The Well Tuned Synthesizer: Surgeon and Breaking The Frame

“This album isn’t about ‘entertainment’, it’s about transformation, and transformation requires effort on behalf of the aspirant.” (from Surgeon’s pre-release notes for “Breaking The Frame”).

If there’s any electronic music producer around today that I think deserves time and effort on behalf of the listener, it’s Surgeon. His music has enriched my life in countless ways since I discovered it back in 1997 – Listening to it, dancing to it, telling people about it, playing it in DJ sets, dreaming about it. Birmingham came before Detroit in my personal journey of discovery into techno, so for me Surgeon’s music provides an underlying context and reference point that for many other people would be Derrick May or Underground Resistance. He even took the time to come to Coventry and play on the student radio show I used to do back in 1998, but that’s another story.

“Breaking The Frame” is his first album in 11 years, the previous being “Body Request”. In the meantime there have been some classic records on his Counterbalance label, the British Murder Boys releases, and more recently the highly refined Compliance Momentum EP on Dynamic Tension. However the pace has definitely slowed. Surgeon explains the lack of new releases by pointing to his dedication to digital djing technology: “The way I play now, I can try out new parts and alter things and layer parts and everything else without having to even complete a track. Or even release music”. The inevitable copying and file-sharing must be a big disincentive to release new music too. With this in mind, the appearance of a new album is surely a time to sit up and pay attention. And, as it turns out, “Breaking The Frame” is an album that requires a lot of attention to do it any justice.

“My initial idea for this album project was to explore ideas of science fiction, but when I started the groundwork, it soon became obvious to me that my journey was one to inner rather than outer space.” (pre-release notes for “Breaking The Frame”).

The immediate attention grabbers on the album are “Transparent Radiation”, “The Power Of Doubt” and “Those Who Do Not” – fully fledged, powerful, contemporary techno with a fair amount of dubstep influence. Another killer, and for me the track with truly mind-blowing potential, is “Radiance” – a psychedelic litany of punishing drums and distorted, shimmering organs that sounds like a fleet of UFOs showering the earth with rays of LSD and bass. Anyone who loves Surgeon for his ability to produce music that can make people dance like crazy wombats and unscrew their heads at the same time will naturally gravitate towards these four tracks. They’re another step along the path for the Surgeon we already know well from releases like “Whose Bad Hands Are These?”, “Midnight Club Tracks”, and “All The Saints Have Been Hung”, though they are generally less headlong and a bit more reflective. I was a bit puzzled by the remix of “Badger Bite” which has resurfaced as “Those Who Do Not”, but these four tracks turned me on straight away.

Despite disowning outer space in his preview notes there is still a strong science fiction feel to these tracks, especially the barren, interstellar chill that pervades  “The Power Of Doubt” and “Those Who Do Not”. Last year he mentioned Jeff Mills was becoming an influence again: “I remember a long time ago Jeff saying how big an influence Blade Runner was for him … It’s really exciting to feel connected again to Jeff’s music. There’s really been a lack of sci-fi in techno for a long time”.  Up until now I’d not really thought about Surgeon’s music having a science fiction trope. In the main I think his music is too visceral and distinctive to feel much connection with familiar sci-fi reference points like Metropolis, 2001, or Solaris, with the exception of a couple of tracks like the sepia-tinged vision of  “At The Heart Of It All”. I think Surgeon’s music has more in common with the fleshy horrors of films like Tetsuo, Scanners or Altered States, films which exploit subconscious relationships between our vulnerable bodies and the world. Whereas  Jeff Mills created a soundtrack in harmony with the film Metropolis, Surgeon’s “Screw The Roses” EP is much more in tune with the mounting, dyspeptic gloom of Eraserhead.

The other five tracks on the album require a bit more effort from the listener. “Dark Matter”, “We Are Already Here” and “Not-Two” are abstract electronic soundscapes, incidental sound effects from an unseen Kubrick movie perhaps. Icy, metallic tones and a high pitched squeal ring out in “Dark Matter”, while “Not-Two” segues from a fuzzy and chaotic field recording to ethereal voices. They’d do well in the context of a live a/v installation. I’d happily immerse myself in the magnesium drones of “We Are Already Here” in a dark room in the Custard Factory, although I wonder if it’s lost on my home speakers.

The remaining two tracks also stray away from techno: Slow, dubby beats underpin “Remover Of Darkness”, a minimalist exercise in repetition as two slowly mutating organ loops drift in and out of syncopation, while “Presence” also plays on the interphase of different tempos as tumbling harps mesh with a slow, factory clang. The background atmosphere reminds me of the eerie arcade game Limbo.

Certainly these five tracks are evocative and well realised, but I was a little sad the majority of “Breaking The Frame” leaves behind the element I’ve always loved about Surgeon’s work: powerful, dynamic rhythms that warp time in unfamiliar ways, like the muscular beats of “Stringent” or the intricate loom of “Set Two”. As a mixed bag of heavyweight tracks suitable for the dancefloor and arthouse sound experiments, I was left wondering what the motivation was behind this album. It would be a mistake to think of it as a “comeback album”. In terms of continuity with “Body Request” from 11 years ago, according to Surgeon, “conceptually they are very, very different pieces of work”. Neither is it a totally new direction, as a few of the tracks are in the spirit of earlier work.

It was only after listening to the album a few times that I came across the pre-release notes Surgeon published several months ago, with the previews that went up on Soundcloud. The previews have since been taken down, but the notes are still floating around if you look for them. It’s a shame they didn’t come with the album as they bring it into the proper focus it deserves.

“I studied the music of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Eliane Radigue, and Alice Coltrane, all of whom made deeply spiritual, abstract music. I was searching for the deep spiritual essence that lay behind the surface structures of their individual music. This album is the closest I have been to reaching that point.” (pre-release notes for “Breaking The Frame”).

Now, I have to confess that until recently I wasn’t exactly familiar with the work of La Monte Young, Terry Riley or Alice Coltrane, and I’d never even heard of Eliane Radigue. I wish I’d spent more time reading The Wire, although I did at least know that La Monte Young was a musician and not a Mormon university.  So perhaps the best spin-off from this album was that it got me listening to their music.

A session on YouTube and the panoply of references on “Breaking the Frame” began to stand out: The carefully tuned frequencies and Fluxus experiments of La Monte Young, the loops and repetition of Terry Riley, the precise sound design of Eliane Radigue, and the spiritual ambience and harps of Alice Coltrane are all summoned. Perhaps the missing name here is Steve Reich, whose process music such as “Piano Phase” could have easily inspired “Remover of Darkness”.

But rather than doing straightforward remixes or relying on samples, Surgeon has  gone for a kind of re-synthesis of their music, as well as his own. This is the “transformation” he undergoes – a process of self-reflection and assimilation in order to delve beneath the surface. A Surgeon mind-meld. “The Power Of Doubt” follows this process, merging characteristically Surgeon drum patterns with the sonorous drones of Eliane Radigue in a journey towards enlightenment. “Radiance” is the ecstatic transfiguration of “East Light”. It also explains the version of “Badger Bite” which appears as “Those Who Do Not” – The sharp percussion and knife-wielding strings of the original are blunted, the whole track sedated and turned inside out to reveal the psychotic frequencies inside.

Surgeon’s aim in doing this was to go beneath the surface and search for the “deep spiritual essence” in the music of his chosen influences. So what are the “surface structures” of their music, and what is the “deep, spiritual essence” that lies behind them?

The predominant “surface structure” associated with these artists is minimalism, whether that comes in the form of repetition, brevity, or long drones. La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Eliane Radigue all rubbed shoulders in New York and California in the 1960s and 70s, as different strands of minimalism began to develop. Terry Riley’s “In C” (1964) is a cornerstone work from the early days of minimalism – an ensemble piece based around the repetition of a fixed set of musical phrases. The result is a vibrant, shifting sea of rhythms and offcut melodies, which is paralleled on Surgeon’s album by “Remover of Darkness”. On the other hand, La Monte Young and Eliane Radigue explored drone states and the subtle relationships between frequencies that emerge after listening for a long time. “Dream House” is a La Monte Young/Marian Zazeela installation that has run more or less constantly for the last 12 years, filling the space of their New York apartment with intense colours and a loud, pulsating hum. “Dark Matter” and “We Are Already Here” seem like Surgeon’s closest counterparts.

The devotional jazz of Alice Coltrane seems to come from a different tradition to the other artists, although La Monte Young and Terry Riley both started out playing jazz, with John Coltrane a big influence. One common element is the influence of eastern music and the use of Indian instruments such as the sitar and the tambura, which La Monte Young learned to play. The droning sitar pattern of “Journey in Satchidananda” provides the anchor around which the whole track slowly unfolds; transposed by Surgeon into a metallic whine on “Transparent Radiation”. Closer links to minimalism have also been stated: “her electronic keyboard work … [has] strong affinities with the organ playing of minimalist Terry Riley. Her lengthy improvisations show little development, often using repetition and a limited dynamic range to achieve a kind of drone.”

Minimalism is like a natural aesthetic force which periodically takes over the reins of all forms of art at some point: “When we look at the beginnings of minimalism in music … I look at the first Taoist paintings. I look at Japanese haiku; I look at these paintings of Hokusai…one big wave, or one mountain again, and again and again. This is minimalism; minimalism has been going on in art since the beginnings of time” (La Monte Young).

In more recent times we have seen the emergence of minimal techno and its pallid little cousin “minimal”, as distinct from the full bodied excesses of Detroit techno, industrial techno or gabba. Surgeon’s music has played a huge part in shaping the development of techno (particularly minimal techno) over the last 15 years, but with this new album he’s delved into that much earlier era of minimalism for inspiration.  “It’s through our studies of tradition that we are able to be free and create new things” (La Monte Young). “Breaking the Frame” goes back beyond Kraftwerk to the dreamtime of techno, to a time of tape loops and ecstatic drones. What was the “deep spiritual essence” that he was searching for?

Minimalism lends itself to meditation. All the artists that Surgeon mentions devoted themselves to eastern music or religion: Terry Riley and La Monte Young became disciples of the Indian musician Pandit Pran Nath, accompanying him to India to study and perform. Eliane Radigue devoted herself to Buddhism after meeting the students of a Tibetan lama at a performance of “Adnos I”. And Alice Coltrane was a student of the religious teacher and yoga master Swami Satchidananda. “Journey in Satchidananda” itself is a contemplation of truth, consciousness and bliss. “I think the central teaching is meditation. I don’t think you can complete any path successfully without meditation” (Alice Coltrane). What does that meditation reveal?

Terry Riley: “The highest point of music for me is to become in a place where there is no desire, no craving, wanting to do anything else, just to be in a state of being to the highest point. Then you get a little meditated, you get to a place that is really still and it is the best place you have ever been and yet there is nothing there. For me, that is what music is. It is a spiritual art.”

La Monte Young: “I feel that spending time with a set of well-chosen frequencies can establish a very particular and in certain cases beautiful drone state of mind that can be like a referent, a constant for elaborate flights of the imagination so that, sure, already the body has many constants we refer back to, but this is like giving you a new constant which may, because of the way it has been composed and tuned, allow new flights of the imagination that might never have been possible before and could lead to new, undiscovered realms which might be extraordinarily beautiful and beneficial, and yet you can always come back to this constant.”

It’s tempting to think that Surgeon chose these particular references as a reflection of his own interests in eastern culture: his “deep, emotional connection with Japan” and commitment to yoga. Perhaps this album was a way to explore the gulf between east and west he must experience when travelling between Birmingham and Tokyo – A synthesis of his roots with the new culture he finds himself immersed in. On the other hand, Surgeon has always quoted a broad range of influences, from Coil and Throbbing Gristle to Aldous Huxley, so perhaps this is just another set of interests that possessed him while working on new material: “Influences come from any place, really. It just depends what I encounter … If I hear music that moves me, I want to share it with people … I’ll let other people worry about genres”. Either way, I think this album is his own journey in Satchidananda, a highly personal exploration of the spiritual dimension in electronic music via the example of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Eliane Radigue and Alice Coltrane. It asks the listener to see past their expectations, and open themselves up to new influences that lie beyond the surface structures of techno.

Linkage and references

A Breaking The Frame Companion (YouTube playlist):
A YouTube playlist I put together containing music by La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Eliane Radigue, Alice Coltrane, Steve Reich and Pandit Pran Nath.

Surgeon Interviews:

Semionaut (July 2011)

Resident Advisor (August 2010)

Timeout Japan (April 2010)

Video Interview (October 2010)

Experimence Video Interview, Japan (May 2011)

Breaking The Frame reviews:

FACT Magazine

XT3 radio

La Monte Young:

American Mavericks: An interview with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela (2002)

Interview with La Monte Young (David B Doty 1989)

Essay by Ed Howard about the Dream House of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela

Terry Riley:

Score and performance notes for In C:

LA Record: Terry Riley Interview (2009)

Rhythmos Magazine: Interview with Terry Riley (1992)

Eliane Radigue:

Prism Escape: Interview with Eliane Radigue

Junk Media: An appreciation of Eliane Radigue (2010)

Electronic girls: Eliane Radigue

Alice Coltrane:

Ascent Magazine: Interview with Alice Coltrane (2007)

BBC website review of Alice Coltrane “Transfiguration”

Pandit Pran Nath:

Lord of the Drone: Pandit Pran Nath and the American Underground by Alexander Keefe

7 thoughts on “The Well Tuned Synthesizer: Surgeon and Breaking The Frame

  1. Lovely feature and very eloquently written. This album deserves everyone’s attention. Thanks for the reference to our review at XT3, appreciate it.

    Will definitely be reading more of your articles from now on.

    — Harrison van der Vliet, XT3 radio

  2. I throughly enjoyed reading that and I’ll be coming back to check out the many links you’ve sprinkled throughout. Nice work on the pre-release notes it does put the LP in context.

    Thank you Olaf.

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