Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Odd Sounds of the Sixties

For me there are three main strands in 1960s music:
  1. immensely popular guitar-driven pop songs by bands which now enjoy immense wealth and mythical status
  2. a much larger body of 'mundane' (although actually probably more interesting than #1) works which saw great contemporary success (think Cliff Richard, The Monkees, Englebert Humperdinck, etc)
  3. An influential and underappreciated avant-garde whose work was, in some cases, appropriated and watered-down by group 1
I'm not saying that bands like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones were not important, or that their work did not contain elements of originality. But in this blog post I want to restore the balance a bit, and give some attention to a small selection of some of the truly radical musical works that were produced in the 1960s.

The Zodiac : Cosmic Sounds (1967)

What is it?: 1967 proto-prog concept album based around the signs of the Zodiac
Impact factor: not much
Obscurity rating: so obscure that nobody is quite sure whether the album is called Cosmic Sounds and the band is called The Zodiac, or vice versa

György Ligeti, Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes (1962)
What is it?: an 'event-score' by the Hungarian modernist composer György Ligeti in which 100 metronomes are left to tick to a halt
Impact factor: more than you might expect. Ligeti's compositions were used in the film 2001: a Space Odyssey, and his work is still admired and performed
Obscurity rating: as a well-known encyclopedia reports, the piece has only been performed a limited number of times 'due to the obvious difficulty of procuring such a large quantity of machines'

The Velvet Underground, Sister Ray (1968)
What is it?: 17m27s jam session which closes the album White Light/White Heat, foreshadowing the more egregious parts of Lou Reed's solo work
Impact factor: at the time almost none, but now an important part of the repertoire of a very important band
Obscurity rating: as above

Karlheinz Stockhausen, Kontakte (premiered 1960)
What is it?: extended electronic composition, developed at the Westdeutscher Rundfunk in 1958-60 by the composer of the Helicopter String Quartet.
Impact factor: substantial
Obscurity rating: often presented as the archetypal piece of dense avant-garde music, but nonetheless appreciated by a significant minority of Radio 3 listeners