Wednesday, November 26, 2008

666 notes to hear before you go deaf

Hot on the heels of 1000 recordings to hear before you die, Toby Cresswell's 1001 songs: The Great Songs of All Time and the Artists, Stories and Secrets Behind Them, Pitchfork's 500 greatest songs and Robert Dimery's 1001 albums you must hear before you die comes 666 notes to hear before you go deaf from Anita McSusic

Working from a severely limited sound palette - after all there are only so many notes available, even when you take the sharps and flats or just look at the black and white keys of the piano - McSusic finds an artistic diversity within this constraint. She has, for example, identified an A flat in The Rolling Stones Symphony for the Devil which is markedly different to the A flat in the third movement of Beethoven's fifth symphony. Or, taking another example, a shifting B in the middle of a Kronos quartet glissando and one in Nine Inch Nail's Ghost IV.

For each of the notes she has identified, McSusic weaves a fascinating text, exploring how the composer reached that particular note and why she has selected it: a C sharp in Brian Eno's Discreet Music, appearing briefly at 15:32 apparently is a response to a draft caused when Robert Fripp entered the studio while Eno was creating the piece, and the tape slowed marginally. Eno discusses how he debated whether to rerecord the whole section or let that note pass. As it was one of a number of Cs within the work, and following pulling out an Oblique Strategy card that read 'Do not pass: go', the note remained. As you listen to this note in the book, the pitch has a subtle tenderness that is not present in some of the other C sharps.

When talking about historical notes, where there is no composer to discuss the material with, interviews with current performers explore how they respond to the notes McSusic has identified, and how they decide to play them. Intriguing twists emerge from this - for example the different ways that the Emerson and the Duke quartets play an F flat in Shostakovitch's 7th string quartet.

Each note has been identified in a particular recording which is available on CD - this makes it possible to find all 666 notes precisely - they are often surrounded by similar notes and identifying the one in question can be difficult. There is some discussion of putting all 666 notes onto a single CD, but that would detract from the thrill of the hunt. And the notes need to be heard in their context.

The book is organised around a sorting principle based on the composers first name, the not as written in German and the difference in the year of recording and composition. Luckily both the table of contents and the index are comprehensive and assist in navigating through the book. Though ones like this are meant for dipping.

Yes - as with all lists there will be notes that you wonder why they aren't there, and countries who are under represented (very little from Australia for example, though the opening note of Rolf Harris' Sun arise gets a guernsey). But if you want to explore notes written by people as diverse as the Sex Pistols and Stravinsky, Steve Reich to Stevie Wright, Mellencamp to Miaskovsky look out for this book, and take part in the on-line debate about those missing notes on the official website..  

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Man's last great invention - none

From Nebraska, Man's last great invention bring is None. (eh?43) - a departure from Eh/'s standard productions (as you would expect) with a striking cover which is a coloured copy onto transparent paper, stuck on to the white card with adhesive labels, and the information (title, band etc) appears to be typed (yes, there is a dent where the full stop is). Track titles are n, o, n, e, . and the untitled 6th track (why couldn't they think of a five letter title?). And musically, as hinted in the Beard review, this explores different territory again for the label.

The Myspace page lists a cast of thousands (well 16) across strings, vocals, percussion, keyboard, film projection and more. The music could best be described as psychedelic minimalism - washes of sounds, echoed instruments and chanted vocals for an extended 70 minutes.
The album opens in almost silence - just a tape hiss into which deep long synth lines and ringing guitar emerge. A sweet ethereal voice sweeps through (my thoughts are the Cocteaus, but slower, or Dead Can Dance) supported by bass, and sliding directly into the second track (o) continuing the pace and method, building into clouds of sometimes almost industrial sound. A held tone takes us into n, with looping percussive scrapes, and here singing takes the track into quite a dramatic, almost harsh, climax (with perhaps a little too much distortion) ending with a dying tone. 

e (the fourth track) opens quietly, redolent tapes hiss again building some subtle tones and then focusing on echoed bass and possibly guitar with some percussive effects and a flt-flt distortion. Towards the end a vocal line comes in, more keening and at times sounding almost like a Middle Eastern horn, but sliding into . (5) where some guitar adds to the mix with more vocals.

The final track again emerges from the silence, strange distorted sad voices (sounds of coughing can be heard, suggesting live recording, other noises too - maybe a site recording - but the overall feel is liver than the others), percussion, water flowing and a darker sound. A full drum kit takes a solo, and involves us in a much more activity, with a bleaker mood - possibly the tone of the voices - and broader instrumentation (pumps of woodwind, scraping guitars, synth woobles).

This is a broad, expansive album, creating sweeping atmospheres with the title 'tracks' while the untitled final third of the album presents a more forceful side of the ensemble. This sounds improvised, suiting the eh? remit, but with an ambient edge. Engrossing

(final note: I have described the album in three parts as that seems to be how the sounds flow. The editing however is poor - 2 second breaks between tracks which are obviously designed to flow together, breaking the atmosphere)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Gamma goat - Beard of sound, beard of sand

One of the pleasures of this 'job' is that you can follow a label if you are lucky enough to get linked in with one. Since the first large parcel of releases arrived from Bryan Day, the Public Eyesore and now Eh? journey has been nothing less than fascinating - there is very little predictable about what these labels put out: the three in the recent slim envelope are a case in point. Eh?39 Beard of Sound, Beard of Sand by Gamma Goat is the first up for show.

Apparently a three piece, this shows that Americans do understand irony. The low-fi approach is taken to new and unusual areas by this mutant rock band. There are 11 tracks in this 33 minute blast. Three, Precaution procedure, Outstanding citizen and Civil suit are short metallic, rubbish-bin style percussion pieces, with a little bit of processing thrown in (the legalistic titles must mean something to someone!) that act as bridges.

Mighty big boots is slow ponderous rock and roll, death metal vocals and sort of melodic (what is that cycling, slapping sound at the end - it recurs on another track) and is followed by another musical track, Goats on top with a swampy rhythm Beefheartish vocal accents, muddy recording, with wind out of tapping percussion, the electric guitar and whooping. Slurpy scrabbling introduces the slow bass and drums of Bowleater, electric guitar twangs and more distant vocals. Things descend further into lo-fi with Barren which sounds like it was recorded live in a club, the cheap cassette deck hidden under voluminous clothing resulting in a distorted thump rocker with shouted vocals  which has got something to it, somewhere. Death metal growling returns with In the dessert - slow driving bluesy, buzz sliding guitar and drums. 

The last three track take another track: Traps the golden light of being is a skillful rapid percussion piece with jangling guitar; the high short string guitar continues in Dealin' cards/ante up which introduces some processing - backwards sounds, echoey bass, strange highlights and drum riffs, which are taken even further in Killing ducks with nunchuks which has reversed sounds and strange squeals.

OK - a strange perverse rock album - you might not buy it as a stand-alone, but as part of the ever exciting and suggestive PE/Eh? magical mystery tour it actually grows on you.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Stasisfield update

Nearly a year ago I noted the return of Stasisfield as a more active label. Since then there has been an ongoing flow from them during 2008 which has been great to see. The music has traversed the general remit of the label - some electronica (much of it), ambience, a bit of worldy manipulated music (Gregory Taylor's delightful gamelan pieces), improvy (Rammel, Mueller and Schoenecker), experiments (Wincek) lots of lowercased minimalist pleasures based around field recordings and even some 'karaoke' (I don't think). The latest release is Kalte's Lantahnide Series. This is a nicely layered drone album which balances metallic gong-like tones with other subtle sounds, that weave in and out - bells and light scraping, buzzes and hints of field recordings - creating a hypnotic ambience. Just after playing this I happened to play something by Marc McNulty in my .Tiln genre (that was a ground breaking net music source), and there were some interesting similarities. Anyway, well worth pursuing, and as with all the free music on the web - you can make up your own mind.

Bruckner of the Month

John F Berky runs an excellent Bruckner website, one aspect of which is that each month he mines his archive for a symphony to make available as a free download. These can be from vinyl (or even acetate) though some occasionally from CD, and are interesting (eg Hindemith conducting no.7), unusual and of course out of print. Initially they were only available for a couple of months, but John has recently decided to keep 12 months worth up. The recordings are exemplary - no hint of vinyl noise - and provides you with multiple versions of the symphonies for those interested (2 versions of No's 1, 4 and 7, and singles No's 2, 3 and 6). The site is here - for 10 current downloads. There are some other shorter pieces also available elsewhere - follow the side bar.