Various Artists

Electronic Kabuki Mambo

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Originally issued as Highlights From Vortex by Folkways in 1959, the 2002 CD reissue changed the title to Electronic Kabuki Mambo, with the subtitle "Highlights From the Legendary Vortex Sound & Light Experiments at San Francisco's Morrison Planetarium." It also has an artist-looking credit reading "Henry Jacobs' Vortex" on the spine, but it makes more sense to regard this as a various-artists compilation, since it contains short electronic pieces by a few composers (Jacobs, Gordon Longfellow, David Talcott, and William Loughborough), though Jacobs has four of the nine tracks. The Vortex project began in 1957 under the sponsorship of Berkeley, CA, radio station KPFA and the California Academy of Sciences, and the music it created was played at shows in San Francisco's Morrison Planetarium, where 38 speakers could help simulate sound as a moving entity. Then it must have sounded futuristic; by the time of its 2002 reissue it sounded relatively primitive, not just because of the more basic technological level of 1950s instruments, but also because stereo recording can't hope to simulate the surround-sound of 38 speakers. Here the sound-in-action simulation is limited to volume swells, fades, and travel between the mere two speakers that are standard hardware for most home-audio systems. Still, these are interesting avant-garde experiments in their own right -- far more avant-garde when listened to in isolation than as accompaniment for a planetarium show -- that use eerie combinations of percussive noises, electronic, distortion, and loops to create a creepy sci-fi atmosphere. Some of the pieces, such as Jacobs' "Chan" and "Rhythm Study #8," are also forward-looking in their use of improvisational ethnic-flavored music on flute and guitar, along with an Indian tabla and Haitian drums. In a more dissonant mood, to pop-oriented listeners Longfellow's "Notes on the History of a World, Part 3" will sound rather like the intro to the Rolling Stones' "2000 Light Years From Home" stretched out to an entire four-minute track.

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