Adventures in Sound is a new three-CD box from the Cherry Red label, gathering three relatively recent compilations—2009’s Adventures in Sound, 2010’s New Directions in Music, and 2013’s Electronic Music for the Mind and Body—into a single budget-priced set. Despite the title of the 2010 disc, none of this music is new; in fact, these are classic pieces created between the late 1940s and early 1960s by some of the most important composers in 20th century music.
Adventures in Sound features pieces by five composers. It begins with Pierre Schaeffer‘s Cinq Études de Bruits, a five-part suite from 1948 that pioneered musique concrète by collaging field recordings. Each piece focuses on a specific set of sound sources: trains, piano (played for Schaeffer by Pierre Boulez), toys, etc., arranged not into conventional melodic patterns as later devotees of sampling would do, but rather into haunted-house collections of sounds that leap at the listener unexpectedly or create eerie atmospheric effects through reverb and echo. The album then jumps to the 1950s with Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s Studie I and II and Gesang der Jünglinge. The first two pieces are composed of pure electronic tones, while the latter combines electronic music and musique concrète—specifically, the voice of a 12-year-old boy soprano singer. His syllables and phonemes are mimicked and countered by various electronic sounds that bubble, squeak, and hum. The next pieces heard are Diamorphoses and Concret PH, by Iannis Xenakis. The former is a fascinating collage of electroacoustic pings, whistles, and crunches that sometimes sound like tiny bells, and other times like slamming doors. Although Concret PH was made using only the sounds of burning charcoal, Xenakis’s “samples” are so thoroughly manipulated and transformed that they defy the traditional musique concrète approach and become a constant sharp crackle, like grinding glass between one’s teeth, with a second sound like tiny hammers striking metal.
The album concludes with Edgard Varèse‘s Poème Électronique (for which Concret PH was a kind of intro music; the Xenakis piece played outside a pavilion while the Varèse composition played inside) and Pierre Henry‘s Le Voile d’Orphée. The latter piece, composed for an opera, exists in two versions, one 27 minutes long and the other just over 15; the shorter one is included here. Befitting the circumstances of its creation, this is an attempt to combine the experimental nature of musique concrète with a symphonic approach, and the result is something fascinatingly theatrical and sci-fi at once; the layered sounds (some electronic, others using traditional instruments, but all warped in some way) are matched by multiple male and female voices, whispering and reciting texts in French. It’s like having ghosts in your head, in a good way.
New Directions in Music features works by only two composers, Stockhausen and Boulez. It begins with two Stockhausen pieces, Étude Concrète and Zeitmasse, and ends with three more, Kontra-Punkte, Zyklus, and Refrain. Each features different instrumentation. Étude Concrète, as its title suggests, is a musique concrète piece, three minutes long, that sounds like a stuttering set of static bursts, layered atop one another. Stockhausen himself considered the piece a failure, and the tape was lost for many years; he didn’t allow it to be published until 1992, 40 years after its creation. Zeitmasse is a chamber piece, scored for five woodwinds (oboe, flute, cor anglais, clarinet, and bassoon). While its score is complex, the results are relatively accessible to the untrained ear; it could be a birdsong-based tone poem.
Kontra-Punkte is a piece for a 10-member ensemble that, again, is complex on the page but still relatively straightforward and pleasing to listen to. Zyklus is a percussion piece that often sounds like a soundtrack to a cartoon we don’t get to see; it inspired a lot more writing for percussion, though, much of it better than this (Roscoe Mitchell‘s “The Maze” is the percussion piece to hear, if you’re only going to listen to one). Refrain is for three players on piano, celeste, and percussion, and occasionally they make little mouth noises, which is entertaining. In between the first two Stockhausen pieces and the last three, we get Boulez’s half-hour Le Marteau Sans Maître, written for alto flute, guitar, viola, vibraphone, and percussion, and occasionally featuring a female vocalist singing poems by René Char. The combination of the operatic vocals and the music, which is mostly sputtering and disjointed little flurries of notes, is diverting, but it would have worked better as an instrumental piece.
The final disc in the set, Electronic Music for the Mind and Body, includes one more piece by Stockhausen (Kontakte), another by Xenakis (Orient-Occident), one by György Ligeti (Artikulation), and two by John Cage (Cartridge Music and Aria with Fontana Mix). As the title indicates, every piece here is electronic in nature. Kontakte is 35 minutes long, and travels through a vast forest of sounds; sometimes it’s barely audible, even on headphones, but then a sound will come in so loud it’s like being punched in the ears, especially when heard on headphones. Waves of static, underwater booms, clangs, burbles and zaps all come and go, with little or no connection to one another. Ligeti’s Artikulation features brief, staccato bursts of sound, some like sonar, others like clanging bells run through a filter; Cartridge Music is a series of scrapes and rumbles, with some very nice almost subsonic bass effects buried underneath the waves of almost harsh noise wall-esque static and sounds like a barrel being torn open by robot claws.
All of this music is of tremendous historical importance. It’s all been compiled elsewhere over the years, many times in the case of most pieces, but this three-volume set, especially considering the price, is extremely convenient and pretty much essential. Beyond its historical/archival value, though, most of this stuff is simply a blast to listen to. Considering how seriously these guys all took themselves, and the lab-coat conditions under which this music was created, the actual results (“Zing! Crunchcrunchcrunchcrunch! Boing! Wopwopwopwopwopsqueeeee…” etc., etc.) are both thrilling and at times oddly hilarious, and never, ever boring, especially on headphones. You’ll never know what kind of whacked sound might be coming next—or what direction it’ll be coming from—but the general humorlessness and mad-scientist vibe of these Euros (Stockhausen especially) and one American means you can always be sure they’re not just fucking with you. They were breaking every rule, carving out brand-new territory, and the results were so radical that they still sound amazing today. This is the true definition of “experimental music,” and 60+ years later, the results hold up.