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!
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: