John Cale

New York in the 1960s, Vol. 1: Sun Blindness Music

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The first of three projected volumes of Sun Blindness Music (the other two are Dream Interpretation and Stainless Steel Gamelan, respectively) comes from composer Tony Conrad's tape collection from the period of activity collected in the Table of the Elements ongoing series New York in the '60s. There are three works collected on this disc: the title track for Vox Continental organ, recorded while John Cale was in the Velvet Underground in October 1967; "Summer Heat," for electric guitar in August 1965; and "The Second Fortress," for electronic sounds recorded between late 1967 and early 1968. "Sun Blindness Music" is easily the most demanding and perhaps most rewarding piece on the disc. Over 43 minutes in length, it consists of a single chord played with varying dynamics and subtly shifting timbres according to the placement of an extra note or the tensions employed by Cale. There are times when the full-bodied chord is so complete and forceful in its presence it is nearly unbearable, and others when the tension goes slack and Cale takes the dynamic and shifts into low, then ultra-low gear, and as tension shifts and slides, so does volume. There are minutes of near total silence before the chord is reintroduced with ferocity and magnificence. Needless to say, the use of micro-harmonics is in full employ in the timbral exchanges produced by the deployment and abandonment of tensions. If the Velvet's Sister Ray had a root for its exploration of anarchy and order, this was it. "Summer Heat," an explosion of guitar chords and single note drones played out over 11 minutes, are as intimate as a rock & roll demo or "basement" tape. Recorded in Cale's apartment on Ludlow Street, this track predates a Velvet rehearsal by only a few weeks. The sound here is already in full blossom, self-contained in its own cracked, wide-open glory. The final ten-and-a-half minutes are Cale fooling with various electronic sounds and creating -- as he had in the two pieces preceding -- his own unique take on the place of the drone in sound. Overtonal composing had long been a large part of the raison d'etre of the Theatre of Eternal Music, aka Dream Syndicate (the group Cale was involved in that included La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, Marian Zazeela, and Angus MacLise). Cale's extrapolation of drone and dissonance to form a new architecture for whole tone studies is in full evidence here, and directly contradicts Young's assertion that only he of the original group was still using drone by this time. The subtle, shifting timbral specters are as present as either of the aforementioned tracks, looped through a tape recorder, and brought back to be layered upon another line as the previous one disappeared into the tape ether -- prefiguring "Frippertronics" by six years, and Brian Eno's ambient music by a decade. While it is true that Sun Blindness Music isn't for the casual Cale fan, it is a stunning document, offering not only a glimpse into the past of a particular place in time, but also a model for virtually all the popular and underground music that came after it: punk, no-wave, ambient, downtown NY improv, the drone experiments of EAR, later Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized, and the prefiguring of turntablism. No, it's not a stretch. This is the best. Period.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 42:44
2 11:07
3 10:38
blue highlight denotes track pick