The 8-or-so-year span around the turn of the millennium — let’s say 1995 to 2003 — was kind of an extraordinary, magical time to be a participant in the musical underground, especially (for me) in the crossover between the experimental wings of both “popular” and “classical” worlds. (Scare quotes because, well, you know.) I attribute a lot of this to Tortoise and other so-called “post-rock” bands, who were citing Cage, Reich, Xenakis, and other art-music types as influences on their approach to song-craft, as well as to an increasing number of young conservatory-trained musicians finding long-assumed value differentials b/t art and pop totally baseless. Whatever: it meant that, at a certain point, I wasn’t remotely surprised when, flipping through the new-release bin at Durham, NC’s Radio Free Records — a short-lived but much-loved shop serving the rekkid-gripping needs of local punx — I came across this gem.

Sub Rosa’s aesthetic encapsulates the pan-genre ideology of the time, and this release distills it nicely. It includes landmark early examples of musique concrète and “pure” electronic music (Pierre Schaeffer’s Cinq Etudes de Bruits, Edgard Varèse’s Poème Electronique, Iannis Xenakis’s Concret PH), alongside deeper cuts by folks both well-known (John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Henri Pousseur) and less so (Walter Ruttman, Gordon Mumma, Konrad Boehmer). But it also digs heavily into areas that would usually elude anthologies of “art music” electronica — and in the process, illustrates how that distinction is pretty meaningless. Sonic Youth’s Audience is usefully juxtaposed with Cage’s Rozart Mix, highlighting their overlapping approach to “non-musical” sound as compositional material; Einstürzende Neubauten’s Ragout: Küchen Rezept sits nicely against Boehmer’s Aspekt, both highly complex and detailed arrangements of noise and texture. A few things aren’t great representations of their creators’ best work, but even those are interesting for being otherwise unreleased. The biggest revelation is a recording from an event by Survival Research Laboratories, a Bay Area collective who create self-destructing spectacles of noise and violence with robots and explosives; the biggest letdown is the first cut, an at-the-time VERY rare document of Luigi Russolo’s notorious intoarumori (noise instruments) —unfortunately, represented in a pretty lame composition by the composer’s brother Antonio. On the whole, though, this is an awesome reminder of the range of sonic possibilities available since the onset of recording technology, as well as the extent to which artists across genre boundaries have influenced one another irrespective of those artificial divisions.


  1. Radio Free Records was SO awesome, and SO short-lived. In retrospect, it was so clearly doomed to fail, with e-commerce and Napster and all that. Still, I haver such excellent memories of both the store and the community it fostered…
  2. This is some serious old-man shit, I know, but boy, do I miss my record-store heyday. We are blessed with some really great ones here in the Asheville area, and I frequent them when I can — but with responsibility comes a loss of that special feeling of freedom to spend hours thumbing through vinyl, chatting with clerks, and not really thinking twice about spending too much money.
  3. It is interesting to consider how revolutionary (like, in a crazy-person way) the intermingling of genres seemed in those pre-YouTube days. I don’t, in any way, feel nostalgia for what came before (i.e., the feeling I had, while at Eastman, of harboring a dirty secret in my love for punk and indie rock). Still, I do wonder how the experience of coming of age in music today differs — like, do young musicians still hold some sense of some types of music being more value-laden than others? (My students give me varying stories on that front.) And in the end, does it make any difference whether they truly understand how intensely those “battle-lines” were drawn? Idle thoughts, maybe.

No full-length posting. Here’s the catalog page if you wanna look for individual pieces, and a couple teasers.