‘A Revolution In Sound: Pop Culture & The Classical Avant-Garde’

❉ A vehicle demonstrating the massive influence of expansive jazz, exploratory classical and experimental electronic music.

I was a bit of a weird kid, in ways too varied to detail here. One of these quirks was a love of classical music, one of the few things I am grateful that my school introduced me to. A much bullied and solitary child, I would take solace in the music library in school holidays and, although pretty rubbish at the practical bits of music making, I would escape into the world of classical music very easily. It was a new world to me, and something of a challenge to find new and strange and beautiful music. I basically always wanted to find something startling and different. I still do really. Music can work as comfort food but sometimes you want to hear something that makes you, literally, stop in your tracks and go “what the hell?”.

Well A Revolution In Sound does that a lot. And I mean a lot. It’s at first a weirdly disparate bunch of recordings – possibly why it has taken me so long to find a way into reviewing it – but once you appreciate the train of thought that’s behind Mike Always’s selection, it’s enormously satisfying. In many ways it’s a continuation of the El Records collection I’d Love To Turn You On from last year, but there Always was careful to draw parallels from the classical music and jazz to the music it inspired. This doesn’t do that and is a trickier collection in many ways, and requires a lot more concentration from the listener, but as with all things that require more focus, when you finally crack the concepts then it’s incredibly rewarding.

A little history of Mike Alway and El Records: unlike other indie labels of the eighties, the appeal of El was that the music was only part of the point of the label. Alway was far more interested in creating a thematic universe. Caroline Sullivan in the Guardian described it as “a manifestation of Alway’s passion for hazy corners of Englishness” and, indeed, you can see this from the records: a bit of Powell and Pressburger here, a bit of E Nesbitt there, some Ronald Searle to taste and finished off with some Ronald Firbank to finish it off. It’s a dream world of Englishness that never really existed: heady, camp, nostalgic, fiercely intelligent and politely anarchic. But although it often nodded to the past, Alway seemed to be in dialogue with the eras being emulated and using the music to reframe how you look at the British past.

Although Alway revived the label several years ago, he is not releasing new records and hardly anything by his original roster of musicians (although, seriously, you can’t go wrong with Would-Be-Goods, King of Luxembourg, Momus, Louise Philippe, Bad Dream Fancy Dress, Marden Hill or… most of it really). This time El is a vehicle for Alway to explore the many and varied inspirations that led to the best records on the label. Blossom Dearie, Django Reinhardt, John Cage, Lionel Bart, Henry Mancini, Jobim and Mike Sammes nestle together snugly as Alway shares his ideal record collection for you. You don’t need to adore the original label to appreciate this, but it gives a frisson of joy to hear the music that influenced those gorgeous records.

It’s also had a surprising focus on classical music: some early English composers, a great deal of surrealist musicians and a growing focus on experimental and modernist composers. It’s that thread that A Revolution In Sound is most interested in. Here is expansive jazz, exploratory classical and experimental electronic music thrown together with, I think, the aim of showing us where the avant garde was during the first half of the twentieth century. Then, through the sleeve notes, work those strands together to demonstrate the massive influence this music had on the music of the second half of the century. It’s like a mix tape as an essay, as Alway deftly shifts tone and mood according to the ideas he’s trying to tease out.

It kicks off with Ornette Coleman’s The Circle With A Hole In The Middle – “pure living joy” as Robert Wyatt describes it in the sleeve notes – a punchy introduction to the music within. It then immediately challenges the listener by shifting to Bartok and Berio, music that’s initially strange and unearthly, but really is like more conventional music broken down and placed into new context like a mosaic. And if you haven’t caught your breath from that change, we then head into Stockhausen territory. Stockhausen is difficult music, I won’t lie, but there’s a design to the initially brash and dissonant music, and it’s one shared in many ways by Ornette Coleman: it’s two different approaches to reaching the same musical destination.

As a kid I would occasionally wander into Radio 3 territory looking for new music (more correctly, new OLD music) and be baffled and horrified by stuff like the more challenging music here. This was because it GENUINELY sounded like something aliens would listen to. It had no structure or pattern that I could recognise, but it also had an incredible weight and power to it that I think somewhat made me nervous. As an adult you realise how sophisticated the construction of this music really is. It’s like your initial response to modern art as a child – it looks so much like random scrawls that you can’t imagine there is design and purpose to it, but slowly you begin to see what the artist is doing as you grown older. I think the problem is that we are conditioned to think music is something purely pleasurable to listen to and find the idea of listening to music that actively challenges you alien to us in a way that art doesn’t quite do.

While you’re thinking about this sort of thing, Alway turns the direction of the music again to John Coltrane’s Aisha, one of his most beautiful, ruminative and introspective pieces. It’s a tone taken up a couple of tracks later by Eric Dolphy, but Alway decides to drop a 26 minute Ravi Shankar piece between them with the expressed aim to show that the more accessible sounds of these  jazz musicians actually share a great deal with Shankar’s drones and ragas. Certainly the sleeve notes detail how both Coltrane and Shankar influenced the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, but Shankar’s influence on the Beatles, the Third Ear Band and many modern drone musicians is equally huge. It’s something that you notice with Messiaen’s Le Banquet Celeste with organ drones that sound startlingly modern. These are the sort of connections Alway is constantly trying to provoke in us.

And there’s more! Music by Satie, Lizst and Debussy is scattered through these CDs but also shares space with Bill Evans, whose tonal, chamber music was hugely influenced by those minimalists. But Evans was also notable for pioneering the use of overdubbing and editing his own music, such as his masterpiece Conversations With Myself. Although musically Evans is from a different universe to Pierre Henry, the latter’s musique concrete is basically doing the same thing where he sculpts and edits sound into new forms.

Every CD – apart from the last – ends with Julian Bream who works as a sort of palette cleanser as he performs the music of John Dowland. Both would have influences on the evolution of guitar playing in the twentieth century, but also demonstrates that Alway is not scared of occasionally sweetening the tougher music with something more populist. But there’s always a reason for his choices. His selection of Sibelius’ The Tempest, included with the purpose to show how great popular art can in fact both influence modern musicians (in this case Jon Anderson from Yes) but also function as the inspiration for Finland’s incredibly lively and healthy art scene.

A word about the performances here: because you sense that Alway is literally culling these selections from his own collection, you get some amazing performances and performers. Conductors like Herbert von Karajan, Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Adrian Boult and performers like Bream and Glenn Gould mean that these are important and historic recordings being presented for a new audience. I would quite like to hear Alway try and do a companion volume with more women composers and performers, as the only significant female performer here is Daphne Oram, with a wonderful BBC Radiophonic Workshop piece called Private Dreams and Public Nightmares, presented here with the introduction by producer Desmond McWhinnie in probably much the same format as it would have originally been broadcast with by the Third Programme.

It’s not an easy collection at all but neither should it be. It’s a challenging selection of music, but Alway is trying to challenge us. He wants to show you how complex and complicated this is but also how frequently and unexpectedly beautiful it can be. And crucially he’s providing you with examples of avant garde music for you to make connections to and spark ideas about. It’s like a knowledgeable and passionate friend creating a primer of some of the most vital music of the era and providing you with ideas to listen to it with fresh ears. It’s an extraordinary collection and I hope it challenges you as much as it challenged me.

‘A Revolution In Sound: Pop Culture & The Classical Avant-Garde’ (El Records ACME357CDX) available from Cherry Red Records, RRP £17.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.

 Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ Chris Browning is a librarian but writes and draws comics and other strange things to keep himself out of trouble: he can be found on Twitter as @commonswings but be warned he does spend a lot of time posting photos of his cats.

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