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Performance of Score 378 – Select An Album / Thomas Schopp / April, 2011

For practical reasons, I chose to perform the score “Select An Album” in a slightly different way. I used my own CDs and downloaded only one album which I burnt on a CD-R afterwards. I listened to the music on my old-school discman on the road. My time frame was eight days. The sessions took place when a train or car was at hand. I have always enjoyed mobile listening experiences because I can connect the music to changing visual impressions. It´s like a soundtrack to a film that only I see. However, it was impossible to put my experiences into words. The thrill of the arbitrary interconnection of sound and vision appeared with the moment and disappeared with it. That´s why I decided to just sum up my thoughts – before and after listening to the selected albums.

In general, I do not “share” my personal experiences online. I don´t feel a strong urge to communicate my opinions and moods. But I was happy to perform Score No. 378 of The17 because it was an opportunity to step beyond the borders of contemporary music culture. Listening to “albums” seems to be SO out of time. Although it is tempting, I don´t want to discuss the general benefits of the album format for popular music since it was established in the second half of the 20th Century. Personally, I regard listening to complete song collections as a kind of training: A training which helps me to defy the more or less hysterical, speed-driven behaviour patterns which emerge in the context of the so-called Web 2.0. Isn´t it it liberating to abandon the screen and follow a singer or band for 45 minutes with your ears?

Born in the 1970s, I needed to pick four albums altogether. I did not select an album from the decade which has only just begun. Three of the four albums of my session were old-time favourites which I had not listened to for some years. I wanted to check whether and how they would affect me now. I did not listen to the records in the order of their release but will stick to this order in my text. Also, I did not read about the music online. I only double-checked some very basic facts.

 

Pink Floyd – Atom Heart Mother (1970):

Before

Like many teenagers who grew up in the countryside, popular music was my window to the world. I was very lucky to have friends that shared my passion for music which was not played on the radio. Although individual tastes could be slightly different there was a consensus about genres and leading artists. When I was 17 or so, Psychedelic Rock was “in”. Oliver Stone´s movie “The Doors” had been influential, and our local club featured music from the 1960s and 1970s on Thursdays. “Atom Heart Mother” is a very experimental album from Pink Floyd´s middle period. The weird style dominated by Syd Barrett´s ideas had been replaced by a more bombastic, orchestral sound. The title track has a duration of about 23 minutes. The other songs are much shorter and their style is closer to folk music. And there is a cow on the cover! It turns its back against the viewer. I liked the album as a teenager very much. It was fascinating to listen to a band which integrated a heavy drum beat and electric bass with strange brass riffs and choral movements. I associated the fusion sound with artistic pioneering and a cultural era of great optimism. The Hippies did just what they wanted. Their creative output was driven by living and working in collectives. Pink Floyd were happy farmers, cultivating their little island in the sun. Maybe, this is what I thought many years ago.

After

I still enjoy listening to “Atom Heart Mother” but I must admit that I cannot help feeling nostalgia. My associations of Pink Floyd just mirror my feelings towards my small circle of friends and the way we perceived ourselves back in the days. It is a good feeling because the guys are still around!

 

Iron Maiden – Somewhere In Time (1986):

Before

This album entered my life as a compact cassette for Christmas if I remember correctly. I was not even a teenager. More than the heavy sound of Iron Maiden, it was the cover aesthetics which really got me. They had a mascot named “Eddie”. It was a frightening monster which appeared in different shapes on each album cover. Eddie could be a zombie, a pharaoh or a robot. I did not understand English (apart from: “Good morning!”, or: “This is Mr. Scott.”) but the printed lyrics gave me the feeling that the music was about story-telling. It was also about instrumental and vocal craftsmanship. I liked that and felt a little bit superior to the other boys and girls who were still attracted to the hits of the day. Then I experienced my first music-related diss when I told an older student about my passion for Heavy Metal. He just grinned ironically and mumbled something of “Indie-Rock” and “The Smiths”. As he was 7 years ahead, this judgment meant something.

 

After

When I listened to “Somewhere in Time” again after some 20 years, the album did not light the old fire. I could still acknowledge the technical mastery – the vibrato of the voice, the elaborate guitar solos, the structural complexity of the songs – but it did not touch me at all. Anyway, I happened to discover other aspects which I find interesting from the standpoint of the scholar. Iron Maiden´s bass patterns are informed by disco music (one quaver, two semiquavers). This observation made me think about the subtle communications between distant musical genres. A second thing is the album´s “huge” sound which made me imagine a concert hall setting immediately. Although a studio recording, “Somewhere In Time” manages to build a bridge to the live event which is very significant for the integration of Heavy Metal as a subculture.

 

Lambchop – How I Quit Smoking (1995):

Before

The 1990s were a good decade for the so-called Indie-Rock or Alternative Rock genre. A lot of new bands from America and Europe drew on diverse musical sources and defined a sound which was light years away from the rock clichés of the 1980s – embodied by Dire Straits or Mötley Crüe. At least, that is what I felt. MTV supported the alternative trends with a number of programmes, and so did German print magazines. It was not as easy as today to get information about lesser known bands, but the devoted listener could make his or her way to the music scenes of Seattle, Manchester or Hamburg. One day, my favourite radio deejay played a song by an American band named Lambchop. I really loved it and bought the album. It became my favourite soundtrack in the summer of 1997 which I partly spent in Berlin. I lived in a rather quiet area of East Berlin and walked around with my mobile cassette player in the afternoon. The album perfectly matched the run-down, yet inspiring look of the streets and places. It was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee. Lambchop eloquently speak the country idiom but never drift into the swamp of a conservative discourse.

After

This CD can still push my hidden “relaxed mode”-button which must be somewhere behind my ears. I sincerely recommend “How I Quit Smoking” for garden parties with family and friends. Lambchop´s music is peaceful and gentle. The songs are enwrapped by fluffy arrangements of voices, steel guitars and wind sections. Drums, bass and electric guitars just form a very thin backbone. I don´t know why the album title is “How I Quit Smoking”. Maybe the explanation is given in the lyrics, but I was never good at understanding lyrics.

 

Joanna Newsom – Ys (2006):

Before

Just when many voices were speaking the funeral sermon on the “album”, a Californian singer-songwriter successfully proved that it can still be a relevant aesthetic format in the internet age. So let´s agree for a minute that it is fun to use a terminology which is highly discredited in a so-called democratized digital culture – and let´s call this album a masterpiece! It has all the features of a masterpiece: original song-writing, great story-telling, instrumental mastery, a unique voice and a transparent sound production. Joanna Newsom who sings and plays the harp achieved to gather the crème de la crème of American popular music for her second album: Van Dyke Parks wrote the orchestral arrangements and conducted the orchestra, Steve Albini recorded the singer, and Jim O´Rourke was responsible for the mix. “Ys” features five songs which add up to a total duration of 55 minutes.

After

Newsom´s fragile voice may be irritating at first, but if you clear this hurdle you will enter the richest musical landscape. Catchy vocal melodies flow from a creative source which never dries out. Lavish arabesques of strings pop up here and there, never demanding too much attention. In my view, the album exposes the strongest belief in music as artistic expression. It skillfully walks the thin line between the popular and the unpopular or “avant-garde”, and a considerable audience has decided to follow. I was lucky to attend a performance of Joanna Newsom and band in 2007. In a time of ever-blaring mobile phones, it was just amazing to realize how silent hundreds of people can be when great music is being played on stage.

 

Moral

For me, it is and will be a pleasure to select and listen to albums. If the format will survive, nobody knows. Maybe, the EP (= Extended Player, a format with 4 to 5 songs altogether) is an appropriate aesthetic and economic answer to decreasing attention spans. I am optimistic that there are enough artists and label owners with a vital interest in artistic strategies which can only be accomplished in the framework of song COLLECTIONS – like building tension, creating atmosphere and telling stories.