Tagged: synthesiser

RIP Erkki Kurenniemi: farewell to a major experimental / electronics music pioneer

RIP Erkki Kurenniemi (1941 – 2017)

News of Finnish experimental / electronic music pioneer Erkki Kurenniemi’s death at the age of 75 years on 1 May 2017 was a shock to me: his actual output of music has been small compared to others of his generation but that’s due to the many interesting twists and turns his life took over the decades. The news prompted me to revisit a compilation of his early works that I’d reviewed years ago for TSP: “Aanityksia / Recordings (1963 – 1973)” released by Love Records (LXCD637) way back in 2002. The compilation contains nearly everything Kurenniemi made while employed as a volunteer assistant working towards a science degree in the Department of Musicology at the University of Helsinki.

Playing that compilation again, I’m amazed at the incredible of sounds Kurenniemi achieved and the cheerful fun and playfulness emanating from these tracks. From the loud and brash tape feedback noise of “On-Off” to the skritchy craziness of “Antropoidien tanssi”, to the mellow stateliness that becomes zanily deranged on “Inventio / Outventio”, to the near-hysterical wailing of “Preludi” or the equally demented “Nimeton” which builds up to a chaotic pyromanic climax, Kurenniemi’s curiosity and mischievous sense of humour power these tracks’ sounds and melodies to their utmost and reveal the sonic universe they inhabit as fun and at the same time extraordinarily rich in its minimalism. The last two tracks on the album (one “Mix Master Universe” done in collaboration with Jukka Ruohomaki) are long montages of various tape recordings with one track featuring a sing-along by Kurenniemi’s friends; these are not quite as enthralling as the earlier, shorter tracks, and they meander quite a bit but they still have their moments of easy amusement and joy.

Those interested in reading about Erkki Kurenniemi and why his career as an electronics music pioneer and inventor of electronic musical instruments faded away in the mid-1970s can start with his entry on Wikipedia which reveals that among other things he worked for now-defunct industrial design company Rosenlew and the more famous company Nokia designing industrial robotics systems during the 1980s. As interest in his early music and film work revived in Finland and around the world in the early 2000s, Kurenniemi returned to designing and making electronic musical instruments. He also became a commentator on future trends and developments in science and technology for Finnish TV networks. An interesting aside is that Kurenniemi’s mother Marjatta is famous in her own right as a writer with her own entry on Finnish-language Wikipedia.

Kurenniemi’s films (14 in all) and some of his early musical inventions and robot designs are being archived and preserved by art galleries and museums in Helsinki and Stockholm. His reputation in different fields of art, science and technology, and Finnish media is sure to grow after his death. Years may pass before his legacy to Finnish art, music and culture is fully recognised and acknowledged. RIP Erkki Kurenniemi.

Aguas Territoriales / Caballos: two pioneers of 1980s Cuban electronic experimentation

Carlos Farinas, “Aguas Territoriales” / Juan Marcos Blanco, “Caballos”, Australia, Creelpone, CD-R CP220

In an effort to release as much historical experimental electronic music in their current double-set limited edition series, Creelpone elected to pop these two Cuban recordings from the early 1980s together on the one disc. Both recordings, originally released separately by Empresa Grabaciones Y Ediciones Musicales (EGREM) – a Cuban record label founded in 1961 responsible for releasing many significant Cuban and other Latin American recordings in homegrown and regional contemporary music genres, jazz and rock – are nearly equal in length at about 33 minutes and 34 minutes respectively.

Farinas leads off with the two long tracks that make up “Aguas Territoriales” (“Territorial Waters”). “Madrigal” is an unobtrusive though far-ranging electroacoustic piece of shrill bird-whistle melody fragmentation overlying a long drone that develops into a serene, radiant electro-symphonic epic. It’s a very graceful introduction into this archival set. “Aguas Territoriales” the title track features field recordings of water bubble that become crazed and demented as they pass through reverb and drone treatments when you might expect they would be plop-plop still and quiet. Both long pieces reveal a very unexpected and mischievous humour on Farinas’ part.

JMB’s “Caballos” (“Horses”) starts as a lively and playful melodic recording, dominated by analog synth, with plenty of galloping rhythms and frivolous flights of twittery fancy. Chase scenes and light-hearted dramas flit by as the horses run from one corral to another and back. As this work progresses – it was originally written for the stage – it expands into a full soundtrack of electro-orchesral ditties and field recordings embracing many moods and feelings. Birdsong appears among pure clean-toned electronic tunes and musique concrete sounds suggesting light industrial work and explosions.

A lot of fun is to be had on both these recordings though they’re very different in style and approach. The ages of the two composers may be significant: Farinas was in his 50s and JMB in his 30s at the time their recordings were released. JMB’s “Caballos” is the more extroverted and busy work, heavy on melody and constant light-fingered activity. Farinas seems more interested in creating mood and suggesting that water may be alive in its own perhaps demonic way with special effects. Both works complement each other very well and provide an  entrée into Cuban electronic experimental music during the Cold War.

The CD-R is available from Broken Music.

Fyodor’s Wild Years

A real one-of-a-kind record is Russian Canon (FROZEN LIGHT FZL 037), a record credited to Fake Cats Project, a trio featuring Kirill Makushin, Igor Levshin, and Alexei Borisov, which they only started in 2015 yet they’re already produced four records, of which this is one. Can’t find out much about the project or the band, although Alexei Borisov is well known and respected on these pages, and is probably my favourite avant-garde Russian musician (along with Kurt Liedwart and Ilia Belorukov).

Russian Canon is a bizarre suite of songs and instrumentals which may amount to an opera, a song cycle, a parodic comment on modern urban society, or simply a series of surreal poems set to music. All is sung (and lyrics printed) in Russian, so I’m at a bit of a loss, but at least the titles are printed in English. You might be able to piece together a scenario from titles like ‘Falcon Theme’, ‘Clouds Of My Memory’, and ‘A Kitten Looks At Soldier’s Eyes’, but it’d be a pretty wild and hairy screenplay that you’d be submitting to your editor. The music is kind of all over the place too. I can discern tunes and ditties that might be Russian folk songs (a wild guess though; the accordion backing is my one and only clue here) and likewise songs that more resemble the sort of proletariat anthems that appear in my worst nightmares when I’m inventing newsreel footage from the days of Kruschev and Sputnik and screening these imaginary movies in my brain. Particularly the opening blast, ‘Everything Is Fine’, a fractured every-which-way composition whose waywardness makes it perfectly clear that whatever else is going on, everything is not fine. But that’s just my warped imagination.

The trio also play electronic synth drone tunes; a very distorted form of easy-listening jazz with the help of guest trumpeter Konstantin Sukhan, acting as the reverse Herb Alpert in this context; broken, minimal post-punk songs; and even on one track a song built on a famous Erik Satie tune, so that’s their classical music credentials also checking in for duty. Fake Cats Project perform in all these styles effortlessly, and are not attempting a mannered pastiche…and they play with utter conviction, maintaining a serious and slightly gloomy mood throughout the whole off-beat performance. Street singers and “baggers” – hopefully that’s the local slang for bag-men – are also sampled and their voices join in the rollicking fun in places.

It’s a remarkable tour de force, packed with much drama and musical invention. Now that I think of it, the nearest Western equivalent to this might be Tom Waits, but even he would probably hand over his last bottle of brown-bagged bourbon if he could produce something as cinematic, noirish, and unhinged as Russian Canon. Wish I could decode more of this, so I may just have to send a message to the band through their Bandcamp page. Very high recommendation for this lavish, layered, musical oddity. From 7th September 2016.

Astromusic Synthesiser: a lively work travelling far beyond the zodiac

 


Marcello Giombini, Astromusic Synthesiser, Fifth Dimension, FD5008-CD (2015)

I admit I did have an attack of the collywobbles after buying this CD, that it might turn out to be mostly twee New Age hippie synthesiser pop kitsch fit only for church yoga classes. Imagine my astonishment when the music turned out to be robust and lively, bubbling with light-hearted zest and joy. What makes this recording a stand-out from its period (it was first released in 1981) is Giombini’s skill and experience as a soundtrack composer and his imagination in working his synth – and only his synth, there being no other instrument on this release – to its full range of sounds and capabilities, and beyond. The tunes his fluttery fingers generate give rise to an astonishing spectrum of moods from surprise to wonder and pensiveness. The synthesiser’s limitations force the music into pure melodies that tumble from their source and race through the atmosphere like silver-winged sprites. There may be a slight manipulative element at work but the spirit behind it is of wonder and curiosity.

As you might expect from a recording about the twelve signs of the zodiac, there are twelve tracks each corresponding to a different sign and named after it. From then on though, any connection between the eponymous signs (and what they represent) and their respective tracks seems merely coincidental. Thus the track “Aries”, to take one example, seems less fiery and more melancholy than perhaps it ought to be. You quickly realise that the best way to listen to the music here is to forget its astrology inspiration and just hear it for what it is: a lively and playful creation rejoicing in its sudden being and existence, eager to fly out and explore its horizons to its very limits.

Marcello Giombini (1928 – 2003) is better known for scoring movies of various genres, mainly spaghetti / paella Westerns, horror, crime thriller and sword-and-sandal epics, in the 1960s onwards but his work in electronics and the use of music computers from the 1970s on is gaining more attention and new respect.

Lock Up The House

There Was Hardly Anybody There (SPINA!REC SR026) is the new cassette from Ilia Belorukov, still the heavyweight and principal saviour of Russian underground music at time of writing, and it’s a highly grim affair. He’s forsaken his usual improvising saxophone mode and gone for these four interminable pieces of horrifyingly monotonous and empty music of greyness and bleakitude. I think the saxophone played a part somewhere, but attenuated minimalism is the order of the day. “The reductionist sound was changed by cold synth noises and monotonic rhythms,” is how the label press sell us on this captivating episode.

The opening cut ‘He Needs Someone To Wake Him Up’ is just about survivable – a thudding, ominous, sequenced synth pulse spells out doom, but at least there are urban recordings on top to make it seem like something relatable to real life; the dog barking is one nice effect. And there’s even a minimal tune (if you can find it) passing by for a few precious seconds. Thereafter, remainder of tape is a descent into empty town-dwelling horror, including ‘If Any Man Comes…’, an emptied-out and all-bleached track which might just be the “room sound” from an underground bunker or torture chamber, or other scene of terror; ‘Ask Around, Someone Will Know’ which proceeds on its way to the beat of a remorseless military drum with a low tone moaning underneath, punctuated by occasional howls of anguish; and ‘Someone Has To Lock Up The House’, which is all-but insufferable – distorted synth purrs and buzzes which somehow create a vista of sheer emptiness and an atmosphere of futility that is hard to shake off.

Throughout, Belorukov seems determined to refuse any kind of aesthetic pleasure that might be derived from electronic music, and also stops dead the possibility of any forward movement or progress in each piece. The resulting sensation of confinement is certainly well expressed by the images of concrete walls and staircases to nowhere which adorn this release, but it goes beyond the confinement of a single body; somehow it suggests an entire society, a culture, trapped in a frustrating political deadlock where absolutely nothing is possible. Are things really that bad in Russia? Evidently so! Take note, readers in the UK, this fate awaits all of us in the post-EU world, so beware. And take this tape as a forewarning of what it’s going to feel like. From 15th August 2016.

HØST: a wild ride into the most deranged realms of acid BM fury

 

Holokauston, HØST, New Zealand, The Dark Thursday, digital album TDT71 / Ukraine, Depressive Illusion Records, floppy diskette FNR218 (2017)

As debut extreme / experimental albums go, “HØST” by Holokauston, a one-man BM project based in India, is as mind-destroyingly extreme and bleedingly raw as any I’ve come across before. The music ranges from melodramatic synth-orchestral soundtrack music to primitive punk BM throb and pummel, all shot through with a demented and disturbed genius. As far as I can tell, the album is the work of Holokauston head honcho (and sole member) Arjun Somvanshi who produced it as well. I dunno what conditions Arjun S played under and what the studio was like but whatever, wherever it was, it must be one helluva hellfire-n-brimstone hellish place to be where churning guitars are chopped up into brain-destroying metal shuriken slivers that cut every nerve and every cell connection, the chainsaws wheeze with demon minds of their own, the drums throb and pulse in response to an unholy life force and the entire recording ends up a juddering, broken, psychotic beast on the rampage. Guitars spew industrial-strength liquid acid that corrodes and melts down machinery. Amazing how the fluttery pounding drums quickly take over your own heart beat and force your head and body to judder in time to the insane outpourings as well. The vocals range from angry crabby groaning and demented mutterings to screams and howls.

There do exist moments of the most astonishing clarity in which acoustic guitar melodies flow easily and breathy clear-toned voice sighs but these times are very brief and highlight the unhinged nature of the songs. In these moments, the production is clear and sharp, much better than what I would have anticipated for a self-produced album, probably made at home, in a country (India) where electricity isn’t always reliable and blackouts occur most days. After the album’s halfway point, the songs become much louder and sharper, and a lot more frenzied, so I assume the recording wasn’t all done in one hit. The riffs and melodies are much clearer and the racket turns out to be much more ordered and less chaotic than you might think. Arjun S really does play guitar and drums well and the more I listen to this album, the more cohesive the songs actually are in spite of their looseness.

All the way through you’re treated to a wild and exhilarating ride in sheer crazed acid BM fury but the craziest parts turn out to be the intro and outro title pieces which are truly bat-shit exercises in experimental synth keyboard / piano retarded noodling. I really had a great time with this album – the only downside is when it all ends and I have to readjust to the real world.

First Briton In Space

The British Space Group is an alias for Ian Holloway, the talented UK player who owns and operates the Quiet World label, home to many strong releases of lyrical and poetic music in the synth and drone areas…he also publishes his writings under his Wyrd Britain blog, a highly personal exploration of strange things and strange places in the United Kingdom, heavily influenced by what he finds in science fiction and fantasy paperbacks, cinema, and TV shows. I mention the latter as a way to put in context The Phantasmagoria (QUIET WORLD FIFTY SIX), Ian’s new collection of short electronic instrumentals. It’s a compilation of all three Phantasms EPs which were previously published on Bandcamp, over a five year period – this stretch of time indicates the amount of thought and reflection that Ian, clearly never one to rush things, puts into his work.

In each of these three suites, working as The British Space Group, Ian explicitly plays homage to some of his favourite themes and preoccupations, and in so doing he also evolved an interesting working method. The first set, released in September 2010, was inspired by Doctor Who, and (needless to say) the music of the Radiophonic Workshop. Rather than simply pastiche the sounds and music of the Workshop, Ian wanted to work within a structure, and so he came up with an imaginary storyline to which he could compose the score. Well, almost – he got as far as devising enough plot points to create what he calls “a suitably vague story arc”. This saved him the burden of having to create a complete television screenplay, even though he has long wanted to express himself in this area, and it’s clear that in his own mind there’s a perfect Doctor Who episode which has never been filmed, but contains all the elements that excite his imagination (including “robot mummies…and Victorian sewers”). The provisional narrative as expressed in his list of titles was enough for him to create the music. And with evocative titles such as ‘The Control Room’ and ‘A Deeper Puzzle’, it’s likely that Ian has drawn deep from the well of the Patrick Troughton period. Accordingly, the music here – comprising short cues, some of them under a minute in length – strikes the perfect balance between suspense, humour, and pastiche. Full marks so far.

For Phantasms II, released April 2011, he applied much the same method to another source, the ITV series Sapphire & Steel. In his notes, I like the way he assumes his audience is as besotted as he is with cult TV and thus completely familiar with this offbeat series from the late 1970s, and feels no need to explain the (admittedly ambiguous) premise of this Peter J. Hammond creation, nor to mention that it starred Joanna Lumley and David McCallum, which to me is a casting anomaly bordering on the miraculous. Holloway remembers the strangeness of the plots, however, as a thrilling combination of the “mundane and the obtuse”, and he wanted his music to evoke suspense and “unease”. For the most part he succeeds, but Phantasms II is also a rather bitty collection and doesn’t quite hang together so well; there’s one too many “clunky” synth sounds and lame disco beats, though this may all be part of the subtle homage to the period. This was originally issued with a superb cover image, not present in this reissue, that strikes exactly the right note of creepiness and compelling eerie charm; he doesn’t quite capture that same tone in the music, but he tries. Again, a lot of the work is done by the titles, which do much to trigger the audience’s imaginative contribution; ‘Waiting in the Blue Room’, ‘A Hand In The Wall’ and ‘The Melancholy Machine’ are all plausible submissions as TV episode titles, or titles of fantasy paintings.

Phantasms III, released in March 2016 on Bandcamp, is the most ambitious of the three sets and contains some of the best music too. At first, Ian’s impulse was to apply his same method to Quatermass, one of the high watermarks of British sci-fi weirdness; through both TV and cinema versions, Nigel Kneale has permanently warped the minds of many a receptive English youth. Instead, Ian devised something original of his own, referring to the “partially formed unnamed travellers who have lived in my head for the last six years”. This is a very strong way of referring to the power of imagination and the effects of these sources, and indicates Ian is not merely some fetishistic fanboy obsessed with trivia and the minutiae of a science-fiction TV script. Phantasms III tells an ambiguous story of the travellers being summoned on a journey but saying goodbye to a comrade who they leave behind. A simple but evocative tale, expressed in 16 instrumentals of electronic music; it’s a compelling blend of alien strangeness, nostalgia, and poignancy. Once again the titles are an important prop; ‘Through the Skin of the Water’ is my favourite, and makes me think The British Space Group should have been commissioned to provide music for the movie Under The Skin by Jonathan Glazer. Holloway rarely hits a wrong note on this suite, and the music is genuinely unsettling, whereas the first two Phantasms are a tad soft-centred, perhaps hampered by their own need to align themselves with their original sources.

At a time when the Radiophonic Workshop and all things associated with their work have been thoroughly explored and interpreted by many imitative musicians, it takes a rare insight and talent to be able to come up with something as original and personal as The British Space Group. I just have to carp about one trivial detail, and that’s the inclusion of the Lewis Carroll couplet on the back cover. First, it’s been misprinted by one word, which (wearing the cap of a strict English Lit. master from the 1950s) I find unacceptable; Lewis Carroll paid close attention to metre, and he would never have added that redundant extra syllable to his verse, which was always as tautly-constructed as a piece of Victorian furniture. Second, why reference the poem Phantasmagoria at all? It’s a comic-supernatural story about a ghostly visitation, and a glimpse into the lives of the rather mischievous ghosts who haunt houses; I can’t see the connection with the futuristic sci-fi music here. This quibble aside, a lovely piece of work. From 7th July 2016.

Put Me On The Pan

On Human Of Stow (TUTORE BURLATO #05), the irrepressible eccentric Dan Melchior turns in a perplexing two-parter of far-out proportions, using electronic music and voice elements. A lost Creel Pone masterpiece emerges from his gifted hands, and mouth. And the additional contributions of Emily Bobb and Glen-Rodman-Melchoir play a part too. These unsettling analogue synth puffs, combined with wayward drones and errant popping squeals of noise, create a miasma of swamp-like dimensions in short order, causing the innocent wayfarer to lose their way in among the swirls of green fog and seemingly endless roadway, unwinding against an uncertain tilted horizon. We’ve enjoyed this English performer’s highly quirky approach to songwriting, on such albums as Catbirds and Cardinals, but Human Of Stow reveals his talent for abstract art music of a highly labyrinthine nature. I’d almost forgotten he teamed up with Ezio Piermattei, who sent me all these cassettes and probably runs the label too. The results of their collaboration were released as My Dance The Skull MDTS10, noted here in 2015. Great cover painting to this cassette is also by Dan; kind of Paul Klee meets The Beano.

One of nine cassettes received 4th July 2016 from Ezio Piermattei.

Komm Herein

The front cover of Teilstück Für Totalen Schwung (90% WASSER WVINYL022) is stamped with the text “archive release #1”, which made me think this was a rescue job from the past history of electronic music brutalism. This crude electrosynth noise certainly has got that “1980s edge” everyone is banging on about these days. “Past history” is about 35% right, since though Teilstück is a new record, the creators Kein Zweiter have an interesting history that starts in 1989.

Apparently the duo Gort Klüth and Klaus-Helene Ramp managed to endure each other’s company for about four years, then broke up. Then they decided to reform in 1998. Oddly enough there’s no evidence of any records released in all that time, until Muskeln + Kraft = Überlegenheit appeared on this same label in 2006. This record made plain its preoccupation with muscle-building young men pumping up their sinews, and may even have certain undercurrents of homo-eroticism. After another ten-year sabbatical, we now get this little gem. I’ve always been keen on the sub-genre of “men shouting and chanting over synth noise and beats” in electronic music, and I suppose we’d have to kow-tow to D.A.F. (who clearly inspired this duo) as the past masters, or the creators of the template, even.

But Teilstück goes further down the route of teutonic ugliness, insisting on its own “muscularity” and pumped-up sweatiness with every step we venture inside the gymnasium of endurance. Disco dance music for confused robots, laced with elements of NDW hostility and flashes of modernistic 1990s dub noise in the weighty bass tones. All the entertaining “party animal” material is on side one, where the winning combination of basic drum machine beats, minimal synth attack and single-minded chanting is massively appealing, to say nothing of the coarse and grainy production…side two holds the weirder ideas, including the positively bizarre ‘Endstation Gürtel’ which is like an experimental dream-scape with its fractured construction, horrid voices, and unusual ambient tones. It also offers the epic ‘Der Wagenmann’, which at six minutes is like a Wagnerian opera rethought as disco music with pompous string sounds, jarring dynamics and arrangements, and its lapses into choral singing and wacky sound effects of a drunken sex party from the Middle Ages. Great!

Also of interest: if you buy the LP you get a DVD with a video called Eine Richtung – Eine Saat, made by Jürgen Eckloff of Column One; Anette Eckloff, another Column One member, is credited with the “concept” behind ‘Kreislauf’ on side one. From 25 May 2016.

Sound In Space

Here’s a cassette tape / download release from A Guide To Saints, a new child label of Lawrence English’s Room 40 label. White On White (SNT016) is a mega-drone special by An Infinity Room, one of the projects / aliases of Julian Day. Day is not only a composer, but also a writer, artist, and broadcaster – who has appeared on BBC Radio 3 over here, but also has his own show on ABC Classic FM, called New Music Up Late. He’s interviewed a number of important and influential contemporary musicians.

On White On White, his debut recording under this project name, we have three pieces he recorded in Sydney, made using analogue synths which are yoked together to produce rich and sumptuous drones. I think the main thing is that the work is supposed to be played in a room space, and there’s a sizeable list of various art galleries and contemporary art spaces and music venues where An Infinity Room has manifested itself. “Rooms within rooms”, is how he summarises the aim of these long-form drones; it’s something to do with charging the air around the room with “highly active vibratory fields”. As with many such large-scale, real-world art pieces, it really needs to take place in a large physical space, and might not successfully translate onto CD, let alone a cassette, but the music is still pleasing to listen to even if it doesn’t manage to “power up” your room space. On the other hand, if played loud and long enough, the desired results may yet be achieved. At over 45 minutes, the first piece ‘Intercessions’, which occupies all of side one of the tape, stands a good chance of shifting your body into the zone.

Day achieves this through something to do with geometry and numbers. The drones are generated using “simple algorithmic patterns” to trigger the notes on the synthesizers, a process which is explained here in any depth, but may involve an understanding of arithmetic or number theory. Musical historians have long understood the proposals of Pythagoras in this context, and numbers have formed the basis for the entire Western system of tuning, at least until the 20th century when various conceptual mavericks (Tony Conrad, La Monte Young, Harry Partch) challenged it. Julian Day would be happy to achieve a “turbulent geometry” in the room when he plays back his long drones, a fanciful concept which to me suggests that even the rules of architecture are being undermined in some way.

These ideas are interesting, but White On White is far from an essential listen on today’s spin. Day doesn’t improve on the work of the American Minimalists, and indeed his rather tentative and twee-sounding chords with their highly synthetic sound might be seen as something of a backward step. None of the pieces develop at all during their long duration, apart from some very subtle changes in the patterns of notes, and I’m not feeling the sublimation of transcendence, still less the “deeply embodied psychoacoustic experience” promised by the press notes. From 27 June 2016.