We think it is amazing that right now at this moment there are thousands of highly educated people chucking invisible objects down underground tunnels, in the hope that said objects will collide against other invisible objects generating barely perceptible signals containing glimpses into the secrets of the universe. That’s epic, psychedelic and inspiring. We like it.
Consequently, we love the music which captures the mystery of those scientific activities- this is what today’s post is about.
First, we have Nicola Ratti’sPressure Drop, which came out in Where to Now earlier in the year, and has become one of our favorite records of 2016.
We have previously described his music as quantum juke. In it, we hear subatomic infra-worlds at the cutting edge of knowledge where illumination and hallucination dance an abstract tango. The rhythms and melodies stretch in front of our eyes, phase-shifting between stochastic jitter and deterministic structure.
When we listen from the right dimension, it is as if we had solved the tesseract at the end of Interstellar. The wave function of the sonic system collapses into concrete moments of funk, melancholy and drama made even more amazing by the fact they come from a place where we thought there was nothing, from a place that we didn’t even know existed, until we started listening.
We have become sort of obsessed with Gunnar Haslam’s Lebesgue Measures. If we had to summarise it functionally, we’d say that it is probably the best-selling record at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology student union, where they filed it under “jazz funk”. We could also mention its aesthetic lineage: Carl Craig, Drexciya, Autechre, Plastikman, Squarepusher.
But this taxonomical exercise isn’t enough. We need to infer a theory, the beautiful equation we sense at the centre of this album, and we look for it like rabid fans in a Bolaño novel. The most obvious candidate is the Lebesgue method for calculating the integral of a curve (the area under it) by partitioning its range, to which the title of the record alludes. But that simply shifts the question. What is being measured here? What exists in the space under the curve? Lebesgue Measures, the record, isn’t just a tool, it is a framework.
The titles of its songs hint at infinity, things that can only be integrated approximately, by assuming convergences in lands beyond. We can only run so far. We eventually give up on our quest for meaning and stare at those white spaces in the horizon where Gunnar Haslam’s melodies soar like flashes of improvisation in a mathematical proof, logical leaps over chasms of impossibility, loops that close loops with a mystical move.
Troller return to 20JFG with their latest album Graphic. Today we visit the six minute centrepiece of the album, Storm Maker.
Storm Maker proffers a glimpse into the dreamworld Austin we yearn to visit. In terms of anchoring a psychic picture of a place, theirs is a gloriously fatalistic southern American counterpoint to Lynch’s brisk, northern, 50s, idyl/horror-show. It is a world of yearning, of passion so white hot it can only manifest itself in molasses-slow waltzes.
Witness Storm Maker’s operatic vocal; at times emotive to the point of incomprehensibility. A wall of pure longing, a sound powerful enough to draw us across the Atlantic and into their perfectly preserved dreamworld. A world of sparsely populated clubs, spare lighting and endless, cosmic sadness beneath the glasses of its patrons. A beautiful purgatory of the damaged and innocent. A sympathetic portrait of the psychic trauma of dominance — that Lynch painted so well for us non-Americans.
Disasterpeace is so hot right now. He makes video-games soundtracks that sound like Brian Eno or Eric Satie after being projected into pixelated universes of wonder and mystery with a Tron-style digitisation device.
Today we want to tell you about his most recent work for Hyper Light Drifter, a Kickstarter-funded indie video game that sits somewhere between Fez (which Disasterpeace also soundtracked), Zelda, Dark Souls and a bullet-hell shooter from hell.
Leaving aside the brilliant geometries of its combat, and the beautiful, devastated classicism of its 8-bit landscapes, our favourite thing about Hyper Light Drifter is its language. Almost all communication between the game and the player are mediated with glyphs, icons and hard to fathom maps. The result could have been confusing, but is in fact hypnotic, and arresting. As we zig-zag down the ruins of HLD’s world, we feel like characters in Samuel R. Delany’s Einstein Intersection, navigating the poetic wasteland of an alien culture that’s doubly dead because there’s no-one left to understand it. We do our best to feel, with emotions that are simultaneously embodied and abstract.
Disasterpeace’s music is a perfect fit for this experience. The piano melodies represent the sadness and pain of harmonious civilisations of cuddly furries overrun and massacred by reptilian hordes, while its synths brim with child-like curiosity, boosting the pleasure centre that kicks off whenever we disappear down a secret corridor, wondering what’s next.
Disasterpeace also created the soundtrack for sleeper horror hit It Follows, a great update of and love letter to John Carpenter that explores the horror of being chased by a relentless, invisible force across the ruins of a housing-crisis-bombed Detroit.
Disasterpeace himself tips his hat to the master quite a few times during the soundtrack, which is of course a good thing. Distortion and putrescent ambient atmospheres are jacked up, and a metallic cacophony clangs while we are pursued by an invisible legion of zombie ghost demons. There are also moments of eerie beauty, as the protagonists wander the aftermath of economic disaster, trashed houses and the charnel-houses where dreams go to die and, of course, wonderful symphonies of mechano-gothic allure and dread, just like this:
Nisennenmondai! Staccato motorik queens and guardians of The Loop have just dropped a new album produced in collaboration with post-dub magus Adrian Sherwood. Titled #N/A (a gnomic abbreviation of ‘Nisennenmondai’ and ‘Adrian’, we are lucky enough to exclusively premiere this track-by-track account of the work from the band themselves.
In addition to what we played on this track in the recording session we added additional sounds. That was Adrian’s idea. For example, he asked for cymbal so I imagined that he would record what I played and cut them and edit them but he instead used it exactly as I played. I was like “Why didn’t you tell me first!” and felt a bit ashamed as I was just playing around but it sounds very good in the end we think. (Himeno)
This is the only track that we prepared for the recording. We had the basic structure and rhythm for it but we didn’t have enough time to finish it so I would say it was about 60% done before we recorded it. Listening to this now, the sound and the atmosphere of the session were really well recorded which helps embody the image of the track. With Adrian’s effects, its dark sketchy kind of atmosphere becomes more effective . Originally the track was made at a slower tempo and intended to build gradually in a subtle way but it turned out to be a bit more straight forward and easier to listen to in a way. I’m very happy with this track personally. Great circumstances for recording in terms of what you can hear while recording and quality of the sound system for you to check what’s been recorded and the fact that Adrian made us very relaxed and relieved made the vibe in the studio very good which I think is why we had a great outcome. (Takada)
We think Adrian’s mastership stands out on this. To be honest, as a band we weren’t really into this track when we recorded it but this track made us think that with help from other people, something you don’t expect can be added and it can be pulled into shape nicely. (Takada)
We didn’t really have a specific concept or target for this track so we were just jamming spontaneously which could be a reason why we feel this track is somewhat simpler than the other tracks which have a darker brooding atmosphere. (Zaikawa)
For this track, I remember when I was focusing on the top end of the track in the recording session, the fast bass drum kicked in and I felt that was amazing. (Takada)
The bass on this track was actually added after the session. I wasn’t really sure I was doing it right or not but Adrian didn’t say no to any of what we played and seemed accepting of everything we did which I think made the music so great. (Zaikawa)
This is our favourite track on the album. After the session Adrian asked me to play another layer of guitar to add to what we recorded. I remember asking him what sort of guitar he wants and he said “something crazy”. In the latter part of this track you can hear the additional “crazy” guitar that I played on top of what we recorded live.
The recording session was a lot of fun for us and Adrian seemed happy too so we felt good.
In terms of the whole album, the most important and valuable thing that we gained from this project is knowing and experiencing what’s great and interesting about being produced. Of course you need to have a sense of empathy with your producer at a certain level but our music until now was pretty much self-produced with a subjective sense (even though we do get influenced by a lot of different music). We have come to understand that having an objective point of view and seeing ourselves being produced by someone else is important for us to be able to absorb new ideas and feelings which will be very helpful for our next project. Adrian’s approach to production worked really well for us and made it easy to make the album.
Also, it was very interesting to see how he gives additional depth to the music that he mixes. In addition to that, the mastering by Rashad Becker added its own unique atmosphere which is again dark and brooding. We are impressed to see how the music could change considerably by having other people’s hands on it which for us is the reason why this album became so interesting. (Takada)
You can buy #N/A here. The full release also comes with two storming live tracks that has the group improvise a set while Sherwood fires them through a ricocheting, maze-like live dub mix!
The sea was further out than i’d even witnessed, so we wondered to it’s edge.
Those promised colours of sunset never emerged, hazed out by a mist rising off the unnervingly placid expanse of silent water. Vast concrete groins at equatorial distances cast heavy shadows across the beach leaving us with limited paths as we made our way down past the pebbles into the muddy sands.
The consistent orange halo of the town lights began to disappear with the sun as we descended and Hannah used her iPhone light to guide us across the tidal sandbanks interspersed with disgruntled heringulls. Blurred sunset fazed into a clear night with a crescent moon reflecting off flat water and rippled sands, the beauty of which still haunts my memories.
Neither of us mentioned the unusual warmth or lack of wind as we held hands walking home along that still water’s edge, and saw the others approaching.
Each figure appeared slightly elongated, which I put down to the moonlight, carrying a bucket in one hand and some kind of pickaxe in the other.
As we walked past the first we began to wonder what they were doing out here on such a curious night? Crustacean gatherers? Marine biologists? The strangers all seemed to stop at a their prescribed points and stare down at the ground, waiting.
Once we had passed the fifth ‘gatherer’ curiosity was beginning to get the better of us, and we made it out intent to speak to the next one we encountered as we progressed along the sandbanks.
“Beautiful night, i’ve never seen it like this before” Hannah announced in greeting to the next stranger as we neared. The stranger turned her head and replied.
“I’ve not seen you two here before, are you new?”
“I’m from London, but Stuart lives just up the road – what are you doing out here?” Hannah replied, and I clenched her hand perhaps a little too tight.
The gatherer seemed to have warmed to Hannah and beckoned us closer to where she stood – perching over one of the water pools the low tide had left between itself and the sea.
“This is where we find Her” the gatherer said, pointing to the stranded lake of water which until hours ago was part of the sea.
Perhaps sensing our nervousness the gatherer beckoned us further in and as we stared into the water I couldn’t help noticing how her features, which i’d previously put down to the moonlight, were rather accentuated in every way. Most strikingly her eyes, which glowed as blue as the moon. As I felt the rough strong hands grip my shoulders I realised we had not being paying attention to the location of the other gatherers.
“This one might have the blood” said a voice as I felt thud to the back of my head and fell into unconsciousness, my hand slipping from Hannahs.
The salt water brought me shaking back to consciousness as it washed in, and i spat it out of my mouth with a cough.
In my peripheral vision I could only see Hannah’s head. Her head was at the same level as my own. Her body too was completely buried in the cold wet sands of the beach .
“He’s wake, put the bucket on his head!” I heard a gatherer say before being plunged into darkness as one of their metal buckets was placed over over my head. Utterly trapped in the sand, I could feel my head was not alone inside this rusty helmet and something cold and wet caressed the back of my neck. I began to uncontrollably scream….
Swing – much like our recent instalment in Dancing music in the C20 on big band jazz – was a contentious development in the genealogy of jazz. Swing does indeed follow the same categorical evolution as charted by Armstrong, from ragtime to blues into jazz, but where Armstrong – in his genial openmindedness – considers all of these divisions to be fundamentally the same core music, the jazz elite reacted to the runaway popularity of swing with scorn.
Swing changed the direction of popular music. Its boom years of 1935 to 1945 are the high watermark of the general public’s tolerance of jazz, which prior to swing had been messy, noisy, rulebook-shredding stuff, and post-swing returned to restlessly innovative – but less danceable forms – via bebop and its infinite offshoots. These years also saw the recording industry come into its own as a cultural force, although The Great Depression had significantly reined in the industry’s ability to realise its potential as the economic powerhouse it would become.
Nevertheless, swing was the recording industry’s first child. The growing popularity of records as a way to experience music meant that this was the first dance music to be born within the mass public’s consciousness and disseminated via technology rather than orally, as folk music, as early American music forms had been up until then. Alongside MGM musicals – for which swing provided a symbiotic soundtrack – swing offered a gaudy, energetic and generally-positive antidote to the reality of the already-crumbling American Dream, which had been identified in James Truslow Adams’ 1931 book, Epic of America, as:
“…the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Under the leadership of bandleader Benny Goodman, swing would define pre-war and wartime American music; its borderless, raceless ubiquity and its popularisation of standards also mark it as the first genuine pop music. It was inevitable, therefore, that ‘serious’ musicians and jazz fans would find this popularity toxic, birthing in that eternal yin and yang tension of music fandom not only the world’s first pop music – but the world’s first hipsters!
The antipathy towards swing wasn’t just rooted in a disdain for the mainstream. Swing, as a continuation of big band’s methodologies, persisted in sidelining the polyphonic improvisation of New Orleans jazz in favour of orchestrated arrangements and, increasingly, Tin Pan Alley pop song structures. In his autobiography, Father of The Blues, WC Handy used swing as a codename for what he perceived to be the hijacking, commercialisation and ultimately dilution of African-American music by white entertainers:
“This brings to mind the fact that prominent white orchestra leaders, concert singers and others are making commercial use of Negro music in its various phases. That’s why they introduced ‘swing’ which is not a musical form.”
However, this sub-blog, as an investigator of genre prototypes, is not concerned with that golden age of swing Benny Goodman stuff – no Glenn Miller here! And when we examine swing’s “period of innovation” – defined by us as the first hour’s worth of key recordings germane to a given genre – we see that more than 70% of its musicians were black, the strongest showing for black composers in the series so far, with the exception of the almost-entirely African-American boogie woogie. The Casa Loma Orchestra and the dancer and light entertainer Fred Astaire were the only white early adopters of swing.
Swing largely took Fletcher Henderson’s strain of big band jazz as its starting point and so its genesis at least was certainly more African-American in demographic than anything else. Louis Armstrong had played in Henderson’s band, and Duke Ellington had started out in a similar big band ensemble, The Washingtonians. Along with Cab Calloway and Luis Russell, these men formed the cornerstones of early swing.
Unlike the musics more closely derived from ragtime and blues, which were often rural in origin and spread via travelling vaudeville shows, swing was an urban music, tightly focused geographically around industry recording hubs. Although Armstrong and Ellington were both the grandchildren of slaves (from New Orleans and Washington, DC, respectively), Calloway was from an affluent Rochester family, and Luis Russell was a Panamanian of Afro-Carribean descent (the first non-American in this series!), which perhaps demonstrates a growing diversity – or, at least, an eroding parochialism – in jazz now that radio and the recording industry were capable of transmitting music to an intercontinental audience.
Another factor that set these new musicians against their jazz progenitors was a more conventional, schooled musical training.
Fluent in violin, guitar trombone and piano, Russell had been raised in a family of music teachers, and was making a living as a professional musician by the age of 15. Similarly, both of Ellington’s parents were pianists – from opera and parlour backgrounds respectively – while Calloway’s family had recognised their son’s talents early on, and invested in private musical tuition for him. Only Armstrong had an edgier musical training – his cornet chops being mostly honed during his time in New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, a boys’ home that he had been sent to multiple times for juvenile delinquency, but who boasted a band directed by one of New Orleans’ finest trumpet players, Peter Davis.
By contrast, the received wisdom on New Orleans jazz suggests that the techniques particular to jazz were the direct result of a community crafting a new musical language using instruments with which they were largely unfamiliar. Apocrypha or not, jazz was thought to begin in New Orleans at the end of the Spanish-American war in 1898, when the port was flooded with decommissioned military units and their bands. The Red Hot Jazz website claims that the bands’ instruments were quickly and cheaply procured by African-Americans interested in music but who lacked a working knowledge of conventional techniques, leading to “to new and interesting sounds entering musicians’ vocabulary: trumpet and trombone growling sounds, wah-wah sounds, the use of odd household objects as mutes, and others”. The importation of African rhythmic ideas, “blue notes” and non-European scales, and endless improvisation, allowed a new musical form to germinate. The musicians were thought to predominantly play by ear.
This version of history is fiercely contested by some, however, as at best an over-simplification and at worst, outright racism. Krin Gabbard, Professor of Comparative Literature, S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook, and Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, says this of the 1955 biopic, The Benny Goodman Story:
“White America’s conflicted response to the rise of Swing and its connection to black culture is clearly articulated in The Benny Goodman Story (1955), a Hollywood film aimed at whites with fond memories of the Swing Era. This film presents a set of common myths about jazz. In an early scene, the teenaged Benny is playing with a mediocre white dance band on a riverboat. Wandering to another part of the boat, he hears a band of black New Orleans musicians under the direction of the Creole trombonist Kid Ory (played in the film by the real Kid Ory). Benny has never heard such compelling music, and when he quizzes Ory, the trombonist says, “We just play what we feel,” a statement that perpetuates the myth that the pioneers of jazz were not trained musicians but primitive people who naively expressed their feelings through music. Endowed with the license to play from his feelings, young Benny immediately becomes an accomplished jazz improviser as he plays along with Ory’s group. Later in the film, after Benny has become a successful bandleader, Ory reappears to tell him that he has “the best band I ever heard anyplace!” Like many other films about white jazz musicians, The Benny Goodman Story found a way to diminish the real achievements of black jazz artists, who were most definitely not playing a music that was an unmediated expression of their feelings. The film also suggests that white artists like Goodman created a music that surpassed anything created by their African American predecessors. “
Swing was certainly less anarchic than jazz – it was feel-good orchestral music purpose-built for dancing. Although sections of a composition would be reserved to allow one instrument the opportunity to improvise a short solo, it was otherwise rigidly composed and musically complex. The lilting off-beat emphasis of the music is the titular ‘swing’, although the genre would not be known by that name until the arrival of Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean A Thing If Ain’t Got That Swing in 1932.
But was swing really the antithesis of jazz? In Escaping The Delta, Elijah Wald flags the jazz vs swing debate when tracking the subdivision of blues into an array of child categories:
“In jazz, there came a moment when a group of fans tried to declare the whole category closed. The New Orleans music originally called jazz was jazz, they said, and ‘swing’ was something else. Less hard-line members of the clan might even admit a Duke Ellington or a Benny Goodman to the jazz pantheon, but still barred boppers like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The New Orleans purists were dubbed ‘moldy figs’ and eventually lost the battle, and with their loss it was generally agreed that the word ‘jazz’ – like the word ‘classical’ – would apply to a huge range of musics, some of them so dissimilar that if one did not know the historical links one could hear no connection between them.”
Wald’s point is not that jazz was diluted by the admission of swing into the jazz dynasty. Rather, he is emphasising the point that Louis Armstrong made so concisely for us at the start of this article. “It cannot be said enough that musical categories are artificial constructs,” Wald argues, “useful for many purposes but meaningless and limiting for others.”
“Every category is defined with a set agenda in mind,” Wald continues. “Sometimes a historian wants to make a point. Sometimes a marketing executive wants to make it easy for consumers to find a particular kind of product. Sometimes a performer wants to distinguish himself or herself from previous artists, or those with whom he or she disagrees about something. There is nothing wrong with any of this, but there are always confusing examples that illustrate the limits of the taxonomy.”
In this series, we are interested in the taxonomies as markers staking out notable points of innovation in music that was made for dancing. As a science, it’s admittedly imprecise – Louis Armstrong was a working musician from the inception of jazz itself through at least a dozen relatively major shifts in the sound that prompted new evaluations and terminology, but all he heard in any of it was the ragtime of his youth.
Nevertheless, swing did introduce new elements to the jazz vocabulary – the ‘call and response’ between band sections, pioneered by Fletcher Henderson in the big band era and honed into a catchy, intricate pop music by swing, was a hit with audiences. And dancers were inspired by swing more than any dance music in the 20th century! The lindy hop, balboa, collegiate shag, charleston, jive, big apple and little apple are just some of the dances that come under the swing dance umbrella term of ‘jitterbug’.
Could it have been this unashamed commitment to keeping feet moving that caused fans of jazz – soon to become a music estranged from its dance music origins, a ‘head’ music – to consider swing so frivolous? White folks, yo’all sho is a mess.
We have spent some time lost inside one of last year’s best releases: Muscle Up, Dark Entries second reissue of Patrick Cowley’s psyche-o-tronic gay porn soundtracks (School Daze was the first, you should check it too).
Muscle Up is very special indeed. As Maurice Tani points out in his reminiscence of Cowley and 1970s San Francisco in the lovely essay that comes tucked with the release, this is music better understood in its context of rapid change, both societal (counterculture, sexual revolution, fight for gay rights) and technological (better access to cheap music-making tech). It was part of a wave of change that Cowley rode to the end.
His music generally, and specially here, challenges all attempts to fragment the unity of the human experience into unhelpful dualisms between mind and body, art and science, nature and technology, experimentalism and pop. It is multi-functional, multipurpose, boundary-ravaging. You can use it to have transcendent sex, to go on science-fiction flesh odysseys, definitely to boogie among ectoplasmic clouds, in altered gravities.
As we listen to it, scenes of dudes banging each other transmogrify into the psychedelic landscapes of an Alain Goraguer film, Lalo Schifrin’s turtlenecked Frisco thrills are augmented with sexy comixxx curves, ejaculatory arpeggios give lift off to Carl Sagan’s interstellar mission.
Dazed and delirant, we imagine a future where humankind overcomes its current troubles, abolishes scarcity, fear and prejudice, and realises its creative potential, while keeping an edge, a necessary sense of danger. Patrick Cowley’s music helps us dream of that future, he’s one of its prophets.
Muscle Up also includes “Somebody to Love Tonight”, an instrumental version of what would eventually become Sylvester’s legendary ballad of longing “I need Somebody to Love Tonight”. This reminded us of the Dirty Sound System mixtape where we first heard that song. There, it was accompanied by “Who” by Odyssey (aka Vangelis).
This piece of otherworldly, cosmic jet–set soul is today’s bonus for you.