Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Electronic and Experimental Music at Oxfam, Exeter

The Oxfam Music and Arts shop in Exeter recently received a huge donation of records from the University Music Department, who were moving to smaller premises (a sign of the times, alas). I immediately set to trawling through and soon dug out some real treasures of electronic and avant-garde music. The collection would seem to have been put together during the 70s, at the high point of musical modernism and experiment. The thick and undisturbed patina of dust which covered the plastic sleeves protecting these LPs spoke eloquently of the extent to which this exploratory spirit has faded; or at least found other, more fertile ground beyond the academy. We shall be putting these records out in the shop this weekend, and there’ll be some striking covers on display, from the reflective silver sheen of the Philips 21eme Siecle series (no sign of the Electronic Panorama box set, unfortunately) to some eye-dazzling op-art patterns and psychedelically oversaturated colours. This actually says quite a lot about the way that this music reached beyond a classical or academic audience and connected with listeners who had explored the wilder shores of rock, whether in the form of the Grateful Dead, Zappa, the Soft Machine, Can or The Beatles (after all, Stockhausen was one of the faces peering out of the Sergeant Pepper sleeve – Paul’s choice, of course). It also shows how these records were marketed with such an audience in mind. It’s interesting to discover that the sleeve notes to one of the John Cage records we’ve got, Variations IV (released in 1965), has sleeve notes by Joseph Byrd. He would go on to form The United States of America, a group which pioneered the blending of electronic and concrète sounds into a rock context. Little appreciated at the time, they were later to be a huge influence on bands like Broadcast and Stereolab. Indeed, this kind of music is still most highly valued by those operating on the margins, blending popular and experimental forms. A wide selection of electronic music from the 60s and 70s (including Pierre Henry’s Cortical Art III, which we’ll come to later) has been released on the Creel Pone reissue label (which may or may not be curated by the modern electronic musician Keith Fullerton Whitman) with these kinds of listeners in mind.

Modern electronic music could really be said to have started in Paris in the Studio d’Essai (the experimental studio) of the ORTF, the Office of National Radio-Television. It was here, that Pierre Schaeffer, a studio engineer, began to experiment with making music from discrete blocks of recorded sound, which were contrasted with each other and manipulated in various ways to create what he thought of as ‘a symphony of noises’. He called this new music of sounds musique concrete, and set about creating a theoretical system which would codify its various elements. The first piece he created in this style was the Etudes des Bruits (Study in Sounds), produced in 1948. It consisted of five sections, each centring on its own signature recorded elements. The best known of these is Etude des Chemins de Fer (Railway Study), which blends the noises of steam engine whistles, screeching brakes, carriage doors slamming, wheels clattering over rails and other train sounds recorded at the nearby Batignolles Station or dug out of the radio library. This hugely significant piece was made using records cut on the studio’s own lathes. Locked grooves served to create repeating cycles over which further sounds could be layered. A year later Schaeffer composed Symphonie Pour Un Homme Seul (Symphony For A Man Alone, or A Lonely Man?) with his new assistant and musical collaborator Pierre Henry. Henry brought an imaginative musical mind to their work together, Schaeffer always being more of the analytical engineering type. This symphony of sounds was the first piece of musique concrète to be performed in a concert hall when it was unveiled (or unspooled) on 18th March 1950. In some ways a landmark to place alongside the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, although electronic musicians would later try to find more appropriate and stimulating environments than the traditional concert venues in which to air their work.

Pierre Schaeffer in the studio
By now, the two Pierre’s were using the newly developed recording medium of magnetic tape, which offered greatly expanded possibilities for editing and sound manipulation, and was considerably more easy to work with than the records used for Etudes des Bruits. Presumably, these were also transferred to tape for subsequent performances and recordings. Tape became the defining medium for creating concrete music, its splicing, joining and looping giving the process a physical, craftsmanlike aspect, involving much peering and fiddly work at close quarters. Schaeffer attracted a group of followers, young composers who were excited by the creative potential of this new musical form and the expanded soundworld it brought with it. At first known as the Club D’Essai, after the studio they met and worked in, they morphed into the more soberly titled Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète in 1952, which was soon streamlined into Groupe de Recherche Musicales (GRM). It was a change in name which suggested an analytical, scientific approach rather than the enthusiastic amateurism suggested by a ‘club’ – the classic image of the lab coated musical technician wrestling with crackling capacitors, twisting serpents of tape and oversized recording reels. Actually, a good deal of fine and innovative electronic music would be made by amateur enthusiasts over the years. They had less concern for theoretical compositional rigour and more for the bewitching quality of the sounds made on the equipment they cobbled up at home. But at this stage, most of the electronic music ‘laboratories’ were funded by state radio, universities or technological companies such as Philips (who set up a studio in Eindhoven in Holland) or Sony (whose studio was located in Tokyo).

With funding from the RTF, Schaeffer and his cohorts set up the first studio expressly designed to produce electronic music and further develop the technologies which made it possible. The GRM was officially incorporated into the RTF in 1958, coincidentally the same year that the BBC established its own electronic music and effects studio, the Radiophonic Workshop. The studio heads there, in naming it thus, evidently felt there was a certain artisanal quality inherent in the production of electronic music, although it took them a while to fully realise that the art which was also there. BBC producer Donald McWhinnie had visited the GRM studio in 1956, and his enthusiasm for its work, particularly as it related to radio drama effects. This enthusiasm was conveyed in a report written by several hands (including Daphne Oram) later that year which looked at the viability of establishing a similar set up in London.

We have a musique concrète LP released on the Vox label in 1969 which gathers together a selection of music recorded at GRM, mostly during the 60s. It begins, naturally enough, with a piece by Schaeffer himself. His oeuvre is actually quite sparse, since he devoted more time to putting together a theoretical framework for his initial discoveries than he did to composition. Objets Liés (bound objects) is the second part of his 1959 suite Etude Aux Objets, an he recorded a new version of it for this LP. François-Bernard Mâche’s Terre de Feu (1963) constrasts glacial creaking, icy tinkling and watery trickles to create a primal, frozen soundscape which seems at odds with the title (fiery ground). Michel Philippot’s Etude III (1962) juxtaposes stacatto pinging sounds with clock chimes twisted and warped out of shape – the sound of a grandfather clock going cuckoo. François Bayle’s L’Oiseau Chanteur is the third part of his Portraits de L’Oiseau-Qui-N’Existe-Pas (portraits of the bird which doesn’t exist) from 1963. Oboe, horn and clavichord are seamlessly blended with electronic sounds which often approach the condition of birdsong. Electronic music is particularly good at imitating the complex sonorities of birdsong. The songs of certain birds, in turn (I’m thinking of the bird of paradise in particular here), sound as if they are being produced by electronic rather than natural means. There is humour in Bayle’s music, too, with the occasional goofy chuckle bubbling through like an anthropomorphised woodpecker. The sprightly clavichord and rapid melodic and harmonic leaps and turns, combined with this humour, give it something of a Zappaesque flavour at times. Luc Ferrari’s Tête et Queue du Dragon (head and tail of a dragon) mixes hissing, dry rattling and wet slithering sounds with heat-hazed drones to create a sinister portrait of the beast in question. It’s a monster movie for the ears. Serbian-born Ivo Malec’s Dahovi (which means breathing in Serbo-Croat) from 1961 is dark and ominous, with low rumbling tones and distorted vocal sounds suggesting sinister goings on in some dank, torchlit crypt. Bernard Parmegiani’s Danse (1962) sprinkles tinkling showers of glassy sound droplets over a white noise waterfall before conjuring a swarm of tropical bird and insect sounds. It then quietens into more pointillistic dots of discrete sound before launching into a scurrying frenzy reminiscent of Ligeti’s manic harpsichord exercise in perpetual motion Continuum.

Pierre Henry went his own way, leaving the confines of the GRM in 1958. He wearied of Schaeffer’s doctrinaire approach, and wanted to explore his own musical directions, whether they be concrète or electronic. He was also keen to reach out to audiences, and to collaborate with like-minded artists in other fields. One such was the dancer and choreographer Maurice Béjart, whom he met at the RTF studios in 1955. Henry created many electronic ballet scores for him over the years, some of which are collected on the LP Mass For the Present Time. The best known of the pieces here is the titular suite, which comprises the electronic components of a ‘ceremony in nine episodes to the memory of Patrick Belda’, a dancer in Béjart’s troupe who had died in a car crash. A more full title of this suite, which acknowledged that it was only a part of the whole, was included on the original French release: Les Jerks Électronique de la Messe Pour le Temps Présent. Michel Colombier arranged a driving garage rock backing, ornamented with the odd woodwind flourish or emphatic tubular bell clangour, and Henry sprayed colourful splurges of electronic sound over the top. If Pysché Rock sounds familiar, it’s because it was loosely adapted to form the theme music for Futurama (Matt Groening being a huge enthusiast for esoteric music). This was certainly a long way from the academy or Schaeffer’s austere lab. It moves electronic music towards the realm of popular music, where it would find a welcoming and fertile home. Henry would collaborate on another electronic ‘mass’ in 1969, this time with the rock group Spooky Tooth. Other pieces on the album conform more to type. The extract from The Voyage comes from a longer piece which evokes the afterlife journey towards rebirth as depicted in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It’s a subject matter which it shares with an even longer electronic work by a French composer, Eliane Radigue’s superb Trilogie de la Mort. The sounds are built up from feedback, and are appropriately dark and ominous, conjuring up an unsettling, spectral interzone. The Green Queen was another ‘spectacle’ thought up with Béjart, with death and transfiguration a central theme once more (the psychedelic cover begins to make more sense in this context). The rock instrumentation was absent this time, however, the music being a purer distillation of Henry’s concrete and electronic sounds. Variations for a Door and a Sigh (1963) is essentially just that. A concrete piece which uses a sigh and the creaking of a door recorded in a granary as its source material. Henry is using sounds which are almost not there, creating a piece on the threshold of audibility. As such, it seems to open a door into some other place. It was given its premier in the church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre in Paris on 27th June 1963, the setting adding to the sense of tuning into the beyond.

Cortical Art III couldn’t be more different. It was recorded in public during the inaugural concert of the 8th International Congress of Electro-Encephalography and Clinical Neuropsychology at Marseille on 5th September 1973. A tough crowd, very analytical. Henry collaborated here with Roger Lafosse, who had devised a machine which translated brain activity into electrical impulses, which Henry could then transpose into electronic sound. This was live electronics, then, in effect a duet between brain and musical interpreter and mixer. The result is ferocious, a squall of electronic sound which makes no concessions to the professional crowd, unleashing a veritable brainstorm. It’s exciting stuff, particularly given its in the moment creation. You can imagine Henry wrestling with those encephalographic waves etching their patterns across his oscilloscope, trying to mould them into some coherent form. If this is the sound of a mind, then it would seem to be a rather turbulent and troubled one. Marvellously, the assembled neuropsychologists break into polite applause when the electronic storm finally subsides.

Other national radio stations followed the RTF’s example in setting up electronic music studios. The Westdeutscher Rundfunk (West German Broadcasting, or WDR) established theirs in 1951 in Cologne under the directorship of Herbert Eimert. The Cologne studio adopted a very different approach to the RTF, placing emphasis on sounds generated through electronic means rather than on recorded sounds. Under Eimert’s watchful eye, these were to be organised along the lines of the total serialist music then considered the way forward for the Western classical tradition. This involved the arrangement of all musical elements (pitch, timbre, duration, rhythm etc) according to rigorously worked out formulae, creating an intensely ordered music. A new kind of distanced classicism, in effect, taking the reaction to the lush late Romanticism of the early 20th century to its ultimate conclusion. There was a fair amount of hostility between the French and German studios, or at least between some of their more doctrinaire inhabitants. Schaeffer and Eimert were certainly very fierce and a little dictatorial in promoting their particular manifestos for the new technologies and the way they felt they should be used. The belief in artistic freedom and the possibility that a multiplicity of approaches was permissible and even desirable seemed ideas which were alien to them. With time and the spread of electronic music beyond these national fiefdoms, such divisions became irrelevant and seemed a little foolish in retrospect.

The best known composer to have worked at the Cologne studios was Karlheinz Stockhausen, although his first electronic Etude was created at GRM in 1952. Stockhausen ended up taking over the directorship of the WDR studio from Eimert in 1963, and held the post up until 1977, at which point he devoted all his energies to his monumental Licht cycle of music theatre pieces. We have several of the electronic pieces which he made at the Cologne studios during the 60s. Stockhausen definitely began in the serialist camp, and was always keen to point out the theoretical structure of his music – offputtingly to listeners who subsequently felt they lacked the expertise to hear the work ‘properly’. He soon moved beyond serialist strictures into more freely expressive territories, however, whilst never losing the musicological verbosity. Kontakte (1958-60) was an electronic piece which could stand on its own or be combined with a part for piano and percussion. We have the Vox release from 1969, with its use of that signature material of the period, Perspex, on the cover. The contacts of the title refer to the points at which the tape and the musicians collide or graze against each other, the sounds contrasting or converging. Sometimes the electronics seem to be a reverberant shadow of the instruments, and sometimes the instrumental performers seem to be reacting to or recoiling from the electronic sounds. These are two worlds which come into close proximity and occasionally make contact, but remain fundamentally divergent. At the centre of the tape piece is a long descending note which slows down in frequency whilst maintaining a steady pitch, stretching out to reveal its constituent beat cycles. The effect is rather like watching a slow lightning flash descent until it is finally grounded. Stockhausen used his electronic sounds to create a sense of space, and of movement within that space, building an artificial environment which the listener could inhabit and explore. To help mould this sense of sonic topography, he recorded the sounds he produced on four microphones place at cardinal points around a rotating table on top of which the speaker was placed. In live performances, he could mix the sounds around a hall which has speakers placed in all four corners, sending them spinning around the audience’s heads. I saw him doing just that in 2005 at the old Billingsgate Fish Market in London. After his customary technical introduction to the musicological mechanics of the piece, he advised us to close our eyes, hold on to a sound and follow it around. ‘Enjoy your trip’, he said with an informality, bolstered by the comfy orange cardy he wore, which belied his reputation for forbidding intellectualism.

Mixtur (1964-7) followed on from Kontakte’s combination of electronic and instrumental forces, this time transforming the sounds of sections of an orchestra with the use of sine wave generators and ring modulators. Ring modulators were used again in Mantra (1970), a piece for two pianists who each had one of the devices to hand to splinter the notes they were playing on the keyboard. The ring modulator essentially splits a tone apart into its upper and lower frequencies, eliminating the mid-ranges. It creates a jagged, harshly metallic sound (Stockhausen would use it with metallic percussion in his Microphonie I). This was put to perfect use by Dick Mills and Brian Hodgson at the Radiophonic Workshop, who distorted the human voice to produce the monotone, mechanical shouting of the Daleks in Doctor Who. Mantra was based on a 13 note ‘formula’, reiterated across 13 sections, with each note the centre of its own particular part. The ring modulators emphasised those focal notes, surrounding them with their own wavering aura.

Telemusik (1966) is on the same Deutsche Grammophon LP as Mixtur. It’s worth pointing out that Stockhausen bought up his entire back catalogue of Deutsche Grammaphon recordings, which he proceeded to release on his mail-order only Stockhausen Verlag label. This gave him complete control of his work, from the cover design and sleevenotes to the mix. The old LPs are thus the only way to hear these works as they were originally recorded and mixed. Telemusik takes the form of short wave radio signals, tuning into the world and catching half-heard echoes of its global musics. These range from the ancient Japanese Gagaku court music (the piece was written while Stockhausen was staying in Osaka), to gamelan and Saharan singing. Stockhausen paid attention to his dreams, and this was his first attempt to realise his dream vision of a ‘music of the whole world’ which united all cultures and dissolved national boundaries. The swooping, fluttering and spiralling high-pitched tones which sound like short wave signals are generated electronically here. Stockhausen clearly liked their timbre and dreamlike drift, however, and would go on to use short wave radio tuning in his 1968 pieces Kurzwellen and Spiral.

Telemusik’s implied panglobalism reached its apogee in Hymnen (1967), a vast work which, at almost 2 hours in length, demonstrated that electronic music could be used for longform compositions as well as for shorter studies and instrumental contrast. It also definitively broke down the divide between electronic and concrete sounds, freely using both without any resultant explosion. Hymnen unfolds gradually across four ‘regions’, giving the feel of a journey across a mapped out space, one both geographical and interior. The concrète element comes principally in the form of vaguely perceived national anthems, which are subject to tape transformations and absorption by electronic sound (including more shortwave drift). Stockhausen himself presides over the seamless sonic voyage around the world, acting as some kind of cosmic croupier. He blandly but authoritatively announces various colours, as if to cue a shift in the predominant palette of our imaginative backdrop. A brief section in which the tape is sped up to a cartoon canter has a (presumably unintentionally) comic feel, and again brings to mind the Zappa of Lumpy Gravy. The final region in this landmark piece is a noplace, the invented utopian state of Hymnunion in Harmondie under Pluramon, which has its own imagination anthem. Stockhausen seemed to be pointing to the potential for this new music to affect a transformation of the world, or at least a change in the consciousness of those who experienced it. Unfortunately, like so many utopian dreamers, he ended up disappearing into his own ideal worlds, replacing the real and tangible with ever more elaborate self-created or semi-appropriated mythologies. These became largely impenetrable and were frequently foolish, but by now no one could criticise Stockhausen, who believed utterly in his own unassailable genius. He became his own self-igniting star – bright Sirius, burning a very long way from Earth and its mundane human concerns.

The other major European electronic music studio was the Studio di Fonologia in Milan, attached to the Italian National Radio station (Radio Audizioni Italiane, or RAI). Italian composers Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono were central figures here. Nono was a committed Communist, and often contrasted electronic elements with sung texts through which he could voice his political views. La Fabbrica Illuminata (1964) has a chorus and a soloist singing or speaking over a musique concrete tape which uses recorded factory noises as its source material (much as Edgard Varèse had done in the electronic interludes of his 1954 piece Déserts). Y Entonces Comprendio (and then he understood) from 1969-70 sets six female voices and a chorus against a tape part, and its revolutionary intent is made clear by its dedication to Che Guevara. Como Una Ola de Feurza y Luz (like a wave of strength and light) from 1971-2 is on the same Deutsche Grammaphon LP as the previous piece. It contrasts soprano and piano with their distorted mirror images, wrenched into strange shapes through tape manipulation. These electronic sections are interspersed with stormy orchestral passages, again in a fashion similar to Edgard Varèse’s Déserts.

Luciano Berio didn’t share Nono’s abiding political commitment, but he was no less radical in using electronic musical materials and extended technique to crack apart the old received notions of what instruments and ensembles should sound like, and what they should do. The principle instrument he was interested in was the most flexible and wide-ranging of them all – the human voice. He was married to the soprano Cathy Berberian between 1950 and 1964, and she was a great inspiration for him. She interpreted the dramatic and expressionistic vocal works he wrote for her (both during and after the marriage) with fearless dedication. Many of these used elements of electronic manipulation to stretch the vocal sounds even further, imbuing them with spectral and special qualities which wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. They often create the impression of travelling inwards, into some interior, psychological state. The alteration of the human voice always has an initially disorienting and potent effect, making the intimate and the familiar alien and strange. The 21 minute tour de force Visage (1961) puts Berberian’s voice through any number of variations, but her remarkable performance remains central, as it does in the shorter Sequenza III for Woman’s Voice (1965). I’ve written more about these pieces before, in the context of Peter Strickland’s film Berberian Sound Studio, whose backdrop draws on the Studio di Fonologia set up. We have Visage on tow LPs: one on CBS coupled with the more conventional (and thus more frequently performed) orchestral work Sinfonia; the other a Turnabout LP of electronic music which also includes the electronic elements from John Cage’s chance piece Fontana Mix (1958), recorded at the Studio di Fonologia; and Turkish-born Ilhan Mimaroglu’s 1965 piece Agony. This was recorded at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre, the major locale for electronic music production in the US at the time. It had been established in 1958, emerging from the Columbia Tape Music Centre set up at Columbia University in New York in 1951. Mimaroglu’s piece used electronic means to create a sound analogue for the fiery reds, blazing yellows and burnt browns of the Armenian painter Arshile Gorky’s violently expressionist 1947 work Agony, which is owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Berio also wrote pieces which combined and contrasted instrumental, orchestral and electronic elements. In Différences (1958), a motley chamber group consisting of flute, harp, viola and cello play over a tape which manipulates the sounds they make and throws them back at them. Laborintus II (1965) is a work of musical synthesis composed for the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth which incorporates electronic sounds alongside jazz, operatic, choral and spoken word elements, all coming together to form a theatrical whole. The recording is inevitably a poor substitute for a staged performance, but is a never less than interesting melange, anyway.

The Greek composer Iannis Xenakis wrote, or constructed, a good deal of electronic music, and was also an early user of computer technology for musical ends. He set this technology to calculating the parameters of his ‘stochastic’ pieces. The word stochastic refers to a pattern or group whose behaviour or movement is calculable within certain limits of probability, but is never precisely predictable. It all sounds dryly mathematical, a matter of plotting points on graphs and working through calculus with little thought of musical form, an impression deepened by the use of formulaic titles: ST (for stochastic) followed by numbers which indicate instrumental forces, the number of times these forces have been used, and sometimes even the date of composition. Hence ST-10-1,080262, which we have on an EMI disc, coupled with Polla Ta Dhina. Or, rather more concisely, ST.4, coupled with Atrées. These pieces actually have a very organic feel, which is not at all difficult to absorb and comprehend. The talk of rigorous mathematical order which Xenakis’ music tended to trail in the 60s and 70s was rather offputting, but the music needn’t be heard as a cerebral exercise. Its impact is visceral and instinctively felt, and cumulatively very powerful. The stochastic processes create a sense of semi-chaotic motion with a deeper order evident below the turbulent surface. These are the shifting patterns of swarming or flowing, flocking or flickering found in the natural world and in the play of the elements. The long, gliding notes and clusters (glissandi) which are characteristic of Xenakis add to this organic impression. Xenakis himself expressed the primacy of the aesthetic aspects of his music over their technical methodologies in an interview which he gave to Brian Morton for the Wire magazine in 1988. ‘If I see a beautiful sunset’, he said, ‘I might afterwards go on to ask and explore why it has happened – planetary movement, orbit, the diffraction of light – but to begin with I simply say, how beautiful’.

Xenakis composed a number of electronic works at Pierre Schaeffer’s GRM studios, which he first visited in 1954. Four of these are included on the Erato Xenakis box set we have. Diamorphoses (1957) uses clashing and cranking industrial sounds given a cavernous reverberation and set at a spatial remove. It sounds like some immense subterranean factory, or the hub of a busy lunar space port, all viewed from a safe distance. The slowly rising background noise is like a launch being prepared, whilst the quicksilver ascending and descending glissandi trace arcing flight paths in and out. Messiaen, who had taught and encouraged Xenakis, commented on Diamorphoses in terms which once more voice the idea that the music transcended any formulaic mathematical bases it might employ: ‘The preliminary calculations of these huge spider-webs are transformed into a musical delight of the utmost poetical nature’.

The Philips Pavilion, Brussels Expo 58
Concret PH was produced for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels Expo of 1958. Xenakis was a trained architect and worked for the arch-modernist Le Corbusier. He worked on the preliminary plans for the Pavilion with him, at which point Le Corbusier left to supervise another project in India, leaving Xenakis in charge of the actual construction. There is little doubt that the building was a collaborative effort, but Xenakis didn’t receive the acknowledgment which was his due. This contributed to his decision to leave Le Corbusier’s employment and concentrate on his music. The PH in the title refers to the hyperbolic parabaloid, the mathematical shape which gave the pavilion its remarkable form. The sweeping curves rising to twin peaks are like Xenakis’ gliding glissandi given concrete form. Xenakis’ piece was placed between repeat playbacks of Edgard Varèse’s Poème Electronique, the sound distributed across 325 speakers arrayed around the interior of the pavilion, a further 25 setting the floor rumbling with low bass frequencies. Xenakis built his piece up from cut up recordings of burning charcoal – tiny flickering sparks of sound. These are gradually built up until we get the impression of a glinting crystalline mass, expanding and shearing off shattering shards. It must have been quite something to have been immersed in this ever-growing cloud of thousands of tiny sounds whilst gazing around the interior curvature of a hyperbolic parabaloid.

Orient-Occident (1960) begins with sonorous bell tones which give way to a blasted ground of harsh feedback screeches, sounding like bowed metal percussion. Later, there are more wooden percussion sounds, discrete and spaced apart, as in Japanese Noh theatre accompaniments – the Orient of the title perhaps. A tropical jungle chorus emerges, as it did in Bernard Parmegiani’s Danse, Xenakis creating an abundant and noisome natural soundscape. Bohor (1962) was dedicated to Pierre Schaeffer, an acknowledgment of how much his time at the GRM studios had meant to Xenakis. Unfortunately, Schaeffer was none too keen on the results, and was never one to hold back from voicing his opinion, so the gift was effectively rejected. The piece opens with echoing percussive pattering on what sounds like saucepan lids. A ratcheting, descending slash of sound cuts through at regular intervals, sounding like a stick being run along the loose, reverberant railings of a metal fence, or the strings inside a piano. These elements grow more dense, creating another expanding sound mass. The semi-random, stochastic order gives the impression of drops of water falling onto the surface of a pool in a large subterranean cave, with something larger occasionally plunging in, skimming across or leaping out. It’s a little like Pauline Oliveros and the Deep Listening Band’s field recording of their percussive interaction with cave water run-off on the record Troglodyte’s Delight, only more loud and intense.

Perhaps the pinnacle of Xenakis’ electronic music, and certainly its most epic and lengthy expression at just under an hour in duration, is the 1971 piece Persepolis. This was commissioned by the Shah of Iran and was first played in the ruins of the Palace of King Darius I at Persepolis, the heart of the old Persian Empire in the pre-Christian era. The audience invited to the performance on August 26th 1971 wandered through the columns, doorways and along the paths of the old corridors, moving between one of six listening zones, each with eight loudspeakers distributing the eight channels on which the piece was recorded. The music itself is massive - ritualistic, dense and overwhelming. You simply have to allow yourself to be engulfed in its roiling maelstrom of sound. A high-pitched field of sparkling sound is constant throughout, an unobtrusive and unchanging continuum above the everchanging forces below. It seems to represent the stars glinting above the ruins on the Persian Plain, which are open to the night skies. If the shifting surface of the music embodies the forces of geological and historical time, this glittering patina points to a more eternal plane, or at least one which exists on a more cosmological timescale. The climax feels like the Earth tearing itself apart, Xenakis’ glissandi like thick gobbets of magma thrown into the sky before plunging back to score the ground. It’s immense, stunning, the precursor to all subsequent noise music. The performance also incorporated the choreographed use of light: lasers, arc-lights, moving stage lights, bonfires, flaming torches and pin-point spotlights played across the mountain rising in the background. It must have been an extraordinary spectacle.

Xenakis wrote a number of pieces which incorporated light effects of one kind or another into the performance, their placement and movement designed to be synchronised with the music. Polytope de Montreal for example, composed in 1967, was written for four recorded orchestras and ‘electronic flashes’. Xenakis was concerned with presenting music as a spectacle rather than just something to sit and respectfully listen to in a concert hall. He wanted the audience to feel like they were participating in the performance. This extended to the spatial as well as the visual elements. Electronic music could be distributed around space through multiple speakers, but Xenakis tried to do something similar with instrumental and orchestral pieces as well. Thus, in Persephassa (a variation on the name Persephone) from 1969, also first performed in Persepolis, the six percussionists who perform the piece stand in a ring around the audience, surrounding them with multi-directional sound. In the orchestral piece Terretektorh (1966), the members of the orchestra leave the stage and position themselves at various points around the hall. These spatial reorganisations, along with the light effects, produced what Xenakis called ‘space-sound kinematics’.

Xenakis’ life before becoming a composer was quite remarkable. He fought for the Greek resistance against Nazi occupation during the Second World War. After the Nazis had been driven out, he then joined a resistance cell which opposed British and American efforts to stave off a Communist takeover and impose an authoritarian rule which would better serve their interests. It was a fragment of a British shell which tore through one side of Xenakis’ face towards the end of 1944, very nearly killing him, destroying an eye and leaving him permanently scarred. He recovered, and persisted in his active opposition to the new regime. He was finally forced to flee the country a few years later, a death penalty hanging over his head. The political instability in Greece culminated in the military coup which installed the fascist rule of the ‘colonels’ in 1967. When their hubris led to their downfall in 1974, Xenakis’ death sentence was finally lifted. So many of the pieces discussed here were composed over a period during which, had he returned to his native country, he would have been executed. This was not something he talked about, however. Nor was there any overt political content in his music, as there was with Nono (although Nuits was dedicated to political prisoners). These startling facts only became public knowledge in 1980, when Nouritza Matossian published her biography of Xenakis, for which he gave her an honest and revealing interview.

The Swedish composer Bengt Hambraeus also composed pieces which amassed great blocks of sound. This was fairly easily achieved on his favoured instrument, the organ. Interferences (1961-2) shows the influence of Messiaen’s organ pieces. It’s incredibly loud in parts (quite regular parts at that), with some foundation-shaking bass chords and flashing clusters in the upper regions. But Hambraeus also creates unusual sonorities which approximate to the sounds more usually associated with electronic music. Gyorgy Ligeti does something similar with his extraordinary organ piece Volumina, which we have on Candide and Wergo Heliodor LPs. This gives credence to the oft-made observation that the organ is the synthesiser of the pre-electronic age, driven by complex mechanics and controlled air pressure rather than variable currents and circuitry. Hambraeus was the first Swedish composer to explore the possibilities of electronic music. He studied at the Darmstadt summer school from 1951-5 before working at the WDR electronic music studios in 1955. It was here that he completed his electronic piece Doppelruhr II, which used organ sounds as a source material.

Constellations II was put together at the Studio di Fonologia in Milan in 1959, and organ sounds were once more the base material. It took the elements of a previous piece for organ called Constellations and subjected them to electronic transformations. He would go on to write two further Constellations pieces. Constellations III overlaid more organ parts above the tape of part II, and IV combined that tape with percussion. The electronic transformation of the organ sounds turns them into something alternately glinting, crystalline, unearthly and impossibly massive. It also allowed Hambraeus to realise ‘an old dream of mine of a fantastic space organ beyond all limitations’. The organ sounds and their altered shapes and warped, expressionist shadows could be projected throughout a particular space, with no evident point of origin. In his manipulation of the higher fluting and shimmering sounds of the organ, Hambraeus also came to realise that he was unconsciously recreating the sounds of nature which he artistic mentor Olivier Messiaen had more consciously incorporated into so much of his music. Once more, electronic sounds approximated the condition of birdsong. Hambraeus talked of ‘the inexpressibly gripping choir of birds on an early spring morning. That rapturous constellation of untamed natural force, space (the cosmos, the universe, the heavens) and an all-encompassing playfulness. It’s this cosmic tonal experience, then, that became (at least for me personally) the unforeseen result’.

More organ sounds, of the directly electronic variety this time, come in the form of Terry Riley’s Persian Surgery Dervishes. This is a glimpse into one of his all-night flights, lengthy improvisations on the organ which use loops and tape delay effects to allow him to play over fading shadows of previous phrases or set up grounds over which he can continue to play. It’s a further example of the incorporation of electronic effects into live performance which we previously encountered through Stockhausen’s Mixtur and Mantra. Riley’s music for Joel Santoni’s 1972 film Les Yeux Fermés is a more studio bound affair, using multi-tracking to build up polyphonic layers of improvisation. This allows for a greater range of sound textures, with different keyboards used for each new layer. It closely resembles his 1969 LP A Rainbow in Curved Air in that one side comprises of keyboard improvisations, whilst the second has him playing on a delay-echoed saxophone, unwinding Indian-inflected lines over his own ‘phantom band’.

The Italian Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza also improvised using electronic instruments on Credo, the final track of their 1968 Deutsche Grammaphon LP Improvisationen. The group were founded in Rome in 1964 by Franco Evangelisti, inspired by the example of the New Music Ensemble in California, who created improvised pieces with no prior preconceptions or structures. All the players were composers, and they aimed for a certain compositional form to emerge from their improvisations, based on a knowledge of each other’s styles and musical temperaments. No one player was supposed to overshadow any other, the ensemble partaking of a wider ideal of egalitarian democracy. Jazz and Indian influences were evident, the former in the trumpet playing of Ennio Morricone, here enjoying a freeform experimental breather from his prolific film scoring. For the electronic track, portable instrumentation was used, including self-built models in the Hugh Davies mould such as the ‘phonisint’ and the ‘sintek’. This atypical electronic piece (they generally stuck to conventional instruments, unconventionally played) was recorded at the Laboratorio Ellettronico di Musica Sperimentale in Rome, a place which sounds like it was tremendously exciting. Incidentally, ignore that man reflected in the laminated cover.

John Cage was also employing elements of chance in the 60s, partly drawing on his interest in Zen Buddhism. His Music of the Changes (1951) used the coin-tossing divination method employed by some to read the I-Ching, the ancient Chinese book of cryptic wisdom. In line with the book, this was a way for composer and performer to find release from conscious choice and create a pattern of sound which is entirely of the moment, and thus somehow connected to the universe as it is unfolding in that moment. The Variations pieces meanwhile used graphic scores drawn on transparencies which are laid on top of each other in a randomly chosen fashion to create variable patterns, which are then interpreted by the performer on whichever instrument they choose. In the recording of Variations IV (1964), this is Cage’s regular collaborator David Tudor, playing the piano. According to Michael Nyman in his book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, this process of semi-random selection extended to the performance space as well. Lines were drawn out from a plan of the hall, and the sounds created from beyond the usual orchestral stage.

Composers didn’t always turn to electronics to find new sonorities and crack open the old systems of equal temperament and harmonic transposition. Harry Partch abandoned tempered scales as far back as 1923, and began to build up new scales which allowed for greater variation within the octave. He eventually came up with a 43 tone scale, and began building his own instruments in order to play it. Sometimes, these used the new sounds produced by new synthetic materials, such as the strengthened glass of pyrex from which he fashioned his cloud bowls. These instruments were musical sculptures of great beauty, and took their place on the stage in the musical theatre pieces which he created as a synthesis of visual art, music, drama and the spoken word. On the short pieces included on the New World LP he shares with John Cage you can hear such unique instruments as; adapted guitar, diamond and bass marimbas, adapted viola, gourd tree, new harmonic canon, quadrangularis reversum, eucal blossom (a large marimba), ektara, boo II, cloud chamber bowls and chromelodeon. The latter is an organ which Partch retuned to his own scale, rather as Terry Riley retuned his electronic organs to just intonation. Both rejected the rigid order of the equal temperament in order to pursue more natural harmonies.

Finally, Basil Kirchin’s Worlds Within Worlds is a truly individual work by a maverick composer who worked outside the protective walls of any supportive institutions. He produced library music and wrote film scores, including The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971), for which he provided the mannered jazz of Vincent Price’s tragic doctor’s mechanical dance band. The two Worlds Within Worlds records (of which we have the second, released in 1974) were intensely personal projects. The first mixed free improvisation from Evan Parker, Kenny Wheeler, Derek Bailey and others with Kirchin’s musique concrète, with the second concentrating on the latter element (Bailey makes a brief contribution), thus arguably making it a more pure distillation of his work. The second volume of Worlds Within Worlds takes us from ‘Emergence’ and through ‘Evolution’, the first having begun with ‘Integration (non-racial)’ before branching out into ‘The Human Element’. There’s definitely some sort of progression going on here. For Worlds Within Worlds parts three and four, Kirchin blended solo and chamber drone passages using low instruments (flugel horn, alphorn, woodwind, arco bass and organ) with concrete sounds drawn from the natural, human and industrial worlds. He recorded animals at London zoo, including a gorilla and some flamingos, and the spirited play of the autistic children his wife Esther was teaching at a school in Switzerland. These unfolded into further contrasting sounds such as jet engines passing overhead and the industrial clamour of the docks at Hull (the whole record was recorded and mixed at a studio in Hull) – worlds opening into other worlds. Few paid much attention to these records at the time of their release, although Brian Eno, ever the attentive listener, wrote a sleevenote endorsement on the second volume. ‘Within the first couple of minutes’, he wrote, ‘it became obvious to me that Basil had not only discovered a whole new area of sound, but had exploited it with extreme skill and sensitivity, producing beautiful and evocative music as well’. It no doubt had a great influence on Eno’s subsequent development of the idea of ambient music, particularly on the On Land record. It was also influential on future experimental musicians, and was a big favourite of Broadcast. Jonny Trunk championed Kirchin, re-releasing many of his recording on Trunk Records (although not, thus far, Worlds Within Worlds) and allowing him to realise new ideas before he passed away in 2005.

Finally, I include this record, split between British composers David Bedford and Thea Musgrave, largely because of its great cover, whose images are very much reminiscent of Julian House’s work for the Ghost Box label. Bedford was another modern composer who, like Pierre Henry, was happy to make connections with the world of pop and rock music. He worked with Mike Oldfield and other Virgin Records stalwarts on several records which blended modernist orchestration with rock instrumentation, and he also provided arrangements for some of Roy Harper’s 70s LPs (including his epic song suite Stormcock). Never a dryly academic or analytical in musical outlook, he gave his work colourfully poetic titles, such as the Blakean Albion Moonlight here, and on another record we have, the very proggy Tentacles of the Dark Nebula. Elisabeth Lutyens was a major, if rather neglected, British composer of the 20th century, although I know her best for her film scores. Surprisingly for a composer known for her modernist music, she produced scores for Amicus horror films like Dr Terror’s House of Horrors and The Skull, and Hammer psycho thrillers like Paranoiac and Never Take Sweets from Strangers, as well as frankly b-grade fare such as the entertaining The Earth Dies Screaming and the slightly grubby Circus of Death. You wouldn’t catch Pierre Boulez doing that.

1 comment:

Nailworks Corner said...

A good article with so many memories. Sent me scurrying back to check: did I still have Cortical Art III or did it get sold on during a punk-years clearout? But it is still there and may even get a play later. Variations IV uses one piece of found music which is a maddeningly catchy head-worm; I find myself singing it going down the road, which isn't too common an experience with anything "by" John Cage.