Baffo Banfi – Ma, Dolce Vita, 1979

Guest post by Peter Harkawik

I recently found myself in line at an airport Starbucks, earbuds pumping the second and standout track on Giuseppe “Baffo” Banfi’s excellent 1979 album, Ma, Dolce Vita. The scene was transformed. I watched as headset-clad baristas twirled in a choreographed dance of whipped cream and chocolate sauce, gleeful panache emerging in their faces. Glowing QR codes passed under holstered laserbeam scanners. Boxes of soy milk changed hands in time with symphonic Moog crescendos, and petulant children spun on Samsonite between rounds of stereophonic cabasas. Such is the power of great music: to transform the ordinary into the sublime. I’m no expert in prog, Berlin School, Italian Library, or anything that qualifies me to write about this record. I just like it.

Banfi was a member of the hallowed Biglietto per l’Inferno (“Ticket to Hell”). As the story goes, Klaus Schulze took an interest, but when Trident folded in 1975, leaving their second album in limbo, the group disbanded. Banfi went on to release several solo albums on Schulze’s Innovative Communication label. Ma, Dolce Vita, the entirety of which is reprised on the compilation Sound of Southern Sunsets, is his second, and I’ve been able to find out very little about it. The cover suggests an Archizoom kiosk, half a Joe Colombo or perhaps something made by the German artist Rebecca Horn. (Apparently it’s a photo by Ezio Geneletti.) It is an album that very quickly outstrips its hazy psychedelic trappings.

Dolce Vita opens slowly with “Oye Cosmos Va,” which, like much electronic music of its era, would not feel out of place in a Carl Sagan special. Its plodding, trippy synthesizer loops quickly give way to the more expansive and exuberant sound of “Sweet Summer on Planet Venus.” A driving beat propels this airy, probing melody through multiple sonic landscapes. It’s a jubilant effusion of interleaved percussive elements that resolves quickly as the gas runs out on each layer. It will always leave me wanting more. “Vino, Donne E Una Tastiera” picks up with a syrupy, rattlesnake swagger, suggesting the dim saloon of a spaghetti western. “Astralunato” employs a contrapuntal bassoon-like sound that I’ve only heard used to such great effect by the British armchair duo Woo. It gives the song a sort of self-satisfied, delirious schmaltz that ambles along at its own pace. The album’s final track, loosely, “Fantasy of an Unknown Planet,” is a dark, arpeggiated voyage, accompanied by tentative high-hat and ersatz flute. 18 minutes in length, it builds steadily to a climactic bass line dropout and melodic redoubling.

If last year’s Blade Runner sequel is a testament to the enduring sound of the synthesizer, then Ma, Dolce Vita, like the original film, reminds us that the 1970s still sound like the future.


David Casper – Crystal Waves, 1984

Another gem from private issue new age icon David Casper, one of the later follow-ups to his excellent Tantra-La. Like that record, Crystal Waves manages to blend a laundry list of instruments (cello, played by Jami Sieber; marimba, played by Scott Cossu; ch’in [yuequin, aka moon zither, played by T’ao Chu-Chen], h’siao [Chinese bamboo flute], ocarina, crystallophone) into something that never sounds at all busy. That unhurried spaciousness is even moreso the case for this record than for Tantra-La. While a very careful and thorough use of acoustic environment brings to mind open landscapes rather than large rooms, and while there’s definitely some highly detailed multi-tracking going on, the precision and directness of the sounds seem to belie their numbers–which is to say, Crystal Waves masquerades as a very effective minimalist line drawing until you stare at it for awhile and realize it’s a full-color impressionist oil painting. It’s rendered in tones that are so delicate, translucent even, that you might not realize right away that they’re there.

This is particularly the case on the second side of the cassette, which, for our purposes, is the “Crystal Waves I-IV” tracks 4-7. It’s composed entirely of tuned crystal glasses:

Each glass was played individually with meditative attention and recorded, grouped, and re-recorded in a lengthy blending process. In order to attain a broad spectrum of sound from a simple source, tape speed, equalization, and harmonic balance were changed to produce sounds reminiscent of bass and cello, flutes and horns, organs, bells and gongs, and other sounds suggestive of electronic synthesis. Sometimes as many as thirty glasses may be heard at once, each with its own pulsation and timbre, produced acoustically by finger on glass.

The depth of field and texture Casper achieves with glass alone is remarkable, as is his gift with drawing heat out of sounds that might otherwise be predisposed towards frostiness. He’s just as skilled with his treatment of strings as he is with glasses: in spite of the wide openness of these songs, there’s a direct suggestion of reassuring warmth that I find myself feeding on over and over in the wintertime. I also just realized that it’s been a year almost to the day since I posted Tantra-La, so clearly these records are seasonally significant to me. I hope you love this as much as I do.

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Michael Stearns – Planetary Unfolding, 1981

A cosmic touchstone. Highly influential and ahead of its time. For the unfamiliar, Michael Stearns’s work was regularly featured on the Hearts of Space radio show, and his large catalogue of output includes scores for movies like Chronos and Samsara. In terms of purity of spaciousness, I can’t help but think of Steve Roach’s Structures from Silence (and unsurprisingly, the two went on to collaborate on several projects), but this is much denser and more detailed, filling in the gaps between broad instrumental strokes with many smaller layered sounds. It’s gorgeous stuff, and having realized that it’s been awhile since I posted anything in this wheelhouse, I think this is the most polished return to form I can think of. Try it in headphones!

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Sebestyén Márta & Szörényi Levente ‎– Szerelmeslemez, 1985

Gorgeous interpretations of traditional Hungarian folk songs, fleshed out in full color with synth and drum machine textures. Effortless vocals predominantly by Sebestyén Márta, a folk singer, composer, and actress who has also worked with Deep Forest (!). There’s something Virginia Astley-esque about the deliberately innocent quality of her voice, though perhaps that’s  a typical affect of traditional Hungarian folk singing–I sadly wouldn’t know. The prolific musician and songwriter Szörényi Levente contributes some vocals as well (presumably in addition to much of this instrumentation, though I can’t find full credits anywhere), and his brother Szörényi Szabolcs produced the record.

I’ve listed the song titles in Hungarian followed by their English translations where applicable. There’s a lot to love here, texturally: rolling, churning synth and drum machine on tracks like “Segélj El Uramisten” and “Szerelem, Szerelem” that reminds me of Sakamoto; more abstract chirping sample play on “Este Lett;” but the centerpiece is the floating, sinewy stunner “András,” previewed below. Impressively, Szerelmeslemez (“Love Record”) only gets increasingly generous with additional eartime. Enjoy!

[Mix for NTS Radio] Getting Warmer Episode 20

Here’s my most recent episode of Getting Warmer for NTS Radio. This one is comprised of entirely early Western vocal music (technically some of this is toeing the line into the Baroque period), almost completely a capella (I actually haven’t listened back to this to check, but I think there might be an instrumental drone or two in here), and mostly sacred, though I think at least one of these songs are non-devotional love songs. I’ve listed the composer as the artist, and then the performers in parentheses after the song title. In full transparency, I’m neither an expert on this stuff nor am I at all religious–I just really love this music, and I think it makes an ideal winter hibernation soundtrack. I hope you like it too. You can download an mp3 version here. Stay warm!

Tracklist:
1. Hildegard von Bingen – O Lucidissima (Rosa Lamoreaux & Hesperus Ensemble)
2. Claudio Monteverdi – Ah Dolente Partita
(Emma Kirkby & The Consort of Musicke)
3. Pérotin – Plainchaint: Viderunt omnes fines terrae (Tonus Peregrinus)
4. Tomás Luis De Victoria – Kyrie (The Tallis Scholars)
5. Léonin – Viderunt Omnes, 2 Part Organum (Tonus Peregrinus)
6. Claudio Monteverdi – Donna, Nel Mo Ritorno (La Venexiana)
7. Unknown composer, 12th century Aquitanian monasteries –
Lux refulget (Sequentia)
8. Carlo Gesualdo – Sabbato Sancto, Responsorium 5 (The Hilliard Ensemble)
9. Walter Frye – O florens rosa (The Hilliard Ensemble)
10. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina – Motet Nigra Sum (The Tallis Scholars)
11. Pérotin – Beata viscera (The Hilliard Ensemble)
12. Unknown composer, 13th century England – Conductus:
O Maria stella maris (Anonymous 4)
13. Léonin – Pentecost: Repleti sunt omnes (Red Byrd)
14.Thomas Tallis – Spem in alium (Motet for 40 Voices) (The Tallis Scholars)

The Coconuts – Don’t Take My Coconuts, 1983

The Coconuts were an offshoot project of Kid Creole and the Coconuts, the brainchild of August Darnell, a Bronx-born composer who’s an absolute genius with big band sounds, Latin jazz textures, and cuttingly clever lyrics. The Coconuts were initially the trio of backing singers in Kid Creole & The Coconuts, but went on to release two full-lengths on their own, with production from Darnell (who was married to Adriana Kaegi, member of The Coconuts and co-founder of the original Kid Creole lineup. Less relatedly, I just excitedly realized that Fonda Rae was at one point a member of the Kid Creole band).

Don’t Take My Coconuts is killer song writing, fully fledged arrangements, and charismatic vocals together in full force. To be clear, the ladies of The Coconuts (Kaegi, Cheryl Poirier, and Taryn Hagey) were creative powerhouses in their own right–their vocal delivery is razor sharp and manages to be seductive even while covering “If I Only Had a Brain” (this is my second Wizard of Oz-related post this week, so make of that what you will). They were incredibly strong performers, able to stay in impeccable character while flawlessly executing fairly complicated choreography in perfect unison. The video for “Did You Have To Love Me Like You Did?” is a showcase of amazing outfits, spot-on choreo, and some, uh, monkeys–it’s embed disabled, so it’s different from the video previewed below, but you can watch it in full here.

I still haven’t found any clear origin story for “Ticket To The Tropics” (no relation to the Gerard Joling song, as far as I can tell), which has a different melody but the same lyrics as the Cristina track of the same name. I can’t find detailed credits for either of the two songs, but given the overlap in sensibilities I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some personnel cross-pollination going on in there somewhere. Enjoy!

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Mix for Sanpo Disco

Honored to contribute a mix to Sanpo Disco, a very inspiring Melbourne-based mix series that I’ve been a fan of for a long time. This is meant to be a pushback against the most brutal New York winter in recent memory: tropical and Latin textures, pillowy synths, ocean waves, sunny Japanese garage pop, crickets. Yes, that’s John Martyn covering “Over The Rainbow,” and it’s just as weird-good as you’re hoping. You can download an mp3 version here. Cheers, and stay warm!

Tracklisting:
1. John Martyn – Over The Rainbow
2. Art of Noise – Crusoe (Ambient Version)
3. Pili Pili – Be In Two Minds
4. Yoshiaki Ochi – Ear Dreamin’
5. Unknown Cambodian Artist – Side B, Track 1 (Edit) (Sayonara Sound Productions 16)
6. Akira Ito – W・A・T・E・R
7. Sally Oldfield – Blue Water
8. The Coconuts – Did You Have To Love Me Like You Did?
9. Yuki Okazaki – アイドルを探せ
10. Grace Jones – The Crossing (Ooh The Action…) (Edit)
11. Ana Gabriel – Parece Que Fue Ayer (For C)
12. Ryuichi Sakamoto – Put Your Hands Up
13. Karin Krog – Hymn To Joy
14. Sven Grünberg – Temaga
15. Владимир Леви & Ким Брейтбург – Не Уходи, Дарящий
16. World Standard – 私の20世紀 (My 20th Century)
17. Piero Milesi & Daniel Bacalov – Camera 2 Parte

Ryuichi Sakamoto – Esperanto, 1985

Guest post by Andy Beta (Twitter / IG)

Last year was brutal in almost every aspect, from the social to the international to the personal. Amid such rubble, there was a bit of a silver lining, in that I achieved a noteworthy professional achievement: interviewing Ryuichi Sakamoto for the Gray Lady. We sat one afternoon and sipped tea at a café near his West Village home and discussed his stunning new album, async, and also drifted onto some other topics. He talked about his recent interest in La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #5 as well as the works of Japanese sound artist Akio Suzuki. “One of his early pieces was a big concrete cube in a gallery and he pushed it so it made a sound of friction on the floor,” Sakamoto enthused. “It’s beauuuutiful music.”

We even briefly touched on one of my favorite solo albums of his, 1985’s Esperanto. Originally commissioned for a dance performance from New York-based choreographer Molissa Fenley, it’s one of Sakamoto’s earliest forays into sample-based music and it’s as bewildering, playful, formidable and forward-looking as anything in his catalog. He told me that the computer he used to make the album was massive, holding his hands out wider than his body to show the size of the actual discs that stored mere seconds of sound. The album also features tasteful percussion work from Yas-Kaz and some guitar slashes courtesy of Arto Lindsay.

There’s news that Light in the Attic will be reissuing an incredible amount of Japanese music over the next few years and while I’m sure that Sakamoto’s work will receive some long overdue reassessment in the west (almost none of his groundbreaking 80’s work is available for streaming, which is just ridiculous), I wonder if an album as far-out as Esperanto will be high on the priority list. That said, recently graphic designer and album illustrator Robert Beatty enthused about Sakamoto’s work and this album in particular, which prompted a reply from Visible Cloaks’ Spencer Doran:

esperanto fun fact: all the tracks are actually 15 minutes long. they recorded it before was finished and didn’t know how long each dance section needed to be edited to so they intentionally overshot the length of each piece. the tapes still exist!

Here’s hoping that full 15-minute immersions into pieces like “A Rain Song” and “A Carved Stone” might re-emerge one day. Until then, enjoy for a limited time this visionary work from the master.

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[Mix for Self-Titled] OMG Japan 2: Japanese Pop 1980-1989

cover art by Jeff Velker (SC / Twitter)

I’m very pleased to finally share Volume 2 of the OMG Japan mix via Self-Titled Mag.

That proclivity towards inventive genre splicing is all over this mix, actually, perhaps most noticeably as a reggae influence in three very different incarnations. First, Akiko Yano’s steel drum-flecked synth-reggae cupcake “Ashkenazy Who?” is replete with gleefully gnashed vocals, twisted and slung in the mouth as if to mimic warped synth pulses. Next, Junko Yagami leans even more explicitly into reggae fusion on “ジョハナスバーグ” (“Zyohanasubargu,” i.e. a Romanization of the Japanese pronunciation of Johannesburg), a thick synth-funk ode to a global love for reggae, winking with drum machines and synthetic accordian. Last is Pecqre’s “Kylyln,” a spaced-out dub rendition of a song originally written by Ryuichi Sakamoto for Kazumi Watanabe, which comes from one of the most slept-on records in the Japanese canon. It was largely recorded in Jamaica at Channel One and Tuff Gong Studio on a trip organized by Bob Marley himself, as the story goes, at the urging of drummer and diehard reggae fan Masahito Hashido (aka Pecqre). It’s an incredible lineup: between Aston Barrett and Robbie Shakespeare on bass, Carly Barrett and Sly Dunbar on percussion, Minako Yoshida’s lead vocals, and Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt singing back-up, one can only dream of being a fly on the wall during those sessions.

Read the rest HERE, and if you like it, you can download it HERE.

Tracklisting:
1. Tabo’s Project – Feel
2. Imitation – Narcisa
3. Jimmy Murakawa – Down? Down, Down! / Stay Outta My World
4. Zabadak – 蝶
5. Akiko Yano – Ashkenazy Who?
6. Junko Ohashi – I Love You So
7. Junko Yagami – Zyohanasubargu
8. Tatsuro Yamashita – Love Talkin’ (Honey It’s You)
9. Yukihiro Takahashi – Konchu-Ki
10. Sandii & The Sunsetz – The Serious Game
11. Pizzicato V – The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)
12. Pecqre – Kylyn
13. Joe Hisaishi – The Winter Requiem
14. dip in the pool – Rabo Del Sol
15. Masami Tsuchiya – Never Mind
16. Mami Koyama – Love Song
17. Toshifumi Hinata – サラズ・クライム
18. Ayuo Takahashi ft. Koharu Kisagari – 流れる
19. Hiroko Yakushimaru – 透明なチューリップ (Transparent Tulip)

The Art of Noise – The Ambient Collection, 1990

One final send-off to a perfectly nightmarish year. This technically isn’t an album but rather a compilation, mostly of tracks from The Art Of Noise’s 1986 In Visible Silence and 1987 In No Sense? Nonsense (both of which, if you’re unfamiliar with the group, are incredibly generous places to start). It’s been reworked with some tasteful mixing and transitions by regular AON collaborator Martin Glover (aka Youth).

This isn’t exactly what we think of as ambient these days, but boy oh boy is it a prime early 90s time capsule. If you’re an Art of Noise fan, you’ll love hearing favorites like “Crusoe” and “Ode to Don Jose” in slightly more vivid hi-fi. Try not to be put off by the language excerpted below–these are brilliant songs, and they make a lot of sense tweaked into an explicitly balearic context, given that a lot of AON signature synth textures and environments feel like very direct precursors to what is described below as ambient house. Includes “A Nation Rejects” and its successor “Roundabout 727,” the riff from which has famously been sampled in too many rap tracks to count. Choral samples, ocean waves, hypnagogic percussion, and cotton candy synthesizers. It’s almost embarrassing how up my alley this is, so I hope it’s the same for you.

Enjoy, thanks for reading, happy new year, and may we all be on the up and up.

With the advent of the nineties a new decade of clubs and DJ’s have floated into our consciousness. Their trip is a journey into peace. An ambient ecstasy. The creation of a new musical travelogue. A minimalistic embrace of everything good about the hard and uncompromising trance-dance of house and the surrealism of ambient instrumentalism.
Ambient or ‘chill out’ rooms have been set up in clubs all around the country as an alternative to the dance floor. Pure ecstasy escapism. Rooms for day-dreaming, fantasising or hallucinating.
This ambient collection is a sound step into the future. A collection of tracks alternatively known as ‘New Age House’ or ‘Ambient House.’ Everyday sounds, noises and atmospheres we’ve imagined and heard all our lives but never consciously listened to. An unfocused daydream with no background or foreground. A sense of not being yourself, or being apart from what you’re listening to. A draft into tranquility, in and out of reality.
Oft played and more than often sampled, The Art Of Noise have long been torchbearers for this form of ambient instrumentalism.
So…chill out.

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