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… Read more›
I’ve heard a lot of mysterious, strange records in my life, but few can surpass Mnemonists’ Horde for sheer baffling otherness. Rarely has the term “nothing is as it seems” been more applicable to a piece of music. An obscure collective of musicians and visual artists in Colorado, Mnemonists—who later morphed into the slightly more comprehensible but still very challenging Biota—conjure a bizarre soundworld in which it’s nearly impossible to discern how the sounds are being generated and what instruments are being deployed. People who care about such things will feel extremely itchy while listening to Horde, but it’s best to just let the underworldly noises wash over you, like silty water from a cave on Mars. Let your subconscious have a terrifying joy ride for once, why don’t you?
Horde contains 10 tracks, but for all practical purposes it’s one monstrous (de)composition. Heard from a certain angle, the album sounds like a riot in an insane asylum or an avian slaughterhouse that somehow has a train running through it. You can understand why Nurse With Wound’s Steven Stapleton would love this album, as it captures the nightmare logic and unsettling surrealism that marked so many of his own releases.
Heard from another angle, Horde seems like the handiwork of a chamber orchestra who appear to be undergoing some sort of mental crisis. Thankfully, the players are all stalwart avant-gardists who know how to contour madness into scintillating torrents of aural legerdemain. (I’m not sure what that means, either, but if you immerse yourself in Horde long enough, that sentence may cohere into comprehensibility.)
The 1998 CD reissue of Horde that I own lists the instruments used. Contrasting with familiar ones like guitar, sax, clarinet, piano, cello, and double bass are shawm, crumhorn, “processing,” and “tape work.” It’s the latter two—guided mainly by Bill Sharp and Mark Derbyshire—that likely have most influenced the primordial soup of disorienting improv brewing on Horde.
This is experimental music at its most gnomic and subtly horrifying. Listening to Horde totally sober is an ordeal; experiencing it under the influence of a hallucinogen could lead to unparalleled revelations or, more likely, a descent into insanity. But what a way to go… -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›
Disregard the somewhat goofy name: Lard Free were one of the heaviest French rock groups of the ’70s (a decade laden with heavy French rock groups). Led by multi-instrumentalist Gilbert Artman, they cut three great albums, peaking with Lard Free (also known as III and Spirale Malax, in later iterations; the excellent Wah Wah label reissued Lard Free’s catalog on vinyl in 2010). Where Lard Free’s previous two full-lengths fused Miles Davis’ late ’60s/early-’70s electric jazz with outward-bound acid rock, their third LP soared into even headier realms of unprecedented futuristic fusions.
The entire first side is consumed by “Spirale Malax,” which fades in on Yves Lanes’ mutedly radiant synth, which whorl in the vicinity of Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air, but soon come the shafts of Xavier Baulleret’s molten guitar and Jean-Pierre Thirault’s spectral clarinet filigree. Artman funnels all of these elements into a massive cyclotron, generating a disorienting vortex of highbrow hijinks. It’s like listening to Tangerine Dream’s Zeit and Iannis Xenakis’ La légende d’Eer while on a Tilt-A-Whirl.
“Spirale Malax” really is one of the most stunning pieces of music ever conceived, a surreal, 17-minute acid trip full of phantom, Doppler-effected drones, trance-inducing tom-tom-thumping, and panic-inducing guitar pulsations. Then it fades out as it came in. Utter, terrifying perfection.
The four-part “Synthetic Seasons” suite on the flipside isn’t as mind-boggling as the A-side, but it’s plenty out there and gripping. It begins with eerie synth ectoplasm punctuated by distant, methodically off-kilter drums and guitar and clarinet that seem to be shrieking in the next studio over. By the second section, the drumming comes to the fore, beating out a military tattoo, while the guitar describes a pattern as complicated as a cauliflower and the clarinet drones mournfully.
The weirdness intensifies in the third part, with a swarming synth drone blooming, until the clarinet mournfully surfaces, like Eric Dolphy in a funereal mood. In the final segment, a seductive and menacing funk beat saunters into earshot, while the guitar grunts and the synth twitters in a melancholy mode (Acid Mothers Temple fans will recognize this combo). The track traverses some of prog-rock’s most anguished terrain, replete with Lanes’ wavering wall of synth grotesquerie. “Synthetic Seasons” could soundtrack Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal—if it didn’t get so damn funky in places.
With this album, Lard Free entered the pantheon of heaviest, headiest French … Read more›
Good lord, did Hungarian guitarist Gábor Szabó have a distinctive and utterly sweet tone, albeit one imbued with deep sadness when the occasion called for it. After issuing some great records for Impulse!, Skye, and Blue Thumb in the ’60s and ’70s, he moved to Creed Taylor’s CTI label and smoothed out a bit, as per that company’s overriding aesthetic. But with Mizrab, Szabó cut the definitive version of the title track. You need this LP for that dazzling cut alone, but there are other delights here, too, even though this isn’t the man’s best full-length. (Still trying to decide if it’s Spellbinder, Bacchanal, or Sorcerer.)
Recorded in the Van Gelder Studio with CTI all-stars like Bob James (electric organ), Ron Carter (bass), Hubert Laws (flute), plus fusion drummers Billy Cobham and Jack DeJohnette (playing in a much mellower style than they did with Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis, to say the least), Mizrab boasts an odd mélange of material. It starts with “Mizrab,” which is quite simply one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Szabó and company find the sweet spot among free-flowing raga rock, Central European folk, and pop jazz. Cobham’s drumming is agile and busy, touching on Latin shuffle and funk, while Szabó’s tone is crystalline and loaded with pathos. This tune never fails to trigger watery eyes and throat lumps.
“Thirteen,” another Szabó composition, is a lovely minor-key lament, as pensive and melancholy as a walk home after being fired from your job. You can hear some of Szabó’s mellifluous picking and piquant tone here in the oeuvre of former Sun City Girls guitarist Sir Richard Bishop; a high compliment. Unfortunately, that’s it for Szabó material on Mizrab. Next comes Carole King’s “It’s Going To Take Some Time,” a lightweight and syrupy orchestral jazz pop confection. You can feel the heavy hand of Taylor’s commercial directives at work here, although Cobham is always worth hearing, no matter what the context. That fluff is balanced out by a hip, Deodato-esque rendition of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Concerto #2.” It’s a dynamic study in structure and mood, carried aloft by those rich CTI strings and Bob James’ deft arrangement.
The album closes with Seals & Croft “Summer Breeze.” This played-to-death, oft-covered 1972 hit single gets a fairly straightforward treatment, although DeJohnette adds all sorts of tasty accents and fills amid his martial-funk master rhythm … Read more›
The one feature that usually sets Terry Riley’s music apart from all the electronic minimalists and new age hucksters that followed in his path is just intonation, a method of tuning instruments in which the frequency of notes are related by ratios of small whole numbers. The end result is a harmonic sound different from modern (post 18th century) western harmony that instead leans toward a sound more similar to ancient music from around the world, particularly Asia. Its this just intonation that gives Riley’s music a natural grit that raises it above overly pretty new age homogeneity and makes it part of the natural world of wind whistling through the branches and small life setting a field a buzz with minute interconnecting noises.
Shri Camel is similar to other well-known Riley masterpieces, such as Rainbow in Curved Air, in that the major sound component is Riley’s interweaving electronic keyboard lines treated with slightly psychedelic production. The difference with Camel is a more stately classical Asiatic sound that is accented with a more severe just intonation than usual and a slower unfolding of events that mimics classic Chinese and Korean court music. The end result is one of the finest compositions in Riley’s career and one of the most beautiful albums I own. —JS… Read more›
Future Holden Caufields, venturing out into the big bad city just two decades later, would have no need to feel so alienated — not with Central Park Be-Ins to take part in and Terry Riley’s A Rainbow In Curved Air providing the imaginary soundtrack. Riley’s LP – produced in ’67 once again by Music Of Our Time overseer David Berhman- is the most blatantly pop-friendly of all experimental albums up until Philip Glass’s Glassworks (the latter designed for an upscale yuppie audience which didn’t exist at the height of the Vietnam war.) No such compromises on Riley’s part–his loose, drony improvisations, heard here in gloriously overdubbed three dimensions, appealed to eager, young ears opened up by the raga craze and all sorts of other Eastern “space.” And despite his benign, hippie veneer, the composer didn’t neglect the dark side of Aquarius either, as the ominous psychedelic swirl of “Poppy Nogood & The Phantom Band,” with its dense overlay of reeds, organ and tape loops, demonstrates ad infinitum. –SS… Read more›
Check out our guest post on our favorite image related blog, 50 Watts. The post features our personal collection of Polish record covers put out by Polskie Nagrania Muza.
Polskie Nagrania “Muza” (Polish Records ‘Muse’) is a major state-owned record label located in Warsaw. It was established in 1956 after the merger of the vinyl record factory “Muza” and the record house Polskie Nagrania (with the history of the latter traced to the Interbellum times). It has been producing a wide range of musical records from pop, rock, jazz, folk and classical.
These sleeves showcase the unique style of Polish graphic design in the mid century including a few poster design heavyweights like Jerzy Flisak and Rafal Olbinski. Visit the Gallery›… Read more›