It was one of those days when the sun is shining and the temperature outside is rapidly approaching wintertime. Certainly not a spectacular day, but nevertheless a day that proved to be interesting. I went, with very little cash and my brand new K-Mart cheap faux-wool, black synthetic-blend hat, to a little shop that sells vinyl records. This hidden-away record shop carries a great selection of jazz records, but also has a decent punk/hardcore section, and some electronic/industrial records too. Actually the store carries every kind of genre imaginable. And as one would expect, there is the obligatory dollar bin where you can peruse through some vintage 80s music and horrible stuff your grandparents would listen to and like. Despite feeling utterly relaxed in this cramped store, amidst shelves of old records and the smell of basements and attics, I was slightly uncomfortable due to my hat. When I purchased this hat, it looked like a perfectly normal hat, but once I put it on, at home of course and after I tossed the receipt, it was gigantic. It was obviously meant for someone with a cranium twice my size. So, of course, I kept it. I figured if I were lucky, I would annoy everyone that would have the displeasure of viewing this giant black hat on my head. I figured any awkward glances by unsuspecting passersby would at least provide me some amusement on unspectacular days such as I assumed this one to be. However, no one seemed to mind my hat, and the day turned out to be a pretty interesting one.
So ignoring my hat became my first mission in the store. Next I aimlessly looked around for nothing in particular. I decided to head for the cheap stuff, just to see what I might find. Within two minutes of fighting off an asthma attack and a massive sneezing fit, I found an interesting album and bolted straight for the newer vinyl to escape the incredible microscopic dust storm from Hell that I unwittingly stepped into. Once I felt better, I examined the album, which was actually a two-album set with not a scratch to be found on either disc. The price: one dollar.
The album was something I never even knew existed. I am familiar with a lot of music and, in spite of my predilection for electronic music, I am a classified jazz nerd and I know way too much about classical music than I should. I also have very specific dislikes. I find most country music to be hideous. I abhor musicals of any kind except Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (I can listen to those Oompa Loompas sing those well-intentioned songs all day long). Despite liking classical music, I do not like opera. So what the hell was I all giddy about holding a recording of a Swedish opera in my hand and inspecting it like I was in a used car lot ready to buy a car?
Frankly, I have no idea.
The opera was written by Swedish composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl. The libretto was based on the poem, “Aniara,” written by Harry Martinson. The name of the opera is ‘Aniara: An Epic of Space Flight in 2038 A.D.’ On the front cover are the ever-intriguing words: “Special Electronic Effects by Swedish Radio.” On the back are pictures of the stage performers in very 1950’s style futuristic costumes, complete with those tight fitting helmets (which made me think of my hat again) and those snugly fitting “space” outfits made from the finest of yet-to-be-discovered synthetic-blends. My immediate reaction: an operatic version of the Jetsons, directed for the stage by Ed Wood, with music provided by the Flaming Lips. On the Flaming Lips’ ‘Zaireeka’ album, I believe there is a song entitled “Driving to Work in the Year 2025” which is an interesting title and makes me wonder if Wayne Coyne has this album stashed away in his record collection.
There was no way I was leaving the store without this record.
According to the liner notes anonymously written on the back cover, ‘Aniara‘ was given its world premiere by the Royal Opera, Stockholm, May 31, 1959. The opera is “a collective drama of mankind in the Space Age.” The best guess I can come up with is that this record was released in 1960 on Columbia Masterworks, as there is no specific publishing date listed other than a 1960 copyright date for the translated libretto (Swedish to English) which accompanies the album. I am not sure if this was the actual world premiere captured on this record, but it appears that the recording was made sometime in 1959.
Upon listening, there are no discernible electronic effects being used during the first and second scenes of Act I. Mostly, there are the screeching sopranos one often associates with opera. Apparently, Blomdahl was very much influenced by composers Alban Berg and Paul Hindemith. Berg’s influence is very apparent in this work, as the music lurches atonally at times and sounds very “modern.“ Scene 3 of Act I offers some of the most challenging experimental electronic music recorded around this time. It is amazing how one can listen to the early works of bands such as Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire and notice how brilliantly they utilized electronic media in such a revolutionary manner. But to hear these sounds procured by Blomdahl back in 1959, within the context of a traditional music setting, certainly puts the history of electronic music in perspective. I have no idea what effects Blomdahl used, but I would guess it was some kind of pre-recorded amplified tape manipulation process. The sounds themselves are not outrageous, but they certainly approximate space flight in the year 2038 from a 1959 perspective quite well. No matter how proud you are of your CD collection, there is a lot of music out there that predates the electro/industrial/ebm/noise you enjoy. Compositions such as this unwittingly laid the foundation for today’s electronic artists.
The purpose of this article is not to discuss my annoying hat, or to brag about a speck of good luck I had in a used record shop on a seemingly ordinary Saturday. My purpose is to make you think about the origins of modern electronic music and urge you to challenge your musical listening habits. Hell, if I can walk around with my gigantic black hat, you can certainly try something a bit different. This album is on CD and I believe it is in print, but it will cost you. On the Internet, the CD runs between $20-$30. Or next time you are in a used record shop, check out the dollar bin. You never know what you might find.
Copyright 2003, Michael Casano