Other Minds' Modern Hits

Other Minds, the San Francisco-based organization that champions music so far ahead of its time that the 21st century is still catching up with what OM championed in the last millennium, has turned its ear to archival works by unsung electronic music pioneers from the Bay Area and beyond. In its latest offering of digital-only Modern Hits releases, two of which are hi-rez (24/44.1), OM champions the music of Philip Bimstein, Tom Djll, Jerry Hunt, and Alden Jenks.

Even if you've never heard of these men, there's definitely something here for everyone. Universal in its appeal is Philip Bimstein's Angels, Cats & Shackles. The opening work of the three-piece Cats in the Kitchen (2007) by the Utah-based, Emmy Award-winning Bimstein (b. 1947) is fun, humorous, and at times hilarious. Even though our three terrorers basically slept through the performance, with nary a bark directed toward oboist Michele Fiala, flutist Heidi Pintner, and Bimstein's pre-recorded electronics, I was totally taken by tracks with titles such as "O Solo Meow" and "Where's Your Mouse, McGee?"

Bimstein, one of whose recordings received accolades from both Stereophile and Schwann Opus, has composed everything from the large-scale Half Moon at Checkerboard Mesa, which celebrates and explores the relationship between the landscapes of the desert southwest and its many cultural inhabitants, to Zion Canyon Song Cycle, which was the subject of an Emmy Award-winning PBS-TV special and also won its composer an Emmy. The former mayor of Springdale, UT, Bimstein is a yoga and mindfulness practitioner who teaches a course at the University of Utah and gave a 2017 TEDx Talk, "How to Practice Politics with Music in Mind." If you don't find that intriguing, I know just the President for you.

Alden Jenks' Drones showcases three pieces written between 1968 and 1972 that reflect the links between the new music and New Age communities that flourished in the Bay Area during that time period. The earliest piece, Lapis, which Jenks revised in 2016, accompanied a film of mandalas by John Whitney, and showcases the Mills Buchla 100 synthesizer. Space is dedicated to Stephen Hill, producer of the longtime Hearts of Space music broadcast series, while Namo reflects Jenks' immersion in Tibetan Buddhism and the classical music of North India. It's another disc that I recommend to all with whom this description resonates.

From here, we move into stuff made for folks with hardy constitutions. Tom Djll's Serge Works begins with Tombo (1987), a piece for trumpet, voice, and Serge Modular Synthesizer whose opening seems to depict a crazy, noisy monster hell bent on destruction. There's a lot of entrancing depth and left-right movement on this recording, and an equal number of growls, rings, and uncategorical noises. On some of the tracks, you'll hear Djll moving around as he performs on trumpets or manipulates the synthesizer. Some of it is lots of fun when it's not downright scary. The booklet includes an extensive interview with Djll (b. 1955), who is the youngest composer of the lot.

Finally, From "Ground" brings us almost 30-minutes of the total weird, personal, and oft-transgressive music of Texas-born and bred Jerry Hunt (1943–1993). Informed by practices in the occult, magic and ritual, this music is the creation of a composer who worked in relative isolation. When Hunt was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and emphysema, the habitual smoker chose to take his own life.

In 1980, Hunt journeyed to the studios of Pacifica Radio station KPFA-FM in Berkeley, CA, where Other Minds founder Charles Amirkhanian was Music Director, to record himself on electronics percussion, piano and vocalizations. The single track includes the sounds of tape machines, hand claps and slaps that Hunt made with rattles or bells attached to his wrists, and vocalizations based on text from George Eliot's novel, The Mill & the Floss (1860). While it didn't grow hair on my chest, it just may do so on yours.

Lastly, a plug for the extraordinary resources that Other Minds makes available without charge through its website. RadiOM.org, for example, offers everything from recordings of OM's 23 festivals to priceless interviews between Amirkhanian and the greatest new music composers, conductors, and performers of the last 50 years. Lou Harrison, Brian Eno, John Cage, Laurie Anderson, György Ligeti, and Anthon Braxton are just some of the many brilliant personages whose voices and beliefs come to the fore in Amirkhanian's interviews.

Register for the OM archives, and you'll find far more performances, interviews, and readings than you'll know what to do with. During one of the many periods when KPFA was in turmoil, Amirkhanian, who was ousted from his Music Director position by narrow-minded people who failed to make the connection between cutting-edge music and progressive politics, rescued huge amounts of historic material that was in the process of being stolen. The OM archives are an absolute goldmine. If you've never heard John Cage speak or read, check out this link for starters.

Robin Landseadel's picture

I first got on the air at KPFA in 1988. Charles Amirkhanian was still in charge of the music department, I started with a slot in the Morning Concerts series. One of the very first things I did was edit a "Speaking of Music" event featuring Nicholas Slonimsky. That particular tape is burned into my memory, the voice of one of the wisest and funniest men I have ever heard. I'll check out the Other Minds website, sure to find something good there.