23 October, 2018

from EMS to Andromeda
the early works of Ralphus Rex
by Alan Freeman.

Ralph Lundsten is one of those enigmatic characters in new-music, in that he's pushed-on with his unique avenue in music regardless of style, fashion, or even a logical progression in his own career. He's an explorer, an eccentric, an individual unique talent. The thing is, though, that when someone follows their own vision, that vision will change throughout their life based, not only on the advancements in technology, but also on their state of mind, emotional and social development. Thus, as with the music of Tangerine Dream, what Edgar Froese & Co. played in their early days is nothing like what they do now. This is also the case with Ralph, and (similarly) what we're interested in at Audion is the early works of Ralph Lundsten, the avant-gardist...
Ralph Lundsten was born 1936 in Ersnäs, Sweden. At a young age he started exploring the avant-garde, and was obviously fascinated with the new technology installed at the Stockholm Electronic Music Studios (aka EMS). He started electronic sound exploration in 1959, and found an aid in Leo Nilsson, with whom he collaborated for a number of years. These formative experiments involved use of oscillators, early studio-based synthesizers, along with extensive use of tape-collage and echo/delay techniques. Also, (quoting original LP cover notes) Ralph "became famous as a visually creative artist through his prize-winning motion pictures, his noted exhibitions at home and abroad, and his exciting experiments with electronic pictures and sound sculptures" - yes, Ralph proved to be a man of many talents!
It didn't take long for Ralph to discover unique techniques instantly recognisable as his, these involved clusters and patterns of notes/tones, seemingly sequenced or looped, all in a very odd, quirky style. Based on early studio photos all this was done with tape trickery using a hybrid of musique-concrete and Terry Riley type "feed-back" or "Frippertronic" techniques. Nowadays a similar effect can be achieved using a digital pitch-shift delay in tandem with other echo and delay devices, but to create the complexities of what Ralph Lundsten did in the 1960's is still not easy. And, to do it with his unique panache is nigh-on impossible! Back then digital effects didn't exist, and even solid-state echo devices were rare. So, the mind boggles as to how he did it. A clue is probably given on an LP cover, where he is holding two Stylophone type pens over (and connected to) some sort of metal transducing plate. I can imagine that many of the early works took weeks and weeks of intensive studio work, experimenting with and modelling waveforms, cutting and splicing tape, setting-up tape decks with extra record and play-back heads, passing the sounds back and forth through all sorts of filters reverb, and obscure processing devices, etc., etc. Actually, it seems he was spending too much time in the EMS (Stockholm was a prolific centre for new avant-garde talent), so Ralph set up the first independent electronic music studio in Sweden. He built his Andromeda Studio at his home (a fanciful painted wooden house) in Saltsjö-Boo near the coast, east of Stockholm. There he could spend as much time as he liked experimenting and recording, developing the unique Lundsten sound.

The majority of Ralph's early recordings (1964-73, plus a few later works) are now documented in the 4CD set ELEKTRONISK MUSIK. In this set we have what would amount to around seven vinyl LP's worth of material, and thus it's a great value introduction.
Each disc has a focus...
This explores most of the purely electronic creations (some with Leo Nilsson) from the period 1968-70. These are works with buzzing tones, rasping modulations, and stark non-melodic textures. The opening Through A Landscape Of Mirrors is one of Ralph's coldest, brutal works. It slices through the stereo fabric, and plays a surreal dance in the air. Sonically comparable to the early works of Morton Subotnick, this 1970 work is purely Ralph Lundsten in the bizarre use of tone and sound patterns. The TELLUS/FÅGEL BLÅ LP is documented next. In these works Leo's more conventional use of electronic sound counterpoints the underlying cheekiness of Ralph's "springy" looping effects. Whenever I listen to this, I'm reminded of Louis & Bebe Baron's "Forbidden Planet" soundtrack, but it has the form of progression closer to Conrad Schnitzler's ROT. For 1968-69 this is pretty remarkable and innovative stuff, bleak but vivid in sonic textures. Also aptly cold is the 4 part Vintermusik a mini-prelude to Ralph's later "Nature Symphonies", followed by the 1968 Lundsten & Nilsson single Feel/It which is pretty close to some Pierre Henry (from the same period), and Mizar a solo Lundsten work involving strange oscillator tones and sonic intermodulations.
Apart from the opening EMS Nr 1 this disc is made up of shorter works and suites. I'd long wanted to hear the "innovative" EMS Nr 1 from 1966, and I wasn't disappointed. It has to be the most extreme and intense of his creations. Five other collaborations with Leo follow this, and all are strange spooky stuff, ideal music for weird psychedelic or Science Fiction movies. The earliest work in the set Atomic Twilight (1964) is very "Forbidden Planet" with its gliding tonalities (at the opening) building into a cyclical montage of instrumental sounds and voices. In later times Ralph got involved in scoring ballets for various people, and purely for fun he did the little suite På Vigliga Tår "On Tottering Toes" the first piece in the set to really show the underlying humour in Ralph's music. Finally, the "Suite For Electronic Accordion" takes us closer to Pierre Henry's darker works of the era, but due to the unlikely instrumentation it remains bizarre and unique.
So, onto Ralph's ballet scores, the commissioned works that further stylised Ralph's musical development. These are the material that correlate more with those of Igor Wakhevitch (see Audion #40) notably as some are compositions for Carolyn Carlson, and she obviously knew exactly what sort of feel she wanted. This is a uniquely visionary style of Ralph's, in that he includes story elements of the works in the music, adding to the drama by sound association and mood. In "Erik XIV" Ralph's bizarre use of electronic looping is developed to great effect - a major development in the distinctive Lundsten sound - with the textural elements gaining in complexity. With "Gustav III" keyboards and other instruments feature much more extensively. I suppose this period can be seen as the transitional phase of Ralph the avant-garde experimentalist to Ralph the musician. It's still rather strange stuff, however! The lone track Ristingar "Rock Carvings" centres on cosmic flutes (and unfathomable instrumental textures), and counterpoints a strange rhythmic element, before it flutters off with serene voices. 1973's "Gunnar pa Linderände" works on elements of the previous ballet scores and also his other major work (not featured in this set) FADERVAR. It's a really creative and beautiful opus that can almost be experienced as a musical painting.
This is also, largely, commissioned works, but with the focus on Ralph's "Horror Music". This disc starts with the rather out-of-place 1979 track Horrorscope, a groovy kind of synth-funk number dosed with horror sound effects (in the vein of the tongue-in-cheek DISCOPHRENIA). The major works here are surreal spooky suite "Midnattstimmen" full of creaking doors, ghoulish voices and all sorts of weird electronic textures, one of my favourites, and the great opus Nattmara which ends the set with crazed electronic abandon. The other pieces here are oddments from various vinyl releases, largely strange stuff, excepting the "Heaven By Night" trilogy which is more
sci-fi/fantasy, and the cosmic synth Waves Of Darkness from 1983.
In all, an excellent set, but with one major omission: the classic Cosmic Love, which doesn't seem to be documented on CD presently.
Above I mentioned FADERVAR, a classic of Ralph's from 1972. Various CD reissues have appeared to date, but the only ones I've been able to get are unfortunately co-billed with another work of inferior calibre. A strange one really, in that it's subject matter (FADERVAR means "Our Father" and relates to the "Lord's Prayer") is not really of any interest to me. But, like many Pierre Henry works (for instance) the concept can be taken as superficial. Judging it as just music, it's a cosmic opus of breathtaking originality, featuring ethereal flutes, otherworldly chanting echoed voices, organ, and lots of those uniquely Lundsten trade-marks, like sonic/textural transmutations, and brilliant use of echo/delay and cyclical patterns.
Ralph Lundsten's "Nature Symphonies" started as two album-long suites made in 1972 and 1975. Based on mythological fantasy and a relation between Ralph's music and the sounds of nature, these are very complex, feature guest musicians, and are more "musical" than much of what I've described before. It all amounts to a fascinating cross-pollination of genres. The CD release JOHANNES & HULDRAN/STRÖMKARLEN unfortunately omits a few tracks from these (3 are included in the ELEKTRONISK MUSIK set). Later "Nature Symphonies" would seem to be a cash-in on this "franchise" but bear little relation to the 70's pioneering works.
As polyphonic keyboards came in and Ralph's Andromeda studio became more advanced, he increasingly worked with other musicians, played synthesizers, and gradually moved away from the bizarre studio techniques that made his early work so special. He established a supersession group: Ralph Lundsten's Universe, who were (in a way) his "Cosmic Jokers", stars of Swedish rock, jazz and pop, doing something more outlandish. The album RALPH LUNDSTEN'S UNIVERSE is still not bad, in it's mixture of electronic music, progressive rock and fusions, and (occasional) craziness. It's follow-up DISCOPHRENIA was much better than the title suggested, but proved (from my viewpoint, that is) that the classic era of Ralph Lundsten was over. The third "Universe" project ALPHA RALPHA BOULEVARD marked the end of the 70's, and a new phase.
Ralph has since become the purveyor of lush and atmospheric new-age musics, and has increasingly created a whole new genre of his own again, a kind of offbeat easy listening music, often very sweet and soundtrack-like. Apparently he's quite famous in his homeland now for these later works, and apart from still being prolific and highly active in music, he tends to turn-out rehashed samplers by the bucket-load!

edited from AUDION #43. Autumn 2000