LAURIE SPIEGEL – The Expanding Universe

Unseen Worlds

Laurie Spiegel: all instruments, composition

The dumbfounding branching of Laurie Spiegel’s aggregated activities is alone worth of utmost esteem. The quantity of works she has done and still does – in a great number of fields – is amazing. It would take a week to read the millions of words she’s written on various topics and the ever-intelligent statements scattered in the interviews. I feel like the illiterate that I am when poring over the methods utilized to conceptualize and manage her creativity, technical descriptions that leave me none the wiser about how old computers and now-defunct apparatuses perform their duties. Icing on the cake: she is also an animal rehabilitator, which confirms her being special if the rest wasn’t enough. Then again, if you feel like learning the background there’s a lot on the web to peruse which won’t be reiterated or condensed here just to fill paragraphs.

Having said that, The Expanding Universe – the reissue in my hands features two CDs comprising several previously unreleased tracks besides the original ones – has never managed to enter the private realm of favorites; in fact, the head is scratched when mentions of it in the same sentence with names such as Eliane Radigue, Terry Riley or Philip Glass are found. Perhaps it’s the disproportion between the magnitude of the applied compositional effort and the scarce emotive reaction in front of the outcome: as a matter of fact, this writer perceives the work as a compendium of interesting (on paper) experiments that, more often than not, return results whose melodic and rhythmic elementariness prevents us from accepting them as profound masterpieces “finally” ready to be recognized by today’s masses. If the LP was initially published by a minor label, then remained semi-forgotten until now while the above mentioned artists – plus the Reichs, Subotnicks and Oliveroses of the world – proceeded to ultimate renown and glorification in the meantime, there has to be an explanation beyond Spiegel’s career choices.

That reason is, plainly speaking, a lack of actual depth in the overall sonic tissue, in spite of the nice comments by the aforesaid Riley and other benevolent quotes. The finest components – the title track and especially “Wandering In Our Times”, both closing the respective discs – have to do with gradual modulations, droning textures, inscrutable glissando and – in general – an attempt to focus on dilatory ebbs and flows and mutating shades. Still, I want to be direct to death and declare that nothing in there compares favorably to the perceptual extent and sheer goosebumps that, say, a Phill Niblock’s piece transmits to my core essence. What’s absent is the physical and psychological impact on individuals inclined to get pervaded by the right kind of interior quivering. Regrettably, Spiegel’s music has never achieved that aim whenever I tried it; when tackling the shorter archival episodes contained in this edition (case in point, “A Folk Study”) there’s no way to force myself to regard them as worthy of serious historical consideration.

Even the renowned “Kepler’s Harmony Of The Worlds” – opener of the golden record that was placed on the Voyager in 1977 – leaves me pretty unconcerned, whereas “Patchwork” is a contrapuntal nicety that can sound sublime or just basic depending on your mood. Of course, if you take into account the obsoleteness of that technology the whole discussion is pushed under a different light. However, what can a poor man do if the resulting sonorities are, for the most part, not of his liking? It’s not the first time that this happens with early computer music, and it won’t be the last. On the other hand, what’s appreciable is the warmth irradiated by the compositions; certainly we can’t say that this stuff is frigid. On the contrary, a welcome “children song” aura (see “Pentachrome”) is occasionally emanated.

Quoting Spiegel: “The violence of sonic disruption, disjunction, discontinuity and sudden change desensitizes the listener and pushes us away so we are no longer open to the subtlest sounds. But with continuity and gentleness, the ear becomes increasingly re-sensitized to more and more subtle auditory phenomena within the sound that immerses us. Instead of being swept along, as with cascades of many running notes in suddenly-changing blocks of time, such as “minimalist” music so often consists of, we open up our ears more and more to the more minute phenomena that envelope us”. This listener – who had definitively archived the vinyl copy in the 80s but decided to spend two full days with the restored version, spinning it ceaselessly in order to discover what was missing to join the legion of adoring latecomers – begs to disagree. It takes EVERYTHING to “re-sensitize” an ear, including radical changes of tempo and unforeseen harmonic shifts. Not only quietness and bit-by-bit continuance. Talking about Glass, when I first listened to Music With Changing Parts the enlightenment struck right away, exactly for those unendingly intertwining lines and odd-metred pulses ultimately generating cerebral drifting, in turn enhancing consciousness. To this day I can detect all the “subtleties” in Einstein On The Beach, whose pace is at times next to overwhelming. In a word: the brain must adapt and shift gears, and the devil takes the hindmost.

In the case of The Expanding Universe, rational amplifications pop up repeatedly during the listening phases. What they suggest is essentially a single question: why all this fuss about a rather ordinary chapter in the book of electronic music? The answer might be: because it documents a rare specimen of woman affirming a vision, a bright-minded researcher who devoted her existence to something important and whose investigations have broken new technological grounds. Therefore, let’s acknowledge it on this basis and consider Laurie Spiegel akin to fellow pioneers Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire in a cosmos overcrowded by male counterparts who frequently weren’t deserving the honors received over the years. As far as musical substance and emotional contents are concerned, the genuine milestones fly at higher altitudes.

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