Monday, May 18, 2009

Gentle Giant - In A Glass House (1973)

The British Progressive Rock scene spawned legions of unique and interesting bands, but perhaps none so unique and interesting as Gentle Giant. With a sound that drew heavily from Renaissance madrigals and motets, yet retained the rock instrumentation and experimental attitude of the time, combined with extraordinary virtuosity by all the members (they handle odd time signatures and complex vocal canons with ease) the group made music unlike anything that has come before or since.

Needless to say, they found little commercial success, and their fifth studio album, In A Glass House, was never even released in the United States on the grounds of being too "uncommercial." Despite its limited availability, many fans including myself regard it as their finest hour. The album begins with the sound of breaking glass, which turns into a rhythmic pattern and sets the tone for a somewhat brittle sounding record. Normally, I tend to dislike brittleness in music, but it seems to work here for some reason. One track (I won't say highlight, because its all good) deals with the subject of a patient in a mental institution and is accompanied by percussion instruments only. A delightful experiment!

One of the more rocking tracks, "Way of Life," is interrupted abruptly for a little Renaissance tune played on several recorders. These kinds of rapid shifts in tone are a hallmark of the band, and are very difficult to pull off well, especially in a live setting (a setting in which Gentle Giant thrived.)

The album concludes with its title (and arguably best) track. After eight minutes of off-kilter hard rock, we are treated to a rapid-fire cut and paste medley of all the other songs on the record, concluding with the same shattered glass with which we began,echoing off into silence.

Gentle Giant's music is the kind of stuff that no one likes at first (it's simply too different,) and that takes years to fully appreciate (it's simply too complex,) but once it works its way under your skin you'll find it incredibly rewarding. It's a shame they never garnered the fame and fortune of some of their more accessible contemporaries, but then again, that's part of their charm.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Alvin Lucier - I Am Sitting In A Room (1970)

Alvin Lucier is a composer who has always straddled the precarious line between art and science. His works usually consist of practical demonstrations of physical phenomena, and yet they always provide a fascinating, surprisingly musical listening experience.

In "I Am Sitting In A Room," the composer reads a short speech, then plays the tape back into the same room and rerecords it. This process is repeated over and over again, with the result that the sound quality gradually decays and the frequencies that are naturally amplified by the physical space are the only things that remain. In this way, Lucier is effectively "playing" the room, and the results would be different for any given enclosed space.

The performance on this disc lasts about forty-five minutes. At about the fifteen minute mark, most of the actual words are unintelligible, and the speech has taken on a somewhat melodic, almost bell-like sound. Lucier has a slight stutter, and it is interesting to hear how this factors into the sounds we ultimately end up hearing. For example, a stuttered "S" sound persists much longer than most of the other consonants, because of its fundamental lack of pitch. So even towards the end of the piece we are able to hear the occasional "s- s- sss" which then becomes something of a rhythmic figure.

The simplicity of the concept and ease of execution make "I Am Sitting In A Room" a fascinating classic of electro-acoustic music, not to mention its hypnotic qualities for the listener. This is something that could be reproduced by any of us at home, and remember that it need not be with a voice. Similar results could be achieved with an instrument, a band, a portion of a movie soundtrack or really anything that makes a sound. Try it for yourself and see!