Vol. 29 Issue 3 Reviews
An Anthology of Noise & Electronic Music / First A-chronology 1921-2001, Volume #1; Second A-chronology 1936-2003, Volume #2; Third A-chronology 1952-2004, Volume #3

Compact discs (3 x 2), 2002/2003/2004, Sub Rosa SR190, SR200, SR220; available from sub rosa, 149-151 avenue Ducpétiaux, 1060 Bruxelles, Belgium; electronic mail info@subrosa.net; Web www.subrosa.net/.

Reviewed by James Harley
Guelph, Ontario, Canada

It is my impression that over the past several years there has been an increased interest in the history of electronic and computer music. Books have been written (Electric Sound, The Computer Music Tutorial, Electronic and Computer Music), films have been made (Modulations, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, Moog), Web sites created (www.obsolete.com/120_years/, www.phinnweb.com/history/, www.ishkur.com/music/), organizations incorporated (Electronic Music Foundation), and audio anthologies released, both general-historic and location-specific. Guy Marc Hinant, of the Belgium-based sub rosa record label, has recently weighed in with a major collection of “a-chronological” recordings of electronic music. Issued in three volumes of two discs each (to date), this production represents a major contribution to the field of historical documentation. It also represents a major challenge to that field in Mr. Hinant’s refusal to follow a chronological, geographical, or technological line in putting together his set.

It is important to take note of the title of this collection: An Anthology of Noise & Electronic Music. While one may perhaps debate what exactly constitutes “electronic music,” the term “noise” is definitely a loaded one, from the significance given it by Jacques Attali in his socio-musicological book Noise: The Political Economy of Music to the stylistically wide-ranging musicians and performance artists who have explored the sonic realms of complex sounds, often at high-decibel levels. As Mr. Hinant points out in his liner notes, “We live today in a world of clamour and noise, so bruitiste elements logically took their place in music composed under those specific historical conditions. This concept of noise is usually associated with revolt or at least with an idea of destructive (or jubilatory) power.” Clearly, the producer is signaling that he has sought works he considers revolutionary (politically “noisy”), in one way or another, and not necessarily in terms of sonic content.

One could certainly take issue with this curatorial approach, and the textual “asides” inserted into the liner notes between the bios and work notes are intended to provoke debate, or at least thoughtful engagement with the issues. This is, in any case, one person’s anthology, intentionally subjective, and there is much to appreciate in the care with which it has been produced and presented. Here is how Mr. Hinant introduces his “a-chronological” anthology:

Given that most new music today is electronic, the term electronic music has lost its meaning… But there have always been individuals able to overcome such difficulties or obstacles and produce something unexpected… So that is what we shall explore… Our quest will be made more beautiful by the impossibility of including everything… But this project also aims to show how the cutting edge interacts with experiments conducted years ago, so the past will be explored with the same sense of wonder as the avant-garde of today… Our method is not purely historical—the field can be regarded as a plateau (a structure that produces enough connections to generate some meaning)… By drawing a line—curved not straight—and by choosing a specific aspect (e.g. the concept of noise in music), we can establish links between more or less well-known artists… History needs constant re-evaluating because, like music, history cannot be read as a fixed entity… If we consider musical history retrospectively we can detect things that have been left undone and we can try other junctions, other lines of reading or comprehension… So this rich abundance will be presented a-chronologically, as if it were filmed architecture for listening to.
(liner notes, Volume #1)

Volume 1In spite of the producer’s stated aim of avoiding historical sequencing of tracks, the first volume begins with a chronological line, leading off with the Futurist-inspired Corale (1921), by Luigi and Antonio Russolo, combining the noise-making instruments of the infamous Intonarumori with a traditional orchestra. This piece has been available on disc elsewhere, but I was pleased to discover the more rare Wochende (1930), by Walter Ruttman. This early example of creative radiophonic art derives from his work producing a film documentary of Berlin. In this case, the approach is to present a film without image. It is an evocative piece, and years ahead of its time. Pierre Schaeffer is represented, as he should be, and Mr. Hinant includes the rather funky Etude Violette (1948) instead of the more commonly anthologized Etude aux chemins de fer. Karlheinz Stockhausen is skipped entirely, and this omission speaks much. In the first place, authorization was not granted, and, after all, this composer is amply represented elsewhere (having issued his own set of CDs documenting a great deal if not all of his electronic compositions). Mr. Stockhausen’s explorations of the continua between frequency and noise, pitch and pulse, could be seen as historically important in such an anthology, however, and his influence is present even while his music is not. Regardless, the Cologne studio is not ignored: Henri Pousseur, who worked there in the 1950s, is represented by Scambi (1957), created not at WDR but instead at the RAI studio in Milan. His piece, built from electronic noise, is not typical of the prevailing aesthetic of the Italian studio, but the virtuosic manipulation of the materials and the shaping of them into larger gestures demonstrate a transcendence of facility and technique that is similar to the better-known pieces by Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna. Later on the first disc, the 1966 piece Aspekt, by German composer Konrad Boehmer, exhibits Stockhausen influences (particularly the fluctuating manipulation of pulsations), even if it was produced at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht a few years after he moved on from his apprenticeship in Cologne.

The opening chronological presentation leads to Gordon Mumma’s sonically and programmatically intense The Dresden Interleaf 13 February 1945 (1965). This composer is best known for his live-electronics works, and this interest of his leads to the next set of pieces on the disc. First to follow, also from 1965, is Trance #2, an excerpt of a long improvisation of Angus MacLise (a poet and Velvet Underground’s first drummer), Tony Conrad (violinist, under-rated minimalist composer/performer), and John Cale (who shifted from avant-garde experimentalist to rock-based experimentalist about the time of this recording). Jumping forward 35 years to another collaborative improvisation, Untitled #1 (2000) displays the work of Philip Jeck (plunderphonics-oriented turntablist), Otomo Yoshihide (Japanese experimental musician), and Martin Tétreault (Montreal-based electronic musician). Survival Research Laboratories (Mark Pauline and GX Jupitter-Larsen) is “dedicated to re-directing the techniques, tools and tenets of industry, science and the military away from their typical manifestations in terms of practicality, products or warfare.” Mr. Hinant presents an excerpt of October 24, 1992 Graz, Austria (1992), a staged presentation of ritualized interactions between machines, robots, and special effects devices. The liner note reports that “the noise of the clashes between robots was so loud that many people in the neighourhood thought that Austria was being attacked… This is another aspect of noise—the exaltation due to danger.” In the same vein, the German group Einsturzende Neubauten has built its reputation on creating noise and presenting extreme performances. It is represented here with Ragout: Küchen Rezept von Einsturzende Neubauten (1998), a—for this group—rather gentle exploration of the random sounds of processed kitchen utensils.

Continuing on to the second disc of this first volume, I was happy to find an example from Nam June Paik: Hommage à John Cage (1959), from the period prior to his ground-breaking video work. His “neo-dada” collage tribute leads to another, Rozart Mix (1965) by John Cage (this realization by Rainer Riehn), an amusing collision of tape loops. Moving away from collage, but sticking to the indeterminism of Cage, experimental rockers Sonic Youth are represented by Audience (1983), a piece in which microphones pointed at the audience capture crowd noise which is then manipulated by the group. Shifting toward a more deterministic aesthetic, pioneer Edgard Varèse takes his place in the anthology with Poème Electronique (1958), his single completed tape piece produced for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair in collaboration with Le Corbusier and others. Iannis Xenakis, who was working for Le Corbusier at the time and who did much of the designing of the infamous Pavilion, contributed his short work Concret PH (1958) to the same presentation as Varèse. Mr. Hinant treats the Philips Pavilion and the multimedia presentation heard/seen there as a touchstone, a means by which other musicians can be presented through their acknowledged debt to Varèse and/or Xenakis.

Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky (That Subliminal Kid) is included in the anthology, with his connection to Xenakis noted, along with his reputation as originator of the “illbient” genre (“a sort of denser, more somber ambient”). His FTP>Bundle/Conduit 23 (2001) is collage-like, with distorted fragments of jazz and much else. Mr. Hinant also notes a connection to Sun Ra, who appears in the second anthology.

Given the mixture of what we, the listeners, have voyaged through already, the producer chose to next return to the historical with a major opus by electronic music pioneer, Pauline Oliveros. Other early pieces of hers are available on disc, but A Little Noise in the System (Moog System) (1966) is a 30-minute sonic adventure in processed noise that rightly cannot be excerpted. This is “process music”, unfolding and evolving slowly; it is by far the most substantial track of all three anthologies. As if to balance, Mr. Hinant closes the first volume with the shortest track of all, Ryoji Ikeda’s One Minute (1997), an electro-clip that introduces the vital experimental music scene in Japan.

Volume 2The second volume of this anthology is even more eclectic. There is no effort to present the tracks chronologically, and as far as ordering goes, I would venture the observation that, while the first disc contains mostly “non-commercial” works, the second contains mostly examples from artists who cross some way over into the commercial realm. Rather than discuss this volume in the order in which the tracks are presented, I am going to put them into chronological order (for my own sake). Mr. Hinant has again done some digging into various archives, and has come up with some rare recordings, crucial for helping to fill in the gaps of our available recorded resources.

The earliest piece in this second volume is an oddity by maverick Australian composer Percy Grainger. Better known for his folk-based works such as Lincolnshire Posy, Grainger got interested in what he called “Free Music”—music not limited by time or pitch intervals. Free Music #1 (1936) is scored for four Theremins (written in New York in collaboration with the instrument’s inventor). This is a more progressive piece than Olivier Messiaen’s Oraison for multiple Ondes Martenots from the same period. I was also glad to discover Music of the Spheres (1938), by German composer Johanna M. Beyer. She was important to the new music scene in New York through the 1920s and 1930s, but is little discussed (she was Henry Cowell’s secretary for a period, and knew John Cage, Lou Harrison, and others of that era). This mixed work, for percussion and electronic instruments, is fascinating (realized here in 1977 with help from Don Buchla), certainly equal in many ways to Cage’s “revolutionary” Imaginary Landscape #1, completed the following year.

The anthology jumps a decade to present one of Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening’s early tape compositions, Incantation for Tape (1953). This track demonstrates their mastery of the technology, and includes some pretty wild variable-speed slides and odd speech manipulations. Luc Ferrari is represented by Visage V (1959), one of his earliest tape compositions produced at GRM. It is classified as musique concrète, but very few sound sources are intended to be recognized; this music is far more “abstract” than other GRM examples from that period. The technical facility he demonstrates here is quite incredible. This is the era, as Mr. Hinant notes, of Varèse (a major influence on Ferrari, who went to visit him in New York in 1954 after hearing the radio broadcast of Déserts) and Xenakis (who he would have bumped elbows with at the studio in Paris).

Daphne Oram was one of the earliest proponents of electronic music in the UK. She was instrumental in setting up the BBC Radiophonic Workshop facility in 1958, but resigned as Director due to her frustration with the Corporation’s lack of interest in the musical possibilities of the studio. She continued to work independently, but regrettably little of her music is known. Four Aspects (1960) was created for concert performance and makes for fascinating listening. It is more harmonious than noisy, but aside from a clear ABA formal structure, it is in no way traditional. Unlike Oram, Morton Subotnick has long been hailed as a major figure in electronic music. Many of his works are well-known, but Mandolin (1962) dates from his time at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. This version for tape, replete with processed bell sounds, jittery speech fragments, and various other noises, had been previously unreleased. Hugh Davies, another British electronic music pioneer who should be better known, has been primarily interested in live performance. Quintet (1968) is scored for “5 performers, 5 microphones, sine/square-wave generator, 4-channel switching unit, potentiometers and 6 loudspeakers.” The piece unfolds as an incredibly intense exploration of controlled feedback.

On the “popular” front, the curator includes two examples from the 1960s in this second volume of the anthology. Imagination (1965) is a very brief introduction to Sun Ra and the Arkestra, showing the “noise” of collective ensemble improvisation but not giving us a taste of Sun Ra’s raw approach to the sonic possibilities of electronic keyboards. Don Van Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart) is one of the more experimental, “dada”-ish artists to come out of the free-wheeling 1960s. This track (two short songs), She’s too much for my mirror / My human gets me blues (1969), dates from the Trout-Mask Replica era, but did not get included on that release. If you put this disc into your computer, you can see a video of the performance.

While Mr. Hinant does discuss the creation of “industrial music” in the mid-1970s in his liner note interjections (Genesis P-Orridge, Coum Transmission, Throbbing Gristle), he skips most of the decade in putting together this anthology. SPK’s Slogun (1979) is industrial music at its rawest, and the connection to the Futurists sixty years earlier should be noted. On the same theme, Industrial Ambients (1982), by the Slovenian-based Laibach, is a collage of machine-sound samples. Alan R. Splet was one of the most original sound-designers in the business, and often made use of noises to create his effects, most infamously for David Lynch’s Eraserhead. This excerpt, Space travel w/ changing choral textures (1983), demonstrates his sensitivity to sonic density. Like so many others in this collection, his work deserves to be better known, independently of the films he worked on.

David Lee Myers (a.k.a. Arcane Device) has built his career on electric guitar feedback. Lathe (1988) demonstrates this well, and it complements the perhaps better-known work of Glenn Branca (not represented on this anthology). Moving into the 1990s, we are given a pre-Autechre track by Sean Booth + Rob Brown. Bronchus One.I (1991) demonstrates the hard-edged electronic rhythmic layers and slowly evolving textures that characterize even Autechre’s more mainstream music. The “techno” theme continues with Pulp (1993) by American Woody McBride (a.k.a. DJ ESP), an early example of “acid house.” Here, the frenetic beat isn’t quite everything—there are actually other elements to listen to, now and then. Purzuit ov Noize (1994) by Danish musician Lasse Steen (a.k.a. Choose), is more nuanced, with stops and starts, but the aggressive, up-tempo beat and harsh noises provide the main focus. This is what is termed “dark experimental techno” or “doomcore.” According to Simon Reynolds in his book outlining the history of techno music, Generation Ecstasy, this was about the time that the “dark side” of the previously-thought benign drug Ecstasy began to be revealed in a way that affected the prevailing musical aesthetic.

From there, we jump to the present decade, shifting away from brain-drilling techno beats to more of an ambient focus. Yoshihiro Hanno (a.k.a. Multiphonic Ensemble) exemplifies the “laptop music” scene in Japan. On/Off Edit (2001) takes some minimalist-type piano music and cuts it up digitally. The edit clicks are left in to create an additional layer of rhythmic propulsion. This music is closer to Paul Lansky’s “idle chatter” style than to hardcore techno.

To round out this volume, Mr. Hinant gives us a sampling of a few other contemporary styles of electronic music. Torture—Bodyparts (2001), by the Israeli duo Meira Asher + Guy Harries, is a segment of a larger documentary-based performance piece created with a social intent: to draw attention to “the harsh reality of a child in an adult’s world” that “explores manipulation, militarist education and war.” The digital clicks here serve another purpose than to just evoke a dance-like pulse. Kim Cascone, who, among many other things, is a computer music practitioner, pays tribute to Xenakis in his Zephirum Scan (2002), which apparently uses “stochastically generated waveforms,” but which also samples—uncredited though clear to my ears—the burning charcoal textures of Concret PH.

Tod Dockstader was an early practitioner of electronic music in the United States. He worked in sound design in the 1950s, and began creating tape compositions in 1960. After a long hiatus, he has returned to electronic composition recently, producing a large series of compositions built from short-wave radio sounds (“in between the stations”). Aerial > Song (2002) is a slowly-evolving, immersive exploration of this gently noisy source. Finally, the volume completes its journey (at least as outlined chronologically) with an example of the voyeuristic Robin Rimbaud (a.k.a. Scanner). Emily (2003) sets cellphone conversations lifted from the airwaves into an elaborate sonic context, in this case more ambient than beat-oriented. These days, with people using phones in every imaginable setting, it’s hard not to eavesdrop. The social and creative “noise” implications need to be considered, and Scanner is a pioneer in bringing such concerns forward in an artistic way.

Volume 3In the third volume of his anthology, Mr. Hinant does a little less digging in the archives and more presenting current work he finds of interest. Of the 23 tracks, 9 have been created in the year prior to the collection’s release. There is somewhat of a focus on electronic music in Germany, both historical and recent, although there is much else besides. In his introductory note to this set, the producer notes two concerns: an engagement with the advance of technology, and the contribution of popular or assimilated music. Both of these themes are set into the context of an awareness of music history, “in order to find what has not been done or tried, the creation of other forks, other lines of reading or understanding” (liner notes, Volume #3).

Following the “Krautmusik” line first, the WDR legacy is at last represented directly, with one of the earliest works produced in that illustrious studio. Klangstudies II (1952) by Herbert Eimert and Robert Beyer sounds rather crude from today’s perspective, but one must remember that this serial-based, synthetic approach to Elektronische Musik was brand new at the time—this is truly pioneering work. Much followed on from these efforts, including the better-known work of Mr. Stockhausen.

Twenty years later, one finds “Krautrock” in full swing, with groups like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream achieving worldwide commercial success. Faust and Neu! are two more of these groups, both much more experimental. The Faust Tapes: Untitled #16 + #17 (1973) is an excerpt from a wide-ranging collage recorded in London for Virgin Records. Michael Rother, a founder of Neu! (and early member of Kraftwerk), contributes a solo work from 1976, Feuerland, more accessible with its drum beat and simple harmonic underpinning but experimental through the incorporation of electronic instruments and studio effects.

Peter Rehberg (a.k.a. Pita), a fixture of the underground electronic scene in Vienna, demonstrates a radical attraction to non-dance noise music in his Early Work 6 (1984), produced when he was 16 years old. Günther Rabi, on the other hand, while also contributing a noise-based aesthetic to the Austrian scene (he is based in Linz), exhibits a remarkable sensitivity to complex sounds in Eve (1987). Jumping to the present decade, Carsten Nicolai (a.k.a. Alva Nota), based in Berlin, belongs to the “glitch” aesthetic, as heard in time…dot (3) (2000). The To Rococo Rot collective, also rooted in Berlin, combines computer-generated materials with live electronics. In Contacte (2004), there can be heard a decided connection to Carsten Nicolai’s glitch music, although the different noise-derived loops rotate at different speeds to create a complex rhythmic ambience. The newest German track, produced especially for this release, is Teilmenge 35 C (2004) by Hamburg-based composer Asmus Tietchens. Oddly, the composite synthetic timbres in this piece sound like they might have been produced in the WDR studio in the 1960s.

Turning back to historical work, Mr. Hinant has included a couple of short pieces by Canadian electronic music pioneer, Hugh Le Caine. The Sackbut Blues (1953) is a humorous demonstration of his Electric Sackbut instrument. A Noisome Pestilence (1958) is a more serious composition built from loops of narrow-band noise. These recordings are available elsewhere, but it is good to have his important work signaled in a collection such as this. Ilhan Mimaroglu, originally from Turkey, was one of the mainstays of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center for many years. His rather anarchic style is represented here with his last composition at the Center prior to his retirement, The Last Largo (1989). In the liner notes, he expresses his displeasure both with the replacement of the “classic” studio equipment with computers and with the ban on smoking. It is interesting to contrast this piece with Stone: Reciprocal (1992) by Scott Gibbons (a.k.a Lilith), a highly-focused work that uses samplers and digital technology to treat the sounds of stones. Much is going on in America, and this is underscored by the collection of very recent work to be discussed below.

This volume casts a brief glance at electronic music in Scandinavia. In Finland, Erkki Kurenniemu has worked in relative isolation, inventing instruments and producing experimental music. Sähkösoittimen ääniä #4 + #1 (1971) demonstrates the rich analog sound of the “violin” and “drum” aspects of his Electronic Quartet. Sweden has a rich history of experimental music, and Rune Lindblad is one composer who began working with electronics as far back as 1959. His Till zakynthos (op. 205) (1988) is a studio work that is complemented by Eternal Love #3 (1993) by Phauss (Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Erik Pauser), a live installation piece.

To finish with the historical part of this volume, another nod to the centrality of the GRM studio in Paris is included. While both are available elsewhere, one can hear Matières induites from Bernard Parmegiani’s De Natura Sonorum (1975) and the Dies Irae from Michel Chion’s Requiem (1973). Amazingly, or perhaps not, there is little to connect these two composers, aside from sharing production facilities and creating these influential works around the same time.

Mr Hinant has made it a priority in this third volume of his anthology to include a number of new or very recent works by musicians he considers noteworthy (or “noiseworthy”). From the USA, these include: Keith Fullerton Whitman (a.k.a. Hvratski) with excerpts from his Stereo Music for Serge Modular Prototype (2003); installation artist Michael J. Schumacher with an excerpt of his Room Pieces (2003), built from 170 sound-generating algorithms; and Fred Szymanski (a.k.a. Laminar), whose approach to nonlinear synthesis is heard in a new piece, Flume (2003). Justin Bennett, an Amsterdam-based graduate of the Instituut voor Sonologie, contributes a stereo mix of a surround-sound work, Ovipool (2003). Francisco Lopez, a sound artist and composer based in Madrid, has produced untitled #148 (2003), broadband noise arising from the processing of environmental sources. Polish-born noise artist Zbigniew Karkowski, member of Sensorband, contributes an “ode to loudspeakers” with his Execution of Intelligence (2004), intended to be listened to at high volume levels. Finally, Masami Akita (a.k.a Merzbow), perhaps the most well-known practitioner of Japanese noise music, has produced a substantial new work, Birds and Warhorse (2004). According to the composer, “the only thing fit to follow [it] is a moment of divine fervour tormented by doubt.”

Guy Marc Hinant’s Anthology of Noise & Electronic Music is an important collection, an extremely valuable contribution to the recorded history of electronic music. I appreciate that he does not limit his selections to the “non-commercial,” as so much interesting work has been, and is being, done by musicians who more often appear at clubs than concert halls, or at festivals rather than conferences. Some of the early rareties are revelations, and the aesthetic connections between all these “noisy,” “revolutionary” musicians are at least thought-provoking even if you do not completely agree with the choices or parallels. It is important that a stance is taken, and defended (the Sub Rosa label itself exemplifies this approach, with its eclectic catalogue of experimental music of various kinds). The liner notes not only introduce each artist and track but also include historical, polemical interludes. Mention has been made of further volumes to the anthology. Let the exploration continue.