 1962)
Razzle-dazzle big band music, with a liberal smattering of manipulated found sounds. Promises ”celery stalks (the crunchiest), 1001 clocks, bowling pins and many, many more!!”
Silver Apples of the Moon
Morton Subotnick, like Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich and others, attended Oakland’s Mills College – essentially a finishing school for 20th century musical vanguardists. Alongside Ramon Sender, he set up the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1962 – a hipper, more playful alternative to, say, the Columbia-Princeton lab. Subotnick worked across a range of media, putting on immersive theatre events and light shows and collaborating extensively with club/happening Electric Circus.
Silver Apples of the Moon is a significant work – the first extended piece of electronic music directly commissioned by a major label. Written to a 13-month deadline, it was recorded in 1966-7 at NYU on a portable Buchla 100 synth – an instrument Subotnick and the Tape Music Center had helped develop. It’s also essentially the first large-scale ‘classical’ composition premiered not with a performance, but with a physical release – a significant shift of gravity away from a culture of performance towards a culture of playback.
Tailored to fit onto the two sides of a 12″, the results are an involving set of fizz-bang electronics. The first half is strange and mischievous: pinprick tones strafe around the stereo field, and gentle passages are suddenly interrupted by conniptions of electronic noise. The flip is much more forward, based around sequenced synth phrases – still an innovation at the time – over which Subotnick splatters beeps, bleeps and trance stabs with all the finesse of a toddler with a foam hose. Subotnick’s later works – 1970′s Touch and 1971′s Sidewinder in particular – would be more considered, but Silver Apples of the Moon is the one that booted the door in.
Various Artists – Electronic Music (Turnaround, 1966)
First in a commendably adventurous compilation series from classical label Turnaround, featuring material from Ihran Mimaroglu, Andres Lewin-Richter, Tzvi Avni, and Walter (read Wendy) Carlos.
Pauline Oliveros – Reverberations: Tape & Electronic Music 1961-1970 (Important, 2012)
Oliveros’ 1960s LP output is basically non-existent, so Important’s sprawling 12xLP box set is an essential insight into her earliest work.
LOUIS & BEBE BARRON
(Small Planet Records, 1976) [cinema release, 1956]
Forbidden Planet didn’t get an official release during the 1950s – or, indeed, the 1960s – but it’d be churlish not to include the first entirely synthesized commercial film score – and doubly snitty to ignore a work of this quality.
Married couple Louis and Bebe Barron began experimenting with tape manipulation in the 1950s; the story goes that the couple were given a tape recorder and magnetic tape – rare luxuries at the time – as wedding presents. Unlike some of the other lab-coated academes in these pages, they were fully engaged in the counterculture: recording audiobooks with Anaïs Nin, hanging out in Greenwich Village, and working on tape music projects with John Cage, David Tudor, Christian Wolff and others (see their exhaustive/exhausting Williams Mix).
The Barrons secured the Forbidden Planet commission after gatecrashing a party held by the President of MGM and strongarming him into hearing their work. Electronic FX weren’t new, of course – a raft of B-movies or classics like The Day The Earth Stood Still had flirted with the medium – but Forbidden Planet marked a sea (devil) change. Working with oscillators, the Barrons overloaded circuits to try and create new sounds, and experimented with pitch shifting and tape reverse to make odd sounds even odder. Louis built the circuits, while Bebe arranged and organised the results. The OST still chills – a riot of blasts and whooshes, lowing machinery, and enough tremolo to induce labour. Sadly, they’d never had same sort of multiplex commission again.
The BBC Radiophonic Workshop – BBC Radiophonic Music (BBC, 1968)
Louise Huebner – Seduction Through Witchcraft (Warner Bros, 1969)
Occult soliloquies, backed by composition by the Barrons, and inexplicably released on a major label. File with The Flowers of Evil.
(Owl Recordings, 1966)
Many of the artists discussed were constellated around academic hubs or technical labs; in that context, Dockstader was a lone wolf. The Minnesota native started out producing sound for animated films (remember Gerald McBoing-Boing?), then put in time as a sound engineer at Gotham Recording, composing onto magnetic tape. His was a film effects background – one of results rather than high theory, of spirited amateurism rather than clinical process.
Dockstader produced a number of records of “organised sound” in the 1960s: essentials include the coruscating, otherworldly Water Music, and the striking Eight Electronic Pieces. His finest work, though, is 1964′s Quatermass, released on nature recordings label Owl Records. Split into five parts, the 45 minute composition was designed by Dockstader to be “dense, massive, even threatening.” Working for the first time with a three-track tape recorder, Dockstader was able to layer and counterpoint his source material more intricately than ever before. Pulled from a huge library of of source recordings – 300,000 feet of tape’s worth, according to Dockstader – Quatermass is saturnine and occasionally aggressive, with the sort of scope that only Parmegiani’s later De Natura Sonorom would really touch.
Kenneth Gaburo – Music For Voices, Instruments & Electronic Sounds (Nonesuch, 1968)
Gaburo’s work veered all over the shop, and this fine selection of tape works showed he could stand toe-to-toe with Stockhausen when required.
Electronomusic: 9 Images
(RCA Victrola, 1968)
An engineer and producer first, Pfeiffer made his name with comprehensive reissues of work by classical composers like Rachmaninoff and Toscanini. Behind the scenes, he helped implement new stereo, quadraphonic and digital recording techniques for RCA. Electronomusic is his own step into the (admittedly fairly dim) limelight – a self-described “head-in-the-stars-feet-on-the-ground” affair.
Electronomusic is conceived as an attempt at reconciling the wild possibilities of electronic composition with a sense of clear musical purpose. There are some traces of Pierre Schaeffer – ‘After Hours’ layers rattling typewriters and ringing phones into a stern industrial collage – but for the most part, these pieces feel abstract and synthetic. The nine tracks are pitched as “attempts to conjure up images”, and these pieces have a bold, synaesthetic quality: attend to the stippled chimes on ‘Warm-Up, Canon And Peace’; the fluoro loop-di-loops on ‘Drops’; the multicoloured dust-clouds billowing through ‘Take Off’; and, best of all, ‘Forests’, which sounds like it could have been plucked straight off of one of Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s mid-2000s collaborative LPs.
Daphne Oram – Listen, Move And Dance Vol. 1 (His Master’s Voice, 1962)
These drip-drop pieces for infants from the Radiophonic Workshop legend – released sans vocals as the Electronic Sound Patterns EP – still transfix and delight.
Pietro Grossi – Electronic Soundtracks (Cooper, 1966)
Cellist-turned-computer musician Grossi released a clutch of albums in the 1960s and 1970s, and the first – a cerebral, carefully organised, algorithmic affair – explores similar terrain to Pfeiffer.
JOHN CAGE & DAVID TUDOR
Indeterminacy: New Aspect Of Form In Instrumental And Electronic Music
John Cage and David Tudor are both mammoth figures in the development of electronic music: the former for his tape pieces and theoretical insight, the latter for his transition from virtuoso pianist to committed electronic producer and instrument builder. Their collaborations are legion, and Indeterminacy – recorded and released on Folkways in 1959 – is one of the most iconic.
The performance sees Cage read 90 randomly assembled stores, each one lasting one minute, whilst Tudor tinkers with piano and tape in a separate room. Neither performer can hear each other, creating an aleatoric performance in which the two artists become unwitting collaborators. Correspondences or moments of discordance are entirely accidental. Indeterminacy enters our ambit on account of Tudor’s tape manipulations, which use Cage’s 1958 production Fontana Mix as a jump-off point. The results make for a stunning collision of man and machine, the organised and the random.
The piece has had a number of curious afterlives, including a recent run of performances by Stewart Lee. The least authentically “electronic” record on this list, for sure, but one that reflects the diversity of approaches to synthetic or manipulated sound, and an essential point of entry for people new to either party.
For more on the fascinating story of early electronica, watch our short film Pioneers of Sound on the game-changing sound studio the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Sonic Youth and John Zorn percussionist William Winant delivers debut solo suite on deluxe limited vinyl| October 29, 2013
Give the drummer some.
Ghosting across the back catalogue of some of the finest experimental American recordings, percussionist William Winant has finally committed his inimitable brand of feather-light free-jazz improvisation and experimental noise to vinyl in a lavish super heavyweight vinyl release complete with wooden spine.
That said, there’s nothing rigid about Winant’s performance on Five American Percussion Pieces which covers work by Lou Harrison, Michael Byron, Alvin Curran, and James Tenney recorded over the last 37 years and only serves to confirm why his services have been consistently demanded by the likes of Johns Zorn and Cage, Thurston Moore, Mr Bungle and Sonic Youth.
Dovetailing with Zorn’s agile multi-instrumentalism, Winant’s five suite LP moves effortlessly between orchestrated avant-gardism (“Song of Quetzalcoatl”), twinkling new age meditation (“Trackings I”) and acoustic drone (“Having Never Written A Note For Percussion”). While comparisons with the minimalism of Steve Reich and Laraaji are inevitable on the more ambient pieces, “Song of Quetzalcoatl” has a rougher edge not a million miles from Charles Mingus’ Black Saint & the Sinner Lady or Peter Zummo & Arthur Russell’s downtown curiosity Zummo With an X (recently reissued by Optimo Music).
Five American Percussion Pieces has been released by Poon Village on 200g vinyl in a limited edition of just 350 copies. Listen below:
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Registered in England and Wales under no. 04184222.