While the Ellipsis Arts label was best known for its "new age" and "world music" releases during its 1990s heyday, it did issue, in 2005, an interesting and notable triple-disc, with a bonus DVD, anthology, Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music. Bad puns aside, this is an impressive collection spanning pre-1980s performances mainly from the so-called "classical" world, though there are contributions from some composers outside of that generalized genre.
There is quite an array of composers represented here, from well-known figures like John Cage, Terry Riley, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Milton Babbitt, Edgard Varese, Olivier Messiaen to lesser-known, but important, pioneers like Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier, the MEV collective, Morton Subotnick, Pierre Schaeffer, Luc Ferrari, and those outside "classical" and academic circles like Holger Czukay, Kalus Schulze, and Brian Eno. Even the inclusion of a 1999 version of Reich's "Pendulum Music," in which suspended microphones are swung in pendulum movements to generate sound, by noise-rock legends Sonic Youth is something of a bridge between "serious music" and the pop-rock world.
Obviously, music like this is going to have a polarizing effect on most people, a great many of whom would find this unlistenable noise. There is, however, a range of material with some pieces moving more towards some form of accessibility than others. For example, the haunting excerpt from Tchaikovsky's "Valse Sentimentale" pairs piano with the strange and wonderful sounds of the theremin, as played by its greatest exponent, Clara Rockmore.
Messiaen's "Orasion" is also other-worldly, with its "ondes martenot,"a keyboard that provides pitch changes through a ribbon and a ring, and which is also linked to traditional music. Babbitt's "Philomel" blends the human voice with the electronics in an appealing way. Oliveros's stunning "Bye Bye Butterfly" skillfully wends excerpts from "Madama Butterfly" into her improvised electronic stew.
Subotnick's "Silver Apples of the Moon" had the distinction of being the first commissioned work by a major label, Nonesuch in this case, for an electronic composition. Riley's looped piece "Poppy Nogood" [really, "Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band"] is an amazing work using soprano saxophone, inspired by the great John Coltrane, and organ to develop a time-lag effect with a patch cord.
Czukay's mesmerizing "Boat-Woman Song" has medieval choral singing with the over-dubbed samples of simple and haunting folk singing to give it a highly memorable effect. Paul Lansky's computer-generated "Six Fantasies on a Poem by Thomas Campion" has a warm and enveloping sounds of vocalizations of the poetic works that is quite beautiful. Another computer-geneated piece, Laurie Spiegel's "Applachian Grove I" has a quiet, ambient approach to creating something that has melodic associations.
Alvin Curran's "Canti Illuminati," one of the longer excerpts, is a fascinating aural experience with a sequencer, a VCS3 (used by some "progressive" rock groups in the early 70s) and the addition of bass tones and the addition of falsetto vocalizations at the end softens the electronics. Lucier's unplanned excursion "Music on a Long Thin Wire" has a droning, ambient quality that builds off a tuning from an oscillator and seems like a possible precursor to so-called "isolationist" electronic music.
Hassell's "Before and After Charm (La Notte)" has an eerie and compelling repetition of percussive sound accompanying keyboard drones in varying tones and his highly effective in giving an "Eastern" vibe, thanks to the composer's interest in Indian music. Finally, Eno's "Unfamiliar Wind (Leeks Hills)" is a characteristiclly understated, yet warm, ambient piece that closes out the CD portion nicely.
The DVD is a great bonus, especially the filmed footage of performances and interviews, including one with Rockmore talking with her sister, nephew and Robert Moog, inventor of the (in)famous synthesizer, about her work with the theremin and its inventor, as well as a snippet of a performance with her and her sister pianist. A great, though very short, clip of Paul Lansky being shown how to play the eerie instrument by an aged Leon Theremin in the latter's Moscow apartment in the waning days of teh Soviet Union is remarkable.
Milton Babbitt gives an entertaining and informative 1987 interview about his early associations with experimental electronic music, including the Mark I and II synthesizers. A lengthy performance on film from Lucier dating to 1965 is of his incredible "Music for Solo Performer." Here, Lucier is hooked by electrodes to several types of percussion, including a trash can, and uses his brainwaves to send waves in varying speeds and energy to play the percussion instruments.
A 2005 performance of "Bye Bye Butterfly" by Oliveros with visualizartions by Tony Martin is also something to behold--gorgeous musical conception with a visual accompaniment that fully supports the performance.
Finally, there is a six-minute segment from a documentary on Robert Moog, to whom the DVD is dedicated and who died in 2005, just prior to the release of the special edition. This interview with Moog about his creation is an excellent capstone to a superb anthology (provided that the listener has any inclination towards electronic music to begin with, that is.)
One last word about the package: Ellipsis Arts outdid itself (and it was at the end of its tether at the time) with a beautiful box for the discs in a clear plastic sleeve, while the 112-page booklet is chock full of commentary by the composers and others about the excepted pieces and a wealth of great photos. It really is a work of art that fully complements and serves the amazing sounds found on the four discs.