Category Archives: Electronic Music

My Blockhead review is up.

My review of Blockhead is up on the L.A. RECORD site.

Pete Shelley’s record label gets an all-inclusive box set: The Total Groovy

I should have done this as a full essay, but I’m still very proud to have singled this out for attention. It’s easy and convenient for reviewers to say inflammatory things like “This makes the Buzzcocks look un-needed and unnecessary” but I almost believe it after hearing the amazing CDs I was sent from Drag City! And by the way, they sent them to me on CD-R and packaged separately… it was kind of weird! Guys, please send me a full box set with liner notes as a thank-you? Please oh please oh please?!?

Milk and Sylvester and Neil Young!

I just saw Gus Van Sant’s Milk last night.  Of course it was great and moving and sad and informative.  And of course Sean Penn wowed us with his performance, even though we already knew it was going to be good.

But amidst all the drama and sadness and history, I got a little nugget of sweetness when they had a scene recreating a Harvey Milk birthday party, including Sylvester singing him “You Make Me Feel!”  God, I love that song, and I thought the drag performer Flava (er, real name is apparently Mark Martinez) carried the outlandish role of Sylvester pretty well. 

One purchase I really want to get in the near future is Sylvester’s first album, Sylvester and the Hot Band.  After his stint with the Cockettes, he initially moved in kind of a funk-rock direction, including a cover of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” that I still have not heard, though the reviews are incredible!  Here’s one of the few tastes of this album I’ve gotten, and it’s a goodie:

Farfisa Hall of Fame – Rick Wright of Pink Floyd

One of my favorite keyboardists of all time, Rick Wright, died yesterday of cancer.

For anyone who loves the early Pink Floyd sound and despises their later stuff, it’s worth noting that Roger Waters basically kicked Rick out of the band just as they were starting to suck, probably because Wright refused to suck as much as the Seventies crapola-fest fans demanded.  And so the wonderfully psychedelic phantom of the opera keyboard sounds that made their first albums sound so good fell at the wayside.  

Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets are such monumental albums, and such influences on my own keyboard experiments.  Somewhere in Lucifer’s shining barleycorn mansion in the heart of the sun, Syd Barrett and Rick Wright are working up an album to send beams of celestial rabies right into Roger Waters’ brain.

Farfisa Hall of Fame

I just picked up a copy of Cluster & Eno, the collaborative effort between Brian Eno and the electronic Krautrock duo Cluster recorded in 1977.  It’s beautiful, atmospheric music that doesn’t seem blah or prog, and it’s delightfully repetitive even though there were no sequencers used, just echo machines, tape recorders, guitars, bass (sometimes played by Holger Czukay of Can), and of course, “early polytone Farfisa synthesisers!”

Here’s a little documentary about Cluster’s early days.  Boy, I wish I had that many cool noise boxes on top of my Farfisa!

Obama turns around on the issues we voted him in for?

Obama, I know that it’s sometimes necessary to turn to the center a bit after winning a primary.

But after a week of seeing you vote for retroactive telecom immunity, talk smack about a straw man, er, woman in the abortion debate, supposedly provide less-than-universal care in your health plan, and even have it come to light that you support the death penalty for people who, while monsters, have never taken a life, I feel like you’re turning around on the very liberal stances you posed with when we voted for you.

This is your election to lose, and you’ll lose more votes by pissing us off than by pandering to the Bushies.  Don’t fuck this up.

P.S. I’m calling you out with the eighties AND the nineties!

Wuthering Heights

I went to the Summer Camp event this weekend and caught some great performances by Electrocute, the Lady Tigra, and We Are the World.  But perhaps the most sugary sweet treat to watch was Jer Ber Jones, the electroclash drag queen (no, not that one) who wears a Dee Snyder wig and tall tall heels.  He (she) performed in a headdress for the “Summer Camp” themed party, and sang a couple great ditties that probably would be terrible to listen to in the car or on my iPod, but were fucking amazing live.

One of the songs sounded kind of ethereal and bizarre, and it wasn’t until the chorus that I realized Jer Ber was covering Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights.”  To be honest, though I know the song from a mix tape that my friend from high school made me (before he realized he was gay, he spent quite a bit of time frittering his sexual frustrations away doing awesome stuff for his friends), the real reason I recognized “Wuthering Heights” was from the lyrics I heard repeatedly in high school, from White Flag’s cover of the song on the Freedom of Choice CD that came out in ’92 with a bunch of current artists on it, covering eighties tunes. 

 Jer Ber did a bang up job, singing in his high-pitched angry whine, and saying “freaking” a lot, even working his suddenly broken heel into the lyrics of the song “Heathcliff, come get me, my freaking shoe is broken,” etc.

Here’s a video of Kate Bush performing her original version.  Note her weird, weird eyes, and that voice, and those strange dance moves.  She’s so comically compelling to look at, it’s actually quite psychedelic, which may be why Roger Waters and the Pink Floyd fellows gave her such a leg up when she started.  Wild stuff.

UPDATE: I did not attend the Little Radio Summer Camp event, but I probably shoulda coulda woulda done both.

Meho Plaza has a song up on Pitchfork Media

I’ve loved this band for a while now.  And not just because James, the drummer, plays on both real drums and drum pads, reminds me a bit of Terry Bozzio, and had the sense to leave Kill Hannah years ago because they suck.

 Meho Plaza’s new material seems to be getting better and better, too (though since they only just released an album, most people probably haven’t heard the progression from good to great that I have).  This one, “I Sold My Organs,” sounds great on the Pitchfork Media “Forkcast”:

Luigi Russolo’s intonarumori

Another great purchase I got at Amoeba this weekend was Musica Futurista: The Art of Noises, a compilation of Futurist speeches, original recordings, and recreations of music and noise composed by the Italian Futurist ringleader F.T. Marinetti, as well as Silvio Mix, Franco Casavola, Francesco Balilla Pratella, and a bunch of other crazy Italian artist types. These guys dominated the avant-garde there from 1909 until the twenties, leaving Russian Futurism, Dadaism, Fascism, and a host of other more famous isms sprouting up in the fields they first sowed.

The spoken word portions of this CD are fascinating (Marinetti sounds like a mad scientist, even in Italian!), and the Futurism scholar and musical enthusiast Daniele Lombardi did a good job of playing a variety of pieces from different composers, including Marinetti’s fantastic “Five Radio Sintesi,” a pioneering sound collage that included random radio sounds, water sploshing, babies crying, drilling noises, and several large portions of pure silence, preempting John Cage by 20 years.

But the best stuff on here by far is something we only get a snippet of: the works of Luigi Russolo and the acoustic sound generators he constructed, called “intonarumori” or noise-intoners, that you see there on the CD cover.  These were playable noise instruments with adjustable pitch, created to perform the new vocabulary of sounds that Russolo mapped out in his “Art of Noises” manifesto.

Here are the 6 families of noises of the Futurist orchestra which we will soon set in motion mechanically:

1 2 3 4 5 6
Rumbles Whistles Whispers Screeches Noises obtained by percussion on metal, wood, skin, stone, tarracotta, etc. Voices of animals and men:
Roars Hisses Murmurs Creaks   Shouts
Explosions Snorts Mumbles Rustles   Screams
Crashes   Grumbles Buzzes   Groans
Splashes   Gurgles Crackles   Shrieks
Booms     Scrapes   Howls
          Laughs
          Wheezes Sobs
         

 

This chart was only a small-scale model of the thousands of sounds produced by animals, men, and machine, but Russolo was able to create sound boxes for most of them, with names like “gurgler,” “buzzer,” “howler,” “crackler,” et cetera that described exactly what the boxes sounded like.  Despite several performances in Italy and London, all Russolo’s own compositions’ recordings and even full sheet music are lost, and gramophone recordings of orchestral music composed by his brother Antonio use the intonarumori only as sound effects, like the sound of thunder and rain punctuating an overture, rather than as intruments of their own.  But Daniele Lombardi reconstructs one original fragment that has survived of Luigi Russolo’s “Awakening of a City” on this CD, as well as plays samples of recreations of some intonarumori, including an “enharmonic bow” that sounds like a wiggly saw meets a washtub bass!

“Awakening of a City” as a fragment is short but profound.  Not only does it perfectly capture the soundscape of man-produced machinery (truly industrial music if there ever was), but the pitch-bending of these sound boxes and the rasps and clangs and catgut and buzzes predict everything from Silver Apples to Sonic Youth, LaMonte Young to Led Zeppelin to just plain old zeppelins.  This was music truly ahead of its time, which perhaps explains why the Fascists condemned it so vehemently when they rose to power.

The fantastic site Theremin Vox has a great article on Russolo’s intonarumori, and in fact has some sound samples to rival the performances on “The Art of Noises” CD.  Whereas the CD sounds more abrasive, like how they described early early Stooges live music, the MP3’s here show the sonorous beauty that this new style of music could have brought to the world, had its musicians not been destroyed by war (almost literally, in the case of Russolo’s WWI headwound) and by the Mussolini minions that followed.  Take a listen and you’ll see how incredible this lost early noise music really was.

Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes

I went with my girlfriend to Amoeba Records this weekend–and of course, we both easily spent over a hundred dollars on records we previously never knew existed, yet could not afford to pass up. 

But one of my purchases was a premeditated conquest.  For a few years now, I’ve been selectively collecting the works of Gyorgy Ligeti, the Hungarian composer whose works have moved me like no other.  As experimental as John Cage, yet as accessible as Ravel or sometimes even Bach, he’s perhaps one of the most enjoyable and moving of the near-modern day composers (he died just a few years ago, still in his prime).   And this time around, I got Gyorgy Ligeti Edition Volume V: Mechanical Music.

Note that it’s “mechanical” music, not electronic music.  Though Ligeti made great strides in electronic music early in his career, these pieces are mostly mechanical in that they are performed on somewhat traditional analog instruments that play themselves, based on instructions fed to them by reams of notched paper or MIDI controllers. 

The first section of the CD is dedicated to the barrel organ, and while the calliope-like tone of this tiny organ takes some getting used to, it’s fantastic to hear some of Ligeti’s works composed for keyboards (performed elsewhere on piano) done by a machine that sounds childlike yet ghost-like in its lack of a true human touch.  The piece “musica ricercata” is particulary disturbing because it recreates Ligeti’s famous minimal piano line from Eyes Wide Shut–but because it’s a barrel organ, the tones don’t decay or sustain at once, but rather pipe individually, long or short but not really soft or loud.  And as things get more complicated and staccato, the pace moves impressively fast, faster than I’ve ever heard a pipe organ of any type play.

Same goes for the latter half of the CD, which is dedicated to the player piano.  Here Ligeti and his henchmen tackle his Etudes, pieces which in their original human form were composed based largely on Ligeti’s exposure to Conlon Nancarrow, a composer who wrote player piano pieces of inhuman complexity.  This CD allows Ligeti to return his own Etudes to a form more in line with their inspiration.  In fact, we get to hear Etude XIVa, the original version, which was always meant for Player Piano and is blisteringly fast, yet somehow sounds organic despite being mechanically produced.

However, the reason most people bought this CD is probably because it chronicles a great performance of the “Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes.”  This was first performed for television while Ligeti was part of the Fluxus Art movement (sort of an honorary degree of artistry, since they added him to their number without his asking), but don’t think of it as merely a conceptual piece or music for shock value.  Because the Metronomes are mechanical and are wound so that they eventually run out of clicking power at different times, it’s a musical exercise quite similar to his Atmospheres (which starts with every note in the scale played at once). 

Here, we start with every possible tempo playing at once.  We begin in utter confusion, like popcorn going everywhere, or the chirping of a thousand crickets.  Then the anarchy and chaos slowly condenses and morphs into something a bit more calm and familiar.  Individual pockets of action and interest constantly bubble to the surface, speak their peace, then change into other things or fade into the background as new ticks and tocks emerge to distinguish themselves. 

It’s a really gradual, almost glacial process, but eventually one metronome after another drops off, until we’re left with just a few tocking metronomes almost aligning themselves, then becoming dissonant again.  Finally there’s just one metronome left.  Tock…tock…tock. 

In Ligeti’s mind, this is where the piece goes from the “maximal entropy” of its beginning and returns back to a simple maximal entropy of one beat.  To me, I was surprised at how after nearly twenty minutes of hearing irregular rhythms, the return to a singular rhythm made me shudder a bit.  I actually had visions of Poe’s “Mask of the Red Death,” and my feeling about the piece turned very ominous, very “for whom the bell tolls.”

It’s quite a different experience to hear this piece as pure music with your “eyes wide shut” than to sit and watch the metronomes as it plays out, so I suggest you try it both ways.  The CD version is perhaps better, though longer, than the one performed here, but I guess there are no right or wrong ways to wind your metronomes!