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.)
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
Nik Raicevic (aka Nik Pascal, aka HEAD) is an enigmatic analog-synth maestro who recorded five albums for his own tiny Narco label in the early ’70s. In a very strange turn of events, he somehow found himself in 1973 playing percussion for the Rolling Stones on “Can You Hear The Music,” the most psychedelic song on Goats Head Soup. (I still want to know how the hell this happened.)
Anyway, Raicevic convinced Buddah—a subsidiary of MGM Records—to put out this blatantly pro-drug LP under the alias HEAD. Maybe he had sway because he used a Moog synthesizer, which equalled record-biz gold for a hot minute back in the day. (Nik had recorded this album in 1968 and self-released it under the title of Numbers, using the catchy moniker 107-34-8933.) The Buddah version came with an eight-page coloring book and these notes on the back: “The sound of numbers for soaking in soft dreams. Sweet moments and private notes making a rhyme into a habit. An album that creates the ultimate environment for the smoke generation. Taste it.” Dude…
The year 1970 was a halcyonic time when you could open your debut album on a major-label subsidiary’s dime with a 17-minute tracks called “Cannabis Sativa.” Drop the needle on it and instantly feel like you’re slowly spinning horizontally in the most fucked-up aviary ever conceived. Mechanical bird twitters and what sounds like a pitched-up wind chime flutter over a sonorous, oscillating “woooaaahh” motif. Hypnosis will be yours. “Cannabis Sativa” mixes well with Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’s “Riversong” and Conrad Schnitzler’s “Electric Garden.” Try it in your next DJ set.
The Doppler Effected whooshes and disconcerting bleeps on “Methedrine” make it feel as if you’ve been transported to a planetarium in which—despite the track’s title—it feels as if the air vents are pumping out DMT. This is severe, depopulated synth sorcery, geared to disorient and alienate. That Raicevic was doing this in 1968 testifies to his innovative vision. Musicians today are still trying to achieve this sort of interstellar desolation, but often with computers and software programs, and yet aren’t capturing that sense of chilling menace to the degree that Raicevic did. HEAD ends with “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” (of course it does), which is simply “Cannabis Sativa” played twice as fast while sounding half as trippy. Sort of a bummer, but I can deal with it.
Here’s a pro tip: Buy any Nic Raicevic album you can find, no matter how pricey it is. They’re all dome-crackers. Despite reissues of obscure electronic opuses flooding bins with increasing frequency over the last decade, it appears with each passing year that such a campaign isn’t going to happen with our man Nik’s catalog. But, you know, if we can get a Bruce Ditmas archival release, perhaps anything is possible. -Buckley Mayfield
If you will allow a controversial opinion, I maintain that nobody’s music embodies pure peace like Terry Riley’s. From In C to A Rainbow In Curved Air to Persian Surgery Dervishes to Shri Camel and beyond, the legendary American composer has forged a body of work that’s established minimalism as an ultimate conduit of sonic transcendence and an overall sense of well-being. If all of your chakras aren’t resonating with utmost harmoniousness while you’re listening to Riley, you may want to schedule a soul-doctor appointment.
Although Descending Moonshine Dervishes isn’t typically rated among Riley’s greatest accomplishments, it should be. Honestly, I’ve always been a Rainbow In Curved Air/Persian Surgery Dervishes/Shri Camel guy, but Portland label Beacon Sound’s fantastic 2016 vinyl reissue—with a strong remastering job done by former Seattle producer Rafael Anton Irisarri—has me reconsidering. The more I listen to it, the more I’m convinced that Moonshine is Riley’s peak, which means that it’s among the loftiest works of art in the Western world. If you will allow another controversial opinion…
It starts with urgent burbles similar to those of one of Riley’s greatest hits, “Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band,” then ascends to an ever-so-dissonant cruise-control drone that pits two competing organ motifs against each other to create a wonderful friction. Sporadic surges in intensity increase the sublimity of the drone, creating the sensation of frantic yet salubrious cellular activity. (I should say that this magnum opus was mostly improvised live at Berlin’s Metamusik Festival in 1975. Terry was on a goddamn roll that night, y’all.)
At times, Descending Moonshine Dervishes is almost too much to handle, as the surfeit of silvery tones gather density and crash against the shore of your consciousness, inundating you with way more pleasure than you deserve in one lifetime, let alone in one sitting with an LP. Such is the man’s benevolence, though, that he keeps bestowing you the godly goods, never really letting up on celestial symphony that emanates from his modified Yamaha YC 45D organ.
Really, Riley? 52 minutes of this? How are we ever gonna deal with the escalating shitshow of reality after such a glut of galactic gloriousness? If god exists, she’s playing this in her lair—and then perhaps seguing into an epic Bösendorfer piano piece by Charlemagne Palestine, for good measure. -Buckley Mayfield