Friday, January 14, 2011

Brian Eno & Laraaji - Ambient 3: Day of Radiance (1980)

Of the four albums in Brian Eno's "Ambient" series, the third installment is the least well known and sounds the least like the others. This is perhaps because it is the only one not to be released under Eno's own name, but instead credited solely to Laraaji. I am giving Eno credit above, however, because of his typically adept recording and engineering, and anyway it's his series.

What we have here is a series of pieces for solo zither, enhanced ever so slightly by synthesizers, bells and studio techniques, performed by street musician Laraaji (born under the slightly less exotic name of Edward Larry Gordon.) There are three "Dances" on the album and two "Meditations," the former being high energy and rhythmic while the latter are relaxed, free form and meandering. Much like in the work of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, the constant motion in the dance pieces after a time begins to seem like a static texture that simply hangs in the air for the listener to experience. Although this may seem to be in opposition to conventional notions of what ambient music is, the label does make sense in that these songs create an atmosphere rather than a dynamic musical composition. It also must be remembered that at the time ambient music was still a relatively new concept and Eno was blazing new trails as he went along.

There are Celtic as well as Asian idioms in the music, which is an odd pairing and creates a sound both exotic and difficult to pin down. Some of the figures Laraaji plays could be equally at home on a dulcimer in Wales or a zither in Egypt or a koto in Japan. The very lowest strings on the instrument rattle percussively when struck, and Jaraaji creates some wonderful rhythms down there while maintaining the drone like motion in the upper register. The amazing thing is that that he manages to make each of these five pieces sound completely distinct from one another. The problem with a whole album of music for one instrument is that the lack of timbral variety can become tedious if not handled carefully. That such tedium never occurs here is a testament to the inventiveness and skill with which Laraaji handles his instrument.

The meditations are more tradional "New Agey" ambient fare, but as always Eno avoids being trite or cliche in how he handles the sound. The amount of reverb applied is tasteful and the music is thoughtfully contructed in a way that works just as well for active listening as it does when functioning as furniture music. This may well be my favorite of the four albums in Eno's "Ambient" series, simply because it is so different from anything else he has done before or since.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Pauline Oliveros - The Wanderer (2007)

If you love the sound of the accordion, but polkas just aren't avant garde enough for your tastes, then this may be the record for you. Pauline Oliveros has long been a practitioner on the instrument and is not shy about using it in unusual ways.

"The Wanderer" collects three lengthy pieces recorded live in 1983 (resulting in the slightly irritating fact that we have to put up with occasional coughing and applauding from the audience), each featuring the instrument, and with the title track incorporating an entire accordion orchestra. The first track is a sparse affair, a duo for accordion and bandoneon that is characterized by long silences interrupted by sudden bursts of sound. It was originally performed by Oliveros and David Tudor atop a see saw and was meanth to explore the sonic changes resulting from the up and down motion. Such subtlety is, unfortunately, not captured on this disc, but once you stop listening for melodic or rhythmic paterns and learn to just appreciate the sound of the instrument itself, there is a definite beauty that emerges.

This is even more evident on the twenty minute title track where a group of more than twenty accordions play together, resulting in a mesmeric shimmering of reeds that surround simply modal melodies. Eight minutes in, percussion joins the mix and the piece erupts into energetic dance like rhythms. The various rhythms and contrapuntal patterns interlock wonderfully and it's a very exciting piece throughout.

The final track is called "Horse Sings From Cloud" and is loosely scored for any number and variety of instruments using simple words like "Sound," "Breath," "Listen," and "Change." The version here is for accordion, harmonium, bandoneon and concertina. It is primarily a drone piece and this combination of instruments works very well because of their similar, but not identical, timbres. Each one has a different limitation on the amount of time that they can sustain a given pitch, and this results in a sort of out of phase pulsing. It's the simplest piece here, but also probably the most lovely, although it can take some time to get over the seemingly harsh dissonances if you're new to this kind of music.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

King Crimson - Islands (1971)

King Crimson is a little more mainstream than I like to get on this blog. However, I feel the need to defend this wonderful album from its many detractors.

"Islands" is the most heavily maligned of all of King Crimson's 70's studio albums, and based on its reputation, I took my time in acquiring it. When the fortieth anniversary remaster of it was released, I saw it as an opportunity to complete my collection and boy am I glad that I did! It has since become one of my very favorite records from the group, second only to their debut and maybe "Lizard."

"Islands" is the fourth studio album from the continually disintegrating band headed by Robert Fripp. Given the fact that the personnel vary so frequently, it's remarkable that Fripp was able to get anything at all recorded, let alone something of such high quality. The album consists of six generally lengthy songs and maintains a somewhat more laid back atmosphere than King Crimson is known for, but the record is not without its intense moments. I find both the title and the cover art to be extremely appropriate; the theme of little spots of color surrounded by emptiness is embodied perfectly in the music here.

The opening track, "Formentera Lady," begins with brooding cellos which gradually give way to a rather pastoral song without much drama. This all changes with "A Sailor's Tale," an energetic and orginal piece recalling the bombast of "21st Century Schizoid Man." However, unlike King Crimson's second album, "In The Wake of Poseidon," "Islands" avoids simply rehashing earlier material and all of the songs have a personailty of their own. "The Letters" is extremely powerful both musically and lyrically and "Ladies of the Road," while admittedly somewhat crass, is saved by the Beatles-esque vocal harmonies in the chorus. Finally, we are treated to an orchestral piece and the expansive melancholy of the title track.

The musicianship is excellent all around, especially considering that Fripp, lacking a bass player, had to teach all the parts to the singer note for note. Fripp's banjo influenced solo on "A Sailor's Tale" is unlike anything I've ever heard on an electric guitar. The drumming is universally great.

With regard to the remixing and remastering on the fortieth anniversary edition, it seems to me to be very fine. Stephen Wilson of Porcupine Tree has handled all of the engineering here and while I am no fan of his music, his capacities as a technician are impressive. Graciously, the previous thirtieth anniversary version (as well as numerous bonus tracks) has been included in its entirety for comparison and the new version is much more dynamic and engaging.

I am not sure what has prmpted listeners to reject "Isalnds" over the years, but as far as I am concerned it is one of King Crimson's finest works and deserves more recognition than it gets. Any fan of the group owes it to themselves to pick up a copy at their earliest convenience.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Pharaoh Sanders - Karma (1969)

One of the more joyous and exciting examples of free jazz I've heard (although I'm admittedly still a novice in the genre) is the third solo album by saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders. The album is dominated by a thirty minute track entitled "The Creator Has a Master Plan" with brief five minute coda in the form of the song "Colors." Both are similar in texture, although "Colors" is more of a cool down piece after the intensity of what precedes it.

Sanders' tenor saxophone is the principal instrument, naturally, and he has a very rich, unique tone that resonates with a lot of harmonics. However, it's the bed of sound laid down by the other instruments that I find particularly interesting. Flute, trumpet, bass, piano and a variety of percussion instruments including shakers and bells are constantly playing off of one another, forming a complex and beautiful texture to the music that reminds a bit of some early Krautrock records by the likes of Amon Düül II.

There are also vocals, supplied by Leon Thomas, and while the lyrics are of the somewhat trite "peace and love" variety, failing to add much to the recording, he eventually launches into a strange sort of yodeling that is very unique and which soon becomes just another instrument in the mix.

A bit over halfway through, the band moves from loosely improvised jamming into honest to goodness free jazz and all sense of structure collapses and the listener is consumed under mountains of screaming saxophone and frantic wailing by Thomas. All the instruments have such different timbres and they compliment one another so well, though, that it's still easy for the ear to follow individual parts. This results in a vitality and listenability that I have found to be lacking in other similar records that I have heard.

Finally, all the ruckus settles back down and we are left with the pastoral "Colors," in which Thomas' voice is used to great effect as a smooth crooner, soothing us off to sleep after a wild, wild party.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

5000 Hits

Yay, my little music blog has reached five thousand hits! It's not much, I know, but it makes me happy nonetheless. Many thanks to everyone reading. I hope you have enjoyed it and I look forward to bringing you many more reviews of interesting music in the new year.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Philip Glass - Music With Changing Parts (1971)

Philip Glass is the man most people immediately think of when they hear the term "minimalist music," and while he was neither the first nor the most minimal of this school of composers, he was the most commercially successful and to the victor go the spoils. In recent years, he has been halfheartedly tossing off film scores while presumably rolling around in his piles of money, but back in the seventies he created some truly innovative and amazing music.

"Music With Changing Parts" is probably my favorite Glass piece from this period. It's an hour long, semi-improvisatory composition for his usual ensemble of woodwinds and keyboard instruments. It has since been dismissed by the composer as "too spacy" but personally, I think it's just spacy enough. It begins with a repetitive figure on a lone electric organ which is then quickly joined by other instruments. What I like about this piece is that it evolves so slowly that unless you are paying very close attention, you will not even notice that anything is changing. If you exerpt any given thrity seconds from the piece, it will sound like the same phrase repeared over and over again, but at the end of five or ten minutes, the music will sound nothing like it did in the beginning.

Although there is constant motion througout its length, the repetition gives the piece a drone like quality and it's easy to be swept away by it. Fans of psychedelia will probably find much to enjoy here. Indeed, the motion of Glass's music is not unlike that of a lava lamp.

The concepts explored here would be further developed on the marathon three-disc set of "Music in Twelve Parts," the principle difference being that that work is divided into twelve distinct sections of approximately twenty minutes each whereas this maintains its continuity for over an hour. Both are essential additions to any collection of minimalist music.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Musique Concret - Bringing Up Baby (1981)

Very little is known about this album or the people who made it. It was released in 1981 on Steven Stapleton's United Dairies label and no one has heard anything from the band since. On the CD reissue, the notes claim that every effort was made to get in touch with the artists and that seem to have simply disappeared off the face of the Earth. The natural question is of course: what sort of music might these elusive people make?

The first half of the record is comprised of a four part suite entitled "Incidents in Rural Places." It's a delightfully pastoral bit of studio work, filled with tape manipulations and delay effects. It's vaguely Krautrocky, vaguely psychedelic and more than a little industrial, but it manages to remain relatively accessible throughout and in places is downright pretty. Vintage electronics are all over the place, although used largely for textures and backdrops rather than in a more traditionally musical context.

Things get even weirder on side two. The seven minute track "Organorgan" contains the only thing on the record that sounds like an actual musical instrument - a Hammond organ. It drones along methodically while more tape loops and sound collage strangeness happen around it. It's easy to see why the group took Musique Concret as their name.

Finally, the fourteen minute freakout "Wreath Pose at Sacrifice" concludes the album in a very raucous way. The first eight or nine minutes consist of increasingly bizarre sound collage material, eschewing even the barest semblance of musicality. Then, in a completely unexpected turn, a drum kit enters the mix playing in tight, psychedelic rhythm. There aren't many records that could make something so conventional seem so surprising. The drums hold down the beat for a while before being overwhelmed by swells of harsh feedback. At this point you'll be reminded of Whitehouse or early Merzbow more than anything else. At last, the track fades out with a sampled record of a female crooner and we're done!

There's no question that this is a strange oddity of a record and a nice addition to a collection, but there's also some great and unique music on it, particularly on side one. Side two has its moments to be sure, but the compositions simply don't feel as coherent or well thought out. This is a good buy for people who like the first few Nurse With Wound records and similarly unpredictable and noisy things.