*If anyone’s going to be in London around Christmas, the Hilliard Ensemble’s last performance ever will be on December 20th at Wigmore Hall. They’ll be performing Pérotin’s “Viderunt Omnes,” one of the few existing examples of four-part organa, among others. It will be a seriously historical moment, so don’t miss it. Tickets here.
Honored to contribute a mix to Blowing Up The Workshop, which is a very useful archive of mixtapes including many from my own musical and curatorial heroes. I was thinking about escapism, cinematic déjà vu, anime soundtracks, hyper-optimistic fantasy about the experience of tourism, courtyards, commercials, and ruins as I put this together. If you like it, you can download it here. Thanks for listening!
1. Jun Miyake – Good Morning Yamanashi
2. Giovanni Venosta – Woman In Late
3. Lena D’Água – Tao
4. Nuno Canavarro – Untitled 8
5. Forrest Fang – The Luminous Crowd
6. Einojuhani Rautavaara – Cantus Arcticus I: Melancholy
7. Kurban – Masto A Iran
8. Maria Marquez & Frank Harris – Canto Del Pilon
9. Iury Lech – Barreras
10. Marcel Pérès & Ensemble Organum – Offertoire “Diffusa Est Gratia In Labiis Tuis” (comp. Machaut)
11. Masami Tsuchiya – Never Mind
12. Pale Cocoon – Sora
13. Connie Francis – Siboney
14. Kenji Kawai – Nightstalker
15. Jansen / Barbieri – Breaking The Silence
16. Hiroko Yakushimaru – Tomeina Churippu
This blog started with the intention of sharing records that more people should hear, and I think that’s more the case for this record than any other thus far. It occupies a strange mid-point, both in visibility and in the context of the artist’s body of work. It’s been reprinted a handful of times, and its Discogs recommendations include acts as disparate and big-league as Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Tracy Chapman, and Prefab Sprout (begging the question, who exactly is listening to this record?). Claire Hamill debuted on Island Records, opened for Jethro Tull, and made several very big-budget albums. She dabbled in folk, synth pop, and electro before landing on Voices, which has been (somewhat confusingly) labeled as new age. It’s perhaps owing to that very difficulty in pinning her down or understanding her body of work that her work itself, with its dazzling high points, seems to have slipped through the cracks. We missed the trees for the forest.
But backing up: after an audition for Island founder Chris Blackwell, Hamill released her debut at seventeen, an impressive piece of folk that belied her age. It immediately drew comparisons to Joni Mitchell and was advertised in Time Out with the tagline “When most girls are frantically hunting husbands, starting work in Woolworths or learning to type, Claire has finished her first album.” (Happy International Women’s Day, by the way!) But despite her label’s high hopes for megastardom, her records continued to fall flat of large-scale acclaim. After a few more folk-rock efforts on a new label, Hamill ended up on CODA Records, Beggars Banquet’s “new age” imprint. She released Touchpaper, an ambitious electro-sophisti-pop record about which there are some great notes here, and then, while living in the English countryside married with a new baby–“a sweet time in my life”–decided to make a record using only her voice. Entirely self-written, self-produced, and featuring just a bit of synth and drum machine, Voices feels like a pared-down predecessor to Camille’s Le Fil. She uses her voice not just as a choir but as strings, as as keyboard, and as texture, all the while staying attentive to inclusions of inhales–they’re emphatic, but never oppressive. Songs like “Harvest,” which so clearly evokes a chorus of women reaping wheat, manage to worldlessly distill the bucolic ethos of what Aaron Copland needed an entire opera to do. Despite repetitive motifs and loops, nothing ever slogs. Everything moves.
What’s really shocking about a first listen, though, is how clearly you can hear threads leading directly to and from so many important artists. At the risk of sounding like the token music journalist who compares every female artist to every other female artist, you can explicitly hear the Celtic-tinged multi-tracking that Enya would go on to make a career out of, Kate Bush’s emotional fluency, a Cocteau Twins cavernous goth sensibility, Julia Holter’s polished baroque, Virginia Astley’s loving chronicle of the English countryside. Nothing folky, but totally pastoral. A (mostly) worldless spectrum of feeling. There are jewels to be found throughout Claire Hamill’s career, but Voices is her strongest, and perhaps most unsung, stroke of brilliance.
A note that while I always encourage you to buy records you love whenever possible, Claire has been personally funding her continued independent music-making, so if you love this as much as I do, please consider buying it!
It was very moving that a handful of you reached out to check on me after a week of silence–I appreciate the concern! I’ve been a bit absent for two reasons, the first being that trying to do anything on the internet these days invariably gets derailed by a wormhole of endless bad news. The second (happier) reason is that my partner and I just moved into an apartment together last week, so I’ve been in heavy nesting mode, and now that we’re done fighting about whose duvet cover to use I can finally look around and feel funny about feeling this happy.
I’ve been holding off on a Geinoh Yamashirogumi post because I felt nervous about picking one record, but here we are. Geinoh Yamashirogumi is a massive musical collective, purportedly several hundred members deep, that emerged when a choir founded in 1953 began testing the limits of what choral music can do. Their study of world music and eventually digital audio techniques led them to release a series of records in which they covered an enormous amount of ground, culminating in a trio of records concerned with the cycle of life and death. Luckily, one of those three records happened to be the Akira soundtrack.
There are a lot of repeating motifs across the trilogy, both thematically and in direct sonic parroting. All three use choirs to astonishing effect: Balinese kecak aided and abetted by reverb and multiplication; individuals pacing back and forth and winding their voices around one another, frantic, fuming, barely even singing; Japanese Noh undercut by taiko; buzzing hives of thousands hulking thunderously; whispers volleyed back and forth for minutes on end; traditional spiritual chant gone off the rails–songs that are so intensely evocative of huge, folk-futurist environments that they’re uncomfortable to listen to in your apartment (though they work very well on the subway). They also all lean heavily on gamelan: interestingly, in the 1980s MIDI synthesizers couldn’t accurately replicate the tonality of the traditional gamelan ensemble, so the group had to custom-program their synthesizers in order to build the necessary micro-tuning tables.
I picked Akira from the trilogy because it hinges the three together: Ecophony Rinne (1986) brought the group to the attention of director Katsuhiro Otomo, who (as the story goes) wrote the group a blank check with which to make this soundtrack–meaning that this record enabled them to push their technical possibility forward and further develop the musical language that they had already been speaking for years. I love the case this album makes for what movie soundtracks can (and perhaps should) do, the way it refuses to be background music (or even conventionally cinematic) but instead dives into the movie’s messy chaos and bounces around and off of it, building and dying in time. The closing “Requiem,” as the title suggests, starts as a reverb-soaked Western mass, but the organ goes astray and eventually loops back into the opening “Kaneda” theme, at which point it becomes clear why Katsuhiro Otomo commissioned a score from a group obsessed with life and death cycles: the inhabitants of Akira are fixated on the past in a desperate attempt to avoid repeating their catastrophic mistakes in the future. The parallels extend further: the music of Geinoh Yamashirogumi is a splicing of traditional folk spirituality with advanced programming, and Akira‘s Neo-Tokyo still clutches to religion in spite of its pseudo-futuristic setting. Cleverer and weirder still is when a prog-pop song steps in after eight tracks. It’s jarring enough to make you wonder if you’re listening to a different record, until within seconds you pick up on the familiar jegog percussive backbone, which makes such perfect sense that you might feel more “in on the joke” than you ever have before. Brilliant from all angles.
Lastly, I’d like to point out that moreso than with most records, having a “preview track” here doesn’t make much sense, as this album is so diverse and can only really exist as a whole. Please take the track below with a big grain of salt, and if you’re at all interested, do consider a listen in its entirety in headphones.
Such a special record. Split between Raul Lovisoni, whose work I don’t know too much about, and Francesco Messina (there’s a track from his very strange and very good Medio Occidentale on this mix). The A-side is a 24 minute long synthesizer bath, with swaths of meandering piano on top (there’s definitely something harp-like happening too, though it’s not listed in the credits). It sounds like a hot spring in the wintertime, with synth pads acting as clouds of rising steam. The B side is two ~10 minute tracks by Lovisoni, both very different from the A-side and from each other. “Hula Om” feels markedly more “indoors” than Messina’s cosmic title track. It’s just a repeating harp motif, though at a few points you can hear bird sounds filtering through a window, something being dropped in the next room, clothing shifting around, and the creak of somebody’s knees, all of which feel fitting given the raw and warm spatial textures that bring three seemingly disparate tracks together. The closer, “Amon Ra,” also a Lovisoni composition, is mostly clear, ringing overtones courtesy of a crystallophone, with some sparse patches of vocal chanting. The embrace of truthful, unedited sound, both across the synthetic landscape of the A-side and the acoustic sparsity of the B-side, makes Prati Bagnati del Monte Analogo feel like a diary or a photo album: these are bare bones, beautiful songs as they happened, where they happened, and that’s more than enough.
Another expert overview of a favorite composer’s work from the venerated Hilliard Ensemble. Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) was an Italian prince, count, and renaissance composer, who is mostly known for his madrigals, particularly those that disregarded the tonal conventions of the time and explored extreme chromatic progressions and unprepared changes of harmony, i.e. changes without a harmonic bridge. This was arguably without precedent, and wasn’t really seen again until late 19th century impressionism. The music is notoriously difficult to perform live, with careening harmonies making it particularly easy to veer off-key. In spite of the daredevil compositions, the songs are stunningly beautiful, if a bit nervewracking. Stravinsky was a big fan. Aldous Huxley, who once listened to Gesualdo while under the influence of mescaline, wrote the liner notes for a 1956 LP of Gesualdo’s work. Herzog made a pseudo-documentary about him called Death for Five Voices.
Perhaps somewhat relatedly, Gesualdo was also known to exhibit characteristics of serious mental illness, was a repeat murderer, and a masochist, leading some to suspect demonic possession. After the murders, the story goes that he was so paranoid that he went on a tree-cutting rampage around his castle so as to be better able to see potential threats from far away. It’s also believed that he may have ordered his own death. He’s become a vampire-esque figure of fascination for many (I can’t help but think of Gilles de Rais), an interest that seems a bit fraught to me–but I can’t argue with the music. Enjoy!
Beautifully sparse downtempo album by Yungchen Lhamo, celebrated Tibetan musician and cultural ambassador whose birth name literally means “Goddess of Song.” Lhamo fled her home country by traveling across the Himalayas in 1989 and has been living in exile in New York ever since. Her work has been met with worldwide renown, winning awards and performing with the biggest artist of the 90s: Annie Lennox, Billy Corgan, Peter Gabriel, and Michael Stipe, among others. More information can be found on her foundation’s website.
I came across Coming Home by way of Listen To This favorite Hector Zazou, who produced it. Released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records (Gabriel also provides drone on the release), the album features Lhamo singing her own compositions, as well as traditional Tibetan chants, in her extraordinarily expressive voice. The majority of the vocal backing consists of an ambient soundscape with light percussion and Tibetan stringed instruments, mellow with scattered moments of intensity, and full on trip hop. Please consider buying this record.
The most frightening thing I’ve ever heard. Makes the entire pretense of heavy metal look like Sesame Street. Recorded at Gyütö Tantric University, one of the great colleges of the Gelugpa, the Established Church of Tibetan Buddhism, by David Lewiston, protégé of Thomas de Hartmann, decade-long resident musician at the Gurdjieff Foundation, impetus behind the Nonesuch Records Explorer Series (fans of the Voyager Golden Record are familiar with his work), and responsible for a huge body of recordings of world music made in the very small window of time during which lightweight portable recording equipment allowed for high-quality recordings to be made in remote places and traditional music hadn’t yet been ravaged by globalization. Happy Halloween, y’all.
Saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 17 September 1179) was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, poet, doctor, visionary, Christian mystic, and polymath. She founded the practice of scientific natural history in Germany, lived to the age of 81 at a time when the life expectancy was early 40s at best, and wrote the oldest surviving morality play (sometimes called the first musical drama). Despite having no formal musical training, she was responsible for some of the most hauntingly beautiful and enduring music to come out of medieval Catholicism. Her compositions broke many of the existing conventions of plainchant, using extremes of register, dramatic leaps of pitch, melismas and flourishes to express rhapsodic, overflowing emotion. Sublime delivery of this collection of her songs by UK ensemble Gothic Voices and soprano Emma Kirkby, globally renowned early music specialist. Perfect hurricane soundtrack music.
When I was in high school, a burned copy of this CD made the rounds among the “cool” choir kids. It was passed discreetly with knowing nods, intended for the ears only of those who would “get it.” This compilation is still one of my favorite choral works, but I think it speaks to a much wider range of people than a few self-aggrandizing choir dorks might have imagined. Performed by the venerated/veteran Hilliard Ensemble* (they mostly perform early music, but have also dabbled in Gavin Bryars and John Cage, and have collaborated a lot with Arvo Pärt), this is a collection of works written by the legendary Pérotin, who lived sometime in the late 12th and early 13th century and was responsible for some of the earliest polyphonic music of which we have written and attributed documentation. (Gregorian chant is earlier and is monophonic.) All that aside, this music is spacious, vibrant, and dovetailing. It doesn’t mind if you’re uninterested in Christianity or choral music or even the western tradition.