Don Slepian

Don Slepian is another of the genuine talents whose music rose above the haze of early American new age music to enjoy widespread acclaim and airplay on pioneering American radio shows such as Music From The Hearts Of Space...he's a musician, synthesiser programmer and performer of quietly dazzling skill and versatility.

artist:
Don Slepian

country of origin:
USA

style(s):
Ambient, new age, neoclassical, symphonic, drone

decades active:
70's - 10's

essential new age releases:

  • Rhythm Of Life (1982, Fortuna)
  • Sea Of Bliss (1983, Fortuna/DonSlepian.com)
  • Sonic Perfume (1987, Audion)

Reviewed by Mike G

Don Slepian is another of the genuine talents whose music rose above the haze of early American new age music to enjoy widespread acclaim and airplay on pioneering American radio shows such as Music From The Hearts Of Space. A musician, synthesiser programmer and performer of quietly dazzling skill and versatility, Slepian was an exception among most of the other artists associated with the early new age scene in that he was based on the East Coast, not California.

He began making music as far back as 1968, programming computers and building his own electronic music circuits and sculpting sound with now-primitive studio tape techniques. He spent most of the 1970's living and recording in Hawaii where, among other things, he was a synthesiser soloist with the Honolulu Symphony.

The pick of Slepian's instrumental ambient and downtempo music spans three of the albums he recorded in the 1980's for the Fortuna and Audion labels.

Rhythm Of Life (1982) captures his uplifting electronica at its most dynamic. Listen closely to the first three lengthy tracks and you'll soon understand Slepian's brilliance as an electronic musician. There's a genuine spontaneity and unpredictability; the propulsive synth melody driving each of these pieces keeps subtly changing and morphing right until the end. "Fast Motion" takes a pulsing, 80's synthpop-style groove sans drums and blends it with flutes and bright, celestial melodies, while "Sunrise" paints its scenery with the synthesised tones of an Indonesian metallophone. The title track is something else again, sounding like the arpeggio from Kraftwerk's "Europe Endless" freed of its mechanical moorings and taken on a long-distance space voyage.

Sea Of Bliss (1983) captures a much more meditative side to Slepian's music and is a masterpiece of electronic ambient spacemusic. The 30-minute title track is perhaps his signature piece, a dreamy and uncluttered glide through the ether, strongly harmonic and full of tiny details. It's impressive whatever way you look at it: technically, emotionally or musically. As Slepian himself describes it: "It's stochastic sequential permutations (the high bell tones), lots of real time algorithmic work, but who cares? It's pretty music: babies have been born to it, people have died to it, some folks have played it for days continuously. No sequels, no formulas. It was handmade computer music."

Following the title track and clocking in at just under half an hour is "Awakening", a companion piece to "Sea Of Bliss" in every sense of the word which was recorded with the same Bell Labs digital synthesiser while he was artist-in-residence at the company. The CD version of the Sea Of Bliss album also includes a gorgeous third track from the same sessions called "Sonic Perfume", its multi-layered synth and organ drones intermingling with ever-changing piano figures and clouds of crystalline textures.

Sonic Perfume is also the name of a fine 1987 album. It repeats said spacemusic track but most of the remainder of  the album revels in lovely pastoral melodies like "Life After Life" and "Horizon", folksy combos of synth, flute, piano and acoustic guitar not unlike the music of Hari Deuter. "Nightwatch" is an exception, sounding like a nod the the 70's Berlin-school of sequenced electronic patterns but done in Slepian's own very organic way.

Since the 1980's he's recorded more music in a variety of styles but today his focus is really on live performances. I recently asked him what he thought of being tagged new age music back in the day. "I was happy to fit into any genre," he says. "At least there was a bin in a record store that had a label 'New Age' where my records might be found. Any label at all is far better than no label." Besides, he says, he shudders at the alternative: adult contemporary instrumental. "Each one of those words is like the kiss of death, like being shot three times." With good humour he laments that there's no longer an easy genre tag for his music, instead describing it as "Original Improvised Atavistic Tonally-Conservative Classical Sounding Electronic Cutting-Edge Solo Keyboard Live Concert Music With No MIDI Sequencers Or Drum Machine".

Of the three albums listed above, only Sea Of Bliss has had a proper re-release. However many of his classic tracks are available freely for streaming and download via his website www.donslepian.com, while Sea Of Bliss and some of his other album releases - which are interesting, if non-essential - can be found at CD Baby. Note: while wading through his catalogue you may find vastly different versions of some tracks with otherwise identical titles.

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