In the mid to late 1970s some of pop music's more cerebral performers began experimenting with minimalist compositions. Brian Eno and Robert Fripp produced a series of albums containing what they called "ambient" music. Perhaps the two most well known were Music For Films and Music For Airports.
Their experiments had only minimal effect on pop music with only the Eno produced Talking Heads' albums Fear Of Music and Remain In Light showing any sign of the "less is more" philosophy. And even in those instances it was only a matter of instrument choices, some production effects, and the willingness to experiment that distinguished these recordings from their contemporaries.
By no stretch of anybody's imagination could either of those two albums be referred to as minimalist. But they, along with the sparser production values of the punk movement, were a product of this work. It was through the aforementioned albums of Eno and Fripp; other projects that Eno did with David Byrne, lead singer of the Talking Heads, ( My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts) and trumpet wizard Jon Hassell (Fourth Possible World) that the minimalist movement was brought to wider popular attention in North America.
Now they weren't flying off the shelves, but people who probably wouldn't have otherwise were buying the music of Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and John Cage. Who knows how many times the music was listened too after its first spin, but at least people had heard of them and now knew what to expect when they heard those names and the words minimalist music. (For a good background primer on minimalist music, give a listen to this online show.)
Once you feel comfortable with the idea of minimalist music and have an idea of what exactly it is you are supposed to be listening to and for, Michael Fahres CD The Tubes is as good as place as any to start experiencing the genre. The title track is one of three short compositions on the disc, and along with "Sevan" and "Coimbra 4 Mundi Theatre" will give you a good overview of the different forms minimalism can take.
Michael Fahres was born in Germany in 1951 and began studying electronic music in 1973. Since that time he has gone on to establish himself as one of the most prolific composers of new music. On The Tubes we get to hear some fine examples of that experience at work.
On the first piece, "Sevan" he has worked primarily with Armenian singer Parik Nazarian around the shores of Lake Sevan in Armenia. Scattered around the shoreline are giant pipes left over from a Soviet era attempt to replenish the water level and clear the pollution from the lake. With the fall of the Soviet block these pipes were simply abandoned and became part of the problem it had been hoped to alleviate.
The soundscape that Fahres creates by recording the voice of Nazarian singing while standing in one of these giant pipes not only evokes the desolation of the area, but created the image of the lake abandoned by humans and a grey body of water with the gaping mouths of the enormous pipes surrounding it, sucking the remaining life out of her in my mind's eye. A wee bit dramatic I realize, but when you hear the sound of that voice echoing and reverberating in the metal of the pipe you'll understand.
In contrast to the man made sound of the first piece, the title track "The Tubes" aims at emulating an amazing natural phenomenon that has occurred on the island of El Hierro, the smallest and most Western of the Canary Islands. For thousands of years molten lave poured in streams into the sea. It has solidified into huge hollow rock formations; caves and tubes.
Through these naturally occurring pipes the waters are forced by the winds created by the sea. These winds also "play" the caves and pipes like a human would play a flute. Using the virtuosity of trumpeter Jon Hassel and didgeridoo of Mark Atkins he recreates the sounds of the island.
In the breathiness of Hassel's muted trumpets one can hear the sound the flutes created on El Hierro being played by the driving wind. The didgeridoo of Mark Atkins contributes something more nebulous; not a clear match in my head like the trumpet, but more an atmospheric tension; the sound of the earth groaning beneath all of the tensions exerted on her by the dormant volcano, the sea, and the wind.
The final piece is more of a collage of sound than anything else and is a little bit of a let down after the power of the early compositions. In "Coimbra 4" he has taken elements of a recoding done by R. Murray Shafer and Carlos Alberto Augusto that involved 1700 musicians and sound makers who performed throughout the Portuguese town of Coimbra one afternoon.
Sitting in his studio in Utrect listening to recordings of that event, he built a collage of the sounds that caught his ear as being most representative of life in the village juxtaposed with the music. So all of sudden you will be listing to music, and the sound of a school yard full of children will be heard rising up through it or a baby's cry will push through somewhere else.
Of the three pieces this one seemed the least interesting and with the least amount of justification. It was more an act of interpretive self-indulgence than creation to me. Of course I don't think much of sampled house music either, which is the same thing.
Aside from that, the first two pieces of Michael Fahres The Tubes are well worth a listen. They are not easy to listen to, but they are more than worth the effort of trying to appreciate what the composer has done. Think of them as representations of the geographic areas in sound, and try picturing the place in your head. If you come up with something, then the composer has done his or her job.