New Electronic & Instrumental Music In The Late 1980s
Mark Prendergast presents a general overview of record labels, artists, and recordings that make up the exciting area of new electronic and experimental music in the late 1980s.
Many people would consider the 1980s on the whole to be a vapid decade for exciting new music, whether it be in the rock, pop, jazz or classical fields. I think this perception arises out of a lack of attendant general cultural values to most of the music we happen to hear in our everyday lives. Moreover, there seems to be a directionless characteristic to latterday '80s music whereby pop is anything superficial and meaningless in a designer sort of way; rock is good only if it re-enacts the glory of the past (U2's Rattle & Hum LP of last year); jazz is hip if it runs through exactly the same solos, chord progressions and sartorial taste considered de rigeur for Charlie Parker or John Coltrane; and classical music more and more celebrates the triumphs of bygone days, while 20th century innovations get pushed to the fallow margins. Yet there are changes on the way that will, I think, make the late 1980s a memorable time - one of diversification, experimentation and cross-fertilisation.
Listening to the cataclysmic sounds of American avant-garde rock group Sonic Youth, the hypnotic keyboard music of Philip Glass, or even the electronic diversification of Germany's Johannes Schmoelling, reminds one that there is always something interesting at work, if only one can look beyond the easily available and obvious.
Nowhere is this process more vibrant than in the area of instrumental music. Almost two years ago, within this very magazine, I wrote a piece entitled 'The New Age Music Conundrum' which traced the developments in this area from the twin points of Erik Satie's 'furniture music' and Arnold Schoenberg's mighty attack on 'classicism', which in truth were opposite sides of the same experimental coin. A look at the history revealed that there was little newness in so-called 'New Age' music, and that the efforts of record companies to package the product in a visibly marketable fashion didn't hide that fact.
Since the beginning of the 20th century there has been a constant assault on the old values of music in order to change, re-evaluate and subvert the genre in the face of accelerated social and economic 'progress' in the West. All these associated innovations have been interesting but few have caught the public imagination or generated so much debate as 'New Age'. Yet two years on, the phrase carries much less weight and is seen in terms of strict parameters: that of the alternative consciousness movement rooted in the 1960s that is interested in ecology, conservation, health and a natural lifestyle. This change in perception has again allowed purely electronic, systems, Ambient, crossover, and a dozen other hybrids the chance to be judged purely on their own terms.
Given my recent appraisal of the work of Brian Eno [SOS Jan/Feb '89], what follows is a general overview of record labels, artists, and recordings that make up the exciting area of new electronic and experimental music in the late 1980s.
A few years back Nick Austin's fledgling instrumental music label, established in 1983, came in for a lot of flak. Yet in retrospect such releases as Claire Hamill's Voices and Tom Newman's Bayou Moon sound positively electric in comparison to the flood of inferior 'New Age' material that came rushing out of other British companies following Austin's lead.
January of this year saw the launch of the Luxembourg-based Astra television satellite from French Guinea. Of its 16 available channels, one will be given over to Nick Austin's revolutionary Landscape concept. For around 12 hours per day, non-stop instrumental music videos will be rotated. Not only will the entire Coda catalogue be represented but classical composers from Mozart to Ennio Morricone, jazz musicians like Andy Sheppard, and such left-field artists as David Sylvian, Peter Baumann and The Penguin Cafe Orchestra will all be included. There will be no presenters and no advertisements.
Significantly, following on from Brian Eno's concepts of environmental music, it is Austin's aim to see Landscape as an integral aspect of airports, waiting rooms, hotels - literally anywhere that can facilitate flat-screen television. Landscape will also integrate 'alternative' lifestyle ideas into its operations through an information service and special stores. Without a doubt Landscape, which will be available worldwide by the end of 1990, is the most important advance in electronic and instrumental music since Robert Moog's 1964 invention of the modular synthesizer. On top of all this, Austin will be funding new audio and visual artists through the Landscape Trust.
1. John Themis Atmospheric Conditions .
2. Standing Stones Compilation 
3. Michael Chapman Heartbeat .
4. Claire Hamill Love In The Afternoon .
If imitation is the highest form of flattery then the Munich-based Editions of Contemporary Music label, founded by Manfred Eicher in 1970, is the ultimate instrumental benchmark bar none. Initially established to record jazz, it quickly spread its wings to cover a huge variety of sounds by unknown world musicians looking for an outlet. The fact that Eicher supervised all his own recordings, with personal engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, led to the production of a distinctive sound - "the most beautiful thing next to silence". Eicher encouraged the raw gifts of such artists as Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and Jan Garbarek to unprecedented heights.
Despite million sellers like Jarrett's solo piano improvisation Koln Concert , Eicher has never gone for standard selling practices. Unusual trios, quartets, and weird clashes of electronic, electric and acoustic were and are encouraged. Thus, such fierce electric musicians as Steve Tibbetts, David Torn and Bill Frisell are considered on an equal footing with acoustic virtuosos like Egberto Gismonti, Ralph Towner and Eberhard Weber. Eicher has even started up a new series taking in the serious avant-garde music of Gavin Bryars, Meredith Monk, John Adams, and so forth.
Eicher is a man who responds to the soul of music, favours 'live' improvisation in the studio and utilises that environment, like Eno, as an integral part of the results. By dressing his album sleeves in a cool, neutral manner he gives continuity to his label and in the end favours the music over those that have made it. ECM buyers know that whatever they buy it'll be of the highest standard and that pale imitations, whether they be good 'New Age' or whatever, should be treated with scorn.
1. Crystal Silence Gary Burton/Chick Corea  - a masterpiece of tonal and timbral sound-painting using just vibraphone and piano.
2. Solstice Ralph Towner  virtuoso guitarist teams up with Norwegians Jan Garbarek (sax), Jon Christensen (drums), and German bassist Eberhard Weber to literally re-invent the quartet ideal.
3. Codona Don Cherry, Nana Vasconcelos, Collin Walcott  - with Walcott on sitar and tablas, Cherry on trumpet, flutes and voice, plus Brazilian Vasconcelos on berimbau, cuica, percussion and voice, this album presaged the 'world music' trend by nearly a decade.
4 Folk Songs Charlie Haden, Jan Garbarek, Egberto Gismonti  - a meeting of three continents with drummer-less music that pounds with rhythm and vitality
5. Offramp Pat Metheny  - with wizard electro/acoustic keyboardist Lyle Mays, the gifted guitarist showcases his ability on the Synclavier guitar synth.
6. Power Spot Jon Hassell  - with Eno, Michael Brook, Richard Horowitz and others. A powerful excursion into the possible digital music of the Memphis trumpeter.
7. Keith Jarrett Spirits Volumes 1 &2  - ECM's pre-eminent musician showing that Eno and Steve Reich aren't the only ones able to utilise tape recorders to produce incredible results.
8. Steve Tibbetts Exploded View  - like Bill Frisell, David Torn and Terje Rypdal, Tibbetts utilises treated guitars and tapes in different acoustic and electronic settings to produce an unnerving and enervating new music.
9. Making Music Zakir Hussain, Haraprasad Chaurasia, John McLaughlin and Jan Garbarek  - highly exploratory use of instrumental acoustics, unusual time scales and cultural differences.
10. Private City John Surman [ 1988] - state of the art digital recording by famed English baritone saxophonist using recorders, synthesizers and saxes.
EG Records was established in 1969 to handle the work of Robert Fripp's band King Crimson. From there it went on to deal with Roxy Music, ELP, Eno's vocal LPs, and even Marc Bolan. During the late to mid 1970s, it facilitated Eno's Obscure label (featuring avant-gardists Michael Nyman, John Cage, Gavin Bryars and so forth) being made available on mail order. While EG itself continues to the present with most prominently Bryan Ferry, Editions EG was established in 1980 so that, in the words of manager Alec Byrn, "artists could have their freedom to make music that was indefinable and tried to achieve a high standard of originality, performance and inquiry." Without doubt, according to Byrn, Editions EG were "one of the first labels in the UK to release instrumental music in the marketplace, while some of our artists were the very pioneers of such music!"
Very low profile and selective, the label has purposely remained small with not even an A&R department. Artists are always allowed to produce their own music. Eno was involved with them for most of his career and Robert Fripp still releases music there.
1. Michael Nyman The Kiss & Other Movements  - systems music for the intelligent utilising a lovely mixture of baroque and minimalism.
2. Elan Sicroff Journey To Inaccessible Places  - inspired music by Gurdjieff, produced by Robert Fripp.
3. The Penguin Cafe Orchestra When In Rome...  - Simon Jeffes' surrealistic but quintessentially English ensemble playing live.
4. Robert Fripp The League Of Crafty Guitarists [ 1986] - combining Frippertronics with a more mannered acoustic guitar approach.
European, and specifically German, electronic musicians have always been treated ambivalently in the British Isles. Their cool, calculating use of raw technology has always ruffled our sense of taste. Yet whatever way one looks at it, the sheer discipline of Stockhausen, Jean-Michel Jarre and Kraftwerk, to name but three, in pushing the modern sound envelope into new territory is something to be admired. With the arrival of the Austro-German computer music label Erdenklang, that envelope has been turned inside out to reveal yet another new panorama of sounds.
Run by Ulrich Rutzel in Hamburg, the label's driving force is no doubt the Linz-born Hubert Bognermayr, the world's inventor of total computer music. His latest LP, Blue Chip Orchestra, with fellow Austrian Harald Zuschrader features 11 tracks (13 on CD, lasting nearly 53 minutes and multi-programmable) of extraordinary symphonic music that explores all shades, tones and fusions without the use of one instrumentalist. Without a doubt, Bognermayr has at last found the right way to use electronics - so that the listener cannot tell acoustic from synthesized, sampled from real.
Bognermayr is Austria's leading innovator and deserves some scrutiny. Born in 1948, he attended the Bruckner Conservatory Of Music, leaving with the normal 'classical' qualifications for Vienna and a teaching post. In the stridently conservative Austrian climate, Bognermayr founded its first electronic rock group in 1986 to compete with the wave of German bands sprouting up at the time. Friendly with Robert Moog, he had access to synthesizer technology and took himself off to London to study British studio hardware. On arrival back in Austria, he passionately established the Ars Electronica festival for electronic and media arts in Linz, the first of its kind.
Having received a prototype Fairlight from Peter Vogel in Australia, Bognermayr was requested by Von Karajan to utilise it for bell sounds in a new version of Wagner's 'Parsifal'. This was in the early '80s, after which Bognermayr and Zuschrader retired to a cabin in the upper Austrian forest, built an electronic studio, investigated the Fairlight's limits, and came out with the LP Erdenklang in 1982. Considered state of the art at the time, the duo were hailed as gurus of electronic music, and in the words of Die Welt: 'future decades of musical development have been opened'.
Since then Bognermayr has created stirring concert, festival and radio events all over Europe, and in 1984 merged ear-bending triggered computer sounds with Mike Oldfield's live shows. His enthusiasm for research and development into acoustic, natural, and innovative electronics involved the Austrian government in funding the now annual Ars Electronica festival. Bognermayr still works with Robert Moog on occasion and has recently incorporated totally new instruments in his music, like mirror percussion and ultrasonic harp, in order to transcend the stereotyped keyboard image of modern synthesists.
Bognermayr: "Erdenklang means the sound of the earth. On the first record we only used the sampled natural sounds of water, of trees, of the wind, and so on."
"For me, with the Blue Chip Orchestra it is very important to have a live performing computer music group in order to show people that to produce electronic music there is more to it than just pressing a button."
"The most important development in electronic instruments is our education in relation to them."
"Our music is not New Age. I performed with Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and other German groups and, for me, they all did this New Age thing 15 years ago. I think it's just a marketing thing."
"I use no factory preset sounds, only my own. Mixdowns are usually done directly from the programmed memory of the computers. I've got three of the old Fairlights and two Fairlight Series IIIs, plus two Quantec room simulation computers. There's also a 24-track digital mixing desk, custom built."
"Computer music is a question of expression not convenience."
Other Erdenklang musicians to look out for are:
Matthias Thurow – a gifted German musician in his late thirties, who began at age seven with the violin. Since then he has produced over 70 pieces of music for the theatre plus countless items for television and film production. Interested in rock, opera, ballet, and almost anything to do with the audio-visual media. His Cornucopia  release has incredible emotional potency, particularly in its placement of sax and oboe within an electronic field. "I tried to make use of computers like a painter," he says, "to apply tone colours, paint them over, re-group them, wipe them away again, and so on. In this way pieces of music resulted, which from my viewpoint have an entirely new writing style."
Johannes Schmoelling – gifted keyboard player and ex-Tangerine Dream member, this 37 year old German produced the best 'new music' album on Theta in 1988, titled Zoo Of Tranquility. Inspired by the mechanical sculptural work to be seen in London's Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, the record exhibited a new electronic aural vision that won fans everywhere. Through Erdenklang, his first solo album Wuivend Riet (meaning 'wind blown reeds'), recorded in Berlin in 1986, is now available. Schmoelling's music has such uncanny dynamics, unusual sound images and variety that increased listenings reveal more. To quote: "I like to create scenarios for the ears, to give a certain depth, perspective, colouring and three-dimensional quality to sound textures. I like to arrange them just like stage sets."
Inaugurated at the beginning of 1980, this London-based 'alternative music' label has become one of the most revered of independent operations. Unperceptive observers have confused its penchant for abstract LP cover designs and dreamscape records (made, most notably, by The Cocteau Twins) with the wave of 'New Age' that occurred in the '80s. In truth, 4AD has embraced an immensely wide range of sounds whose excellent production quality and individuality make a nonsense of pigeon-holing.
One could say that some of their recordings are instrumental in terms of how the music is approached. Dif Juz's Extractions ['85] covers almost Ambient territory, This Mortal Coil's Filigree & Shadow ['86] explores tonal ideas both in the studio and with vocals, and The Cocteau Twins/Harold Budd LP The Moon & The Melodies ['86] fused two distinctly original strands of melancholia.
Founder Ivo has said: "If 4AD has any kind of stamp, it is one of experimentation. At every level there's always a strong element of surprise with us." A listen to Michael Brook and Pieter Nooten's elegiac Sleeps With The Fishes  or Dead Can Dance's spiritual Serpeant's Egg  confirms this unequivocally.
Baltimore-born Glass is now reaching his 52nd year and is rumoured to have written three operas in 1988 alone, plus collaborated with everyone and in every art form possible. He has composed so much music that at least three international record companies handle his product. Yet for all his fame, his output is harder to pin down and analyse than most.
At eight he began on flute and piano, then after school he went on to Chicago and philosophy, then New York and serious composition, then Paris. It was a meeting with Ravi Shankar and subsequent travels in Africa and India that sparked his interest in a music of subtraction, drift and shifting modulation. An odd sort of minimalist, he recorded a long lost LP Moving In Changing Parts in 1970 but spent many years in isolation before the avant-grade opera Einstein On The Beach made him a celebrity in 1976. The release of Glassworks [CBS 1982] brought his highly accessible minimalism to a young audience. His importance is in how he applies the techniques and sounds generated by tape, electronic and studio musicians in other more liberated fields than the strict classical arena of baton and bar line.
1. Dance No's 1-5 [CBS 1988].
2. Music In 12 Parts [Venture 1989].
In Germany, the IC label is identified with names like Klaus Schulze, Kitaro, Ashra, and so forth - in other words, the hardcore end of synthesizer music. In Britain the label is distributed by Magnum Music, who specialise in getting as much of the obscure stuff from Robert Schroeder, Peter Seiler, Software, Mergener/Weisser, Jay B. Jay, P'Cock, Mind Over Matter, Baffo Banfi, Megabyte, Quiet Force, Clara Mondshine, Gene, Popol Vuh, Manuel Gottsching and Richard Wahnfried to expectant fans who prefer mechanical sounds to human and not a trace of organic matter whatsoever.
Of the Innovative Communications records I've heard, only parts of Mind Over Matter's Colours Of Life and Megabyte's Power Play stand up to repeated listening. The profile of this genre of pure digital electronic music is due to the runaway success of Spain's Michel Huygen and Germany's Klaus Schulze, but such albums as the former's Barcelona 1992 and much of the latter's EN=Trace in the end left me quite cold. Nigel Molden, of Magnum Music UK, has this to say about the music: "There's a very genuine and serious interest in pure electronic music. The records we make available are steady sellers with a solid and growing demand. We are also involved with putting on concerts featuring, say, Klaus Schulze and Michel Huygen."
Though famed as a psychic, dowser, psychokinetic and healer, Manning's interest in therapy and spiritual strength has led him to establish the mail order instrumental music label Cloud Nine Music. Don't be put off by the title or make any associations with Colin Wilcox's fairly tepid New World Cassettes (150 recordings of very bland consciousness/health music from Paradise Farm in Suffolk) for Manning's understanding of the practical applications of tones and timbres is quite penetrating.
"In America there has been a large market for instrumental music for some time but in England, especially with 'New Age', it became a dustbin for music by poor musicians with little equipment or imagination. With musicians on my label I offer no guidance, therefore letting the artists get on with it. Personally, you see, I love rock music, listen to and am influenced by it. I'm not interested in all that abstract music. I loathe the term 'New Age' but as a movement it does embody things like the environment, ecology etc, and tries to get away from additives - the supermarket culture, disposability, etc. To be honest, a lot of the ideas derive from the hippie movement. The major labels have tried to penetrate the market by publicity and hard sell but fail because it goes byword of mouth, through health food shops, and so on."
Based In Bury St. Edmunds, Cloud Nine Music features recordings made by duo Paul Fitzgerald/Mark Flanagan, and Nick Ashron, Jacinta Wright, Jeffrey Wood, Ron Magess, Matt Lester and Leonardo Rubinstein, in every type of instrumental setting imaginable. With markets in Australia, Europe, North America and soon Japan, plus space on Coda's Landscape TV channel. Manning's approach already has a captive audience.
Originally established by ex-Van Morrison musicians, particularly drummer Peter Van Hooke, to enable music to be made without the usual commercial considerations. Starting in 1982, the label applied a philosophy of superlative quality control in the recording and final pressing of its releases by people such as Herbie Armstrong, Rod Argent, Ian Lynn, Simon Phillips and Mo Foster. MMC was the first record company in Britain to have everything released on CD. Recently involved itself with EMI so that a wider public could be reached.
1 David Defries Secret City  splendid merging of ethnic instrumentation (Kenyan goat bells/Nigerian cowbells, for example) with jazz improvisation and electric/electronic sound.
2. Mark Wood La Mezcla  global collaborator with everyone from Louise Goffin to Dudu Pukwana, guitarist/keyboardist Wood is fluent in any musical form. On this eclectic LP there are so many ideas and fresh approaches involving classical, ethnic, jazz, world, electronic et al, that it makes most other instrumental and almost all 'New Age' releases sound passe
3. Ian Carr Old Heartland writer, professor and trumpeter Carr teams up with Kreisler String Orchestra to add the words noble, beautiful and integral to the instrumental music genre. Brilliant stuff.
4 Adrian Legg Guitars And Other Cathedrals - though his LP title bares more than a passing resemblance to Durutti Column's The Guitar And Other Machines [Factory '87], the similarity ends there. Obviously a follower of the John Fahey school of guitar playing, this fretsman works on a multiple sound level of open tunings, harmonic resonances and untypical processings. Bashed together electro-acoustic, 6 and 12 string nylon and steel guitars all get the characteristic Legg cadence treatments.
Launched by former Police manager Miles Copeland III in a blaze of publicity in 1987 as the instrumental rock label that was "too good for words". The first batch of heavy-handed releases by Pete Haycock, Wishbone Ash, Billie Currie, Jimmy Z and Steve Hunter demonstrated that the music was vapid fare for ex-headbangers. Only two records are worth investigating. Firstly, Stewart Copeland's The Equaliser & Other Cliff Hangers ['87], with its imaginative use of orchestral Fairlight sampled sounds and unusual drum patterns. Secondly, William Orbit's Strange Cargo ['87], which is undoubtedly the best thing on the label. Orbit was once a leader of the concept studio 'band' Torchforce, who built their own digital studio in Little Venice with film/video/editing facility around the mid '80s, thus generating a lot of interest. Drift through the meticulous Ambient washes, complex sonic atmospheres and sparkling ideas. Strange Cargo shows Orbit to be No Speak's number one asset. I await William Orbit's next couple of albums with expectation.
A serious avant-garde American label that over the last three years has been distributed in the UK via WEA Records. It gives listeners the opportunity to study the work of arch American minimalist Steve Reich, who was the first to cut up tapes and use chance results - thus inspiring Eno, David Bowie and David Byrne to popularise this approach in rock - see Early Works [N 1987]. His investigation of interlocking recurrent patterns and melodic cycles, utilising Ghanaian, Yemenite and Iraqi scales and beats, can be heard on Sextet/Six Marimbas [N 1986] and Drumming [N 1987], Reich's life-long passion for 'gradual changes of time in music' is at the cornerstone of today's instrumental aesthetic. In general, Nonesuch's pristine pressings, digital recordings, and choice of material are nothing but first-rate.
1. Kronos Quartet Music by Sculthorpe /Sallinen /Glass /Nancarrow /Hendrix [N 1986] the most advanced string quartet in the world playing avantist music with a rock 'n' roll sensibility
2. John Adams The Chairman Dances [N 1987] New Hampshire-born minimalist whose years of work in California with the likes of Terry Riley and Morton Subotnik has resulted in a truly 'new' classical sound.
3. John Zorn Spillane [N 1988] - New York experimentalist whose extreme tape 'sound' music comes from the same terrain as that of Rys Chatham, Glenn Branca and David Van Teighem.
4. Philip Glass Powaqquatsi [N 1988] - soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola film. Weaving between ethnic, folk, electronic and orchestral, this is Glass's finest ever creation.
"We are not a New Age label - we just put out albums that we think are great." That's how label owner Richard York (a former sound engineer at Coda Records) sees his new enterprise. Using such phrases as "the cutting edge of the new music" and "a unique blend of new instrumental and chart crossover music" might frighten many off. Even the heavy promotion of giving away 120,000 free compact discs could arouse suspicion, but with offices in Hastings, London, San Diego and Paris and a willingness to promote instrumental music via risque formats like 3" CD and CDV, Ocean Disques is committed more than most to breaking instrumental music into the mainstream.
1 Phil Thornton Forever Dream - exotic writer of keyboard/guitar music that draws on a rich vein of influences from Kitaro to German electronic bands of the early '70s.
2. Tom Newman Ozymandias - former producer of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells and a member of the original Coda stable. Reputedly left Coda's Nick Austin when the latter found Ozymandias (a thematic work on Shelley's famous sonnet) "not New Age enough", even though it improves on Newman's Coda LPs Aspects and Bayou Moon by leagues. An integral part of York's team, Newman is currently working on a new LP The Hound Of Ulster and may again be playing with Mike Oldfield in the not too distant future.
"An extension of my feeling that music shouldn't agree with what's imposed on it - the labels, the ghettoes." That's Sting talking about his eclectic new label back in 1988. Always a man of good taste, the ex-Police frontman met many good players and unique musical voices on his extensive world travels and so, with the help of Miles Copeland and Christine Reed from CBS, established Pangaea for material that couldn't be categorised and wouldn't easily be absorbed by major record companies. Of all the 'new music' I've heard recently, Pangaea's is well out there with regard to vision, originality and risk. Although not strictly electronic or instrumental, the nature of the many fusions of genres with studio expertise and melodic inventiveness leave one wanting more and more. In a word: fresh.
1. Kip Hanrahan Days And Nights Of Blue Luck Inverted - described as a musical auteur, this New Yorker is best known for his challenging producer/art collaborations. He went from playing guitar with Latino bands at 13 to film-making, anthropology, and then drumming. At ease working with Godard or Sartre, ethnic or jazz, he formed a new music distribution service in New York in 1976 and then a label in 1980. This cool, multi-variated record exemplifies his impeccable absorption of offbeat rhythms, film music, and American subcultures.
2. Fareed Haque Voices Rising - another acoustic guitarist to add to the list of greats. Only 25 and the possessor of a subtle brilliance which unifies his Pakistani/Chilean background with the classical/rock/ pop traditions of the West and the meditative ones of the East.
3. Astor Piazzolla Tango, Zero Hour - this Argentinian bandoneon (accordion) player was born in 1921 and from his late teens went out of his way to re-invent the tango form. With rigorous classical training and an open ear to the likes of Charles Mingus, he moved around the world and accumulated film scores, operas, 40 albums, and collaborations with Borges, Jeanne Moreau and Gerry Mulligan. Produced by Kip Hanrahan, this instrumental LP moves with all the sonorities of ballet cum Parisienne after-midnight cafe music. Superb.
4. Stravinsky The Soldier's Tale - with Sting, Vanessa Redgrave and Ian McKellen doing the spoken parts, it is the instrumental sections courtesy of The London Sinfonietta that demonstrate the composer's enormous influence over modern music.
Having only been releasing records for 18 months or so, this Virgin distributed label is the brainchild of one Declan Colgan. A true fan, student, and liver of progressive experimental music, Colgan came via record retailing in Dublin to Virgin to help with the distribution of Editions EG. His enthusiasm and passion for the left-field areas of music led to the formation of Venture and a catalogue of essential listening experiences. Shunning labelling, 'New Age' connotations, uniform sleeve design, musical policy diktat and the many problems that plagued other embryonic efforts, Colgan has showed himself to be acutely aware of what innovations are occurring worldwide in the field. Though his idiosyncratic taste has covered such areas as Irish traditional, avant-garde jazz, orchestral, Latin, electronic and Ambient, the criteria that pervades all of Colgan's choices is that of catching a unique moment at its very best.
1. Hans Joachim Roedelius Momenti Felici [VE4 '87] - German veteran of Tangerine Dream and Cluster shows us all how to make truly hypnotic keyboard music.
2. Klaus Schulze/Andreas Grosser Babel [VE5 '87] - recorded in Schulze's Strasbourg studio with digital/computer man Grosser utilising advanced Roland, Waveterm and Publison machines with usual Oberheim and Fairlight equipment, this is a deadly audio vision of man's fall from grace.
3. Niebla & Fordone Celebration [VE7 '87] - Latin and Hispanic guitarists team up and with the help of keyboards give a firm lesson in acoustic duetting.
4. Seigen Ono The Green Chinese Table [VE10 '88] - Tokyo's Onkio Haus maestro and Sylvian/Sakamoto collaborator's first record since his acclaimed debut LP Seigen in 1983. The use of charango, tapes, clipped acoustic guitars and a string ensemble, push Japan's leading studio musician further up the ladder towards perfection.
5. Holger Czukay/David Sylvian Plight & Premonition [VE11 '88] - without doubt the best experimental instrumental album of the late '80s. Recorded at Can's studio in Cologne between 1986 and 1987, this features improvisations by Sylvian (piano, prepared piano, harmonium, vibes, synthesizers and guitar) and Czukay (radio, organ, sampled piano, orchestral and environmental treatments) with Karl Lippergaus (a writer) on radio tuning and Jaki Liebezeit on infrasound. The results of multi-processing and excessive tape distortion and cut-up techniques are apparent on the recording but never distract from the organic, other-worldly eeriness of Plight & Premonition's two lengthy sides. Abundant with found sounds, barely audible ideas and multiple atmospheres, this music represents the richest assimilation of serious avant-garde ideas into the popular idiom.
(Note 1: Watch out for a new Can LP in the coming year, featuring Holger Czukay, Jaki Liebezeit and the original 1968 group that recorded the ground-breaking Monster Movie.)
(Note 2: Both Sylvian and Czukay are at present recording a follow-up collaboration for Venture.)
6. Michael Nyman Drowning By Numbers [VE23 '88] - Britain's most characteristic 'serious minimalist' teams up for the third time with film-maker Peter Greenway (remember 'The Draughtsman's Contract' and 'A Zed And Two Noughts'?) to create a haunting, shifting and melancholic instrumental music based on a melody from Mozart's 'Sinfonia Concertante'.
7. Ennio Morricone Chamber Music [VE24 '88] quirky, angular, awkward but rich with all the colours, tastes and smells of Italy, here's the veteran of many a Clint Eastwood movie demonstrating just how ambient he can be.
8. Gianni Nocenzi Empusa [VE25 '88] - considered to be Italy's finest electronic musician, Nocenzi is Akai's chief European sound designer specialising in the development of authentic samples and synthesizer tones. This album features incredible holographic stereo sound, apt application of backward tape effects, and a range of sampled sounds from Cuba to Japan. In my opinion, the best stereophonic recording since Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon.
9. Electric Circus Hello [VE25 '88] soundtrack and video consultants Shauna and Pier Rubesa from Toronto, Canada, have suddenly happened on a form of keyboard/vocal Ambient rock music that certainly has no precedents. Incomparable.
Easily criticised as a soft, liberal interpretation of Manfred Eicher's ECM label which appeals to old hippies now turned stockbrokers or the current American middle class with a guilt complex transposed to vegetarianism and all things green - Windham Hill has nonetheless defined itself as the best 'New Age' label bar none since its inception in 1976. Its founder Will Ackerman, being of German origin, obviously found the tastefully cool presentation of ECM releases to his liking, for a watered down version adorns all the Windham Hill LPs. Moreover, there is a similarity in how the records are produced, how Ackerman has stayed dose to the artists by supervising recordings, and in how the recipient customers are guaranteed to get what they want.
Starting in 1976 with a self-produced LP of 500 copies (Ackerman is also a guitar player) the label mushroomed over ten years into a multi-million dollar empire with state of the art recording/video studios in Vermont, a sizeable section of the American market, and a huge profile in Japan where Windham Hill videos have helped introduce "true digital playback for the laser video disc market". Though many of the piano and acoustic guitar artists featured are fairly lightweight, there are some great surprises notably in the incredible Oklahoma guitarist Michael Hedges, whose totally innovative approach to the instrument (utilising new tunings, slap and hammer-on percussive rhythms, etc) has single-handedly invented an entire new directional sound.
1. Michael Hedges Breakfast In The Field ['81].
2. Alex De Grassi Southern Exposure ['83].
3. Mark Isham Vapor Drawings ['83].
4. Michael Hedges Aerial Boundaries ['84].
5. Mark Isham Film Music ['85].
6. Will Ackerman Conferring With The Moon ['86].
7. Schonherz & Scott One Night In Vienna ['87].
8. Montreux Sign Language ['87].
9. Rubaja & Hernandez High Plateaux ['87].
10. Michael Hedges Live On The Double Planet ['87].
11. Nightnoise At The End Of The Evening ['88].
1. Soul Of The Machine [W.H Electronic Music '87].
2. Windham Hill Sampler ['88] and ['89] give good indication to the first-time buyer.
At any point in time albums appear via the rock, pop, classical or jazz ends of the markets that fall into the category of new instrumental and electronic music. For example, last year's Dizrhythmia [Antilles] featuring Danny Thompson and a host of Indian virtuosos, or Watermark [WEA], which had Irish girl Enya re-inventing Celtic music in terms of digital ambience, were just two 'mainstream' LPs that were pushing forward the potentialities of musical sound. Japan's Ryuichi Sakamoto does the same. Following on from his work with David Sylvian and the inventive Illustrated Musical Encyclopaedia [IO '86] came the '87 soundtrack LP with David Byrne and Cong Su The Last Emperor [Virgin], where oriental traditions are reconstituted in terms of contemporary electronics. There are people like Irish uileann piper Davy Spillane, whose electrification of the pipe sound can be appreciated on the 1987 Atlantic Bridge [Tara] and 1988 Out Of The Air [Tara].
Then there are albums from the left-field such as Felt's Let The Snakes... [Creation '86], Richard H. Kirk's Ugly Spirit [Rough Trade '86], Cocteau Twins' Victorialand [4AD '86], Durutti Column's Valuable Passages [Factory '86], to the extreme left-field of French, Frith, Kaiser and Thompson [Demon '88] and the likes of Sun Ra, AMM and Allen Ravenstine featured in Chris Cutler's Re Records Quarterly magazine.
But classical music is relevant too. Stockhausen and his sons still try to blow the mind with extreme electronic distortion, whilst people like The London Chamber Orchestra, Under The Eye Of Heaven [Virgin Classics '89], attempt to marry the older tradition with more contemporary sound. When all is said and done new instrumental music is here to stay, and the fact that one of its greatest innovators, Erik Satie, has just had a retrospective LP of his work [Erik Satie played by Anne Queffelec on Virgin Classics] demonstrates its permanent cultural popularity.
NOTE: This feature has intentionally avoided those artists in the electronic and instrumental music field like David Sylvian, Mark Isham, Eno and Opal artists, whose work I have examined in depth in previous issues.
Feature by Mark Prendergast
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