Archive — Experimental music

Ágætis byrjunSigur Rós

Ágætis byrjun cover

Music was one of the jobs I was put in charge of for our wedding. Alex isn’t particularly interested in music. We don’t have any shared musical memories. We don’t have “our song”. So that made some aspects of the wedding planning tricky.

For instance, there were no obvious candidates — or, indeed, any candidates at all — for what Alex would walk down the aisle to. And because I never imagined I would get married until I met Alex, it’s not something that I had my own ideas about either.

Just a few weeks before the big day, I knew we had to make this decision. I mined my record collection for any shared musical memories we might have.

I considered something from Concrete Antenna, a beautiful experimental record that I’d never heard of until Alex bought it as a gift. It’s one of the most perfect gifts she ever got me, because I didn’t know it existed, but I loved it. But Alex decided it sounded too dark for our wedding.

Another candidate was something from the FFS album. We saw FFS when they played as part of the Edinburgh International Festival a few years ago, and we both really enjoyed the concert. But again, it didn’t strike the right tone. (We did end up using Johnny Delusional as the ceremony closer.)

Eventually, I started to just pull out records and CDs that I thought sounded nice. I had to loosen up some of the rules I had imposed on the process. Crucially, the “no Sigur Rós” rule.

Ágætis byrjun is Sigur Rós’s best album. The title track doesn’t always get the most attention, but it is my favourite from the album. Listening to it while thinking about our upcoming wedding gave it a new emotional appeal for me.

I looked up translations of the lyrics, which I hadn’t paid much attention to before because it’s sung in Icelandic. It’s actually about the band listening to the finished mix of their first album, Von, and feeling like it was OK but could be improved. The title translates as “A good beginning”.

But the lyrics are also ambiguous. An alternative interpretation is that the song is about a fledgling relationship.

It seemed particularly apt for us, because we had two “first dates”. The first one was a good start. We did better next time (and never looked back).

I really like the brief, mild moments of dissonance in this song. It’s beautiful, but not quite perfect. Like life. Or like a relationship. The key is to recognise that it’s a good beginning, and we will do better next time.

The album has just been reissued in a 20th anniversary edition with three CDs of additional material. It’s astonishing to think this is 20 years old. At least it’s not as disturbing to me as OK Computer. I only discovered Ágætis byrjun in about 2001 when it became a sleeper cult hit outside of Iceland so I can still think of it as an 18 year old album.

I’m also fond of this live acoustic version from Heim.

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RainbowBattles

Mirrored cover

Their single Atlas may have got the most attention, but for me it was Rainbow that was the centrepiece of Battles’ extraordinary 2007 album Mirrored. It mixed cartoonish melodies with prog rock hardness.

I first came across Battles on the release of EP C/B EP, a compilation of their early EPs. Hearing SZ2 for the first time was hugely exciting. It felt like exactly the music I was looking for all along, without ever knowing it.

So even though Mirrored was their first album, it already represented a surprising change in direction. The chin-stroking post-rock had been superseded by Pinky and Perky vocals.

It was confusing. But listening to it for a second time, it felt as vital as their early material. In time, more so.

Their live performances were genuinely mind-boggling. They did things with live loops and sampling in ways that no-one else dared.

At the height of their powers, Battles made music in a way no-one else was making it. Watching them live was like watching four people walking a tightrope simultaneously. It could go wrong at any moment, and watching them push themselves and cope with it or recover from going wrong was a marvel.

Brian Eno counted himself as a fan:

When you see a band you really like, the reason you really like them is because you wish you’d had that idea. And I saw them and thought, “dammit, why didn’t I think of that?”

Have a spare ten minutes? Treat yourself to the slowed down version someone’s uploaded to YouTube.

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VexationsErik Satie

Erik Satie portrait

Erik Satie’s Vexations is shrouded in mystery. It was not published during Satie’s lifetime. It’s thought it was composed in 1893. But it went undiscovered until 1963, when John Cage first performed it publicly.

It is just three lines long, but is accompanied by this ambiguous instruction (translated from French):

In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities

While this is usually interpreted as an instruction to repeat the music 840 times to complete a performance, it’s not clear if this was actually Satie’s intention.

The tempo instruction is “Très lent” — very slow. In the words of Wikipedia, this “could mean anything”.

Cage’s first performance lasted over 18 hours — longer than he had estimated. The CD recording I own lasts only 23 minutes — a tiny fraction of the full experience. The liner notes to that CD flags up the following:

A 70 minute performance (40 repetitions) of Vexations by Alan Marks is available on the CD Vexations (LTMCD 2389)…

Despite the repetitive nature of the music, it never seems to get boring. There is something disturbing yet irresistible about it. I always imagine falling very slowly towards an uncertain destination. It feels like being trapped in an Escher painting.

This piece predates muzak and ambient music by at least 50 years. The CD liner notes say it “provided minimalism with an important historical precedent.” It even predates Dada.

This YouTube video contains a full performance, albeit one performed seemingly too fast.

You don’t hear this on adverts quite as often as Gymnopédie 1

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I’m 49Prefab Sprout

I Trawl The Megahertz cover

I’ve been aware of Paddy McAloon’s 2003 album I Trawl the Megahertz for a while. While I’d always meant to pick it up, I never got round to it. In a sense it’s just as well, as this year it was re-released, remastered, and repackaged as a Prefab Sprout album.

Suffering with health problems, Paddy McAloon spent his time at home, listening to radio phone-ins. This formed the basis of the material on the album. The stunning 22 minute long title track features a splicing together of fragments of these broadcasts to tell a story in spoken word.

Most of the rest of the album is instrumental, but I’m 49 returns to the radio broadcasts, this time sampling them directly.

As pointed out by Paddy McAloon in this reissue’s liner notes, it’s not the first time the musicality of found voices has been exploited by a musician. He namechecks Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Steve Reich’s Different Trains also springs to mind. Musically, the albums seems to take a clear cue from American minimalist composers.

The story of the making of the album — centred around Paddy McAloon’s ill health — also reminds me of how Brian Eno is said to have pursued ambient music. It is said that Brian Eno was in bed, unable to get up to adjust the volume of his radio, and ended up being inspired by the sparseness of the resulting sound.

I Trawl the Megahertz has a melancholic vibe. “I’m 49, divorced.” What makes ordinary people bare their souls to radio hosts? This seems to be the question asked by the album. But the album also provides an answer — to adversity. Faced with illness, like Brian Eno, Paddy McAloon created some wonderful music.

Now I only wonder why it took me until now to discover it properly.

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Halogen — Kelly Moran

Ultraviolet cover

I was introduced to Kelly Moran by her first album on Warp Records, Ultraviolet, released a few months ago. For some reason (OK, maybe the Warp thing) I had assumed it was electronic music. So I was astonished to learn from this video that it’s actually a live prepared piano. Stunning stuff.

From that, I moved on to watch a performance of an older track, Limonium. Although short, it is perhaps even better than anything on Ultraviolet. One to watch no doubt, and I’ll certainly be investigating her back catalogue.

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Aus – Ein — Jon Brooks

Music for Dieter Rams cover

Gary Hustwit’s new documentary Rams, about the designer Dieter Rams, is released digitally today. It’s bound to be good — not least because it features original music by Brian Eno.

But perhaps it would have been more apt to include music from the Jon Brooks album Music for Dieter Rams.

Every sound on this record, from the melodic sounds to the percussion, the atmospheric effects to the bass lines originates from the Braun AB-30 alarm clock.

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The Visitation — White Noise

An Electric Storm cover

White Noise was formed by David Vorhaus, Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. The latter two were pioneers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the facilities of which were covertly used for a couple of the tracks on their album An Electric Storm.

(For the uninitiated, Delia Derbyshire is best known for the original realisation of the Doctor Who theme tune, among many other revolutionary electronic compositions. Brian Hodgson made many sound effects for Doctor Who, including the sound of the Tardis.)

An Electric Storm was released in 1969. It somehow sounds both mind-bogglingly ahead of its time, while also being distinctly of its time.

White Noise didn’t have a studio, so they had to develop their own makeshift equipment by connecting tape machines together with basic electronics. An Electric Storm was made before Robert Moog developed his modular synthesiser.

Synthesisers were about to democratise the creation of electronic music. But they also made it less of a craft. Painstaking effort and skill were required for the tape manipulation techniques that created the otherworldly sounds pioneered by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and their peers. It became a lost art.

According to the liner notes on the 2007 CD reissue of An Electric Storm that I own, David Vorhaus was originally intent on releasing a single. The head of Island Records told him to make an album instead, giving him the £3,000 he said a hit single would be worth.

This track, The Visitation, took three months to complete alone. When Island Records enquired as to the whereabouts of the album they had paid for, White Noise were forced to complete it overnight by improvising drums over tape loops and other noises. Even that track sounds almost unbelievably ahead of its time.

But upon release, the album sold just 200 copies. The world wasn’t ready for electronic music. But An Electric Storm is the definition of a cult slow burner. And it was highly influential on the more commercially successful electronic musicians of the 1970s and onwards. Not that many of them pressed ahead with the tape manipulation techniques.

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The Spell of a Vanishing Loveliness — Cornelius

New Cornelius albums are few and far between. In fact, he has released just four albums in the past 21 years. But when one comes, it is always one of the highlights of the year. He is one of the most distinctive and innovative artists going.

I have just listened to his latest album, Mellow Waves. This song isn’t the most sonically interesting on the album — but it is probably the best. It’s the only song on the album to feature mainly English lyrics, written and sung by Miki Berenyi, who was the singer in Lush.

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Autechre on their epic NTS Sessions, David Lynch, and where code meets music

Autechre on their epic NTS Sessions, David Lynch, and where code meets music

A good interview with Autechre in which they reveal a little more about their techniques. It explains a fair bit about why their sound is so unique, and why other people can’t (or shouldn’t) emulate it.

It gets a bit hazy in terms of what’s a musical idea and what’s a piece of technology. If you make a sequencer that only makes one type of sequence, and you’ve used it twice, then I guess you’ve used the same musical idea twice…

Our system is great for making Autechre tracks, but I’m not sure if everybody else wants to do that. And if they do, I’m not sure I want them to.

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Phylactery — John Callaghan

This wonderful reinterpretation of Tilapia by Autechre appeared on Warp20, a box set celebrating the 20th anniversary of Warp Records. (Rather scarily, that occasion was itself almost 10 years ago.)

There were two CDs of Warp artists covering classic Warp tracks, and a lot of them are really good. But John Callaghan’s effort towers above everything else on it.

It probably takes a lot of guts to attempt to cover Autechre, never mind a track as strong as Tilapia. But Phylactery boldly reinvents it, and possibly ends up being even better than the original (although as John Callaghan says in the comments to this YouTube video, both have their place, for different reasons).

In case you’re not aware of the original, here you go:

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The gardens where ideas grow

The gardens where ideas grow

We tend to think of musicians as architects, who fully control the sound they compose. But here, Austin Kleon outlines how it is in fact more like gardening. Top musicians like Prince, Ralf Hütter and Brian Eno appear to subscribe to this approach.

Brian Eno says:

One is carefully constructing seeds, or finding seeds, carefully planting them and then letting them have their life. And that life isn’t necessarily exactly what you’d envisaged for them.

The analogy certainly works well with Brian Eno’s generative music. I remember a radio interview where he described being the opposite of a control freak — a surrender freak. (This is the only reference I can find to it.)

It also reminds me of how Autechre appear to make music. In an Ask Autechre Anything session on WATMM in 2013, one person asked:

I would like you to tell me how you feel about “see on see”.

Sean Booth replied: “surprised”.

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The guide to getting into Autechre

The guide to getting into Autechre

That question when someone is trying to get into a band — “Where should I start?” — is perhaps especially difficult to answer in the case of Autechre. Their music is unique and uncompromising. You almost need to learn to read Autechre, because it is sonic world lives by itself. It is difficult to relate it to anything else.

That situation escalates when the artist has 13 albums over 25 years under their belt, the latest of which is eight hours long.

This article makes a good attempt at introducing Autechre to the uninitiated, by splitting their music into different types: club-friendly, austere, strangely beautiful, melting computer, endurance test.

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The time Aphex Twin opened for Björk

Shuffle mode has just reminded me of the time Richard D James (best known as Aphex Twin), using the pseudonym DJ Smojphace, opened for Björk at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2003.

From the YouTube video description:

For almost 2 hours Richard played nothing but “noise and feedback” from the backstage, only appearing in stage to cheerily wave goodbye in front of a very, very pissed audience.

Listen to the booing! Delightfully funny.

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