Friday, 29 July 2016

Iannis Xenakis - Kraanerg (composed 1968, this release 2003)

Been a while since I've posted any Xenakis.  Kraanerg is (as far as I know) his longest composition at 74 minutes, and the only full-scale ballet in his ouevre.  Composed in 1968 for the opening of the Ottawa National Arts Centre, the ballet as performed had no storyline and by most accounts wasn't up to scratch, but Xenakis was clear in the music's inspiration.  The work's Greek name is a portmanteau word of his invention meaning 'energy of youth', with the dramatic sonic landscape taking its cues from the student protests of the time.

A combination of live orchestra and electronically-manipulated orchestra on tape, Kraanerg shifts between the two with increasing amounts of taped material dominating by the end.  The stacatto brass and glissando strings characteristic of Xenakis' orchestral work are very much in evidence - this might be a long and complex work but it is thoroughly engaging.  There's a few different recordings available - I went for this one as a 'best buy' based on reviews.  Might pick up the 80s Australian recording at some point - that one apparently flits even more seamlessly between the live music and taped music, at the slight expense of some sonic clout.

Kraanerg - Col Legno release 2003

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

John Cage - Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1951)

One of John Cage's best-known works, this suite of 20 pieces was composed 1946-48 and first recorded/released in 1951, played by Aremian-American pianist Maro Ajemain.  A friend of the composer, the work is also dedicated to her.

I first heard the Sonatas & Interludes some years ago in a late-90s Naxos recording, which didn't make a huge impression on me for whatever reason.  Picked up the Ajemian recording last year after the release of Aphex Twin's brilliant EP Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt2, which wore its Cage influences on its sleeve to the point of almost sounding like it was directly quoting this work at times.

So its thanks to Richard D. James that I've found myself hooked on the Sonatas & Interludes for Prepard Piano.  The 'Prepared' part involves nuts, bolts, screws and other objects being inserted into the piano as fully directed by Cage in the score, but perfect adherence to the preparation table is not required -  "do it so that it seems right to you" in the composer's words.  Sounding percussive and forthright at some points, soft and meditative at others, these pieces are a perfect fusion of East and West (Indian philosophy being Cage's starting point for shaping the suite).  The unique piano tones are sometimes bell-like, sometimes like a minature gamelan, and always fascinating and beautiful.

Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano

Previously posted at SGTG: Indeterminacy

Monday, 25 July 2016

Moebius-Plank-Neumeier - Zero Set (1983)

Possibly Dieter Moebius' best work of the 80s?  Working again with Conny Plank, who was always so much more than just a producer, Moebius lays down a top-notch selection of synth sequences, then weaves in his customary offbeat, wobbly electronics.  These are then further blurred and smeared by Plank, as are fragments of garbled speech added to the mix at times, and in one instance a lengthy vocal sample of a Sudanese singer.  The late mixing desk wizard's unmistakable touch is all over Zero Set, even in the track titles - all taken directly from the recording console.

But the undisputed star of Zero Set is Guru Guru drummer Mani Neumeier.  A long time friend of Moebius, who'd featured on Harmonia's second album, Neumeier plays live drums throughout, giving this album a unique organic feel in an era taken with the possibilities of drum programming.  Reacting to the rhythm of Moebius' synth sequences, Neumeier subsequently plays across the beat, adding fills and whatever else he feels like.

At its most effective, this combination infects the two fantastic tracks at the album's centre with a jittering funkiness up there with Eno & Byrne's collaborations of the previous couple of years.  When the rhythms wind down in Zero Set's closing minutes, keep listening closely (as I overlooked this on early listens) for the jungle-like ambience.  Then listen to the whole album again, several times.  Utterly essential 80s German electronica.

Zero Set

Friday, 22 July 2016

Gordon Mumma - Electronic Music of Theatre and Public Activity (2005 compi of works 1964-80)

Gordon Mumma (b. 1935) is a fascinating composer whose work has taken in  performances with John Cage and David Tudor, and Sonic Arts Union partnership with Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier and David Behrman.  He's best known for his electronic work, four fine examples of which are compiled here in chronological order.

Megaton For W.S. Burroughs (1964) is one of the two 'theatre' pieces from the CD's title.  A shimmering electronic whine gathers momentum for three minutes or so, then just fades away - when staged, this prologue was played in complete darkness. The track then builds up more subtly, with feedback, electronic pulses and various creaks and clangs not a million miles away from Xenakis' polytopes.  About 14 minutes in, the ominous drone of an approaching bomb squadron enters, followed by echoing snatches of dialogue in clipped, wartime English.  For the finale, Mumma directed that there be "a brief burst of heroic movie music" followed by an eerie epilogue where "in an isolated pool of light, a lone drummer quietly rides his traps".

Conspiracy 8 (1969-70) is an interactive computer piece that Mumma devised at MIT's Artificial Intelligence lab in collaboration with Phd student Stephen Smoliar.  Sounding for the most part like an ancient IBM being unboxed and bolted together from scratch, this piece is interesting but can get a bit dry and spartan over its 18 minutes; much more intersting is Cybersonic Cantilevers (1973).  This condenses down into 19 minutes a day-long installation piece where museum visitors were invited to add sounds of their own choice by bringing tapes of rock music, radio crime drama and suchlike, then control how their contributions were mutated into the overall collage.  All of this is edited suberbly by Mumma to climax in a large piercing drone, before dissolving at the end into a haze of bleeps and hum.

Lastly, Cirqualz (1980) was Mumma's offering to a dance performance where "circus-like music, perhaps a waltz" had been requested at short notice.  Pasted together and then electronically mutated are fragments of Beethoven's Eroica, Richard Strauss' Heldenleben and Bruckner's Fifth Symphony.  It's entertaining enough in a kind of Nurse With Wound-offcut way, but IMO Megaton and Cybersonic Cantilevers are the definite highlights of this disc.

Electronic Music of Theatre and Public Activity

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Judee Sill - Abracadabra: The Asylum Years (2006 compi of 1971-73 releases)

Taking another quick diversion now from business as usual to spotlight one of my favourite singer-songwriters.  This 2CD reissue contains Judee Sill's entire back catalogue, so thought I may as well post it all at once.  Abracadabra also adds some live recordings and fascinating demos/works in progress, making this the only Judee Sill release you'll ever need - an archive set of shelved recordings came out about a decade ago but didn't come near the magic of these two original albums.

Rather than recount the tragic lost-soul story of Judee Sill's life (plagued by addiction which would claim her life at 35), I prefer to just focus on how good her music was.  Both of these albums showcase just how unique her synthesis was of folk, blues and a dash of country with more baroque and hymnal influences from her upbringing singing in church.  Her voice carried both a homely twang and a gossamer beauty - especially when recorded in multiple overdubs on several songs.

Both albums stay in understated ballad mode for the most part, but Sill could turn up the energy too on songs like Jesus Was A Crossmaker (her best-known song, covered by The Hollies) and Soldier of The Heart from the second album, Heart Food.  Heart Food for me has an ever-so-slight edge over the self-titled debut, with slightly more adventurous arrangements (this time all handled by Sill herself), indeed much more adventurous on The Donor, seven minutes of spine-tingling overdubbed chorale.  Also on Heart Food is The Kiss, simply one of the greatest love songs ever written.

Holy breath touching me, like a wind song...

....sweet communion of a kiss

Monday, 18 July 2016

Boris Murashkin - Bio-Energetic Music (composed 1980s, rel. 1991)

A fascinating slab of Russian electroacoustic/choral/prog/krautesque weirdness, this CD should probably by rights be called "This Is Us, O Lord!" after the work that takes up 44 of its 53 minutes; "Bio-energetic Music" is really a genre descriptor, of the composer's own invention.  But anyway, some background (with many, many thanks to Google Translate):

Boris Murashkin was born in Siberia in 1949, and from 1980 worked as a music editor, sound engineer and composer in a film production studio called Novosibirsk Telefilm.  During the 80s he developed what he called "Bio-energetic music", which does sound like some sort of wooly new-age therapeutic proposition, and by all accounts that's what he ended up devoting himself to from about 1993 onwards - there's a couple of 1995 releases out there that don't bode well from their track titles and liner notes - but before that there was this eerie masterpiece.

This Is Us, O Lord! (I also found "It's Us, O Lord!" as an alternate translation, which makes a bit more sense) appears to have been conceived as a film soundtrack. The film, entitled The Transfiguration, is credited (I think) in the CD notes to a director named Yuri Malashkin, and was a 1988 documentary marking the millenial anniversary of The Baptism Of Rus', an event that led to the foundation of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Short of learning Russian and a ton of Cyrillic unicode, I haven't been able find a trace of either film or director online.  The music, however, is more than interesting enough in its own right.

The main sonic backdrop for the work sounds like a cross between the desolate mid-section of Pink Floyd's Echoes and a somewhat less ominous version of Can's Aumgn.  After about ten minutes of this, the first recurring choral fragment is introduced.  Gradually, more incantatory liturgical voices are introduced, along with twanging zither and synth sequences, all echoing around in the ether.  The introduction of an organ and some flutes bring to mind Tangerine Dream's Alpha Centauri, with a hint of Saucerful-era Floyd.  Just after the halfway point there's also a crying baby in the mix, which will come back to haunt us in the final minute, and some bird sounds (assuming the latter are real and not synthesised). 

The second track on the disc, Kama Sutra, sounds at first like a continuation of the main piece, picking up the same flute sounds that have just died away, then the combination of Indian instruments with some electronic burbling make this epilogue sound as if pre-Hosianna Popol Vuh had discovered the sitar early.  All in all, a truly bizarre listening experience not to be missed.

"Это мы, Господи!.."

Friday, 15 July 2016

Egberto Gismonti - Circense (1980)

Last stopoff in Brazil for the moment - although there's a handful of others that I'll scatter into the mix in the weeks/months to come.  This one will appeal to the ECM-ers among you; Egberto Gismonti has appeared on the label on and off since the mid 70s, and most famously worked with Jan Garbarek and Charlie Haden, with a couple of that trio's most famous Gismonti compositions repeated here.  On Circense though, the cross-continental summits of ECM are replaced by an all-Brazillian crack team of great musicians, and a lusher production.

A vague concept album of sorts, in as much as it was intended to a evoke a circus atmosphere that was both universal and also unmistakably Brazillian, Circense kicks off with the dizzying rhythms of Karaté.  Tá Boa, Santa and Equilibrista are equally uptempo, with Gismonti's guitar virtuosity to the fore.  He's also on fine form on Cego Aderaldo, duetting with Indian violinist Lakshminarayana Shankar, a singular ECM artist in the 80s but one who didn't cross paths with Gismonti in that context.  The best tracks here as far as I'm concerned though are the gorgeous ballads Mágico, with its haunting wall of wordless voices and orchestration, and the timeless Palhaço.  The latter is arguably the highlight of the whole album, with saxophonist Mauro Senise doubling the gorgeous melody in place of Garbarek.


Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Tamba 4 - We And The Sea (1968)

For day two of Brazil week, here's the perfect complement to Wave - another of Creed Taylor's A&M productions from the cusp of the CTI era.  If Jobim's masterpiece was a haze of midday heat, the rhythms and melodies of We And The Sea simmer seductively at sunset.

Tamba Trio, later expanded to Tamba 4, centred around pianist Luíz Eça.  Far more than just a jazz pianist or bossanova/ Afro-samba pianist, his stunning style also evoked Gershwin, Debussy and Ravel, and was in fullest flow on the epics that bookend this album. O Morro (The Hill) is a Jobim tune, and leaves the listener breathless from Eça chasing the melody around so effortlessly, even dipping into dissonant modernism but never losing direction across seven exhilarating minutes.

Flautist Bebeto Castilho is the other star here, providing the lead melodic instrument on most of these tracks; he also takes the album's only lead vocal on the languid ballad Moça Flor (Flower Girl).  Other than that, the only vocal tracks on the album are breathy incantations evoking Iemanjá (goddess of the sea) and Ossanha (of storms), performed by the whole group.  Eça adds a dash of organ to the spiritual mystique of Iemanjá, which is probably my favourite track other than the knockout opener.

We And The Sea

Monday, 11 July 2016

Antonio Carlos Jobim - Wave (1967)

Midsummer, and time for my listening habits to take their traditional holiday to Brazil.  I've been fascinated by Brazillian music from (mostly) the 60s and 70s ever since discovering this timeless album at university, and it's led to me discovering several other lifelong favourites ever since.  I had actually planned earlier in the year to spend the whole of July posting Brazillian albums, but on reflection thought that would a bit OTT and out of character for this blog, so it's just going to be one week.

To kick off then, here's possibly the finest, most exquisite example of 60s bossanova, with the legendary Antonio Carlos Jobim pairing up with arranger Claus Ogerman to produce a succinct album of instant classics, topped off with Creed Taylor's production sheen.  Right from the start of the title track, Ogerman's shimmering wall of strings establishes itself like an airport runway heathaze, then languid brass and winds waft in to provide a gentle breeze in the sweltering heat.  Jobim's guitar or piano are always mixed up front to carry these indelible melodies or carry the bossanova rhythms, and everything is securely underpinned by the great jazz bassist Ron Carter.

The perfection of Ogerman's arranging and Taylor's early-CTI production really can't be overstated here - on Antigua for instance, flutes carry the winding melody until Jobim brings in harpsichord for a star guest turn.  The reverb on the latter instrument is just enough to make the otherwise out-of-kilter baroque instrument sparkle like sunlight off the surface of the sea.  Wave is also a well-paced album; if a track like Dialogo starts to lull you into a poolside snooze, Lamento picks up the pace again, and features Jobim's smoky, melancholic voice for the only time on this flawless album.


Friday, 8 July 2016

Keith Jarrett - Hymns/Spheres (1976)

What kind of record label would greenlight a double-LP release of a jazz pianist improvising on an 18th century organ for 90 minutes?  The answer, in 1976 as it would likely still be in 2016, was ECM - and in possibly his most outlandish venture away from the piano, the artist was Keith Jarrett.

If Manfred Eicher considered this behemoth a risk worth taking on double-vinyl, come the 80s he baulked at releasing a much more costly reissue on the new shiny silver discs, and a 40-minute 'highlights' CD was put out instead.  It wasn't until 2013 that a double-CD reissue appeared and reviews offering comparisons to Messiaen, Ligeti and pre-synth Klaus Schulze caught the attention of people like me who read album reviews and think less 'oh, that sounds nice' and more 'challenge accepted'.

So if an hour and a half of organ improvisations sounds remotely appealing to you, I wholeheartedly recommend downloading Hymns/Spheres and turning it up extremely loud.  If you're looking for an overview of this unique experience, head straight to Spheres (2nd Movement), the longest and IMO best track.  Jarrett uses long, droning smears of sound and explores the pre-electric weirdness of the organ stops to full effect (see the sleevenote quoted below), but there's still a melodic logic just under the surface.  More abstract and spacy Movements like 3 and 7 gather darker clouds, the album being well sequenced to ensure there's no drag when going the full distance.  The 'Hymns' are the bookends to the album, and both are stately, gorgeous pieces of cod-baroque; Spheres (5th Movement) is also a good halfway point that is effectively a third 'Hymn', sharing some melodic material with the finale.
"These improvisations were recorded on the "Trinity Organ", the larger of the two Karl Joseph Riepp (1710–1775) organs at the Benedictine Abbey Ottobeuren.

No overdubs, technical ornamentations or additions were utilized, only the pure sound of the organ in the abbey is heard.
Many of the unique effects, although never before used, were accomplished by pulling certain stops part way, while others remain completely open or closed.

Amazingly, baroque organs have always had this capability."
(uncredited sleevenote, presumably by Jarrett or Eicher)

Disc 1
Disc 2

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Syntonic Research Inc. - Environments: Dawn & Dusk at New Hope, PA (1987 compi, rec. '69-'70)

Another series of fascinating recordings that the blogworld introduced me to was the Environments records.  Taped in the field, on the seashore and elsewhere throughout the 1970s, these pioneering environmental recordings were all the work of one man, Irv Teibel, operating under the name Syntonic Reseach Inc.  In the late 80s, Atlantic compiled three CDs from material released on the first three LPs - the seashore one, the bell tones, and this one.

I'd been hunting around for a copy of the New Hope CD for a while - seems to be scarcer these days than the other two CDs - and finally managed to get hold of one a few weeks ago that wasn't going for an insane price.  So here it is - two half-hours of pure natural sound, unchanged for thousands of years, just waiting to be captured in June 1969/August 1970 by Teibel and his trusty 4-track Uher.

From the sleevenotes:
"Dawn at New Hope recreates the aural environment of a beautiful morning in late spring, complete with magpies, owls, crows, doves, woodpeckers, insects and geese.
Dusk at New Hope, recorded [a year and] two months later at the very same spot, contains a superb recording of night insects in stereo syncopation. On the right channel, you have nearby crickets. On the left channel, you have distant mixed insects."
New Hope Pennsylvania faces onto the Delaware River with New Jersey on the other bank - I've never been, but thanks to Google I can now take a virtual stroll around.  Picked a random starting point here - fittingly for both the album and the name of this blog, there's definitely some geese.

Dawn & Dusk at New Hope, PA

Update - couple of links I've been sent:

A really great, detailed website all about Teibel/Environments 

 and a lengthy Pitchfork piece - fascinating reading!

Update Feb. 2018: Environments, the app! 

Monday, 4 July 2016

Maurizio Bianchi - Mectpyo/Blut (1980)

When I first got a taste for the noisier, more avant-garde end of the music-sharing blog world a few years back, mp3 rips of Maurizio Bianchi's tapes seemed like an almost never-ending excavation of decaying ferric oxide and xeroxed/handmade covers.  The grainy sound quality of the ageing cassettes seemed to sit perfectly with the aural contents - grinding, humming and squealing voids of tape loops and electronic noise that Bianchi described (in various obtuse, highbrow liner notes) as symbolic of social, industrial and human decay.

It was for this reason that I avoided picking up any CD reissues of MB's work for so long, wondering if cleaned-up sound might kill the mystique.  When this release was flagged up on my discogs a month ago, however, thought I may as well take a punt - Mectpyo-Blut was the first MB tape that I listened to (and the first he released after some initial experiments under the name Sacher-Pelz), and it's remained a favourite.

Glad to report that Mectpyo-Blut sounds superb on CD; it's still 90 minutes of sheer nihilistic sonic muck, but actually benefits from being given clarity.  Every sequence of tape looping, hand-spun LP samples and saturated electronics shows off Bianchi's skill in overlaying these sound clashes and also never staying in one place for too long, creating an ever-(d)evolving post-apocalyptic landscape to get lost in.  And the final crescendo into outright noise assault has to be heard to be believed.

Disc 1
Disc 2

Friday, 1 July 2016

Grant Green - Green Street (1961)

From Grün to Green.  I've had this 1961 Blue Note session in heavy rotation over the past few weeks - it's got the perfect spring in its step for walking around on weekday lunchtimes soaking up the (strictly rationed) Edinburgh summer sunshine.

Out of all of Grant Green's recordings as leader (and there were many - four albums in 1961 alone) this is the sole guitar-bass-drums trio date, and I think that's why it's the one that's stayed with me.  Green's no-frills technique and melodic sensibility is front-and-centre for the entire album - according to George Benson, that clean, punchy tone is all midrange; Grant favoured turning off the bass and treble dials entirely.

Lots to enjoy here - the most atypical track is a slow, smoky club take on Thelonious Monk's 'Round About Midnight, otherwise the highlights are all bluesy and swinging - not least Grant's Dimensons, where Green's melody and technique are on point throughout, and drummer Dave Bailey keeps a phenomenal groove.

Green Street