Steve Reich – “Piano Phase” (1967)
Don’t miss this one. “Piano Phase” is as much an experience as a piece of music, and as an experience it profoundly affected the way I heard music, how I decided what was music. It gave me permission, as it were, to follow an impulse that was already growing in me when I first heard it age 20: to admit I loved sound first and foremost; if sound took a song form, great, but if not, that ruled nothing out. What mattered was the effect it had on my ears themselves, in my mind, in my heart–and a repeating shape could have as much of an effect as painterly ballad.
I still tend to perceive Reich’s music (especially the phase-based work) as shapes, visually as much as sonically, and I think this is because its constituent elements are so simple and laid bare at the very outset. “Piano Phase,” a simple duet run of twelve notes, played in a staccato, unsentimental fashion: clear, precise, perhaps slightly mechanical. And then these simple elements, with very few changes internally over the course of 20 minutes, are ever so slightly shifted: and instantly an ever-changing set of new, far more complex shapes begin to emerge, as the basic parts continue to slide past one another. And these evolving shapes are anything but mechanical, producing emotional reactions in me that are subtle in their nature, but wholly visceral.
It moves me as no other Modern artform can, because music is never primarily functional; more than any medium, a “functional” conceit no matter how austere must take temporal and emotional form, and beauty need not be rejected or destroyed. I find it fascinating that every time I hear the piece, the shapes are different than previous times, based on the volume listened at, the quality of the speakers, with headphones on a loud bus or in a forest–this is music that technically but more importantly musically is reborn each time it’s heard. [Reich is heard in several of my very favorite mixes at Musicophilia, which attempt to mirror Reich’s work in creating near-physical reality from sound.]
Tonio Rubio – “Bass In Action No. 1” (1973)
Sound library music doesn’t get any more stone cold than this track. Music of any kind rarely does. What should have been a cornerstone of golden-age hip-hop, “Bass In Action No. 1” is an incredible audio stroll consisting of sweet glistening electric piano glissandi, an ice cold single-note bass line, and the ready-made laid-back hip-hop breakbeat. It’s enchanting for the first minute; but when the beat kicks in at 1:05, you won’t be able to keep from grinning. [Tonio Rubio is featured in on an equally groove-laden mix of tunes from around the world at Musicophilia.] Update: Corrected the streaming link.
Arthur Russell – “I Couldn’t Say It To Your Face” (1974)
Anybody who’s followed Musicophilia for long knows Arthur Russell is one of very few I’d go so far as to call a “musical hero,” as he’s featured on at least half a dozen Musicophilia mixes and two Daily posts so far. But loving Arthur’s music is a little different than loving that of most artists: no two albums, whether released in his lifetime or culled posthumously, under his name or via one of a dozen groups or pseudonyms, is necessarily alike, though there’s always something indelibly Arthur about anything he touched.
He puts Janus to shame; his permutations were seemingly endless: avant-gardener, disco impresario, cello-and-vocals dub hero–there really aren’t adequate labels, as these clumsy attempts illustrate. ‘Love is Overtaking Me,’ released on Audika Records last year, revealed yet another side or three: singer-songwriter, modern loving rocker, high-country cowboy-poet, blue-eyed soul crooner. This very early, simple song reveals a touch of all of these, and representative of the under-appreciated compendium as a whole, captures some of his strongest and most accessible melodies via plaintive piano, Hammond organ, brass touches and above all Arthur’s resonant vocals.
Maurice Ravel – “Sonatine 1: Modere” (1905)
Though I know little about classical music broadly speaking, I know I’m a sucker for the impressionistic, painterly styles of compositional music from around the turn of the 1900s: Satie, Debussy, Ravel. This is one of my favorites, though I have little language to describe it properly. It is delicate but not slight, rhythmically adventurous without being mathematical, virtuosic without being flashy, dynamic and sensitive. If pressed, though, I’d simply call it beautiful. [Ravel can be heard here and here in two of my favorite mixes at Musicophilia.]
1906 [Jean-Michel Jarre] – “Helza” (1973)
Early Jean-Michel Jarre is too hard to find, considering how crazy-good a lot of it is, like the insanely cool, spooky proto-synth featured in this mix at Musicophilia. This one is a sublime example of the sort of elegant but funky stuff the French/Italians/Germans were doing with instrumentation borrowed from Motown in the early 70s, bringing in choice touches of early electro. A solid, close-miced rhythm section (bass, drums, clavichord) carries the weight of the track along with spare percussion and rhythm-flute a la early Kraftwerk, but what takes it to a magic level is a ghostly, reverbed piano line that floats over the top, and electronic bits floating around the periphery. Magic stuff.