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Michael Whalen: Sacred Spaces
by George Graham
(Solace Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/13/2020)
The recent death of influential electronic music artist Florian Schneider, co-founder of the German synthesizer band Kraftwerk got me thinking about how his work led to electronic music splitting into two distinct directions. Prior to Kraftwerk in the 1970s, synthesists labored away with their often balky electronic gear and created music that was almost entirely electronic, instrumental and was based on the unique sounds that synthesizers created, epitomized by people like Wendy Carlos, Larry Fast’s Synergy and Tomita. And while prior to Kraftwerk, pop music had been incorporating some electronic sounds as colors adding to a basic rock band sound, Kraftwerk arguably created the first electronic pop – music that was almost all electronically generated but with a dance or pop beat and simple catchy melodies. That branch, or course, led to a whole generation of electronic pop and dance music, today’s EDM. In the meantime, during the 1980s and 1990s, electronic music became a significant part of the New Age scene, with its ambient, slow-moving sound.
That, what I suppose could be called the purely, non-pop side of electronic music, has continued, though with a lower profile, while the style has become an important part of film and television scores. Last year, we reviewed an album by Chicago-based synthesist Steve Hauschildt in that mode that incorporated some more contemporary elements.
This week we have a new album that I suppose could be called a classic New Age electronic music project, but it has more “meat” to it than stereotypical New Age. It’s by veteran composer Michael Whelan, and bears the New Agey title Sacred Spaces.
Michael Whalen may not exactly be a household name, but there’s a very good chance you have heard his music. He is a prolific film and television scorer, having won two Emmy Awards for his work. He has scored over 800 shows and commercials. He created the theme for ABC’s “Good Morning America” and has scored numerous documentaries for PBS and National Geographic. He has also produced over 100 recordings for other artists.
But he has turned his attention to his own music on Sacred Spaces. He says that the album was some ten years in the making, partly inspired by a spiritual quest. Whalen was also on a quest for sonic textures, and the technology of computer recording allowed him to layer hundreds of sounds to create the rich sonic tapestry that marks this album. But in many ways, it’s a kind of classic electronic music recording with the many layers of synthesizers. Some of the vintage instruments he used go back to the 1970s. But he adds in other layers created with the sampling technology that was not readily available back in the day. The result is a pleasing album of creative electronic music, on which Whelan’s experience creating impressionistic music for film scores is much in evidence. Each piece can evoke a kind of mood, or set your imagination going perhaps creating images or scenes from the music with its shifting moods, with some tracks changing direction in the manner of film transitions. Whelan’s music on the album ranges from quite atmospheric to pieces with a stronger musical pulse. Most of the tracks on the album have more of a melodic line than typical ambient electronic music, but there’s still little on Sacred Spaces that you would come away humming to yourself afterward.
Opening is a piece with a title that fits the genre, A Metaphysical Morning. After a rather ambient opening section including some simulated birdsong <<>> the piece settles into a nice groove-based tune that mixes generations of electronic music influence from New Age era spaciness with a more contemporary pallet of sound, including what sounds like samples of a vocal chorus. <<>>
More contemplative in sound is the title piece Sacred Spaces which evokes the New Age days with its fairly simple melodic line and nice sonic textures. <<>>
Ordinary Miracles mixes a more ambient approach with a quick rhythmic pulse that can hint at contemporary electronic dance music. <<>>
A piece called 1000 Paper Cranes seems well-named with its even more atmospheric texture. Whelan is not afraid to bring in some acoustic piano with the otherwise electronic instrumentation. <<>>
A track that evokes the, let’s say, less substantial side of the New Age scene is An Ocean of Candlelight, which can hint at that classical piece that inspired many a new age tune Pachelbel’s Canon. <<>>
Another somewhat retro-sounding track is The Inbetween with its sequenced ostinato that is reminiscent of another the synthesizer band Tangerine Dream. <<>>
One of the more sonically interesting pieces on this album replete with ear candy is a composition called Devotion which brings in some vocal samples and has an especially wide-ranging pallet of sounds. <<>>
The album ends with The Afterlife, another sonic pastiche, with vocal and string samples blending with the classic electronic textures. <<>>
These days, electronic music in most people’s minds means throbbing dance beats or pop music with samples ripped from older recordings, often with almost unrecognizably mutated vocals. But the other branch of electronic music, one based on creating distinctive sounds and textures with the emphasis on originality both musically and sonically, still exists, especially in the hands of artists who create music for soundtracks. Michael Whelan has certainly created his share of film and TV scores over the years, but it’s great that he has again directed his creative efforts at music for its own sake, taking the ethos of the early electronic instrumental music, and incorporating newer technological developments Sacred Spaces.
Also from an audio quality quality standpoint, the album is a treat on a good system, with the layered sound and skillful use of ambiance making it an immersive experience. Unfortunately, there are occasional instances where the volume builds to the point that it starts to sound overdriven, especially in the low end. But overall, it makes for a nice experience on good speakers or headphones.
So much of today’s electronic pop music is a succession of cliches, mostly of sounds out of a box of software. But Michael Whelan brings back the art of high quality electronic music, and excellent sound design.
(c) Copyright 2020 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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