Long time no post! Here’s some beautiful music for even more horrible than usual times. A refreshing and playful album that effortlessly combines electronic and acoustic sounds in a way that is neither arduous nor cliche. This is a compilation of music by experimental composer (and architect) Riccardo Sinigaglia for early cgi animations by multimedia artist Mario Canali. These pieces were credited to their interdisciplinary art collective Correnti Magnetiche (Magnetic Currents) which was active from 1985-1995 and featured numerous other players from the Italian experimental scene of the time.
The music here is tough to pin down. It’s ambient, minimalist, at times reminiscent of classical music, and occasionally improvisational. The way Sinigaglia combines FM synthesis with acoustic instrumentation is really novel, the synthesized parts never sound immediately recognizable and seamlessly blend with actual percussion, violins, and vocals. It’s an album that opens up more and more upon consecutive listens. If this piques your fancy, Sinigaglia’s similarly excellent Rifelssi (1985) is also highly recommended.
Also of note is how purely weird and wonderful some of the other cg videos by Canali and Correnti Magnetiche are. They look like avant-garde versions of those cgi movie theater policy animations that were ubiquitous in the 1990s. I can’t get enough of them. This one sounds like an experimental interpretation of “I Want My MTV” by Dire Straits at the 0:44 mark.
Yuppie A stares at himself in the mirrored closet door. He’s having a crisis in white male fragility. Wife II divorced him, taking both the SAAB and son Jonathan. Passed over on the big promotion due to “passivity.” Spilled V8 on the white over-stuffed couch. But a mysterious new client, Stefano, understands. He knows the “way.” Won’t you listen?
This is a playlist about the paradox of sentiment and spiritual bankruptcy in post-jazz music of the late 1980s early 1990s. I wanted to musically explore the debasement of jazz in this period, the feeling of excitement and wrongness when Miles Davis covers Scritti Politti. But most of all, I was thinking about the heternormativity, gender binarism, and hyper-masculinity of early 1990s commercial advertising, adult contemporary music, and any film with James Spader from 1984-7.
I tried to curate tracks that stood-out from the usual sludge of New age/Rock/Smooth Jazz/R&B fusion, and I hope each song hits that perfect blend of almost inspirational sincerity, non-reflexivity, and musical virtuosity.
Be warned, this is a playlist unafraid of passionate sax and guitar solos, which were in just about every imaginable song of the period and genre. Sanford Ponder’s “Oly” sounds like Bill Clinton playing a personal concert at your 1994 McDonald’s birthday party. Specific attention was paid to songs with odd or one-off production details, whether it be a random pitch-shift in David van Tieghem’s “Flying Hearts,” stock whip noises in David Benoit’s “Wild Kids,” or basically the Duracell battery sound-trademark in Michael Colina’s “The Shadow of Urbano.”
Much of the concept shines through in song titles (which I swear to god I did not make up) like “Masculine Magic,” “Wild Kids,” “You Understand,” and “I Hate You.” It’s the perfect soundtrack for sharing Folgers coffee with a generic white nuclear family, finishing a marathon, or careening down the Golden Gate Bridge in a mid-sized sedan.
And now for an obligatory Ryuichi Sakamoto/Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) post. This a worthwhile Sakamoto solo-album from 1986 that’s often overlooked – forgivable given his massive discography. Despite having a unifying conceptual focus on the avant-garde/facist Italian Futurist movement of the early 20th century [which once tried to abolish pasta] this album somehow manages to be all over the place. But this is why I like this record, and why I love Sakamoto.
Who else on earth would throw together musique concrete, needless 80s guitar solos, operatic arias, R&B stylings, and techno-pop? More importantly, who would then have the audacity to just drop a speech synthesis program reading an encyclopaedia entry on Futurism into the middle of a song? Sakamoto that’s who.
I sometimes see myself as a bigger fan of Haruomi Hosono’s solo works of this period because he never does wrong, even when he tends to be more predictable. But what I like about Sakamoto’s solo work is its sheer ecclectism, iconoclasm, and musical risk-taking. Whether he’s literally so ahead of the curve that he incidentally invents electro as a genre on B-2 Unit (1980), makes medieval synth-pop with Danceries in 1983, or creates a beautiful album of sampler-heavy “4th World Music” on Esperanto (1985), Sakamoto was always trying something new and pushing himself outside his comfort-zone.
There are a lot of memorable moments on the record. “Daikoukai” is a smooth diet-coke take on Naughty boys-era YMO, “Variety Show” is a dramatic and metallic sampler frenzy, and “G.T. II” is a 1980s funk romp that will be stuck in your head for a while. But the song that both puzzles and entices me the most is “Ballet Mécanique.” It starts off with a beautiful sound-collage of camera noises, but then suddenly breaks into a R&B vocalist Sakamoto hired to sing lyrics so corny they’re literally non-sensical:
“When I look out of my window, all I ever see is cloudy grey-skies, when you look into your mirror, how d’you think you’re ever going to see me. Look into my eyes”
It must have been a bad translation or something. But then Sakamoto comes on singing the exact same cheese in Japanese (a language I can’t understand) and the song immediately becomes consumable again. I guess this points to something problematic with my/our collective fascination with Japanese music from the 1980s that would sound hollow to those who can understand the language? And also with the frequent appropriation of R&B singers by Japanese pop musicians of the period?
“That’s such a fascinating thing, the adult interpretation of the kid’s world. A world artificially sweetened for kids, full of things kids were supposed to like and want. The shows tried to tell kids that life could be fun and exciting, but the unconscious message was that the adult world is strange, twisted, perverse, threatening, sinister.” – Robert Crumb, 2005
This is a personally spiritual mix I have been working on for a month or so. It’s intended to be a meditation on the simplicity, artifice, perversity, wonder, and uncanny feelings elicited by sampling and FM synthesis aimed at U.S. children during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.
The ur-texts here are the vaguely ominous musical trappings of kid’s commercials, the bumpers on networks like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, and educational children’s games on Windows ’95 like Thinkin’ Things and KidPix [especially the cgi-hellscapes of Kid Pix]. The sounds that form the aesthetic backbone of this mix are the presets on FM synthesizers like the Yamaha DX-7 and the Casio CZ101, simple MIDI sounds with sequencing, and perhaps most importantly, samplingon keyboards like the E-MU Systems Emulator, the Ensoniq Mirage, the Akai S1000, and the Fairlight CMI. Though the musical selection culls from the 80s and 90s, I don’t intend it to be historiographic. Songs were gathered from numerous different countries, and the mix attempts to evoke the emotional baggage of commercial children’s music from this historical moment indirectly.
If past children’s media was disturbing because of how its artificiality barely masked the sleazy, commodified, and dark world of the adults who made it, the musical trends of sampling and FM synthesis in music for kids of the mid 80s and early 90s added an extra layer of unease to the equation.
Early computer generated imagery is analogous to samplers and FM synthesis, not only because they simultaneously developed in the mid-1980s and became ubiquitous in the early 1990s. They can also all elicit feelings of the uncanny in the Freudian sense. This is because early cgi, sampling, and some types of frequency modulation synthesis all attempt to approximate a world of human, natural, or acoustic effects, but become almost eerie and jarring because of their artifice. For example, here’s a wonderful clip of Herbie Hancock on his Fairlight CMI making a young Tatiana Ali feel both amused and uncomfortable by playing samples of her own voice on Sesame Street in 1983. The producers somehow thought kids would love hearing distorted parodies of their own voices! But alas, they look horrified at the 3:03 minute mark.
But the elephant in the room is Mark Mothersbaugh’s masterful Fairlight score for Rugrats and his contributions to Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Rugrats’ music and early content had an overriding ethos that exemplified the R.Crumb quote above, and in part guided the curation of this mix. Aside from the show’s alienating wide-angle shots and nightmarish surrealism, my favorite point was how it often contrasted the artificially simple world of children with the bizzare, corporate, and soulless world of the adults who perpetuate it. Mothersbaugh’s deceptively simple soundtrack was the aesthetic glue of the show and its appeal. With its synth pads made out of arpeggiated mouth-noises, ominous ambience, and plastic samples of acoustic instruments, it both captured and amplified the discomfort and contrived innocence of childish things. Mothersbaugh’s arguably more nuanced musical series Musik for Insomniaks (1983 and 1988 ), which landed him the job composing the Rugrats score, is featured in the mix as aesthetic bookends.
Though it’s my first mix, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did making it!
Have you ever gotten fed up with the vague-orientalism of your standard New Age album? Have you ever listened to a Hearts of Space release and thought, “OK, I’m pretty sick of hearing about seasons, oceans, white people’s conception of ‘Africa,’ forests, and rain-forests. What other themes were they exploiting?” Have you ever wanted to open a Reki tent in a Louisiana Swamp? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then Tom Newman’s Bayou Moon is for you.
Continuing the rich tradition of theme albums on New Age labels, Bayou Moon is a weird and wonderful take on Cajun, Blues, and Zydeco music. It combines the basic motifs of these genres with occasional moments of Berlin-School synthesis, reverb drenched guitars, ominous bass progressions, and the occasional jaw-harp. The first track “Concerto De Mango in E-major” sounds someone tried to adapt Vangelis’ Antarctica (1983) for the bayou part of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.
Brooding ambient tracks like “Moonrise” and “Straw Dogs” are excellent listening, but for me the upbeat and jangling track “Gumbo Fling” takes the proverbial cake [or gumbo]. Though I constantly grapple with my love of this kind of New Age music and its issues of appropriation and essentialization [more on this in the near future], Bayou Moon is quirky, refreshing, and adventurous in a that way many themed New Age albums aren’t. Side note, Tom Newman is incidentally the guy who produced Mike Oldfield’s classic album Tubular Bells.
This is the perfect album for your next paddle down the Mississippi, documentary on the everglades, or just sitting around in your living room. Enjoy!
Telectu’s Camerata Elettronica sounds like Mark Mothersburg and Henry Cow were asked to collaborate on a soundtrack for the film The Man With the Golden Arm.
This is a noir-y album of experimental jazz composed using plastic-sounding synth approximations of standard jazz instruments, samples of live instruments on a Roland-s10, and live instrumentation. The results are spectacular, bizarre, and still avant-garde by today’s standards.
Some musical relatives can be found on the weirder tracks off Frank Zappa’s Jazz From Hell(1986), but Camerata Elettronica is far more raw and unhinged. The album’s post-modern logic is both jarring and endearing – there is a quota of artifice per every song. On some of the earlier tracks on the album you will hear live guitars and bass juxtaposed by thudding drum machines and synthetic saxophones, and on some of the later songs you will find the opposite.
Telectu was a duo formed in 1982 by guitarist Vítor Rua of the Portuguese rock band GNR [no, not Guns ‘n Roses] and keyboardist Jorge Lima Barreto. Both Barreto and Rua are accomplished musicians who who have released a lot of experimental music that can be described as minimalist and improvisational. Most of it is not quite my bag, but this album really hits the spot.
Why not start with a bang? This is a record that sounds like Perrey and Kingsley fell in with the wrong crowd and accidentally became members of Ashra. Erdenklang – Computerakustische Klangsinfonie [Earth Sounds – Computer Acoustic Sound Symphony] is a lush, stunning record of symphonic melodies, brooding ambience, and cut-up sounds composed entirely on the Fairlight CMI. And to top it all off, it was released a full year before the Art of Noise made Fairlight sample collages their signature on the EP Into Battle With the Art of Noise.
In addition to having the most German sounding names of all time, Hubert Bognermayr & Harald Zuschrader were both part of the Austrian rock band Eela Craig, whose releases ranged from a spaced-out concept album on Catholic high mass [which must be heard to be believed] to the kind of standard prog-rock that you would find in your uncle’s basement. Previous to Erdenklang, Bognermayer & Zuschrader also released the unnerving and wonderful album Sternenklang, a collection of classical religious and children’s song covers made using only [you guessed it] a Fairlight CMI.
But back to Erdenklang. Replete with scintillating synth pads, emulated woodwinds, and moments of maniacal sample-based polyrhythms, this is the kind of album you can effortlessly put on repeat for a few hours. Without one trace of cynicism, a track like “Erdentief,” which sounds like it was pulled from the soundtrack of a madcap 16-bit RPG, flows effortlessly into sprawling synthscapes and samples of flowing water. Starting off mellow and almost classical, the album hits its crescendo on “Eden,” which contains cut-and-paste sampling complex enough to put old Perry & Kingsley to shame.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, Wendy Carlos herself had this to say about the LP: