Selections by Michel Castagné
When I was invited to contribute to this feature, I was told that ‘weird can mean whatever you want it to’. My thoughts were immediately spewed on by the stream of unclassifiable music that was purged out of the psychedelic era and has flowed on into the present. Much of it would probably have been forgotten sooner or later outside of hushed collectors’ corners, but the Internet has found an audience for an indefinite quantity of grotesque explorations. But while I love that stuff to bits, this list will focus more on the ‘uncanny’ side of weird. Rather than fling one-off oddities at you, I’ve selected a few strange and singular visions that continue to fascinate me in spite, or perhaps because, of their will to remain nauseatingly inapprehensible.
In chronological order:
1. Jim Fassett – Symphony of the Birds (EM Records, 2005 re-issue)
First up is this curiosity from 1960. CBS radio host Jim Fassett liked listening to birds so much that he made this curious ‘symphony’ from field recordings by Jerry and Norma Stilwell. The birdsongs, from catbird chirps to chickadee cheeps, are slowed down or sped up, as well as superimposed on each other but, Fassett announces helpfully, ‘it’s bird songs and nothing but bird songs you are about to hear’.
2. Joakim Skogsberg – Jola Rota (Tiliqua, 2008 re-issue)
Skogsberg recorded this acid folk masterpiece while alone in the Swedish woods in 1971. The psychedelic guitar noodling would probably have been forgotten if it weren’t accompanied by his strange and insistent sing-song voice. There are claims that his vocal style, ‘jolor’, has roots in Swedish folk music, but I suspect the roots lie deep beneath the quiet songs that you sing under your breath to keep yourself company when hunting mushrooms, ooh-doo-dum-diddle-dee-dum, doo-dah, dum-doodle-dee-doo.
3. Robert Ashley – Automatic Writing (Lovely Music, Ltd. 1979)
Composed in secret over the course of five years, Ashley’s classic ‘opera’ is an intimate and unsettling manipulation of the involuntary speech that he produced due to a mild form of Tourette’s Syndrome. The other ‘characters’ are the French translation of his garbled speech, as well as distant Polymoog and organ harmonies. Steven Stapleton (of Nurse With Wound) claimed it was the only music he could experience while taking LSD that didn’t make him feel claustrophobic and paranoid, but mileages may vary.
4. Moniek Darge – Soundies (1980-2001) (Kye, 2009)
While celebrated at home in Belgium as well as abroad for her and her partner's idiosyncratic take on field recording and sound-art composition since the ’70s, Darge's published recordings are few and far between. Thankfully, Graham Lambkin collected several of her pieces on disc, curious collages that often list animals (such as the Turkish turtle) alongside exotic and home-built instruments.
5. The Shadow Ring – Lighthouse (Swill Radio, 1999)
Depending on how much you like low-fidelity recording, kitchen cutlery percussion, cheap electronics, and absurdist declarations/poetry, Graham Lambkin (again) and Daren Harris’s seminal band will either be a revelation or a headache. Lighthouse is one of their later works, as well as one of their more challenging: a double LP of sparse, repetitive and haunting cooped-up insanity.
6. Runzelstirn & Gurgelstøck - The Asshole / Snail Dilemma (Tochnit Aleph, 2000)
A bit more confrontational than the other works in the list, this is a live recording of Rudolph Eb.er’s aktion in Japan called ‘Tokyo Concert for Stringquintett and Asstrompet’, featuring Yakushinji Kaori on the, yes, asshole trumpet. I’ll let your imagination and appetite for the weird fill the torturous blank. Needless to say, the concert ended with police in pursuit of Eb.er.
7. Paul Lansky – Alphabet Book (Bridge Records, 2002)
As chance would have it, his claim to fame will probably end up being for the 40-second extract from “Mild und Liese” that Radiohead used in “Idioteque”. That sample is, however, just a footnote in a large and fascinating oeuvre of computer music. Alphabet Book, from a few years ago, is one of my favourites. Lansky and his wife recite letters and numbers accompanied by a sparkling minimalist polyphony of computer-generated and ambient music. At first it might remind you of Sesame Street, but it gradually blossoms into a beautiful alphanumeric world of its own.
8. Jaap Blonk, Koichi Makigami, Paul Dutton, Phil Minton & David Moss – Five Men Singing (Les Disques Victo, 2004)
What it says on the tin: five men singing. Except if you know the five men involved, then what’s inside might not be agreed to be ‘singing’. Each of these men has mastered their own unique techniques of vocal improvisation, and together they form a joyous choir of squelching, stuttering, muttering, quacking, flapping, choking, gargling and whirring. And so much more. Ah, the peculiarities of the human voice!
9. Foust! – Jungle Fever (Swill Radio, 2009)
First, some scuffling, a distant voice, then a toe-tapping drum rhythm kicks in, accompanied by birdcalls, rustling leaves, and an intermittent whining sound. The drum continues unremittingly for the next half an hour, equal parts irritating and compelling, creating a hallucinatory trance that carries into the second part of electronic whirs, movement of wind, footsteps, more birds, strings, engine moans, falling rain; after 50 or 60 minutes, the distinctions between the recording, the environment, and music disappear and, even if you’re asleep by now, it is the calm, unsettling land of the uncanny.
10. Gowan – “Moonlight Desires”
For the tenth and final entry in my list, something more light-hearted (yet no less weird) goes without comment.