on life, music etc beyond mainstream

„I´ve just read a few parts from your blog, and I must admit that your interpretations of my solo harmonium playing corresponds very well with my own thoughts of it. Even if I play completely acoustically, my sound aesthetics is deeply inspired by electronic music and analogue synthesizers.“ (Sigbjorn Apeland, Email from Nov.2)

Hello Guy

Here in Dortmund we have a clear blue sky on November, 1, „Allerheiligen“,  not the ideal weather (at the moment) for people who love to listen to melodramatic Cure songs on their Ipods on  burial grounds. By the way, I´ve only loved one Cure album, “Seventeen Seconds”, an early one.

I didn´t hear any “Witch House” music until you told me about it. So I ordered Balam Acab and his cd “Wander / Wonder”. I like the richness of the textures, especially the aquatic atmospheres. It reminds me a bit of early trip-hop (a new recipe?) … The music is a bit too interesting to end up in New Age territory.

GS: Balam Acab’s new album is a conscious departure from Witch House. Witch House tunes usually feature lots of 808 drum machine. They’re like indie music with southern crunk beats. I think this is probably more to your taste than Salem or the other Witch House bands.

Yes, the synthesizer is an old-fashioned instrument now. And one has to be careful using it. It now carries along so much history: every new sound seems easily to be an “old sound”. Creativity is required to avoid the „retro stamp“…

GS: To be fair, I still think there are bold new ways to use synthesizers. Dubstep synth, as popularised by Rusko and Skrillex, really is new. They’re flaunting the brash digital wavetables and clocking filters of modern software synthsizers like Native Instruments‘ „Massive“ and Rob Papen’s „Albino“. You can’t make those kinds of sounds on a 1970s Moog or 1980s Prophet V. But in general, you’re right. The synth is now a historical instrument.

English synth player Benge has a vast collection of old synthesizers, and he has put out (you will know this) a record that works as a time journey: nearly every ancient synth gets a composition (synth only!), and listening to the tracks makes you think – in moments – of Vangelis, Kraftwerk, Eno (just by the colour of the sound, not by the themes)

GS: Actually I didn’t know his music. I’ll give it a listen.

I have a great idea for a double concert (at least I think this is a great idea): imagine Benge bringing  three or four old synths on stage, and he plays his little solo pieces. But he has to share the stage with Norwegian harmonium player Sigbjorn Apeland (who has put out a brilliant solo record of harmonium music on HUBRO, called “Glossolalia”, full of acoustic ambient music with old harmoniums, all on the verge of falling apart). Benge plays a piece, Apeland the next, and so on, till, in the end they play duos:

I mean, a duo of harmonium and synth sounds rather weird in the first place. But if you close your eyes and listen to Sigbjorn´s playing with drones and overtones and so-called false tones and irregularities, the harmonium sometimes sounds, well, like a strange electronic instrument. Being far away from perfection, gives an old synth the same human quality. So, what once seemed to come out of totally different worlds, now reveals interesting affinities (all linked to the fact that synths are no longer state of art, but are having a good time in museums.)

GS: That sounds like a wonderful idea :)

The best Giorgio Moroder (my memory may have holes) is the one who produced the classics with Donna Summer.

GS: Moroder had one simple idea – that aggressive, endless, hypnotic, motorised sequencer „chug“. I suspect he heard it in the middle bits of Tangerine Dream records like „Rubicon“, but he may have discovered it independently. Any way, he isolated it, and made it the basis of his style – a powerful musical meme which changed pop forever. I am not a real expert on Moroder, but my friends who are always urge me to get to know his album with Sparks, „No. 1 In Heaven“. One day I will.

Did you know that Moroder worked with Japan on „Life In Tokyo“? They refined his motoric sequencer approach into something more band-friendly on „Quiet Life“, donated it to Duran Duran, then abandoned it altogether. I’m kind of glad they did – it freed them to cultivate a completely opposite approach to synthesis. The synths on „Tin Drum“ sometimes suggest Stockhausen, sometimes Delia Derbyshire, sometimes imaginary ethnic instruments, and consciously avoid the motoric groove approach. I wish more synth bands had followed their lead.

Yes, you´re right, in the Ryan Gosling-movie, Cliff Martinez references the “decadent” Californian Moroder, and it works fine for the soundtrack – fluid and dense at the same time. A memory comes to mind: I liked  the way moviemaker John Carpenter performed (along with Gareth Williams?!) ) his own rather primitive electronic music on his early films like “Assault on Precinct 13”, “Dark Star” or “The Fog”.
Dark Star“ (1974) – Trailer
GS: I’m also very fond of Carpenter’s primitive synth scores. Back then, when people made records with only synths – especially when they were just monophonic synths – it was almost impossible to make normal sounding music. Even if you wanted to sound like Abba or the Bee Gees, two mono synths and a microphone wouldn’t let you. Weirdness wasn’t optional, it was inevitable. The first two Human League albums show that.

When I listen to 80s synth pop now, I notice how the arrival of the big fat polyphonic synth normalised things again, and made the arrangements less interesting. I think the Pet Shop Boys are great, great songwriters. But their arrangements – usually with one huge 10-finger synth pad in the middle – have far fewer interesting counter-melodies than, say, Vince Clarke’s Yazoo songs.

It is very interesting what you´re writing about M83 aka Anthony Gonzales. A guy who seems to re-interpret the 80s American-pop by adding a sad and yearning quality, as you say. I really can hear this in some of the (nearly) spoken pieces, but for me the music is a too much bombast. But, Guy, you really “tricked” me into listening to this double-album at breakfast time two days ago. I don´t like the colour and the sounds of the synths/keyboards, it makes me think of one of my “enemies” of old times: Trevor Horn and like-minded spirits of pathetic overkill.

And why did I listen to this M83 music? First of all, I was looking for this element of yearning, and then, even more (as I could not find too much of it) for, what you called “the ghost of Molly Ringwald”. That rang a bell: two years ago, I saw that famous film with Molly for the first, time, “The Breakfast Club”, and liked this coming-of-age-film, and the performance of Molly! But I have no idea what Mr. M83 found here: maybe a nostalgic angle for his music?

GS: I’m sorry if M83 is not for you. It’s definitely bombastic – that’s a design feature, not a mistake. I could develop a whole argument about the recurring ways French artists discover depth in American trash. Baudelaire loved Poe where highbrow Anglophones thought him a cheap shocker; Godard found something inspiring in American genre movies; arguably the French took American jazz more seriously than Americans ever did, etc. Maybe another time, when we have some French wine to hand :)

I have to defend Trevor Horn a little, at least for personal reasons. He was the first record producer I ever worked with. I really learned how to „comp“ (compile) a vocal performance watching him do it. And „Slave To The Rhythm“ is astonishing for the sheer number of musical parts he manages to cram into one song. It’s the Mahler 8 of pop!

Speaking of sadness/yearning/melancholia: yesterday I received an interesting record with a very special mood: “If Grief Could Wait” by Giovana Pessi (baroque harp) and Susanna Wallumrod (voice; a neatly constant presence at our Punktfestival). The tow other instruments are a viola da gamba and a nyckelharpa. On ECM Records, a few seconds, and you realize, this is a Manfred Eicher production.

Now, a lot of the music is dedicated to Henry Purcell´s songs (centuries and centuries ago), and then there are three cover versions of Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen songs. The famous shiver was running down my spine when I listened to Susanne Wallumrod performing Cohen´s “Who by Fire”. And isn’t that, too, “old music”, coming from the Seventies?! A Quote from the background informations: “This record is neither a project that adheres rigorously to ideals of historical performance practice, nor one that strives self-consciously to “cross over”.”

I like the way this music moves between eras. I would not say I´m very keen on Henry Purcell´s music and his deeply religious lyrics. But I´m drawn into this music because of the “restrained” passion of the performance – as if the musicians made a clear rule before playing this utterly sad music: „no matter how heartwrenching this all is, we will never break out in tears“, (but, when listening, you get the impression, that zone of losing control is quite near…)

GS: Purcell’s Viol Fantasias are incredible. They still sound modern today. Which is odd, because they’re intentionally nostalgic. Purcell is re-imagining an old England of Gloriana, rejecting the flashy speed-metal innovations of the Italian violin style then arriving in England. The Fantasia for Three Viols in F major is a personal favourite, as is the Fantasia Upon One Note.

I think, sometimes, looking back turns out to be the most effective way of looking forward. Late Bach, late Beethoven both show that. The „Heiliger Dankgesang“ in Beethoven’s A minor string quartet is – for me – the most radical and most conservative piece he ever wrote. It looks back to Palestrina, and forward to Bartok and Pärt. I love it. Especially when it’s played very slowly but the players don’t try too hard to milk it. Again, achingly sad.

I sympathise completely with that aesthetic of restraint, BTW. Histrionic surface sentimentality is no proof of inner depth. Quite the contrary. Dry deadpan can be more compelling than melodrama. So I understand completely your reaction to M83. For me, Ralf Hütter half-singing „Computer Love“ – Kraftwerk’s saddest song – that’s infinitely more emotional than Celine Dion singing „My Heart Will Go On“.

I think I’m actually very drawn to under-powered, almost broken „weedy“ voices if they have that honesty. Robert Wyatt, Stina Nordenstam … I will definitely seek out this recording, BTW. Thank you for the recommendation.

Good sadness is uplifting, isn´t it?

GS: It’s the best.


GS: Best,

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