(art is Seven Black Elements and Small White Square by Kazimir Malevich.)
My first thought upon hearing Henry Plotnick’s album, Fields, was: this is amazing. This guy really knows his stuff – Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. Obvious influences but impeccable taste. Second thought was: but it’s all done on a MIDI keyboard, that’s a bit cheap, you’d never get Steve Reich premiering his latest masterpiece on a Casio – couldn’t a musician of Plotnick’s grade have scored this for orchestra instead?
Increasing listens found more and more to hear (and love) in the music. A niggling jealousy. Man, I wish I knew enough about music to be able to do this stuff. He must be 100 years old and have spent a lifetime studying gamelan with Javanese masters, minimalism with the great American surgeons of melody, musique concrete with European wizards. He must have stars in his beard and probably only speaks in riddles.
By the point I knew I was going to blog about Henry Plotnick I had gotten over the jealousy thing enough to risk Googling him.
And that’s when I found out.
Henry Plotnick is 11 years old.
His world-swirling minimalist symphonies are orchestrated just by a Yamaha keyboard and Line 6 looper pedal. His labelmates include Cloudland Canyon, James Ferraro, Food Pyramid, Moon Duo, Om, Six Organs of Admittance, Lichens, and Wooden Shjips. And he’s as good as the best of them.
By now, we weren’t quite so much feeling jealous of Henry as kind of feeling we’d wasted our entire lives.
Our only skills at 11 years old were knowing all the words to Ice Ice Baby and an average-to-middling aptitude for painting Citadel miniatures.
In fact, music wasn’t really on our radar, other than the pop rap and toytown rave inherited via multi-generation C60s from friends’ older brothers that we’d use to soundtrack summer holidays-long Megadrive sessions. Tapes that naively mixed drug-fucked hardcore (it sounded funny) with chart fluff like this:
We’d usually mute the TV and blast out our own soundtrack. There was one exception to this, though.
At the time, Streets of Rage managed to somehow capture a convincingly modern and – unique in video games at that time – cool atmosphere through its use of music. Streets of Rage’s score was built from the same clunky audio building blocks that all other 16-bit games were, but Streets of Rage seemed to have an actual ear for what was happening in ‘proper’ music. In particular, house, techno and other modern club music. Streets of Rage as a game was a pretty good Golden Axe-meets-The Warriors side-scrolling beat ’em up, but combined with its propulsive music it became an addictive, narcotic, and weirdly credible experience.
And this brings us to another child prodigy. In the 1980s Yuzo Koshiro was just another video games-mad teenager, but one who would spend hours scripting his own programming languages, and composing his own chiptune scores for his favourite video games. After sending some examples of his work to his favourite developers, Koshiro san was quickly adopted by Nihon Falcom to be their in-house composer. By the time of Streets of Rage (or Bare Knuckle, as it was known originally) in 1991, Koshiro was in his early 20s and had a clutch of classic titles to his name.
Bare Knuckle broke new marketing ground for video games, with three CD soundtracks from the game becoming commercially successful albums in their own right in Japan. Koshiro was obsessed with the sound of 808s and 909s, and wrote his own programming language (similar to BASIC!) that would allow him to get as close to his beloved Roland percussion as gaming technology would let him. This was painstaking master craftmanship. What came out was a startling new kind of house music, made from entirely other ingredients to the variety that was being served up in nightclubs.
Listened to today, those three soundtracks still sound as cool as ever.
So, yeah, XXJFG is feeling kind of old today. But we don’t mind feeling old, when warriors as righteous as Henry Plotnick are putting sound to rights these days. And we’re kind of impressed that we managed to get through a whole post on child prodigies in music without mentioning Sockweb.