Album of the Day: Laurie Spiegel, “Unseen Worlds”

Just like the fractals spread across its album cover, electronic composer Laurie Spiegel’s 1991 masterpiece Unseen Worlds feels both microscopic and panoramic. Her main focus has always been software development, but her spare few albums (Unseen Worlds was her second, coming 11 years after her 1980 debut The Expanding Universe) show an artist pushing the boundaries of electronic music to unexplored spaces. 

Due to its overarching focus on texture, Spiegel’s music is generally classified as ambient, but there’s very little about Unseen Worlds that could be described as such; the propulsive, perfectly sequenced flow imbues the album with a unique, uncharacteristic linearity (an impressive cohesiveness, considering the songs’ staggered creation process). It opens with the 1989 triptych “Three Sonic Spaces,” one of the purest displays of Spiegel’s revolutionary algorithm-based software Music Mouse, which she developed originally for Amiga, Macintosh, and Atari computers. Here, Spiegel uses her “intelligent instrument” (so named for its built-in knowledge of scales and chords) to program an entire sonic world that feels as organic as it does unsettling.

From there, Unseen Worlds’s power builds incessantly, intensely, and inevitably. Progressing from “Two Archetypes: Hurricane’s Eye” to the epic Music Mouse-composed “Sound Zones,” waves of drone and dense layers of synths fill the space completely; even more all-consuming is “Riding The Storm,” a stunner which, at any given moment, can sound as dreamy as Suzanne Ciani or as harsh as Merzbow. We finally arrive on the uncharted territory hinted at in the album’s title on the blissful vignettes “Strand Of Life” and “From A Harmonic Algorithm,” which have delicate melodies and a warmth that feels nothing short of miraculous after the time-bending rush preceding it. The stop is momentary however, as Unseen Worlds closes with a 14-minute finale, appropriately titled “Passage,” that almost retraces the album’s entire trajectory in miniature.

In the years following Unseen Worlds’s extremely limited CD run, Spiegel’s work has become sparser and harder to find, often focusing on shorter commissioned work tucked away on out-of-print compilations, but her influence has never stopped expanding. As experimental electronic music flowed from noise to New Age in the 2000s with artists like Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never, and ambient has experienced a renaissance in the 2010s, artists now seem to be searching for the next step, a music focused on texture that is absolutely not “as interesting as it is ignorable.” Spiegel’s influence has never felt stronger, thanks to labels like Huerco S.’s West Mineral Ltd., and the algorithmically-focused virtuosity of artists like Caterina Barbieri. In other words, there’s no better time to show how ahead of its time her Unseen Worlds was.

-Miles Bowe

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