Johnny Greenwood – Bodysong: Accessible Abstracts

Johnny Greenwood - Bodysong

get bodysong at amazon

All the recent Radiohead hoopla reminded me about the band’s other driving creative force: Johnny Greenwood. He’s the lead guitarist and multi-instrumentalist responsible for a lot of those awesome riffs that Radiohead fans love oh-so-much (he tied with fellow band member Ed O’Brien as Rolling Stones’ 59th and 60th greatest guitar players of all time). Besides his work in a rock band, Greenwood also composes music of a more classical nature. In fact, he’s been the BBC’s composer in residence since 2004.

His first solo release is Bodysong, the score to the 2003 film of the same name. I remember reading a little about it when it came out, but have just now gotten around to giving it a serious listen. Overall, the album’s style is aligned with contemporary classical, but its exact nature is hard to pin down. It sweeps between orchestral strings, flighty jazz and mellow ambiance while maintaining a cohesive identity.

Unlike what is typically thought of as abstract/avant-garde music where the art derives from the sculpting of sound that isn’t necessarily pleasant to listen to, Bodysong is largely recognizable as traditional music, though not with much pop sensibility. The music here is compelling, if not particularly catchy.

In the case of many of the score’s more mellow tracks, it’s tempting to describe them as “soundscapes,” like a minimalist rising and fadings of tones. But the work here shows too much structure to be classified that way, with rhythm and percussion giving form to the formless. Greenwood’s compositions are abstract without being inaccessible.

Of the thirteen tracks on the disc, Convergence and Splitter are the two highlights. Convergence takes a page from Steve Reich’s book, feature overlapping layers of pure percussion that mesmerizingly diverge and converge with each other. It’s hard to not try a pick out the various patterns. Splitter, on the other hand, is a freeform jazz piece that could easily be using the same New Orleans jazz band from Amnesiac’s Life in a Glass House.

One of the more interesting results of Bodysong is how it reinforces the idea that Radiohead really is a functioning unit. Johnny’s influence on the band’s music is readily apparent in the soft piano of the album’s opener as well as in the various electronic interjections.

Overall however, I was quite surprised by how listenable Bodysong is, despite being what should be “difficult but rewarding.”

And a multi-track sampler from the film:

Jonny Greenwood – Bodysong

Air – 10000 Hz Legend: Frustrating Brilliance

air promo

Released in 2001, 10,000 Hz Legend is Air’s first proper follow up to their smash Moon Safari. Coming three years after taking the world by storm, the record was much anticipated. Air had carved out a particular niche of upbeat, laid-back retro-electro-lounge and the fans wanted more. MORE!

Sadly, anyone who was expecting that was sorely disappointed. Including myself. I admit, it took me a long time to fully appreciate this album. I didn’t even pick up my own copy of it for months.

Gone is the light, airy feeling that made earlier works so attractive. In their place is a decidedly denser, darker, more down to earth record. It is less electronic though there’s still plenty of it; more organic and human. Yet, it is simultaneously both more conventionally pop and more experimental than the easily digestible tunes of Air past releases. And that is the source of frustration with it.

Yes, there is a certain je ne sais quoi that brands this as distinctly “Air,” but at times it just proves hard to listen to. Don’t Be Light, for example, has its moments, but it is so spastic–just all over the place–that it can’t muster up more than three stars. Wonder Milky Bitch plods along, like the soundtrack to a demented home on range, and is just downright weird. Conversely, Radio #1 exudes pure cheese: an over-the-top, over-produced mélange of sound, but it really isn’t that bad on the ears.

But for all its stubbornness, 10,000 Hz Legend is the kind of album that benefits from repeated listening. Layered and complex, the album reveals new tangents every time. The more I listen to it, the I want to listen to it. This stuff is ponderous; it get stuck in your head.

But it’s not all deep-thinking intellectualism and satire. Radian, the disc’s highlight, is pure pleasure. With a lofty flute melody, sensual strings, and a wonderful accompanying guitar, the song harkens back to the kinder, gentler Air from the past.

In retrospect, 10,000 Hz Legend is probably the best career move the band could have made at the time. It deftly avoided pigeonholing the band as a novelty lounge act and showed that they could use a larger aural canvas and think big. It reminds me of how Nirvana decided to, with In Utero, make a record that would discourage their new-found fans in the wake of Nevermind’s success. But they ended up cementing their reputations as the leaders of rock. Likewise, 10,000 Hz Legend pinned Air with lasting artistic credibility.

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A fascinating video for Electronic Performers:

Nobukazu Takemura – sign acappella

Nobukazu Takemura - Sign

Today’s song is the unaccompanied robot/computer vocalist for Nobukazu Takemura’s single Sign (vinyl 12″ version) from his 2001 album Hoshi no Koe.

I first heard the original version of this song at a show in New Orleans in 2001. That show was my first real exposure to glitch music (a form of electronic music that has intentional “errors” in it or is entirely composed of error-like sounds, such as a CD skipping) and it completely blew my mind. I still get chills listening to the vocal part of Sign that starts at the 1:09 mark.

Takemura has since become a kind of legendary figure as far as my iTunes is concerned. And while Sign is a fantastic track, without its attendant beeps and boops, however, it suffers from some unpleasant and awkwardly-long breaks of silence, which cost it some of its gravitas. Still, these artificial vocals manage to convey a kind of staccato emotion, like a robot throwing down some slam poetry.

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Nobukazu Takemura – Hoshi no Koe: glitches

The note at the top of the page says that the site layout is currently broken in firefox. It turns out that I royally screwed something up while trying to "Improve" Things around here. As a result, I’ll have to recode the site structure and css from scratch. Until then, sorry firefox users. I commend you for your independent spirit, but for now you’ll have to scroll to the bottom of the page to see the sidebars.

However, that’s not the only type of glitch in these parts lately. I ran across Nobukazu Takemura’s hoshi no koe the other day. Takemura is a guy I was first introduced to in new orleans 5 years ago in june 2001. He was opening for Tortoise and Mouse on Mars at the howlin’ wolf. (by the way, best concert ever. it’s not often you get to see a band at the height of your fandom for them.)

It was my first exposure to both the glitch genre of music and the concept of a ‘laptop performance.’ For 30+ minutes this Japanese guy with a long pony tail sat calmly behind a table, meticulously twisting dials, pushing buttons and manipulating his powerbook, creating a perfect, swirling mess of sounds… And I was mesmerized by it. By the time he was half way through Sign and those dueling artificial voices had finished their seemingly-never-ending chant, I was hooked.

I bought Hoshi no Koe that night after the show and quickly launched an effort to acquire as much Takemura as I could. It was a foolish endeavor; The dude is as prolific as he is obscure (not to mention foreign) and I had a hard enough time tracking down a full discography, let alone much of his music.

Eventually, I gave up on that particular tunequest as it proved nearly impossible. Besides, the thing I came to slowly realize about Takemura’s music is that it’s very dichotomic. It’s either so brilliantly clever that you want to shout "Oh my god, that’s awesome!" Or it’s completely and totally unlistenably abstract, the type of compositions that certain people who want to prove their intellectual mettle listen to. A similar phenomenon occurs throughout the genre. However, lesser composers than Takemura lean distinctively toward the latter opinion.

In the end, despite the short burst of passion, my affair with glitch was short-lived. As I’ve mellowed with age, I’m not as likely to indulge in the less listenable as I find that my musical tastes are for my own enjoyment and not to impress the kids with some kind of street cred.

But Takemura, the man is still fascinating.

Louis and Bebe Barron – Forbidden Planet: Retro Space Tripping

Forbidden Planet is a fantastic film and is available on iTunes.

So I recently listened to Louis and Bebe Barron’s avant garde and experimental score to the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. This soundtrack was one of the handful of Records That Time Forgot columns that I wrote in a previous life. I reprint it here for your reading enjoyment.

In 1956, science fiction as we know it scarcely existed as a genre. Adventures in space were mostly centered around action and heroics rather than depth, plot or characters. That changed with “Forbidden Planet,” which despite its fantastic setting, gave some credit to the intelligence of its audience. So influential was this film, that programs from “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” to “2001” (and all that has followed them) are in its debt.

Adapted from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” the story concerns Commander John J. Adams’ (Leslie Nielsen) rescue of a doomed colonization vessel bound for Altair-4. He arrives on the planet to find two lone survivors, Dr. Morbius and his daughter, who have mysteriously built a paradise on a barren rock.

It turns out that an ancient powerful race had mastered “mind-over-matter” technology, allowing thoughts to become reality, and Morbius has mastered it as well. Or so he thought. He hadn’t counted on a striking young Commander making his daughter’s acquaintance. Induced by jealousy, the doctor’s uncontrollable id creates an indomitable monster that threatens to destroy them all.

Created by husband-and-wife team Louis and Bebe Barron, the score to "Forbidden Planet" is less music and more sculpted noise, appropriately and perfectly crafted to fit the alien landscape presented in the film. Composed completely by electronic means (using many circuits created by the duo specifically for this project), this soundtrack consists of wails and groans interspersed with beeps, boops, and wobbles, as if a washing machine and a 1950’s flying saucer had a shotgun wedding in Vegas and produced some sort of bastard child.

Forbidden Planet’s “music” goes beyond the traditional role of underscoring the film’s action on screen, creating a sub text for character motivations and off-screen actions. Standing in for the long-dead ancient race, the soundscape becomes a character itself, giving a voice to the beings who live on through their machines, while constantly reminding the viewer of the complete otherworldliness of the situation.

The lack of traditional styling, instrumentation, and structure make the album difficult to listen to, but those same qualities make it perfect to put on and not listen to. In proper settings and situations, the effects produced can become peaceful and serene background noise. Dwell on it too long though, or listen to it in the dark, and the intended creepiness and disturbing inhumanity can summon dark nightmares, providing them with a soundtrack for a total freak-out.

It is fitting that a film that proved to be ground breaking has a soundtrack that is equally so. The experimentation shown here was a great success, especially in regards to modern electronic music, which might not exist had it not been for these pioneers.

“difficult but rewarding”

I took an hour out of the tunequest this morning to listen to an episode of the Sound of Young America, a radio show/podcast that I discovered in January. In all seriousness, I’m not a fan of talk radio as a format; I find that listening to other peoples’ conversations grating. I’d rather be having my own conversations or listening to music.

SoYA instantly cut through that avoision. Besides host Jesse Thorn’s nearly-perfect-for-radio voice, the show’s attitude is, well, awesome. In fact, the show bills itself as "Dedicated to things that are awesome" and I can certainly get behind that. I think I fell in love with the show almost instantly one cold, wet, dreary and long Atlanta commute home. The guest was Josh Kornblut, who talked about his one-man Benjamin Franklin show.

Now, like any good American, I’m fond of the Founding Fathers for their intellectual, diplomatic and governmental achievements. But the flipside of that adoration manifests itself by thinking that it’s hilarious to place them outside of their historical context, like Ben Franklin besting Jimi Hendrix at air hockey "that’s game, Hendrix". And when Jesse Thorn seemed as excited as I did about Franklin, that sealed the deal right then and there. themodernista accuses me of having a man-crush on Jesse.

Unfortunately, with tunequest occupying up almost all of my free listening time, our affair has been scattered and brief. So today’s episode was not only a rare treat, but relevant to my project here because it dealt with the topic of "rock snobs" a phenomenon with which I can claim some familiarity. I freely admit that I have some rock snob-ish tendencies, which definitely shows through my desire to collect rare and obscure music and eschew the pop charts.

Though I think the term "snob" is a little inappropriate for me, since I honestly try to keep an open mind about music and try not to be too exclusionary. I’m not ashamed to say that my library contains some Eminem and even one Limp Bizkit song (okay, I am a little ashamed of that one. But it is a decent rock version of the Mission Impossible theme, so it gets bonus points from the Lalo Schifrin association).

(BTW, I can’t stand genuine rock snobs, so I try to avoid those circles. I don’t need to follow who’s acceptable to listen to this month. And I certainly don’t need anyone’s approval of my musical tastes; At my age, I don’t need much street cred. Plus, the inherent negativity of the generic rock snob is quite off-putting.)

Of course, I wouldn’t be undertaking the tunequest if my collector’s habit hadn’t gotten out of control.

Which brings me to the title of this post. The progression of a rock snob was discussed on the show, from the acquisition of a velvet underground record (or other acceptably legendary artist) at age 18 and the subsequent search for ever-more arcane and obscure music. Eventually, that search leads to music that is so unappealing that it can only be enjoyed intellectually, by telling oneself that it is brilliant and that if someone else doesn’t think so, then they just don’t get it. (On that point, the episode does make a slightly negative mention of Steve Reich, to which I must object. His Music for 18 Musicians is both listenable and provocative. But if you don’t agree, I won’t accuse you of not getting it.)

To the appropriately discerning ears, said music can be called "Difficult, but rewarding," an endurance test of sound and noise that for all the effort required, when it’s finished, you can say, "That was worth it."

Which, in turn, brings me to Chicago Underground Trio, a group who I’ve categorized as avant jazz. It is the type of music that fits the above description. It is a swirling cacophany of trumpets and drums that takes momentary breaks into recognizable forms of music before beginning the assault again. The musicianship of the performers is not in question–they are affiliated with Tortoise after all–but this record really is a chore to listen to. In the end, I found it difficult but not rewarding.