Is that a trickling water feature or a leaky lavatory cistern?
If you were at The Festival of Mind Body and Spirit at the London Olympia between the 21st and 29th of April 1979, the question would probably not have bothered you. Blissed out on asparagus acid and tripping on tofu, a sample bag of flower remedies and multi-hued candles (nine lumens of enlightenment guaranteed), you may have wandered into the Rainbow Dome looking for the conveniences but the beguiling sounds cast a siren spell so subtle and irresistible you stayed, oblivious to any earthly discomfort.
For the music created by Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy for this consciousness raising event is so quietly uplifting, so magically mesmerising, it could turn a spitting mohawk’d punk into a cooing angel child in just over forty-three minutes.
From the rivulet of water that opens side one of Rainbow Dome Musick* emerges a series of single synthesiser notes, languidly spaced, whose glass-like tones range from elven chime to distant horn. The electric piano cascades that follow almost seem to personify the spirit of the water; life-giving, refreshing, utterly simple and entirely central to life.
After almost six minutes, the tone changes. Some Gong-like space whispers arc across the height of the dome, or where the dome once was. Because the water has gone, a fluttering star-wash pierced by cascades of electronic comets has taken you from earth to space. Surely this is the musick of heaven. Cool, detached, yet singing an eternal song of wonder. The occasional low note helps ground what otherwise might seem to airy even for a fairy, yet the absence of percussion or beat is not missed; here it would be an intrusion. This is music to wander about in, to get lost in. So when a keening guitar note gently slices through the mist, it is very much like spotting a rainbow lorikeet on the wing.
This mid-section of “Garden of Paradise” is so under-stated, so beautifully balanced, it does in fact become weightless. Composer Miquette Giraudy has a light touch.
If you are thinking ‘New Age’, think again. Or rather, listen again. This is no mere formless tinkling, no vacuous earwash, but a carefully constructed journey. The guitar solo around the sixteen minute mark is a paragon of restraint, yet tune in and you’ll be dazzled by Hillage’s playing. The keyboard arpeggios dance with the guitar runs, while that vibrating pulse, like the background microwaves of the big bang, keeps us both held and adrift. And as the long coda glides through the closing minutes, the fluid sounds fade away until that background pulse is all that remains; quivering, enigmatic.
Listen to the solo albums of Steve Hillage and you’ll not be surprised to hear that he is drawn to the spiritual (note lower-case) nor that he leapt at the chance to compose for the Mind Body & Spirit festival. In an article for Sounds International (May 1979), he spoke of listening to radio programs (the 70s equivalent of podcasts, I believe) on topics such as “Out of body experiences”, “Astrology” and “The New Age”.
The dome itself was created to be a place of contemplation. Sounds very New Age-y indeed, yet what continues to delight me after countless spins of Rainbow Dome Musick is its capacity to occupy the foreground of the listening experience as comfortably as it soundtracks music for dreaming. Even in those turbulent end-of-decade times, RDM worked its magick on otherwise hard-bitten music press hacks. In the NME, scarcely know for its love of progressive music, reviewer Rick Joseph found himself endorsing the old hippies, almost against his will:
Altogether, “RDM” is a disgustingly and unfashionably wonderful exercise in meditative atmospherics, and is as addictive as a class A drug. It reaches hitherto untrod regions of dimensionless-ness.” [May 5, 1979]
Side two (composed by Hillage) is entitled “Four Ever Rainbow”. Opening with the crystalline chime of a Tibetan bell, some low synth notes and wavelets of trademark Hillage guitar, there is the suggestion of a smidgen more animus in this half. Maybe. The first section has the openness of a daydream and the gentle tension of an unanswered question. Like staring up at a blue blue sky then suddenly noticing without any surprise at all you can see just over 1.23 billion stars.
The next movement has pitch drifts and note slurs curling around your ears like tendrils of enchanted mist. There is a faintly ominous feel, with creeping lower register synth notes and a compressed version of that quivering pulse. Then, at twelve minutes, the pulse is taken over by sequencer, casting clusters of analogue wine-grapes. Surely we aren’t about to rock into some alternative Bacchanalia? But no, it is more like a cosmic quadrille than a Martian mosh pit, When I listen to RDM in the foreground, this is the only point I experience a little stab of frustration. It would be so good if Steve cut through the celestial noodling with an ecstatic glissando guitar solo. That would be out of character with the album, however, and as the slowly undulating flow of the synthesised currents drifts towards the endless sea, we sigh out the last knots of tension and clamber to our feet, casting one last glance at the mist-shimmer rainbows as we exit Hillage and Giraudy’s magick dome.
Now, where were those toilets?
* As adding a ‘k’ to the end of certain words adds bushels of Druidic authenticity, bonus k-s will be dispensed liberally through this piece.
◊ If you cannot find a copy of Rainbow Dome Musick on vinyl, the remastered Virgin CD (2007) sounds superb.
◊ For those who would like to know more about Steve Hillage, there is another Vinyl Connection piece here.
◊ This article was catalysed by a 1537 post on the Steve Hillage album Green, which immediately precedes RDM. Green is a fabulous album and is highly recommended, as is Joe’s piece.