While the name Jon Gibson may not be the household name that Phillip Glass or Steve Reich has become since the 1970s, he was a vital part of the emergence of American minimalism. He was a founding member of the Phillip Glass Ensemble and performed many pieces by Reich, including “Reed Phase” which was written by Reich for him in particular. He began his career performing on flute and saxophone, though he has done some beautiful work with the pipe organ as well as evidenced by the piece above. This recording was done at Washington Square Church in New York in April of 1975 and was released two years later by Chatham Square Productions on an album titled Two Solo Pieces. He has dabbled in the visual arts as well, creating the cover art for Two Solo Pieces as well as others. The improvisational and highly collaborative nature of the New York scene at the time created fertile ground for composers interested in repetition, silence, and non-Western drone music. Though I like to think I’m fairly well-versed (for a layman) on this area, finding things like Cycles are what keeps me going back to this well.
Jordan De La Sierra was a classically trained pianist who began his recording career with a double LP of hypnotizing long form ambient works in the minimalist style of Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and La Monte Young. It anticipates a lot of the work that would make Windham Hill a new age juggernaut, but his debut record, Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose, was released on a small label called Unity Records in 1978. Though it received little attention at the time, it has luckily been given the Numero treatment since then, and I would argue the world is a better place for it.
The original release came with a 16 page booklet which includes some original artwork, an essay by the artist called “The Tableau of Space” and a greeting from the artist (image from Discogs):
Now who isn’t charmed by that kind of earnestness. It reminds me of the art of Gilbert Williams, who really embodies the sort of hypercolor utopia that I find so irresistible:
In short, put on your peasant shirt and dangly earring, get out your crystal prayer bowl, and become a being of pure light.
You may not have heard Jessica Moss’ name before, but you’ve probably heard her violin. She appears on Godspeed You Black Emperor!’s album F♯ A♯ ∞, Arcade Fire’s Funerals, and one of my favorite albums of all time, Broken Social Scene’s debut Feel Good Lost, among others.
Under Plastic Island is her first solo release, though she’s also part of At Silver Mt. Zion and Black Ox Orkestar with other members of Godspeed You Black Emperor!. Despite her connections to so many well-known groups, she clearly has a highly developed aesthetic all her own, blending electronic drones, violins, and beautifully manipulated vocals. For more information about Moss, check out her site. Though Under Plastic Island was released on cassette, it is only available at performances. Her touring schedule will be updated here in the future.
Gimmer Nicholson had been poking around the Memphis blues/folk scene for a number of years before moving to San Francisco in the mid-1960s. He recorded a few demos on a crude reel-to-reel deck and sent them to his brother, who brought the tapes in a brown paper bag to Terry Manning back in Memphis. When Nicholson returned from the Bay Area, he went into the studio with Terry-the same studio where Big Star would later record-and they began combining Nicholson’s acoustic playing with electronic delays.
I recorded on an 8 track 1″ Scully at 30 ips. Although most of the guitar is acoustic, there is actually some electric also. Gimmer had a Gibson Howard Roberts, a beautiful jazz guitar that is almost an acoustic (I liked it so much that I bought one a few years later, but I stupidly sold it when I moved here to Nassau in ’92). He played that through a Fender Bassman blackface amp, through some kind of guitar delay/repeat box I had, which had just come out. Gimmer was euphoric about the delay, and loved to set it very long, then play a phrase, and when it repeated, he would play live a copasetic second phrase, then do the same for the next bar, playing with the second phrase, and so on (sort of like a “round”). When we did the acoustics, I got the longest tape delay that I could to accomplish this. It had to be carefully timed to the tempo of the composition. EMT 140 plate reverb was also used.
With recording finished, Manning began the mastering process only after providing a rough mix for Nicholson to take home. This proved disastrous, as Nicholson was outraged when he heard this new, cleaned up mix and left Memphis in a huff. The album gathered dust and Manning moved on, but not before the sounds of the album would infuse other artists in that milieu, most notably Chris Bell. Manning released the album, titled Christopher Idylls on CD in 1994 on his own imprint, Lucky Seven Records, the first time the songs got any wider audience. However, the good folks over at Light in the Attic Records have recently announced a new vinyl reissue of Christopher Idylls that is available for pre-order and set to ship later this month. Gimmer Nicholson passed away a few years ago after years of working for the Red Cross, according to Manning. He had contacted him regarding some new compositions, but nothing materialized. It appears this beautiful release will have to suffice.
Fading Shadows of Dusk is the lead track off Flaming Pines’ upcoming compilation of experimental music by Iranian artists. It comes from Siavash Amini who also released an LP, Subsiding, with Futuresequence (aka the good folks who brought you Madeline Cocolas’ debut). I’ll admit I was drawn to this based on the extensive coverage of Iran in recent months, but Amini, in an essay introducing the collection, offers an interesting counterpoint to that impulse:
The tracks collected for this compilation are a perfect example of art that is not “newsworthy”. And in this way they act as a gateway to the ignored and overlooked landscape of experimental electronic music in Iran. It is helpful to listen to all of the pieces in this compilation in contrast to the established language of what is now an Iranian musical mainstream. This Iranian mainstream is not that disconnected from the global mainstream, and the philosophy, politics and the lifestyle this manifests. The mainstream in Iran is not only what the government endorses but it also consists of very shallow imitations of various musical genres, cleared of any signs of cultural or political resistance, backed and released by private labels and companies.
The artists presented here, including myself, are people who are constructing our musical language as part of our lives – a project which is no less of an experiment than the music itself. We are the voices who choose to be absent from the news and the musical mainstream (and in some cases from the city of our birth) in order to express the complex range of emotions and ideas which make up our lives, as honestly as we can.
The compilation is slated for release in February and is available for pre-order on Bandcamp. In addition to the digital release, it will be released as a CDr with the first 30 receiving a poster.
John Adams is an American composer who is often associated with the Minimalist and post-Minimalist movements in American music. While Light Over Water features electronics quite prominently (along with brass instruments), Adams has composed many works which are entirely “acoustic” but which are often influenced by electronic means of composition. According to composer Ingram Marshall, who wrote an essay on Light Over Water over at Earbox:
As synthesizers come to mimic the “real thing,” they truly begin to live up to their hitherto inappropriate name. Technology offers the possibility of a truly synthetic orchestra. Thus Adams, who has a natural gift for composing the lyrical and expressive sounds of instruments, found a technology that could augment and reinforce the orchestral traditions of several centuries.
This is the nascent situation of Light Over Water. Essentially electronic, it was nevertheless born out of the world of the orchestra. In previous works, Adams “electrified” his orchestrations. Now he “orchestrates” his electronics.
This tension between traditional orchestral sounds and electronic means of composition can also be seen in one of Adams’ best known works, Shaker Loops which was released along with Light Over Water by New Albion in 1987. Shaker Loops is written for a string orchestra but it’s repetitive structure of loops played by different string instruments harken back to early experiments with tape loops.
Light Over Water was originally commissioned by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 1983 as accompaniment for an installation choreographed by Lucinda Childs and featuring set design by Frank Gehry. You can watch a tech rehearsal for the performance, which was entitled “Available Light,” here. You can read more about the performance in this article written to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the performance.
Other notable works by Adams include Nixon in China, an opera based on Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, Harmonium, and The Death of Klinghoffer. The Death of Klinghoffer has been controversial since its debut, as some have claimed that the opera distorts the story of the Palestine Liberation Front’s highjacking of a cruise ship in 1985, and their murder of Klinghoffer in a way which is antisemitic. After 9/11, the Boston Symphony cancelled a planned performance of excerpts from the opera and former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani protested the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Klinghoffer.
You can hear samples of each of these works below:
Craig Leon got his start in music in the mid-1970s working as an assistant producer at Sire Records where he was involved in the discovery and development of New York groups like The Ramones, Blondie, and the Talking Heads. Nommos is his first release and it represents one of the more unique entries in the catalog of John Fahey’s Takoma Records, which is perhaps better known for releasing blues and fingerstyle guitar records more in the style of its founder. Though he was more involved with pop, electronic, and experimental work during the 1980s and 1990s, his material in recent years has been decidedly classical, working with the likes of Pavarotti. He talks about the difference in working in these two worlds in an interview with Moog:
The pop people picked up on synths a lot earlier–I was doing pop at the time–and what fascinated me was the way the so-called pop artists were doing with synths at the time were using synthesizers in their work which was close to what I wanted to do in classical. You would hear something new on a Beatles or Beach Boys album … where yes there would be one or two obvious synth sounds on a given song but theres ton of these little things that shape the sound.
He is still active as a producer, composer, and arranger of classical pieces living in England. Nommos was recently reissued by Harmonia Mundia along with his other early electronic work Visiting. Check out that Moog interview because he talks through arranging Bach for the Moog modular synth and talks more at length about using electronics in classical composition.
Penguin Cafe Orchestra is a collective musical project that was founded and anchored by Simon Jeffes and Helen Liebmann. Their first record, Music from the Penguin Cafe was released on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records int 1976 and gave their first public performance in support of that record by opening for Kraftwerk. According to his son, Jeffes claimed that the inciting incident for the Penguin Cafe was a fever dream where he pictured
a nightmare vision of the near future – where everyone lived in big concrete blocks and spent their lives looking into screens. There was a big camera in the corner of everyone’s room, an eye looking down at them. In one room there was a couple making love lovelessly, while in another there was a musician sat at a vast array of equipment but with headphones on so there was no actual music in the room. This was a very disconnected de-humanising world that people had made for themselves…
However you could reject that and look further afield, and if you went down this dusty road you would eventually find a ramshackle old building with noise and light pouring out into the dark. It’s a place you just fundamentally want to go into, and this is the Penguin Cafe.
Blending Jeffes’ and Liebmann’s classical experience with rock music, and an interest in non-Western rhythms and instrumentations, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra released records regularly throughout the 1980s, albeit with a rotating list of members. “In the Back of a Taxi” was comes off their 1984 release Broadcasting From Home, which features perhaps their best known track “Music for a Found Harmonium,” which has been covered many times and featured in television, movies, and advertisements. Some notable appearances include Napoleon Dynamite, She’s Having a Baby, Capitalism: A Love Story, and, ironically enough, advertisements for major companies like Ford and Hewlett Packard. You can watch a 1989 performance of “Music for a Found Harmonium” at the BBC here.
Jeffes passed away in 1997 from a brain tumor, but members of the group have continued performing Penguin Cafe Orchestra material under the name The Anteaters while Simon Jeffes’ son Arthur has formed his own group called the Penguin Cafe.