Penguin Cafe Orchestra – “The Sound of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away And It Doesn’t Matter” (1976)
Penguin Cafe Orchestra sadly seem to be an anomaly, from some unknown space between prog, the avant-garde, neo-chamber music, proto-post-punk (think Essendon Airport or Durrutti Column) and even RiO. The later work has achieved some popularity, but their first album remains seemingly unheralded. To my ears, it is perhaps their best, or at least purest, less cute than later work, more emotionally direct. The guitar figuring here has a feeling not unlike something from ‘Chelsea Girls,’ but the strings and the electric piano add a slightly off-kilter warmth that is unique. This music could very easily have been recorded today, in the best possible sense: based in no fads or even prevailing styles, it stands apart from its time or origin. [Penguin Cafe Orchestra are featured in several mixes at Musicophilia.] Update: wrong audio stream when first published, now corrected. Thanks!
Brian Eno – “French Catalogues (Variations on Pachelbel’s Canon in D Maj., II)” (1975)
It’s the second, non-titular side of Eno’s ‘Discreet Music’ that has always affected me more deeply, and fascinated me most. Taking a classical work the beauty of which can sometimes be forgotten because of over- and misuse, Eno applies ostensibly cerebral experimentation, altering component elements of the score via mathematical formula. But the results, while perhaps momentarily disorientating, and intellectually engaging, are remarkably visceral; perhaps by breaking down our overfamiliar expectations the “experiment” create a heightened awareness of the existing beauty, while adding new beauty. That’s always been the trick of Eno, blurring the lines between the brain and the body, a “non-musician” getting in there and going at it without being in the least bit “punk” about it. But his variations on Pachelbel’s Canon in D are underrated pieces in his well-earned reputation. [The many sides of Eno are explored through similarly varied mixes at Musicophilia.]
Rachel’s – “Forgiveness” (1999)
Rachel’s probably were the group that were most lazily tagged “post-rock” in the late 90s and early 2000s, and one of the examples that best illustrates the meaninglessness of the term–post-rock only makes sense if your musical frame of reference begins with Nirvana. They were simply making modern chamber music, carrying on a tradition of accessibly experimental and unabashedly beautiful work that calls to mind Penguin Cafe Orchestra, some of Franco Battiato’s late 70s work, or perhaps that of Luciano Cilio. I generally prefer the somewhat more traditional trio sound of ‘Music for Egon Schiele,’ but ‘Selenography‘ is often successful with its slightly larger and more ambitious palatte. [If you enjoy Rachel’s, you’ll like these mixes at Musicophilia on which they’re found.]
Robert Schumann – String Quartet A Major, O41 N03 “Adagio Motto” (1842)
I’ve heard Schumann described as “weepy,” and I guess this piece wouldn’t dissuade anyone who saw that as a pejorative. But I find the interplay of this chamber orchestra considerably more emotionally diverse than mere maudlin. On the whole, melancholy is central; but there are moments of elevation, joy, expectation, perhaps hints of anger, and the piece shifts subtly and nimbly between them in a way that rings true and avoids sentimentalism.
Luciano Cilio – “Dialoghi dal Presente, Part 5” (1977)
Similar to some of the avantgarde chamber music undertaken by Franco Battiato, echoing the Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s focus on sweet simplicity in a more melancholic vein, Luciano Cilio’s sole album (I think) is a hidden jewel for fans of this sort of music. Bell-like acoustic guitar, reed instruments, and mournful cellos create a perfect little vespertine moment. This album, with other tracks, was reissued under the name ”Dell’ Universo Assente’ a few years ago and can still be found in good shops as an import.
Antonio Vivaldi – “Double Concerto, Largo, G Minor” (1780s)
I know fairly little about pre-20th Century Classical music–it seems to me the journey of a lifetime, so I’m not rushed. I do know, though, that my ears gravitate toward chamber music, string-based sounds, the less bombastic and portentous, more melancholic and contemplative end of the spectrum. And from that range, this is one of the most devastatingly beautiful pieces I know. [This Vivaldi is featured in a “duet” with an instrumental percussive piece by Bjork in this short mix at Musicophilia.]