An Essential Overview of Intuitive Music
By Jim DeRogatis
"Ambient music is music that rewards close attention," that master sage and pundit Brian Eno once said, "but does not demand it." For several years now, the lines have been blurring between a certain branch of the indie-rock underground and the ambient end of the electronic dance world, and weve been awash in sounds that fit Enos description quite nicely. The problem, at least for us writers, starts when we try to characterize the music beyond that, or figure out exactly what distinguishes it from New Age, Muzak, and other forms of bland aural wallpaper. Many of the bands in this piece have shared stages, labels, influences, philosophies, and a similar, mostly instrumental approach. But Lord knows none of them wants to call it a "scene." In fact, they cant agree about calling it anything at all.
"Space rock," "drone rock," and "post rock" are all vetoed as inaccurate as well as, respectively, cliched, boring, and pretentious. "Progressive" and "psychedelic" are words that have been tainted by years of misuse and abuse. "Strum und drone," offered one of my editors at *Option*, and that had a nice ring to it. But perhaps the most fitting name was suggested by Jessamine guitarist Rex Ritter. "Intuitive music" was a phrase coined by electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen--one of those aforementioned influences--for a lecture in London in 1971. "There are certain abilities required now in order to play this sort of music that I call intuitive music," Stockhausen wrote. "Musicians must learn to become the opposite of egocentric.... When you become like what I call a radio receiver, you are no longer satisifed with expressing yourself; you are not interested in yourself at all. You will be amazed at what happens to you when this state is achieved: You become a medium."
In other words, you transcend yourself and your surroundings and tap into something deeper and more spiritual. This is the goal that places the new wave of intuitive music in the continuum of psychedelic rock. It isnt necessarily connected to drug use; its simply an approach to the recording studio as a tool to transport yourself and the listener some place else--some place strange and magical. At the same time (and however subtle it may be), it retains the visceral power of rock n roll at its best--the immediacy, the honesty, and the emotion--as well as (and this really needs to be said) the basic simplicity (anybody can do it) and the sense of humor (fuck art; this is fun).
This is an awful lot to demand from a five-minute instrumental jam based on that cool sound you get from playing one note every eight beats on a guitar plugged into an old Electro-Harmonix Memory Man with the delay knob cranked all the way up. But, hey, thats exactly what makes the best of these bands so worthy of your time. Now, you say you want to tune in and turn on, but you dont know where to start? No problemo. Here is one fans Essential Overview of Intuitive Music.
Transcendental or not, intuitive musicians are no less competitive and cranky than other rockers, and theres inevitably a bit of mudslinging whenever you talk to one group about another. Universally praised by their peers, the Richmond, Virginia, trio La Bradford is the only band that *no one* disparages. The group first appeared as a duo with keyboardist Carter Brown and guitarist Mark Nelson, but bassist and sampler Bobby Donne has since joined the fold. Over the course of three albums on Chicagos Kranky Records, theyve progressed from 93s spare, dub-influenced *Prazision LP*, to the darker and more complex soundscapes of 95s *A Stable Reference*, to the latest self-titled album, which combines both styles in seven memorable songs.
"Its interesting that youre only the second journalist whos ever mentioned that we have songs," Brown says. "Its always 200 adjectives and metaphors--everything but the word songs." But songs they are, complete with effective if unconventional hooks. Witness the sinister creepy-crawl of "Mid-Range," the Pink Floyd-meets-Phillip Glass classicism of "Lake Speed," or the lulling waves and whispering breezes of "The Cipher."
"You can put the album on and it can put you to sleep, or you can get into it, or you can say, Theyre just playing the same song over and over again," Brown says. "But I think that if you spend time with all of the records, youll notice that weve become less improvisational and less abstract. By the time Bobby joined us, Mark and I had been playing together for almost two years, and wed do shows where we would just play for half an hour and make noise. When Bobby joined, that was an immediate shift. He was coming from a school where he played in punk rock bands, and he immediately fulfilled the need we had to have songs."
Its the ability to compose striking melodies and set them in the midst of unique soundscapes that has won La Bradford the admiration of its fellows, if not exactly the knowing devotion of the music world. Often lumped in with Moog mania and the trend for retro synths, La Bradfords sounds are in fact much more conventional. Brown studied the pipe organ for two years in college; his predominant instrument on *La Bradford* is a Hammond, and his recent acquisition of a Fender Rhodes is pointing to a new direction enitrely. "Theres a lot of Rhodes on that70s Miles Davis/Herbie Hancock stuff, and its just amazing," Brown says. "A lot of the Hancock stuff is great ambient music."
FLYING SAUCER ATTACK
The most mysterious of the intuitive musicians, Bristol, Englands Flying Saucer Attack not only borrowed Wires "Outdoor Miner" for a 1995 EP, it adopted the influential art-punks theory that "any form of disinformation is useful." As a result, much of what you think you know about FSA (if indeed you know anything at all) is wrong.
Often described as a full band centering on the duo of Dave Pearce and Rachel Brook, FSA has actually been more or less a one-man show since Pearce started recording his distinctive brand of "rural psychedelia" in his bedroom back in 1992. "To be honest, 80% of the stuff that is released as the band is me," Pearce says. "Rachels main input was sort of editorial: I would play her some stuff I was working on, and she would say, No. Shes in this other band, Movietone, which has become her full-time thing. So FSA is really just me; I *am* the band."
As with La Bradford, people often think theyre hearing synthesizers that arent really there. ("Achtung! Diese platte ist Moog-frei!" Pearce announced on last years *Tele:Funken* EP.) Pearce is a guitarist, not a keyboardist, and his sound veers between the extremes of introspective acoustic picking (his heroes include John Fahey, Nick Drake, and Tim Buckley) and full-throttle feedback skronking. For his first-ever U.S. performance at the three-day drone extravaganza dubbed Terrastock, Pearce was planning a solo acoustic gig. "But there is something really nice about the sound of a distorted guitar," he quickly adds.
"Theres really very little other instrumentation on the records. One of the things about using so-called low quality recording equipment is that you can put down two distorted guitars and they will start melting into each other, so you get this thickening, which almost needs a certain amount of dexterity to control so you dont just turn it into sludge. You get harmonics, and a lot of times people will hear things that arent there."
To date, FSAs discography includes three involving albums: the self-titled 93 debut, the 94 singles complilation *Distance*, and 95s *Further*, which is probably the best place to start. Two recent EPs released on Drag City in the U.S. were a holding action and a study in contrasts. *Tele:Funken* is percussive and disjointed, while *Sally Free and Easy* is exactly that. Pearce is putting the finishing touches on an album that will have elements of both, and which he says represents a new direction that should carry him on the path through three or four more recordings. Since he hasnt really released a clunker yet, I for one am set to follow.
In the spirit of Cans rock-minimalist approach to improvisation--"spontaneous composition," Holger Czukay called it--the Seattle quartet Jessamine jams with the tape recorder rolling, then listens back to see what emerged as a possible song. In compiling *The Long Arm of Coincidence*, their second album for Kranky, Ritter, keyboardist Andy Brown, bassist Dawn Smithson, and drummer Michael Faeth weeded through 12 hours of recorded material. Resulting tunes such as "Periwinkle" and "Its Cold In Space" are so good they make you wonder about the stuff that *didnt* make the cut.
"We definitely wanted to incorporate song structure back into what we previously played," Ritter says. "So some of the songs on the record are just the first time we ever played them done straight to tape. Then there are others where we would go back and learn them verbatim, or try to put in a sort of subtle verse-chorus structure. Adding vocals is usually a good way to make things seem more like songs."
Indeed, while some of the intuitive music bands suffer from extremely weak vocal abilities--theres usually a reason for that old "hide the vocals in the mix as just one more sonic texture" routine--Smithsons pure, ringing tones area highlight of both *Coincidence* and Jessamines self-titled 94 debut. They emerge as a beacon through the disorienting swirl of the bands dense drone and hypnotic groove. Which brings up the question--equally valid of all these bands and answered similarly by most--of how the players recognize a successful experiment from a failed one.
"I think its just whether we like it or not," Ritter says. "Either it holds our interest or it doesnt. I also think its true that there is some kind of emotional content that comes through in the best songs. Thats what most of our lyrics are about--emotions--and when you listen back, you can hear that whatever mood you were in that day is there in your playing."
CUL DE SAC
Since both are in their early 40s--and hence were there the first time--its no surprise that Cul de Sac guitarist Glenn Jones and synthesist Robin Amos have the clearest idea of how the current sounds fit into the psychedelic tradition. "Ive always loved psychedelic music," Jones says. "It wasnt a conscious effort to imitate any one thing, except the manner of getting out of yourselves and going somewhere else. What happened to a great degree in Cul de Sac was that our first drummer, Chris Guttmacher, was very much into Neu! and loved the metronomic beat, and that freed up everyone else."
You could argue that Cul de Sac is sometimes a bit *too* free, especially during Joness more indulgent solos. (He cites John Fahey and Jimi Hendrix as his twin inspirations.) The group debuted in 1992 with a promising album called *Ecim* featuring occasional guest vocals from Boston punk legend Dredd Foole and Amos inspired knob-twirling. (Hes a longtime friend and kindred spirit of Pere Ubu veteran Allen Ravenstine.) Culled from assorted rehearsal tapes, 95s *I dont want to go to bed.* was a much sloppier and spottier affair. (Read: a big wank-off.) But the band--now completed by bassist Chris Fujiwara and drummer John Proudman--redeemed itself with last years *China Gate*, an atmospheric travelogue that recalls Popul Vuhs early soundtrack work for Werner Herzog.
"We like to think of almost all of our songs as vehicles to get somewhere else," Jones says. "We dont play anything the same every time that we play it. There are openings and room for changes and events to take place, but I dont think that we improvise in the sense that a jazz band does. I think some of our songs reflect a real opening-up or an unflowering." True enough, and spoken like a genuine child of the psychedelic 60s.
An evocative name for the electronic collaboration between Berliners Jan St. Werner of Mouse On Mars and Markus Popp of Oval (both of which could be considered kindred spirits), Microstoria represents the alien end of the intuitive sounds discussed in this piece. This is to say, that if you have a hard time discerning the key instruments in FSA or La Bradford, youll be mystified by the ingredients in Microstorias digital stew.
"In the end, it really doesnt matter what instruments we used," Werner says. "Because we are in the digital realm, and we edit all the stuff to create new sounds. At the same time, Microstoria is very much not about real-time music. You could say that for us, it is like a jazz thing."
Of course, its a jazz thing that asks the listener to develop a whole new aesthetic. To a certain extent, all of these bands do. While its true that an Albert Ayler sax solo might *evoke* the sound of a subway screeching to a halt, Microstoria views the squeal itself as music. And like La Bradford or Windy & Carl, the duo wants you to consider why one five-minute piece that goes *hummmmmm* sounds better than another five-minute piece that goes *hummmmmm*. (That is, if you like either of them.)
"The ambient idea is pretty much through," Werner says. "Our idea is to ask the listener to take a step *inside* the music. Its not like we build a soundscape that we put down in your home; the music itself is the architecture. It is meant to be three-dimensional, so that you discover a sound behind the sound."
Released in the States by Chicagos Thrill Jockey label, the 95 album *init ding* and the 96 effort *snd* both create strange new landscapes with plenty of opportunities for curious explorers. But pieces such as "endless summer NAMM" and "Teil Zeit" are not without some familiar melodic guide posts. "We do songs; we call them songs, and we treat them as songs," Werner says. "We dont want to break all use of structures and have people call it differently. We like tunes, its just that we are interested in tunes that come across differently than the traditional bass, guitar, drums, and singing. Being experimental for us does not mean neglecting or denying song structures."
(This is an approach that Werner shares with Stereolab, a band that has more than a few things in common with the intuitive groups, even though its music is much poppier. In fact, Wener collaborated with Stereolabs Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen on Mouse On Marss latest EP, *Cache Coeur Nais*, which was also released [MAY 15] on Thrill Jockey.)
WINDY & CARL
The cozy Dearborn, Michigan, duo Windy & Carl--yes, theyre a couple, and no, they dont ever use their last names--gets something of a bad rap from their fellow travellers. It may be because theyre working from a more genuinely instinctual, less intellectual place--theyre really just home four-track nerds--or it may be because their music is the most blissful of any of these sounds, infused with happy thoughts of gentle ripples on still, quiet ponds.
Cynics would say it puts you to sleep, but I prefer to think of it as capturing that weird half-awake, half-dreaming state just before the depths of slumber.
"When we started writing songs together in 1993, we would go to the park and hang out and take our acoustic guitars," says Carl (who, like Pearce, creates many of the sounds that people mistake for Moogs with his guitars and effects). Adds bassist Wendy: "Our music is spacey and dreamy, but its not rock in any form. Occassionally we get kind of wild when were playing live. But when you say the word rock, you think about KISS, and we are the farthest thing from that."
Originally a quartet, Windy and Carl split in 1994 with two former band members who went on to form the like-minded Fuscia. Since then, the core couple has released three albums: *Portal* (Ba Da Bing!, 1995), *Drawing of Sound* (Blue Flea, 1996), and the new *Antarctica* (Darla). Consisting of three l-o-o-o-n-g and impressionistic instrumentals, the latter is by far their best.
"We listened to that record over and over again wondering what to call it," Windy says. "We thought it sounded cold, so we kept thinking of cold places. I like to listen to music that takes me somewhere else. Not that where I live is a bad place, but imagination is a wonderful thing, and the ability to daydream, no matter how old you are, is really special. You should always be able to dream about stuff."
SIDEBAR 1: INTUITIVE INFLUENCES
The devotees of drone may not agree about much in terms of methodology when making their own music, but several names appear again and again as key influences when talking to the current wave of intuitive musicians.
First and foremost, you can blame the Germans, starting with **Karlheinz Stockhausen.** One of the first composers to utilize the synthesizer and "found sound" in his work, his 1959 piece *Kontakte* is essential listening. Stockhausen was a direct influence on **Holger Czukay**, who studied with the old man and formed Can to merge his teachers ideas with those of the Velvet Underground.
All too often cited as the root of everything in modern rock, the **Velvets** did contribute to the more aggressive side of this aesthetic with "Sister Ray," which incorporated ideas gleaned from the dream music of another early influence, **La Monte Young.** **Spacemen 3** and **My Bloody Valentine** took elements of Young and the Velvets to whole new levels, influencing much of what has followed. *Playing with Fire*, the 1989 album by the former, and *Loveless*, the 1991 offering from the latter, are the ones to buy if youre buying only one. Survivors of the aforementioned groups carry on with varying degrees of success in Experimental Audio Research, Spectrum, and (my fave) Spiritualized.
While echoes of Can, Neu!, Faust, and other so-called Krautrock bands can be heard in many of new sounds, Moebius and Roedelius, a.k.a. **Cluster**, are probably the next big German influence. Personally, I prefer the pioneering ambient efforts they made with Michael Rother of Neu! as **Harmonia** (1974s *Music Von Harmonia* and 75s *Harmonia Deluxe*) and the albums they recorded with Brian Eno (77s *Cluster and Eno* and 78s *After the Heat*) to any of their recordings as Cluster per se.
Speaking of **Eno**, 1982s *On Land* is the darkest and most sinister of his ambient albums, and also the one most frequently cited as an inspiration in the 90s. Mixing natural noises with radically reworked sounds from his earlier recordings (including guitar by **Robert Quine**), Eno effectively became one of the first artists to sample himself. "The technique is like composting," he said. In a very similar vein but rarely mentioned are the four 80s albums by **Dome**, the post-Wire ambient experimental outfit of Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis. The records were reissued two to a CD by Mute in 1992.
Finally, we come to Silver Apples, a strange New York twosome who emerged in the late 60s with a droning and very intuitive album of primitive synthesizer and drums. The self-titled debut and the 1969 follow-up *Contact* recently became available on one bootleg CD, and interest has been intense enough to prompt songwriter and synthesist Simeon to come out of retirement and hit the boards with a new version of the band. Which just goes to show that intuitive music never goes out of style.
SIDEBAR2: SUBJECTS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
Still cant get enough of those intuitive sounds? Here are some other artists and releases well worth investigating.
Bardo Pond: A Philadelphia quintet that veers between Hawkwind-styled self-indulgence and effective drone. The 1996 album *Amanita* on Matador is recommended.
Main: The new band started by Loop veteran Robert Hampson has been nothing if not prolific. Some drone fans swear by em, but with the possible exception of the 1996 double album *Herz*, I find the music a bit sterile.
Roy Montgomery: As far as I can tell, this hugely influential New Zealand guitarist has never recorded a bad note, either on his own or with the groundbreaking band Dadamah. A more tuneful version of Chicagos Jim ORourke, whose work is also worth checking out.
Stars of the Lid: As far as up-and-comers, this Austin, Texas, duo may have the biggest buzz, and its justified by the forthcoming Kranky album of patiently manipulated drones, *The Ballasted Orchestra.* Other rising stars include Ultrasound, Bright, Asha Vida, Bowery Electric, Azusa Plane, Monaural, and the Third Eye Foundation.
Information on these and many other intuitive music bands both new and old can be found on the "Drone On" web site and mailing list, http://www.pacificnet.net/~xibalba. And if youre looking for one-stop shopping and a handy sampler of the state of drone in 1997, you couldnt do better than *Harmony of the Spheres*, a three-LP box set recently issued by San Franciscos Drunken Fish and featuring one side-long composition each from Bardo Pond, Flying Saucer Attack, Houstons Charalambides, Jessamine, Roy Montgomery, and Loren MazzaCane Connors.
(Originally published in Option, 1997)