Eliane Radigue – Mila’s Journey Inspired by a Dream: A Review

Eliane Radigue – Mila’s Journey Inspired by a Dream (Lovely Music, 1987)

Milarepa was a legendary Tibetan saint who, after a youth spent in banditry and pillage, embraced Buddhism, achieved enlightenment and became a wandering ascetic Crazy Wisdom master. Milarepa taught villagers the dharma by singing spontaneously formed didactic songs known as dohas, and both these songs and the tradition of spontaneous song-teaching are alive today in the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. In 1987, Paris-based composer and Buddhist Eliane Radigue, known for her remarkable just intonation tuned synthesizer droneworks such as Adnos I-III, produced this remarkable recording, simultaneously an hour plus drone, an English language narrative retelling of part of Milarepa’s life story by Sonic Arts Union composer Robert Ashley, and a Tibetan language rendition of some of Milarepa’s songs of enlightenment. Much of the piece’s charm comes from Ashley’s sly storytelling style, which resituates Milarepa as a blissed out but crafty old timer in a Spaghetti western, or a signifyin’ Southern Brer Rabbit character. If Radigue’s exquisite drone represents the perpetual presence of the infinite and timeless, and the story, the manifestation of relative, impermanent names and historical events within that infinite flow, the songs of Milarepa affirm the possibility of the union of the absolute and the relative in sparks of gorgeous melodic and linguistic form. And this union, as song or otherwise, is in fact what Mahayana Buddhists call enlightenment.

Originally published in The Wire.

Eccentric Soul: Mighty Mike Lenaburg and Good God! A Gospel-Funk Hymnal: Review

Eccentric Soul: Might Mike Lenaburg and Good God! A Gospel-Funk Hymnal
(Numero Uno)

In 2006, after 25 years plus of rare funk and soul compilations, it’s a wonder that there are any crates anywhere in the world left that have not been thoroughly dug through. The most interesting diggers, compilers and DJs have developed increasingly baroque tastes and collections, focusing on highly local or obscure scenes. Numero Uno has put out disks of little known labels from Columbus, Chicago, Miami and Detroit in its Eccentric Soul series – and, as the title indicates, specializes in songs that barely fit in the genre of soul, whether through lyrical extravagance, bizarre genre hybridizations, or ruthlessly lofi production values that make the average Pebbles garage psych band sound like the Blue Oyster Cult. Mighty Mike Lenaburg concentrates on the soul and funk scene in the unlikely location of Phoenix, Arizona. Lenaburg, actually born in the UK in 1946, became a DJ in Phoenix in the early 1960s, and started putting out soul ‘45s later in the decade. While some tracks here are fairly straight ahead soul, others like Michael Liggins and the Super Souls’ “Loaded to the Gills” and We The People’s “Function Underground” match blasting horns with clip-cloppy latin percussion, flutes and rock guitar, creating an improbable but delightful Tejano-funk-psychedelia fusion, equal parts mariachi, JBs and Sir Douglas Quintet.
Good God! covers the gospel-funk scene of the 1970s whose best known exponents are probably the Mighty Clouds of Joy. The sound here is much rougher than the tracks found on Soul Jazz’s excellent Gospel Soul collections – this is definitely “funk” complete with chattering scratch guitars, breakbeats and ferocious call and response vocals that attempt to overpower their musical accompaniment through their zeal and devotion. John Fahey observed in his notes to Revenant’s pre-war gospel collections that beneath the heavenly harmonies and Christian words of African-American spiritual music lurks an unbowed pagan spirit. That goes doubly here for the James Brown screams and booty-bumping bass whose sensuous, electronically amplified bump is heading across town at high speed on the down-low, away from the church and back to the players’ lounge. The quality of the selections is terrific – from The Voices of Conquest’s 1968 choir meets breakbeat “O Yes My Lord” to simultaneously raw and overproduced rolling funk monsters like Cliff Gober’s “A Poor Wayfaring Stranger”. The disk ends on a particularly high note with the mind-boggling Hustler’s Convention meets Sunday sermon of LaVice and Company’s “Thoughs Were the Days” (sic), a nostalgic look at the joys of hell, taken from an unlikely church basement musical in Philadelphia called “Two Sisters from Bagdad” (sic).

Originally published in The Wire, 2007.

DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture: A Book Review

DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture
Amy Spencer
Marion Bowers Book, $15.95 US

The idea of tracking the history of the DIY ethic that has become such an important part of the cultural landscape over the last twenty years is a brilliant one. Zine writer and record label founder Amy Spencer is correct in seeing that DIY is an idea that encompasses more than just music, and in this book she tracks the idea across a variety of fields and cultural styles, focusing on two: writing and music. The book is written in a very approachable style, obviously designed to appeal to teenagers who are getting into making zines, forming bands or other aspects of the DIY ethos.
The “reader-friendliness” of the book is something of a problem for older jaded sophisticates such as myself, since the level of analysis is often condescendingly basic and resembles a strange children’s TV show or high school textbook, designed to educate teenagers about things like the Situationists or Riot Grrrl, without offending the sensibilities of parents who fear what their children are getting up to when they’re out of sight.
The histories that are set out here are well known, but putting them alongside each other is both useful and original. Thus, the history of zines is tracked back through punk, the alternative press of the 1960s, the Situationists, fluxus and the Beats, back to the little magazines of the early 20th century avant garde. Alternative music is likewise surveyed from grunge and indie, through punk and post-punk to the 1960s and skiffle, with sections on pirate radio and independent record production. There are some notable absences, such as the lack of any mention of Japanese or non Anglo American fandoms or alternative scenes, but at the level of content it’s pretty good.
The book is clearly addressed to an audience for whom the internet is second nature and the 1960s might as well be the 1690s. But what does DIY or lo-fi (terms which are by no means equivalent) mean to such an audience? The book’s refusal to take the politics of culture serieously (the Situationists are dispatched to eternity with the observation that they were “typically abstract and difficult to understand”) ends up replaying and repeating the fate of DIY itself: the transformation of a set of practices of cultural autonomy, generated in opposition to the prevailing economic and political system, into a set of styles that can be appropriated by the mainstream culture and sold back to individuals as a smorgasbord of “choices”. MySpace. MyIndieRock. Or, to quote the back cover of the book: “if you can’t find the cultural experience you are looking for, create your own alternative!” Even the folkloric aspect of DIY, which suggests that since the beginning of time, people have come together to make and do things using whatever comes to hand (what Lévi-Strauss called bricolage) is skipped. All of this is unfortunate because the relationship between the internet and subcultures, alternative scenes and the like is something that badly needs to be understood, as does the amazing proliferation of hacker type activities today. In her attempt to provide a “useful” “service”, Spenser seriously undervalues DIY – one only hopes that some people will be turned on enough by the book to investigate further.

Originally published in Signal to Noise, 2008.

Derek Bailey – To Play

Derek Bailey – To Play: The Blemish Sessions
Samadhi Sound 2006

“Playing is really subversive of virtually everything … And that’s where the life is in music. It always seems like it’s the vein, the conduit for life in the music. That appetite seems to me to be always to do with changing things, which is often to do with fucking things up.” Derek Bailey

Derek Bailey died on Christmas Day, 2005, aged 75, leaving behind a lifetime of collaborations, friendships, and a vast treasure hoard of recordings accumulated in fifty years during which he was one of the principle figures responsible for the rise of improvisation in music in the West. One of his final collaborations was an unusual one with Samadhi Sound’s David Sylvian, who invited him to “provide me with a challenge as a vocalist”. Thus, on February 18, 2003, Bailey went into a recording studio in London and recorded the solo acoustic guitar session (Sylvian was absent), parts of which are to be found on this disk. Three tracks from the session were used, more or less unedited, by Sylvian on his celebrated disk Blemish (Samadhi Sound, 2004) – one of them is included here.

“I’d always felt the performances were very strong on that session,” comments Sylvian, “and it’d been my intention to return to the material when time allowed to review it and send the results to Derek for his opinion with a view to releasing it. I’d starting listening to the material towards the end of last year unaware of the seriousness of Derek’s illness. Consequently he passed away without ever hearing the result of his work.”

Those familiar with Bailey’s angular, spiky, minimal lines on Blemish will be surprised by the lush, melodic richness and density of Bailey’s performance here, which has the same beauty and playfulness found on Bailey’s most popular and accessible recent disk, Ballads. Spidery flamenco-like runs resolve into minor jazz chords, percussive trebly harmonic sprays of sound, but with a lovely vitality, a delight in discovering new rhythmic and melodic pathways, a generosity and spaciousness that refuses any pre-set limits on how To Play. And Blemish of course hovers like a strange ghost around the music – our own memories of hearing Sylvian’s vocal responses to Bailey’s work in the Blemish songs, but also the imaginary dialog going on in Bailey’s mind with an absent vocalist, the spaces for response which he allows for. The session must have been a challenge for a man so suspicious of recording, and committed to improvisation as a collaboration happening in the moment of Play. If so, he rose to the challenge admirably – the recordings have an exposed, intimate feel to them that is remarkable.

“As fate would have it this was to be the last solo studio session Derek was to record before the onset of illness,” recalls Sylvian. “That might make the session valuable in itself but it’s the quality of the work that’s outstanding I think. The conversational quality, the apparent ease of facility in that ongoing search for what remains elusive. There’s struggle and fluency, frustration and facility. It’s an intriguing dichotomy illustrated so beautifully on this recording. I’m reminded of the title of that Bill Evans recording Conversations with Myself. This is an external manifestation of one man’s internal dialogue. A struggle for eloquence using all the considerable skills at his disposal. Always attempting to push beyond the confines of the vocabulary, even one invented by himself for this very purpose. That quixotic mission necessarily accompanied by plenty of humor and self-deprecation. A means of getting oneself out of the way, of not taking oneself too seriously but dedication to the process for it’s own sake perhaps?”

To Play’s title was suggested by journalist and longtime friend of Bailey’s, David Toop, after hearing the recordings, which he says are his favorite solo recordings of the guitarist. Toop explains: “after my last face to face conversation with Derek, I was so struck by his emphasis on ‘just playing’ as a deep philosophy at the core of his work, and some of the anecdotes of his early life, that I thought of writing a stage play. My idea was that Derek would play within the play. I suggested this to him and he seemed agreeable, at least. The idea came to nothing, partly because of other commitments and partly because I don’t have a great love for most theatre and so couldn’t seem to get started on it, but I still like this word Play (much Beckett in there) in relation to Derek’s activity.”

To play might mean: to do it now, as you are; to improvise, to use what is at hand; to enter into a game, not just to act according to someone else’s set of rules, but to invent processes, ways of doing things, protocols; to imagine new ways of being together, of proceeding. Derek Bailey did not fuck this up.

Originally published as a press release for Samadhi Sound, 2006.

Kenneth Goldsmith, Day: 2 Reviews

Two Attempts at a Review of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day:

Kenneth Goldsmith
(The Figures)

In his new book, Day, New York based poet, DJ and visual artist Kenneth Goldsmith has done for the New York Times what Duchamp did for toilets and Warhol for soup cans: turned an everyday object into a powerful piece of conceptual art. Coming in at Joycean 836 pages, Day consists of the entire text of the late edition of the New York Times, September 1, 2000, hand typed into a computer, and formatted in sequence, page by page, starting at A1 with “All the News that’s Fit to Print” and ending on F8 with the Potamkin Auto Center’s warning that “we are not authorized to perform recall or original factory warranty work. LTD NYCDDA#88761 DMV #7048316. Sale ends 9/4/00.” If that doesn’t sound as thrilling a finale as Ulysses’ “yes I said yes I will Yes”, it’s because, for better or worse, this is a different day, in a different place.
Day is the latest realization of Goldsmith’s hip-hop inflected take on conceptual art, which began in the 1980s with his painted oversize totemic self-help guides, followed in the early 1990s by No. 111, his epic poem of found/heard phrases ending in an r sound, and Soliloquy, a transcript of every word Goldsmith uttered during the week of April 15-21, 1996. Call it conceptual literature if you like. William S. Burroughs, whose cut up method still seems very much mired in traditional tools of authorship like intention and decision when compared with Goldsmith’s bold appropriations, famously observed that literature was fifty years behind art. While sampling and appropriation have become commonplace in music and the visual arts, they remain thoroughly unexplored in literature until now. While scholars like Craig Dworkin are Reading the Illegible, Goldsmith has discovered a new kind of concrete, found poetry that speaks to contemporary questions about the legitimacy of sampling, and of the relationship of authors to texts and texts to the media in which they are manifested. In the process, he has fabricated an experimental literature that is, finally, legible, all too legible.
“Well,” you will say, “but you didn’t actually read the whole thing, did you?” No, of course not. Does anyone actually read the whole of the New York Times, front to back? Sure, you may think that you do that, but unless you’re a very unusual sort of person, chances are that you don’t read the fine print of every ad, go through every public announcement, or read every line of every one of the mutual funds quotes in the Business section.
To read Day then is a quite different experience to picking up the day’s paper (and when I say read, I mean browse, surf, investigate). By recontextualizing an extremely familiar textual artefact, Goldsmith reveals the enormous variety of discourses and linguistic codes that are tangled up in that familiarity. Each one of these discourses comes with its own set of reading practices that allows us to ignore, skip through, read attentively as needed. What Goldsmith has done is to level the playing field, leaving the source text, now formatted as “literature” or “poetry” in book form, to resonate as it is able to. Through all of this, a certain narrative tension remains: coming after 196 pages of relentless coded stock quotes (C6-C17), Andre Agassi’s defeat in the US Open (D1) takes on a pathos otherwise unimaginable. Whether this pathos emerges out of a process-driven moment of inadvertent juxtaposition, or from pity/admiration for the author/typist’s singular act of keyboard-tapping self-mortification is left for the reader to determine.

Kenneth Goldsmith
(The Figures, $20)

In his new book, Day, New York based poet, DJ and visual artist Kenneth Goldsmith has done for the New York Times what Duchamp did for toilets and Warhol for soup cans: turned an everyday object into a powerful piece of conceptual art. Coming in at Joycean 836 pages, Day consists of the entire text of the late edition of the New York Times, September 1, 2000, hand typed into a computer, and formatted in sequence, page by page, starting at A1 with “All the News that’s Fit to Print” and ending on F8 with the Potamkin Auto Center’s warning that “we are not authorized to perform recall or original factory warranty work. LTD NYCDDA#88761 DMV #7048316. Sale ends 9/4/00.” If that doesn’t sound as thrilling a finale as Ulysses’ “yes I said yes I will Yes”, it’s because, for better or worse, this is a different day, in a different place.
Goldsmith’s bold act of appropriation provokes two questions: who would actually read such a book, and, perhaps more tellingly, who would actually buy it? It’s certainly true that Day costs 20 times as much as the newspaper that Goldsmith has “retyped”. But, as Walter Benjamin suggested, one does not necessarily buy a book in order to read it. The book as object confers a certain fetish value on the text it contains – a fetish value which Day exposes. Flipping through Day’s pages, it becomes clear that nobody actually reads a newspaper “from front to back” – language and code spills out everywhere in an excess that is normally contained by the newspapers neat columns and sections. Tom Wolfe once spoke of batheing in the New York Times, rather than reading it. But defamiliarized by Goldsmith’s singular act of keyboard tapping self-mortification, this is now a text to drown in.

Previously unpublished.

David Toop – Sound Body

David Toop – Sound Body

David Toop’s Sound Body hums and glows with life, five gorgeous morphing electronic tracks that continue Samadhi Sound’s exploration of quiet, minimal, melodic music worlds created by the likes of Harold Budd, Akira Rabelais, Fennesz, Derek Bailey, David Sylvian and others. These remarkable soundscapes have only become possible in the twenty-first century, when improvisation, digital composing and mixing, and traditional music forms from around the globe all mutate and fuse in ways that surprise and delight.

“Originally I wanted to make a record that was almost silent,” says composer, improviser and journalist Toop. “This came about because I had been listening to rooms and other spaces or environments in which dramatic and dynamic sounds were absent, and so became more and more sensitive to very subtle sound pressures, shifts of atmosphere, sounds of the self, faint external sounds, structural movement, our dog’s breathing, and so on. But because I was recording instrumentalists and then reshaping these recordings in the computer, the ‘space’ I was hearing was compromised continually by the editing process, so each piece grew in response to this, and then grew in response to the response. I kept stripping back as I added, trying to keep the character of each individual player, trying to build a ‘virtual’ ensemble, trying to stay close to my original intention of a ‘silent’ record, trying to make pieces in which intensity counterbalanced a certain stasis, in which sound pressures behave as a kind of quiet noise.”

Toop studied fine art and graphic design at Hornsey College of Art and Watford College of Art and Design in the late 1960s, then in 1971-2 took part in the first improvisation workshops led by jazz drummer John Stevens. Having played improvised music since the beginning of the 1970s, he has also recorded shamanistic ceremonies in Amazonas, appeared on Top Of The Pops with the Flying Lizards, worked with musicians including Brian Eno, John Zorn, Prince Far I, Jon Hassell, Derek Bailey, Talvin Singh, Evan Parker, Scanner, Ivor Cutler, Akio Suzuki and Jin Hi Kim, and collaborated with artists such as theatre director/actor Steven Berkoff, Japanese Butoh dancer Mitsutaka Ishii, sound poet Bob Cobbing, visual artist John Latham, and novelist Jeff Noon. In 1998 he composed the soundtrack for Acqua Matrix, the outdoor spectacular that closed every night of Lisbon Expo ’98. His first album, New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments, was released on Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975; since 1995 he has released seven solo albums, including Screen Ceremonies, Pink Noir, and Black Chamber. He has also written four groundbreaking books on music, currently translated into seven languages including Ocean of Sound, Exotica and Haunted Weather.

Produced during a period of research on the effect of digital technologies on improvised musical performance, Toop’s Sound Body is a disk in which the real and the virtual fold into each other creating hallucinatory but warm soundspaces. The virtual ensemble here includes a cast of fourteen playing everything from harp (Rhodri Davies), to violin (Angharad Davies) to rubber bands (Japanese sound artist Haco) to torn paper (Miya Masaoka) to stones (Gunter Müller) to water-immersed bottles (Lee Patterson). A variety of voices also enter the digital mix, including the late John Latham, Japanese writer Kenji Siratori and Missy the Dog. Toop himself plays a variety of guitars, wind instruments, a laptop and percussion, and edited and mixed each piece over a protracted period of time, slowly building up the rich and complex sound world that you hear.

What is a Sound Body? “In English, sound body means a healthy, strong body,” says Toop. “Implicit in the expression is an idea of the whole body. But actually I feel that the body is a collection of fragments. My idea of the sound body is the context in which music takes place. This can be a physical environment, a virtual environment, a setting such as a festival with its attendant scenes, a way of life, or a conceptual idea of what sound work is all about.”

So this Sound Body is a meeting place, where different kinds of sound, different kinds of musician, different ideas and experiences come together. We all live in this sound body as we move around, taking in our environments, whether out in the wild or media-saturated. Things that don’t go together, that happen in different times and places discover new ways of co-existing in Toop’s digital mix which renders them neither natural nor unnatural but always beautiful.

“I feel like a visual artist who has suddenly been given the opportunity to work with more concentration, more intensity, at a deeper level,” notes Toop. “There’s an ambiguous materiality about sound which connects strongly to the visual universe, yet has qualities that are quite distinct.”

Unfolding patterns; static color fields; chance meetings; silence; gorgeous abstraction and fierce materiality: you will discover these and more as you explore Sound Body.

Originally published as a press release for Samadhi Sound, 2007.

Two Rat Drifting Recordings: On Eric Chenaux and Ryan Driver

Eric Chenaux – Sloppy Ground (Constellation CD)
Ryan Driver – Feeler of Pure Joy (Rat-Drifting CD)

Eric Chenaux and Ryan Driver are a key part of the rhizomatic network of Toronto-based improvisers and musicians who record for the Rat-Drifting label. Both play together in a variety of ensembles including the excellent Reveries, Sandro Perri and Josh Thorpe’s groups, and they even have a synth and guitar duo called the Guayabaras. Most of the time, they inhabit a no man’s land in between traditionally structured songs and improvisation, using folk, jazz and bossa nova songs as the basic for quiet acoustic psychedelic exploration. Both of these recordings focus more on the folk song end of their repertoires.
Sloppy Ground is Chenaux’s second record for Montreal’s Constellation following the awesomely monochrome Dull Lights, one of the most austere folk recordings I’ve ever heard — something like a William Wegman painting turned into a folk song if you can imagine that. On Sloppy Ground, the sound is like a 1960s British folk record, Martin Carthy or Full House period Fairport Convention, warm and coiled, but still with that characteristic chattering of strings at the high end of the sound spectrum. There are electric guitars, violins, an Echo harp, and even a rock song, “Love Don’t Change” with a burning guitar solo. Chenaux has a soft, strong voice and the songs themselves are gorgeous, complex and mostly about love.
Although Ryan Driver has appeared on a lot of other folks’ recordings, notably the remarkable country rock improv outfit The Silt, this is his first solo record. Driver is a remarkable improviser, coaxing beautiful sounds out of everything from a rubber balloon to a ruler to an old analog synth. He also has a terrific voice with a Curtis Mayfield style falsetto even. The songs here are mostly folk/country ballads from an imaginary country: they sound like JJ Cale, Joao Gilberto, John Martyn, soft but powerful and precise. But there’s also live favorite “Spinning Towers” which is given an anthemic rock treatment, and “Why the Road?” which slowly shifts from folksong to hazy “Rock Bottom” period Robert Wyatt mysticism. Toronto’s alt.folk queen Jennifer Castle duets with Ryan on the opening “You Are Beside Me”. Various members of the Rat-Drifting group, including Chenaux and Martin Arnold drop in to play some guitar too.
“Am I lovely?” asks Chenaux on the first track of his disk. It’s a funny question because both of these guys are so committed to an aesthetic of humility, a soulfulness that shines out because every lame bombastic gesture that might obscure it has been subtracted. Meaning that unless you’re willing to listen in, you might not even notice anything was going on. These are both powerful, accomplished records though, and yes, both of them are lovely.

Originally published in Signal to Noise, 2008.

Mix Tape, the Art of Cassette Culture: A Review

Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture
edited by Thurston Moore
Universal Publishing HBK, USD $22.50

Cassettes are the new vinyl. Well, not quite, but from Aki Onda’s remarkable improvisations with multiple cassette recorders and archival street recordings in his Cassette Memories series, to Sublime Frequencies’ compilations of Cambodian cassette pop found in suburban Californian libraries, to Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, an elegant meditation on all things magnetophonique edited by Thurston Moore, the cassette is being resurrected, and today, in the age of the mp3 and digital recording, revealed in all its glory as a fully formed fetish object.

Not coincidentally, this happens to be the very moment where most of us are throwing away our collections of those fragile, user-unfriendly plastic boxes with their hand made labels and cheap packaging. German philosopher Walter Benjamin talked of the way that the newly obsolescent object reveals its history precisely at the moment it is abandoned by the market. Vinyl junkiedom grew up casting a backward glance to the end of the nineteenth century with industrial processed black petroleum disks inscribed with sounds. The cassette tape (for those of us unlucky enough not to have owned a reel to reel, like Tony Conrad who contributes a 1960 r to r mix!), first produced by Philips in 1962, marked the jump of music into the post-World War II information age, where sound slowly mutates into data, to be read off a strip by a machine, disembodied even from the tactility of the needle on the groove. Moore here delivers a delightfully goofy song of praise to the sound coming off these strips of magnetized plastic, with their “healing analog tones” placed in opposition to the “cold heart” of digitized sound.

Moore – who was a guest curator for New York gallery Exit Art’s 2001 “LP Show”, a vast and fabulous exhibition of LP covers – is fascinated by the cassette, and in particular the mix tape – as a DIY production. He dates his fascination to reading a Robert Christgau review in 1978 in which Christgau talks about his favorite Clash album being a mix tape of non-LP B-sides that he has made for his friends – a hand crafted reconfiguration of consumer culture, given away as a gift. These themes resonate throughout the rest of the book – the mix-tape as art work, as mating call (or in other cases, break up laments) and gift economy, or as narcissistic reflection of the compiler’s tastes and obsessions.

Mix Tape consists of a sequence of reproductions of favorite mix tapes – inserts and the actual cassettes – from a series of Moore’s friends and colleagues, along with short notes and reminiscences about the circumstances or qualities of each tape. Included are contributions from John Zorn, Jim O’Rourke, film-maker Richard Kern, poet Dodie Bellamy and writer Mary Gaitskell. Not all of the stories (or mix tapes) are equally interesting. And at least one of the mixes (square, one sided) looks like a CD, not a cassette, which kinda ruins the uh cultural specificity here. Perhaps predictably, most of tape making is done by boys, while most of the women in the book write as recipients of cassettes from guys, raising the question as to whether cassette culture is mainly another technologically mediated way for geeky boys to express their passion or egos. Having said that, this book, like the best mix tapes, is charmingly idiosyncratic and soulful – a collage of a bunch of collages, a copy of some copies, another sign that the acts of appropriation in the news today in downloading scandals have their origin in “the true love and ego involved in sharing music with friends and lovers.” What is left is not the image of people breaking copyright law, not even the musical content of the tapes themselves, which, decade by decade, decay, but the passion, for music, for another person, for whatever, inscribed in hand-written lists, xeroxed montage covers, and names written in felt tip over mass-produced plastic media.

Originally published in The Wire, 2005.

Harold Budd’s Avalon Sutra: A Press Release

Avalon Sutra by Harold Budd

Avalon Sutra is to be California-born American minimalist composer and pianist Harold Budd’s last recorded work. Best known for his collaborations with Brian Eno, contributing his stunning piano work to key recordings such as 1980’s Ambient 2: Plateau of Mirror, Budd has produced a series of remarkable minimalist compositions and recordings, including Pavilion of Dreams, The Pearl and The Room, which have earned him worldwide respect. Working in a space laying between jazz, classical music, electronica and rock, Budd has collaborated with the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie, Daniel Lentz, XTC’s Andy Partridge and saxophonists Marion Brown and Jon Gibson, and been a major influence on the development of contemporary ambient and electronic music.

A series of brief, snapshot like compositions, made all the more fragile and impermanent by Budd’s glistening piano work, Avalon Sutra has a bittersweet, autumnal quality – the composer’s trademark “loveliness” deepened and perturbed by the brevity of these pieces. If “ambient” music characteristically works to sustain a mood of intimacy, warmth, meditative ecstasy, such moods, which are certainly present in Budd’s work, are never allowed to last too long on Avalon Sutra. There’s a cumulative sadness and beauty to the way that these mood pieces linger briefly, stop and transform into something new. Budd’s gorgeous, angular string arrangements amplify this feeling.

Avalon Sutra had its genesis in Budd’s native California. “Before my son was born,” Budd recalls, “my wife and I took a weekend holiday to Catalina Island, which is off the coast of California, the main town there is Avalon. While I was there I thought wouldn’t it be nice to write a poem like Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg which is called “Avalon Sutra.” My wife and I were kayaking in the Pacific off Catalina Island. I thought, as soon as I got to land, I’m going to start writing this poem. Of course, to my disappointment, I never did that but the title stuck with me.”

If ambient music is music to accompany a space, Avalon Sutra’s sustained but brief compositions suggest vast landscapes, spaces experienced in transit, high speed aerial shots, vistas seen from particular turns in the road, the impermanence even of vastness itself … or perhaps simply the impermanence of music in these vast spaces. Not surprisingly, Budd claims that he’s “far more interested in architecture, design, sculpture, than music. it’s had a profound effect on me for the last 40 years.” In particular the work of Mies Van der Rohe, the Bauhaus and Frank Lloyd Wright, all masters of sleek, elegant, economical statement captured Budd’s imagination. “Wright had string quartets come and play for him, while he was flirting with his wife – in Arizona of all places! I thought, what a wonderful idea.”

Musically, Avalon Sutra hearkens back to early twentieth century twelve tone composer Anton Von Webern’s short pieces for string quartets – one of the key reference points for post war American minimalism. Budd also expresses a fondness for German/American composer Claus Ogerman’s gorgeous string arrangements for Antonio Carlos Jobim and other Brazilian master musicians in the 1960s and 1970s. He shares with Ogerman a lushness and generosity, and an unrepentant commitment to beauty.

“I’ve committed myself to an ethic of loveliness,” says Budd, “and I’m still there. I have no qualms whatever. When I committed myself to so called loveliness, it was a political action. I was consciously dissociating myself, and becoming antagonistic toward the American avant garde. My political statement was to remove myself from the heroes of the revolution: John Cage, Morton Feldman and so on. Suddenly I was totally alone: isolated, hated, sneered at. In a really bad place. But I knew I was right. That was the end of my academic, new music, avant garde career. But it opened up a world that had not existed before.”

Into this new world, a number of generations of electronic composers have stepped. Los Angeles based composer and software designer Akira Rabelais is best known for his subtly distorted interpretations of Satie’s Gymnopédies, and his marvellous reworkings of traditional icelandic laments on the recent Samadhi Sound release, spellewauerynsherde. On the second disk of Avalon Sutra, Rabelais takes a fragment from one of Avalon Sutra’s tracks and spins it using his software Argeiphontes Lyre, into a 70 minute abstraction that calls to mind Morton Feldman’s String Quartets. Budd pronounces Rabelais’ remix “generous and loving.” As with some of Rabelais’ other appropriations, there’s an enormous respect for the integrity of the original sound material, along with an audacious ability to rechannel sound in unexpected directions. “For heaven’s sake,” Budd continues. “Somebody else has really picked up on what I missed from myself: all that space, all that time, all that generosity. Akira did it. I should have done it, but I didn’t!”

Budd claims that Avalon Sutra will be his last composition and recording, bringing to a conclusion thirty years of sustained musical activity. Asked for his reasons, Budd says only that he feels that he has said what he has to say. With characteristic humility, he concludes “I don’t mind disappearing!” Whether or not it finally turns out to be Budd’s last work — and to speak only of the gorgeous string arrangements, which represent a new development in Budd’s oeuvre, we hope that it isn’t — Avalon Sutra is Budd at the pinnacle of his creativity, a master of meditative beauty.

Originally published as a press release for Samadhi Sound.

Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Musics: A review

Various — Black Mirror – Reflections in Global Musics
Dust-to-Digital CD

The “black mirror” in the title of journalist/musician Ian Nagoski’s compilation of recordings of musics from around the world is the stone, shellac and carbon surface of the 78 r.p.m. disks that were made of between the two world wars. If the premise of a compilation of music from around the world recorded between 1918 and 1955 seems initially like a broad or extravagant one, Nagoski takes responsibility for his own selections and orderings, seeing in them not some scientific or anthropological grouping of sounds that are “objectively” connected and ready to be analyzed, but rather a series of lateral, intimate, contingent connections produced by chance, pleasure, repetition and the marketplace. Thus a lovely bagpipe track by Scotts Guardman Henry Forsyth from the 1930s morphs into a South Indian nagasvaram track into a West African rhumba from the 1950s into a Polish gypsy wedding music track. The listener is forced to confront the mix as a series of human sounds, discovered by Nagoski no more than a thirty minute drive from his hometown of Baltimore, and costing a total of $125. What is revealed then is Nagoski’s taste and imagination, both of which are rather exquisite, as well as a series of trajectories into a variety of musics that the listener may or may not be familiar with, for further investigation and enjoyment. The blueprint for this kind of activity, as Nagoski points out, are archivist/compilers like Harry Smith, who created historically definitive collections of music that are also highly personal montages of their own record collections. The difference here is that Nagoski presents a path through a whole world of sound rather than a particular region or culture. It’s a risky venture, but the intention here is not to sum up anything but to create a path, and the path of Black Mirror is a delightful one.