Mental Machine Music


Whenever I listen to electronic classical music, or the avant of any garde for that matter, I always employ my own patented form of “deep listening,” which combines the I Ching, game theory, 600 milligrams of yohimbé extract, and 40 well-positioned woofers. It kinda works. Inspiration, fear, and trembling inevitably ensue.

Thus did I sit myself down recently to sample Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music, a new three-CD box set put out by the ever elusive, enigmatic, and ineffable Ellipsis Arts label (which I’d never heard of before). Producers Thomas Ziegler and Jason Gross have created one swell-looking package: The 96-page companion book alone will surely test your smartypantsitude with its eyewitness accounts of pioneering German radio broadcasts and Area 51-like starry-eyed faith in the new math. This compilation is the perfect stocking stuffer for your pacifier-sucking offspring who think electro-frippery begins and ends with Aphex Twin. And lest you think school is for fools and that any chronological catalog of the grandpappies of synthesized sound must be some dry litany of bleeps and blips that time forgot, let me tell you that there isn’t a snoozer or loser in the bunch.

Ohm begins pleasantly enough, and at the beginning (sort of), with Clara Rockmore’s perfectly sublime rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Valse Sentimentale,” played on that space-age hurdy-gurdy, the theremin. Mad Russian Leon Theremin, who invented this temperamental gizmo in the ’20s, needed a diva to work her mojo on it, and Clara rocked his shit like Jimi would later rock an axe. (Not too many other of the fairer-gendered science-fair winners show up on the Ohm box, but the ones showcased are all [inter] stellar: Bebe Barron, Pauline Oliveros, Maryanne Amacher. No Wendy Carlos, but she’s a cheater anyway.)

Things go smoother still with master blaster Olivier Messiaen’s “Oraison” (1937), scored for the all-but-forgotten Ondes Martenot (early electronic keyboard—if you want a history lesson, go ask Stereolab). It’s a lyrical wonder, but then I love everything this organ king ever did. Messiaen was the headmaster of the Avant/Electro School for Boys, his star pupils including Pierres Henry and Boulez, Luc Ferrari, Iannis Xenakis, and Karlheinz Stockhausen—thus, all high-tension wires lead to him. The Web’s All Music Guide (indispensable to me ‘cuz I steal from it so much) reveals that the divine, mystical Messiaen gained inspiration from the same sources that keep me going: Catholic religious themes and birdsong. The AMG also numbers among Olivier’s followers Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki, Lalo Schifrin, and Björk—Wow, talk about your holy trifectas for hipsters on the go!—and makes special mention of his “Quartet for the End of Time,” composed in a German prison camp. Essential listening, obviously, for anyone interested in life on earth.

One thing I dig about a lot of these (for the most part) classically trained composers is that their natural curiosity for all things modern won out over their highfalutin scholarship and spurred them on to search their nightmares for alien sounds and fiddle with tape recorders accordingly—thus setting the stage for those wild sounds you hear today in rock, funk, disco, hip-hop, soul, new age, techno, and Muzak. In other words, one might expect my nerves to be rattled by the groundbreaking slice ‘n’ dice tape experiments of Musique Concrete founder Pierre Schaeffer’s 1948 “Etude aux Chemins de Fer” (lots of train whistles) and all-around-great-guy John Cage’s subsequent 1952 “Williams Mix” (lots of of frog snippets, as if to say, “Vive le France!”), but I’ve been corrupted by too many groundbreaking Biz Markie records. Plus I have cable. So mostly, I just admire the determination involved in these guys taking months to do what any 12-year-old can now do in minutes on her computer.

Some of the folks included on Ohm are already firmly entrenched in the history books: Stockhausen, Cage, Xenakis (Buy all the Xenakis recordings you can find!), Edgard Varèse (whose 1958 “Poem Électronique” sounds like the reason headphones were invented), Steve Reich (whose 1968 “Pendulum Music” Sonic Youth sure did make swing on Goodbye 20th Century last year). And like T.O.N.T.O.’s headband, forever expanding, excerpted portions of their longer pieces no way detract from the flow created by a deft track selection that unravels and builds seamlessly. Which is to say the 6:20 edit of Stockhausen’s “Kontakte” (1959-1960) still floats down as the sound resounds around the icy waters underground.

What really awakens me from my oscillator-generated stupor, though, is Tod Dockstader’s “Apocalypse II” (1961)—a mere two-minute excerpt of doom-rock genius. Tod was punk as fuck and sexy to boot. Eno and Moby couldn’t hold a candle to his chrome-domed electro-god looks. (Patti Smith was quoted somewhere as saying that she doesn’t listen to music by anyone she wouldn’t sleep with, so I’m guessing electronic classical music isn’t her bag, what with most of the form’s gurus looking like unpopular physics professors. I’m just glad that’s not my criterion, or I never would have heard Radio Ethiopia!)

Anyway, I’ve gotta give a random chronological shout-out to a few other tracks especially worthy of immediate shortwave transmission:

  • Raymond Scott “Cindy Electronium” (1959) Robert Moog (bless his heart) helped the silly symphony maestro build the clavivox, thus ensuring that a life-size statue will someday be built in Japan on behalf of Scott’s tireless crusade for whimsy in music.

  • Pauline Oliveros “Bye Bye Butterfly” (1965) Through tape manipulation and a peck of pinched Puccini, this piece invents postpunk nurses with wounds 13 years ahead of schedule.

  • MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva) “Spacecraft” (1967) How my greasy loner friends who I trade Crispy Ambulance bootlegs with never turned me on to these acid-soaked freaks I’ll never know. Looked them up on the Net, but all I found was a site for a radioactive ion-beam facility.

  • Terry Riley “Poppy Nogood” (1968) The full title of this one is “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band Purple Modal Strobe Ecstasy With the Daughters of Destruction.” That’s all you really need to know.

  • David Tudor “Rainforest Version I” (1968) Pianist and muse to the stars, Tudor envisions an electro/worldbeat fusion full of gnashing teeth and tsetse flies: nothing at all soothing or N.P.R.-ready.

  • Laurie Spiegel “Appalachian Grove I” (1974) Kudos must again go to Ohm‘s compilers, cuz Disc 3 (1972-1980) in no way wanes in quality (which I thought it might, since so many de rigueur synths and devices of that era have come to sound so Kitaro-y and Vangelis-y today). This computer-made track sounds as cool and alien as the day it was hatched. I played it on my computer, and my computer told me it loved me.

  • Robert Ashley “Automatic Writing” (1979) The walls are melting, my brain is on fire, Throbbing Gristle are exposed as the frauds that they were. These physics professors are getting downright fucking spooky.

    Which reminds me: Did I mention yet that all of these artists were completely insane? More than one of them based their compositional theories on ancient religion or metaphysical philosophy. Most had grandiose ideas of some perfect forum for their music to be heard, preferably with hundreds of loudspeakers involved. A 31-year-old Karlheinz Stockhausen, speaking in 1960, envisioned a time when every major city would have an auditorium specifically designed for the appreciation of “space music.” If he had only known then what time and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer would bring!

    And somehow, someway, every one of these egghead eccentrics managed to create (despite their often convoluted quantum mechanics fixations, crude yet mind-boggling inventions, and reliance on tin cans) a spontaneous-sounding and vibrant form of music, all but bypassing the always fashionable and almost always boring world of George Crumb wannabes and academic/atonal/serial/Schoenbergian federally funded “modern” classical music that exists to this very day. Perhaps when you’re playing something called an “electronic sackbut” it’s harder to get into a stylistic rut.

    Or perhaps the answer lies in the warning that fad exploiter and ’60s electronica icon Richard Hayman (who rearranged the hits of the day for sci-fi fans by adding synth burps and farts to “The Windmills of Your Mind” and “The Look of Love”) includes in the liner notes to his Vietnam-era Genuine Electric Latin Love Machine LP: “Beware the Ides of Moog.” Even in those dark samplerless, modemless days of yore, electronic gadgets and boxes provided the user with limitless possibilities to create unheard and unheard-of sound. Thus the greatest influences on today’s music that no one has ever heard of—guys like La Monte Young in 1969, giving their masterpieces bizarre names like “31/69 c.12:17:33-12:25:33 pm NYC”—could screw with time and space via piercing sine waves that can still back up your sinuses for a week. So pin back your ears, mate. Piss off your dog!

  • Highlights