Before the Internet, before the widespread use of digital music production and recording technologies, there was a thriving underground of electronic and experimental musicians working with analogue tools and connected largely by a network of tape trading and DIY publications. Two new releases of music from this period—a compilation of various forms of electronic and experimental music from the mid-1980s, and a recording of a 1988 electronic music concert—give a sense of the work being done by these largely homegrown artists.
A Cage Went in Search of a Bird is a generous collection of twenty-three tracks of various types of electronic music originally assembled by Alan Freeman, publisher of Audion Magazine, in 1984 and 1985 and issued on two cassettes. The music was divided into four loose categories that covered a wide range of the work being done then: melodic/cosmic synthesizer music; experimental electronics; underground and new wave rock; and avant-garde and industrial sounds. The artists included were from various countries and working at different levels within the music world; some, such as Conrad Schnitzler and Günter Schickert, had had recordings released on prestigious labels, while others operated within a more DIY milieu. What’s striking is how high the quality of experimentation generally is, no matter where in the then-label-dominated hierarchy the artists happened to be. To be sure, nearly forty years on some of the pieces may feel more directly relevant to current sounds than others, but it’s interesting nevertheless to reach back to hear what the state of the art was when the art was still new. For that, A Cage Went in Search of a Bird provides a fascinating, panoramic snapshot of a unique historical moment.
The 1988 WOMR concert presented performances by three members of the International Electronic Music Association (IEMA), a network of electronic musicians active in the 1980s. The concert, held in the Universalist Meeting House of Provincetown in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, was for the benefit of local radio station WOMR and featured a duo set with Ben Kettlewell and Dave Prescott, preceded by an opening solo set from Lauri Paisley. Paisley, who abandoned music in the early 1990s, has since her 2012 death from cancer become something of a cult figure; her set here consists of three structured, relatively brief pieces centered on arpeggiated chord progressions akin to symphonic prog rock. The set by Kettlewell and Prescott, both of whom were based in Massachusetts and hosts of electronic music shows on local radio stations—WOMR among them–displays the strong influence of classic Berlin-school synth music. Kettlewell and Prescott assimilated the style and made it their own; their playing is confident and the music properly propulsive and atmospheric. All things considered the concert’s sound quality is good for the time, and the music still enjoyable to listen to; like A Cage Went in Search of a Bird, the recording is also valuable as an historical document.
The WOMR concert recording was released by Anvil Creations, the label curated by Ken Moore; it features not only historic work by IEMA artists but includes a range of Moore’s work over the years, and is definitely worth checking out. (Full disclosure: I’ve appeared on a handful of collaborations with Ken, some of which are available through Anvil Creations.)