This is a blog devoted to music on the edge - experimental, underground, alternative, subversive, or just plain weird - new music that tries new things, or old music that broke old rules. It's a place to discuss ideas, share discoveries, to think about what makes music interesting and challenging but still good to listen to. Join in and have your say!!

Friday, August 20, 2010

In the deep dark creepiness of election eve ... Coil ANS

Election eve is always an anxious time for me, as it probably is for a lot of people and, on a night like this, where Australia’s future rests on a knife edge, with the conservatives on one side and the ultra conservatives on the other, I can do little other than retreat into a dark corner and seek, Linus-like, comfort from my security blanket.

Which for me, of course, is music. And what better security blanket on a night like this than some creepy ambient drone music, played on a Soviet synthesiser that has been standing in the bowels of the Moscow State University since its construction began under the direction of the Red Army in the 1930s?

It is called an ANS (named, incidentally, in honour of the Russian composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin) and, in a nutshell, involves images being painted onto a glass plate, inserted into the machine, which then converts the images into electronic sound waves. So it doesn’t play tunes, and it doesn’t have a drum kit, but instead omits eerie, long, slowly morphing tones, sometimes pulsating, sometimes not, generally high or highish pitched, in harmonies that are harsh and indeterminate, in tones that pierce you while they massage you, and with a deep, almost subliminal, bass that you feel rather than hear beneath it all. If you've got a decent sub-woofer, the floor will vibrate underneath you, while your ears seem to register almost nothing below middle C. It's a frighening, unnerving feel.

The music changes and takes shape, and loses shape, in the way that you might expect the colours of a nebula to do: slowly, imperceptibly, in the space where stars are born and die in far, far-reaching darkness. The only shape here is the shapelessness and, when you can learn to accept that, you find you are agog at the beauty, cold like the markings on a snake.

The ANS is being ‘played’ here by Coil, a British avant-garde group who formed in the early 1980s but who produced this amazing piece of work in 2003, when the Russian government allowed them access to their ANS for just a few days. The results are stunning. But they are by no means what everyone would like, or even what everyone would call music – sounds that you might expect to hear in the darker, deeper recesses of your brain, in the bits that are deep inside you but that somehow connect with the outer regions of space, too – which is exactly where the great Soviet film director, Andrei Tarkovsky, put them when he used the ANS in his film Solyaris, a sci-fi epic that takes you to a planet that reflects back at you the most hidden recesses of your mind.

Coil’s ANS is a 3 CD/1 DVD set – the DVD displaying electronic graphics that are every bit as weird and spaced out as the music they aim to express – and, from what I can gather, it’s a set that is generally pretty difficult to find, and sometimes pretty pricey when you do. But if you like your music to challenge not only your concept of what music is but also your sense of psychic stability, your sense of things being as they should be – and, after all, how else could you feel on election eve? – then this is music worth hunting down.

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