Blowing your mind so you don’t have to blow it yourself

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Two decades ago we discovered Man…Or Astroman? after seeing them perform at 7th Street Entry — for those of you unfamiliar with this mostly-instrumental band from Georgia, their catchy gimmick is embedding science fiction samples into surf rock jams. The songs are reliably good but sometimes its the timing of the samples that make them memorable.

Here’s one of my all-time favorites, from their first album Is It Man…Or Astroman? which came out in 1993. The song is called “Invasion of the Dragonmen.”


actionMan…Or Astroman? was very prolific in those days, issuing more 7″ singles and oddities (10″ and even 5″ records, etc) than one could count, let alone collect. More recently, when our kids had their first Fisher Price record player, we unpacked a box of story albums, including a Spider-Man book-and-record adventure. Suddenly, we recognized the voice of DRACO, KING OF THE DRAGONMEN!


(You can click on that image for a larger view of DRACO, if you dare!)

Did you know NASA currently has two rovers and a science laboratory on the surface of Mars, as well as several satellites in its orbit? The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) satellite is expected to reach the red planet later this summer, providing new insight into its atmosphere and climate history. It is currently traveling at about 65,000 miles per hour. All of this could contribute one day to a manned mission to Mars, a journey that could take anywhere from 228 days as it did Mariner 4 in 1965 to a speedy 131 days, which is how long it took Mariner 7 just four years later.

2014-february-19-text1-spica-mars-arcturus-big-dipper-night-sky-chart1Mars is currently about 225 million miles from our record shop here in Minneapolis. In 2003 it was closer than any time in the previous 50,000 years, at a distance of 56 million miles. During last month’s eclipse Mars was very close to the Moon in the night sky. If you’re looking for it tonight, just find the Big Dipper and follow its handle down to the stars Arcturus and Spica.

aniaraThis obscure two-act opera by Karl-Birger Blomdahl chronicles a failed mission to Mars, launched in 2038 but derailed during the mid-summer celebrations. The Aniara‘s computer expresses itself through Mimaroben, who is heard in this performance by basso cantante Erik Saaden. He describes the failings of mankind to the crew as the Earth is destroyed. A new course to the constellation Lyra is plotted, although it was decades after this recording that evidence from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii suggested its largest star, Vega, may be host to terrestrial planets.

marscapeThe mission was a success on Marscape, a 1976 record by Jack Lancaster and Robin Lumley, essentially a follow-up to the debut album by jazz fusion band Brand X. Marscape follows the mission from it’s opening “Take-Off” through the long journey. We enter into Mars’ atmosphere with a pretty piano piece by Lumley, “Arrival.” Afterwards, the moons Phobos and Demos are introduced, and then the enormous volcano Olympus Mons.


Side two of Marscape includes a reflection on Earth (“Homelight”), which must be a tiny blue dot in the Martian sky, as well as an exciting romp on the Martian surface in a “Hopper,” a machine for negotiating the rough terrain. The Hopper is presumably like the two Rovers NASA currently has exploring the surface of Mars.

In “Blowholes (the Pipes of Mars)” we hear the winds blowing through the naturally-sculpted rock formations. It sounds similar to the beginning of Herbie Hancock’s fun re-make of “Watermelon Man” on Headhunters.


When Gustav Holst composed “Mars, the Bringer of War” for his orchestra suite The Planets in 1914, the world was on the edge of unprecedented war which would cost nearly forty million human lives. It is often noted how the quiet English composer captured the sense of impending

Holst enlisted but was found unfit for service. His brother Emil and his friend, and fellow composer, Vaughn Williams were sent to active duty in France. Holst volunteered for a time driving an ambulance. Towards the end of the war he spent a year in Greece, working with troops awaiting demobilization and performing. “It was great fun,” he later wrote, “But I fear I was not much help.”

title“Mars, Bringer of War” from The Planets by Gustav Holst

war of the worldsWar on an even greater scale appeared imminent to some radio listeners on October 30, 1938. Tuning away from NBC’s Chase and Sanborn Hour during the musical guest, listeners all over America happened upon a startling report from Grovers Mill, New Jersey where Martian crafts were emerging from a smouldering crater.

What they were hearing was not the news, but Orson Welles’ famous radio adaptation of War of the Worlds, an 1897 serialized story by H.G. Wells which details an invasion from the red planet. Those who didn’t hear the opening disclaimer took the realistic dramatization for the news — the following morning, Halloween, newspapers around the country reported on panicked citizens abandoning their homes, flooding highways, and demanding protection from local authorities.

The extent of the panic following Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast has since been questioned. Newspapers, smarting from the advertising revenue lost to radio, were eager to find fault, damning the drama as deceptive. One certainty is that its impact was not lost on Adolf Hitler, who cited the panic as proof of the decadence of democracy. Of course, the Fuhrer was no stranger to the power of the airwaves to manipulate.

titleAn excerpt from the October 30, 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds

Wells’ novel tapped into a common fear at the time of its original publication, although it took a different approach to the “invasion narrative.” An assault on Great Britain from overseas was a popular plot in adventure writing, although the invaders in the best-sellers were more often than not German. Listeners to the 1938 broadcast were filled with the very same fears, many believing that Germans and not Martians were laying siege to New Jersey. Only a month earlier the airwaves had been filled with news of the Munich Pact, in which Europe shamefully allowed Germany annexation of Czechoslovakia. In a biography of Orson Welles, Frank Brady describes the atmosphere of terror over the airwaves:

For the first time in history, the public could tune into their radios every night and hear, boot by boot, accusation by accusation, threat by threat, the rumblings that seemed inevitably leading to a world war.

Contrary to our nearest neighbor’s enduring presence in our nightmares, Mars is most unlikely to launch any such invasion. The red planet is hot, dry and barren — the search for life in our solar system has been extended to the mysterious moons of the Jovian system. “Nothing ever happens on Mars,” as lamented by a Martian himself, visiting the small town of Blaine, Missouri in this musical number from the 1997 film Waiting for Guffman.


For today’s post we have a 1983 collection of contemporary classical pieces produced by the Minnesota Composers Forum. We chose the first piece on the album, which is by Eric Stokes, who founded the University of Minnesota’s electronic music laboratory and taught in the music department for 29 years. Stokes is also the composer of seven operas, several of which debuted here in Minnesota.

Stokes passed away in an auto accident on Interstate Highway 94 in 1999. He was remembered by a colleague as “a rebel … but also one of the least cynical people I’ve ever known. He was very positive and I think his music showed that too.” Stokes counted Charles Ives, John Cage and Harry Brandt as his primary influences as a composer, and his music was often highly percussive as in this piece and a performance at the Walker Art Center’s old stage titled “Rock and Roll (Phonic Paradigm 1).” In that work rock were rolled around the stage and hit together by several performers.

These Minnesota Composers Forum records are really interesting, and there are four other pieces on this particular one. Here’s an excerpt from the notes to Tintinnabulary (Phonic Paradigm IV) by Stokes, which you can hear below. The performers are Stokes and Jay Johnson.

In composing such a piece, several orders and types of struck, reverberant objects were used. The resulting sounds were recorded. By means of simple procedures, unique properties of these recorded sounds found distinctive places in the compositional plan. Composition therefor, in this instance, was and is a function of foresight & afterthought.

The other night we finally watched Hidden Figures, which is a really great movie. The scenes which depicted the IBM computer being installed reminded us of this 10″ box set, which includes a book and record on the subject of the relationship between mathematics and music.

The book includes photographs of the computer used at Bell Laboratories to compose the music heard on the record. It’s an IBM 7090, the same $2.9 million machine that was used by NASA at the Langley Research Center to calculate trajectories for the Mercury and Gemini space flights.

Music from Mathematics begins with a history of scientific inquiries into the nature of musical composition, from Pythagoras to Hermann von Helmholtz, who designed a resonator to identify the frequencies in music (an invention which indirectly lead Alexander Graham Bell towards his work on the invention of the telephone). The book also breaks down a composer’s work in strictly mathematical terms, noting for instance that even in Schoenberg’s restrictive twelve-tone technique, a sequence of twelve notes offers 479,001,600 possibilities. A factorial such as this is expressed “12!” because mathematics is exciting!

Another part of the book points to the appeal of the unexpected, using Mozart’s Musikalisches Würfelspiel as an example. A popular 18th century game, dice compositions feature sets of alternate sequences of notes depending on the numbers shown when the “composer” throws a pair of dice. The book perpetuates an uncertainty by attributing the work to Mozart, for though published in 1792 and included in the Köchel catalog, it has never been verified as Mozart’s work. Musikalisches Würfelspiel is capable of producing 1116 similar but distinct waltzes.

The book and record contains a number of experiments beginning at this point with Music by Chance, produced at Bell Telephone Laboratories. The second side of the record opens with a remarkable piece composed on ILLIAC computer at the University of Illinois in 1955.

The process began by assigning numbers to notes of the scale from low C upwards. In the beginning sharps and flats were omitted, but in later experiments a full chromatic scale of two and a half octaves was used. The computer then generated random numbers. The numbers were screened through a series of tests representing the various rules of musical composition such as tonality and the standard of counterpoint formalized in the 16th century. If the next number did not conform to the rules it was rejected and a new random number was generated and tested. The numbers which passed the testing were stored in the computer until a short melody was created, and it was printed out and translated into notation for a human performer.

The Illiac Suite produced by this experiment is regarded as the first musical score composed by a computer. The record inside Music from Mathematics contains only a two minute sampling from its fourth movement, but you can hear a performance of the entire work on Youtube here. Although this is certainly the sort of music which gave John Hartford the “Steamboat Whistle Blues,” you’ll find the Illiac Suite no less accessible than Bela Bartok’s quartets, although hardly as rewarding.

The following year a second Music from Mathematics was released on the Decca label. Not a documentary like this set, it presented eighteen performances by the IBM 7090 recorded at the Bell Laboratories. Fans of this album most famously include author Arthur C. Clarke, who later had HAL 9000 the computer sing “Bicycle Built for Two” (ie “Daisy Bell”) as he fades away in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was the first song sung by a computer, and appeared on that record.

No two recordings of a classical piece are the same, owing to variations in recording technology and in the construction of the instruments themselves. Of course, the greatest variable is the human factor. There’s a world of difference between Pablo Casals’ Spanish Civil War era recording of Bach’s six suites for solo cello and Yo Yo Ma’s 1983 recording (we’re most inclined to prefer the former). The result is a frustrating formality, and loses listeners.

Mozart included an improvisation, often based on one of his own themes, in nearly every public performance — often audiences were more impressed by these than the music he’s written out. In one of the most legendary stories of Beethoven, he was challenged to an duel by Daniel Stiebelt, a famous pianist and minor composer. The weapons were not pistols, as they would be in a similar challenge issued by our Vice President just four years later, but pianos. Beethoven famously humiliated his rival.

We feel the loss of the human element in classical performance has been a tragedy brought on in large part by records. The early recording industry changed classical performance enormously, from the sometimes raucous atmosphere of concert hall performances in the nineteenth century to the often sterile environment we experience at our own Orchestra Hall today.

There was also an enormous loss in the variety of instruments as sounds became standardized. Early recording technology picked up certain makes better than others — where once an orchestra in Vienna would sound entirely different from one in New York, owning entirely to unique work of the tradespeople who made the instruments — soon those which could be captured more effectively in pre-electric recording were chosen.

This effect also changed performance. A nineteenth century violinist like Joseph Joachim played with little vibrato, but this produced a thin, almost reedy sound when reproduced on early 78s. Soon the style popularized by Fritz Kreisler, rich with vibrato, was what audiences wanted, not only in their living rooms but in the concert halls. Likewise, Enrico Caruso may have become the first million-seller not because he was the world’s best tenor, but because he had the stamina to project his voice well and over multiple takes.

Records established an expectation: this is what this sonata must sound like. Obviously, we still love them and we always will, but there’s something to be said for the magical spontaneity of live music. This same thing certainly happened in rock circles. Some folks go to see a band to hear their hits, and they want them to sound the same as they did on the record (only “awesomer”) only to be disappointed when that’s now how music works.

Anyways, all this is a long introduction to this record, which was recorded in 1968. When Terry Riley first composed In C, it seemed unlikely to be recorded based on his unspecific instructions for its performance. Scored for any number (Riley recommends thirty-five but writes that a larger or smaller group will do) its most significant part is for a performer to play a C in steady eighth note as a droning metronome. Over this the remaining musicians are to perform fifty-three short passages, each choosing their own moment to begin but attempting to stay within two or three phrases of each other.

In C is often regarded as one of the first minimalist compositions, although there are many examples from earlier ages. It has been widely performed but not so frequently recorded. The first recording, which Riley made for Columbia, featured eleven performers but used over-dubs to add additional instruments. There is really no standard for how long it should take to perform, so it could last a couple of hours. In the case of this album, it has to be split into two parts to accommodate the record.

If you have any instruments in your house, you and your friends could create your own In C. You wouldn’t even have to record it.

Tuesday’s post featured the love theme from The Empire Strikes Back and contained the age-old allegation that film composer John Williams is somewhat of a scoundrel when it comes to crediting his inspirations. “Han Solo and the Princess” is undeniably derived from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, first published in 1878 and debuted three years later under unfortunately auspicious circumstances.

Today, the work is considered the capstone of the nineteenth century’s quartet of immortal violin concertos, following in the footsteps of Beethoven (1806), Mendelssohn (1844) and Brahms (1878). It should be noted that the dedicatee of Brahms’ Violin Concerto, Joseph Joachim, added to this list as “the richest, the most seductive,” the Violin Concerto in G Minor written by Max Bruch and debuted in 1866. And this addition should call all the more attention to the fact that, in the words of that Sesame Street classic, “one of these is not like the others.” Tchaikovsky the Slav’s entrance into this elite circle of Teutonic titans was a slow and unsteady transition.

All this is apparent in an early and widely disseminated review of the debut of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, written by Brahms’ close friend Eduard Hanslick, who suggested the audience had been put through “hell” by the performance. In its most famous line, Hanslick callously claims “Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto brings us for the first time to the horrid idea that there may be music which stinks to the ear.”

We cannot imagine how Hanslick’s savage words struck the famously thin-skinned composer. The Concerto had already scarred him enough, having been rejected by its original dedicatee in an unfortunate and public rebuff which forced the cancellation of the planned debut in March of 1879. In an interview decades later, Leopold Auer denied he dismissed the Concerto as unplayable, but does admit returning to Tchaikovsky a number of edits which addressed “passages which were not suited to the instrument.” Although Tchaikovsky deeply admired Auer, it was published without his alterations, and debuted by a far less famous violinist, Adolph Brodsky.

Leopold Auer eventually did perform the Violin Concerto, but retained the changes he suggested to Tchaikovsky in 1878. Whether the composer ever saw such a performance is uncertain, but Auer claims in the same 1912 interview that he “received absolution” from Tchaikovsky before his death. By that time, of course, the work had already begun to enjoy its acceptance in the European repertoire in spite of the poor reviews of its debut.

Critics can be shocking biased, as in the case of Hanslick’s claim the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was “odorously Russian.”  The UK’s Daily Telegraph, a hundred years later, ran a review of The Empire Strikes Back by a critic who admitted he hadn’t even seen the first film. Unsurprisingly, all of the Star Wars series’ substance is lost on Eric Shorter, who found the film “devoid of feeling.” It seems a given he didn’t understand the suffering of Chewbacca, who Shorter describes as a “grotesque animal,” as he watches Han Solo lowered into the carbon freezing chamber. At that moment his anguished cry is expressive in a way that words, and even music, can’t so readily express. For all his might the Wookie is helpless to stop the world around him from going to hell.

Shorter’s disconnect from the film’s characters was not uniquely British. In The New York Times, for instance, Vincent Canby claimed “The Empire Strikes Back is about as personal as a Christmas card from the bank.” The Shorter review of the film suggests a bias against science fiction in spirit with Hanslick’s hostility to the forward-facing music of his time, which he dismissed as “music of the future” in an twisted paraphrase of Richard Wagner’s 1860 essay. Hanslick wrote a cold review of Lohengrin and never warmed to Wagner’s enormous big-idea productions, which the composer collected under the concept of gesamtkunstwerk.

Wagner’s vision of a “complete work of art” to encompass theater, music and poetry was realized in the epic Ring of Nebelungen operas, the first opera of which just enjoyed a well-received run at the Minnesota Opera last month. Many people have drawn parallels between Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk and modern cinema. This would surely be lost on Hanslick just as was the larger story arc of Star Wars, with its triumph of the individual spirit over technology, misunderstood by Eric Shorter. At the time of their dismissive reviews, both critics were themselves relics, fast becoming left behind.


The acceptance of Tchaikovsky into the western canon is still controversial at times, as we touched on here early this year when composer and conductor Pierre Boulez passed away. There remains a perception of Tchaikovsky as an outsider, music for the masses neither European nor Slavic, just as there remains a perception of Star Wars as popcorn-peddling fare without substance.

The Violin Concerto has been widely recorded by many of the modern virtuosos, including very different interpretations by Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler recorded in the 1930s. We recently came across this excellent recording featuring Uto Ughi, who is still a popular conductor in his native Italy, where he is known for his efforts to encourage more people to discover classical music.

We’ve posted in the past about the theory some anthropologists have that music was our first form of artistic expression. In this way human language evolved from primitive songs. This is all of interest to us because it suggests the reason we establish such deep, often non-verbal responses to music.

At the same time, our connection to our primitive roots is tenuous at best. In many cases, the future of remaining primitive societies around the globe hang on a slender thread. Some are counting their remaining generations, an alarming reality made clear in National Geographic‘s November 2015 issue through a focus on climate change. One particularly moving piece focused on the island nation of Kiribati, whose capital is likely to be uninhabitable by the end of the century. The I-Kiribati people are hardly primitive and could be relocated to Australia, New Guinea or the Phillippines, but at what cost to their culture?

music-of-primitve-man-1 music-of-primitive-man-2

Many other island societies, as well as those in places like Australia’s outback or the Orinoco River valley in South America, are likewise facing the future disappearance of their cultures. Consider that there are an about 6,000 spoken languages in the world, and UNESCO estimates that half of them will be dead by the year 2100.

This is all made ominously clear in the liner notes to this 1973 album produced by the British Broadcasting Company for Horizon. Program director Joseph Prostakoff writes:

Primitive man’s music provides us with an extraordinary window into his culture — all the more so because it is an integral part of every aspect of his life. This record presents more than fifty examples of exotic chants and instruments, as well as songs of work, war, love, and celebration. All were recorded on site in remote corners of the world and are brought together here in a unique collection — before the music fades forever.

The notes provide just a little bit of information for each of the forty-four tracks, which were recorded on location throughout the world. For instance, this first song is an Ainu folk song called Chkap Upopo (“Singing Birds”) and we are informed that “the sounds of birds and insects are interpreted as gods’ oracles about the weather, crops, and fortunes of the tribe.” The notes also tell us the Ainus are an aboriginal Caucasian tribe inhabiting the northernmost of the Japanese islands, but they do not mention their language is all but lost. The Endangered Language Project estimates there are only two native speakers of Ainu remaining.

This second song is performed by two Bambuti tribesmen, and they accompany themselves on an instrument identified in the notes as the lukembe. Fans of spiritual jazz artists such as Pharaoh Sanders or Chicago’s Kahil El’Zabar likely know this instrument as the African thumb piano. It is comprised of metal strips mounted to a sounding board. To play it one depresses and releases the ends of the strips, sort of like a a piano key.

The Bambuti are a largely isolated pygmy people who live in the Congo region of Africa. This recording was made in the Ituri forest.

This hauntingly beautiful recording was made at the King’s palace at Nukualofa, the capital of the Tonga Islands. From the liner notes: “The origin of the nose flute is associated with the primitive belief that nose breath contains the soul and had, therefore, more magical power than mouth breath.” This is another instrument which may be familiar to jazz fans, as it was often employed by Rahsaan Roland Kirk during his performances.

The sea level around Tonga has risen at about twice the global average since 1993, carving about 40 meters off the island, according to this Radio Australia program. A Tongan representative to the UN’s 2011 climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, sums up the situation faced by nations such as his, who are on the “frontline” of climate change but are essentially powerless.

Those living perilously close to sea level such as those on the Island of Tonga are not the only people whose way of life has already begun to be irreversibly altered by climate change. The fishing and hunting seasons for Inuit people are becoming shorter each year. As the water warms the fish stay deeper below the surface, and residents of the subarctic are seeing flora and fauna they have never seen before.

There are a number of languages in the Inuit family, but as the general culture is endangered so is the language. In Alaska, for instance, only about one quarter of the `13,000 Inupiat people speak the language, and most of them are over the age of forty (these are also divided into several dialects). The song on The Music of Primitive Man was recorded in Canada’s Northwest Territories, where Inuktitut is recognized as an official language. There is even a written form of Inuktitut, called Canadian Aboriginal syllabics.

This track contains two recordings. The first is a solo on the musical bow, which Prostakoff points out in the notes is maybe the earliest stringed instrument. The second recording is a Chicha song, sung by a group of women. Chicha is a fermented drink consumed during seasonal celebration. The third song is a lullaby.

The Motilon Indians live in the Catatumbo River basin, in Columbia and Venezuela. They speak a language called Barí, which is part of a larger group of indigenous languages called Chibchan.

French ethnologist Robert Jaulin wrote an influential book on the Motilon people in 1970 called White Peace: An Introduction to Ethnocide. In it he differentiates between genocide as the killing of a people and ethnocide as the killing of a culture. Jaulin went through a series of initiation rites to become part of the Motilon community, and witnessed firsthand the slow erasure of their culture through the removal of children (to be raised apart from their families), forced labor and compulsory abandonment of traditional customs. And also, of course, the introduction of religious propaganda. Jaulin’s observations are hardly limited to the Catatumbo River basin, as is clear from the future of the other societies featured on this album.

As we wrote earlier, there are forty-four tracks on this album, and in reading about each we could find a similar story. Presently, the transition team put in place by our President Elect implies that we are likely to fulfill his campaign promise to re-visit our treaties and agreements with other nations. Tragically, this may include last year’s historic Paris Agreement, which only went into effect earlier this month. Even with a very serious response to climate change, it seems unlikely that many of the cultures featured on The Music of Primitive Man are likely to survive this century.

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