Spheres is somewhere between mesmerizing and frustrating, not least of all because it’s not the record that was originally made. This is a severely edited-down version of a much larger work, Hymns/Spheres, an album which spanned two LPs when originally released in 1976, but did not appear on CD until 1997 or so. When it finally did turn up, it was shorn of all but four of its tracks, with a fifth one turning up on another disc and the rest still only on vinyl. Maybe, in a strange way, it was for the best, since Spheres is one of Keith Jarrett’s most distinctive but least accessible records, and might have benefited from some careful editing. I just don’t know that this was it.
Spheres compiles a series of improvisations recorded on the gigantic Karl Joseph Riepp Trinity Baroque pipe organ at the Benedictine Abbey in Ottobeuren, Germany. Those familiar with Jarrett through the warmth and intimacy of his piano improvisations will be shocked at how positively alien this record sounds, not only because of Jarrett’s atypical playing but the sound of the organ itself. It brings to mind Tangerine Dream’s very early Virgin-era records, which consisted not only of electronic instruments but conventional ones that had been heavily processed with studio effects and tape manipulations. Here, no effects or transformations have been applied; what you hear is exactly what it sounded like the moment it was performed. Most of the peculiar “vocalizations” accomplished with the organ were done by opening and closing some of the stops partway, an effect that almost all pipe organs have had since their creation.
Because the album bears so little resemblance to the rest of Jarrett’s work, it has an uneven reputation. Lovers of space music or experimental sounds in general (like me) find it fascinating; Jarrett fans think of it mainly as a gross indulgence without any real payoff. That may have been the reason why ECM decided to cut the original fourteen movements down to a mere four: not only did it save them the cost of having to reissue the whole thing on a double CD, but perhaps Jarrett himself decided to take a second look at the album and single out the best works from the dross.
The way I discovered the record was part of the reason why I lament how it has been cut down so severely, and actually involves Tangerine Dream in a tangential way. Back in 1978, Dream were commissioned to create the score for William Friedkin’s Sorcerer — a favorite film of mine; I’m still waiting for a decent DVD edition to review — and did so after having only read the screenplay. Their score complements the movie wonderfully, but one of the most dramatic musical cues in the film is not theirs; it is from the third movement of Spheres. And as you can imagine, the third movement is not on the CD; the only place it has ever appeared is on the LP of Spheres itself. (The first track on the LP, “Hymn of Remembrance”, is available on the Selected Recordings double CD — as well as a totally redundant inclusion of the 7th movement of Spheres.)
I am often drawn to things that are daring but flawed, if only because I can be forgiving of the flaws and see through to the impulse at the heart of the work. I admire Spheres for what it is at its very best, and I suspect a great deal of its worst moments were left behind when it was edited down. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to find out about them.