There have been two iconic pocket symphonies written in the 20th century: Érik Satie’s Vexations and Brian Eno’s Windows 95 Startup Sound. Both are concentrated miniatures, both are resistant to familiarity and both stand up to countless repetitions of enjoyable listening (the big difference is that Satie never got thousands of bucks to write his). Today both hold up so well because of the precise way that each sums up their respective moments’ tiny, eloquent statements. Sandwiched between these two works have been numerous attempts to commission or compile pocket symphonies on record, the most outstanding being The Residents’ Commercial Album and Miniatures: A Sequence of Fifty-One Tiny Masterpieces edited by Morgan Fisher from 1980.
Now two new attempts have caught my attention: Four Years in 30 Seconds and Miniatures concrètes. Both deal in extremely experimentaf music, but one reeks of nostalgia while the other catches our moment with precision. Miniatures concrètes celebrates the 50th anniversary of musique concrète by commissioning 24 electroacoustic musicians from around the world to create three-minute works. The composers, all born after the invention of musique concrète (the oldest is 49, the youngest 26), stick close to the stock vocabulary of tweaks and thumps, whooshes and echoes that was defined by pioneers of the genre half a century ago. And although most of the work is composed on computer, there’s precious little recognizable sampling, appropriated or plundered sounds.
In this way, the disc is disappointing in its traditionalism, as radical as that tradition might be. I wish these composers would break some rules. However, there are a few exceptions: Roger Doyle’s The First Spirit Level uses manipulated organs and voices to achieve a cut-up action-flick soundtrack feeling. Justice Olsson’s A Man is a Delicate Flame boils down 1500 samples to create something that sounds like a three-minute vocal outtake from The Pet Sounds Sessions. The most interesting track, by far, is Richard Karpen’s Mass which embeds tiny sampled riffs from Hendrix’s Little Wing into a mass of mantric electronics. With this sly use of music history samples, Karpen seems to be the only one on the disc bringing electroaoustic music up to date. […]