Sunday, February 26, 2006

Brian Eno

Ambient Music has been around for along time now. We all know the type - often played in art museums (and especially art museum shops), it's a low volume, usually highly consonant and low dynamic range form of background music.

Most of it is drivel. Drivel because it lacks any originality, strength of form or focus. Music such as this deserves to remain in the background and never come forward. The vast number of interchangeably bad ambient albums, usually with pictures of nature on the cover and psuedo-spiritual titles, almost beggars imagination. But then again, what is different here from the vast number of horrendously bad pop albums? In short, nothing.

But although the style has been ill-served by the majority of its practitioners, at its best ambient music is as fine as any music. It is striking how many serious composers in the latter part of the 20th century have embraced elements of the style, perhaps none more successfully than the American composer Ingram Marshall whose 'Fog Tropes' I regard as one of the masterpieces of the genre.

But Marshall can wait for consideration at another time. I wanted to use this article to highlight the contribution of Brian Eno to the form.

Eno is undoubtedly the grand master and main mover of all that is good in ambient music. In a way he was well placed to do this, emerging out of both the experimental (the Portsmouth Sinfonia) and rock (Roxy Music) musical environments on the early 1970s. Comfortably embracing cultural divides, Eno brought a new sensibility to music making that led to a series of masterpieces in the late 1970s.

According to the accounts of the time, Eno conceived of the concept of a low volume, essentially environmental, music as a result of being confined to bed following an illness and being unable (literally) to reach the volume control of the stereo in his room. Forced to listen to what I believe was a classical work at sub-optimal volume, Eno realised that the music, which of course blended into the environmental sounds of his room, had taken on a new character and feel. It had become ambient.

Eno's primary instrumental skill is with the synthesizer and tape recorder, both instruments that are ideally suited for the generation of sounds that resemble and integrate the low level environmental noise that we constantly hear, and rearrange it into music. This is precisely what he did.

Begininng first with a looped and essentially minimalist sampling treatment of a classical work on the album 'Discrete Music', he moved onto his first true masterpiece of ambient music, "Music For Airports'.

"Music For Airports" is such an important record that anyone who loves music should have it in their collection. A series of four meditative pieces based on piano, voice and synthesizer, this is perhaps one of the most beautiful sets of music put on tape. It is best played at low (i.e. ambient volume) but the four sections are constructed so artfully that it can be played and analysed at normal volume with equal satisfaction. This is music that washes the soul clean.

Eno followed "Music For Airports" with a series of equally delightful ambient recordings, either on his own or in collaboration, most notably with Harold Budd on "The Plateaux Of Mirror" and "The Pearl". My personal favorite remains "Ambient 4: On Land", a series of short soundscapes based around impressions derived from real and evocative places. Some of these, such as "Lizard Point", I have actually visited, and it is quite extraordinary how well Eno's music matches the emotional aura of that beautiful rocky seashore.

Perhaps it is familarity with these works that has reduced my patience for the less-inspired workaday efforts of the host of other practitioners of the form. I think, too, that without the knowledge of Eno's work I would have been inclined to dismiss ambient music altogether as just another example of wishy-washy New Age thinking. And that would be unfair. For the best ambient music is simply amongst the best music.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Desire As

Certain popular music stands both in and both out of its time. To acquire the latter quality, it needs to appeal to a wide range of emotions, and sustain the appeal even when whatever stylistic facets it shows fall out of general fashion.

Most of the music that has endured has these qualities, that are most clearly defined in folk music. Popular music, of course, draws its roots from folk music but is quite clearly distinct. Much of it is made for purely commercial reasons, and most of it is clearly derivative of itself or other less well-known musical streams, be they folk, jazz, gospel, country (which in itself is an adaptation of the folk idiom, blues, and the composed popular song (Minstrel into Tin Pan Alley & Broadway).

Today, the dominant popular forms are rock 'n' roll derived, so much so that rock influence has seeped right back into those contributing forms. Listen to jazz or country these days, and the rock influence is clear.

This is no bad thing - popular music thrives on cross-fertilization and withers on the vine in isolation.

All of which serves as a pertinent preamble to a consideration of Prefab Sprouts' Steve McQueen album (inexplicably called Two Wheels Good in the U.S.).

This is a pop/rock album, owing something to early 1980s aesthetic - it's produced by Thomas Dolby and is awash in his synthesized orchestration - but ultimately it is more out of than in that time period. It is also drenched, however, with sounds and song structures drawn from American vernacular music spanning the whole 20th century (and to some extent even earlier, Stephen Foster comes to mind here).

I hear the words of Georgie Gershswin sings songwriter Paddy McAloon in Hallelujah and Gershwin's shadow is long over this record. As, indeed, is the craftsmanship and melodic sensibility of all the pre- and between-wars song composers - Kern, Rodgers, Carmichael, Berlin etc.

Not that this record aspires to sound quite like its influences. On the surface, it's not that different from a contemporary pop album by, for example, Elton John. But dig a little lower, and a much stronger set of songs than typically found on John's records becomes apparent. Lyrically, McAloon shares the same wit and acumen that you would find in the best Elvis Costello or Squeeze songs - to name but two contemporary artists with early Prefab Sprout.

Melodically, those great songwriters of the past are clear models, even as any direct influence is disguised by the pop-rock arrangements. Although the song Faron Young uses country music instruments, they are mixed to provide a strangely displaced and ironic sound over what is essentially a mid-to-fast tempo pop song.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of this record is although it practically should scream Beatles - particularly Paul McCartney's approach - it seems to bypass that band. Or should I say, it runs parallel. It seems to feed off the same sources that nurtured The Beatles, and it is quite conceivable that Lennon-McCartney might have written these songs. But they did not, and somehow the record resolutely seems to have sidestepped their influence.

Which, of course, is most unlikely - but it is a measure of the individuality of this record that it has such an independent feel.

Steve McQueen really is record that stands in and out of its time, and is a true classic of thoughtful, melodic popular song.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Chris Whitley

The singer, guitarist and songwriter Chris Whitley died last year, taking from us one of the more creative and interesting artists of the late 20th century. Ironically, I have not personally given his career justice as the only album I possess of his is Living WithThe Law, his breakthrough record from 1991.

This is a mistake.

Whitley joins a number of artists who operated largely below my radar in the latter 1990s and 2000s that I really need to become better acquainted with. For the simple truth is that the turn of the century has produced just as much good music as any prior time, but I have not turned onto it.

This is going to change.

The two music courses I took last year have acted as catalysts for this, primarily because I explored in depth areas both known and unknown to me, and have unearthed reams of fabulous - and largely unknown - music in the process. Most importantly, I was reminded that great music is made all the time and all it takes to find it is a curious mind.

Listening again to Living With The Law, as I am doing tonight, is strongly affirming of this sentiment. Not least because of Whitley's deep and symbiotic understanding of American vernacular music, particularly roots blues and folk on this record.

Reading about his later albums, I realise he is an artist of far wider range than even the expansive Law reveals, and I need to explore this music.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

In Utero

Nirvana marked a permanent shift in my appreciation of rock music, one that brought both losses and rewards. Not that it was any particular fault of the band, which is one I feel a natural affinity for both in sound and feel.

No, what happened with Nirvana was that this was the first band, fitting my own musical sensibilities, that I did not have a finger on from the earliest days of its existence. In fact, the entire Seattle scene was not even a blip on my radar until it broke nationally.

Considering I had been deeply immersed in the 1980s indie scene (taking in records and concerts by acts from Big Black, Game Theory, Thin White Rope, Husker Du,The Pixies, The True Believers, The Primitives - which turned into Uncle Tupelo - and true obscurities like Viv Akauldren and For Against), this blindsiding seems weird.

Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that I had largely stopped reading the music press, finding the blend of uncritical fan-worship and relentless chopping of genres into lots of little meaningless pieces boring and unrewarding.

Perhaps, too, was a feeling of saturation. The 1980s indie scene was extraordinarily rich and most listeners today probably have only a glimmer of what was going on then. When I heard Nirvana - this amazing new breakout band - I heard only more of what I had heard earlier, even allowing for Nirvana's unique blend of pop smarts and raw power.

But I think what put the nail in the coffin for me was Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam's first album was so 1970s (and think 1970s' mainstream rock rather than punk) that I was really put off. Pearl Jam improved, and although they are hardly my favorite band, I still think they are decent. But along came the flood of unremarkable Pearl-Jam wanna-bes, and rock became less than interesting.

Meanwhile, after the runaway success of Nevermind, Nirvana socked its listeners with In Utero. Prepared as was by my love of Big Black and early Pixies, the stark production by Steve Albini appealed to me. While the songs show little structural progression from Nevermind, the bleak framing of the sound in conjuction with Cobain's increasing instability, gives this record a power that quite transcends the more radio-friendly Nevermind.

In Utero is where I connected with Nirvana, and yet within months Cobain was dead and the mostly uninteresting commercial alternative movement was in full flood.

Perhaps Cobain's death affected me more deeply than I acknowledged. It was in some ways also the death of the glorious 1980s scene, and, as my life changed, I did not reconnect with anything later in quite the same way.

Which is not to say 'rock is dead'. In fact, I currently feel that old familiar surge of excitment.

We're at the beginning of a new age. Let's hope it lives up to Cobain's vision.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Evan Parker

After playing The Longest Night again, I pulled out Evan Parker's solo soprano saxophone album, accurately labeled Saxophone Solos. This record, and it's an an L.P. as I have not yet acquired (or come across although I know one exists) a CD version, was picked up about a year after The Longest Night L.P.s but preceeds them chronologically.

There are four cuts on this record, named Aerobatics 1 to 4, and they are well named. For the sound of Parker's saxophone is as I described below, only without John Stevens to expand the aural scenery with his percussion, all you are left with is the gyrating saxophone.

Much of the music consists of long held tones, but they are far from static. Wobbles and overtones are introduced and without even realizing it you find yourself listening to a far more varied sound than you can imagine possible. Interspersed with these long sections of relatively stately development are passages of high speed multi-note flourishes, again pushing the sonic boundaries directly into the vocal range that is characteristic of much free jazz from Ornette Coleman onward.

In many ways the music reminds me of compositions for electronic tape, specifically atonal (either serial or aleatory) ones, as you might find Stockhausen or Cage constructing. But the vocal quality that come with Evan's playing gives his improvisations a warmer, more human, quality.

Evan Parker has made dozens of records and I have only four, this one, the two Parker-Stevens collaborations, and a duo concert with guitarist Derek Bailey. His music is not easy to find, especially in America, and I have not yet become such a dedicated fan as to make the necessary effort.

Somehow, I feel I should though.

The Longest Night

The Longest Night is the title of a two volume set of LPs released on the Ogun label in 1976. The artists are Evan Parker and John Stevens on soprano saxophone and percussion respectively.

I found both these LPs in a import cut-out bin at Streetside Records in Columbia, Missouri in 1981. I knew nothing of the artists, but bought them simply to try them out. I also kind of liked the cover art, a skyscape.

The music contained was amongst the strangest I had yet heard. Parker plays squiggles on his sax, sounding frequently like a squeaky machine, and avoids the long line and melody like the plague. Stevens hyperactively works a very reduced percussion set to fill in the spaces. He does not hold a beat, or convey a clear pulse.

Most people I knew who heard this music at the time reacted extremely negatively to it. It was noise, and what's more noise akin to chalk scraping over the blackboard.

I can certainly understand that view. It does sound like scraping and seemingly makes no sense on first listen. But I found myself coming back to it again and again, and once you get past the tone and the noise elements (not by ignoring them, but by assimilating them), this is actually very satisfying jazz music. Listen closely, and there is a rhythm and there is a sense of melodic progression.

In other words, it is not random noise. Every squeal is placed there for a reason, and the improvisational interplay between the two musicians is jaw-dropping. The music is extremely vocal - it talks to you, in a way far closer to actual language than most music. Once you get drawn into that conversation - which, of course, is primarily the interplay between the musicians, it's hard to let go.

The pieces start and stop without any seeming sense of conventional opening or closing. In feel, this music is far closer to ritual music, for example that of Native-American cultures, and gives you little if expect the conventional rewards of Western music.

But it is not true ritual music, and requires a combination of approaches in listening to get to grasps with it. This takes a lot of work, but I always emerge from hearing these improvisations spiritually refreshed. An appreciation of avant-garde techniques in 20th century music helps a lot, but there is not an academic aura about The Longest Night. It simply is.