Lords of drift and discovery

Pub date August 5, 2009
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

The drift. In 2006, Scott Walker used that phrase as an album title. It’s an apt tag for music of the electronic and digital eras. As inferred by another idiosyncratic singer and surfer of the vanguard, Chelonis R. Jones, electronic sound is dislocated sound. And only through its drift — the drift — does one happen upon a discovery.

Here are some lords of drift and discovery. These five electronic musicians are innovators, even inventors. They’ve been around for decades, but like sound waves echoing back from deep space, their older recordings have returned to reach new listeners. Monoton is a Kraftwerk the masses don’t know about. The meditative sounds of J.D. Emmanuel are inspiring musicians who weren’t even born when he was creating tape loops. Time is only just now catching up with Bernard Szajner’s conceptual and compositional talent. Cluster continues to unite and fragment in studios and on stereos and stages. And like a ghost from a pop memory that never quite formed, Riechmann floats into this past-haunted present moment to deliver a chilly kiss.

The drift? Catch it. (Johnny Ray Huston)



MONOTON Modern music has its share of accidental holy grails — the heretofore-undiscovered missing artistic link; the crate-digger’s trade secret; the record that launched a thousand unknowing imitators. Somehow these records make the most overworked clichés seem like fresh descriptors. So I am willing to stand by my hyperbolic claim that the records Austrian multimedia theorist, researcher, and artist Konrad Becker released in the early 1980s as Monoton are some of the best electronic music albums you’ve probably never heard.

Such was the consensus of British canon-building screed The Wire almost 10 years ago when they nominated Monoton’s 1982 limited release album Monotonprodukt 07 as one of its "100 records that set the world on fire (when no one was listening)." Now, thanks to a steady stream of reissues on Canadian experimental electronic imprint Oral — starting with Monotonprodukt 07 in 2003 — it is easier to hear why.

Like the glistening streets in a film noir, there is an aura of mystery — even menace — to the song-sketches Becker crafts from his relatively simple palette of dubbed-out drum machines, five note arpegiated bass lines, and reedy synth drones, all slicked with reverb. Monoton’s sound is wholly self-contained, yet it is not hard to hear strains of electronic music’s divergent future paths — Basic Channel’s heroin techno, Raster Norton’s tonal asceticism, Pole’s digital dub washes — even as it slips in air kisses to contemporaries like Throbbing Gristle, Cluster, and Brian Eno.

As with many other great musical experiments, Monoton was born from frustration: "Nobody else was doing this kind of thing," Becker explains via e-mail, "So if I wanted to spin something like that on a record player, I would have to do it myself." Working with admittedly "low-end equipment" — borrowed synths and a 4-track — Becker started making music that was "not ‘composed,’ but deciphered from nature, like Fibonacci numbers, pi, Feigenbaum, etc. [These are] embedded physical or natural constants with values and proportions that can be expressed in frequencies." The titles of many Monoton tracks ("Soundsequence," "Squared Roots", "p") are matter-of-fact explanations for their stochastic origins.

But the records were only one part of Becker’s larger project researching synesthetic experiences and the psychoacoustic properties of music. He’s put together several site-specific multimedia installations in spaces like underground medieval chapels and blackened tunnels covered in fluorescent paint. It’s a testament to his preternaturally prescient aesthetic that his decades-old comments about "building acoustic spaces" and "treating sound in an architectural way" could have been pulled from any number of recent interviews with drone-metal act Sunn O))).

Becker’s tireless curiosity continues to yield interdisciplinary projects that look and listen to the future. As the current director of the Orwellian-sounding "cultural intelligence providers" Institute for New Culture Technologies and the World-Information Institute, he has less time for sound-based performances. But the remastering and reissuing of his early, quietly pioneering musical work ensures that Monoton will keep setting the world ablaze, one listener at a time. (Matt Sussman)



J.D. EMMANUEL Over the course of 40 years, the sun has risen and set and risen again within the music of J.D. Emmanuel. "I was talking to a buddy before Christmas," the man says on the phone from Houston, where he lives. "I realized that I started making music in August of 1979, and my last piece of music that I ever created was in August of 1999. I don’t know why there is a 20-year cycle."

Now, in August 2009, adventurous listeners can bask in the slo-mo beauty and consistent warmth of Solid Dawn: Electronic Works 1979-1982 (Kvist), a collection of Emmanuel tracks accompanied by gorgeous sunrise and sunset photos, another one of his specialties. Over the course of a few decades, customer service workshop gigs kept Emmanuel on the road and in the air — he estimates he has logged 1.5 million miles. "If I was seated by a window, I’d take out my camera and see if I could find something fun," he says, with characteristic lack of pretense. "I was very fortunate to see a lot of beautiful things from six, seven, (laughs) eight miles high."

And we are fortunate that he took pictures, and even more lucky that he’s created the sonic equivalent of natural wonders — songs like Solid Dawn‘s "Sunrise Over Galveston Bay," a water-swept and windblown chime dream that makes reference to Emmanuel’s childhood surroundings in its title. Personal and universal wonder is at the core of Emmenuel’s meditative outlook. "For whatever reason, when I was a little kid, around eight or nine, I discovered how fun it was to put myself into an altered or dream state," he remembers. "I would go into my grandmother’s bedroom, close the curtains to make the room as dark as possible, turn on the air conditioner and just lay down. I’d take these one hour naps that were just delightful — little trips."

The second sunrise of Emmenuel’s musical career began when his second LP and favorite recording, 1982’s Wizards, was reissued a few years ago. It’s already out of print and rare once again, but Solid Dawn offers more than a glimmer of its powerfully elemental and yet understated pull, a magnetism that has influenced the sound of recent artists such as White Rainbow. The ingredients can be reduced to instrumental gear: a Crumar Traveler 1 organ, an Echoplex, a Pro-One and Yamaha K-20 synthesizers, and a Tascam 40-4 reel deck. They can be traced to influences ranging from "Gomper" off the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request (Decca, 1967) to Roedelius and Tangerine Dream tracks heard on a radio show by Houston radio DJ Margie Glaser. But ultimately, the source is Emmanuel. His music has a unique sense of being. It’s also warmer than German electronic music of the era. Must be that Texas sun. (Johnny Ray Huston)



BERNARD SZAJNER Somewhere between Brian Eno and Marcel Duchamp rests Bernard Szajner (pronounced shy-nerr). The elusive French electronic sound innovator and visual artist has always been living in the future. After creating a Syeringe or laser harp (an instrument where light triggers sound) in the 1970s, he put out five albums between 1979 and 1983, then left the music scene unexpectedly. Now two of those albums — 1980’s Some Deaths Take Forever and 1981’s Superficial Music — have been digitally remastered and reissued (with bonus tracks) by James Nice’s legendary U.K.-based label, LTM Recordings.

"I never left the music scene," Szajner says via e-mail from Paris, where he’s been getting very little sleep while preparing for a solo exhibition "Back to the cave" at Galerie Taiss. "I just decided that I had to become ‘invisible.’ In the same way, I never left the visual art scene. I just felt that I had to work for a few years … before reappearing."

The installations at Taiss will start with a huge sculpture, Mother, that begins visitors’ ascent from light on the first floor into darkness on the third. The overlapping M’s could be seen as an experimental musical score for light. Whether working in sound or vision (he sees the two "forces" creating a "third force that is stronger than any one of the two"), Szajner’s genius is in making the act of storytelling as relevant as the story itself. The reissues both present journeys. Some Deaths Take Forever‘s layers of synths and distortion eventually reach a celestial, radio-frequency climax. Superficial Music is literally a half-speed, backward journey through his first album, Visions of Dune , followed by a metallic triptych called Oswiecim, the Polish name for Auschwitz. Szajner’s parents were Polish Jews who came to France via Germany, and Superficial Music was partly an effort to evoke the "impressions and sensations of my parents’ storytelling."

When these albums were first heard, Szajner notes, "they appeared strange to most listeners. It took some 20 years to discover that my music might be of interest." Was it hard to come back to a musical landscape where digital music-making software had proliferated? "My opinion is irrelevant because the proliferation is inevitable," he writes. "When I became visible again, I had to cope with an entirely new problem: how does a ‘cult musician’ — like I am supposed to be — get in touch with labels when they receive about 500 demos a week?"

Szajner donated his old synths to an art school some time ago, and he now uses computers just like everybody else (although he claims not to listen to music: "I never, really never, listen to any music, not even my own once it is finished"). Labels eventually started contacting him, asking about reissues. "I chose LTM because it is the most serious proponent of my genre," he says.

An argument for the abolition of torture and the death penalty, Some Deaths Take Forever slowly coheres in the mind. As Szajner puts it in the liner notes/art: "Terms of reality /New body form /The difference is not all that great." Life, after all, is not essentially political. How can you argue with emptiness? (Ari Messer)



CLUSTER Cluster is known to the German state as Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius. Roedelius, 74, and Moebius, 65, are elder statesmen of electronic music and appropriately dignified in their old age. When I saw them at the Great American Music Hall in May 2008, they performed behind glasses of white wine, much as I imagine they’ve always done. But the whooshing, cartilage-shaking sounds emanating from the sound system bore only a passing resemblance to the intricately sequenced music they are best known for. Whether you hear prime-era records like Zuckerzeit (Brain, 1974) or Soweisoso (Sky, 1976) as krautrock, protoambient, kosmische, or plain electronic, the duo knew how to build bridges. Thirty-eight years after their beginnings as Cluster — an early incarnation of the band, spelled with a "K," included Conrad Schnitzler and formed two years earlier — the band has just released Qua (Nepenthe), a record whose surface strangeness reveals a band plunging again into the primordial waters they tested with their debut.

Pioneer status is always shaky — krautrock reissues in particular seem to be coming fast and thick. Still, Cluster (Philips, titled Cluster 71 for Water’s 2006 reissue) is more than an assemblage of cleverly processed sounds (few synthesizers were used), it’s a successful stab at a new language — one that incorporates academic experiments and pop music textures but doesn’t really belong in the company of other records. From their sophomore album, Cluster II (Brain, 1972) through 1979’s Grosses Wasser (Sky) Moebius and Roedelius structured their early experimentation by splitting the difference between the former’s ambient washes of sound and the latter’s baroque and whimsical sense of melody. Counting contemporary releases in collaboration with Neu!’s Michael Rother (as Harmonia) and Brian Eno, these dudes broke a lot of ground in their first decade of existence.

Zuckerzeit‘s "Hollywood" is a good summary of what synth/loop questers like Arp or White Rainbow draw from the band’s working methods: percussion is built around an unquantized loop, giving the woody guitar burps that ride above a tumbling momentum and the icy euro synths that bleed down from higher frequencies a strange tilt. Look close enough and you can’t miss the gaps that let the warmth in. Despite the obvious futurism of their work, Cluster were also secret classicists — Michael Rother’s solo work of the same period, or the Berlin techno that followed in its wake, appear like cold, rationalized Le Corbusier edifices compared to Cluster’s rambling sense of space.
What Qua drives home is the sense that while Cluster never comes across as mechanized, neither does it come across as particularly hospitable. The straight lines of Rother’s music or the subperceptual, soft contours of Eno’s still give a sense of movement toward a better, more human world — naturally so, considering these were some of the principals of early new age. With the exception of album closer "Imtrerion," billowy and warm like the coda to some forgotten shoegaze record, most of Qua is made up of sketches that skew toward the dark and circular — the downtempo time-warp of "Na Ernel" is more Bristol than Berlin. Although the album is filled with miniatures, it’s probably the closest in feel to the formless expanses of their debut. Possibly, the band’s returning to where it started because few of the people it has influenced have done the same. Just as likely, they’re far enough ahead of the competition to be standing behind them. (Brandon Bussolini)



RIECHMANN When he powdered his face a morbid, ghostly white for the cover of his debut solo album Wunderbar (Sky, 1978), how could Wolfgang Riechmann know that he would soon be dead, the victim of a knife attack? This tragic irony is at the core of Riechmann’s story, a little-known one that may attain cult status thanks to Wunderbar‘s reissue 31 years later.
Riechmann the solo artist deserves a cult following for Wunderbar‘s title track alone, a stately and slightly mischievous instrumental track for a movie never made. Somewhere between Ennio Morricone’s whistling spaghetti western rallying calls and Joe Meek’s merry and slightly maniacal anthems for satellites and new worlds of the imagination, "Wunderbar" gallops and lopes, and then floats — better yet, drifts — into orbit. It is glacial, yet seductive.
Listening to Riechmann’s sole solo effort, it’s impossible not to ponder what might have been. If his suave corpse pallor seems to arrive in the wake of Kraftwerk’s automaton image, right down to similarly slicked-back hair, it also prefigures Gary Numan’s android routine. A peer of Michael Rother’s, Riechmann possessed Rother’s gift for instrumental grace. A series of green glowing transmissions from an alien planet, alternately alluring and slightly sinister, Wunderbar calls to mind Rother’s Fernwarme (Water, 1982) — except it arrived four years earlier.
Who was Wolfgang Riechmann, and what exactly happened to him one fatal night? These questions lurk behind the photo of Riechmann’s painted face on Wunderbar‘s cover, with a dearth of text providing any solid answers. Perhaps we’ll know more as the album’s reputation is revived, and canny journalists ask the likes of Rother about a one-time peer. Lords of drift and discovery float in from the past and float out toward the future. (Huston)