Spheres is somewhere between mesmerizing and frustrating, not least of all because it’s not the record that was originally made.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. Read more
Nobody today objects to the idea that you’re still making art if you create a painting or a sculpture that doesn’t represent anything “real”, so why do we still assume that the only things we can safely call “music” are akin to what we hear on the radio in four-minute bursts? John Cage tackled that problem head-on during his career, and reached a kind of compromise with his critics: you didn’t have to call what he did “music” if the term shocked them. But Cage was working within the relatively formal confines of a composer, even if his music reached and influenced a great many people who were outside of those circles — Todd Rundgren and Frank Zappa, for instance.
Over the last thirty years a lot of that has changed, as artists who work in more commercial formats and venues work to redefine music. They’re lumped in with popular music as a whole, even if they don’t sell to one-one-thousandth of an audience that size — probably because they appeal most directly to their respective audiences by making and selling records instead of more “traditional” venues like creating works on commission for galleries or orchestras. Not to say that they don’t do such things, but most of how they’re recognized by an audience comes from producing and selling recordings, and touring and performing in the same manner as more mainstream artists. The end result of this is a very broad, very active but extremely cluttered underground of experimental music, and the weight of decades has slowly weeded out anyone who’s not actually bringing anything original or creative to the table. Read more