Zen Sounds 057: Outsider music & natural coffee
Some tunes and albums I've been bingeing on while relishing unwashed beans and the writings of Haruki Murakami
Some years ago, I stopped drinking coffee on a daily basis. Since then, I’ve been avoiding bad or standard coffee, occasionally having a really good one though. I’ve also started learning more about the different varietals, dry processes and fermentation methods. Like with wine, food or music, once you know how it’s done, you tend to appreciate it even more.
I’ve noticed that like in music and arts, you will find traditionalists and experimentalists in the coffee community. Traditionalists will insist that washed beans taste more pure, while experimentalists love the rich, fruity flavors that “naturals” (unwashed beans) produce. They also tend to be interested in special processing techniques, like maceration and anaerobic fermentation. Personally, I lean towards the experimentalists, and this is a newsletter on experimental music and culture after all, so I hope you don’t mind this short excursion.
Anyway, I drove to the city for a day of meetings this week, so I took the opportunity to buy some coffee. It’s almost impossible to get good coffee up here in the countryside. Of course I could just order it online, but I love the experience of visiting my favorite roastery and tasting a new coffee on the spot. This time, I tasted and bought a natural (anaerobic) Portillo from Rodolfo Ruffatti Batlle’s farm in Western El Salvador. The beans were macerated for 48 hours; a process that intensifies the fruity aromas. I am enjoying a cup while writing these lines – it’s irresistibly sweet, but also has a beautiful acidity to top it off.
If you’re a subscriber, you know I’m usually recommending one album per week. I’ve decided to switch things up a bit this time and talk about a few different tunes and albums I’ve been playing on repeat lately.
Tolerance – “Pulse Static (Tranqillia)” (1981)
So I’ve been listening to the 2023 re-issues of two albums by obscure Japanese outfit Tolerance, originally released on local indie label Vanity Records: “Anonym” (1979) and “Divin” (1981).
Tolerance was the musical project of mysterious dental student Junko Tange, with some input from guitarist Masami Yoshikawa. Both have disappeared completely since releasing these two records.
Both albums sound interestingly strange, combining Tange’s abstract spoken word poetry with synth and guitar experiments that were way ahead of their time.
Just listen to the first track off “Divin”, a ten-minute synth jam called “Pulse Static (Tranqillia)” that sounds like the missing link between “Zuckerzeit”-era Cluster and early Juan Atkins, anticipating Basic Channel’s minimal dub techno at the same time. How unlikely was that type of proto-electronic music coming from an Osaka student, 42 years ago?
Want to know more? Read Philip Sherburne’s excellent Pitchfork review.
Avalon Emerson & The Charm – “Sandrail Silhouette” (2023)
It’s getting warmer outside, and I’ve been enjoying this new album by electronic music DJ/producer Avalon Emerson. The music is not very experimental per se, but in the context of the artists discography it’s a huge experiment.
Most fans and critics would have expected a dance record from her, but this is her “band record” – a collection of melodic songs influenced by the dreamy synth pop of the late 1980s and 1990s, think Cocteau Twins meet Magnetic Fields. Emerson has compiled some of her influences for a great Herb Sundays playlist.
The opener “Sandrail Silhouette” is one of my favorites, building off a jangling guitar line and pristine string work. Ideal music for riding your bike past blooming canola fields.
Roberto Musci – “Lullabies… Mother Sings… Father Plays” (1988)
Never has the term ‘otherworldly’ been as accurate as when describing the female voice on this tune. Someone on YouTube suggests the singer might come from the Solomon Islands, and listening to the vocals on a 1973 compilation of local traditional music, this assumption does seem probable.
Roberto Musci, a composer and musician from Milan, layered the enchanting vocal with acoustic guitar, piano, bass and clarinet, and created a little masterpiece. He’d traveled Africa, India and Asia extensively between 1974–85, bringing home local instruments and field recordings that he employed on his experimental ambient records.
This tune appeared on “Urban and Tribal Portraits”, a collaboration LP with fellow Italian composer Giovanni Venosta from 1988; it was re-released on Music From Memory’s outstanding Musci retrospective “Tower of Silence” (2016).
Delta-Sleep-Inducing Peptide – “You Are My Paradise (Coma Mix)” (1992)
D.S.I.P. were an electronic noise project by German producers Siegmar Fricke and Dieter Mauson, both very active on the local tape underground of the early 1990s.
I first noticed this tune on Tarotplane’s amazing three-hour dark ambient mix “Deep Head Scene”, as it stood out to me from the very first listen. A couple of days later, I heard it again when Lukid opened his May NTS show with the haunting, ethereal melody of “You Are My Paradise (Coma Mix)”.
This warped synth ambient tune stems from a D.S.I.P. cassette released in 1992, but according to the liner notes, it was recorded two years earlier, in February 1990. The tape just got re-released, but it sounds as if the master tape has been exposed to direct sunlight for the last 31 years. I have to say, I prefer the original version to the Basinski-type treatment of the reissue.
Martyna Basta – “Podszepnik II” (2023)
I’ve been into the Krakow-based sound artist’s music since her debut album “Making Eye Contact With Solitude” came out two years ago, so I’ve really been looking forward to her new LP “Slowly Forgetting, Barely Remembering”.
It’s extremely strong as well, but I’ve been getting back to this specific tune more than anything else on the record. Here, Basta – a trained classical guitarist that abandoned her instrument in search of more explorative forms of expression – picks up her guitar to play a deeply haunting motif which she then layers with her characteristic wordless vocals, violin and synth drones.
As Laila Sakini said in an interview with Zweikommasieben:
“I think music should be about what we can’t say easily. It should hold and express feelings that we have. Sometimes it compounds the feelings I have, which might be sadness or something that lifts me up and I like the fact it doesn’t fit into a paradigm – an either / or.”
billy woods & Kenny Segal – “NYC Tapwater” (2023)
Naturally I’ve been bingeing on “Maps”, the second collaboration album from New York’s alt-rap king billy woods and L.A. based producer Kenny Segal.
A concept record on the pitfalls of an independent artists’ post-pandemic touring life, “NYC Tapwater” marks the comedown at the end of the journey. The best moment comes in the second verse, when he admits to sometimes not telling anyone he’s back, just to “lay low” in his apartment for a few days.
Over Segal’s syrupy flowing, sluggish jazz beat, woods perfectly captures that feeling of coming home exhausted, catching the last bus downtown, grumpily musing on the accelerating gentrification of his neighborhood.
If you’re new to woods: Pitchfork just ran a great feature on the artist, his label Backwoodz Studioz and the chronology of their unlikely underground success.
Album of the week
Zoviet France – “Shouting At The Ground” (1988)
Over the past months, I’ve been diving into the discography of Zoviet France, one of the most important bands of the UK 1980s industrial tape underground. Their early material sounds harsh, abrasive and dissonant, clearly inspired by Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. By the end of the decade, the group had shifted towards an analog and tribal version of experimental ambient. It’s that period from 1987–91 that fascinates me the most.
“Shouting At The Ground” might just be Zoviet France’s opus magnum from that era. Using self-built instruments fed through hardware effect units, the group created a collection of sometimes droney, sometimes percussive pieces that sound like ethno-musicologist field recordings from another planet, somewhere between Jon Hassell’s early work and Popul Vuh’s most out-there records.
It’s not possible to recommend a single track from it – you need to immerse yourself in the full experience. I can’t get enough of it.
Haruki Murakami – “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” (2008)
This is branded as a memoir, but the Japanese author is notoriously private and reclusive, so it’s not exactly a deep-dive into his biography, even though he does recount how he sold his profitable Tokyo jazz bar to become a writer in 1982. The rest of the book goes deep on the relationship between running and writing, but to me, Murakami’s memories also contain some extremely valuable lessons about the beauty of regular exercise and setting the right priorities in life. Case in point: I’ve recently taken up running again.
© 2023 Stephan Kunze