Monday, December 28, 2009

The most important record in my life

The Harmony Of The World was the first record I ever bought. I was only 8 years old, and the 25 cents my grandfather gave me to buy this record from a neighborhood garage sale in Pacific Palisades, CA circa 1980 wasn't technically "my" money. However, I had a choice of records, and my pick was made. And I was holding the money to acquire it. The only other hobby that interested me more than music and computers at that age was astronomy. At that moment, there was nothing cooler in life than space and astronomy.

I had zero interest in Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back (having just been released that year.) Those were just movies. Neither was about real space. Having read several books mainly concentrating on the nine planets and all their discovered satellites at the time, and having my interest in music grow and grow each year, a record about astrononomy was a major score.

I wasted no time putting on this record the moment I got home. I didn't know what to expect... and what I heard was nothing I would expect.

An 8-year-old doesn't care how accessible or difficult a song or album is. It's either cool or it is not cool. Since this was an astronomy record, it was automatically cool. This meant that if I didn't "get" what I was listening, I was going to force myself to understand why this record was cool, no matter how long it took.

I had no clue what to make of The Harmony Of The World. There's no singing. There are no voices at all. There are no melodies, and there are no rhythms (to an 8-year-old, that is.) There was a lot of scary humming sounds that went on for a long time. The only fun I could get out of the record was to play around with the speed of playback.

The giant 70's wooden monstrosity that was my grandparents' stereo system had a built-in turntable with four record speeds: 16, 33, 45, and 78. I would often just play around with these four speeds whenever I gave The Harmony Of The World my daily listen.

It wasn't until too long that my mother and grandparents asked me to use headphones whenever I played "that" record. They bought me a pair of headphones just for the purpose of saving their sanity from my super cool astronomy record. "Why don't you listen to other records? You played that one enough already." They never realized how much they were daring me to play this record longer and longer every time they asked that. How dare they tell me to put away something they knew I loved. I was always overly obsequious to my elders. I never was when it came to The Harmony Of The World.

Two months later, I was giving up. I was growing tired of trying to figure out why The Harmony Of The World existed. Nonetheless, I refused to toss this record aside. Even though I had moved on to more conventional records by Lipps Inc., The Gap Band, Devo, and XTC, I knew I had something special, and always kept it in a special place since.


Several years later, thanks to two adventurous 80s radio stations in Los Angeles: commercial station KROQ and college radio station KXLU, my tastes in music had expanded beyond mainstream pop and dance circa 1985. I had no friends from grade 7 to 12, so the radio, the record store, and the cooler magazines at the nearby supermarkets were my only source of music discovery. My family always encouraged me to indulge in music, as it certainly was keeping me out of trouble, so I went record shopping every weekend.

The last summer before I headed out to college at UC Irvine in 1989, I came home and played my Happy Flowers record Oof. I put the needle on the track "I Said I Wanna Watch Cartoons." Happy Flowers were a Charlottesville, VA duo known for making nauseous sounding noise rock with affected baby screaming and elementary bullying as their vocal delivery.

My grandparents and my mother ran into the living room and thought I was choking or dying! They found out it was just the record I was playing. "HOW CAN YOU CALL THIS 'MUSIC'? YOU SPEND ALL YOUR MONEY ON RECORDS, AND THIS IS WHAT YOU BUY? THAT'S DISGUSTING!"

Somewhere in the middle of my whole family yelling at me, I turned my head. And for the first time in almost 10 years, my eyes landed on the corner of "that" record poking out from the little pocket inside my grandparents' still functioning 70's wooden stereo monolith.

I've kept and protected The Harmony Of The World ever since. It changed my life. During those two months of stubbornly listening to the record in all possible manners, this process rendered me immune to being turned away by how weird or odd or experimental any music could be. I also realized I wasn't constrained to how I wanted to hear my records, thanks to playing around with the speeds on my grandparents' turntable.

The biggest irony, however, is that I finally understood The Harmony Of The World when I played it for the first time in nearly 10 years -- and I became extremely disturbed. I quickly calmed down once I realized the benefits I got from this record. Yet, The Harmony Of The World became and has remained the creepiest record I've ever heard.

The full title of the record is: The Harmony Of The World: A Realization for the Ear of JOHANNES KEPLER'S Astronomical Data from Harmonices Mundi 1619. It was made by two Yale professors in 1979: Willie Ruff and John Rodgers.

I was just about to post a link to my vinyl rip of this record, as I had yet to see another copy of this record in existence. However -- according to Amazon -- this record is currently in print on CD. So I will hold back from my original plan in light of this discovery. I just purchased the CD, and will report back if this CD's contents differ from the album's.

Just take this as a recommendation, in case you're looking for bowel churning drones -- and also to get a small slice of what has changed the course of my music tastes and hence my life.

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Blogger Jake Anderson said...

Nice testimonial. I was pretty psyched to find a copy of this record at the thrift store by my house a few months ago. It holds up well, though I can only listen to it for so long.

After I found the record, I ended up at Willie Ruff's page, and was pretty amazed to find out that, in addition to making this alien artifact, he also played bass on Songs of Leonard Cohen, horns with Miles Davis, etc, and is apparently still at it.

11:41 PM  
Blogger Chris Barrus said...

I have a similar feeling towards something called "Sounds Of The Space Age" - a compilation of transmission signals from the satellites of the early 60s (Telstar, Echo 1, OGO, Vanguard, Sputnik, etc.)

None of them are particularly musical (especially for a ten year old in the mid-70s), but it felt like listening to a piece of the future. Now it's like listening to proto-IDM glitch as interpreted by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

12:26 AM  
Anonymous Sean Carruthers said...

Great writeup - definitely want to hear this now!

Also, Chris - want to hear the one you're talking this it?

6:57 AM  
Blogger Chris Barrus said...

Sean -

Not quite. What I have is more like "the following is telemetry received from Ranger 7 as it impacted the moon" *sound plays*, etc.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Doug Orleans said...

That explains the goatee, Brian.

12:43 PM  

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