Mix for The Le Sigh

I was lucky to have a very sweet conversation with Hayley at The Le Sigh, a website dedicated to the work of female-identifying and non-binary artists. We talked about early electronic music, the rise and fall of the album download blog, and the politics of music writing, among other things. I also made a 90 minute minute mix of music made by women (though to be clear, men contributed to many of these songs in different capacities). As you can imagine, this was way too much to fit into one mix, so I focused mostly on synth pioneers, experimental, and new age, with a few wildcards thrown in. The mix opens with Wendy Carlos giving a verbal walkthrough of some technical aspects of her synth process, and ends with Nina Simone ripping our hearts out. You can download an mp3 version here.

Tracklisting:
1. Wendy Carlos – Electronic Pointillism & Hocketing (from Secrets of Synthesis) / Sonata in G Major, L. 209/K. 455 (Scarlatti)
2. Phew – Expression
3. Delia Derbyshire – The Wizard’s Labratory
4. Pauline Oliveros – Wolf
5. Michele Musser – In The Air
6. Pauline Anna Strom – The Unveiling
7. Laurie Spiegel – Drums (Excerpt)
8. Deutsche Wertarbeit – Auf Engelsflügeln
9. Virginia Astley – I’m Sorry
10. Laurie Anderson – Kokoku
11. Miyako Koda – A Story Teller Is The Sun
12. Björk – Come To Me
13. Kate Bush – Delius
14. Bridget St. John – Many Happy Returns
15. Joanna Brouk – Winter Chimes
16. Alice Coltrane – Er Ra
17. Claire Hamill – Winter: Sleep
18. Suzanne Ciani – The Third Wave: Love In The Waves
19. Gal Costa – Volta (Live)
20. Nina Simone – Don’t Smoke In Bed (Live)

Nuno Canavarro – Plux Quba: Música Para 70 Serpentes, 1988

One of the hardest and best parts about writing this blog has been running up against records that feel impossible to write about, avoiding them for months or even years, and then eventually writing about them anyway. This is exactly that kind of record, and fittingly I’ve been putting it off since day one: its influence is too far reaching to properly recount, it’s too elegant and precise to accurately describe, and I feel too gooey about it, too pierced to possibly set my feelings aside and attempt objectivity. I think that’s alright, though, because Plux Quba is too perfect not to share.

The story starts with a familiar format that, coupled with incredibly prescient music, feels like the foregrounding for a hoax. In 1991, Christoph Heemann brought a copy of 1988’s Plux Quba to (from what I gather was) an informal listening session with Jim O’Rourke, Jan St. Werner, C-Schulz, Frank Dommert, and George Odjik in Köln, Germany. It was music without context, laboriously made with just an Ensoniq Mirage, a Fostex 8-track tape recorder, and an early 8-bit sampler loaded with pre-recorded, highly modified samples of things like television, radio voices, and a melodica. The story goes that everyone present was floored by it; O’Rourke so much so that when he launched Moikai, his label dedicated to minimal and electronic music, Plux Quba was his first (re)release, remixed and remastered by Portuguese guitarist and composer Rafael Toral. Since then it’s been reissued a few times, most recently by Japanese label Inpartmaint Inc, and while it has had incredible bearing on two decades of experimental electronic music, it seems that Plux Quba hasn’t yet received the widespread acclaim it’s due.

Several reviewers have said that Plux Quba takes inspiration from Robert Ashley’s Automatic Writing. I don’t know if that’s directly true, but I like to think of this record as hermetic, like the music of Charanjit Singh or Woo, bearing the kind of brilliance that often does write its own spontaneous language. It’s much too deliberate to be called an accident–Canavarro was already a well-seasoned musician by this time. And yet despite being recorded at home on very dated, simple equipment, it seems to exist outside of time. Having witnessed the subsequent deluge of glitch music and its offspring, this still sounds truly alie and exploratory, a kind of sonic alchemy. It’s more abstract than what I typically post, so if you typically gravitate towards things that are lyrical or poppy, I would absolutely encourage you to start here, preferably in headphones–though, for what it’s worth, Canavarro himself instructs on the back sleeve that this record must be heard “1. through speakers that are as far apart from one another as possible, and 2. starting from A-5, at a low volume (‘Wask’ and side 2).”

It explores similarly incandescent territory as Canavarro’s remarkable split with Carlos Maria Trindade, often employing the same textural palette and manipulations of vocal samples–slicing them up, stacking them precariously, drawing them out into ghost whispers, and running them backwards. But with a longer playtime and no collaborators, Canavarro is able to fully world-build, perhaps to even create something that feels more circular and complete. Comprised of 15 vignettes, mostly between one and two minutes long, not all of this record is unabashedly beautiful. Parts are deliberately jagged (“Alsee”), faltering (“Untitled 1”), or shrill (“O Fundo Escuro De Alsee”), but it’s precisely their inclusion that allow the record to reach sublime, sparkling heights. The stumbling, out-of-tune baroque of “Crimine” comes to mind–even here, after two and a half minutes of uncertainty, the song abruptly shifts to a perfect, crystalline music box lullaby. The record most perfectly exemplifies its own restrained breed of heartbreaking on the final track, Untitled 8. Slowly building, gently pulsing synthetic marimba, a veil of processed, indistinct whispers, a faraway oboe, and a ship’s bell that, when fully faded out, leave you perfectly positioned to restart the record.

If you’re interested in learning more about the recording process, in my Googling I found out that Fond/Sound has lovingly translated a rare interview that Canavarro gave to Fernando Magalhães into English. You can read it here.

buy / download

[Interview] Phew

Phew has had a decade-spanning, genre-hopping career and has cemented herself as an experimental music icon. She was a member of Aunt Sally, a punk band at the heart of the Kansai No Wave scene, and has collaborated with an incredible list of musical luminaries. Her debut self-titled record from 1981 has been canonized by Japanese record collectors and post punk devotees alike. Still, it’s perhaps now, working with only her collection of analog hardware, that she’s at her most powerful. She has just released Light Sleep, a collection of six tracks culled from three CD-Rs that had previously only been available at her live performances. If you’re not yet familiar with her work, it’s an ideal place to jump in, and you can buy it here. In conjunction with Blank Forms, Phew will be making her US debut on April 6th at First Unitarian Congregational Church in Brooklyn. Tickets are available here.

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You said in a recent interview that you wished you could “sing like dance, and use electronics like singing.” There’s some really beautiful footage online of you playing in Tokyo in 2014, and the whole thing sort of feels like a dance.

Thank you. For me, when I play live I’m definitely concentrating on the physicality of the performance. But I do have to be in control, although there is an element of merging—you treat the machines like an extension of your own body.

You’re committed to using analog gear instead of digital, but it’s of course harder to use and less predictable. Do you feel that the unpredictability has turned into a central part of your live performance?

Yes. I performed in Paris last night, for example, and it took about five minutes into my set to be able to match the sound I had been producing in sound check—but you just run with it. It’s definitely harder, but it’s also fun and satisfying to perform that way. To finally get the sound right is like catching a wild horse and making it your own.

How much room do you leave for improvisation and live composition during performances?

I go into it with a big sketch of what I want from a song, and from there it’s like filling in a coloring book. It’s never going to be the same twice, and that’s the fun part. If something’s not working, I’ll do something else.

You’ve also said that you don’t think you’re a singer in the conventional sense, because you don’t aim to communicate a story or incite feeling within the listener. It seems as if you’ve resisted ideas about what the voice “should” do as a “human instrument.” Still, your voice is really powerful and evocative. Do you feel you use voice as a texture, or even as a machine?

Yes—it’s definitely still an instrument, but the way I treat voice is hugely influenced by how I listened to music when I was a little girl. When I was ten or eleven years old, the Beatles’ Abbey Road came out, so I was listening to a lot of the Beatles without understanding any of the English. I was tasting voice in the same way as I would guitar, with no understanding of lyrical meaning. I’ve used voice that way ever since, texturally.

You’ve said that you hated the 80s in Japan—that everyone was drunk on money, and you didn’t even want to leave the house. It’s interesting because I imagine most people think of the 80s as a musical explosion for Japan, especially given what people were suddenly able to do with synthesizers.

I don’t know. I wasn’t even listening to contemporary music at the time. I was mostly listening to music from the ‘50s. A lot of Elvis Presley.
Right, you even did an Elvis cover. Did your parents listen to Elvis around the house while you were growing up?

No, they were listening to more jazz. Especially my dad. But I hated it—I was totally allergic to jazz.

Interesting! I would have guessed there’s a lot of avant-garde jazz influence in your music.

Maybe subconsciously. I feel better about jazz now, but if there are jazz influences in my music they’re unintentional.

You’ve also mentioned the Sex Pistols being a big influence on you as a teenager.

When the Pistols came out I was roughly the same age as their members. Seeing them live was influential, but it was less about their music specifically than about punk as a movement. UK punk was a huge influence in my desire to have a band, but Aunt Sally was less about making a political statement than embracing the possibilities of punk, musically. The main takeaway from punk, for me, was a lack of leadership, a lack of any “pop star” identity.

Has music ever been a form of protest for you?

In the 80s, it absolutely wasn’t. We were just making music. We never even thought about the fact that having three women in a punk band could be radical. Now, in 2017, it does feel more like a protest. But it’s less about having a specific message, and more about the live performance and considering the experience of the audience. There’s something very small and fragile about that relationship, and that’s the most important and radical aspect of making music for me.

A friend of mine recently pointed out that you’ve always gotten the best out of all the collaborators you’ve worked with over the years, playing to their strengths while still keeping the music balanced. It always sounds like you, even when you’re playing different genres. What do you look for in a collaboration?

I look for someone that changes me, someone that allows me change into something I didn’t expect. That’s the most exciting part. Surprise, flexibility.

A lot of people are referring to Light Sleep as a return to the sounds of your first record. To me the sound feels more intimate and specific—the gestures feel smaller and more detailed, a lot of the beats feel like microbeats. It’s more delicate. Is this kind of intimacy a product of working without collaborators?

Yes. The recordings on Light Sleep were made before my record A New World. The songs are rough sketches, like drawing an object in pencil, which is probably the intimacy and scale that you’re hearing. I also recorded them in my bedroom, so they’re meant to be small.

Do you have plans or projects for when you’re done touring?

I want to do a performance in collaboration with a video artist. I’d like it to be somewhere in between a vocal performance piece and an installation, so it would probably be in a gallery or museum setting.

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Thank you to Phew, Juri Onuki, Cora Walters, Lawrence Kumpf,
and Keiko Yoshida for facilitating this interview.

[Mix for NTS Radio] Getting Warmer Episode 10: Sakamoto Special

My newest mix for NTS Radio is a 坂本龍一 (Ryuichi Sakamoto) special! Not an exhaustive overview, just some personal highlights. If you like it, you can download an mp3 version here.

In related news, if you’re interested in listening to my NTS show live, my time slot has just moved to every fourth Wednesday at 1pm EST/5pm GMT, which I hope will be a more convenient time for many. The next one will be airing on channel 2 on March 22nd. Thanks for listening!

Tracklisting:
1. Ryuichi Sakamoto – Thousand Knives
2. Yellow Magic Orchestra – Neue Tanz
3. Ryuichi Sakamoto – You Do Me
4. Ryuichi Sakamoto – E-3A
5. Virginia Astley – I’m Sorry
6. Ryuichi Sakamoto – A Carved Stone
7. Ryuichi Sakamoto – Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
8. Hector Zazou – Hapolot Kenym
9. Ryuichi Sakamoto & Thomas Dolby – Fieldwork (London Mix)
10. Yellow Magic Orchestra – Kai-koh
11. Akiko Yano – Ashkenazy Who?
12. Ryuichi Sakamoto – Whales (NTT Data 1990)
13. Ryuichi Sakamoto & Robin Scott – Once In A Lifetime

Bill Nelson – The Love That Whirls (Diary Of A Thinking Heart), 1982

As the title suggests, this is a record about love, but in typical Bill Nelson fashion, it’s neither saccharine nor sentimental. It’s full-blooded, angsty, and churning, and the song titles are unabashed: “Eros Arriving,” “The Bride Of Christ In Autumn,” “Flesh,” “Flaming Desire,” and my favorite, “The Crystal Escalator In The Palace Of God Department Store.”

This was recorded the same year in which Nelson contributed to both Yukihiro Takahashi‘s What, Me Worry? and Masami Tsuchiya‘s Rice Music (alongside Ryuichi Sakamoto, Hideki Matsutake, and Steve Jansen), and you can really hear the Japanese pop influence on tracks like “Empire of the Senses,” “A Private View,” and “When Your Dream Of Perfect Beauty Comes True”–the dry, playful spronky synth whirr and scritching drum machines feel strongly YMO-esque. Elsewhere, it’s signature Nelson cinematic new wave, and a couple more brooding instrumental tracks (“Portrait Of Jan With Flowers” is a favorite).

As an aside, I’ll be tweeting favorite songs about love, lust, and heartbreak all day, so please unfollow and follow accordingly.

Miyako Koda – Jupiter, 1998

Solo record from Miyako Koda (dip in the pool, Love, Peace & Trance, personal style hero). A bit hard to pin down, as there’s a wide range between tracks, but it all feels very true to Koda’s aesthetic: alternately playful and very sober, shifting readily between straight tone choir-boy-esque vocals and spoken word (spoiler alert: closer “A Sea of Love” is an ASMR goldmine). Micro-glitch balearic jazz and delicate electronic pulsing with a bit of a Laurie Anderson feel. Production by Haruomi Hosono, Yasuaki Shimizu, Towa Tei, and Gonzalez Mikami.

To the best of my knowledge, the original recording (download link below) isn’t available for sale anywhere, but you can buy a very good six track mini-album of reworked tracks from Jupiter, featuring an all-star lineup (including mastering by Seigen Ono) from Chee Shimizu’s 17853 imprint here.

Gino Soccio – Face To Face, 1982

Feeling heartbroken for peers, friends, musicians, and artists who have been affected by the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. Like so many others, I’m unable to imagine what my life would be like without DIY, and often illegal, spaces for art, music, and living. These spaces are increasingly vital as cities become prohibitively expensive, and the news coverage that blames the victims of such a terrible loss is deeply upsetting. To echo others: this could have been any of us.

In the spirit of cultures that will, by necessity, continue to build beautiful things in marginal places, I wanted to share a favorite disco record (though to be fair, this record was a heavily produced chart-topper, not a homegrown experiment). This is one of my favorite records to dance to, and is also a rare instance of a disco LP that’s solid all the way through. Impeccably tasty production–hard to say no to this one. Please keep dancing!

Muslimgauze – Zul’m, 1992

Hard to know where to start. Muslimgauze was the moniker of UK musician Bryn Jones, who released over 90 albums in his short life (he died suddenly at 37 from a rare blood infection). As more of his recordings are still being unearthed posthumously, his discography is currently approaching 200 releases. The project originated with Jones’s support for Palestine in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as its nexus, but eventually expanded to encompass his sympathy for other conflict-ridden Muslim countries, and his belief that Western interests in natural resources and political gain were at the root of many of these conflicts. He lived with his parents until his death, but was effectively living in his studio most of the time, often churning out an album a week for months on end. He was so obsessive about his music-making (and showed no regard for how little interest it generated during his lifetime) that he often said he didn’t have time to listen to anyone else’s music–yet he pulled from so many genres in such a prescient way that he must have been some kind of lightning rod for musical synthesis. His work incorporates elements of dub, techno, drum and bass, industrial, ambient, and traditional percussion borrowed from dozens of ethnicities. Most (and I say most lightly, as I’ve barely scratched the surface) of his music is built around that percussion–drum kits, drum machines, breakbeats, ethnic hand percussion, pots and pans–and tape loops, which he preferred over computers and samplers despite their much more laborious process.

Zul’m is on the more accessible side of what I’ve heard of Muslimgauze, and it neatly encapsulates much of Jones’s aesthetic. It moves slowly and decisively, building up to frothy climaxes that occasionally feel joyful in spite of the oppressive, clanking weight of the whole thing. Hypnotic stretches of percussion, looping, and vocal samples (in both Hindi and Arabic on this release). I think this was around the time that Jones was beginning to use more spaced out, expansive production, and you can hear that dubby quality working to terrific effect. Zul’m is dedicated to “the unknown Palestinians buried in mass graves in Al-Riqqa cemetary, Kuwait city.” Today we might also dedicate it today to the civilians of Aleppo, both the living and the dead.

Roedelius – Wenn Der Südwind Weht, 1981

Hard to pick a favorite release from Hans-Joachim Roedelius, who’s contributed to 92 different releases, according to Discogs. Though most famous for co-founding Cluster and Harmonia, he’s been even more prolific as a solo artist. Wenn der Südwind Weht (“When the South Wind Blows”) was his seventh solo release, though he followed it up with a casual 35 more full-lengths, most of which I still haven’t heard. Of his earlier releases, this is both my favorite and the most exemplary of signature Roedelius. The most remarkable moments are when synthesizer acts as a vessel for his pastoral sensibility, with unabashedly sentimental lines of synthetic oboe, clarinet, organ, and something theremin-like sitting on top of rolling piano chord pulses muffled in golden-warm reverb. The title track, “Veilchenwurzeln,” and “Mein Freund Farouk” are the best instances of this kind of classical miniaturism–they’re what make this record feel like a favorite sweater–but in very German tradition, a handful of the other tracks meander into more shivery, drawn-out synth meditations (and that’s certainly a good thing). Ideal rainy day music.

Randomize – ¿Como Se Divertiran Los Insectos?, 1986

Other-wild experimental electronic industrial ramblings from the Spanish group later renamed Mecanica Popular. A range of feeling, but the entire album sounds like the soundtrack to a film that takes place in a factory on an alien planet. This record (whose name translates to “How Do Insects Have Fun?”) stands out on its musical merit, but this proto vaporwave/net art cover is also pretty amazing. This group was part of the same Spanish electronic scene as Orquestra de Las Nubes, who are featured on this Música Esporádica record.