La Ola Interior (Essay)
From Unearthing The Music
LA OLA INTERIOR is a compilation released by Bongo Joe Records, exploring the ambient side of the Spanish electronic music produced in the 80s, gathering musicians from various horizons and of many generations, who shared the desire to create an immersive soundscape and to combine electronic music with non-Western musical traditions. The following introductory essay, written by the compilation director Loïc Diaz Ronda and translated to English for the first time by the UNEARTHING THE MUSIC team, is shared here with the kind permission of the author and the label. You can visit the Bandcamp page for this compilation by clicking here.
1. Discreet music
Faced with the stagnation of the Movida Madrileña and the decline of the post-punk movement, a new wave of experimental music emerged in Spain during the 80s. This wave brought together creators with a shared interest in searching for musical paths that differed from the Western pop paradigm. With a marked interest in electronics and new recording technologies, these musicians went on to break established norms and become pioneers of the sound experimentation in the 21st century. If this music can be classified into different currents (electroacoustic, noise, industrial music, collage...), then this anthology focuses on ambient music and its connections with ethnic tonalities.
Throughout the decade, some Spanish artists began creating a kind of ambient music that "was part of the atmosphere, of the environment, at the same level as the color of light and the sound of rain", as Brian Eno, one of the genre’s founders, once wrote. Born in the 70s and intimately linked to American minimalist music, German Kosmische Musik and the exploration of non-Western musical traditions, ambient music is based on experimentation with textures and the modelling of sounds. Unlike the vast majority of western music, melody or harmony are not the most important thing, and to exist it does not need a narrative structure or rhythm. That is perhaps why it is difficult to identify.
Despite the fact that recently prestigious record labels have paid attention to key figures of the movement such as Suso Saiz or Luis Delgado, the Spanish history of this discreet music remains unknown. As a general rule, the Anglo-Saxon gaze reduced the ambient music of the Iberian Peninsula to the Balearic Sound, the relaxing music that was heard in the clubs of Ibiza, which was particularly appreciated in the northern European countries. But, although ambient shares certain conditions for its consumption with lounge or chill out music ("one must be able to ignore it but also listen to it without issue", according to Eno) it goes beyond Ibizan rhythms by exploring the diversity of its approaches and the radical nature of its propositions.
Revisiting those formative years, LA OLA INTERIOR aims to restore Spanish ambient to its place within the fertile territory of experimental music and, in particular, its two main nurseries: the cassette underground and the independent music producer scene.
2. The heyday of the cassette and the birth of the electronic underground
This new wave of experimental music cannot be understood without exploring the processes of self-publishing, independent distribution and exchange of music, mainly in cassette format, an artisanal practice that then spread throughout Spain as yet another branch of the DIY spirit of punk. The democratization of access to electronic instruments and cassette players allowed a broad underground movement to organize and expand in very few years. Since the beginning of the decade, micro labels multiplied throughout the country: EGK, Investigaciones, Estudios y Proyectos (IEP), Proceso Uvergraf and Toracic Tapes in Madrid, Laboratorio de Música Desconocida (LMD) or Ortega y Cassette in Barcelona, Laboratorios No in Granada, Necromicon in Puertollano, etc. At that time it was common for a (non) musician to have his own label, not only to release his own music but that of other (non)musicians, and in that way help it travel further through the networks built with other collectives.
The hyperactive Spanish cassette scene has several characteristics. A good part of the works are individual productions, works by musicians who work alone and with few means, but often disguised as the work of a band. This condition led to a surprising inventiveness and a distinct use of machines, manipulated according to the logic of sound collage and sound treatment typical of concrete music. Pseudonyms and collaborations are frequent, and contribute to erasing the notion of authorship, thus allowing the simultaneous exploration of several creative avenues by the same artist.
The philosophy of the Spanish underground is radical, completely opposite to the dominant culture. This virulence of discourse is reflected, in the first place, in the provocative imagery on the covers and the gadgets that accompany the cassettes, where Dadaist detours, photographs of abandoned industrial buildings, physical malformations and even corpses proliferate. An aesthetic that draws as much from the book-object and postcard art of Fluxus as from punk fanzines and photocopiers. In the same way as in the rest of Europe, in the peninsula the underground is fostered by the harshest musical styles, such as noise and industrial music. Being superabundant, this output runs the risk of falling into repetition, but its exploratory dimension is so clear that it gives birth to many atypical experiences.
3. Etno-Trance and DIY Geniuses
A minority of underground musicians cultivated more idiosyncratic and hybrid styles, moving away from the industrial norm. We highlight here the important influence that the German Komische Musik of the 70s had on them. The exhaustive experimentation of electronic instrumentation by what was then called in Spain "the Berlin school" (Conrad Schnitzler, Dieter Moebius, Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream) served as an absolute reference at the time when it came to sculpting soundwaves and revealing the sound spectrum. Following in the wake of the groups more aligned with krautrock, artists from the Iberian underground scene were then interested in what would later be called "world music", also making an effort to integrate it into their output at times.
Several projects represented in LA OLA INTERIOR show the birth of a new electronic current based on polyrhythms, the spatialization of sounds and the reuse of oriental sounds. This is the case of Esplendor Geométrico from Madrid, who after a long stay in Melilla, began a creative phase full of impressive sound experiences, juxtaposing industrial beats and Arabic rhythms. With this "ethno trance", reminiscent of the contemporary experiences of Muslimgauze or 23 Skidoo, Esplendor Geométrico seem to have found the perfect balance between sonic violence and subtle exploration of musical landscapes. Another Madrid pillar of the experimental electronic scene is Miguel A. Ruiz, who would lay the foundations, under his own name and that of Orfeón Gagarin, of a mysterious sort of music, sometimes described as " tropical industrial ambient " which combined electronic loops, ethnic percussions and high-pitched drones.
The musical heterodoxy of those years was not limited to the Spanish capital and also arose in other territories, such as the Canary Islands. Residing in Tenerife, Mataparda (aka José Mesa), was the author of a series of extremely inventive cassettes in the 80s. An atypical creator, in the vein of Robert Wyatt or Pascal Comelade, Mataparda stands out with his ability to create both naive songs and noisy deflagrations or subtle soundscapes, rocked by African or Caribbean influences. But it is above all in Barcelona, where there is a solid avant-garde artistic tradition, where the underground would be the most original. Artisanal and sensitive to European influences, the Catalan scene was home to numerous unclassifiable musicians in the 1980s.
The producer, musician and cultural agitator Víctor Nubla is undoubtedly one of the key figures in this secret, pre-Olympic and experimental city, as defined by the critic Jaime Gonzalo. Founder of the Macromassa group in 1976, Nubla developed, in the 80s, a method that consists of randomly taking radiophonic sounds reworked with the help of a sampler and a sequencer, a technique that he himself baptized as the Objective Composition Method (OLS). The result of these wild mixes is repetitive, versatile and fine music, with cinematic, ethnic or spatial influences. Another Barcelona jewel is Camino al desván, a duo formed by Lole García and Jordi Cabayol in 1983; They combine electronic sounds and traditional instruments to generate a spectral, dense and minimalist music. The group would be characterized by its electroacoustic drifts, repetitive structures and medieval resonances.
At the beginning of the 90s, the democratization of sound creation programs, the appearance of the CD and the arrival of the Internet, will significantly reduce the activity of the Spanish cassette scene. But their spirit, in a certain way, would remain alive, either because some artists (such as Miguel A. Ruiz or Esplendor Geométrico) managed to prolong their activity until today, or because other figures appear to take over. The multidisciplinary artist from Barcelona Eli Gras can be considered as the direct heir to the artisanal underground, due to her personal work - ambient mix, avant-pop, improvisation and experimental luthery - and for her work in reissuing unreleased music from the 80s thanks to her La Olla Expréss label.
4. The Independent Label Scene: Hypnotics, New Age & Fourth-World
The second branch of Spanish ambient must be sought, not in the underground universe of self-produced cassettes, but in the richest productions of certain independent labels on the peninsula. Born with the post-punk wave, two of the most important labels, Discos Radioactivos Organizados (DRO) and Grabaciones Accidentales (GASA), experienced a strong growth during the 80s. Aware of the creative exhaustion of the new wave scene which saw them emerge, they strove to go beyond their usual domain and towards more sophisticated instrumental music, motivated by an artistic intention and also by the need to associate themselves with competent producers to record their albums.
Interestingly, these labels would pave the way for the return of some of the most adventurous musicians of the preceding generation, that of the 1970s, an era overshadowed by punk. Having circulated through folk, traditional or contemporary music, and informed by improvisation and studio techniques, these artists emerged from the hippie culture as omnivorous musicians, capable of engulfing various musical styles, from electronic ambient to ethnic improvisation passing through the modal jazz. Their greatest influence was undoubtedly that of the American minimalist composers of the 60s (La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Charlemagne Palestine and even Moondog), who enjoyed a great deal of prestige at the time.
Fascinated by this approach to timbre and repetitions, composer and multi-instrumentalist Suso Saiz performs a musical work that defies all categories. Parallel to his work as a producer, Saiz created, since the 80s, wide and introspective soundscapes, which evolve in the folds of the most abstract sound material, thanks to a brilliant use of electronic layers and modified guitar loops that he calls “Hypnotics”. If the music of the Andalusian Suso Saiz is ethereal, that of the Canarian Javier Segura (in a similar register) is telluric. Javier Segura, who records solo, developed a work based on electronic percussion and guitar loops embellished with effects, consciously saturated or maintained in a single note. These two artists share the same art of superimposing sound layers and the idea that a loop allows new elements to be heard incessantly within a sequence repeated ad libitum in analogue mode.
Madrid-born Luis Delgado also adheres to this interest in minimalism in an even more refined line, close to La Monte Young and its distortion of time, especially in his solo works based on the live electronic treatment of old acoustic instruments. While working at the RCA studios in Madrid, he created, together with Eugenio Muñoz, the Mecánica Popular project, with which they would strive to manipulate specific sounds, giving life to mechanical and radical electronics. Luis Delgado eventually founded his own label, El cometa de Madrid, which, under the auspices of GASA, would produce a score of references between 1986 and 1992. Promoting minority music within the system, El cometa de Madrid, stands out as an attempt to bring together remote, electronic, jazz and contemporary music, just as the ECM or Windham Hill labels did. Their output was the closest to the New Age current in Spain.
The general panorama of LA OLA INTERIOR would not be complete if we did not mention the Spanish musicians who were interested in the conceptions of Brian Eno in the 80s and especially Jon Hassell, who at the end of the 70s published a series of influential Fourth-World Music. For Hassell, "fourth world" music is that which arises from the treatment, through Western technology (first world), of extra-Western musical traditions (which at that time were still classified as third world). It is the soundtrack of an imaginary, reconciled and ideal world. Created in the mid-80s, Finis Africae was the project of Juan Alberto Arteche, initially carried out with the guitarist Javier Bergia and with Luis Delgado. With only four albums, the group, now a cult band, laid the foundations for an «ethno-ambient» music that combines acoustic instruments, samples and electronic effects and is able to combine Amazonian sounds or tropical funk with traditional music. Jabir (aka Francisco Javier Sánchez González), a character steeped in Sufi culture, also released two albums at the end of the 80s with which he tried to create sacred and profane music at the same time, fusing random electronic programming and classical Arabic instruments.
5. Acid Exoticism
The two scenes and generations that appear in LA OLA INTERIOR intersect around a common interest in non-Western musical traditions and the music of other worlds. Its exploration may be that of the tribal origins of electronic rhythms or that of the Arab heritage in Spain. At this point, exoticism can be both temporary and geographic. However, this project is far removed from the conservative mission of ethnomusicology and from the intention of polishing "world music" in a homogeneous way. It is, above all, a dream of exoticism, an immobile journey, since most of these musicians have not really visited the territories whose sounds, cultures and languages they admired.
Among the best-trained musicians, interest in African, Amazonian or Oriental musical instruments is pronounced, as evidenced by the impressive collections of artifacts that are sometimes used to compose their music. But these "ethnic" instruments are rarely played in an orthodox or conventional way, since for this it was necessary, at that time, to travel to the places or meet the interpreters of origin. For many LA OLA INTERIOR artists, the search for distant music involves borrowing sound files, captured on radio waves or from samples taken from records of ethnomusicology labels, often from the French label Ocora.
The sounds, rhythms or instruments of these traditions are thus always consciously filtered by Western practices, whether they arise from avant-garde musical conceptions, personal instrumental practices or the use of electronic technology. The result is a hybrid, filtered and reinvented music, neither Western nor extra-Western, with a pronounced taste for the fusion of opposites and that we have called Acid Exoticism for its permanent search for trance or contemplation.
What this music seeks is to confront Western modernity, to create sound worlds that temporarily escape these logics, that open up to new and unheard of possibilities. What matters is the journey or experience that music provides us, what music modifies in the experience and perception of the listener. As Luis Delgado said, “we tried through every means to open paths that had not been explored, to travel along paths that had not been unearthed. I imagine that it is impossible to get rid of the heritage of the music that we have always listened to, but we strive to use the available technology to obtain new tones, a new organization and a new sound scheme.
Atmospheric, contemplative and serial, these pieces transport us even today, to a sensory journey, intimate and distant, organic and technological, between exotic reminiscences and inner visions.
And now, have a good trip!