A playlist for Halloween: Orchestral and electro-acoustic

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Bluebeard (1982) by János Kass.

I thought I might not be able to do a fresh playlist this year, so much has already been covered by the previous lists (see the links below to earlier posts).

The search for new tonalities and timbres in 20th-century orchestral music led many composers to produce works that sound like—and have been used as—horror film soundtracks although you’ll never find critical discussion acknowledging such a vulgar reaction. This is a very masculine list although some of the performers are women. I might have included Diamanda Galás but she was in the first list, as was Delia Derbyshire with her associates in White Noise, the subject of a longer post here.

The Isle of the Dead (1909) by Sergei Rachmaninov
Mentioned here a few days ago, Rachmaninov’s suitably sombre piece is one of many compositions to borrow the medieval Dies Irae hymn for one of its themes.

Bluebeard’s Castle (1911) by Béla Bartók
Frank Zappa once said that his initial response upon hearing the music of Edgard Varèse was “These chords are mean; I like these chords.” I feel the same about Bartók’s music which can get very mean indeed. The obvious piece to mention would be the Adagio from Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste which Stanley Kubrick used in The Shining. Instead I’ve selected Bartók’s only opera, a psychodrama for two performers and orchestra in which Bluebeard’s new wife, Judith, explores the castle (which also represents her husband’s character) only to find everything there stained with blood.

Visage (1961) by Luciano Berio
In which Berio records his wife and frequent collaborator, Cathy Berberian, then dissects her vocalisations to disturbing effect. “Visage contains no singing, and virtually no words,” says Martin Butler. “The product of days of gruelling recording for Berberian (leaving her physically damaged), it instead consists of her laughter, moans and groans, snorts and wheezes, and gibberish, all brilliantly edited, filtered, distorted and mixed with electronic backing. It is a remarkable demonstration of the power of the wordless voice. The effect is shocking and extreme, but also hilarious and touching – and often all these things simultaneously.”

Bohor (1962) by Iannis Xenakis
In addition to making some of the most thrilling and advanced new music of the 20th century, Xenakis chose great titles for his compositions, frequently unusual words. Bohor is a recording of layered sound sources that include a Laotian mouth organ, prepared piano, Iraqi and Hindu jewellery, and should ideally be heard with the sounds surrounding the listener. Intended by its composer to represent “the onset of madness”.

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Design by Paula Bisacca.

Uaxuctum: The Legend of the Maya City, Destroyed by Themselves for Religious Reasons (1966) by Giacinto Scelsi
And speaking of great titles… The Italian composer uses orchestra, a choir and an Ondes Martenot to convey an ancient apocalypse. Part III was selected by Robbie Robertson (along with works by other composers listed here) for the Shutter Island soundtrack.

Lontano (1967) by György Ligeti
Stanley Kubrick used Ligeti’s music in three of his films. Lontano‘s piercing harmonics and growling chords prowl through The Shining together with pieces by Bartók and Penderecki.

Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land (1970) by George Crumb
Many of the pieces here jangle the nerves but none more than Crumb’s composition for string quartet, glass and metal instruments, a part of which is used in The Exorcist. Composed “in time of war”, it’s a howl of despair whose opening manages to be even more disturbing than Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. The 1990 Kronos Quartet recording is essential.

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Logos (Rituel Sonore) (1970) by Igor Wakhévitch
“Sound ritual for pop group, mixed choir and magnetic tape.” The first album by the elusive French composer, a composition for a ballet, described by Alan Freeman as “a soprano singer, strange orchestral textures and percussives (drums, cymbals, gongs, etc.) blended with effects and processing. As the ominous percussion sets off with drum-rolls and ritualistic tension, the mood is of a looming anticipation of what is to come. Here we go through phases of weird swirling effects, vivid reverb and atmosphere. The tension becomes overpowering, yet we are led on…”

The Dream of Jacob (1974) by Krzysztof Penderecki
The Polish composer wrote for film soundtracks as well as the concert hall so it’s no surprise that his work can be heard in The Exorcist, The Shining and Shutter Island. The atmosphere of sustained malevolence in this piece is perfect for Kubrick’s haunted house. Whatever Jacob was dreaming about, it wasn’t pleasant.

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Design by Heung-Heung Chin.

Necronomicon (2004) by John Zorn
A five-part composition for string quartet from Zorn’s Magick album.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Powell’s Bluebeard
A playlist for Halloween: Drones and atmospheres
A playlist for Halloween: Voodoo!
Dead on the Dancefloor
Another playlist for Halloween
A playlist for Halloween
The music of Igor Wakhévitch

Weekend links 40

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Manchester, August, 1819: yeomanry on horseback charge a crowd of demonstrators; London, November, 2010: Mounted police charge demonstrators; London, December, 2010: “…police horses have charged the crowd once and appear to be about to do so again.”

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable NUMBER!
Shake your chains to earth, like dew
Which in sleep had fall’n on you:
YE ARE MANY–THEY ARE FEW.

Percy Shelley, The Masque of Anarchy (1819).

• Amid the rest of the week’s tumult, discussion and activity around the censoring of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly film at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, continues to rumble on. I’d missed this appraisal of the exhibition at The Smart Set. Hide/Seek: Too shocking for America features an interview with Jonathan Katz, co-creator of the exhibition in the eye of the storm:

“When,” Katz asks, “will the decent majority of Americans stand against a fringe that sees censorship as a replacement for debate?” Hide/Seek sought to conquer what Katz calls “the last acceptable prejudice in American political life” – but the conservative right, rampant after last month’s midterm elections, won’t relinquish their prejudices without a fight. And so, “an exhibition explicitly intended to break a 21-year blacklist against the representation of same-sex desire,” says a dispirited Katz, “now finds itself in the same boat.”

Related: Q&A with Hide/Seek curators Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward. The Smithsonian Institution issued a fatuous statement saying they stand by the exhibition despite having forced the removal of one of its works. One of the NPG commissioners resigned in protest at the gallery’s capitulation to political pressure. Other protestors were banned from the Smithsonian after playing a video of the work on an iPad. There’s video of the iPad protest here and the protestors have their own blog. In my earlier post on the subject I noted that the actions of censorious Catholics have given Wojnarowicz’s work far more public exposure than it would otherwise receive. The LATimes has details of some of the galleries throughout the US showing the video as a result of its removal in Washington.

• Related to the above, Bruce Sargeant and His Circle: Figure and Form, a book by artist Mark Beard about the work of his “Bruce Sargeant” alter ego. Homotography has a preview.

• “We focus most strongly at the margins, on the music that others may be blind to. We don’t care whether it is electronic, metal, jazz, folk, classical, noise, world music or whatever. We are as excited by the experimental, as we are exhausted by the ephemeral. We listen. We mosh. We think. We dance. We write words. We capture images. We hope to do justice to the art which inspires us. We are The Liminal”.

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Rotary Signal Emitter, a vinyl zoetrope by audiovisual duo Sculpture.

Rest Easy Sleazy, a small mix dedicated to Peter Christopherson. Related: A Peter Christopherson tribute mix. Another mix: Mixhead was a 1997 promo CD by Portishead.

• Related to the above: What if we could touch our music again? (Hello? Some of us still play—and create—CDs and vinyl…) Is the mix tape as object-of-seduction a dead concept in a virtual world? “We traded connection for convenience,” says I Miss My Pencil. Their proposed solution, C60 Redux, is an RFID reader plus speakers, packaged in a smart 12-inch case.

• Iannis Xenakis: How an architect took music back to mathematical roots. Related: the Xenakis exhibition at MOCA, Los Angeles.

The Body Electric at Ikon, Birmingham, is the first retrospective exhibition in the UK of work by New Zealand artist Len Lye.

Hayley Campbell has a blog. This week you can read about her contribution to Jamie McCartney‘s Great Wall of Vagina.

More David Lynch: he really does love cherry pie but isn’t 100% sure how magnets work. I sympathise on both counts.

2019: A Future Imagined. Visual Futurist Syd Mead reflects on the nature of creativity and how it drives the future.

Quashed Quotatoes by Michael Wood, reviewing a new edition of Finnegans Wake.

New Weird Australia.

• Portishead’s 2008 performance for the Canal+ show Concert Privé is one of their best filmed concerts. YouTube has the whole thing.

The Avant Garde Project

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One of the great electroacoustic compilations, Electronic Music III: Berio/Druckman/Mimaroglu, Turnabout Records (1967).

I’ve spent the past week or so immersed in the world of electroacoustic composition courtesy of torrents provided by the Avant Garde Project. Wikipedia attempts a definition of electroacoustic music and thus saves me the trouble:

While all electroacoustic music is made with electronic technology, the most successful works in the field are usually concerned with those aspects of sonic design which remain inaccessible to either traditional or electronic musical instruments played live. In particular, most electroacoustic compositions make use of sounds not available to, say, the traditional orchestra; these sounds might include pre-recorded sounds from nature or from the studio, synthesized sounds, processed sounds, and so forth.

Much of it is early electronic music, in other words, produced either with tape machines or rudimentary synth modules or a combination of the two. The Avant Garde Project is devoted to making available 20th century classical-experimental-electroacoustic recordings that are unavailable on CD. I’m less interested in the orchestral end of the project, unless it’s work by favourites such as Penderecki or Iannis Xenakis, but it’s good to know that they’re making the effort especially when much of this work remains on vinyl albums that are forty years old. The releases are listed as AGP1 onwards up to the most recent, AGP99, which happens to be music by Xenakis.

To say this stuff is challenging is something of an understatement, most people have little patience for lengthy compositions of artificial shrieks, squawks and blips, trombones fed through ring modulators or trained singers burbling extracts from Finnegans Wake. Despite the fact that many of these experiments form the foundation of today’s electronic music culture, the popular conception of the electroacoustic composer has been that he must be either a psycho rapist, like Chris Sarandon’s character in Lipstick, or a loveless neurotic, like John Hurt’s character in The Shout; decent people dig the Beatles and play guitars like, er…Charles Manson. Stereotypes aside, not all of it is necessarily alienating. Most people wouldn’t realise it but much of the early music for Doctor Who was electroacoustic, including Delia Derbyshire‘s rendering of the famous theme tune.

songmy.jpgSome of this work offers little today beyond curiosity value since a great deal of it was the product of a particular moment in the development of recording and electronic technology, a moment that passed as technology and tastes changed and many of the experiments became absorbed by pop music. Some of the composers were mere doodlers compared to later electronic artists but among the better practitioners in the AGP haul there’s Turkish composer Ilhan Mimaroglu, an expert audio collagist whose rare work is collected in three sets covering the years 1964–1983 (AGP30–32).

Mimaroglu stands with one foot in the academic world and the other in the more popular areas of jazz and soundtrack composition. Together with another electroacoustic composer, Tod Dockstadter, he provided music for the score of my favourite Fellini film, Satyricon, and his position at Atlantic Records enabled him to collaborate with trumpet player Freddie Hubbard on one of the more bizarre jazz albums of a decade full of bizarre jazz works, Sing Me a Song of Songmy from 1971. Subtitled “A Fantasy for Electromagnetic Tape”, this anti-Vietnam war polemic mixes electroacoustic passages combining spoken word and musical quotes, poetry and sound effects with Hubbard’s Quintet grooving away as though they’d wandered in from the studio next door. The opening piece is always a good conversation stopper, “Threnody for Sharon Tate”, which features two women reading quotes about murder from associates of the aforementioned Mr Manson while electronic shrieks build unnervingly in the background.

Nothing on the AGP releases is this dramatic, unfortunately, but if you want a taste of Mimaroglu’s lighter side, his Prelude for Magnetic Tape XI on AGP30 is three minutes of processed sounds from plucked rubber bands. And if the human music is too much, you could always try the cetaceans; AGP28 is the original collection of whale recordings, Songs of the Humpback Whale. The AGP page says they had to remove a few tracks that are now back in print but the copy I found on a torrent site was the complete album.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Electric Seance by Pram
White Noise: Electric Storms, Radiophonics and the Delian Mode
Ghost Box
The Photophonic Experiment
The music of Igor Wakhévitch