Nils Frahm (Modern Composition)

Who is Nils Frahm?: German composer Nils Frahm has been releasing modern classical music since 2005—utilizing a peculiar combination of traditional (grand and upright pianos) and electronic (Roland, Rhodes, Moog synthesizers) instruments to record and perform his sweeping pieces.

Frahm grew up in a musical household—both of his parents being self-taught musicians. By the age of eight, he started taking piano lessons from Nahum Bradski (who was a student of Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovksky‘s last protege). These initial years of classical training have heavily impacted Frahm’s technical abilities.

However, Frahm nonetheless embraces improvisation and the idea of the sacred ‘happy accident’ when creating his music.  His album “Spaces” is comprised of segments of over thirty live ‘field’ recordings (as opposed to the usual perfected studio recordings most artists use for their physical releases). Frahm, after performances, would listen to the recording and (during post-production) turn up the sounds of the audience and ‘the room’ (as he puts it in an interview with Mojo Music) so as to achieve a more genuine sound that cannot be replicated in a studio environment.

Interesting Fact: A custom-built “21st Century Piano” was made specifically for Frahm.

Recommended Listening: A live performance of “All Melody” and “#2”

Magma (Progressive/Art Rock)

Who is Magma?: A band with almost too many members (who have come and gone throughout the years, of course) to count, Magma was founded in 1969 in Paris, France by classically trained musician Christian Vander.

Magma is a concept band—meaning every song on every album is based around a singular fictional storyline. Vander even went as far as to create his own language to tell this ongoing story–which he calls Kobaian

Magma’s music is epic–for lack of a better term. Like many of their progressive rock contemporaries, their songs tend to be on the longer side (7-10 minutes usually) and more or less evolve as the go (as opposed to a verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus structure). And, due to Vander’s invented language, vocal delivery can be intimidating/challenging to a new listener who is not necessarily prepared for it.

Interesting Fact: Vander’s language even spawned a term that is now (retroactively) used to describe Magma’s (and others’) strain of progressive rock: Zeuhl.

Recommended Listening: A live performance on French television in 1978:

Throbbing Gristle (Industrial/Noise)

Who is Throbbing Gristle?: Known as one of the pioneering acts that defined what is now known as Industrial music, Throbbing Gristle formed in England in 1976.

These days, when you consider the Industrial genre, your mind most likely gravitates towards Nine Inch Nails or the like; the genre has been very clearly defined and explored during the last (close to four) decades. However, when you listen to Throbbing Gristle, there are numerous tropes (used in other genres) present in their music–including drone, free jazz, and plunder-phonics (the artful use of sampling).

Aside from their peculiar music, they were known for their controversial live performances–in which they would often play supplementary pornographic or violent videos on screens behind them as they played.

As was previously mentioned, Throbbing Gristle pioneered the Industrial music genre. In fact, they coined the term when they named their own record label “Industrial Records“–which was founded the same year (1976) as the group’s initial formation.

Interesting Fact: William Burroughs’ (author of Naked Lunch and numerous other beat-era masterpieces) auditory work entitled Nothing Here Now But The Recordings was released on Industrial Records.

Recommended Listening: Their entire 1979 album entitled “20 Jazz Funk Greats”.

Ariel Pink (Hypnagogic pop)

Who is Ariel Pink?: Known as the unofficial king of the Los Angeles ‘freak pop’ scene, Ariel Pink (real name Ariel Marcus Rosenburg) has been releasing Hypnagogic pop music since the late 90s.

For those of you who don’t know, Hypnagogic pop is a nostalgic sub-genre of pop (calling back to the 80s and early 90s) that incorporates the use of retro instruments (vintage synthesizers mainly), recording techniques (4 tracks, reel-to-reel, etc.), and means of production/distribution (mostly cassettes). It is also known as chill-wave or bedroom pop. Ultimately, most everything about the music is meant to be as lo-fi as possible.

Pink was lost in obscurity–in the late 90s and early 2000s–until he was able to hand one of his home-recorded albums to Animal Collective members after a show. Once they gave it an honest listen, they knew they had stumbled upon something special. Pink was soon after signed to their label: Paw Tracks. His music has flourished commercially since then (especially after eventually signing to 4AD Records).

His music–like many of the artists I discuss–is hard to describe. Everything (drums, vocals, guitars, keys) comes through soft, fuzzy, and warm–you know, the usual lo-fi aesthetic. However, when it comes to song structure, Pink digresses in ways that almost no listener is totally prepared for. Few other artists I’m aware of incorporate more weird, random sounds (such as fart noises, finger-in-cheek ‘pop’ sounds, moaning, etc) than Pink. Sometimes, Pink will start what seems to be a perfectly catchy riff or phrase–and suddenly steer away from it into an abrasive passage that causes your hand to involuntarily reach for the volume knob in self-defense. Other times, Pink will carry on with a phrase for so long that you could almost consider it ‘drone’ music. Whatever the case, it’s obvious that Pink’s most prominent creative mission is to keep listeners on their toes. Always.

Interesting Fact: Pink’s world views and philosophies (on music and society and life in general) are confounding–to say the least. Other than trying to paraphrase this–I will provide you with a link to an illuminating article (which includes plenty of quotes from Pink) written by The Guardian

Recommended Listening: “Round and Round” off of his 2010 album Before Today. 

 

 

 

Daniel Johnston (Outsider Folk)

Who is Daniel Johnston?: An endlessly influential musician/artist (Kurt Cobain would often be seen ‘promoting’ Johnston by wearing a T-shirt with the Hi, How Are You? album cover printed on it), Daniel Johnston has been recording outsider folk music (and also drawing/painting surrealist art) since the mid 80s.

He first gained notoriety in Austin, Texas–where he would obsessively hand out (for free) home-made copies of his albums (on cassette) at shows. This assertiveness ultimately led him to appear on an MTV program called The Cutting Edge–where he captivated audiences nationwide with his paradoxically down-to-earth/totally-out-there approach to folk/pop music.

Later on, he went on to work with prominent artists/musicians (Jad Fair of Half Japanese and Butthole Surfers–to name a few) during a stint in New York City. However, it was here that his drug abuse gave way to schizophrenia. To this day, he struggles with maintaining a normal life. His parents take care of him, and do what they can to assure he is still able to do what he loves most.

The marvelous documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston does a much better job providing an all-encompassing picture of his interesting life.

Interesting Fact: During a flight with his father (an ex-Air Force pilot), Johnston suffered a manic episode and believed himself to be Casper (the friendly ghost). He pulled the keys from the plane’s ignition and threw them out the window. Due to his previous experience flying planes, Johnston’s father was able to crash land the craft successfully (neither of them were seriously injured).

Recommended Listening: “Some Things Last a Long Time” off of the 1990 album 1990. 

Fred Frith (Experimental/Improvisation/Contemporary Classical)

Who Is Fred Frith?: Born in 1949 in England, Fred Frith grew up studying music–in every regard. His father was a pianist–as was his grandmother. When he was five years old, his grandmother insisted he start taking violin lessons. During the first six months of lessons, his instructor taught him only proper breathing (no instrument whatsoever)–which he subsequently has always considered more important than technique.

In 1968, he met Tim Hodgkinson at Cambridge University and began experimenting improvisationally with him (Frith on violin and Hodgkinson on alto-sax). They were inseparable after their first session, and quickly moved on to form the avant-rock group Henry CowThe band went through numerous incantations–being that members would come and go. In 1978, the band was officially disbanded.

However, this was only one aspect of Frith’s musical career. In 1974, he released his first solo album Guitar Solos–which is considered a seminal experimental work. Abandoning traditional rock guitar tropes, Frith uses tapping, feedback, volume pedals, and other techniques to make his guitar sound like anything but a guitar. Sean Westergaard of All Music said: “Guitar Solos lasting legacy is that it radically redefined the way some people think about the guitar”.

To date, Frith has contributed to over 400 different musical projects. It doesn’t seem like he’ll be stopping anytime soon.

Interesting Fact: Frith said in an interview that he used to break into his school’s chapel at night when he was a kid just so he could play the organ that was kept in there.

Recommended Listening: “No Birds” off of the 1974 album Guitar Solos.