Monday, February 7, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 93: Tangerine Dream

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

At one of my previous jobs, there were two full-fledged music snobs who worked in the office. The two men were both in their mid-forties, married with no kids, and whether through a mid-life crisis or pure love of alternative rock, they were really into Radiohead. They would sit around during their lunch break and talk about how much they liked Radiohead, how they used to not like Radiohead, and the exact moments when they started liking Radiohead. This happened at least once a week.

In this same office was a third employee, a bit more reclusive, who sat in his office every day and listened to Tangerine Dream. He was older - mid-fifties - with a long white beard. He took most lunches by himself but every so often would engage with the Radiohead fans.

"I can't get into this newer stuff," he would admit. "I'm a fan of the classics, like Tangerine Dream. They were the first to do this stuff, and the best."

One of the Radiohead-ites would always repeat the name as a question - "Tangerine Dream?" - and then look at the other one quizzically. An awkward silence would ensue, and the two opposing musical camps would part ways. I probably saw this ritual take place a good half dozen times. 

I never heard the Radiohead fans listen to Radiohead, or even show any real devotion beyond constantly shoehorning the band into any musical conversation (instead, they spent their time about those concerts they had been to in the nineties). But the Tangerine Dream fan listened to Tangerine Dream in his office all the time while doing work. Walking by, you could hear drones and squeaks emanating from under the door. 

I can't say I like Tangerine Dream's music better than Radiohead's, but I admire my old coworker's  devotion to the band (though I'm not certain, he always implied he had been listening to them since the early seventies). And I even understand why he listened to the group so often during work hours; Tangerine Dream makes some great background music, adding a mythic soundtrack to an otherwise unremarkable day. 

It was only when I started to actually listen to Tangerine Dream that I began to run into problems.


ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Tangerine Dream

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Aside from those fleeting aural glimpses at my old job, I once watched a 1911 silent film version of Dante's Inferno, with a Tangerine Dream soundtrack. The soundtrack was a strange feature, anachronistic and distracting, and I put the film on mute halfway through. 

MY LISTENING: I listened to Phaedra (1974) every day this week. I also listened to Alpha Centauri (1971) four times, Zeit (1972) and Rubycon (1975) twice, and Atem (1973) once. 

WHAT I LIKED: A lot of Tangerine Dream's music reminded me of a movie soundtrack; if I listened to it while occupied with something else (reading, driving, cooking, writing this blog post), I found it interesting, but when I actually listened to the music on its own, I found it exceedingly dull. You may have noticed that I listened to a lot of albums this week, but that's because it was easy background music; I actively listened to very few. 

Still, there were a few things that jumped out to me. Alpha Centauri was recorded while the band was still into more avant-garde krautrock and less into the electronics and sequencers. I found the fuller palette of sounds more interesting - "Sunrise in the Third System" is a nice mix of holy and ominous, with flute and organ overtop wordless wailing, while "Ultima Thule" is one of the band's few songs that rocks. Alpha Centauri experiments with a lot of interesting noises and textures and moods, and sounds like a young band excited to be taking risks. It's a shame that most of the band's later output sounded so boring. 

Out of their later albums, I probably like Phaedra the best. It experiments with rhythms and structures more than some of the band's other endeavors, is a tad more melodic and here it comes close to the 1970s synth music I like (such as Kraftwerk and Jean-Michel Jarre). The title track actually has some order to it, slowly crescendoing, and "Mysterious Semblance at the Stand of Nightmares" is interesting enough to avoid sounding too dated. 


I would say that ambient music isn't my thing, but I like some other kinds of ambient music - the early minimalism of Glass and Reich, or Brian Eno's Music for Airports. But those pieces take small melodic fragments and craft them into larger works. There's nothing small about Tangerine Dream's ideas - most of their pieces just sort of drone along on autopilot until they're done. Nothing is built up; the group plops down twenty-minute songs without using smaller units to provide any sort of anchor for the listener. 

Maybe this is interesting if you were on drugs in the seventies, but it was insufferably dull to me in 2011. I found myself constantly wishing for a rhythm or a melody or at least a different kind of sonic texture. Instead, once Tangerine Dream discovered the synthesizer, they based pretty much everything on slow-moving drones. 

Listen to "Zeit." It slouches along slowly, and I suppose there could be an experience hidden within these seventeen minutes. But there's nothing firm to latch onto. Some ambient pieces shift and change gradually, which gives an underlying structure to the whole experience, but Tangerine Dream doesn't seem to want to structure their longer pieces at all. No gradual build, no sonic shift, just minute after minute of beeps and drones and mysterious vocals. There's no center to these pieces, and that means there's nothing memorable or even all that interesting. 

"Atem?" "Rubycon Part 1?" "Nebulous Dawn?" It all blends together for me.


[W]hat if we all had star maps in our DNA...and as we leave one life force we travel to our next planetary mission...

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: I suppose since I liked Alpha Centauri, I might like Electronic Meditation (1970). But post-Rubycon there's a large number of Tangerine Dream albums I'm probably going to avoid. 


Well, you probably haven't heard this. But it's one of the group's few singles, so I decided to go with it.

BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Fly and Collision of Comas Sola"

I don't know if it's one of their best, but maelstrom of percussion at the end certainly makes it one of their more memorable.