Lights in my brain

Does your equipment make a difference? Let me rephrase that. Are their particular kinds of music that benefit from being played on the fanciest audio system, incorporating Bang & Olufsen's most expensive amplifier and Mordaunt Short floorstanding speakers? I would guess that readers of Tangents are more likely than most to have grown up appreciating the accidental magic that the cheapest and most cheerful machines generate - while it would be the ruination of a piano sonata, your average indie 45 always sounded better on an antiquated Dansette, a cheap Bush turntable, or being driven by the 'Vinyl Killer' (a Japanese camper van with a stylus fixed to its undercarriage) favoured by the Grand Royal crew a few years back. The Great Truffle Hunter of Bexleyheath himself regularly used to send me tapes which sounded like they had been recorded on equipment fashioned out of a biscuit tin and a couple of biros, yet the music seemed all the more exciting for that.

The moment comes when you have a little money at your disposal, and unless you want to pursue the purity of cheapist technology as an end in itself, it becomes possible to go out and buy sound-enhancing separates. I saved all summer long on a farmboy's wages and bought the best I could manage. Speakers, receiver, cassette deck and turntable: all told, it cost 353. Bar the dear departed tape deck, they're all still going. I keep meaning to see if gold-plated interconnects and speaker cables with the girth of hawsers really make a difference, but let's not let this turn into an advert for Richer Sounds. You get used to listening to music on your particular set-up - it's the constant against which you map the shifting sands of your musical taste. Being an admirer of the jangly and scratchy guitar sounds of Hurrah! and Big Flame, I turned the treble up to maximum in 1983 and it's stayed there ever since. Okay, I also turned the bass up when I moved to Bristol sometime between Blue lines and Tricky's first 12", and the CD player into which I was able to stick Protection made a big impact, but essentially I have listened to music at the same aural setting for twenty years.

Everyone has had memorable moments in the face of live music. But how many particular instances of listening to recorded music can you remember? At home, each listen to a favourite record blurs with another. I may believe I can remember playing Emily's 'Stumble' for the first time back in my Holloway bedsit days, but I'm not sure I can really distinguish it from the other couple of hundred times I've listened to it. So it's an away experience. Three such occasions stand out for me. I'll leave the first to your imagination, combining as it did the spatial, mental, techno landscapes of Ultramarine's Every man and woman is a star and a hallucinogen. The second was the night I first heard John Coltrane's version of 'My Favourite Things'. We were in Lancaster. Our Chef for the evening cooked us baked leeks with honey and ginger, then took us for a beer at his local. But before that memorable dish and memory-damaging ale, he set in motion those fourteen minutes of what I have come to think of as shadow-tinged joy, and surely at a volume louder than Coltrane ever played it or heard it himself. Loud, far louder than I'd ever play music at home. If Chef (who now writes an excellent weblog which takes its name from the first single by the aforementioned Big Flame) hadn't been living next to a medical centre, without evening neighbours to worry about, he'd have maybe had the volume down a notch or five, and I might never have heard the space in that recording, the sheer cliff-face-in-sunlight beauty of the tone of the horn. It was almost as if Coltrane was there in the room, playing for us in person. I suppose many things will sound pretty impressive played at a volume which gives you no choice but to listen to every finger movement on the fretboard, every softly-stroked snare, every weird glitch - but then I think of hearing, say, the Doors at that volume and know this doesn't follow.

Skip a couple of years to a flat in Brixton, New Year's Eve, 1998. It's well after midnight, and we're just sitting there, long since stopped drinking, odd bits of streamers stuck to hair and clothes. One of our hosts, Tourajsig2, a man who knows his asymmetric coaxial geometry oxygen-free copper interconnects from his elbow, decides the time is right for Music has the right to children, which for some reason I had resisted purchasing (probably an injunction issued by Chef), even though it was on that home of the weird hits, Warp. The sounds from his expert's audio equipment are immediately arresting, and again, very, very loud. But it's New Year's Eve, and so instead of worrying about Tourajsig2's neighbours, I immerse myself in the listening experience. The Boards of Canada are allowing me to experience the Ultramarine effect, on nothing more serious than a few dissipating pints of bottled beer. I have never heard a sound so crystalline, so mesmerising. Here too is space, almost visual in the separation of one element of the sound from another. The rhythms serve the mood rather than force it; although occasionally they are upbeat ('Roygbiv', 'Aquarius'), mostly the shades are those beyond bittersweet. The sampled laughter and voices of children give you the sense that kids are trapped in the music; as well as being a manifesto for the creative urge, the album's title is surely also meant to have a malevolent edge. Proto-industrial and typically techno song titles, together with the confusionist tactic of calling yourself Boards of Canada when you are from Scotland, underpin the feeling that you're in a foreign or fictional land. A feeling not diminished by stepping out a few hours later into New Year's morning darkness, surrounded by as many homeward bound Brixton residents as you might see at six p.m. on a workday evening.

In an attempt to recreate the 'away' listening experience, my partner in crime and I listen to the Boards of Canada's latest release, Geogaddi, for the first time as we drive north in a new car, whose greatest virtue - aside from getting us from A to B - is its CD player, a piece of on-board technology we haven't had before. Ready? Let's go.

'Music is math' underscores the point that what we are about to hear is as much aural geometry as music (and if 'architecture is frozen music', is music organic architecture? Discuss). 'Gyroscope' is a kaleidoscope of rhythmic stomach crunches and the breathing of a virtual harmonium. It's road-eating music. We speed past Leicester in the third lane of the M1, hypnotised in a space somewhere between the music and the white lines. 'Sunshine recorder' is typical of Geogaddi's Nico-ish iciness, austere and somewhat detached. The children that music had the right to are still trapped in the studio, but they're telling us it's 'a beautiful place'.

As the land starts to fold, and Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire roll into each other, 'Julie and candy' picks out distant blue-black hills beneath clouds which have taken something of their shading from what lies beneath them. The music assimilates the landscape; or does the landscape assimilate the music? On '1969' a vocoderesque vocal crosses swords with a virtuosic melodic swirl while a booming old school hip hop beat leaves its reverberations trailing behind us, the overall effect being weirdly akin to 'the past is a foreign country' feeling of 'Bicycles' by the Clientele: 'I remember one Sunday / riding in through the gate / three balloons in a white sky / nineteen seventy-eight'. Vast barns, the hulks of industrial units heave into and out of view. Young, bare trees are planted in the motorway cuttings like serried ranks of upturned witches' broomsticks. Sky windows in a house on a hill, a stately ruin which I remember seeing many times before - the map reminds me that it's Hardwick Hall - are dramatised by 'The beach at Redpoint'. Old homes in local stone and new in imported red brick cling to a hillside in rival patches. A muck spreader manoeuvres in the corner of a field to 'Alpha and Omega'. Pylons range away, while lonely trees at intervals mark a path along the perimeter of a field to the top of a hill; a lonely hoarding trailer advertises the Ibis hotel further down the road.

As we cross into Yorkshire, 'The devil is in the details' seems to be eating not so much the road as the car itself. The large expanse of a Sheffield satellite town lies beneath us to our left, parts of it in sunlight. A radio transmitter commanding a hill which in turn dominates a spread of arable land synchronises itself with the brief appearance of 'Over the horizon radar'. As 'Dawn chorus' begins, it starts to rain. Conifers shield an old quarrystone house from its unfortunate proximity to the M18, onto which we have forked before joining the A1. At the start of 'Corsair', we see the chimneys at Ferrybridge sunlit on the horizon, their smoke curling away until it becomes indivisible from the cloud and the pulsing of the music. As the final track 'Magic window' counts up its silent seconds, sunbeams jump through a crack in the clouds. Today, Boards of Canada provide the perfect soundtrack to all of this and more.

And when we get home a few days later and are sat in front of the tv, there they are setting the tone for an advert for BMW and a trailer for a programme on diabetes, both of which are somehow unfortunately appropriate. The Boards surely grew up on the BBC Radiophonic Workshop's most famous music - the theme tune and incidentals to Dr. Who - and have probably since acquired considerable amounts of its vinyl output. So a Boards of Canada film soundtrack can only be a matter of time. Their music might also have powered the conveyor belts of 'Break Down', artist Michael Landy's methodical destruction of everything he owned save for the boiler suit he stood up in. His car, his David Bowie LPs, his love letters, his credit card, his Damien Hirst painting (how amusing to learn that his destruction of the work of other artists cost him a Turner Prize nomination: lily-livered Tate jury members are obviously still haunted by the ghostly presence of Bill Drummond at the 1993 award ceremony). And his Dad's sheepskin jacket. All gone. Irretrievable, mostly. Bravery that is both programmatic and philosophically acute.

It's a few weeks later. I've listened to Geogaddi many times since our trip to Sunderland. It isn't as melodically striking as Music, but it does have more colouring and rhythmic patterning. I still haven't invested in a pair of those gold-plated interconnects or some high bandwidth copper speaker wire. Although I could play it through the tinpot speakers of my computer and it would still sound great, Geogaddi just might push me over the edge.

© Daniel Williams 2002


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