It’s not what you think.
I’ve never heard anything quite like Dysnomia, the new album from Dawn of Midi. The band’s structured as a class jazz trio: piano, stand-up bass, and trap kit. But the sound . . . it’s like trance, a minimalist acoustic take on contemporary electronic dance club music. That sounds like it’d be boring as shit but it ABSOLUTELY isn’t; there are constant subtle shifts in the rhythms, little additions and subtractions to the sound in the best tradition of Steve Reich. On one level I wonder “Exactly what combinations of drugs is this music FOR?”, but that sounds like an insult that I don’t want to convey. It’s mesmerizing stuff and I’m looking forward to hearing more of it.
John Barry was one of the greatest British composers of the last century. There, I said it and I’m sticking to it. Barry’s soundtrack scores don’t just evoke their subject, they’ve shaped the way we all perceive those genres. Medieval epic? Listen to his score for The Lion In Winter or Mary, Queen of Scots. Swinging , mod England in the 60s? Barry’s very first credit was for a juvenile delinquency film called Beat Girl and it sets the stage for a decade of groove, baby. Spy movies? Oh, just the theme for Agent 007 of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. We literally cannot imagine what those genres would sound like without John Barry. This is important music, as expressive and ingenious as the works of Britten, Walton, or Vaughan Williams. Have a listen to the small sampler below from John Barry.
Some of the most lasting music in our culture isn’t made by lone composers at a piano, or singer-songwriters who just need to share how they feel, or garage bands with a dream. It comes from people given an assignment at their day job. “We need music for this. Make it happen.” Delia Derbyshire was one of them.
So if you haven’t heard of Delia Derbyshire let’s get this out of the way: you probably at least know this piece.
In the early 1960s Derbyshire worked at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. A lot of the group’s job was creating themes, sounds, and background music for the BBC’s many radio and television programs, and Derbyshire specialized in science fiction programs and the out-there avant-garde. If you’re interested in electronic music, whether that’s art music like Stockhausen or modern techno (or house, EDM, what have you), listen to some of An Electric Storm, an album Derbyshire and compatriots recorded in 1968 under the name White Noise. This is as far-out as music got at the time; Frank Zappa or Terry Riley would have sat up and taken notice, and modern-day acts like Amon Tobin or Autechre could take a page from the deep, textured production. In many ways Derbyshire was at an advantage in the Radiophonic workshop, free to experiment (at least at first) as long as the work got done.
She did eventually chafe at the restrictions the BBC placed on her work and went on to do other soundtrack work, recording with a shifting group of like-minded colleagues; check out 1972’s Electrosonic for an example. Sadly, it seems she just burned out not long afterward, retiring from music to work in bookshops and galleries. The burgeoning electronica scene of the 1990s rekindled Derbyshire’s interest, but she died aged 64, just poised on the brink of a comeback.
It’s easy to not pay particular attention to the sounds on these albums; many pieces could be background to the Doctor and Sarah Jane sneaking around an unfamiliar space station or just a nervous Londoner wondering whether that person behind him is a KGB agent. But if you listen to this stuff it’s really rewarding; highly recommended for anyone interested in electronica.
I’ve been thinking a lot about soundtracks, background music, movie hits, and other music that was written expressly for different forms of media than the concert hall or the recording studio. I’ll be sharing those thoughts in a series of posts starting this week–audio plays, Bollywood, old-time radio, the curated soundtrack album, and whatever else strikes my fancy. For now, enjoy some groovy, swinging music from Jolly Olde Englande.