The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Ann McMillan / Entourage Music & Theatre Ensemble / Craig Kupka
Gateway Summer Sound: Abstracted Animal & Other Sounds / The Neptune Collection / Crystals: New Music for Relaxation 2 Antonio Poscic , September 29th, 2020 08:56

Three recent releases on Smithsonian Folkways share a wild, utopian spirit, finds Antonio Poscic

At first glance, Craig Kupka’s Crystals: New Music for Relaxation 2 (1982), The Entourage Music & Theatre Ensemble’s The Neptune Collection (1976), and Ann McMillan’s Gateway Summer Sound: Abstracted Animal and Other Sounds (1978) have little in common. The three records, originally released in a post flower power climate and reissued by Smithsonian Folkways, speak in wildly different musical tongues. Massive drones and minimalism. Folksy jazz and improvisation. Abstract field recordings and unknowable musique concrète architectures. But if you listen to them in succession, you begin to notice their shared, cautiously optimistic spirit. A disillusioned yet hopeful search for a humanistic future and an equivalently futuristic music embedded in their articulation.

In this sense, trombonist and composer Craig Kupka’s idea of “new age” proved to be most successful. Meant as a conduit for meditation, the bold sustained lines that echo over Crystals are mesmerising on a visceral level, cognisant of a new world that is forever on the horizon, but always out of reach. Today, Kupka’s slowed down, stoner-like, and fully improvised interplay of trombone and synthesiser overtones still sounds surprisingly fresh and serves as a constant trigger for episodes of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. Once heard, hints and fragments of this music are suddenly everywhere, infecting all corners of contemporary music, either as descendants from the family tree of Steve Reich and Terry Riley’s school of minimalism or as Kupka’s direct heirs.

The first track, 'Trombones of Lithia', makes rivers of thick sonic lava flow around shinier rocks, carving out a timbre so huge and enveloping that it makes you wonder whether this is how Sunn O))) would sound if they played brass instead of guitars. Gradually, the composition brightens and opens up, replacing soul-shaking reverberations with a grandiose cinematic atmosphere, not far removed from the doom jazz of The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble, William Basinski’s black hole ambient, or Kali Malone and Eleh’s affecting drones. Trombones swell and subside with a light heaviness, shaping what was meant to be a functional, calming music for “driving freeways and crowded city streets”, but whose pull is ultimately so strong that it renders the real world irrelevant. This is particularly true of the album’s second, eponymous song 'Crystals', which is strikingly dynamic in its unhurried stride, clanking along tender Fender Rhodes growls and synthetic chime onomatopoeia to conjure a John Carpenter-like creepiness.

While Kupka’s vision of new music appears stealthily embedded in the subconsciousness of drone and ambient musicians, The Entourage Music & Theatre Ensemble gifted a more concrete, albeit small part of itself to popular culture. Sampled and cited by Kieran Hebden aka Four Tet in 2003, the gently plucked string melody on 'Neptune Rising' became the main motif of his most popular song 'She Moves She'. But similar to a brick stripped from an old château and made part of an ostentatious yuppie residence, this fleeting moment is that much more affecting in its original evocative and bittersweet context. It’s one among many wistful passages on The Neptune Collection, which showcase in full the musical idiosyncrasy of the group led by multi-instrumentalist Joe Clark.

Throughout the album’s nine cuts, sweet folk melodies carried by taught woodwind, piano, guitars, and percussion licks appear not as main compositional themes, but almost as happy accidents of an experimental and free practice. As Clark’s collective entertained an inter- and multimedial combination of theatre, dance, poetry, and music, the record’s makeup was shaped into a similarly heterogenous form. Texturally and structurally rich like an ambient fresco. Painted with an elegant amalgam of Celtic dances, free jazz freakouts, klezmer’s joyful laments, and Balearic meditations. Haunted by an overwhelming sense of existing at the end of a summer that was never supposed to end. Anachronistic, yet perfectly preserved in amber tones.

If Kupka’s music was visionary in how closely it predicted certain experimental music tendencies and if many jazz musicians and improvisers are stuck in the aesthetic period championed by The Entourage Music & Theatre Ensemble, then we have not and may never reach the future envisioned by Ann McMillan. A student of Edgard Varèse, the American composer is one of many women who deserved wider recognition, but were robbed of it due to the usual historical (read: sexist, misogynistic) reasons. For Gateway Summer Sound: Abstracted Animal and Other Sounds is an album that remains fabulously relevant and could easily fit in the roster of an experimental, open-minded label such as Room40 or Flaming Pines. McMillan’s repurposing of field recordings and animal noises is inspired and often humorous, both in her taping and curation of sounds and their subsequent manipulation and mangling beyond recognition.

On 'Amber ‘75', we hear elongated hoots, chirrups, and squeals coalescing and forking in a strange nocturne, before they are made to clash with a metallic chaos of what could easily be very angry pots and lids. Such an alien, yet engrossing aural microcosm. And while the five compositions on the album are mostly abstract, they evoke vivid imagery. 'Episode', for example, might be the soundtrack for a deranged version of Beauty and the Beast, as noises like those of candelabras, teapots, stoves, and pendulum clocks ssscrape, sssqueak, and wwwoosh embraced by a disintegrated harpsichord. Then everything’s turned on its head again. The deep, incisive title track and the nomen est omen 'Gong Song' embrace a sci-fi foley approach to concoct music that hints at what a heavily deconstructed, occasionally progressive collaboration between Delia Derbyshire and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters might sound if performed by monkeys, motors, and field recordings from other dimensions. Ultimately, this bewildering and daring attitude makes Gateway Summer Sound an absolutely vital record.