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Musical Memories 3

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In early 1990, Virgin Records would start distributing a single to a small group of select DJs, which contained only the projects’s name and the track's title, but bore no reference to who was behind it. The single was called “Sadeness Part 1” and featured Gregorian Chants, Pan Flutes, Synthesizers, a continous Disco-Beat, orgasmic moans and a thinly disguised reference to the Marquis de Sade. It would change the musical world as we know it.

To understand the importance of this piece and the subsequent album “MCMXC a.D.”, we need to go back just a little. Most musical decades don’t truly start with the fireworks on New Year’s Day – they are sculpted, designed and prepared well in advance. And so it was with the 80s. Back then, the world was still split into two camps: The “evil mainstream”, occupied by money-hungry disco-acts and dominated by squeaky Synthesizers as well as gorgeously trivial singalong-melodies. Opposed to that, there was a vibrant underground, united by its anger and frustration about popular culture, but divided into the most diverse subgenres. While journalists and “serious music listeners” complained about the supposed shalowness of the charts, they were secretly happy about this division, which cemented the world easily into good and evil and secured them moral superiority. The first sign of a crack in the fabric was the success of acts like Massive Attack and The KLF. The former claimed a territory in which Soul, Reggae and HipHop could meet – a place where music could be catchy and relaxing without automatically being labelled as “commercial”. The latter challenged the general notion of the musician as a universal genius: Rather, they argued, something new and worthwhile could come out of “stealing” from someone else’s ideas. As a matter of fact, with all harmonic progressions used up and no more room for real surprises, everybody was already doing so and merely hypocritically denying this. In 1988, “Doctorin’ the Tardis was released” and proved to be a landmark (even though one could argue that M/A/R/R/S were there first with “Pump up the Volume”): Almost nothing on this record had been “composed” by the band, instead it mashed up disparate elements from other artists into one irresistible new track. Still, this was only the beginning. Somwhere in Germany, a producer had been watching these developments, as well as technological progress and prepared to launch a work that he had been dreaming of since his early childhood.

Michael Cretu was himself a child of the 70s and a self-made success story of the 80s. Born in Romania, he completed his studies in Frankfurt and discovered the Keyboard as the ideal tool to transport his thoughts (his well-known quote from the time goes: “I started writing hits the day I sold my piano”). He provided national stars such as Peter Cornelius and Hubert Kah with hits and lifted Sandra Lauer into international stardom. By the end of the 80s, he had reached a position which allowed him to start thinking about a project of his own. Enigma was born out of the desire to create something unique, something with timeless qualitities and yet totally aware of the era it was created in. It was a courageous effort of binding together the best of those allegedly diametrically opposed worlds of mainstream and underground.

It would be easy to describe “MCMXC a.D.” by a summary of its ingredients: The already mentioned chants, Operatic singing (Maria Callas even appears in one track’s title), luscious Piano and Flute solos, spaceous arrangements and lots and lots of samples. “The Voice and the Snake” is actually based almost exclusively on an extract from Aphrodite’s Child’s “666”-classic, for example, and “Back to the Rivers of Belief” starts off with a sequence from Spielberg’s “Close encounters of the third kind”. All of these elements would quickly become cliches in their own right and be copied in an endless string of runaway hits.
One could also try to explain the album’s impact by the riot it stirred: The catholic church was shocked by the combination of modern instruments and Gregorian chants (which were supposed to be the purest form of singing and to be kept strictly vocals-only), radio stations playing “Sadeness” received bomb threats and since Cretu had not credited the use of samples in the booklet (and not even wasted a thought on compensating the original artists), law suits were initiated and a public debate about copy right ensued. Yet all of this does not sum up the real essence of these mere 40 minutes of music – and neither does the fact that it had sold a staggering 14 million copies the last time someone bothered counting.

The revolution of the album lies in three simple points. Firstly, it brought sampling to a culmination. Using other sources than your own was nothing new and had been common practise in the experimental scene for years - J.M. Jarre’s “Zoolook” is a fine early example. But while Jarre used animal noises to establish new rhythmical structures and melodies, Cretu built his own music around whole sequences of previously recorded parts. His method was not remixing and remodelling, but rather recontextualisation – by changing a piece of music’s natural environment, its whole effect was altered and the result could be something entirely new and fascinating in its own way. And while The KLF and M/A/R/R/S tried similar things on three-minute pop-lollipops, Enigma went for the grand scheme, a piece of art.
Secondly, “MCMXC a.D.” was the first step in a series of developments which would eradicate the division between mainstream and underground culture. Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Portishead’s “Dummy” would be credited for this more generously, but it was really Cretu who first tore down the wall. There’s traces of his previous works everywhere and if you listen to “Mea Culpa Part II”, the second single to be taken off the album (and arguably the finest moment of Enigma ever), you will hear the typical grooves and even sounds that were lambasted by independent fans – but they suddenly worked and proved to be both exciting and ambitious. It changed the perception of the whole musical comunity: Being difficult no longer defined a record’s quality.
And finally, Enigma changed the nature of composing. Even with previous sampling-hits, the original sources were somehow unorganically integrated into a track. “Doctorin’ the Tardis” became a number one hit, because people thought it “funny”, “wicked”, “strange” or “bizarre” that you could combine Glam-Rock drums with the tune to a famous TV-series. On “MCMXC a.D.”, samples became fully operational elements of a piece, a part of the mix. HipHop producers were the first to pick up this idea – their beats and backings contained original music and used it as an instrument, rather than an oddity. And it was this technique that would dominate the 90s more than any Rock-revival which journalists dreamed up.

Three years later, Cretu returned with “The Cross of Changes”, which was equally succesful and just as influential, sparking the whole genre of Ethno-Pop and allowing Asian and African influences to trickle into Western chart hits. If the public didn’t see the album quite as extraordinary or influential as its predecessor, then this this only goes to prove how much the world had already changed since that deciding first single in the early 90s.

Homepage: Enigma
Source: Enigma-biography by Lazzae Laspina




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