The Color of Sound


Ages ago, it seems, I stumbled onto a band that opened up for me the possibilities of what music could be.

Band. That word connotes things which seem oddly inadequate for this.

Back in 1973 I bought two records from a local store I favored (Play It Again Records, now long gone). I may have been advised to get them or it may simply have been the covers and the length of the tracks. I used a number of questionable metrics back then to find music, because not all of it was being played on the radio, and frankly almost none of my peers were into some of things I was into.

What I was into  I later learned was called Progressive Rock. In 1973, my favorite bands were, in no particular order, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull, Santana, and Chicago.  But I also owned Switched-On Bach and someone had told me about Beaver & Krause.  As my record collection expanded, odd records started showing up.

One of the things about most of these bands that appealed to me (not Santana or Chicago, no) was the use of synthesizers.  I played keyboard then, and bands that featured prominent keyboards caught my attention.  As time passed,  the aural landscapes created by synthesizers became more and more central to my musical æsthetic.  Curiously, much of this led me back into classical music (even as the better keyboard players reintroduced me to jazz, which it turned out I liked from a period before my adolescent record-collecting phase).

I loved synthesizer music.

Those two records I bought that day were by Tangerine Dream—Phaedra and Rubycon.

I was drawn into them completely.  There was structure, certainly, but little traditional formatting. Soundscapes. When I think of the term “tone poem” this is what comes to mind. Waves and currents of sound, overlapping, blending. I listened to those two albums constantly. This, to my ear, was Pure Music.  It was a separate reality.  I could drop the needle, lay in bed, and experience…

I have never done drugs. (Yes, this comes as a bit of a shock to people; even my father didn’t believe this.)  Chemical escape never appealed to me.  But this, I imagined, was pretty close to an hallucinogenic experience. Immersive, escapist, expansive.

Over the next few years I acquired a few more Tangerine Dream albums, but none of them captured me quite the way those two did.

Tangerine Dream became a band I would check up on from time to time. They went through periods of radical transformations, even as they remained true to their basic mode. Synthesizers were always primary, but eventually they began to sound more like a “band”—drums, guitar, the occasional saxophone, and compositionally shorter pieces that mimicked “songs.”  While I liked much of it, there were only echoes of what they had accomplished on those first two albums I’d bought.

Once the internet opened up and such things were searchable, I looked for what else they had done, and discovered a long history.  And, yes, distinct periods, often the result of changes in personnel.

Tangerine Dream alumni have gone on to do other things (Christopher Franke notably did the soundtrack for Babylon 5) but the single constant had been Edgar Froese.

Froese died in 2015. He, with the then current line-up, had been working on a new album.

When work had begun on this album in 2014, Tangerine Dream was a four-piece—Froese, Thorsten Quaeschning, Hoshiko Yamane, and Ulrich Schnauss.  Another new period, another re-imagining.

The longest surviving bands, unless they adopt a condition of perpetual stasis as a review act, constantly re-presenting their heyday, undergo continual change, both in personnel and in approach. Sometimes this just happens, an emergent property of natural evolution. Sometimes it is intentional.

Froese died before the project this new Tangerine Dream was completed. His wife, also Tangerine Dream’s manager, saw it through.

So here I have been listening to the result—Quantum Gate.  I’ve been playing it a lot.

It is possibly the most successful mix of what I found in those two albums from long ago and the various changes they embraced over more than 50 years. I hear the lushness, the abandon to “pure” music, but packaged in structures that allow the tracks to be heard as coherent pieces—not quite songs, as such, but perhaps sonatas.

The quality of the compositions and their execution are perfectly matched.  The range of sounds does not overwhelm.  Nor is this wallpaper, bland ‘scapes designed to be heard but not listened to. Close attention is rewarded, and surrender to the directions offered accomplishes the immersion that makes this kind of music so satisfying. The brain is massaged.  Coming out the other end…

I haven’t found a recording I’ve enjoyed on constant replay as much in years.

Tangerine Dream is a fascinating workshop, a pocket of unique music that fits no preconceived niche, not easily. There have been imitators, certainly, but few as successful or as continually interesting.

 

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