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Laurie Spiegel Laurie SpiegelThe Expanding Universe (2012 Expanded Edition)

9.3 / 10

Obviously it isn’t amazing, commercially speaking, but for the last few years it’s been fashionable to reissue obscure works by some of the pioneers of cosmic electronica with a primitive texture; a current that forms a part of the higher-profile, self-sufficient movement of newly-created analogue revival electronica, based on the rise of artists like Rene Hell, Emeralds, Oneohtrix Point Never and Bee Mask. It’s so “in” to dig up rarities - almost all of them are so impressive that they practically obligate one to re-examine history - that the phenomenon has increased, and labels like RVNG Intl., Public Information, Spectrum Spools and Trunk Records have reminded us of, or alerted us, to the existence of names like F.C. Judd, Robert Turnam, David Cain and Franco Falsini. Not only that: of this huge amount of old material, a significant portion came from women, some of them with established, well-known careers (Suzanne Ciani), others deceased (Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire), and others with long but underground careers, almost reaching the extreme of an absolute rejection of their existence in the public sphere. This is the case of Laurie Spiegel.

Spiegel was an important participant in the development of laboratory electronica in the United States at the end of the 70s. She was included by Laurie Anderson in the anthology “Women In Electronic Music 1977”; she worked at the company Bell Labs from 1973 to 1979, and in 1980 she released an album that has become almost a Holy Grail for experienced collectors, a piece so hard to find that it almost seems like it never really existed. It did exist, in fact, in a limited edition that sold out long ago, under the title of “The Expanding Universe”: 45 minutes that form a part of the history of electronic music that doesn’t appear in the books; it is a pioneering work in the development of computer music, the first systems of digital synthesis— computers, that is. Technically, Spiegel’s work wasn’t digital, but rather hybrid: during the years that she spent at Bell Labs, she worked with a device thought up by Max Matthews, the first man to make a machine sing, which was called GROVE (Generating Real-time Operations On Voltage-Controlled Equipment), and which had computational parts forming a part of an analogue device, which is why the music appearing in this recording has that dualistic quality of being dirty and shining, arid and meticulously chiselled like the facets of a diamond.

Spiegel has spent the intervening years working in areas that have nothing to do with music release (although involved with music itself): programming sounds for software at companies like Apple, recording pieces for herself without any interest in releasing them through the usual channels; this is how it would have remained if it hadn’t been for the reclaiming of one of her creations, “Sediment”, in such an unexpected context as the soundtrack for “The Hunger Games”, which led some specialised sectors to finally take an interest in her and in an album that deserved a second chance, which is this one: for the first time it is available on CD, and on vinyl again, with a thorough cleaning and spectacular re-mastering. The two formats are very different. The original version (released by the Philo label) was comprised of only four cuts, “Patchwork”, “Old Wave”, “Pentachrome” and the 28-minute B-side “The Expanding Universe”, a composition that seems to suggest the phases of the evolution of the cosmos since the Big Bang in an inexpressible tour de force. The release on double CD, on the other hand, includes up to 19 creations –with the A-side of the record at the beginning of the first CD and “The Expanding Universe” strategically located at the end of it, acting as a hinge and the heart of the retrospective– which make the whole something more than just a simple reissue. It is, in fact, an (almost) new recording based on archival material.

These highly absorbing, cosmic-hallucination-provoking two and a half hours are the high point of Spiegel’s recordings during her hours of work at Bell Labs. The influences of the period come into play - the minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, especially notable in “Patchwork”, with its rhythmic counterpoint beats creating a circular, repetitive structure, also closely linked to Terry Riley’s “A Rainbow In Curved Air” in the majestic “East River Dawn”, which opens the second compact - as well as the most vibrant work with modular synthesizers being done at that time by pioneers like Morton Subotnik and Max Matthews. The latter is, in fact, the spiritual father of this album; he also found ideas in the baroque and the psychedelic - it’s impossible to listen without getting more of the feeling of travelling along the creases of the psyche than along a cosmic ocean, like at the end of “2001” composed by Bach (the ‘switched on’ version, of course), rather than by Ligeti. It is precisely in insistently citing old Johann Sebastian as an influence that Laurie Spiegel makes herself the nemesis of Wendy Carlos.

Since it takes up two CDs and fills up every second of their capacity, the revised “The Expanding Universe” in its extended format has one disadvantage: listening to it all in one go, maximising the trippy effect, becomes a bit difficult, almost onerous. There are moments when the whole simply doesn’t maintain the heights of the more brilliant passages - especially the three parts of “Appalachian Grove”, which seem to be the replica, in the form of a synthetic ballet with buzzing from another planet, to the classic Americana of Aaron Copland. But make no mistake - although it is long, “The Expanding Universe” hasn’t been stuffed with filler. On the contrary, the feeling one gets is that if Laurie Spiegel had taken a more tolerant position with the recording industry and spread out the material over various LPs, she wouldn’t have needed to wait 32 years to be reclaimed and admired as a historically significant creator, not only in terms of her technical contribution to the use of computers in electronic composition, but also the captivating effect of her long sequences, which seem to include the entire universe in a single note. Furthermore, the absorbing dance of sound molecules that takes place in the liveliest moments, when everything curves into a soft roundness of pulsing sound. Ignored for three decades, “The Expanding Universe” now re-emerges, proud and torrential, as an absolute classic.

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