ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Teenages’ by Qasim Naqvi

by Peter Tracy

Photo by Smriti Keshari.

The mellow buzzing of synthesizers and electric organs has been used in popular music for decades now, but some of the first people to experiment with these instruments were classical and avant-garde composers. The mid-20th century saw a wide range of composers creating new works that mined the expressive potential of electronic instruments—a trend that is continually unfolding today.

On his new album Teenages, composer Qasim Naqvi shows us that a synthesizer can change and respond to its player just like any other more traditional instrument, creating a surprising and one-of-a-kind journey of an album in the process.

Teenages is played entirely on an analog modular synthesizer, which is a synthesizer made up of multiple synth units connected together without a playable interface like a keyboard. Essentially, the machine generates tones while the player guides it, turning knobs to change frequency, create rhythms, or add timbre filters. What makes Naqvi’s machine so special is that he built it himself over the course of two years, and the process of the instrument’s evolution is catalogued on the album. Reflecting on the process of learning his machine’s quirks, Naqvi found that it seemed to react to his impulses in surprising ways and to mature over time, which inspired the album’s title.

The first five tracks of the album were created in the year leading up to the title track. They give us a sense of the machine’s evolution, beginning with “Intermission,” an atmospheric and ambient track that starts from almost a single tone, expanding slowly to include pulsing sounds of different timbres and pitches.

“Mrs 2E” brings in some more recognizable material, with stuttering beeps and blips fluttering around the steadier rhythms of something resembling a melody and bassline. “Palace Workers” continues this progression, with a quirky but danceable percussion section keeping a steady beat. This is joined by a bouncy, repetitive synth line that starts to give a sense of harmony. By “No Tongue,” Naqvi and his machine have learned to work together to form what sounds like an ensemble of electronics featuring a bright, melodic hook, lively textured rhythms, and scattered beeps and clicks.

While “No Tongue” is animated and restless, “Artilect” takes us into deeper waters with a low, pulsing drone that makes you wonder what could be around the corner. This leads us finally into the main event, “Teenages,” an almost 20-minute track which brings together everything that came before. Multiple synth lines build steadily upward into rich harmonies to form what sounds like an electronic orchestra playing an oddly off-kilter sort of anthem. These chords are then warped and spun through different filters, with fluttering synths imitating and reacting to each other over time to create what feels like a journey through the mind of Naqvi’s machine.

For Naqvi, modular synthesizers feel almost alive in a way that he wanted to capture by treating Teenages like a live album: the title track, for instance, was recorded in a single take, with no edits or overdubs. Showcasing the sometimes-unpredictable behavior of the machine was a priority for the composer, and this makes for an album that is always evolving and transforming into something new.

In the end, it is both Naqvi turning the knobs and the machine interpreting his actions that come together to create something of a collaborative album between a man and his machine.

Theory of Mashup: Remembering The Residents’ Hardy Fox (1945–2018)

by Michael Schell

The Residents in 1979.

Aim the searchlight of American Maverickism at the regions where prog rock, synthesizer music and multimedia intersect, and you’ll soon discover The Residents, the quirky San Francisco band known for eyeball masks, offbeat albums like Eskimo and The Third Reich ‘n Roll, and audio-visual projects such as the touring Mole Show and the interactive CD-ROM Freak Show. Active since 1971, the group labors anonymously, shrouding its members’ identities in layers of obfuscation and misdirection erected as a safeguard against vanity and commercialism—a concept they call theory of obscurity.

Hardy Fox in 2015 film Theory of Obscurity.

Anonymity can be hard to maintain in an era of Internet searches, fan forums and digital voice/image analysis. And for several years the suspicions of Residents fans have been focused on two former Louisiana Tech roommates listed as employees of the band’s management company. One is Homer Flynn, ostensibly the group’s art director, but despite repeated repudiations widely considered to also be its vocalist and lyricist. The other is Hardy Fox, who died of brain cancer on October 30, not long after admitting that despite his own decades of denial, he was indeed The Residents’ longtime keyboard player and principal composer.

Tributes to Fox have been flowing in print publications, social media and the web, most of them concentrating on The Residents’ most popular works—impious songs such as “Santa Dog” and “Hello Skinny”, or the more poignant recessional from the Mole Show. But in deference to the spirit behind theory of obscurity, now seems a good time to single out a lesser-known item lurking in the periphery of The Residents’ canon that might better represent pure, undiluted Fox.

The Thumb of Christ

Pollex Christi, supposedly written by a German composer named N. Senada (one of The Residents’ many sarcastic pseudonyms, this one punning a city in Baja California), appeared in 1997 on a limited edition CD. It’s a 20-minute synthesizer piece with occasional bits of drums and other conventional instruments mixed in—essentially a solo studio composition by Fox. It’s uncharacteristic of most Residents projects in being entirely instrumental and untexted, but it is characteristic in a different respect: it’s made up entirely of quoted material, mostly works by famous dead Germans.

The piece begins with the iconic four-note motto that launches Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Ives used the same motif throughout his Concord Sonata, calling it “an oracle—the Soul of humanity knocking at the door of the Divine mysteries.” But Fox’s hipster oracle would rather hit the weed than a hymnal, and Ives’ prudish transcendentalism has been exchanged for a more materialist kind of channel surfing. We quickly slide into a paraphrase of the opening of Orff’s Carmina Burana, followed by a short Valkyrie ride on synth and baritone sax. After a whiff of Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto, we return to Carmina Burana, which goes on to contribute several extended passages to the proceedings.

Since this is The Residents, and not Switched-On Bach, high German is obliged to share the stage with low American. Three times the masters’ descended wisdom pauses to allow the theme songs from Peter Gunn, Star Trek and Popeye the Sailor to pass. Wagner returns in the form of a passage from the Tristan prelude that’s presented basically intact, but his overture to Tannhäuser is bowdlerized into a four-beat disco groove. When Orff has the floor, the music is often shifted to the minor mode, giving it an oddly dark tone (the normally celebratory Meadow Dance, for example, assumes a particularly sinister character in Pollex Christi). And throughout the piece, the selection of intentionally cheesy synthesizer patches, often with exaggerated vibrato, keeps the tribute an impertinent one. Fox said “I love all the music I mess up. It is my amusement park.”

The Residents on Night Music (NBC, 1989).

Onward and Outward

Fox’s style of synth mashup reached its apogee in an even more obscure album called Codgers on the Moon (2012), where, using a new alias (“Charles Bobuck”), he appropriates Stravinsky as source material in an especially arcane way that owes something to Igor’s own appropriation of Tchaikovsky in The Fairy’s Kiss. Along with Pollex Christi, Codgers offers an insight back into the more familiar world of the Residents’ famous American Composers Series albums of the mid-1980s, which featured covers of Gershwin, Sousa, James Brown and Hank Williams. The latter’s “Kaw-Liga”, reinterpreted with a pop beat and a bass line cribbed from Michael Jacksons’s “Billie Jean”, is a particular favorite of Residents cognoscenti. The band’s newest release, I Am a Resident! (2018), may be the ultimate mashup, wherein the band remixes covers of its songs submitted by its own fans.

Homer Flynn and Hardy Fox at Johansson Projects, Oakland, in 2011. Behind them is Flynn’s artwork for The Third Reich ‘n Roll.

With Fox’s passing, The Ghost of Hope (2017) now enters the books as his final Residents album. It’s a collection of songs about train wrecks whose closing number, “Killed at a Crossing”, describes the death of a woman who had worked as an able typist, realtor and detective while living under several false identities. Committing suicide on the tracks, her body and effects are scattered by the impact of a locomotive, dispersing the artifacts of a life marked by an odd mix of integrity and duplicity:

Leaving random relics
Like leaves after the wind
She called herself Mrs. Orwell
And Mrs. Burton Bain
And Arabella Campbell
And Mrs. Arthur Payne

It seems an apt epitaph for Fox and the band he co-founded half a century ago, whose diffuse influence can be found among ambient musicians like Brian Eno, New Wave groups like Devo and Talking Heads, video artists like John Sanborn, and even celebrity acts like Penn & Teller. The surviving members of The Residents continue to record and perform, attuned like Fox to the fulfillment of their own expectancies. It’s a loop that never quite closes, unsure whether it is on familiar ground or venturing somewhere quite new.

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘All Melody’ by Nils Frahm

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Alexander Schneider.

More than perhaps any other aspect of music, melody is what captures our hearts and gets stuck in our heads. Be it classical, jazz, pop, or rock—nearly all styles of Western music hold melody to be paramount.

Simple in theory but endlessly expansive in its possibilities, melody is at the heart of Nils Frahm’s newest album, out now on the Erased Tapes label. It is a collection of 12 songs in which not only all the music but also the entire recording space were created in service of that greatest musical jewel: melody. 

All Melody is Frahm’s ninth solo album, featuring the composer himself on his usual keyboard collection of pianos, synthesizers, and pipe organs—but here expanded to feature an ethereal choir of vocalists along with subtle strings and percussion. The album was recorded in the historical East German Funkhaus, a 1950s recording complex where Frahm spent the past two years renovating a studio with hand-crafted and hand-picked studio gear, including a custom mixing console.

The album itself is an ambient mix of minimalist melodies, mid-tempo dance grooves, and broad, synth-laden washes of sound. Though each song is expertly crafted in iridescent detail, the individual pieces also fit together into a larger whole, the album unified in its wistful melodies and muted colors.

Wordless vocals from the chamber choir Shards sing the first melody of the album in the atmospheric overture “The Whole Universe Wants to Be Touched.” Floating atop the whispering bellows of an organ, the choir intones a circling theme that beckons the listener into musical hypnosis. Pieces like “Sunson” and “A Place” feature more groove-oriented melodies, each its own intricately textured overlay of synth sounds and drum machines embellished with subtle strings, mellow percussion, and ambient vocals.

Other melodies on the album hint toward jazz in their poignant dissonances and wandering discoveries. Tunes like “My Friend the Forest” and “Forever Changeless” are intimate piano lullabies punctuated by the soft stir of the piano hammers and the gentle resonances of a bass marimba. A metallic trumpet melody weaves through an atmospheric trance in “Human Range,” while “Fundamental Values” paints a liquid wash of piano melodies swimming in a whisper of cello and bass marimba.

The album’s title track is an endless melody swirling through ever-transforming musical textures, infectious in its pulse and hypnotic in its repetitions. Equally mesmerizing is the relentless rhythm of “#2,” decorated with clipped choral melodies, synthesizers, and percussion. It’s followed by “Momentum,” a piece which echoes with the solace and solemnity of a church hymn, the choir and organ blending together into an expansive soundscape before eventually giving way to a slow and steady groove.

The aptly titled “Kaleidoscope” layers many, many melodies into dense clouds of sound, the distinctive details of each just waiting to be discovered with each additional listen. It’s contrasted against the album’s closing piece “Harm Hymn,” a gorgeously simple harmonic progression that brings melody back to its most basic form.

It’s a tenderness felt throughout the entire album, wrapped up in the immersive soundscapes and melodic orbits of each and every piece. Yet there’s something so vital and nuanced about that closing track—with each quiet, measured breath of the harmonium we’re reminded of both the simple pleasure and the intimate perfection of a good melody.