Jerusalem as Gaelic psalm singing

Originally written by William Blake, with musical accompanient later introduced in 1916 by composer Hubert Parry, ‘Jerusalem’ has recently been voted the nation’s favourite hymn. Today in these divisive times, the national unity that inspired Parry to compose the piece during the First World War feels like a distant fantasy.

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Unity here is reimagined as a plunderphonic reworking of the hymn inspired by the Gaelic psalm sining tradition of the Outer Hebrides. For a recently reissued survey of this beautiful music, check out the Salm releases on the Arc Light Editions label.

Soothing Gong Bath for Stressful Souls: An alternative music guide

You’re tired from work, frazzled and on edge as your country heads towards political meltdown. Time for a gong bath to help alleviate our modern malaise. Go on, enjoy yourself. You deserve it. Sell your soul for some soothing resonance.

Image: David Pearson/Rex/Shutterstock

Image: David Pearson/Rex/Shutterstock

The guardian newspaper recently reported that gong baths are the new thing in workplace wellness, as our personal and collective anxieties continue to fuel an ever-expanding multi-billion dollar healthcare industry. That’s just wonderful. But what alternatives to these alternatives are on offer for the more adventurous consumer? Here are five theraputic treatments that present the intripid listener with gong resonance of a different kind:

1. Two Gongs [1971] by Rhys Chatham.

A physically-demanding sonic exploration, Two Gongs stands the test of time as a classic of 1970s minimalism-noise music. This recording, later released on The Table of the Elements, was made by Phill Niblock at his Experimental Intermedia Foundation on December 16th, 1988. Joyful noise.

2. Music for Gamelan Instruments, Microphones, and Loudspeakers [1999] by Alvin Lucier

Combining studies in acoustics, music composition and theatre, across a career spanning nearly six decades, experimental composer Alvin Lucier has created a truly unique body of work. Several years ago I witnessed this piece live at the Feedback festival in London; a mesmerising experience for the eye as much as the ear, proving that even the purest exploration of sonic phenomena can give rise to a highly engaging theatrical performance.

3. Mikrophonie I [1964] by Karlheinz Stockhausen

I’d like to try the recording below as a score in a film, because it sounds fantastic. Especially with the audible artefacts of the magnetic tape - delightful crunchiness. Mikrophonie I is a study in microphones and objects set upon a tam-tam gong. “The microphone would have to become a musical instrument and, on the other hand, through its manipulation, influence the characteristics of the sounds” writes the composer. More than a science, this slice of classic electroacoustic Stockhausen theatre is well-worth witnessing in the flesh.

4. Tonggeret [1987] by Idjah Hadidjah

My introduction to Jaipong music and one of my favourite Indonesian records, Tonggeret is a beautiful suite of soothing tunes performed by Idjah Hadidgah and her West Java Gamelan ensemble. Originally released on Nonesuch in the late eighties at a time when contemporary and traditional Indonesian music was finding a wider audience, this record always take me back to santai times under the tropic sun.

5. Mangkunegaran Karawitan [2006] - practice recorded by Rob Szeliga

Gong Ageng is the largest hanging gong in Javanese gamelan. It is also the lowest-pitched gong in the gamelan. It is to believe that Gong Ageng is the spirit of the gamelan, hence, it is the most respected item in a gamelan. [seasite.niu.edu]

A selection of gong music just wouldn’t be complete without a full Gamelan ensemble. It’s difficult to know where to begin with so many recordings available. In the end I’ve decided to offer a piece from my own archives, something I recorded at The Mangkunegaran Palace in Surakarta in 2006.

Every Sunday morning performers would congregate inside the pendopo to practice the most elegant form of central Javanese court music. On one such occasion I attended the practice where I made this recording. Here you can hear the reverberant sound of children and birds intermingling with the sonorities of the gamelan. The following year I relocated to Yogyakarta, the other great centre of court tradition, to study Karawitan music for a year. More can be read about this time here.

….GOONNGG!

Colin McPhee and the Music of Bali

In 1929 the Canadian-born composer Colin McPhee [1900-1964] chanced upon a set of rare gramophone recordings of Balinese gamelan music. This music, with a “mystery that was quite overpowering” sent McPhee on a quest to the island of Bali where he lived for much of the 1930s.

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Settling into the community and hungry to learn about this otherworldly music, the composer-ethnomusicologist immersed himself in the islands rich cultural heritage, its alluring sensuous charm. In 1947 he published an account of his time there in the book A House in Bali. I recently reread my copy and discovered a beautifully evocative passage. Though much has undoubtedly transformed over the years, the description here stirs in me my own memories of the island, as well as other personal encounters with music and sound during my time in Indonesia.

During the day there was the incessant clang of bells from the pony carts that filled the streets, and the asthmatic honk of buses and cars forever driving in and out of town. The crowing of a thousand cocks, the barking of a thousand dogs formed a rich, sonorous background against which the melancholy call of a passing food vendor stood out like an oboe in a symphony.

But at night, when the shops had closed and half the town was already asleep, the sounds died so completely that you could hear every leaf that stirred, every palm frond that dryly rustled. From all directions there now floated soft, mysterious music, humming, vibrating above the gentle, hollow sound of drums. The sounds came from different distances and gave infinite perspective to the night. As it grew late the music stopped. Now the silence was complete, only at long intervals pierced by a solitary voice, high, nasal, nostalgic, singing an endless tune; or else broken by the sudden hysteria of the dogs that began in a thin, single wail, rose quickly to a clamour of tormented voices and died once more into silence.

In 2006 I had the chance to visit Bali for myself to study the gamelan tradition at Flower Mountain in Payangan. Flower Mountain was the private home of American Ethnomusicologist Robert E. Brown, now used by the Center for World Music for arts and education workshops.

The short recording above comes from a gamelan performance that took place during my time there. Though I’m no gamelan expert, the combination of pulsing rhythms punctuated by violent bursts of drums and cymbals, feels to me to be a wonderful example of the exciting energy unique to the Balinese tradition.

Image: Gamelan Pelegongan of Kapal village by Colin McPhee. Source: here

Systema Naturae [2017]

The year ends with the completion of my final collection of electronic music - Systema Naturae - comprising of tracks from the past few years since returning to the UK. The three-part eponymous piece builds on ideas drawn from the Otoplexus project that was originally conceived in Tokyo around 2011-2012. Lynch Suite emerges out of time at film school while the final track The Enframing is a nod to my continuing interest in the writings of Martin Heidegger.

This collection is dedicated to two giants of electronic sound: Iannis Xenakis & Bernard Parmengiani.

The Sound of Crowds and Power

In the early 1990s British guitarist and improvisor Derek Bailey presented a television documentary on the role of improvisation in music. During the series Bailey visits a church on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland where we hear the unusual tradition of Gaelic psalm-singing. This kind of swarming choral effect reminds me of the singing documented on the 1989 album Polyphonies Vocales des Aborigenes de Taiwan. Other references might be Louis Sarno's recordings of the Bayaka People of the Central African Republic as well as Alan Lomax's extensive recordings of prison and work-song in America.

Inspired by these kind of choral textures The Ecstatic Lament for Jerusalem [2017] is a plunderphonic reworking of the famous hymn Jerusalem, which is sung at the Proms every year in the Royal Albert Hall. Using realtime sampling, melodic intervals are stretched, re-ordered and repeated to create an ever increasing rapture of sound and emotion.