There was this charming quality to a lot of ambient music in the ’90s — optimistic and melodic, far off from today’s dominating dark drones. It was a different era, and perhaps the sound reflected a rosy view of what awaited in the new millennium. But what we find in the 2010s are the hushed rushes of disconcerting noise and queasy clashing of synth lines, an ambiance of tension and uncertainty befitting our times. It makes sense — the world is an increasingly scary and debilitating place, and sometimes our music sounds like it. But optimism is resistance — it really is — and that’s what makes Jogging House’s latest album Lure so welcome, special, and quietly radical.
Jogging House — whose name is apparently a letter added to ‘jogging hose,’ AKA sweat pants — states the album is “about accepting the things we cannot change and finding comfort in uncertainty.” This philosophy is the pragmatism of the stoic, and it’s also not being paralyzed with helplessness when the world is out of control. Staying in motion and hopeful as an artist and creator rather than blocked and immobile in the face of hourly ‘breaking news’ and topical turmoil. That’s resistance.
I want to connect Jogging House to Brian Eno, but not to compare him to another composer working in the ‘ambient’ realm. Instead, I think Lure‘s songs closely reflect something Eno said in an interview: “One of the reasons one makes music or any kind of art is to create the world that you’d like to be in or the world that you would like to try. You would like to find out what that world is like.” That’s how I feel when I listen to “Tulip,” Lure‘s opening track. It’s transportive — light and playful, melodies as aspiration and reassurance that’s calm and kind. And it’s gorgeous, on the verge of sadness but not quite getting there. This is a world I’d like to try.
The album’s eight tracks share this gentle atmosphere, evoking a separate era. It’s the optimism of the past looking forward, like the mentioned-above ’90s electronic acts but also not too far from those pioneering the form in the ’70s. I’ll give in and sonically connect Eno anyway, as the beautiful “Weavings” wouldn’t be out of place on a Cluster album.
But I emphasize this isn’t merely a throwback — it’s music fit for our times. These sounds are an encouragement to persevere rather than wallow; to foster hope and the imagination of something better for us all. You may ask, how can something so serene inspire action? It can, I respond. It really can.
The documentary Conny Plank: The Potential Of Noise was more touching than I expected. The film is a collaboration of director Reto Caduff and Stephan Plank, Conny’s son. Stephan drives the documentary as conversations with musicians who worked with Conny Plank help him understand and rediscover his father.
Conny Plank died of cancer at 47 when Stephan was just 13. A lot of Stephan’s memories of his father revolve around these odd musicians who stayed and worked at the farmhouse studio. Often the musicians would join the family for dinner (indulgently prepared by Stephan’s mother Christa), and they would become Stephan’s temporary playmates in between sessions. So, in this documentary, Stephan is meeting people who not only have perspectives on his father but are also part of shadowy childhood memories. The musicians are also taken aback — the last time they saw Stephan he was a child and an oblivious studio mascot.
The highlight of the documentary is Stephan’s meeting with the classic rap duo Whodini. Did you remember that Conny Plank produced part of Whodini’s first album? I forgot, too, until this film pleasantly reminded me. Whodini was an upstart act in their late teens, suddenly flown to a farmhouse in rural Germany in a bold choice by their label. The duo grew to love the eccentric but brilliant Conny Plank, and this love and respect pour out of their interview segment. Stephan is visibly emotional as he hears another warm story of the universal impact and guiding influence of his father. Even I choked up a little.
There’s so much more in this film, including interviews with Michael Rother (Neu! and — early on — Kraftwerk guitarist), Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart (who may have been the last to work with Plank), and Holger Czukay (Can). Czukay comes off as kind of a jerk in his honesty about how Conny cared more about his studio than his relationship with his young son. It seems that Stephan has come to terms with this.
Noticeably absent is Brian Eno who stepped into Plank’s studio on more than one occasion. A section on the recording of Devo’s first album allows Eno most of his screen time, and that’s given to Gerald Casale talking about how he didn’t like Eno’s attempt to add his ‘pretty’ vocals and synth lines throughout the record.
Conny Plank: The Potential Of Noise is inspiring and a stirring tribute to a person who lived the creative life. But most of all it’s the story of a son finding his talented but distant father. With Father’s Day approaching, I can’t think of a better movie to watch, especially for those of us missing our dads.
Conny Plank: The Potential Of Noise currently streaming on Amazon Prime and available as a ‘rental’ on other services. And here’s a fine interview with Stephan Plank about the documentary. For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure the no-show Stephan refers in that piece is Eno, not Bono.
There’s an effort to make the entire Sun Ra catalog available online, and that’s no easy task. The inimitable jazz artist’s catalog is vast and perplexing, and previously unknown recordings are unearthed on a regular basis. Admittedly some of his work is impenetrable to the uninitiated, creating an impression that Sun Ra is a cacophonous weirdo. That would be a misunderstanding. Irwin Chusid, who is managing the reissue series via Sun Ra LLC, had this to say in an interview with Bandcamp Daily:
He is an institution. He is a cosmic force. He is a genius. He’s one of the great neglected composer-musicians of the 20th century. There’s no question what this man created is singular. There’s no one like Sun Ra. […]
I think 75 percent of Sun Ra’s sprawling catalogue is accessible … Is it slick? No. Is it smooth? No. Is it mainstream? No. But it’s fun. It’s musical. It’s engaging. It’s adventurous. It’s diverse. And a lot of it is jazz.
Diving into the catalog is daunting but rewarding, and it’s not difficult to find starting points. That Bandcamp Daily article suggests many good intro albums. This piece in Vulture has some excellent recommendations, too.
I’ve been going down the Sun Ra rabbit-hole, exploring the extensive catalog available on Bandcamp, and ran across the compilation Sun Ra Exotica. I do love the strange ‘50s genre of ‘exotica,’ exemplified by the likes of Martin Denny, Les Baxter, and Arthur Lyman. The style, in a way, is a precursor to what Jon Hassell coined ‘fourth world music:’ a blending of different traditional styles with Western music to create a previously unimagined sound.
I had never thought of Sun Ra in the context of ‘exotica,’ but it makes sense. He was, after all, an exotic dude. And his oeuvre is so expansive that contextualizing groupings of his compositions under a theme, like ‘exotica,’ reveals something new about Sun Ra’s work.
From the release notes to Sun Ra Exotica:
Was Exotica kitsch? Did it represent “cultural appropriation”? Was it a dilution of indigenous art? Who cares? Music should be enjoyed on its own terms. … Exotica has roots, but those roots are uncopyable. What emerges is something derivative, yet original. Here you have Sun Ra, of African-American extraction, influenced by Les Baxter, a Caucasian from Texas, who was in turn influenced by primitive jungle rites. It’s a cultural feedback loop, best enjoyed by leaving politics out of it.
Sun Ra Exotica is a terrific starting point for those unfamiliar with Sun Ra’s spaceways. It’s also a pleasure for this longtime fan, the 25 tracks fitting together effortlessly in Ra’s cosmic sonic puzzle. It’s the soundtrack for my weekend.
I’m fascinated by the album Limpid as the Solitudes, a collaboration of collagist-composer Félicia Atkinson and multi-instrumentalist Jefre Cantu-Ledesma. If there were a record bin nearby, this would probably get filed in the ‘ambient’ row. That would be a mistake. Limpid as the Solitudes is too restless to be background music; it asks for a piece of your attention, sonically waving to remind you of its presence if you happen to consciously drift away.
There are found sounds, environmental sounds, sounds that keep us guessing, all accompanying pensive drones, far-away splashes of guitar, sparkles of piano, and other melodic snatches. I’ve played around with environmental sounds that create an imaginary space, a mental movie that fills the listener’s head. But while my music movies used one long take, Limpid as the Solitudes practices quick edits, jump-cuts, and sudden changes of setting. That may sound jarring or disorienting, but the masterful random-but-its-really-not placement of the sounds unexpectedly soothes. It’s like our thoughts, falling from one memory to another, haphazard but oddly reassuring.
The album’s press release mentions film as an inspiration, naming Chungking Express, Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, and Antonioni ’s The Passenger (by the way, those latter two films each feature a famously long shot as opposed to quick cuts). Brion Gysin and his book The Third Mind (co-written with a William S. Burroughs) are also name-checked. The Third Mind offers that when two people collaborate they create a third presence, a creative partner that didn’t exist before. Its reference is probably not just pointing to the duo of Atkinson and Cantu-Ledesma, but also to what’s summoned by the combination of disparate sounds. The ‘third mind’ is also evoked in the manipulation of communication, including sound, visuals, and the written word. It’s important to note that Gysin saw a hidden truth resulting from these mash-ups in words and art. The occasional addition of Atkinson’s whispered, often unintelligible, voice anchors the
Back to memory, these ‘cut-ups’ (as Gysin called them) might resemble the processes of our brains. One memory leads to another, leading to another, leading to another until we have no idea where it started. There’s an inspirational chain leading us on, with the intersections as blurry barriers hiding how the combinations connect. To me, that’s the sound of this album.
In an interview, Félicia Atkinson says, ”I want to make music that makes people dance, but in their dreams, or in a state of slow moving.” Last night I listened to Limpid as the Solitudes in bed, with headphones, and quickly fell into that slow-moving dream dance. The uninitiated may think this album is too filled with distractions or too experimental in appearance to be ’sleeping music,’ but I found it calm and comforting. It felt like an inventory of someone else’s thoughts while putting my own aside. That’s an acceptable description of a dream if I’ve ever heard one.
Listening to F ingers is a ghostly occurrence, not of the floating sheets kind but that of an occupied space, occupants unknown. Just as stylized cinematography or purposefully scratchy film grain can feel like an additional character in a movie, F ingers’ lo-fi, mumbling production imagines a confined architecture and a smokey mist seeping through door cracks. I’m cautious but entranced.
Comprised of Australians Carla Dal Forno, Tarquin Manek, and Samuel Karmel, F ingers reveals (to me) Awkwardly Blissing Out, their second effort for the deservedly hip Blackest Ever Black label. There are only six tracks, but there’s much to digest here. The album recalls the experimental DIY production renaissance of the cassette crazy late ’80s/early ‘90s, including work by a few forgotten New Zealand sonic scientists (for hemispheric relevance). These influences have layers, and I’m driven to find pieces of Brian Eno’s “In Dark Trees” within “All Rolled Up” and the DNA of Cabaret Voltaire’s Red Mecca wrapped around the album’s title track. But it’s the deliberate aural claustrophobia that’s striking, relieved momentarily by Dal Forno’s lovely, sing-songy – and somewhat disembodied – vocals. The compositions exhibit a restrained improvisation, seemingly deliberate when listened from top-to-bottom, but there’s frequent evidence of the ‘happy accident.’ For example, that relatively catchy synth motif in “Your Confused” isn’t improvised in the notes played, but in the playful tweaks of processing and timbre.
There’s perhaps this movement away from the pristine and the technical in music production. The surprise is the evocative nature of the imperfect, whether a wistful mood inferred from a ruined tintype photograph or a chill-on-the-spine delivered via a crumbling homestead. Awkwardly Blissing Out masterfully transports the listener in this way. It’s a nice and spooky place to visit, though you probably wouldn’t want to live there.