Saturday, February 24, 2018

Music Made Without Electronic Instruments


This was a good challenge for me as my tastes are primarily electronic. I like electronic music partly for it's versatility. With infinitely adjustable pitch, timbre, reverb etc electronic music can conjure any mood, any soundscape.

I chose two acoutic tracks that make use of less familiar instruments to create their own distinctive feel.

Greek band xaos (chaos) combine many different instruments from across the long history of the eastern mediterranean, such as the pontic lyre and greek pipes, to create an atmospheric, ghostly sound. Album opener Pontos Blues is a dirge for the ages, as the many dead and gone from the mycenean, macedonian, roman, byzantine and ottoman empires seem to float in and out of the room.

For my second track i chose a more straightforward mash up of styles from the middle east and subcontinent. A couple of years ago Israeli musician Shye Ben Tzur laid down an album with Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead fame and a group of North Indian musicians calling themselves the Rajasthan Express. The title track Junun is a straight up banger: sufi poetry and trumpet over exuberant drumming, making it impossible to sit still.


An Pierlé - Telephone (Mud stories, 1999)
This is a song from the first album of the Belgian songwriter-singer-pianist An PierlĂ©. She’s known for playing the piano sit on an exercise ball, and for always having some herbal concoction that preserves her voice at hand during her performance. On this album, she played everything on her own - it’s just her fabulous voice and the piano. She recorded this album in the attic of a theatre in a small Flemish town. Apparently, on some songs, one could hear the faint sound of cars passing by down the road. But this is not intentional and so does not disqualify the music for the theme. I also find it quite amusing that the song I chose is called Telephone:


Sandmountain - The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012)
Someone had to play some bluegrass, so I picked this song that comes from the soundtrack of one of my favourite movies, The Broken Circle Breakdown, based on a play by Johan Heldenbergh. The movie is set in Belgium and tells the love story between Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a sensitive ‘cowboy’, fond of bluegrass, and Elise (Mieke Dobbels), a tattoo artist who joins him in his band soon after they’ve met. Their dream is shattered and their love challenged when their daughter falls heavily ill. This is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen. The song is a cover of a track originally played by The Stonemans (1977), and is about a plateau on a mountain in Alabama. Knowing this fact will the moment the song is featured all the more moving. Although this one fully instrumental, it’s worth noting that the actors portraying Didier and Elise did all the singing themselves in the movie, and that they have performed elsewhere with the band The Broken Circle Breakdown.



This should be simple enough. Since cave dwelling proto-sapiens were first found beat boxing around the camp fire, millennia have passed without even a whiff of the influence of electricity. The odd crackle of lightening that lit said cave wall might have added an improvisational woo to proceedings, and the accompanying rumble of electrostatic thunder a nice grime style sub bass backing to the song. However, considering that we are only one or two generations on from the introduction and proliferation of electric instruments, it's interesting that pre-electric already seems so twee and archaic.

Folk music rightly clings to traditions, sustaining cultural memes through time. The core of storytelling is they key to this musical institution and speaks of our highly develop communication skills that got us from beautiful cave painting to inane screen swiping. Sam Lee is one of those folk artists that truly understands the roots, traditional instrumentation and rich history purveyed in each song. He collects rare songs by travelling the length and breadth of the UK, transcribing oral memories from rural, coastal and traveller communities. He treats them with respect and turns them into poignant pieces, popular again in this digital age. I chose Phoenix Island from his most awesome album The Fade In Time.

I thought I'd go to Spain for my second offering. The visceral clap, stomp, shout and wild strum of flamenco is often pared down to a singer, cajon and guitar. I think it's the foremost musical style to provide such an emotional punch to the solar plexus. Weird counting and time signatures keep you off balance and lure you in, while lunatic finger picking, chord progressions and arpeggiated accelerations provide repeated crescendo. I've been a fan of Tomatito for years, so it was a great opportunity to listen to a couple of his albums again; I chose Al Mariyya from Aguadulce. It's what the English tourists in Alicante, eating chicken and chips, think they're hearing in their head while reading the Costa Blanca edition of the Daily Mail.


Bang - Shooting Star (on a Church Organ)
Matt Stokes - Sacred Selections

I came across a performance of Matt Stokes’ Sacred Selections in Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin in 2007. Sacred Selections were live pipe organ recitals of experimental transcriptions of underground music, specifically black metal, northern soul and happy hardcore. This version, which I believe is a recording from the performance I attended, features Paul Ayres, organist of St. George’s Hanover Square, translating happy hardcore music into something recognisable and playable on an organ in a unique style. The project is described as showcasing historical aspects of the organ, its influence, music and position within both ecclesiastical and secular settings. Unfortunately I've only heard the happy hardcore adaptations, and am on the hunt for the full CD...

World in Union '95
PJ Powers and Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Well I mucked this one up, no two ways about it! This was a perfect example of my non-musically-trained brain being unable to pick up individual instruments or other subtleties due to the way I tend to enjoy walls of music as a whole. It was the first track that came to mind when I read the theme, and I stuck with it despite being unsure of the instruments used, and despite having a massive array of Irish singer-songwriters to choose from (Damien Rice is from my home town and Christy Moore is from my home county).

Regardless, this is a great take on the Rugby World Cup anthem by South African male choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and solo artist PJ Powers. Some minor background electronics aside, the vocals are what really steal the show here, so I (kinda) stand by my choice!


Electricity is an unavoidable fact about recorded music. Even if the musicians are entirely acoustic and voice, since the 1930s electricity has been used in the recording as well as the reproduction of sound. This wasn’t always the case – the first format for recording and reproducing music was a hand cranked tinfoil cylinder, invented by Thomas Edison. Edison soon changed from tin to wax as the medium for recording, and turned the cylinder mechanically, and between 1877 and 1912 the cylinder competed against the disc as the format of choice for sound reproduction. Both the cylinder and the disc recorded music which was played directly into a large horn attached to a stylus, which cut the sound wave directly into the respective medium.

The wax cylinder had a few advantages over its rival. Chiefly, it could be used for home recordings, but it also had superior sound quality by some measures and at various points a longer playing time. Ultimately, marketing played a large part in the disc’s victory, and although production of cylinders didn’t cease until 1929, well after the invention of the microphone and amplifier that would infuse electricity into the records, the format’s fate was sealed before the Great War, long before the invention of the L.P.

As a consequence, only one studio album has ever included a track recorded on a wax cylinder. “I Can Hear You” was released on They Might Be Giants’ 1996 album, Factory Showroom. It was recorded on acoustic instruments in front of a small audience at the Edison Laboratories, played into a large horn which recorded it directly onto wax. The lyrics refer to contemporary technologies that reproduce human voices that are either novelties – car alarms, telephones in passenger plane seats – or barely reliable, in the case of the apartment buzzer and drive through speaker.

Italian composer Luciano Berio composed Sequenza iii as a way to explore the capabilities of a virtuosic female voice. Performed unaccompanied, Sequenza iii makes use of a number of the voice’s expressive modes, including laughter, clicking, and muttering. Over the course of the performance, a text emerges, but it is almost impossible to decode it from the texture of the overall performance. It goes:

give me                                a few words                        for a woman
to sing                                   a truth                                 allowing us
to build a house                without worrying             before night comes

The simplicity of the message is ironic given the aggressively technical and confounding nature of the score. If anything, the piece dismantles the idea that a pure voice (or purely vocal performance) conveys only words and truth as it uncovers the “excess of connotations” Berio said the voice was always carrying.

In some ways Sequenza iii feels like anti-music, especially as measured by the reactions of the Music Club. Berio was a modernist, avant-garde composer, and many of the techniques in Sequenza iii were developed out of studio experiments with electronic modulation, using it to reduce recorded voices to a kind of “objective physical reality,”  and setting various kinds of vocal expressions against sounds modulated to generate an “opposite timbre.”  Sequenza iii was thus a culmination of early experiments in electronic music disguised as an “acoustic” performance.


Oddly enough the first track I ever heard from The Penguin Cafe Orchestra was an electronic offering called 'Telephone and Rubber Band' used as a soundtrack for the Australian movie 'Malcolm'. The eponymous aspergers protagonist takes in a pair of dodgy boarders to cover the bills after being fired from his job with Melbourne Trams for building his own personal one-man tram out of spare parts and going for a spin on it around Melbourne one misty morning. The ersatz Bonnie & Clyde living with him soon recognise his unique talents and gift for remote control devices and use his naivety to convince him to help them to rob a bank... suspense ensues etc. 

The harmonium has metal bits in it but is wind driven instrument like the bagpipes, only nicer. Maybe. Anyway, to close off the movie theme reference, a variation of this track was used in the movie "Napoleon Dynamite". No idea why.

My second track uses heavy metal and is a staple of pretty much every military event where they can wheel the big guns out... the mish-mash of National Anthems, martial music and whatever came to hand could only be the "1812 Overture" 

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