SFF Song of the Week: Stephen Palmer

This week’s blogjay is Stephen Palmer, whose acclaimed debut novel Memory Seed is featured above, and was followed by novels including Flowercrash, Glass and Muezzinland. To read an interview with Stephen click here.

Stephen and I both have stories featured in Ian Whates’ new anthology Further Conflicts which by the way, lest I forget to mention it, IS BEING LAUNCHED AT 4.30/5PM AT THE ILLUSTRIOUS EASTERCON IN BIRMINGHAM THIS FRIDAY, 22ND APRIL. If you’re there, do say hi.

Stephen is also a musician, and his passion for music clearly shines through in this song intro.

Stephen Palmer writes:

I Dream of Tangerine

I discovered Tangerine Dream when I was at school – over thirty years ago now – and my life was never the same again.

Tangerine Dream are the most important musical influence you’ve probably never heard of. Formed in the late ‘sixties in Berlin by Dali-protege Edgar Froese, their debut album Electronic Meditation featured such luminaries as Klaus Schulze and Conrad Schnitzler, but it was their second album Alpha Centauri – named after the star – that put them on the musical map, selling an extraordinary 20,000 copies. By the time of this release in 1971 Schulze and Schnitzler had departed, Schulze for a ground-breaking career in electronic music which continues to this day, and the youthful Chris Franke had just joined, leaving only Peter Baumann, the third member of the classic ‘seventies line-up, not yet arrived. Tangerine Dream were the synthesizer pioneers. They explored electronic music for us all.

I first heard Alpha Centauri when I was eighteen. Having already heard and been blown away by the band’s two sequencer-based, ‘mid-seventies classics Phaedra and Rubycon, I decided to try the albums they made earlier in the ‘seventies. But Alpha Centauri, it turned out, was a different kind of music…

‘Sunrise In The Third System’ evokes the loneliness of space, with bare organ, freezing guitar and little else; I imagined dying spaceships floating between planets in this third system. Occasionally the VCS3 synthesizer that Chris Franke had just acquired makes an appearance, and then a mysterious flute, but the overall mood is of a tranquil, planetary journey. I was well into SF by this time, and the track was a perfect accompaniment.

‘Fly And Collision Of Comus Sola’ opens with the oscillating VCS3, before funereal guitar and Floydesque organ emerge from the mix, and then the strange flute of guest musician Udo Dennebourg. Two thirds of the way through the piece a reverb-laden drum beat played by Franke begins, slowly approaching through the mix, as the cosmic effects and the organ depart. I imagined a cruiser approaching a planet, touching the outer edge of the atmosphere as the drum beat intensifies and the cymbals begin to crash. It’s a fantastic piece of music, retaining to this day all its original power. Nobody knows if the sudden end was deliberate or if the tape ran out.

The title track of the album sprawled over a whole side of vinyl on the original release. Now the listener is transported away from the planet back into bleak, isolated, deep space. Organ notes vibrate like flakes of comet debris, and everything – percussion, flute, effects – is deeply reverberated. But after eight minutes the piece, which seems to float toward the listener like a curious alien, departs to leave a miasma of sound, space, and nothingness… except at the end, where a spoken word section concludes in suitably kosmische style. This track owes most to the late ‘sixties sound of Pink Floyd, notably their classic second album Saucerful Of Secrets.

Alpha Centauri is a perfect album for the gothic space leaps of Alastair Reynolds or the hyper-inflated imaginaria of Robert Reed. No matter that the music is in places primitive, minimal: this adds to its atmosphere. No matter that you can hear the tape hiss and a razor-blade edit or two: this too adds to the atmosphere. It’s kosmische, and that’s all you need to know.

Tangerine Dream influenced my own early music with my band Mooch, and they influence me to this day, with the band and in my solo output. Their music is unique, and I never tire of it.

Froese and Franke went on to explore many aspects of electronic music, but by the mid ‘eighties they were done. They had explored everything. They were tired. But we, the listeners, still have their recorded output, and we can follow their sonic footprints through that distant era in Germany when anything was possible. It is a journey I urge you to take.

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