Ambient

Spacemen 3 “Dreamweapon” (Fierce, 1990)

This anomaly in the sublime British space-rock group Spacemen 3’s catalog might be their headiest release, judging by how highly the true heads I know rank it. Inspired by minimalist composer La Monte Young, Dreamweapon is where Pete Kember, Jason Pierce, and company abandon rock and simply space the fuck out—at great length.

The two-part “An Evening Of Contemporary Sitar Music”—recorded live in London in 1988 by a full band—is a 44-minute study in patient, spangly guitar’d minimalism… with (spoiler alert) no sitar. Very little happens, but what does occur takes on a monumental importance. Over a foundation of murmuring oscillations (is it the sound of some god[dess] repeatedly guffawing? At least one acid trip suggested it was.), Pierce or Kember picks out a spidery, raga-like figure on electric guitar with laid-back insistence. As the piece progresses, the motif gains in intensity, and there’s a quote of “Just To See You Smile” from the Recurring LP. Does all this six-string foreplay build to a revelatory climax? No, it does not. However, you have to give “Dreamweapon” credit for this: It’s one helluva way to come down easy from a hallucinogen trip. I have first brain-cell experience with this scenario.

As for “Ecstasy In Slow Motion,” it’s doubtful there’s ever been more truth packed into one song title. This may be hard to believe, but there seems to be a harmonium drone humming underneath a shivering guitar that’s wailing a prayer to the electricity gods and then swirling skyward into a celestial orb of blinding light. This music is the elixir of eternal sonic truth, your most powerful, extended orgasm transferred into sine waves. Whenever I listen to this track, I always feel as if I’m dissolving into some sort of divine essential oil. It really is the best shit ever. “Spacemen Jam,” by contrast, is a desolate, bare-bones blues meditation that comes as something of an anticlimax after unprecedented heights of “Ecstasy In Slow Motion”—but what wouldn’t?

Dreamweapon has had many iterations, most of them on CD. Earlier this year, though, the great Superior Viaduct label reissued Dreamweapon on 2xLP with the two bonus tracks originally found on Space Age Recordings’ 2004 CD re-release and liner notes by Spacemen 3/Spiritualized bassist Will Carruthers. I highly recommend you get the Superior Viaduct version. -Buckley Mayfield

This Heat “Health And Efficiency” (Piano, 1980)

Slotting between the twin towers of This Heat’s 1979 self-titled debut LP and 1981’s Deceit, Health And Efficiency is no mere stop-gap release. Rather, it’s a peculiar peak in this short-lived yet crucial experimental/post-punk group’s discography.

Health And Efficiency” itself is simply one of the greatest songs ever, an art-rock tune so grand and uplifting, it deludes us into thinking that humanity is going to continue to evolve into a peaceful, super-intelligent species that values equality and yes, health, over all else. Seriously, its melody and ecstatic vocal arrangements are that powerful. Then, two minutes in, This Heat say, “Fuck it, y’all don’t deserve this much euphoria,” as they slam into one of the nastiest (lock) grooves to which you’ve ever had the good fortune to lose your mind and spastically jack your body. It’s a real bucking mechanical bull of a rhythm, cantilevered to the max and laced with an array of rolling bottles, children’s screams, and enough noisy distortion to start a wildfire in your brain. The freakout near the end will tear your ever-loving head off and punt it into the sun (the star to which “Health And Efficiency” is dedicated).

Health And Efficiency” is a definitive example of what radical explosions can be realized with (mostly) typical rock instruments when the musicians disregard orthodoxy. In the liner notes to the most recent reissue, This Heat drummer Charles Hayward says that the track was “improvised pretty much fully-formed, an 8 minute stretch.” He notes that Charles Bullen plays an electric/upright piano that the Rock In Opposition band Henry Cow left at the Cold Storage Studio through some distortion pedals. Now you know.

On “Graphic/Varispeed,” This Heat revamp “24 Track Loop” from the self-titled 1979 debut album into a supremely resonant, ASMR-inducing drone that the band manipulates ever-so-subtly, so it changes pitch and intensity in minuscule gradations. An early example of remixing and sonic deconstruction, “Graphic/Varispeed” puts a particularly industrial, northern English spin on ambient/drone music.

Originally released on Flying Lizards/General Strike member David Cunningham’s Piano label, Health And Efficiency received a deluxe reissue in 2016 via Light In The Attic subsidiary Modern Classics, with liner notes by Mr. Hayward, thereby earning the eternal gratitude of all right-thinking music fans. -Buckley Mayfield

Taj Mahal Travellers “August 1974” (Columbia Japan, 1975)


When talk turns to ultimate space-out albums, as it inevitably must if you’re living life to the fullest, you have to include this sprawling double album by Japan’s Taj Mahal Travellers in the conversation. Recorded live almost 44 years ago, the four sidelong tracks on August 1974 will test most people’s patience, as the album’s 88 minutes dilate time and alter space with no conventional vocals, beats, bass, or even structure, really. Instead, violinist Takehisa Kosugi and his stoic ensemble improvise drones that meander through the cosmos in a state of rigorous wonder. These Travellers sacralize your mind with an array of string instruments, mystical chants, bell-tree shakes, and Doppler-effected electronics that are as disorienting as they are transcendent.

The variations that occur in each of August 1974‘s four untitled tracks are subtle. The pieces toggle between tranquility and chaos with gradual and unpredictable shifts in intensity. The second one for, example, features what seems like some unidentifiable beast’s growl synthesized into an unsettling lament while a mandolin fibrillates with emergency-room adrenaline, before things slide into a bleak vista of woebegone moans, metallic percussion, sporadic timpani hits, and bizarre, electronically treated vocals. The organic and the synthetic elements blend indistinguishably—probably because everything seems as if it’s running through processors that leave an otherworldly sheen on all the elements.

The final cut is an amazing agglomeration of ominous synth pulsations, strafing electric-violin motifs, and a menagerie of strange percussive timbres. It’s here where August 1974 achieves its psychedelic zenith. If you suffer from ADHD and can only handle about a third of an hour of music at a time, go straight for track 4, which packs the most excitement per minute.

Let’s be clear about Taj Mahal Travellers: They’re not for everybody; this may be the biggest understatement I’ve ever made. They may only be for a few thousand people in the entire world. (The YouTube video of August 1974 stands at 1,501 views as I type.) Nevertheless, the impact that their enigmatic sonic streams of consciousness have made on those folks who do get it is profound. And under the right circumstances—out in nature, in a darkened room while under the influence of your favorite hallucinogen, in a vehicle moving through a mountain range, etc.—this record will put your mind through some uniquely rewarding contortions.

(Good news: Belgium’s Aguirre Records reissued August 1974 on vinyl in 2018.) -Buckley Mayfield

Les Vampyrettes, “Les Vampyrettes” (not on label, 1980)

The two tracks that comprise this ultra-obscure EP by Les Vampyrettes (revered krautrock studio wizard Conny Plank and the late, great Holger Czukay of CAN) represent some of the most sinister music ever laid to tape. For decades, however, Les Vampyrettes was strictly the province of the world’s most elite collectors. Thankfully, in 2013 the great Grönland label reissued the record. (You can also find these cuts on Czukay’s just-released 5xLP Cinema box set.)

Pulling off sinister music is more difficult than it may seem, as it’s easy to topple into hokeyness or ham-fisted Hollywood tropes when venturing into hellish sonic miasmas. As you would expect from two masters of sound sorcery such as Plank and Czukay, Les Vampyrettes avoid those pitfalls. Holger proposed to Conny a series of singles with the theme of “horror with comfort,” and Les Vampyrettes resulted. They infuse the music here with a gravity and oppressiveness that are truly remarkable.

“Biomutanten” is a four-minute collage of seemingly random noises, but the way Les Vampyrettes arrange and produce them is chilling. Ominous pulsations and panicky ticking sounds, doom-laden twangs, alarm bells, emergency warning signals, Doppler-effected wails, myriad noises hinting at things going awry, a pitched-down-to-hell (literally, it seems) male voice speaking in German—all of these elements induce a serious dread and a feeling of a tenuous grasp of sanity gradually slipping. Do not listen on hallucinogens… unless you really want to lose your marbles.

“Menetekel” is a slightly shorter minimalist creepscape haunted by insectoid chirps, warped warbles, dripping and splashing water, and those guttural, lower-than-low/slower-than-slow German guy intonations. It’s not quite the mindfuck that “Biomutanten” is, but it’s still the antithesis of party music.

As fantastic and phantasmagorical asConny Plank and Holger Czukay’s discographies are, they may have conjured their most outlandish vibe with this one-off project. At certain times of the night, Les Vampyrettes might be regarded as both geniuses’ peak work. -Buckley Mayfield

Paul Horn “Inside” (Epic, 1968)

Inside is a classic chillout album hiding in plain sight in nearly every bargain bin in America. Recorded in 1968 inside the Taj Mahal while flautist Paul Horn was traveling with the Beatles (nice work if you can get it), Inside sold over a million copies—and it seems as if most of those ended up getting sold back to shops. Idiots…

Regarded as one of the first recordings to combine New Age and world-fusion music, the record is distinguished by its 28-second sustained echo, which lends everything a spaced-out, cavernous feeling that’s supremely calming. You like calm, yeah?

“Prologue/Inside” begins with album with sacred chants before the main flute motif enters, an enchanting filigree that the underground hip-hop collective So-Called Artists sampled for their track “I Don’t Know How To Start This.” (It sounds amazing in that context, too.) “Mantra I/Meditation” combines male chants and tranquil flute figures that gently waft into amorphous formations to evoke profound contemplation and serene isolation. This is music to play when you need to decompress and focus on the essentials in your life—like achieving inner peace, aligning your chakras, or organizing your record collection.

“Agra” was sampled by both Prefuse 73 (“Afternoon Love-In”) and Mr Scruff (“Jazz Potato”)—not a bad feat for a forlorn hymn of ethereal poignancy. “Shah Jahan” is an ideal soundtrack to a gentle massage, as Horn transforms the flute into a conduit to the deepest reservoirs of tabula rasa mind state. He saves his most complex piece, “Ustad Isa/Mantra III,” for last, but it’s still a slow-motion floating dream of a composition that freezes time’s frenetic forward motion to a golden stasis.

In sum, Inside is like a long, easy sigh that you dread to hear end. That it came out on a major label shows you how open-minded big corporations were 50 years ago. Either that or the execs were on much stronger drugs… -Buckley Mayfield

Tomita “Pictures At An Exhibition” (RCA Red Seal, 1975)

How many times have you flipped past this record? Probably dozens of times—or hundreds, if you’re like me. Then one day I said, “Fug it, I’m gonna splurge.” So I dropped the $3 it cost (never pay more than $3 for this) in order to find out what this bargain-bin staple’s all about.

Glad I did, but not happy about all the years I squandered by ignoring it for so long. For Pictures At An Exhibition is probably the strangest interpretation of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky 10-track suite for piano, circa 1874. Not that I’ve heard them all, but it’s hard to believe anyone else has surpassed Isao Tomita’s synthesizer-powered rendering. (Although Emerson, Lake & Palmer do get pretty dang freaky on their 1971 effort.)

It’s axiomatic that Pictures At An Exhibition has became a showcase for virtuoso keyboardists. And that Tomita is. But he took the challenge further by deploying Moog, Mellotron, tape recorder, Sony mixer, and loads of effects. In doing so, the Japanese musician blew out the Russian’s classical composure to often grotesque, sci-fi dimensions.

When “The Gnome” kicks in shortly after the rather staid “Promenade,” you realize you’re in a much different century than Mussorgsky’s, as Tomita unleashes a display worthy of Morts Subotnick and Garson with regard to its array of shockingly spasmodic dynamics and spacey tonalities. Aswirl with ill timbres and graced with a powerfully melancholy melody, “The Old Castle” possesses a ruined grandeur. “Ballet Of The Chicks In Their Shells” is as unhinged as anything by Jean-Jacques Perrey & Gershon Kingsley or Cecil Leuter—or even Garson, in his most playful mode. It’s hilarious how impish this “Ballet” is.

The furiously industrious, industrial “Limoges/ Catacombs” manically swerves and ominously drones before “Cum Mortuis In Lingua Mortua” steers things toward an unexpected tangent into lugubrious and wistfully beautiful realms. However, that fosters a false sense of security for the album’s craziest piece, “Baba Yaga (Hut On Fowls’ Legs),” an unnervingly antic, swooping composition that’s like a bizarre collaboration between electronic frogs and metallic avians. “Great Gate Of Kiev” offers an unbelievably grandiose and haunting conclusion, but not without its share of shocking transitions and appeals to conventionality.

One random Discogs commenter said this about Pictures: “The most complex, deepest, grandioso electronic album ever. Nothing come closer technicalwise. Incredible taste and power, unparalelled character.” [sic] I normally don’t place a lot of weight on what Discogs randos with dubious syntax have to say, but in this case I have to cosign. Look for Pictures in your next bargain-bin excursion. -Buckley Mayfield

Vangelis “Beaubourg” (RCA, 1978)

I’m generally a fan of LPs that feature two sidelong tracks—mainly for the sheer audacity and large-scale ambition it demonstrates. If you’re gonna take up a whole side of wax, you’d damn well better come with the fire, right? And that’s what Vangelis (born Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassio in Volos, Greece, 74 years ago) does on Beaubourg, a record that must’ve made the execs at RCA sweat bullets as they tried to figure out how to market this dark beast. Viewed from a certain angle, it could be the Greek composer’s Metal Machine Music (also an RCA release)—but without the hilariously snarky liner notes.

Beaubourg followed some of Vangelis’ most accessible and popular releases in his discography, including Heaven And Hell, Albedo 0.39, and Spiral. So when Beaubourg dropped in 1978, at a time when 69 percent of musicians in the industry were making their disco moves, it must’ve baffled fans. Reportedly inspired by Centre Georges Pompidou’s architecture in Paris, Beaubourg is more Xenakis than Moroder.

The nearly 18-minute “Part I” immediately thrusts you into a state of disorientation and panic, as Vangelis works his synthesizer sorcery toward its most chthonic ends. The opening stretches sounds like Morton Subotnick possessed by demonic forces, as warped, spasmodic bleeps streak across the stereo field like malevolent comets. It sounds as if Vangelis improvised this panoply of bizarre, chaotic, and sometimes eerily beautiful passages while in the throes of an epic DMT bender. As he had nobody in the studio but himself, Vangelis probably said, “Fuck it, I have Chariots Of Fire and Blade Runner soundtracks ahead of me, so I might as well bust out all of my weirdest moves before I rake in my millions.” Or maybe he just wanted to make RCA’s executives, marketing directors, and publicists sweat bullets. Whatever the case, this piece messes with your mind more effectively than even Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze’s mind-altering marathons.

The 21-minute “Part II” traverses some of the same territory as its predecessor, but in a more subdued manner, yet it’s still pretty unnerving in an Andromeda Strain soundtrack way. (Highest praise, by the way; respect to Gil Mellé.) Like Beaubourg‘s A-side, the B-side changes every 10 or 15 seconds, moving from fascinating episode to intriguing development with a rapidity that suggests a genius working at the zenith of his prodigious creative powers.

This may be a minority opinion, but I’ll take Beaubourg over Chariots Of Fire or Blade Runner any day. It’s a bonus that it likely made major-label bigwigs sweat bullets. -Buckley Mayfield

Conrad Schnitzler “Rot” (self-released, 1973)

The late German synth master Conrad Schnitzler is one of kosmische electronic music’s most interesting secret weapons. He helped to lay the foundation for deep, spacey, and turbulent soundscapes while playing in the early incarnations of Cluster (then known as Kluster) and Tangerine Dream (Schnitzler only appeared on that popular group’s 1970 debut album, Electronic Meditation), as well as in Eruption. Yet he remained strictly a cult figure and often went ignored in documentaries and histories of German music.

Wriggling free of band settings in the early ’70s, Schnitzler set out on a madly productive solo career that spanned over four decades. You could pick any 30 or so releases by him and discover a panoply of infernal and transcendental sounds illuminating each one. Even near the end of his momentous life, Schnitzler was creating challenging music that put to shame the efforts of those a quarter of his age.

Rot (German for “Red”) is Schnitzler’s first true solo LP, and what a debut it is. Symmetrically divided into 20-minute sidelong jams, it announced the presence of a diabolically talented composer. “Meditation” begins with a keening drone—a demonic busy telephone signal, practically—that portends very bad and very interesting things. Gradually, Schnitzler inserts a menagerie of acutely contoured, haywire synth disruptions to increase the chaos factor and to keep you on the knife-edge of your sanity. The effect over “Meditation”’s duration is that of a civilization incrementally unravelling. The eventful turbulence—and that persistent, penetrating drone—occurring throughout this piece is anything but meditative. Rather, Schnitzler takes the molecular tonal catastrophes of Gil Mellé’s Andromeda Strain soundtrack and magnifies them to madness-inducing intensities.

“Krautrock” resembles some of American Buchla innovator Morton Subotnick’s discombobulating bleepathons, but Schnitzler, as is his wont, generates a more swarming and sinister aura than the creator of Silver Apples Of The Moon. (Trivia: Faust’s “Krautrock” came out in 1973, too.) This “Krautrock” sounds little like that of the genre’s best-known figures, but in its own peculiar, mad-scientist way, the track’s as psychedelic as the first Kraftwerk LP, Organisation’s Tone Float, and Seesselberg’s Synthetik 1. It’s a relentless cascade of metallic, insectoid timbres and nightmarish synth howls and wails. To its core, “Krautrock” is radio-unfriendly and an effective way to make a crowd of normcore folks scatter. But I love it to death.

The craziest thing about Rot is that Schnitzler had to release it himself. Apparently, no record company wanted to take a chance on such bizarre, uncompromising music. Thankfully, a few labels since have had the brains to re-release it and keep it relatively available. You should make it your life’ s mission to obtain this record. The excellent Bureau B imprint reissued Rot in 2012, so it shouldn’t be too hard to track down a vinyl copy. -Buckley Mayfield

Woo “Awaawaa” (Palto Flats, 2016)

All it takes is about 10 seconds of a Woo song to understand that you’re in the presence of utterly distinctive artists who appear to operate in cloistered, idyllic settings, far from the usual circumstances of music-making. British brothers Clive and Mark Ives use electronics and percussion and guitars, clarinet, and bass, respectively, to create music that eludes easy categorization. They touch on many styles, including chamber jazz, ambient, dub, prog-folk, exotica, twisted yacht rock, Young Marble Giants-like post-punk, and winsome miniatures not a million miles from Eno’s instrumentals on Another Green World.

Listening to their releases, you sense that the Iveses are totally unconcerned about music-biz trapping; neither fame nor fortune seems to enter their minds. They simply want to lay down these genuinely idiosyncratic tunes that work best in your headphones/earbuds while you’re alone in nature. That’s an all-too-rare phenomenon.

Recorded from 1975 to 1982 in London, Awaawaa only recently gained wider recognition, thanks to a 2016 reissue by the Palto Flats label. Its 16 instrumentals rarely puncture their way to the forefront of your consciousness. Rather, they enter earshot with low-key charm, do their thing for a few minutes, then unceremoniously bow out. “Green Blob” is the closest Woo get to “rocking out,” coming across like CAN circa Ege Bamyasi (sans vox) burrowing deeply into inner space, with Mark Ives’ guitar recalling Michael Karoli’s yearning, clarion tone. Similarly, “The Goodies” sounds like the Residents interpreting CAN, casting the krautrock legends’ irrepressible groove science in a more insular context.

The pieces on Awaawaa exude an unobtrusive beauty, a congenial mellowness; the cumulative effect is a subtle, holistic well-being. It’s a sprig of joy that will keep you enraptured and hearing new delights with each successive listen. -Buckley Mayfield

Laraaji “Essence/Universe” (Audion, 1987)

Laraaji’s rising profile over the last five years offers at least one glimmer of hope in an increasingly bleak world, proof that perhaps we as a species are not doomed yet. The New Age demigod (real name Edward Larry Gordon), who was discovered in the late ’70s playing his custom-built electric zither in Washington Square Park by Brian Eno, has seen several of his classic LPs reissued, embarked on frequent tours, and collaborated with Blues Control for RVNG Intl.’s excellent FRKWYS series, much to the delight of a new generation of sonic questers who crave feathery levitation. Among the stream of re-releases is Essence/Universe, which All Saints reissued in 2013. It is both essential and universal.

Consisting of two sidelong 29-minute pieces, Essence/Universe—which features the co-production and treatments of Richard Ashman—proffers one of the purest expressions of blissful ambient drift humankind has yet conceived. It’s not at all surprising that Eno would champion Laraaji; in fact, one of Eno’s greatest humanitarian deeds might’ve been his production of Day Of Radiance, which the Englishman selected for his Ambient series on Editions E.G. Records in 1980, and which brought deserved attention to his charge.

Back to the matter at hand… “Essence” wafts, drones, and tinkles in gentle fluctuations, occupying a narrow bandwidth within the aural spectrum, yet inhabiting it with an angelic grace that’s positively therapeutic. This is holy minimalism untethered to any belief system. It’s not a million kilometers from Laraaji’s mentor’s Music For Airports or Discreet Music or Fripp & Eno’s Evening Star in its ethereal grandeur. “Universe” continues in a similar vein, cocooning the listener in wisps of cloudstuff. Whereas many New Age artists err on the side of innocuousness and sentimentality, Laraaji soars above such frailties, achieving an atmospheric clarity and tonal nobility that seem to be an infinitely renewable source of holistic wellness.

Essence/Universe really is a special record, and it seemingly has no beginning or end—just an endlessly restorative middle that will keep you balanced for as long as you let it. -Buckley Mayfield

Terje Rypdal “Terje Rypdal” (ECM, 1971)

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With only a little glibness, one could call Terje Rypdal’s second LP as a leader a Scandinavian counterpart to the best electric-era Miles Davis output (On The Corner, Get Up With It, A Tribute To Jack Johnson) And it’s not just me who thinks this. A sage critic at the British magazine Melody Maker suggested that Miles should’ve tapped the Norwegian guitarist to replace the departing John McLaughlin from his band; alas, that never happened, and we are all the poorer for its non-occurrence. Regardless, Rypdal went on to cut some fantastic records with Germany’s revered ECM label, including this phenomenal sophomore effort.

I first heard Terje Rypdal on Kinski guitarist Chris Martin’s KBCS Ampbuzz show in the mid ’00s. Martin played the album’s lead-off track, “Keep It Like That—Tight,” and I was instantly mesmerized. That cut is a highlight, for sure. Rypdal keeps it sparse and suspenseful over its 12 minutes, using wah-wah to accentuate his contemplative guitar epiphanies while the bass and drums form a Cubist strain of funk that’s akin to On The Corner‘s, except much more introverted and subdued. When Jan Garbarek’s saxophone enters the fray, it adds an element of mellifluous hysteria. Near the end, Rypdal jams out a serpentine, Larry Coryell-esque solo that raises the temperature in the room by 20 degrees.

The album then downshifts over the next three tracks, delving into what could be called “chamber-jazz ambient.” “Rainbow” is a beautiful, string-powered sigh that’s tinctured with tantalizing bells while “Lontano II” becomes a slowly revolving vortex of delayed guitar and bass, generating an austere and ominous feeling. The LP’s longest song, the nearly 16-minute “Electric Fantasy,” features the distressingly angelic chants of Inger Lise Rypdal, which cast a spellbinding chill over an space-jazz meditation that anticipates the forlorn atmospheres of Miles Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly” while also foreshadowing Goblin’s Suspiria soundtrack. Rypdal’s crystalline calligraphy and excoriating eruptions à la Lard Free’s Xavier Bauilleret spar with Bobo Stenson’s electric-piano sparkles and Eckehard Fintl’s gorgeous, melancholic oboe lines. A multitude of amazing, intricate gestures pile up in this masterpiece, taking you on a journey to seldom-sojourned realms. “Tough Enough” ends Terje Rypdal with an unexpected deconstruction of early Fleetwood Mac-style blues-rock, before transitioning into a casual homage to Miles’ Tribute To Jack Johnson. Keep ’em guessing, Terje!

For many listeners (including this one), Terje Rypdal represents the peak of the coolly fiery fusion guitarist’s storied career. It also ranks as one of the most enthralling entries in ECM Records’ vast, venerable catalog. -Buckley Mayfield

Charlemagne Palestine “Strumming Music” (Shandar, 1974)

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Minimalist composition seems easy to do, but in actuality it requires a rigorous focusing on only the most crucial notes/tones to achieve that elusive sense of transcendence heard in the genre’s greatest specimens. What constitutes “crucial” varies for everyone, of course, but over the decades a consensus has built up around a coterie of composers who most consistently and rewardingly attain this level of sublimity. Count American keyboardist/composer Charlemagne Palestine among them.

Strumming Music is the eccentric performer’s second album. He recorded it in his New York City loft 43 years ago, and it has retained a timeless allure ever since. (I first heard it in 1995, when Felmay reissued it on CD.) That release bears liner notes describing his methodology: “Strumming Music [utilizes] a note alternation technique with the sustain pedal of the piano constantly depressed. This technique allows the undampened strings to resonate and compound with each other creating complex mixtures of pure strummed sonority and their overtones. No electronics or special tunings are utilized; only the finest instrument available today, the Rolls Royce of pianos, the Bösendorfer of Vienna.”

The 52-minute piece begins with gentle tintinnabulation from Palestine’s beloved Bösendorfer, generating a sound like wind chimes blessed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Gradually, a contrapuntal cluster of chords chop chops over the foundational tolling and then phantom drones start to creep into earshot.

As the album progresses, the music intensifies, accruing tonal girth—the aural equivalent of a snowball rolling down a mountain. What started out as seeming orderly and poised ever so perceptibly morphs into a whirling orb of frantic strumming. The deeper into the composition you get, the more it makes your third ear spin, until around 42 minutes in, it’s completely dizzy. At that point, the music’s forcefulness begins to diminish, although a thrumming kineticism still persists. In the last few minutes, Palestine returns to the beginning’s swift tinkling. Symmetry! Closure!

Any way you slice it, Strumming Music is a stunning physical and mental feat, requiring nearly superhuman concentration, discipline, and stamina. (I wouldn’t be surprised if mercurial Ukrainian pianist Lubomyr Melnyk took inspiration from it.) Yes, Strumming Music is an exhausting listen, but an extremely stimulating one, too.

(Aguirre Records reissued Strumming Music on vinyl earlier this year. It would be a mistake not to grab it ASAP.)
-Buckley Mayfield