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. If you’d like to download it, I’ll be sharing an mp3 download in a week.

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 all ok, 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 the 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 alien–more exploratory, a kind of sonic alchemy. It’s more abstract than what I typically post, so if you typically gravitate towards things that are more 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 more 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

Haruomi Hosono – Mercuric Dance, 1985

A favorite. Not purely an ambient record, as there are a handful of more jittery, percussive tracks in the second half, but a good deal of this is, for me, ideal music to work to. Ringing, jewel-like washes of synth, but with a certain weight that similarly intentioned records seem to be lacking. The navy blue cover feels very apt–there’s something angular and a bit severe about this that I love. Recontextualized elements of traditional Japanese drumming throughout. I think this was made for a modern dance performance, but can’t find any additional information online–if anyone knows, please fill us in. Enjoy.

[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

Geinoh Yamashirogumi – Symphonic Suite AKIRA, 1988

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.

Daniel Lentz – On The Leopard Altar, 1984

Such a cool record. This was Daniel Lentz’s first album and was one of the seven releases on the short-lived Icon Records. Though Lentz’s background seats him pretty squarely in the realms of academia, On The Leopard Altar avoids much of the dryness that I associate with minimalism–it’s more generous, unafraid to lean into pop sensibility and pleasure. (Fittingly, he went on to make two records with Harold Budd.) “Lascaux” is a gorgeous nine minutes of 25 tuned wine glasses resonating in and out, with nothing added but reverb, and it acts as a new age drone meditation piece, with glasses serving as both shruti box and chimes. “Requiem” attempts to capture the experience of hearing a lone singer in a large, empty cathedral, with big church bell tolls, rolling keyboard chimes, a vocalist bathed in Julee Cruise-esque reverb, and a few pretty incredible overtone moments. The gorgeous title track is very warm, present vocals delivered with a choir boy-esque straight tone purity, over rolling keyboards and (I think) more wine glasses. On “Is It Love” and “Wolf Is Dead…” we hear more typically minimalist long-form weaving of gamelan-inspired rhythmic pulses in the vein of Reich and friends, and vowel-based vocal pulsing in the vein of Monk and friends, but even these are structured in ways that suggest a pop sensibility.

CHBB – CH-BB, 1981



Compilation of four self-released cassettes (each with 50 copies made), recorded in 1981 from power duo Chrislo Haas (Liasons Dangereuses, Der Plan, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft) and Beate Bartel (Einstürzende Neubauten, Liaisons Dangereuses, Mania D, I have a major crush). The compilation was released unofficially on vinyl in 1998 and to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t been released since. As it’s a compilation, there’s a lot of range–industrial, noise, bouncing new (no?) wave on closer “Go Go Go!”, and the incredible proto-techno “Neger Brauchen Keine Elektronik,” which I still can’t believe happened in 1981. Gritty and very, very good.

Michele Musser – Eye Chant, 1986

Celebrate Halloween this year with the strange surreality of Michele Musser’s Eye Chant. Recorded in the mid-eighties in Harrisburg, PA, the album takes you on a sample and synth-based odd-yssey where the only constant is freaky. Her sound palette includes synths, drum machines, a baby crying, animals, ship horns, waves, thunder, children laughing, bubbles, a clock ticking, plenty of vocal samples, and a spoken word passage. Experimental, with scattered elements of Berlin School (especially on the opening track) and new age synth.

Several tracks are cynical with regards to romance. “100% Bridal Illusion” discourages a prospective spouse, containing vocal samples communicating the triteness and misery of marriage. “Proteus and The Marlin” tells the story of a pathetically devoted woman who sleeps with a stuffed marlin for the rest of her life after her crazed, megalomaniac husband–who believed he was the Greek god Proteus–throws himself off the Golden Gate Bridge.
 
The album finishes with what is obviously the “hit” and the track that most makes this apropos for today. Check out the spook-funk groover “Too Much” below.

Jacques Dudon – Lumiéres Audibles, 1995

“In his ‘photosonic’ process, Dudon shines light through a series of semi-transparent, rotating discs that slow and modify the light waves’ frequencies; the resulting waveforms are picked up by photoelectric (solar-power) cells connected to standard analog amplifiers.”
– Kala Pierson, review in ‘The New Music Connoisseur
“I discovered these very particular waveforms from the beginning of my disk experimentations. Their sonorities, both complex and transparent, are among the oddest, reminding those of inharmonic tones or hisses. Their audition is often accompanied by very powerful psychic effects, the ear recognizing precise textures, paradoxically without being able to give them any determined fundamental pitches. This comes from the fact that graphically, and by analogy with the fractal images, these waves are generated by laws of geometrical development, putting in action the same organizing principles whatever the scale they are being observed at. The synthesis, on a disk, of a white noise, sets a very interesting mathematical problem, which can’t be resolved by shapes thrown in a hazardous way, neither by other aleatory parameters, which would only produce a buzz, while a white noise is the undifferentiated mixture of all frequencies. Fractal waveforms are up to this date what I found the most successful for a white noise imitation. In this CD are explored three of these fractal waveforms, with their related intonations: the “Clar” fractal waveform, and its first developments, in “Hexagrammes” (track 8); the “Phi” fractal waveform, starting point of “Fleurs de lumière” (tracks 1-2-3); and the “Mohajira” fractal waveform, at the basis of “Sumer” (tracks 4-5-6-7).”
– Fractal waveforms (excerpt from the “Lumières audibles” booklet)