January 24, 2011
Spacemusic new and old
Mixcloud.com is a site for radio DJs with no place to go. I like it because the idea is to be legal and upfront about the whole business, paying royalties to artists just like real radio. Sets stream at a reasonably high bitrate, and there are some very talented mixers who post there. I post there too, occasionally, and I have just put up two sets of space music in the style of Star's End, a spacemusic radio show broadcast in Philadelphia on WXPN-FM since 1976. I used to do the show in the 1980s, until 1993 in fact. It's still running, and can be heard on the 'net in real time every Saturday night/Sunday morning, thanks to the capable custodianship of longtime host Chuck van Zyl (an accomplished space musician himself, I might add). Here are some notes on these two rather different sets, which I mixed on Garageband (!) and which work pretty well if I do say so myself.
Star's End Annex set 49 can be found here.
Artist - Track Album (Label)
David Tagg - Pt. 1 Fundamentals of Orchid Biology (Second Sun)
Lähtö - Drift Leaving behind the sun (self release)
Tuu - Gangiri The Frozen Lands (Amplexus)
Thomas Köner - 43° 42' N 7° 16' E (Hour Two) La Barca (Fario)
Uton - Ay Um Au Lam 6 Whispers From the Woods (Last Visible Dog)
Akira Rabelais - 1382 Wyclif Gen. ii. 7 And spiride in to the face of hym an entre of breth of lijf. Spellewauerynsherde (Samadhi Sound)
Steve Roach - Deep Sky Time New Life Dreaming (Timeroom Editions)
Yui Onodera - Untitled (track 3) Entropy (Trumn)
Xiphiidae - Untitled (side B) Stardive (Cloud Valley)
Aglaia - Untitled (track 1) Three Organic Experiences (Hic Sunt Leones)
Guitar droners are a dime a dozen nowadays, but David Tagg is one of the very best. This is from a recent disc, available here for only $8. While you're there pick up Waist Deep Seas Of Milk, which is very nice and not at all as gross as the title makes it sound. For more guitar drone than you could possibly listen to and live, check out Alan Lockett's monumental six-part series of Great Axescapes: an Archaeology of Drone-gaze Tone-haze Guitar-wrangling.
Our next track is pretty drony too. Lähtö is Tyke Chandler, who is not a Finn at all, that band name notwithstanding, but hails from Louisville, Kentucky. On his myspace page he lists his influences as "tim hecker, andrew chalk, bohren & der club of gore, port-royal, eluvium, the conet project, double leopards, grouper, max richter, jesu, ulver, [and] mogwai." An eclectic chap! As I mention at the Mixcloud page, this record is freely downloadable from his website, so check it out.
Tuu were a fairly typical but very well-regarded ethno-ambient group, led by drummer Martin Franklin. They came out of the ambient techno scene, but they soon left the techno elements behind (less drum, more gong and clay pot), eventually releasing discs on such worthy ambient labels as Hic Sunt Leones and Fathom. According to Wikipedia, The Frozen Lands (1999) was their final release. Too bad, they were pretty good. See also Franklin's disc Maps Without Edges (1996), released under the name Stillpoint.
Thomas Köner is the king of bass-heavy ambient drone. He started out using amplified gongs, and his early masterworks Teimo and Permafrost are bleak icescapes which stretch out for miles into the frozen distance (as the name of the latter disc might indicate). When I first bought Permafrost, I put it on and sat down on the couch to read my mail, and after 15 minutes I realized that while I was not aware of having heard anything, the temperature in the room seemed to have dropped a good 15 degrees. Those discs go in and out of print, but I think that as of right now you're in luck. Several records down the road, Köner has added a few things to his sound, so this recent release has a bit more going on. Here's more about this disc, including a video excerpt, from PvC's excellent Ambientblog site. Check out PvC's mixes too, downloadable at that site or streaming on Mixcloud.
Akira Rabelais is a software engineer and the inventor of Argeiphontes Lyre, a computer sound processing program, which he uses here to process some a cappella Icelandic songs which, (according to Anne Hilde Neset's brief review in the British music magazine The Wire), he found on some discarded reel-to-reel tapes. In her description, the result is "graceful, sorrowful hymns [...] draped with swathes of haunting, echoing noise, like hearing funeral music carried with the wind through a storm." Argeiphontes Lyre (OSX 5) is available for free download here. Also on that page appear the words "Argeiphontes Lyre Manual," which when clicked takes you to PayPal and offers you the opportunity to buy said manual for $5000 (!). Luckily, there's a help file with the program ... which when opened turns out to contain the entire text of the I Ching and nothing more. I think he's hinting that you should just fool around with it and see what happens. Works for me (although I haven't tried it yet).
For most of that track's playing time, it overlaps another track, from Finnish lo-fi wackos Uton. It's from an early disc, collected in a 3-disc set on the entirely awesome Last Visible Dog label. The description there is apt: "Clattery rhythms, music box melodies, spaced out guitar echo, minimal vocalization, skronking horns and plenty of droning and rattling and scraping and thumping. Like a krautrock band that was left in the forest by [its] parents and raised by wild woodland creatures." That seems about right. I was going to play "Mauritian Giant Skink Pt. 2," because how often do you get to play a track with a title like that, but this one fits better.
Steve Roach is probably the biggest name in American space music. He is a very prolific artist, and for a while there in the 80s and early 90s it seemed like he had run out of ideas and was just cranking out the same record over and over. However, his later works show the hand of a master at work; and now we can hear their similarity as due not to their sounding the same – they vary from hourlong barely-there sleep drones to cranking sequencer workouts – but to Roach's strong musical personality. According to Steve, "[a]ll the pieces [on New Life Dreaming] came from a calm space, just letting things breathe and not being in any hurry to go anywhere. Now that they are complete, I feel the pieces speak of the subtle blooms that occur in the heart and mind when you slow it all down." Check out steveroach.com for all your Steve Roach needs.
Next we have a timely reissue of the first work by Japanese drone artist Yui Onodera. Here is a nice review, according to which "listening to this album feels a little bit like walking through an exposition of holographic sculptures electrically flickering in serene darkness to the beat of random fluctuations in power supply." Never having done that, I wouldn't know.
According to Wikipedia, Xiphiidae are "large, highly migratory, predatory fish characterized by a long, flat bill in contrast to the smooth, round bill of the marlins." However, we're not interested in swordfish here, but instead the recording artist, real name Jeffry Astin, responsible for a zillion cassettes and CDRs, many on the Housecraft label. They're a lot like Uton (see above) but generally farther out there. If you listen to the Aussie radio program Quite Spyce, I mean Quiet Space, you will surely learn more, as host Paul Gough is a big Xiphiidae fan. I'd do that soon, actually, as Paul is running down the top 50 releases of 2010, and only 4 weeks worth of episodes can be streamed from their site.
We finish up this set with Aglaia, some of which (Wikipedia again) "are important timber trees; others have edible fruits (such as duku and langsat), scented flowers, or medicinal properties." Okay, no, again, we want the Hic Sunt Leones recording artist. This is exactly the right label for this disc, as it sounds quite a bit like the music of that label's main man Alio Die (Stephano Musso). I listed the title as "untitled," but actually the track is called "The Mysterious Fish Named Kun." Here's some more from the record.
As I mention at its Mixcloud page, our second mix is a time capsule from the 1970s, featuring space music from that era which would have fit perfectly on Star's End then (and now too, for that matter). I was not conscious of such things at the time, so this really only takes me back to say 1985, but there is a definite air of nostalgia to this one.
Dorothea Raukes - unter tage Deutsche Wertarbeit (Sky)
Earthstar - Latin Sirens Face the Wall French Skyline (Sky)
Anna Själv Tredje - inkomster utanför tiden Tussilago Fanfara (Silence)
Besombes - Pawa 1 (exc) Cesi est cela (Mio reissue)
Edgar Froese - Quantas 611 Macula Transfer (Brain)
David Parsons - Spheres Sounds of the Mothership (Fortuna)
Harry Bertoia - Continuum Harry Bertoia (Sonambient)
Terry Riley - In the Summer Lifespan (Elision Fields)
We start off with a record by the all too modest Dorothea Raukes, whose name only appears on the disc in the small print. "unter tage" begins like a jaunty synth pop tune, but after a bit it turns into a deep space sequencer workout not unlike those of the grandfather of the Berlin space music scene, Klaus Schulze. There weren't (and stlll aren't) that many female synthesists doing this sort of thing, so this is a bit of an oddity. Good stuff!
The next track bears even more of a Schulze stamp. Earthstar was another German synth band, and unfortunately when they weren't paying homage to Klaus, their music was not so interesting. This is their best track, which takes up the first side of their first record.
There weren't too many Swedish space musicians, but Anna Själv Tredje's Tussilago Fanfara (say that three times fast), their only album as it happens, is a wonderful example of the genre, with influence not only from Klaus but also Terry Riley (on another track). Prog Archives has a good intro here.
The French label Pôle put out some pret-ty strange records in the '70s, and Philippe Besombes was responsible for more than one of them. This one doesn't have a whole lot of Star's End-appropriate material on it, but on one piece he's doing some experiments with voices and electronics which fit in very well. They must be making a pun in the title (my high-school French says it should be "ceci" ( = "this one here"), not "cesi," which doesn't mean anything as far as I know.
Edgar Froese is better known as the leader of space music titans Tangerine Dream. Macula Transfer is his third solo record, featuring some very nice Mellotron indeed on this track. All the track titles on this disc are names of the airplane flights on which he composed these pieces (although I think the airline in question actually spells its name "Qantas"). Apparently there is a remixed version of this disc, but I believe this is the original. Given the quality, or lack thereof, of recent Tangerine Dream, I would be leery of picking up anything Froese has had anything to do with in the last 20 years, so buyer beware. On the other hand, a reviewer at Amazon calls the revisions "mostly harmless."
David Parsons is another prolific space music composer, with a bit more of a New Age bent than most. In his case this means an interest in the land of Tibet, with all the exotic instrumentation and unusual tunings that that implies. This doesn't always work, but Parsons is a skilled synthesist as well, and most of his work is perfectly solid. This piece, from an early cassette, is probably the most recent track in this set, and predates his overtly Tibetan sound.
Harry Bertoia is not a musician but a sculptor. However, his sculptures are designed not simply to be looked at, but also struck, bowed, or otherwise prodded into making sounds of various kinds. Many, many recordings of these sounds are available here.
We finish up with Terry Riley, from the soundtrack to the film Lifespan, which seems to be a sci-fi film featuring Klaus Kinski, not, as you might expect, as an insane scientist looking for the secret of eternal life, but instead, as the imdb page tells us, "the Swiss pharmaceutical company owner seeking death control for his own use." Riley, one of the Big Three American minimalist composers along with Steve Reich and Philip Glass, was a student of famed Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, and we are treated to some of his own vocalisms on this short track. This reviewer doesn't think much of "In the Summer" ("with its wordless vocals, flaccid chord progression, and 'excited' synths [it] is the prototype for all generic 'compelling things are happening' music"), but I like it fine, including the chord progression, thank you very much. (Besides, it's not wordless; I definitely hear the title phrase in there.) Still, I will agree that Riley's most enduring works are the longer non-vocal ones, like the two tracks from the other film soundtrack on this disc (Les Yeux Fermés), as well as A Rainbow in Curved Air, Persian Surgery Dervishes, and Shri Camel, all readily available at an Internet near you.
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