Scandanavian sounds, part 1: Biosphere

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Music emanating from the Scandanavian countries is always interesting, and often unusual. Once upon a yesteryear, it was all Abba (70s), A-ha (80s) and Aqua (90s), but they’re probably as glad as we are that that’s ancient history, and the sounds of 21st century Scandinavia are altogether more absorbing. The best of these sounds is as remote as their geography, a remoteness often palpably audible in the music. Perhaps the finest example is Biosphere, a Norwegian who is held by many (including me) to be an important figure in that most mine-ridden of fields, ambient music. While the comparisons to Eno are irritating, they do at least point to the significance that Biosphere’s music possesses. His early work is very interesting, revealing a cold (temperature, not emotion), distant quality, evocative of the north arctic clime where he resides. In fact, his work – which frequently incorporates field recordings (particularly the wind) of the sounds from that area – is often referred to as “polar ambient”. This was the main feature of one of his collaborations with the UK’s Higher Intelligence Agency, entitled Polar Sequences (the other collaboration, Birmingham Frequencies is the opposite, exploring more urban sounds). The turning point, though, is his album from the following year, Substrata – and it was, literally, a turning point, beats rejected completely, allowing the slowly-evolving soundscapes to become the altar rather than the reredos. and this is why the Eno-esque claims are annoying; ambient (from one perspective) may have evolved from Satie’s “Furniture music”, but it is capable of, and indeed has become, very much more than that. Arguably, the mere term “ambient” (as we’ve seen before) is somewhat unhelpful here, “polar” or otherwise. Biosphere’s work needs to be listened to, not merely allowed to float around the room while we “chill out”. There’s a lot going on here, and most of it defies words.

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The (very welcome) shock of the new: Autechre – Quaristice

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The closest i’ve come to a solitary road trip was last year, when i drove from the cosy shelter of the Cotswolds to the exposed shelf of the east coast. Knowing that, even if i treated the speed limit with my usual agnosticism, the drive would still take at least four hours, preparation was needed in terms of music for the journey. i’ve often noticed how the music one takes on any kind of trip or trek becomes etched into the experience, as an integral part of the memories. On this occasion, i opted for a single artist: Autechre. For once, i brought nothing else for contrast, so depending on your perspective, setting off with only Amber, Draft 7.30, LP5 and Untilted for company was either foolhardy and masochistic or courageous and exciting. Actually, i think it was all of those; and it was wonderful, consolidating my love for their work.

Their new album, Quaristice (released on 3 March, but made available on bleep.com a couple of days ago), achieves the remarkable feat of sounding at once familiar and yet also alien and strange. i admit to having read the review in the latest The Wire, but – like most reviewers these days – little was given away, so i felt pleasantly able to throw myself in at the deep end. My most immediate reaction, as one track passed to the next, was of disorientation; gone are the lengthy pieces from Untilted that evolve and judder into new contortions and patterns, replaced here with a kaleidoscope of short studies that seem to capture their essence in a less expansive, but perhaps more concentrated way (stat alert: Untilted: 8 tracks, average length 8:43; Quaristice: 20 tracks, average length 3:40). If anything, this accentuates one of their strongest attributes: the ability to surprise. There’s the impression that these are mere sound “glimpses”, yet the familiar sense of evolution persists. What is most new here are the soft-edged washes of sound that appear almost nonchalantly amidst all of the bleeps and glitches. Nothing like this has featured in their work since their earliest releases (such as “Aut Riche” on Incunabula and “Nine” on Amber), but there’s not even a trace of the banal ambient electronica sound-world; this is “grown up” ambient, of a kind Richard James would be proud. Read more

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The shock of the old

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In the summer of 2001, during an 11-day tramp around Iceland, the Beloved and i took a chance and attended a baritone recital, given at the church in Egilsstaðir. It was a strange and beautiful experience; he chatted a fair bit between each song, and we did our best to laugh in the right places and look like we could make any sense of what he was saying. Not surprisingly, while the music drew us in, we nonetheless felt somewhat distanced from what was going on. But that changed, suddenly, towards the end of the recital, as he began to sing, in English, “Danny Boy”. Having heard nothing but Icelandic, Italian and German for the last hour or so, and then to be confronted with our own language, singing this amazingly lovely song – and he sang it extraordinarily beautifully – was a real jolt to the system, and by the end i had tears streaming down my face. It’s very powerful to be struck like that, and it highlighted for me how remarkable and important it can be to find something familiar amidst things obscure; and yet also, how possible it is that the familiar can still carry the power to surprise and even shock us. Fast-forward to last year, and a recording i made of something modern on Radio 3, which caught the tail-end of something sumptuous, melancholic and gorgeous, played by strings. After a couple of perplexed microseconds (beauty always perplexes first, doesn’t it?), i realised this was “Danny Boy” once again – or, rather, its original form as the Londonderry Air – arranged (as i learned at the end) by that fiendish genius, Percy Grainger. To be shocked twice by the same melody is quite something, and i can’t listen to it now without a beaming smile on my face.

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What’s In A Name? (Part Two)

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In my post Style and Idea: What’s In A Name?, i said that i’d been provoked to consider genres “and more besides”; here, then, is the more. Our determination to classify things – as a means of containing them, thereby reducing them and making them (or so we believe) more “understandable” – extends further, into quite subtle areas. What, for example, is going on in the title of a work? In the world of contemporary art music (for want of a better term), it has become de rigeur for a composition to require some kind of vaguely poetic/pithy title, preferably not a generic one (e.g. “symphony”), to avoid undesirable, often anachronistic, associations. It goes deeper though, and wider; programme notes are typically provided to supplement the title, no doubt seeking to aide the audience further in their engagement of the work. Serving a seemingly different end, the tracks on a CD nonetheless also seek to “contain” a piece (or part thereof) with the same aim of helping to reduce a work to small, “manageable” bits. Let me say immediately that i myself am a part of all this, and have never detracted from it – indeed, the title of my most recent composition, ‘unredeemed’ self-)portrait (in the form of a calf, although abstruse, could be cited as an extreme example of it – but it seems appropriate to question the practice from the perspective of both artist (in terms of intention) and audience (in terms of desire).

During my first degree (a very worrying 11 years ago), i wrote a paper entitled Extra-Musical Facets of the Complete Work of Art, which examined, among other things, the rôle of a title and programme notes, emphasising their importance and value for the artist. This was something of a reaction to seeing composers presenting works with absolutely nothing to say (a fact they seemed to celebrate), which i found deeply irritating. Perhaps i thought that encouraging composers to use these “facets” would cause them, de facto, to have something to say in their work. But i saw the relationship between artist and audience very differently back then, in terms – dare i admit it – of telling the audience what they should be listening to/for in my work. i now wonder whether facets like a title and notes do the work – and the audience – a disservice. Read more

Why don’t you just switch off your CD player and listen to something less boring instead? : Onetwo – Instead

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There’s something inherently exciting about the collaboration, particularly when each protagonist has a well-known and established career. The idea of two individually interesting artists producing something new and unexpected together is more than enough to whet the appetite. i’ve been spending time with a comparitively recent example, teaming two names that are somewhat significant from my musical past. Player 1: Claudia Brücken, singer from 80s group Propaganda, whose slightly plummy voice could cut through all the surreal and industrial sounds the other band members could throw at her. Player 2: Paul Humphreys, non-singer from 80s group Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, whose slightly corny melodies became roaringly popular as synthesisers took over mainstream pop. ’Tis an intriguing idea, two such luminaries teaming up, no? So the mind goes into overdrive, predicting what the emergent sound could be like: probably pop songs (OMD), but maybe with a twist in terms of structure (Propaganda); could be either soft and mellow (OMD) or hard and penetrating (Propaganda). Together they call themselves Onetwo, and i was sufficiently intrigued to spend time with their first album, Instead. Now, while i stick to what i said last time, about expectations being best when minimised, it’s difficult when you’re confronting two musicians whose music has meant something to you in the past. Admittedly, i was more of a Human League fan than OMD (possibly they sounded more ‘real’ and gritty, when OMD were all fun and larks – hmm, rather like what i said about The Cure a few days ago; probably it’s the Sheffield connection, which produced some remarkable acts in the late 70s/early 80s), but Propaganda i really, really liked. So hurl your abuse, i had expectations, and reasonably high ones, if i’m honest. Read more

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Style and Idea: What’s In A Name?

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A few days ago, i listened to an album described by its label as “ritual ambient”, which i found an intriguing idea for a genre; yesterday, i spent time with another release on the same label, listed as “ceramic IDM”. i’m not sure i can even begin to unpack quite what that description is driving at (can “ceramic” be an adjective in this context?), but it got me reflecting on the nature of musical genres and subgenres, and more besides. i believe the present practice has its origin in four deeply significant developments from the 20th century.

The first is the deeper and more authentic understanding of music from past generations. It’s interesting to reflect that, until the early 20th century, even a composer as significant as Mozart was rarely performed. The increase of scholarship – no doubt aided by the development of easy international travel – brought a huge wave of understanding of earlier musics, and a corollary of that was the classification of discoveries. Prior to this, the musical period from Bach to Beethoven was referred to by the simple term, “classical music”, invented around the 1820s. Now, music of this period was re-classified under the well-known “Baroque” and “Classical” headings, and the century just past was judged to have been a “Romantic” period, all of these in part borrowing from architectural and literary terms. This is the origin of music’s division into genres.

The second, to some extent contemporaneous with the first, is the point of crisis in the development of classical music. When tonality fell apart, composers became similarly fragmented, going in all sorts of directions in the quest for new ways to shape and structure their music. The earliest experiments were given the lame description, “Free Atonal”, before giving way to Schoenberg’s curious invention, “Serialism” (not that he tended to call it that), which, in its extreme form became “Integral Serialism”. But since not everyone wanted their music to be like this, composers seeking to continue strands from Romantic music were branded “Post-Tonal” or “Neo-Romantic”; others, looking to earlier models were “Neo-Classical”. Suddenly, it seemed, there were numerous styles, when hitherto there had been a single, broadly recognisable style that had had considerable momentum. This is the origin of the proliferation of musical styles. Read more

Into the “other”: Pan Sonic – Kesto (234.48:4)

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i’m a sucker for series and cycles, from collections of compositions into a larger whole (such as Richard Barrett‘s Opening of the Mouth and Charles Tournemire‘s L’Orgue Mystique) to multiple-CD albums and box sets. i love them; perhaps it’s something to do with the sheer effort required to engage with something on so large a scale. Plus, of course, there’s the pleasure of allowing yourself to be taken on a journey in the hands of one who’s seeking to present something new and unfamiliar and exciting and strange. A fair bit of music’s like that, of course, and you could even argue a single song or small-scale composition is a “journey” of sorts; but expand that to a cycle of pieces that lasts an hour, or three, or more, and you’re into something epic, an odyssey.

My first this year is Pan Sonic‘s Kesto (234.48:4), the parentheses testifying to the duration of the album in minutes. i started a week ago, and finished yesterday evening; no journey of this scope can be tackled in a single stage, and i wanted to give each disc its own space to speak. The first two CDs represent the Pan Sonic that i recognise: raw, abrasive, oscillating glitch beats shot through with sheets of noise and the occasional glimpse of an ambient cloud – Autechre meets Merzbow while Eno looks on (or something like that). While similar in content, there’s a perceptible shift on CD2 away from the dirty IDM to something more pensive and abstract, the sounds still evolving but without such a strong sense of cycle and repetition. By the third disc, little remains of the synthetic drum sounds, presenting instead slabs of etherea that shift and confuse (one of the track titles translates as “Inexplicable”), appearing to pose questions rather than postulate solutions. Nonetheless, there’s a palpable air of assurance in the music; these are confident questions. All of which leads to the final, confounding, uplifting, disorienting, compelling disc, where a continual onslaught of sliding layers of sound – broad strokes with flashes of filigree – bathes, no floods the ears and engulfs the mind. i have no idea what thoughts, if any, passed during this overload. Not that the experience is a harsh one – far from it; the music came down on me like a ton of cushions; like zooming in on a Hafler Trio drone, mellifluous, sublime, entrancing, and never ever dull. But powerfully present; indeed, my ears were ringing for a long time after the single 61-minute track had expired.

Four CDs of sounds that sit somewhere in a no man’s land betwixt IDM, japanoise and something ineffable, jarring the eardrums, mangling the brain, shivering the soul. It’s tempting to suggest that this album had such a profound effect based on the strength of (especially) the last 2 CDs, and while it’s true to say i found those the most engaging (disc 4 is simply superb), i find it hard to separate any of them from the 4-disc journey which together they comprise. After all, the summit of a mountain only means something relative to the base and all that lies between. The nature of this journey is not something i have yet understood, but there’s a connotation of moving away from one “thing” – be it familiar or organised or layered, or whatever – toward something “other”, something subtle and beautiful and bright and dense and deep and everywhere. i have no idea where it’ll take me next time; and i can’t wait.

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Beautiful angst: The Cure

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Back when life was all of a teenage, when the concept of “family” still held some substance for me, i was taken to spend a few days in the company of my “cousins” in London. There wasn’t much to do there, and i recall one particular day when i and “cousin-minor” were mooching in his room, reading, chatting, random stuff (mum, “aunt” and “cousin-major” were out, probably). All day, over and over, he played a single album, the music of which, at first, really chafed my ears (songs about arabs?). But as the hours trudged, i found myself listening more and more to the songs, looking forward to some, continuing to be irritated by others (enough with the arabs!), and i found myself really drawn to what this music – now fluffy and boistrous, now dark and brooding, filled with melancholy – could be.

The clues are there for sharp-witted readers: and i was to learn that this was The Cure, whose music i had hitherto only ever heard occasionally on the radio or in tapes swapped with friends. The album was Staring at the Sea, the compilation of all their earliest singles (and it was “Killing An Arab” that kept bugging me). It would be pushing it to say that this experience began a love affair with The Cure’s music; with virtually every other band (like every girl i’ve fallen for), this is what would have ensued (hmm, now there’s something to explore: how my relationships with different musics are similar to my relationships with the women i’ve loved). But it didn’t happen, and i still don’t know why; all i can think of is that i found something off-putting in the way their songs are so dichotomous, either incredibly up-beat and delirious, all popcorn and laughter (irritating) or deliciously dark and mellow, all velvet and bedrooms (wonderful). Perhaps i felt this to be too much at odds with how i felt within myself (hmm, now there’s something to explore: how my relationships with different musics relate to how i see myself), although it is actually rather like how i was in those ghastly 80s. More likely, i felt the darkest songs were so powerful, so true to what i thought and felt and knew, that i couldn’t stand to hear them do anything that seemed to go against that. Strangely, i have only ever acquired a single album by The Cure, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, and my ambivalence remains. For me, it is stopped from being one of the finest albums of all time by the (dareisayit) “happy” songs that crop up at intervals; aside from those, it contains some of the most mesmerisingly beautiful songs i’ve ever heard, and which continue to move me as much as ever; “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep” is perhaps the most gorgeous song ever, while in “One More Time”, Robert Smith’s heart-breaking singing still brings tears to my eyes.

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Dancing (kind of) and drifting (ish): Stravinsky, Autechre, The Orb

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IDM is to dance music as Stravinsky is to instrumental music; discuss. Well, not exactly, but it strikes me there’s something of a similarity, particularly in the way that the underlying pulse is fragmented into irregular metres. This is probably why i love IDM (and Stravinsky) so much, although i’m more concerned in my own music to violate the underlying pulse itself (which few composers seem to want to do). For me, Autechre are the paradigm of this, deconstructing rhythm into its component parts and setting up weird, mutated versions that evolve into something else (often even stranger). Untilted – which i was listening to earlier in the car – has to be the IDM album par excellence, with the opening and closing tracks being arguably the best; “LCC” becomes weird and wonderful about 2-and-a-half minutes in; “Sublimit” becomes amazing around six-and-a-half minutes in; but they’re both brilliant throughout.

Over the last couple of days, during some much longer car journeys, i’ve been re-visiting an old classic: The Orb‘s Adventures In The Ultraworld. Back when i was a recalcitrant sixth-former, i used to spend my free periods at the record shop in town, and it was there i heard this album playing, back goodness knows when, and a friend and i bought a copy each. Goodness knows how many years later, i’m not sure how well it’s aged. My composition teacher during my degree told me “one doesn’t finish a composition, one just stops working on it”. While i fundamentally disagree with this, it kind of sums up how the conclusion to each half of this album sounds, dragged out for far too long, structure falling apart at the seams, meandering who knows where for who knows how long. i think when this came out (1991, i just checked), it was probably its novelty that saw it through; certainly, i’d never heard anything quite like it. There’s much about it i still really like, but now, i think something is lost.

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Music for Epiphany and more

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Yesterday was the feast of the Epiphany, and it strikes me as strange that there is so little music written for Epiphanytide. Advent and Christmastide are overflowing with possibilities, but composers have clearly not been inspired by this season. It might be that it’s been somewhat vague until more recent times; certainly, the Anglican church has only got its structure and approach sorted in the last 5 years. But i think it’s an extremely powerful period of time, especially as it moves towards its conclusion with the Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas) on 2 February. My own Nunc dimittis was intended as an anthem for that occasion, rather than for regular weekday Evensongs, and thankfully it’s only ever been performed as such.

Yesterday’s listening was a return to an old favourite: John Oswald. i’ve been interested in him since my early 20s, when i heard a work of his performed by the Kronos Quartet at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall (Mach i believe it was called). His “plunderphonic” style is remarkable, and when i first heard Plexure it produced a similar reaction to Venetian Snares: shock, amusement, bewilderment and exhilaration. But today i was listening to something from his very different, electroacoustic style: his 2003 work Aparenthesi. It’s difficult to believe it’s by the same composer; a gorgeous, intense, patient and rapturous meditation, similar to some of The Hafler Trio‘s work. The slowly-shifting soundscape is surprisingly engaging, and i found myself very moved by it.

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Merzbow and h³o

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Yesterday’s listening was confined to a single album, Merzbow‘s Door Open at 8am. Annoyingly, i felt distracted while listening, so i don’t feel i’ve engaged with it adequately; i’ll try again soon, perhaps as part of my journey into Masami Akita’s work. This morning i spent time with OM Electrique, the first of his 50-disc “Merzbox”, and it was a fascinating experience. i’m quite fond of journeying through an artist’s work chronologically, and beginning with this album, from 1979, i was aware it would be screaming “analogue” at me, and i’m sure this contributed to how abrasive was the start of the opening track. Fortunately, i’m made of sterner stuff, and after the (admittedly rather discomiting) first 10 minutes, the noise opened out into other areas. i’m already fascinated with the way that rhythmic pulses move in and out and evolve within Merzbow’s work; here, it seemed to be one of just a few layers of noise that dropped in and out at intervals; but when a layer drops out, it gives a startling new way of hearing the remaining layers. The four tracks are related in pairs, and the album’s a bit disjointed as a result; early days though.

Noise of a very different order this afternoon: The Hafler Trio‘s Hljóðmynd. How Andrew McKenzie creates his soundscapes i have no idea. It’s going to be an interesting week, since BBC4 is showing a number of programmes this week exploring aspects of popular music. Highlights: Monday has histories of The Old Grey Whistle Test and Top of the Pops, Tuesday a review by Paul Morley (a genius, and one of my heroes) about the role of music on culture/identity, and on Wednesday Charles Hazlewood is exploring “How Pop Songs Work”…

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From the ridiculous (via noise) to the sublime

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When any series comes to an end, it’s an emotional experience, and so it was yesterday when the last two CDs in Andrew Liles‘ 12-CD Vortex Vault series dropped through my letterbox. Black Pool and Black End mark the conclusion of an amazingly prodigious cycle of discs, released once a month, beginning at the end of 2006. Andrew Liles’ music was one of my biggest discoveries from last year, recommended to me by the equally remarkable Matt Waldron (irr. app. (ext.)). There’s a fascinating mix of both the beautiful and the disturbing in his music, with highly evocative (and sometimes, very funny) titles, including “Bamboo Sheep”, “An Unspoken Narrative Regarding Institutional Abuse”, “Ghost Breath – A Lament For A Bear Cub Called Медвежонок”, “Taking Bumblebee to France for the Afternoon”, “36-23-33½” and “Matthew Doesn’t Like Bananas in his Ice Cream”. These titles are often frivolous, but sometimes rather more deliberate: “The Jean Michel and Vangelis Taboo Liaison”, for example, explores the kinds of sounds beloved of those two “composers”. He’s capable of real gravitas too, though, and the final piece on Black End is like an electroacoustic/symphonic finale to the series (quixotically broken up into 94 tracks!). Read more

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Irish Old and New

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There was an entirely accidental Irish connection to yesterday’s listening. Greatly enamoured as i am of Clodagh Simonds‘ gorgeous voice (she now records as Fovea Hex), i thought it would be interesting to listen to her earliest work, as part of the influential group Mellow Candle. Their 1972 album Swaddling Songs is something of a legendary work, marking the transition from 60s psychedelia to 70s progressive folk, and it’s surprising, over 25 years on, how fresh it sounds, with an eclectic mixture of instruments (the harpsichord twiddlings – to use proper musical terminology – are marvellous!), and delicate, almost naïve, vocals, that can occasionally become rapturously wild.

i admit i had high hopes for Clodagh Simonds’ compatriot Róisín Murphy, although little to go on. i was never very interested in her band Moloko, so was therefore unsure what to expect. But she disappointed me – i listened to her first album, Ruby Blue, which seems to be attempting to combine lazy lounge jazz with the glitches that annoyingly accompany so much electronica these days. When applied to her vocals, it was engaging and actually rather fascinating (particularly through headphones), but my interest soon wained, and i was glad when the album ended. i began to listen to her new album, Overpowered, but couldn’t bear more than two tracks; it sounds worryingly like she’s now trying to add the flavour of Goldfrapp into the mixture. Not for me, it seems.

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2007: memories and echoes; 2008: first sounds

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There were many, many musical highlights in 2007, but a lot of disappointments too, which i guess is unavoidable, considering the amount of music i listen to throughout the year. Probably the worst of the lowlights of the year was Avril Lavigne‘s The Best Damn Thing, an unfortunate title considering it was one of the most appalling things i’ve heard in a long time; it seems she’s not averse actually to steal musical ideas from other people these days (Peaches in particular). As for the highlights, the brightest and best were:

Andrew LilesVortex Vault series and New York Doll
irr. app. (ext.): Ozeanische Gefühle, Perekluchenie and Cosmic Superimposition
Joanna Newsom‘s Ys
Fovea Hex‘s Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent trilogy
The Hafler Trio‘s Hljóðmynd, How To Slice A Loaf Of Bread, The Explanation, The Discussion, An Answer and Whistling About Chickens
Belle and Sebastian‘s The Life Pursuit
Björk‘s Volta
Nine Inch NailsYear Zero
Orphan Fairytale‘s Whose Words Are My Words (with Mudboy) and Speaking Spooky
CocoRosie‘s Noah’s Ark and La maison de mon rêve
IAMX‘s The Alternative, and finally
Pan Sonic‘s Katodivaihe Read more

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