Music writing is prone to hyperbole. I’ve lost count of the number of albums released in any given year that are labelled ‘creepy’ or ‘scary’. So many albums promise a sense of aural dread, but how many truly deliver on that promise? I’ve listened to enough Halloween radio podcasts to know that most music purporting to be scary is anything but. And hell… what makes music scary anyway? For me, the first requirement is that the music should possess an alien quality that removes me from my comfort zones. Given the common structures most music adheres to, it’s difficult to experience the discomfort of the unknown.
Thankfully, artists like Ruth White exist.
Ruth White is something of an anomaly in the world of music. In the male-dominated world of early electronic experimentation, she was responsible for some of the best. Yet, despite recording some of the creepiest electronic oddity every put to tape, she had a love of educational recordings. A glance at her discography will show that the overwhelming percentage of her releases were children’s education records. To think that the person responsible for albums like ‘Flowers of Evil’ and ‘7 Trumps From The Tarot Card And Pinions’ also recorded ‘Play Time-A Festival Of Rhythmic Dramatizations’ and ‘The Holiday Sampler: Activity Songs For Christmas’ is one of those glorious dichotomies that should exist more often than they do.
As is quite common for many early electronic music pioneers, White came from an academic background, studying music and composition at Carnegie Tech where she received 3 degrees. In the 60s she picked up the infamous Moog synthesizer and started to explore the atonal possibilities offered by the new electronic frontiers it offered. Creating her own studio in 1964, White immersed herself in electronic experimentation, attempting to develop a new musical language. Following several educational recordings, in 1968, White released ‘Seven Trumps From The Tarot Card And Pinions’, a record that still boggles and dazzles today. Eschewing traditional notions of structure, White explored her electronic interests with stunning purpose. While much of 7 Trumps resides in abstraction, it beats with a compositional heart and contains genuine drama. To top it off, that creepiness she would perfect on her followup album was here in abundance. It’s hard not to feel the electronic gumbo worm beneath your skin. This is music for late night incantation.
Then, in 1969, White released (what should have gone down as one of the most influential albums of all time) ‘Flowers of Evil’, which was an electronic version of Baudelaire’s volume of poetry ‘Les Fleurs du Mal‘. Flowers of Evil upped the anti significantly, galvanizing everything White had achieved on 7 trumps and adding so much more. White recites Baudelaire’s poetry in a distant, hypnotized monotone, often drowning in the electronic waves unleashed by her Moog. As the album progresses, the world turns ever darker and reality, ever so gently, slips away. Not since the Conet Project have I felt so psychologically violated by sound. Listening to Flowers of Evil alone in the dark is something I believe all music lover should experience at least once. We talk of the horrific achievements of an (admittedly great) album like ‘Litanies of Satan‘ by the (also admittedly great) Diamanda Galas. But what Galas achieves with a piercing shriek, White achieves with a whisper. Flowers of Evil is an album everyone should hear, but most probably won’t.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Ruth White’s music is that is remains unavailable. The great early electronic excavation label, Creel Pone, have re-issued both the above-mentioned albums in bootleg fashion, but even these no longer appear to be available. The chronic unavailability of so much amazing music from the last century is criminal in my mind. Even today, amazing albums are released in limited quantities that sell out within days of release. Albums, that in my mind, should be standards are not given the chance. The internet has made it possible for us to experience music that at one point was destined to be forgotten and for that I am eternally grateful. It still doesn’t quite beat the feeling of holding the album in your hand and knowing that somewhere, someone was willing to invest in the preservation of amazing music.
It is not my intention to make Trash Complex a resource for downloading free music. Many other blogs cater to this need and some do a very good job. On occasion, in instances of music being long out of print, I may make an exception. Because I believe Ruth White’s music is so important, I’m going to post links to download the albums I have just talked about. I won’t be making this a habit though. Please just enjoy these albums and help Ruth White remain remembered.