What’s the sound of media colliding? What color is ambient, industrial and environmental music?
The experimental genre has never found it’s way into popular culture because it lies at the edge of what most of us would consider accessible. Just because a song lacks melody or conventional verse/chorus formula shouldn’t preclude it from wider exposure. Reinventing how music is presented and conceived has pushed sub-genres into a myriad of different directions. The little known “Illbient” genre fuses, trip-hop, salsa, and thick ambient textures. The early 80’s industrial movement with bands such as Clan of Xymox and Front line Assembly used machine inspired percussion grooves to create dance tracks. Found sound musicians like Britian’s Mathew Herbert don’t believe in recycling others samples at all, and create unique songs all their own through aural trial and discovery. Some musicians feel that the musical instruments themselves are the constraining factors and build their own. Do you know how to play a gravikord, crystallophone, or surrogate kithara? While no single musician can lay claim to the experimental genre. Certain defining moments have tweaked with societies conventional norms.
Dubbed “The Bad Boy of Music”, New Jersey composer George Anthiel shocked Paris audiences in 1926 with his cacophonic “The Ballet Mechanique”. Using three xylophones, four bass drums, a tam-tam, two pianos, a siren, seven electric bells, three airplane propellers, and 16 synchronized player pianos playing four different parts this “scandalous” performance shocked the music world with it’s irreverent disregard of tradition. The composition was to accompany a collage film by French Dadaist painter Fernand Léger, photographer Man Ray, and an American cinematographer named Dudley Murphy. It interspersed quick abstract film clips: pistons, dynamos, roulette wheels, carnival rides, repeating and looping, backwards, forwards, and upside down. Basically, a music video 60 years before the format was widely conceived. Some point to Anthiel as the granddaddy of all Industrial music, check out http://www.antheil.org for more.
Prior to the advent of sound recordings, traditional song lengths tended to be short around 2-3 minutes. It was John Cage’s “4’33” that made listeners for the first time truly hear the world surrounding a performance. In the song, a single piano player sat silently in front of a piano for a full four minutes and 33 seconds. This revolutionary act of music led people to finally become aware of the world of sound around them. The breathing of the adjacent person, the blood rushing through their bodies and pounding in their heads. The hum of the overhead air conditioning and electric lights. A siren slowly fading into the distance.
Inspired, Brian Eno’s catharsis was not by will. After being struck by a car, spending most of 1977 immobilized and recuperating from his injuries, he asked a female visitor to put on a record of 17th century harp music. The only thing was, she didn’t turn up the volume before she left. So he lay there trapped in bed, a captive listener, able to hear only the loudest notes above the rain outside his window. He began to slowly surrender to the sounds and soon gave birth to modern ambient music. The exquisitely conceived “Music for Airports:Ambient 1” was music whose sole basis was texture. If melody, rhythm, harmony, or lyric got in the way of this, then it wasn’t necessary. The series was completed in 1990 with Volume 4 entitled “On Land”. The vinyl jacket sleeve to the ambient series inventively diagrammed the placement of a third, separate channel of sound that was created through cross-polarizing your speaker wires. Some critics have called this series the most exciting project in all of music history others have dismissed it as “fish noise”. I feel that Eno’s contributions as a musician, producer and collaborator with luminaries such as, Steve Reich, Harold Budd, Daniel Lanois and Robert Fripp is stupendous.
The Czech experimental landscape is rife with fascinating offshoots of these early sound smiths. Floex, ZKA4T, Soil and The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa are all on the summer festival circuit. Give your AOR collection a rest and let the sounds of life into your hearts and living rooms. There’s way more to music than what you hearing on the radio.
Timmy’s Top 5 Experimental:
Autechre: Incunabula (Warp)
Various Artists: Incredibly Strange Music Vol 1 & 2 (RE search)
Pentatonik: Pentatonik (Deviant)
Various Artists: Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones (Elipses Arts)
Brian Eno: Ambient 1: Music for Airports (EEG)
You can hear experimental, breaks, and rare groove on the High-Fidelity broadcast every Friday from 8 to 10 pm on Radio One 91.9 FM. Tim Otis is at [email protected]