The alias of Southampton, UK, musician Stephen Hartwell, The Dead Goldfish Ensemble solo project appeared on the underground cassette network in 1985, exploring computer programming and sequencer music on twelve cassette releases until Hartwell ended musical activities in 1992. The Ensemble was an emanation of the Goldfish Records radio programme ran by Hartwell and Peter Skelley in the early eighties, broadcasted in Cambridge where Hartwell was working at the time. It then became a cassette label releasing local (Cambridge) bands and one single in 1983 by new-wave band The Primary (see here), before changing the name of the label to Peeved Records. The Dead Goldfish Ensemble had several of his cassettes released abroad on various DIY tape labels in Europe and the US, and contributed to many key compilations of the 1980s like Insane Music For Insane People, Neue Muster, An Der Schonen Blauen Donau, Notre-Dame, Deux Lapins, etc (see the list here). The Ensemble was definitely part of a specific trend in electronic music of the 1980s using MIDI technology to explore the realms of repetition and restraint, along composers like Rimarimba (Chicago Death Excretion Geometry, 1986), Nuno Rebelo (Sagração Do Mês De Maio, 1989) or L.G. Mair Jr. (Music For Winefride, 1993).
The majority of the Dead Goldfish Ensemble’s output is based on MIDI sounds and computer/sequencer programming performed on the Yamaha CX5M music computer (c/w FM synthesis and MIDI in/out ports), used in conjunction with the Korg EX800 (MIDI-compatible, synth module with sequencer) and Roland MT-32 (MIDI-compatible, polyphonic synth module). On some tapes, Hartwell used the Roland SH101 and MC202 analog synthesizers or the Akai X7000 sampler. On Music for Bowls specifically, an Ensoniq ESQ-1 synthesizer is used on #5 A Little Bit Of Nonsense, and an Atari ST on #1 Intro. End of the for-the-technically-minded rambling.
♫ Music for Bowls was The Ensemble’s second cassette, published on Peeved Records in 1987 and then re-released by Unlikely Records (U.K.), In der Tat (Germany) and Organic Tapes (France). Like all other DGE works, it relies on sequencer programming, synth loops and minute timbral variations through envelope and amplitude gradual modification. Thanks to its predominantly melodic nature and the relentless bouncing energy of rhythm patterns, Music for Bowls exudes an elated, irresistible optimism. In Hartwell’s music, simplicity is used as a lever in electronic miniatures like A Little Bit of Nonsense (#5) and Eric (#7), whose restrained tonal range and constricted lyricism create a fascinating and somewhat unsettling feeling, like Chinese foot-binding to a Westerner. Track #8 Cool Walls is a glorious 15-mn epic with motoric pulsation and discrete counterpoint, whose intrinsic dynamism relies on gradual, if subtle, envelope and harmonization evolutions. Demure, tentative counterpoint is a recurring motif in these tracks, as in the Andrew Poppy soundalike #3, All The Hands, a melodious and delicate composition lying somewhere between Renaissance minuet and square dance music. Romantic piano playing – for once recorded live and including a few wrong notes!– even adorns the noble, elevated #4 Dazzling One.
Thanks to Stephen Hartwell for permission to offer these sound files here. In 2008, Stephen digitized the Ensemble’s entire recorded output from reel to reel tapes, as well as all side projects and previous bands he was in. See his website for tracklisting. The files are available for purchase on a 3xCD set.
01 Intro (:49)
02 Grey Earls (5:33)
03 All The Hands (5:34)
04 Dazzling One (8:09)
05 A Little Bit of Nonsense (2:43)
06 Openings (9:16)
07 Eric (5:03)
08 Cool Walls (15:20)
Total time 52:24
Cassette released by Peeved Records, UK, 1987
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The Dead Goldfish Ensemble cassettography:
1985 Structures and Strictures, Peeved Records
1987 Music for Bowls, Peeved Records
1987 Fame and Misfortune, In Der Tat
1988 20,000 Dead Goldfish under the Sea, APEAC/Organic Tapes
1988 Reality – A Surreal Nightmare, Peeved Records
1989 Eye to Eye, Violet Glass Oracle Tapes
1989 Goldfish Fingers, City Spools
1990 Cast in Stone, Mega Mago Music
1991 Music for Pandas, Peeved Records
1991 Fish & Micro Chips, City Spools
1992 Listen’ Ear, IRRE Tapes
1992 After The Goldfish, Tonspur Tapes