by James Young

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The musical experiences that seem to endure within us often happen by chance... among friends when someone picks up a tune or in places of worship where people sing or chant. None of these have anything to do with money and everything to do with the establishment of community.

Throughout the Nineties I ended up spending a lot of time in Moscow. Real musical connections could still be made in cryptic spaces, overheated rooms full of pirated tapes, primitive analog synthesisers with deadly wiring illegally attached to the city mains, customised Soviet Strat copies that refused to play anything you intended, pianos that had not been tuned since the Revolution.

I’d managed to get hold of a ticket to the Moscow premiere of Alfred Schnittke’s Triple Concerto: Rostropovich, Kremer, Bashmet. The venue was the Conservatoire. As I walked down the hill past a small church, a young deacon was hammering on the bells to summon the faithful to the Vigil service. The effect was so intense that I had to stop and listen. The repetitive and mesmeric peal of changes seemed to find a parallel in the techno music that could be heard all over the city… except that this was God’s techno.

During the concert, as singular as it was, I cannot pretend that I was fully absorbed in the music, which troubled me since I was, and remain, an admirer of Schnittke’s work. I realised that I was still absorbing the effect of that earlier musical experience outside the church.

That other ritual aspect of music beyond the concert hall, whether it is expressed in the call to prayer or the call to friendship, has stayed with me. When I returned to England I began to look at my old piano in a different way, not simply as an instrument but also as a piece of architecture in which I lived and imagined. I re-entered that state of intoxication I had felt as a teenager when I first became utterly absorbed in the soundworld of the piano. Sure, my piano wasn’t a concert grand, in fact it was a mass produced overstrung German upright made just after the Great War. It rattled, it had its own built-in reverb as the dampers were worn. It was a deeply flawed machine in terms of the perfect reproduction of other people’s work, but on its own terms it was a ready-made that needed to be celebrated for its intrinsic peculiarities. It was an unprepared piano.

I began to record small musical cells that could then be sampled and rearranged into a larger sound collage. In order to realise my aim I sought the help of another musician, Henry Olsen, to act as producer. His work was surgical, carefully extracting and editing the parts that were not ‘badly recorded, badly played, out of tune and out of time’. (Always contentious points. ) Sometimes a sample would be cut and cut until it barely resembled the original idea but, curiously, the initial ‘feel’ remained. Unlike a digital ‘piano’ to which one ascribes feelings that the hermetically sealed sounds do not possess, the samples from my old "joanna" had retained their root nature despite being so heavily pruned.

Henry Olsen assumed a similar role to the one I had conceived for myself back with Nico in the 1980’s. He took on the mantle of the professional in order to realise the dreams of the amateur. Sure, it was an act of friendship since joanna had no funding, but it was also an act of faith in the essential purpose of making music together. That trust exists among friends and strangers who gather around the table to break bread together, to sing and dance… and it’s there also among the faithful who gather in the early evening to the tolling of the bells.

The rest is showbiz.


released May 1, 2003

Joanna written and performed by James Young , produced by Henry Olsen.



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James Young UK

Born Oldham Manchester UK.
Began piano study at age 7.
Toured and recorded with Nico (Velvet Underground) from 1982 until her death in 1988.
Young has recorded solo albums including JOANNA, (Guardian: ‘a hymn of devotion that both dignifies and delights in his old piano's imperfections.’) Young wrote the classic SONGS THEY NEVER PLAY ON THE RADIO ( Greil Marcus: 'a coolly literary masterpiece' )
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