Nine Inch Nails – The Definitive NIN

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Nine Inch Nails‘ music has appeared on here on a number of occasions. A couple of years ago, Trent Reznor unofficially released three compilation albums, each exploring a different aspect of his output. The three volumes of Nine Inch Nails: The Definitive NIN are titled The Singles, Deep Cuts and Quiet, and together they comprise an effective “Best Of” collection. These releases have previously only been available as torrents, but as they’ve now been around for a while, download speeds aren’t what they were; so below are links to download all three volumes much faster. All three are exactly as Reznor released them, including full high-resolution artwork and an HTML page with further information; the music is (sadly) in mp3 format, at (even more sadly) 192Kbps, but hey – it’s free. Here are the links, together with a complete tracklisting for each volume. Read more

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Approaching future pop perfection: Freezepop

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2008 seems to be drawing to a close with surprising alacrity, and already i’ve started to see a number of “Best of 2008” articles appearing. Rest assured i’ll be doing my own individual pick of the year’s highlights towards the end of the month. Meanwhile, let’s turn our attention to a group whose last album was one of 2007’s best releases.

Freezepop only came to my attention earlier this year, through an episode of the latest season of The L Word, a show that features a surprisingly eclectic (and high quality) selection of music. Since then, i’ve trawled their back catalogue, and it’s been an interesting experience. To be fair, their earliest output is decidedly hit-and-miss, with emphasis on the latter of those epithets, but—and it’s an important but—nothing really bad afflicts those releases. Their first album, Freezepop Forever, released in 2001, sounds like a fairly typical J-pop offering (a Japanese track title seems to confirm the allusion), a kind of music that achieves popularity principally through downright quirkiness. It also strongly betrays Freezepop’s affiliation with the realm of computer game music; all in all, it’s just too transient and bound-up in stylistic conventions to be terribly engaging. The following year’s Fashion Impression Function is, on balance, even less engaging, but demonstrates the makings of a much more individual sound, smoothly blending electropop trappings old and new, introducing interesting structural variety and bringing new intimacy to Liz Enthusiasm’s vocals. Read more

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Mixtape #8 : Versions

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After far too long a hiatus, here’s a new mixtape, this time exploring some of my favourite cover versions. To be clear, none of these tracks are what i’d call ‘remixes’, which i think of as a separate, quite different discipline; these are good ol’-fashioned covers of some great original songs.

t.A.T.u.’s version of The Smiths‘ “How Soon Is Now?” stands out on their first album, 200Km/h in the Wrong Lane, partly because it’s the only cover version, but more because of how utterly good it is. While i always was a fan of The Smiths, i’d actually far prefer to listen to t.A.T.u.’s rendition of it, their vocals somewhat less restrained than Morrissey’s. “Here’s Where The Story Ends” has been covered by many artists, and i’ve included the most recent, by Tin Tin Out featuring Shelley Nelson. Their version of the song is rather passionless, but this remix of it (the “Canny Remix”) saves the day, a dance version that shows off Nelson’s superb voice admirably. An old classic, “Blue Moon”, is given a fantastic big band treatment by Cybill Shepherd, taken from the soundtrack to the 80s TV series, Moonlighting. Shepherd’s voice is simply astounding, in what is my favourite version of this timeless song. Tori Amos makes several appearances in this mix, simply because she takes a more imaginative approach to her covers than any artist i’ve come across, always presenting the song in a new light, teasing out new connotations from the original. First up is her utterly deconstructed version of 10cc‘s epic ballad, “I’m Not In Love”, taken from her album of covers, Strange Little Girls. All sentimentality has been stripped, the music standing bare and heavy, with a palpable sense of menace; it’s beautiful and gently horrifying all at the same time. Read more

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The Barbican, London: Drifting and Tilting: The Songs of Scott Walker

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Last night, the Beloved and i were fortunate enough to be at the Barbican for the final performance of the three-night-only run of Drifting and Tilting: The Songs of Scott Walker. Devised by Walker himself, the performance comprised eight of his songs—taken, no surprise, from The Drift and Tilt—re-imagined for a visual presentation, the vocals delivered by a variety of singers, including Jarvis Cocker, Dot Allison and Damon Albarn. Booked many months ago, this is one of the most anticipated events i’ve ever attended, although i’ll confess i was uncertain of how successfully other singers would be able to bring off Walker’s utterly unique creations. As usual for me, the days leading up to it were filled with Walker’s music, especially Tilt and The Drift, which only fuelled my excitement.

Before the evening performance, the Barbican had sensibly programmed Stephen Kijak’s documentary about Walker’s career, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. i’d not seen the film before, and found it totally enthralling, even more so considering—to my surprise—how much Scott Walker himself discusses his output, in addition to the fascinating glimpses into the production of The Drift, including a remarkable scene where a percussionist repeatedly thwacks a side of meat, urged on by Walker from the mixing desk. It also set the scene for the show to follow, including contributions from many of the singers taking part. Read more

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Gently ruinous yet strangely static: Implex Grace – Through Luminescent Passages II

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Another netlabel churning out the good stuff is Distance Recordings; in fact, the stuff is so good it’s a shame they haven’t released anything in a physical format; perhaps, in time they will. Distance’s first release was Through Luminescent Passages I, discussed on here back in July, created by a relative newcomer on the ambient noise scene, Implex Grace, a.k.a. Michael Perry Goodman. In that post, i explored the contrast presented by that album and its successor, the astonishing The Black Tapes EP; at the time, i didn’t really hear Black Tapes as a progression from TLP I, but rather as two parallel releases stemming from the same, highly turbulent, creative source. With the release earlier this week of the second Through Luminescent Passages installment, things have become very much clearer.

The opening track, “Sunrise Over Paradise”, instantly reveals its source material (a song from the early ’80s, but i won’t spoil it for those who don’t know which), and i quickly found myself wishing that Goodman had covered his tracks a little better, as the rest of his music keeps the originals happily anonymous. The gradually increasing sense of disintegration seems at odds with the title, more akin to a sunset than sunrise; not the only occasion when i’ve found myself puzzled at the relationship between the music and its title. It’s followed by “Archive Of Truths”, more lengthy but not really exploring a more interesting idea; this opening pair comes across as a largely inconsequential couple of tracks, sketches rather than fully-realised ideas.

The first track to show real promise is the initially resonant and bell-like “The Prophecy -or- The Paradigm”. It soon yields to a vast, buzzing morass, at the heart of which repeats a sombre, descending phrase, tolling like deep, funereal gongs. While very simple, the effect is utterly hypnotic, creating an aural environment that pulls the listener into its midst and holds one there, encouched in an overwhelming outpouring of sound. It is a superb synthesis of the more ambient soundscapes from TLP I with the abrasive onslaught of Black Tapes, in the process clarifying both those earlier releases. Read more

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Heavy radiance: Tu M’ – Is That You?

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Netlabels are a curious phenomenon. On the one hand, they’re rather like havens for creatives to inhabit, artistic agglomerations producing wildly (un)predictable output; on the other, their surprising dedication to giving music away free of charge seems to have abandoned any hope of remuneration for creative endeavour. It’s hard to see them as the future; for now, at least, they’re fascinating and very useful; a gift horse into the mouth of which i have no intention of looking. Some netlabels have made the mistake of becoming stylistically typecast (e.g. one – and a feeble style at that), while others seemingly vanish overnight (the most recent being Nikita Golyshev’s excellent Musica Excentrica, that one can only hope returns soon). The best, however, chart an altogether less predictable path through territory that is often radical and challenging. Crónica is one of my favourites, a netlabel combining physical and digital releases, some of which are free, alongside some curious accompanying paraphernalia (or, if you prefer, art) and interesting podcasts.

It was Crónica that introduced me to the Italian multimedia duo Tu M’ who, early this year, released a free EP entitled Is That You?, which quickly became—and remains—one of my favourite releases of 2008. It comprises three tracks, one for each word of that title, exploring markedly different sonic environments. The laptop—rapidly becoming (at least, ostensibly) a sine qua non for the budding composer—is the instrument of choice for Tu M’, but this is very far from obvious in the opening track, “Is”. It’s an organic, woody composition, with clarinets and marimba pervading most clearly through the warm fog that drifts stodgily for its 5-minute duration. Tu M’ have struck a critical balance here; the sounds are obviously treated and manipulated, but at no point lose that essential quality that betrays a raw acoustic origin. It’s beautiful and tragic, a dirge-like procession that is as moving as it is striking. Read more

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Quixotic risks: Deerhoof – Offend Maggie

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The week before last saw the release of Deerhoof’s new album, Offend Maggie. After the undiluted artistry and infectiousness of 2007’s Friend Opportunity, this was a definite highlight in the calendar, made all the more tantalising by the performance of half of the songs at their concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park back in July. i have to confess that the first listening was a real disappointment, and i feel sure this is because i was quietly hoping for “Friend Opportunity II”. From the outset, there’s a much more stripped away approach, which gives the songs a delicate, less rich texture than those of its predecessor. The opener, ‘The Tears and Music of Love’, for example, sounds for a while at least as though it could have been recorded in a garage, its drums sounding tinny, lacking weight. Although it develops into something more solid, this initially came as something of a shock, even more so when it leads into the light and playful—but very straightforward, even conventional—rhythms and structure of ‘Chandelier Searchlight’. All very catchy, but not the all-enthralling encounter i was anticipating.

It’s not until ‘Buck and Judy’ that they present something approximating familiar Deerhoof territory, piquant whiffs of distortion permeating its laidback rock trappings. The balance of elements is superb, as is the control over the song’s unfolding, which is given a certain leeway to meander, especially two-thirds of the way through; this kind of elastic structure is one of Deerhoof’s most interesting traits. Delicacy is laid aside in ‘Snoopy Waves’, which is dense to the point of being heady; a snippet of lyrics floating in an intoxicating blend of buzzing bass and cutting guitar motifs. It’s not surprising they don’t pursue instrumental tracks more often, as Satomi Matsuzaki’s vocals have become so indispensable a part of Deerhoof’s signature sound, but tracks like this one hint at how interesting these would be, far more so than the majority of today’s dull instrumental post-rock offerings. Read more

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Ancient and modern: Unsuk Chin – Violin Concerto, Miroirs des temps; Chris Dench – Passing bells: night

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i’ve been a fan of Unsuk Chin‘s music ever since she returned to instrumental writing in the early ’90s with Akrostichon-Wortspiel. Her Violin Concerto is awash with invention; all the talk of open strings is simply an opening gambit, from where it departs into vivid and distinctly unfamiliar territory. Often, the use of open strings is redolent of Berg’s concerto, but it’s unfair to latch onto that association, as Chin really does operate in a world apart. It’s much more akin to Ligeti’s concerto, and Chin has acknowledged this, referring to her piece as an ‘answer’ to Ligeti’s. She’s also spoken of a desire to avoid a conventional orchestral sound through the introduction of ununusal instruments; the final movement of the concerto features steel drums, which inject a fittingly exotic and unconventional twist to the work as a whole.

Miroirs des temps, with dense multi-part crab canons, is a compositional tour-de-force, but also rather strange. Composed for four solo voices (ATTB) and orchestra, it doesn’t begin in the most auspicious way, the singers sounding, frankly, drab against the gentle interest of the orchestra; and when it then lurches into pastiche, i admit i had to restrain myself from stopping listening. It broadens into more interesting areas, though, as it approaches its middle; the fourth movement, dark and indistinct, is especially exciting. But, of course, this is a “mirror of time”, and so the less interesting faux Machaut and drabness return as the work progresses; not her finest work, by any means, but equally not without some very special moments—it’s just a shame that they are only moments. Read more

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A moving aria for a vanishing style of mind: Scott Walker – The Drift

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i avoid superlatives whenever possible. If people ask me (and they do, surprisingly often) to name a favourite composer or artist or album, i invariably either deflect the question away—”i don’t really have one…”—or reflect it back at them—”i’m not sure; how about you…?”). For the most part, the best one can hope to come up with, á la Paul Morley, is a list of favourites that is true at that moment, but would be different, perhaps entirely so (but no less true), at any other time. (Morley writes about this, and many other wonderful things, in his book Words and Music, which right now i might describe as the most brilliant book about music ever written, but tomorrow, who knows…?). Hence my aversion to superlatives, and their transient—and, in any case, subjective—character. Sometimes, though, one encounters something so incredible, so marvellous, so utterly different from anything else hitherto encountered, that superlatives become the only meaningful way to express anything remotely accurate. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t happen often, despite the large amount of music to which i listen, and so when it does, it’s a real shock, a gorgeous surprise, an ineffable thrill, a rapturous provocation of everything from confusion and disbelief to gasps and tears. And as i say, when the stun and stammering have passed, one is left reaching for the acmes of language. Read more

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Live in Prospect Park: Metropolis Ensemble and Deerhoof

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i’m surprised there’s not more comment on the web about the recent concert given jointly by the Metropolis Ensemble and Deerhoof, which took place in July in Brooklyn as part of the Wordless Music series. This had been hyped up a fair bit beforehand, partly because it was bringing together two groups who have a very modern outlook, but mostly because it featured a new take on The Rite of Spring. WNYC broadcast the entire concert online; surprisingly, no-one seems to have recorded it, so links to my own recording are below. Also, some excellent photos from the concert can be seen at WNYC’s Flickr page. Now, to the music…

Metropolis Ensemble’s hour-long half of the concert began with Two-Part Belief by composer Ricardo Romaneiro, for soprano and electronics. From a gently flamboyant opening, there’s an interesting initial interplay between the electronics and the powerful melodic line, delivered superbly by soprano Hila Plitmann, who is at times required to soar extremely high. The relationship quickly becomes unclear, however, and at times the electronics seem hell-bent on undermining the soprano line, which surely isn’t the intention. At best, the electronics create an evocative, shifting backdrop for the soloist, although this is often disrupted by its gestural quality. Overall, there’s something rather primitive about the electronics’ contribution in this piece; the composer’s enthusiasm is perfectly evident (and this does, actually, go some way to covering some—not a multitude—of his sins), as is his enjoyment of the sounds he’s creating; what’s lacking is real imagination. The brass make strangely occasional contributions, and it’s a huge shame they weren’t involved throughout, as the texture at these moments is truly exciting and gives a hint of what might have been. Read more

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Respectable anarchy: Operator Please

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Ok, let’s get things going again with a band i’ve been meaning to write about for a long while. i’m assuming Operator Please will be well-known to many, but i’m not sure that would have been the case, say, 9 months ago, as their profile seems to have increased significantly this year. Teenage rock bands don’t exactly have an illustrious lineage, but Operator Please—perhaps due to being Australian, which often seems to inject something ‘quirky’ (i.e. non-British) into the mix—stands apart from the posturing, arrogance and emotional tedium that drench and encapsulate the usual adolescent twaddle. It’s not just their antipodean credential though; the band is an interesting mixture, including a violinist, which has helped to cultivate an individual sound. There’s a certain amount of confusion that surrounds their releases, due to differences between Australian and British versions; this has been compounded by the very peculiar way these releases have been made available on the iTunes Store. Read more

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Fermata

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Tomorrow, the Beloved and i set off for a little over 2 weeks’ exploration of “Na h-Eileanan Siar”: the Western Isles, beginning on Skye and then gradually moving beyond into the Outer Hebrides. Therefore, a short hiatus here on 5:4; enjoy the silence.

James MacMillan – String Quartet No. 3 (World Première)

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James MacMillan‘s most recent work, the String Quartet No. 3, was premièred a couple of months ago by the Takacs Quartet on 21 May, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. i don’t know either of MacMillan’s previous two quartets, but this new addition is a fairly ambitious work. MacMillan spoke in his preliminary discussion (illustrated with examples by the Takacs) of the melodic, cantabile quality of the material, and this is highly evident throughout, especially in the lyrical first movement, the principal theme of which has a distinct Jewish flavour. Strange, disjunct gestures begin the second movement, ominous and disquieted. From them, melodic fragments appear, many of them cast from a similarly disquieted mould: the viola embarks on a short restless journey, buzzing like an angry bee; later all four combine to sound like a heavily wheezing concertina. On a couple of occasions, dance figurations try to assert themselves, only to be thrust brusquely back into the maelstrom and promptly dissipated; the movement ends much as it began, one of MacMillan’s most fascinatingly strange creations. The lyricism returns for the final movement, which is the most conservative and familiar of the three. It is all melody, led powerfully by the first violin, charting a trajectory into the most achingly high regions of its E string, its three companions forming a supportive trio at its base. At the summit, it repeats plaintively, and everything turns harmonic, fading into transparency.

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Mixtape #7 : Ambient

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To conclude the little series of posts about the “ambient tradition”, here’s a new mixtape devoted to this special genre. It’s the hardest mix i’ve made so far; the temptation was, perhaps, never to stop, to create a compilation that could play into infinity—which is, after all, the point towards which the best ambient music inexorably tends. Some of the composers i’ve written about are included, but not all; the music of neither Steve Roden nor John Hudak lends itself well to this kind of mix, best heard in their own, very particular, contexts. Therefore, some additional names surface here, about whom i’ve hitherto been silent, but no less excited. Read more

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The ambient tradition: Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto – cross-cultural peace and quiet

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Having spent the last four days absorbed in the monastic pattern of life at Burford Priory, i’ve returned home with, among other things, my senses both heightened and sensitised. i’ve needed somewhat gentle stimuli, and so it seems perfect timing to return to my ambient musings, focusing on the the collaborations between Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto. While i know little of Sakamoto’s work beyond these releases, i’m something of a fan of Carsten Nicolai’s work in the guise of Alva Noto; expect a post about his music as and when. Apparently, the nature of the collaboration was rather like that of The Postal Service, the two composers working independently, sending material back and forth, each modifying it further, until both felt that the music was ready. In a way, the polarisation is extreme; Sakamoto confines himself to the piano, around and through which Noto weaves his electronic blips, glitches and patterns. “Weaves” seems entirely the right word; there’s a palpable sense that this music is like an expertly-woven fabric, and this in itself is revealing; so many times have i heard the argument that electronic sounds cannot be integrated properly with acoustic instruments, an argument that seems disproved by the resultant textures of this collaboration. Admittedly, the material is simple and restrained, often to the point of appearing austere (no surprise that i’m drawn back to this music after spending time in a monastery!), and this may account for the success of the blending. Read more

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The ambient tradition: black on black – Lustmord and the dark side of ambient

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At its best, ambient descries a vista that is vast in scope, epic in scale, often ablaze with light. However, light presupposes darkness (check Genesis if you don’t believe me) and likewise all landscapes have their shadows. From the deepest of them (perhaps their very source), comes the voice of Brian “Lustmord” Williams, ascending like a black, primordial plume. If dark ambient can be said to originate with anyone, Lustmord must be one of the prime contenders. But “dark” in more than just the most obvious, superficial sense; from his earliest experimental releases, Lustmord has unswervingly focused his attention on the blacker regions of existence and experience. Titles such as Paradise Disowned, Heresy, The Place Where The Black Stars Hang and The Monstrous Soul are poetic and wildly evocative, conjuring up worlds that are no less infinite, but of a very different hue. This is mirrored in the sources of his material, emanating from crypts to caves to slaughterhouses, from deep within a shelter to deep beneath the sea; in the preparation for his canvasses, Lustmord goes to remarkable and highly symbolic lengths to acquire his pigments. It has to be said, though, that Lustmord’s dark ambient associations occasionally lead him in an unhelpful direction. Akin to the teenage goth, some of his works sound almost like a parody, their darkness taken to ludicrous extremes, in the process losing all semblance of seriousness and intensity. The most glaring example of this is the relatively recent Rising, a document to Lustmord’s performance at a Church of Satan event in 2006. Both this album and its successor, Juggernaut, suggest an unfortunate development, the music sounding like it is trying rather too hard to affect an air of menace. His earlier creations are far more natural and more genuinely unsettling, their textures effortlessly blending in an aural equivalent of the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt. Like Reinhardt, one can skim the surface of the work, allowing its essential tone to envelop the senses; or one can examine more closely, and find layers that at first seemed impenetrably hidden—another example of the dual properties of the “ambient tradition”. Read more

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The ambient tradition: Implex Grace – a searing demonstration of ambient noise

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i said before that there’s more to ambient than washes of sound, but of course this kind of texture is, for better or (more often) worse, very closely associated with it. Thankfully, having spent too many years trapped in the saccharine world of (God help us) “chillout” music, ambient’s potential for drift has grown up into something very much more mature and meaningful. In no small part, it has been affected by what some might regard as its nemesis: noise. It might be fairer to call the constructions found in noise walls of sound rather than washes, but these two extremes have been drawn together to forge something utterly new. i suspect, like most ostensible “opposites”, they’ve had more in common than was immediately apparent; both noise and ambient tend to place emphasis on broad gestures within long durational expanses; both tend to occupy dynamic extremes; and, of course, like any extreme, both have fallen prey to the moronic mumblings of the talentless who have purloined the style in the hope it might bestow upon them the illusion of something approximating ability. As a texture, noise is unavoidable, so for it to lend anything of value to ambient, it is going to need to be softened and tenderised, in order to retain some semblance of Brian Eno’s “ignorability” (the inability of the listener to “ignore” noise (in Eno’s sense of the word), perhaps explains why poor music in that genre is so incredibly irritating, whereas poor ambient is a mild irritation at best).

An interesting blend of these worlds can be heard in the music of Michael Perry Goodman, otherwise known as Implex Grace. He caught my attention a couple of months back when his self-styled “debut release”, Through Luminescent Passages I, became available as a free download. i say “self-styled”, because in truth there’s been a number of minor self-releases dating back to 2004 (they can all be streamed via the vibr website; link below); nonetheless, this album is his most ambitious release to date, worthy of being regarded as his “Opus 1”. Even before listening, the track titles are highly suggestive: “Gorgeous Pale Light”, “Starlight: A Distant Shimmering Particle”, “Beyond The Cosmic Gates”; nonetheless, many are the composers who have made astronomical connections to their work, only for it to fail entirely to live up to such a lofty association; vivid titles like these are best approached with caution. But it’s immediately clear that Implex Grace is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill composer. and it’s clear too that the radiance alluded to in those titles is not merely present, but omnipresent, permeating—no, saturating—the music with incandescence, often composed in roughly equal parts of ambience and noise. “Twilight: Diamond In The Sky” is an exercise in simplicity: a delicate fragment of material (the “diamond”?) is placed within a soft harmonic bath (the “sky”?), wherein it loops merrily away, glitching here and there; it’s as though we’re watching it slowly draw nearer to us, allowed a few precious moments of closeness, before it passes us back into the beyond. “Gorgeous Pale Light” is a tough title to live up to, but the music succeeds, presenting a sonic landscape that feels by turns autumnal and/or suffused with rain (a different kind of saturation). Even longer than the first track, it opens up the scope of the album, widening the horizons still further; it’s an epic pronouncement, almost a statement of intent. Read more

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The ambient tradition: John Hudak and the infinitesimal writ large

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In general, composers of ambient – no doubt due to the fact that as well as being “interesting” it should also be “ignorable” – tend to fashion their music at the quieter end of the dynamic continuum. And in the farthest reaches of the quiet, his music looking at the natural world as through a microscope, is John Hudak. His name has become synonymous with an extreme form of microsound, exploring the the gentle repetitions of noises that either bypass our attention or – even more remarkably – exist beneath the threshold of human hearing. In his own words, his work “focuses on the rhythms and melodies that exist in our daily aural environments. These sounds usually remain hidden, as we tend to overlook their musical qualities; or, their musical qualities are obscured through mixture with other sounds”. Hudak subjects his field recordings of these unheard sources to digital manipulation, resulting in finely honed sonic vistas that are familiar and organic, yet achingly strange.

All of his works are breathtaking, and one could write for hours about any of them; his imagination – both in terms of the origins of his material, and also what he then does with those sounds – is simply astonishing. Even before one actually hears the music, just a cursory amount of research into what one is about to hear results in a breathless, tantalising excitement about the very ideas themselves. Take Pond, for example, where microphones are placed in – of course – a pond, and the piece explores the miniscule noises of underwater insects. The result is utterly unworldly, truly alien, like muted crotales delicately ringing within a claustrophobic soup. Pond lasts just over an hour, and at first i confess i felt this was too long; but having spent longer with his work, and coming to understand its place within what i have called the “ambient tradition”, i no longer feel this reservation. Even more astounding is his collaboration with Stephen Mathieu, Pieces of Winter. Surely among the quietest pieces ever created (positively defining microsound), Hudak’s contributions originate in a contact microphone encased in snow that has solidified overnight into ice, which then records the infinitesimal sounds of snowflakes landing on the frozen surface. Who else would even think of an idea like that?! While Mathieu’s contributions (both the sources and what he does with them) are more recognisable and tangible, Hudak’s are once again entirely unlike anything else; the opening track, “01”, sounds relatively naturalistic – a wonderfully enclosed sensation (made better still through headphones) – while “Winter Garden” is a more impressionistic take; in a manner similar to Pond, the minute impacts are now writ large, resembling sharp but delicate collisions of glass bells. Read more

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The ambient tradition: Steve Roden and the world of lowercase

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If dance was the first style of music to make deep impressions on my formative mind, hot on its heels was ambient. By pure serendipity, in my early teens i stumbled on a book (the title and author of which i wish i could remember – it’s probably still lurking in Cheltenham’s music library to this day) that both discussed the genre (this was the mid-80s, so it was still relatively new – at least, the term “ambient” was) and also detailed the best artists and recordings. The elaboration of the conceptual ideas behind the music fascinated me, and ignited my interest in ambient, as well as numerous other aspects of avant-garde and contemporary music. i still find Brian Eno‘s guiding principal for “ambient music” to be extremely useful; in the notes for his seminal Music for Airports, he pronounced that “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting”. In other words, being “ignorable” and “interesting” are equal and opposite forces within the music (Newton would be proud). Therefore, it stands to reason that music that is “ignorable” but not sufficiently “interesting” is not really ambient music – at least, not good ambient music. and the opposite is true too: if it’s so fascinating that you can’t (if the mood takes you) “tune out” to it, then it fails in precisely the same way. It’s a difficult, delicate combination of qualities, demonstrating how much depth and complexity is contained in Eno’s ostensibly simple words. Unfortunately, neither depth nor quality are found in the majority of music that is released these days claiming to be “ambient”, and the same goes for its tenebral sister “dark ambient” and its recalcitrant cousin “shoegaze”. i suspect that the genre strikes more creatively-challenged people as being ‘easier’ to create than some others, since it may appear that not very much needs to happen over quite a long time period. This is erroneous, and results in extremely boring music that lacks any hint of the “interesting” part of the balance. (Indeed, it could be argued that the best ambient music is capable of being “ignorable” precisely because one is aware that is has an “interesting” component present too, and vice versa, but that’s another discussion for another day). There is, however, some excellent music being created at the moment that i feel wholeheartedly upholds what we might call the “ambient tradition”, and i’d like to spend my next few posts exploring some noteworthy examples.

There’s a lot more to ambient than the clichéd, cheese-laden washes of sound that one hears so frequently. Of course, Eno’s Music for Airports at times uses textures like these, as does Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II – but in ways that are subtle, surprisingly complex and, of course, not exclusively. These two albums are valuable as ambient paradigms precisely because of what they do, not how they do it. Both entirely fulfil Eno’s dictum, capable of being ignored (i.e. not actively listened to, but nonetheless aware of) or interesting in equal measure, but there’s no reason why ambient music must sound like that. One of the most successful artists to demonstrate this understanding is Steve Roden. Roden is a Los Angeles sound artist, whose work is often described as (a term he invented – and a term i adore) “lowercase”. Something of an extreme example of ambient, much lowercase music occupies the “microsound” end of the dynamic spectrum. Ambient music invariably affects the way in which one perceives time passing; often, the impression is that time is moving more swiftly than usual, the sparse events seemingly expanding to fill a large durational space. In Roden’s music, however, the reverse is the case; time seems to slow to the pace of an anæsthetised snail, its material becoming ostensibly compressed, crammed into an apparently smaller duration. Read more

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David Briggs – Symphony in Four Movements

Posted on by 5:4 in Miscellaneous | Leave a comment

A former Director of Music of Gloucester Cathedral, David Briggs has made something of a name for himself as a creator of large-scale improvisations. From a compositional standpoint, they’re generally contrived and unoriginal; Briggs – like fellow organist Wayne Marshall – has a penchant for creating music in the styles of others, rather than forging an individual style of his own. Also like Marshall, his musical personality tends toward the extravagant, but while in Marshall’s playing the results are reckless and repulsively showy, Briggs manages to focus this quality, bringing a breathless exuberance to his performances. Most remarkable of all, though, is his technique with the instrument, which is simply amazing. Read more

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