Commonly known as ‘The Black Record’ or ‘The Black Album’, this is an untitled album. It’s dark, ominous noise drones that sound like an army of church bells being dragged over rocks, hundreds of miles underground. It comes with some pretty bizarre cover notes and instructions for use such as “To listen to the live performance, playback at 33 1/3 rpm. However, this side may be played back at any slower constant speed down to 8 1/3 rpm, i.e., 16 2/3 rpm which is available on some turntables.”
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- The Black Record by La Monte Young / Marian Zazeela
9/10 Robin Staff review, 19 August 2015
This landmark record helped develop drone (or, at least, it put some people onto the idea of it) while seemingly testing the waters of new age early into its existence. The first piece, recorded in 1969, brings together a sustained sine wave, courtesy of sound artist La Monte Thornton Young, with two steadfast vocal performances: his own, plus Marian Zazeela’s. Together, they stay a narrow course while carrying harsh harmonies for twenty-odd minutes. You can hear where their voices modulate, where they rise up, but you can’t tell one apart from the other -- it’s a kind of homogeneity that makes the music feel self-perpetuated, tones created out of nothing. Unlike contemporary pioneers of vocal ambient, such as Julianna Barwick or Ian William Craig, these two artists sound earthed, bringing their new age as close to the listener as possible.
Flip it over and the two artists offer up an early snapshot of bowed music; this one, recorded in 1964, seems to be merely about the tone and timbre of the recording, with RPM being an almost optional factor: “playback at 33 and a half”, the blurb advises, adding “however, this side may also be played at any slower constant speed down to 8 and a half RPM”. On this side, Young and Zazeela seem to want to put the physical ferocity of drone music into their audience’s minds -- with both artists slowly extracting sound from two gongs, they create a rumbling, tectonically shifting sound that has clearly inspired the compositions of James Tenney, the works of Yair Elazar Glotman and the cello doom of Mohammad. So yes, these two have definitely laid down a framework for certain types of drone; 'The Black Album' can still be heard in the sounds of 2015. Like many ambient artists, though, their only real reason for making this music seems to have been curiosity. Listening to their experiment is further proof that drone is as fun as it is academic -- both approaches can be a form of investigation, and anyone should have access to it.
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