OHM is a really exciting release. The product is clearly a labour of love, and the location of artists in a larger context is brilliantly achieved - together with a definition of that context. Possibly the best compilation effort I've ever seen, it breaks ground like Hughes' `Shock of The New', providing a similar public service: the definition of essential repertoire. OHM gives us, for the first time, a map of this strange, fascinating territory, showing us the connections, and offering brilliant, concise critique in the beautifully-designed accompanying booklet.
One complaint about early electronica is that it's `interesting', but you can't listen to it. It's a din, or it sounds like cartoon or sci-fi music. Counter this criticism with OHM, which comprehensively renders the accusation false. The music is uniformly beautiful, substantial, affecting, repeatable. And it hits its targets in ways which can make contemporary stuff look wanting. Messaien's drifting, spiritual ondes martenot piece `Oraison' is an object lesson in the humanisation of electronica. Cage's `Williams Mix' is jawdropping: half a century old and hyperkinetically modern beyond Autechre or Kid 606, with a prophetic title. Tod Dockstader's `Apocalypse II' does things with voice synthesis to make Thomas Bangalter turn pale. Ussachevsky's `Wireless Fantasy' from 1960 is a techno bleepscape set against alien clouds of ambient noise. It's moving in ways FSOL, and even The Orb, imply but never quite get to. MEV's `Spacecraft' is an intensely clear, bone-raw noisefest to inspire any of Norway's current cutting-edge electronica/improv crossover artists; like AMM told they have 6 minutes left to live.
That's just CD1. Favourites from CD2/CD3 are: (1) David Tudor/`Rain Forest': trompe de l'oreille mapping out territory the Hafler Trio are fond of crossing; (2) Terry Riley/`Poppy Nogood': luminous, systemic, floating; a beautifully architected anticipation of ambient world music. (3) Luc Ferrari/`Promenade Music': `aleatoric' collisions of environmental sound. Zen-like, be-here-now music. (4) Francois Bayle/`Rosace 3': I admit Bayle has failed to impress me before now, but here he makes his `Jean-Michel Jarre of the avant-garde' tag work for him - in a big way. (5) Xenakis/`Hibiki-Hana-Ma': blood-dark, apocalyptic musique concrete. (6) Robert Ashley/`Automatic Writing': voices downloaded from another dimension (again, see Hafler Trio) underpinned by a gently funky bass track that sounds like it's bleeding through your ceiling. (7) Curran/`Cantus Illuminati': delicious, clamouring dronescape filled with bells and sighs. (8/9) Hassell/`Before and After Charm'; Eno/`Unfamiliar Wind (Leeks Hill)': these two selections represent a genuinely new idea in electroacoustics: after sine tones and oscillation come softly-textured granular fabrics. Hassell's piece is enormous, moving sky-church music; Eno's an intimate, enfolding glimpse into memory.
Throughout the 3 CDs, one is constantly impressed by two things: intense, bloody-minded, against-the-odds musical vision, allied with incredible discipline. Much music sounds diluted, smudged or second-hand compared with this. It's not easy stuff, but as the compilers so persuasively argue, without these pioneers, all the important modern idioms fail to exist. Mark Prendergast, in `The Ambient Century', argues all modern music is ambient. Well, no. All modern music is post-electronic - `post-OHM'. Find the roots, the methodologies, the tropes, and the atmospheres drawn together, unalloyed and superbly mounted, on this brilliant, essential anthology. From the selection of repertoire, through the commentary, to the graphic design, it's hard to see how this could ever be topped.