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Laurie Spiegel - The Expanding Universe

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Artist: Laurie Spiegel

Album: The Expanding Universe

Label: Unseen Worlds

Review date: Oct. 24, 2012

The Expanding Universe is a thoroughly appropriate title for this collection of stunning electronic tracks by the lamentably underappreciated composer Laurie Spiegel. The original album — released in 1980, recorded five or six years before that — contained just four tracks, including the side-long title piece, but each was a beauty, and they now come augmented with 15 extra ones, all just as memorable as the first four. And in the way Spiegel embraced machines and synths at a time when computers in particular were viewed with distinct weariness, this epic work really does feel like gazing into an ever-growing universe of potential.

Spiegel’s music sounds remarkably cheerful at first, as the stripped down arpeggios of “Patchwork” bounce out of the speakers with the same upbeat spirit that traversed Cluster’s Zuckerzeit, recorded around the same time. “Drums” is equally bouncy, reimagining the percussive instruments via juddering proto-techno sequencer rhythm. The freedom that vibrates out of these tracks reflects the spirit of their composer: She is notable in her rejection of what she calls “pencil and paper” music based on notation, embracing the improvisatory potential of synthesizers. Equally, the looped nature of several of the tracks, notably “Drums,” “Clockworks,” the two “Music for Dance” piece and “Patchwork,” but also the more drone-based “Old Wave” and “Pentachrome,” underlines the use of computer algorithms and systems in the music’s creation. It may have emerged from machines the size of large wardrobes, but the music on The Expanding Universe clearly points the way towards the minimal techno scene of more recent years, particularly the likes of alva noto and Ryoji Ikeda.

It would be severely reductive, however, to paint a picture of a starry-eyed naïf having a bit of fun with machines, and there are so many depths and layers to The Expanding Universe that it quickly exerts a dreamlike, hypnotic thrall. The title track is a towering, near-30-minute masterpiece in which slow-moving drones intersect and accumulate into a giant sonic edifice. It’s one of the greatest pieces of minimalism this reviewer has heard in some time, and stands comparison with the best works of Eliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros, LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad, whilst also sharing some of the psychedelic qualities of Zeit-era Tangerine Dream. It’s this balance of the intellectual and the playful, the computer science and the musicality, that lends The Expanding Universe its rather unique charm.

As equally notable as the title track are the three “Appalachian Grove” tracks, on which Spiegel’s fascination with traditional folk (she’s an accomplished banjo and mandolin player, and also learned to play the guitar) shines out of the electronic cosmos. It’s still all machines, but the rhythms and drones bear comparisons with the work of Henry Flynt or Pelt. Conversely, some of the pieces have a distinctly futuristic feel, and find reflections in the modern synth underground of Oneohtrix Point Never and Emeralds. Laurie Spiegel was clearly a groundbreaking artist.

By Joseph Burnett

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