Don’t Look Back Records invited me to make a mixtape.
Listening back. To a take, a recording. One’s own. Someone else’s. Like the old process of developing a photograph. Or a print. How did it turn out? What was ‘captured’. Forms gradually emerge. Details can slowly be made out. It’s not the past. It’s now.
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This collection takes a step back to some of the formative sounds that I came across as a teenager in the early eighties: Japan’s Ghosts, OMD’s Architecture & Morality – how did that kind of experimentation get to exist on albums that were otherwise classified as ‘pop’?
Japan spoke of the atmosphere of Stockhausen’s albums from the fifties as one of their sources of inspiration, and took that ‘atmosphere’, the melodic ‘ghosts’ they found within the ring-modulated sounds of the early studios, in a different direction.
An interest in the equipment was used to make those first pieces from the fifties has seen an incredible revival in recent years. Hainbach, the Willem Twee Studios etc. In my mix, Andrea Taeggi’s 2020 Mycorrhiza album, made using much of that equipment, provides a bridge between the worlds of the 50s, 80s, and 2020s. Stockhausen, Japan, OMD, Phtalo.
One of the things I loved about Tin Drum, the album on which Ghosts appears, was Steve Nye’s close, dry production with almost no reverb. It fitted in with the natural environment that I knew from growing up in South Africa, in particular my Grandmother’s farm, where all family holidays were spent. An ‘outdoor’ music rather than one designed for a reverberant space.
Kevin Volans grew up in that environment too, and after studying with Stockhausen in the 70s made a number of pieces based on field recordings collected in South Africa, with Studies in Zulu History as a recreation of those environmental sounds created solely with the electronics of the WDR studio in Cologne: Sounds that take me back to field recordings of my own and the deep feelings that they evoke.
That ‘outdoor’ music opens up for a different approach to noise elements and tunings. The more or less 7 equal steps to the octave (rather than pure ratios) of Mozambican Chopi Timbila music for example, the art of which Venancio Mbande brought to a high level of perfection. I first came across this music as part of an Ethnomusicology course with Deborah James while studying at the University of the Witwatersrand, but only got to hear it live for the first time many years later while living in The Hague. Loud, buzzing, and full of energy. Immersive happiness.
Returning to the albums of the early eighties – the discovery that ‘tapes’ could be a thing alongside the regular instruments one might find listed on an album’s personnel list. On Tin Drum, or David Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees for example, where Holger Czukay was the man behind the machines – in his case two beloved IBM dictaphones that offered ‘more possibilities for fluid manipulation than any sampler at the time’.
Czukay’s Boat-Woman-Song was created after-hours in the WDR studio in the year that I was born, though I only discovered it a few years ago. It contains some of the ‘other-worldly’ singing that I would come across, and come to love, on the albums by Sylvian and Japan. There’s a video that I love of Czukay manipulating those tapes on his dictaphones during the recording sessions for David Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees. In full concentration to get the pitch and placement just right. A tricky, somewhat unsure process that required a little luck, and within that an appreciation for the forces not directly within one’s control. Beautiful.
These things are not the type of ‘masterpieces’ that come by thinking and torturing your brain. That has nothing to do with creativity. These things are in the air, and you just grab at the right time. This idea is based on an ancient way of producing. Very effective, actually – there is a chance to be surprised by something, and accept something that was not to be foreseen.
That was from an age in which, due to the prevalence of radio, things were more literally ‘in the air’. Based around Iranian songs captured over the shortwaves, Czukay’s My Persian Love brings a smile to my face each time I listen to it.
And then there’s something else that was also created in the WDR studios in Cologne in the late 70s – John McGuire’s Pulse Music III. ‘Minimal’ music that shares a distant relation to the African patterns. The quality of the timbres, created on a Synthi 100, never ceases to impress me.
From the wonderful and extensive liner notes for the Unseen Worlds release:
I should emphasize that there was very little theory behind any of this, just a lot of experimentation, every day over a period of weeks—the “Experimentierphase,” as the indispensable audio engineer, Volker Müller, called it. In all, the piece required seven months of daily work in the studio, much of which was taken up with intonation and onset transients, particularly at high speeds where onset transients can quickly get noisy.
Transients mix with extended piano resonances on Franco Battiato’s Sud Afternoon. It might also be categorised as 70s minimalism and some of the harmonies might be reminiscent of Steve Reich, but it’s less conceptual and has a handmade charm that I appreciate. An atmosphere of its own.
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Track Listing with Links
- 00:00 – 11:50: Holger Czukay - Boat-Woman-Song (excerpt)
- 05:00 – 10:50: Giuseppe Ielasi - Five Wooden Frames - 05
- 11:34 – 13:26: Japan - Ghosts (excerpts)
- 11:36 – 15:52: Kevin Volans - Studies in Zulu History (excerpt)
- 13:00 – 15:30: Rudiger Meyer - Between (Sine Study excerpt)
- 13:21 – 15:53: Andrea Taeggi - Oculus Cordis
- 15:51 – 19:30: Venancio Mbande - Mtsitso (Part 1)
- 15:51 – 20:25: Andrea Taeggi - Icaro
- 20:08 – 22:59: Phtalo - Monotone (excerpt)
- 20:55 – 26:02: Andrea Taeggi - Mycorrhiza
- 23:21 – 24:36: OMD - Architecture & Morality (excerpt)
- 25:59 – 32:24: Holger Czukay - My Persian Love (Remix)
- 32:17 – 35:03: Kevin Volans - Studies in Zulu History (continued – excerpt)
- 33:19 – 37:29: Grzegorz Marciniak - Melodica Duet No. 1
- 34:19 – 38:08: Karlheinz Stockhausen - Studie 1 (excerpts)
- 34:50 – 37:45: Karlheinz Stockhausen - Kontakte (excerpts)
- 38:33 – 39:38: Hainbach - Syn-Ket Studien - Studie C - Largo
- 39:31 – 41:52: Ignatz - Unknown
- 41:38 – 43:31: Kevin Volans - Studies in Zulu History (continued – excerpt)
- 42:27 – 61:00: Franco Battiato - Sud Afternoon
- 45:53 – 49:26: Rudiger Meyer - A Walk With Bongi Through Alex (excerpts)
- 52:15 – 54:15: John McGuire - Pulse Music III (excerpt)
- 56:01 – 57:53: John McGuire - Pulse Music III (excerpt)
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