Back in the late autumn of 2005, when—in every sense—things were very much darker than they are now, i did perhaps the strangest music search i’ve ever done. Into Soulseek i idly typed the words “disjecta membra”, only half curious to see what it might find, expecting to see nothing; but a couple of moments later, one of the most remarkable track titles i’ve ever seen appeared: “A full desirous body, rendered disjecta membra through the application of dust pincher appliances”. Unable to resist a title as allusive as that, i downloaded it, and thus began my love of the music of irr. app. (ext.). Product of the feverish mind of american artist Matt Waldron, irr. app. (ext.) explores music in a surrealist, at times absurdist manner, juxtaposing the immediately identifiable and anecdotal with the obscure and almost arcane, combining field recordings with electronics. In a way not dissimilar from that of The Hafler Trio, image and text are an integral part of the sonic experience; Waldron is a talented visual artist, producing the dream-like visuals that drape his output. The texts are equally obtuse, bearing a sidewise relationship to the music and the images; indeed, it’s often unclear whether the accompanying words are designed to clarify and elaborate, or confuse and obfuscate. i like this lack of certainty, and find it makes the overall experience that bit more stimulating. Waldron’s experiences with record labels have not been terribly successful, with many planned releases delayed or cancelled; of the works that actually made it so far as to be released, most were released in relatively small quantities, and so are now out of print. It seems i discovered his work just in time to acquire everything before the copies ran out. As of 2008, things seem to be looking up, and a number of irr. app. (ext.) releases are scheduled for release this year. Read more
Deathprod—it’s a name both striking and strange, which is appropriate, as his music is both of these things too. There are obvious similarities to Biosphere—both are Norwegian; both explore large soundscapes; both create music that is immediately arresting—and yet there’s something very much more going on in Deathprod’s work. It’s even more dark, more remote, to the point of being mysterious, even ominous or desolate. But i think it’s the remoteness that is the most palpable characteristic of Deathprod’s output, neatly encapsulated in a 4-CD box set, released a few years ago. The set brings together three previously released but now hard-to-find albums—Morals and Dogma, Imaginary Songs from Tristan Da Cunha (remoteness even in the title!) and Treetop Drive—with a disc of new material, titled Reference Frequencies. There’s a fascinating low-fi approach taken in many of the tracks (some were transferred to phonograph cylinders), which somehow sit remarkably well beside more obviously electronic pieces—although, almost nothing on these CDs betrays exactly how it was created, which is quite a feat.
i first discovered his work about 4 years ago, and it still ranks as one of the most exciting, transforming encounters i’ve ever had. The most breathtaking of all is “Treetop Drive 1”, where a wide, orchestral string chord sounds again and again, pregnant and ominous, while slowly-evolving electronics splash and wail, like plangent seabirds over the foghorn of a melancholy ocean. Atop this imagined water, “Towboat” explores the same misty territory with a wider and yet more claustrophobic vision. “Burntwood” sounds like a decrepit audio tape discovered on a beach, filled with sounds that simultaneously beguile and disturb. and then, perhaps the supreme achievement of Deathprod’s sound-world, “Dead People’s Things”, an unbearingly poignant lament for something unutterably lost. All of these pieces reinvent music, expand what it can be, how it can speak. They are among the most rapturously beautiful and sad pieces one will ever hear.
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.
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
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.
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
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