All of classical music can be divided into one of two categories. “Absolute music” refers to music that does not seek to represent any other narrative: the music is the music is the music. Beethoven’s symphonies, Mozart’s concertos, Debussy’s furniture music – these all serve no higher purpose than being music for music’s sake. On the opposite end, the term “program music” refers to music that does attempt to tell some sort of extra-musical narrative. Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Holst’s The Planets: these pieces all serve to outline another image, theme, or narrative. Somewhere in the murky gray area between these two terms lies Flamingo, the newest release by enigmatic German electronic artist the 23s.
From its very first moments, Flamingo sounds like no other electronic music being produced today. Too mellow and undanceable for house or disco, too busy and rhythmic for ambient or downtempo, Flamingo carves out a place all its own. One primary reason for this stems from the album’s sonic palette. The keyboards, synths, and drum patterns resemble nothing else from the past ten or 20 years. The mixture of Rhodes, vibes, and primitive synth models of acoustic instruments hearkens back to the late-’70s and early-’80s, when musicians had figured out how to use synthesizers but not yet figured out how to use them well. Here, however, the instrumentation does not sound cheesy or dated but rather evocative of manners of music that have faded from the modern landscape.
Flamingo does not draw its inspiration from any genre of popular music so much as it draws from film scoring. None of the songs here feature any lyrics, and few have particularly memorable melodies. But much in the vein of this year’s earlier Lost Themes by John Carpenter, Flamingo serves as underscore for a movie that does not exist. Both the track titles and the album’s cover serve to amplify this effect. Titles like opener “The Scene Where the Car Was Blown Away” or the dreamlike “Ann’s Theme” give scant details to the imaginary movie that Flamingo could be scoring. This vagueness makes listening to Flamingo an almost-creative experience into itself. Whose car is getting blown away? Is it by an explosion or a hurricane? Who is this Ann? What is she like? The only answers to these questions lie in the shimmering synths, gentle beds of keyboards, and thrumming basslines of the song’s themselves. The album’s cover serves as an excellent illustration of the record’s mystery. It depicts an old black and white photograph of a woman in makeup, smoking a cigarette in classic cinema fashion. However, the picture has been cropped to hide any other details. As such, the audience then must generate for themselves whatever context the picture has, both as an image on its own and as it relates to the album proper.
What then could we say of Flamingo in terms of program music vs. absolute music? Certain track titles, like “Shadow Music, Pt. 2” would lead one to say program. Its shuddering electronic drums and eerie synthesizers do indeed evoke images of shadows and darkness. But others, like the album highlight “Delizioso”, stand completely on their own. No context, no narrative, no title or album would be necessary to appreciate the arrhythmic background percussion or the way that the 23s have taken a cheesy synth guitar sound and made it sound regal, almost profound. The true answer lies not with the 23s but with the viewer. Flamingo may indeed be program music, but the program itself does not come from the artist. Rather, the album can serve as a fruitful jumping-off point for the imaginations of the viewer, constructing a film in their heads for Flamingo to provide a beautiful, entrancing soundtrack.