Did you ever hear the results of the audio experiment that saw someone attempting to play the exposed rings of a tree trunk with a stylus? There’s a split second – and God knows what is was like for the person doing it – when you feared there might actually be a voice appear from the beyond. Likewise, there are odd audio recordings from history that just don’t feel like it’s sensible for them to exist – the unearthly sound of the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi; the drawl of Lord Haw-Haw; seances, white-noise explorations and exorcisms. Unique sounds we know have occurred but feel like we’re looking way too far behind the curtain to experience ourselves. We have no business earwigging in on the secret sounds of the past, like watching an attempt at alchemy, are we not ourselves aligning ourselves with experiences which were not meant for us? Joe Meek’s 1960 concept album, I Hear a New World, falls nicely into this library of the damned, here presented across three discs to show exactly how one man above a leather shop on Holloway Road changed sound forever.
It wouldn’t be outlandish to label Joe Meek a genius – not a musical genius you understand, that really would be absurd. Meek’s genius was his understanding of electronics, his ravenous desire to construct and deconstruct electronic equipment and, like a snake charmer, attempt to charm things which never existed before out of the resultant Frankenstein machine. So far ahead of anyone else in the field (certainly within the UK) that he was not only considered a healthy influence for change in science but also a threat to convention. Studios readily accepted his creations to adapt for their own use but it irked them that a lone figure outside the system had both the talent and imagination to construct sounds from an entirely home-made studio.
Another appealing aspect to both potential adopters and the artists themselves was that the composer and performer were invariably the same person. Both cost-cutting and undiluted, this method was taken up across the artistic Meccas of Europe, from Milan to Cologne to Paris, with London being a somewhat late adopter, led largely by Daphne Oram, whose experiments in the late 1940’s eventually led to like-minded souls joining her in the establishment of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. These European outposts of blips and bloops become important in the relevance of this review as this revisit to one of Meek’s most important works is put into context by including the works of other audio pioneers in this three-disc set, adding much to the historical and academic importance slightly to the detriment of the entertainment factor.
I Hear a New World is not, for all this preamble, a particularly fun journey. At a time of bitter US/Russian relations, nuclear threats and general paranoia, it’s difficult to conceive that an imagined outer space landscape could still be depicted as carefree and jolly as an episode of The Jetsons. Singer Rod Freeman and skiffle group The West Five (retitled here The Blue Men) are essentially the Ealing equivalent of Martin Denny, with mic’d up ashtrays, draining sinks and chinking milk bottles in place of smoking volcanoes and bright green lagoons. The pivotal opening track seems as silly now as it did then, which sadly cannot be held proudly as a badge of honour. Everything is manipulated to within an inch of its life – biology becomes synthetic – cold, angular and foreign. Does it evoke space? Possibly so, though it’s neither an enticing glimpse nor one that has enough innate musicality to make it worthy of return trips. It’s clever, groundbreaking and hugely important in the wider view of 20th Century music but the entertainment value is questionable at best.
The bonus discs are a strange collection of tracks from composers ranging from Pierre Boulez to Karlheinz Stockhausen to Edgard Varese, all offering chinks of light onto the shadowing, fuse-blowing exploits of pan-European noodlers. Some of the selection is beautiful, such as American/German composer Otto Leuning’s Fantasy in Space, a gently tempered mix of flutey goodness; there’s also French composer Luc Ferrari’s Visage (or at least three of the eight movements), a troubling mesh of static and clashing upper and lower registers, plus a section of Daphne Oram’s The Innocents Savage Noises, perhaps the most accurately-titled piece across all three discs. An interesting snapshot of true musical pioneers, though interested parties will be concerned that their shopping list of new titles has suddenly expanded alarmingly.