Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Inital Impression of Rick Wright's "Broken China"

I have just been listening to Richard Wright's final solo album, Broken China. I wanted to see what other people thought about it so I read some reviews. What I found was not a wide spread of options but a clear split between those who really liked it or those who hated it.

As long as I have made music, its been solo and at least partially computer based (at least for recording). This is where Wright was headed and certainly is reflected in "Broken China" which was not true of "Wet Dream". I don't have "Wet Dream" which for some reason has become a collectors item. I guess because it's not being made any more although I have not researched that. From what I can see, "Wet Dream" is an easier transition to Richard Wright as independent artist and perhaps, free of collaboration, Wright went more in his own more experimental direction in "Broken China"

I like "Broken China". Do I like it as much as some of the more classic Floyd albums like "Dark Side of the Moon"? I would not really compare it. "Dark Side of the Moon" is at the height of what might be called Floyd's more pop era that appealed to the more adventurous rock fans who did not want to dive headlong into the more experimental side of electronics. Those, for example, who may not have heard of "Tarngerine Dream" or artists like Brian Eno. I found one review very revealing in that he preferred Eno to Wright but felt that Floyd could have collectively gone in a more experimental direction.

I like time lines because they help me to see when and what happened and get the big picture. The following is a list of Floyd's recent albums and Wright's two solo albums excluding Floyd's live albums. What is clear is that the band, like many bands, began to feel the stress of trying to keep three very artistic people together. Egos clashed but more between Gilmour and Waters. I suspect Wright may have been more in the middle of all this chaos and trying to figure out where he wanted to go. Wright clearly started his exodus during "The Wall" with his solo album "Wet Dream" coming out before this. Wright, in fact, did not collaborate on any of the songs in the album, sat it out comply for "The Final Cut" and then returned with Kurweil in hand for the remainder, eventually collaborating with Gilmour.

Reading the credits for the individual songs in "The Wall" makes it clear that Waters wanted to take creative control and went a bit off the deep end. After leaving, Wright returns but has now made into Kurweil samples his classic sounds from before. I see Wright at this point siting more on the creative sidelines although collaborating with Gilmour on some songs. The change in synthesizers is a clear indication to me of a new direction for Wright in a more supportive role and as such, Floyd's music moves more towards a showcase for Gimour who granted is a great guitar player but Wright is also a great keyboard player.

Wright, being much more experimental, finds a new vision in "Broken China" and I am sure has he lived, would have made other interesting and creative albums. I would have loved to have heard the opportunity to hear them.

Part of my acceptance perhaps for "Broken China" is that I am more on the experimental side myself. I don't like pop music all that much and I love those, like Wright, who can find those interesting places that synthesizers in the right hands can take a listener who is willing to go along for the ride.

This is an addendum to this blog but when I posted last night I had not listened to the final four or so songs of the album. No doubt, these pieces express Wright's wife depressed state of mind but perhaps his own as well. I suspect that Wright much like the "stone" in Pink Floyd's "Dogs" on animals, felt "dragged down by the stone", the bad blood of blind ambition which turns to stone and in Wright's case cancer. This is not a criticism of Wright. It's more a realization that the world of commercial music can take a heavy toll.

Perhaps it was Waters, perhaps Wright felt that he was at the end of a creative roller coaster ride with Floyd, for a time, or perhaps it was something else but there is a great deal of desperation in the last part of this album. Wright would live for years after this album came out fur I hope that in the end he had a friend, someone he could spend his final days.

Wright also seemed to not have those wonderful synth solos of his that are so well known for his work with Pink Floyd. Some disagree with me that gear does not mean much but to me, the fact that Wright traded in his Minimoog and VCS3 for a sampler is reflective of his retreat from a more creative and aggressive style. Perhaps, this album is more of a reflection of his wife and the difficult twists and turns of life with Gilmour and Waters, especially Waters.

A few other comments. I don't' know where he got the idea to get Sinead O'Connor to sing on the album but not a good mix. Celtic might have actually worked but not her. No one who tears up a picture of the pope can be truly Irish anyway. A bit of processed Celtic vocals might have worked nicely however.

Kudos to Miller and Bolton for the guitar work here. Floyd like but distinct. However, I also wished that the guitar solos might have been a bit more up front. A bit to laid back but great sound.

Here is the timeline for the more temporally inclined and interested:

15 September 2008 - Richard Wright - Rest in Peace (from cancer)

On An Island (Wright contributes keyboard and background vocals to Gilmour's solo album) - March 6, 2006

Broken China - November 26, 1996 (Wright's second and last solo album)

The Division Bell - (Wright collaborates with Gilmour on some songs) - March 30, 1994

A Momentary Lapse of Reason (Wright using only a Kurzweil K2000, Water's exiled, Gilmour writing songs with others but not Wright) - September 7, 1987

The Final Cut - 21 March 1983 (no Wriight, all songs by Waters)

The Wall - November 30, 1979 (Wright only musican, not credited for any songs)

Wet Dream - May 1978 (Wright's 1st solo album)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Some Comments on Paul Stumps "Digital Gothic - A Critical Discography of Tangerine Dream"

I would have to say that most of the material I have seen about musical artists is mostly personal information about them and some details about their albums and how they came about. That is why, after a read of the first few chapters of Digital Gothic I was very pleasantly surprised.

For some time now, I have been a student of early electronic music. I say early electronic music because most popular music is at least some level electronic today and early electronic music soon evolved from serious music that came from the 20th century avant guarde and before that the musical revolution in classical music that really started with Wagner to more popular forms of electronica such as techno and even at some level genres like hip/hop that originally came from scratch and soon devolved.

When I started to take a serious interest in learning about the roots of electronic music, I became a small project which I would love at some point to put in final written form. I took a serious academic book on the avant guarde and then a book of early electronic music and tried to find the overlap. I thought this overlap would be small but none the less there. What I found was a huge overlap and many of the artists in this book read like a whose who of early electronic music.

For a while, I thought this was a discovery that not many had found or wish to speak about. Not until I read about it in a place I would least expect, the first few chapters of a book on "Tangerine Dream". To name a few, Stump talks about the Telharmonium, the Ondes Martenot (and Olivier Messian's early works using it), music concrete and many of the early EM artists such as Karlheintz Stockhausen, Vladmir Ussachevsky, Pierre Shaeffer and even those like Luigi Russolo whose work has long since been lost but whose writting and influence not only on music but the modernist movement of the early 20th century are significant. Bottom line, Stump has clearly done his homework. In fact, Stump even suggests a connection between Tangerine Dream's music and German romanticism.

While I have not finished to book, I am looking forward to reading it. It reflects a level of scholarship that is sadly missing in most books on popular music and it clearly places the work of this popular but groundbreaking band into the greater context of German culture and the transformation in music that started with the avant guarde in the early 20th century.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Problem with Music Notation in Electronic Works

For a while now, I have been collecting musical scores of classical works of the 20th century. I a have some scores from Ligeti, Stravinski, Crumb, Debussy and a few others. I get these scores because I want to study the technique of composers who ultimately lead the way to the avant guarde and eventually early electronic music (back when music played by electronic means was something which was somewhat rare).

What most fascinates me when I look at these scores is not only technique but how composers notated what were often very unconventional methods, for example Crumb. Suffice it to say that George Crumb scores can look very different than most and even Ligeti's.

In my last post, I asked the question, would it be possible to notate Tangerine Dream? OK, perhaps some who are reading this find this whole concept absurd but its not that absurd is it? Think of vibrato, glissando and tremolo. Thee is notation for all of these. But lets get more complex here to challenge the analogy. Consider a simply push of a mod wheel which is modulating pitch (i.e. vibrato). There is nothing to indicate vibrato of growing intensity is there?

Now most classical musician use vibrato even when the notation does not call for it because its really one of those aspects of music that crosses the dividing line that I spoke of in the last post between performance aspects in music and musical composition and notation. OK, I agree that that all sounds well and good when dealing with physical instruments because the vibrato of a violin or cello or any other instrument is limited by the instrument. I falls within a fairly narrow range. But vibrato for a synthesizer can have a much wider range of both magnitude and frequency.

Now what if a notation where used such as vib (to indicate to begin the vibrato) and sens vib to indicate when it ends or reaches its maximum but aslo two small numbers, one to indicate frequency and relative intensity (perhaps a %).

What about pitch bends? I have been listening to "Tangerine Dream"s Socerror which has lots and lots of tricks with pitch bends. Perhaps simple glissando would do this?

I don't have all the answers here but you get the idea. I have always wanted to get some of Karlheintz Stockhausen's scores because his electronic music challenged notationb beyond its limits and yet he made up his own.

You may ask, why bother? The reason is that I can read a score of music and understand the technique quickly. I can't do that by listening to it nearly as easily. Musical notation is a tool so that not only music can be played but techniques also studied. What about serious electronic music? Are there ways of developing some notation so it can be studied. Perhaps not but the topic does fascinate me for some reason.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Notation, KARMA, Sequencers and Tangerine Dream

I could not think of a better title for this blog so I thought I would simply list all of the topics I hope I can bring together here in some synthetic whole. Today, I simply will introduce the topic and then edit and add to this entry as time permits.

By introduction, think of this. Most who probably read my blog are familiar with the electronic artist, "Tangerine Dream" whose music literally spans decades. They have appeared hundreds of times in performance, their albums are prolific to say the least and there music appears in many movie soundtracks. But my point here is not to plug their music, but to ask this. Would it be possible to create sheet music (i..e. traditional musical notation) for Tangerine Dream or for that matter much of electronic music? My answer is simply no. Not in any way that would convey the content.

In classical music, there is a very clear dividing line between performance (of the individual musician), conducting, and composition. The work of most composers, at least up to the 20th century, can be expressed in traditional music notation. However, both the musicians and the conductor add to that and interpret, or perhaps add, to the vision of the composer. Instruments, while varied, are also limited in types and in timbre. A trumpet, while capable of a wide variety of sounds, will always sound like a trumpet, a violin like a violin and so on. Synthesizers, on the other hand, are in many ways so much more expansive in what they can sound like but on the performance side, I would also argue more limited.

What fascinates me about Tangerine Dream, is how they use both sequencers and and performance aspects and blend them together into some striking and beautiful music works and yet, the line between performance, composition and conducting, is now blurred and the ability to create musical notation, all but eliminated save what might appear embedded in a sequencer.

In 20th century electronic music, algorithmic composition has also opened up a whole new avenue, music that is allowed in some sense to create itself with composition left up to certain rules and to chance and the aorist becoming not performer but conductor. Again, lines are blurred.

In Tangerine Dream, we have sequences which can be rather boring but by varying them, Tangerine Dream creates a flowing fabric of sound that is captivating. This is where I get to KARMA. For those who may not know, KARMA stands for Korg Algorithmic Real time Music Architecture. KARMA, by the very words of Stephen Kay, it's designer, is a "sequencer on steroids" and yet, I believe that that is a very modest statement. KARMA resembles a sequencer and an algorithmic composition tool but it is neither. What I am currently interesting in doing in my own musical projects at the moment, is looking for ways to join KARMA and analogue synthesis. This blog is in some sense my musings and thoughts on this and I hope, a means of getting some feedback from others. That's all for now and I hope, a means of introduction to what is a complex topic.