Weekend links 494

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Aurora Borealis (1865) by Frederic Edwin Church.

• December is over-stuffed with enervating cultural lists, most of them reminding you of things which received enough attention earlier in the year. Better value than these—and always unpredictable—is John Waters‘ choice of favourite films; unpredictable and enlightening are the Secret Satan selections at Strange Flowers which come in two flavours: books originally published in English and books translated from other languages.

Flash Of The Spirit (1988), a collaboration between Jon Hassell and African group Farafina (with production by Hassell plus Brian Eno & Daniel Lanois), receives its first ever reissue on double-vinyl and CD next year. The last piece on the album is the 11-minute Masque (Strength).

• “In 1968, Federico Fellini decided he was going make the greatest homosexual movie ever made. What he meant by a homosexual movie, no one was quite sure, but it was going to be great.” Paul Gallagher on Federico Fellini’s delirious (and distinctly homosexual) Satyricon.

• “Here’s the typography of the next decade; the age of font minimalism is coming to a close,” says Rachel Hawley. I’ve been using Didones for the past decade so I’ll carry on happily ignoring the trends.

• More obituaries for comic artist Howard Cruse: Justin Hall at The Comics Journal; Trudy Ring at The Advocate; and Richard Sandomir at the New York Times.

• “Cowley records a kind of utopian sleaze that’s breathtaking.” Brett Josef Grubisic reviews Patrick Cowley’s sex journal of the 1970s, Mechanical Fantasy Box.

• At the BFI: Carmen Grey on where to begin with Sergei Parajanov, and Matthew Thrift on 10 essential Fritz Lang films.

A promo video by Julian House for Paul Weller’s In Another Room EP which is released in January by Ghost Box.

• At Aquarium Drunkard: San Francisco Radical Laboratory and the Mysterious Moogist of Altamont.

• Mix of the week: Through A Landscape Of Mirrors Vol. V – France III by David Colohan.

Aurora Australis (2005) by Émilie Simon | Iceblink (Aurora Borealis Mix) (2011) by Netherworld | Aurora Liminalis (2013) by William Basinski & Richard Chartier

Weekend links 188

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The Baron in the Trees (2011), a book-cut sculpture by Su Blackwell.

Kurt Andersen at Vanity Fair examines the latest claims that Vermeer used a combination of lenses and mirrors to aid the creation of his remarkable paintings. David Hockney caused a considerable fuss in 2006 when he made similar assertions. Andersen recounts how Tim Jenison (who isn’t an artist) decided to test the hypothesis by building a replica of the room from Vermeer’s The Music Lesson (1662–65) which he then painted with the assistance of a lens-and-mirror apparatus. I’m agnostic on this issue, and don’t regard it as a devaluing of the work of Vermeer (or any other artist) if some special apparatus was used to help create the paintings; artists for centuries have been using whatever technology was available.

One point which isn’t mentioned in the article: lens optics were being developed to a high standard in the Netherlands during Vermeer’s time. One of the developers of the microscope, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, was a contemporary of Vermeer’s in Delft, and is even alleged to be portrayed in some of the artist’s paintings.

• Before Alfred Hitchcock’s film and Daphne Du Maurier’s short story, The Birds was an “eerie yet satirical and rather metaphysical novel” by Frank Baker, inspired in part by Arthur Machen. Michael Dirda reviews a new edition. Related: “The Day of the Claw: A Synoptic Account of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds“, an essay by Ken Mogg examining avian menace through the ages.

Kevin Brownlow and Carl Davis on how they brought Abel Gance’s 270-minute silent masterwork, Napoleon (1927), back to the screen.

Finally, he was asked about the growth of surveillance and the militarization of the police.

“The phenomenon itself shouldn’t be surprising—the scale was surprising—but the phenomenon itself is as American as apple pie,” Chomsky said. “You can be confident that any system of power is going to use technology against its enemy: the population. Power systems seek short-term domination and control, not security.”

Matthew Robare on “American Anarchist” Noam Chomsky in (of all places) The American Conservative.

• “Why the hell wouldn’t I?” Evan J. Peterson on reading/performing his poetry in public, and his new book, The Midnight Channel.

The adversaria of Google Books: captured mark of the hand and digitization as rephotography.

• No surprise that the rabies-haunted town of Scarfolk is soon to have its history fixed in print.

Mazzy Star made a rare TV appearance last week, playing a song from their recent album.

The Sorcerer Blog is obsessively devoted to William Friedkin’s cult film.

• Unexpected Artefacts: Pushing the envelope with Bristol’s Emptyset.

• Mix of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 097 by Lee Gamble.

• At PingMag: Ryokudo—Tokyo’s Green Roads.

Norman Records’ Top 50 albums of 2013.

Birds Of Fire (1973) by Mahavishnu Orchestra | Attack Of The Killer Birds (2006) by Émilie Simon | One Thousand Birds (2012) by Six Organs of Admittance

Winter music

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Kjendalskronebrae, Nordfjord, Norway (c. 1900). From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division via Wood s Lot.

Are you suffering list fatigue yet? I certainly have been, especially from the apparently endless “best ___ of the decade” catalogues which would have you believe that the significant cultural products of the past ten years have been thoroughly sifted, reviewed and appraised. So yes, there’s a degree of hypocrisy in adding to the list surplus but, as with the Halloween music lists, it’s difficult to write about an area of listening without compiling something like this. As it happens, my Halloween playlists proved briefly popular this year when they were noticed by Stumbleupon users so someone appreciates them.

The present selection is music to complement the season and its chilly weather which in our part of the world has been colder than usual and laden with snow. It might also serve as a suggested alternative to the dreary plague of Christmas songs. This isn’t definitive, of course, and I could have added more than ten. I kept the choices in the electronic spectrum but there’s a whole other list which could be made of winter-themed folk songs, folk music of all kinds being sensitive to the changing seasons.

Sonic Seasonings (1972) by Wendy Carlos.
Between her electronic transcriptions of Baroque music and the score for A Clockwork Orange, Wendy Carlos released a collection of four long pieces of electronic atmospherics blended with natural sound recordings, with each track dedicated to a different season. The album may not have had the formal intent of Brian Eno’s ambient albums but ambient it certainly is, preceding Eno’s Discreet Music by three years whilst predicting much of what would become over-familiar during the 1990s. The Winter track is the one which concerns us here, a droning Moog landscape of echoed notes, tinkling ice, distant wind and Rachel Elkind’s lupine howls. Carlos and Elkind carried the synthesised chill into their opening music for The Shining a few years later, and Carlos returned to the theme with the digital improvisations of Land of the Midnight Sun, included as a bonus on the Sonic Seasonings CD.

Eskimo (1979) by The Residents.
A conceptual masterpiece, and an album which still sounds as strange and timeless as it did when it first appeared. Eskimo is the first and (one presumes) only example of what might be labelled “Eskimo exotica” since the whole work is more Eskimo-esque than an authentic musical rendering of the world of the Inuit people. Like Wendy Carlos’s Winter, these are shifting soundscapes augmented by ritual chants and synthesised animal sounds. For those who found the album to be musically inaccessible the group released Diskomo, a segue of the musical themes matched to a thumping dance beat.

Iceland (1979) by Richard Pinhas.
Another far north concept album and the third solo release from the Heldon guitarist who subdues his Robert Fripp impersonations in favour of synth arrangements. The CD version includes a 22-minute bonus, Winter Music.

Victorialand (1986) by Cocteau Twins.
Much of the Cocteau Twins’ chiming and reverb-drenched output would suit the colder months but Victorialand in particular takes its title from a region of Antarctica, and many of the track titles—Whales Tails, How to Bring a Blush to the Snow—point in that direction. Another timeless work.

White Out (1990) by Johannes Schmoelling.
Schmoelling was a member of Tangerine Dream in what I consider to be their last worthwhile incarnation from 1980 to 1986. His third solo album also takes Antarctica as its theme and while some of the music tends to a jaunty blandness at its best it manages to evoke the isolation of the continent through lengthy synthesiser pieces. When the Polydor release went out of print, Schmoelling re-worked the album slightly for reissue on his own label.

Songs from the Cold Seas (1995) by Hector Zazou.
Many of the late Hector Zazou‘s albums were concepts of some kind, often involving a roster of guest artists. Songs from the Cold Seas follows this pattern with singers from around the world delivering a variety of songs from the world’s colder regions. For a contrast to the Residents’ ethnological forgeries, Song of the Water is a chant by Inuit artists Elisha Kilabuk and Koomoot Nooveya. Among other highlights there’s Björk who restrains her vocal gymnastics for once with a delicate Icelandic lullaby, Vísur Vatnsenda-Rósu.

Polar Sequences (1996) by Higher Intelligence Agency & Biosphere.
A collaboration between Bobby Bird of HIA and Biosphere‘s Geir Jenssen, recorded live with sounds sourced in and around Jenssen’s home town of Tromsø at the Arctic Circle. I much prefer this to the other HIA releases which lack its detailed textures. One track, Meltwater, sounds just as you’d expect, all running water and crackling ice.

Substrata (1997) by Biosphere.
Still one of the finest Biosphere releases (although Nordheim Transformed is probably my favourite) and included here for its chilly and mostly beatless atmosphere which includes further samples from the far north.

La Marche de L’Empereur (2005) by Emilie Simon.
I still haven’t seen La Marche de L’Empereur (March of the Penguins) but the soundtrack for the original French release is a fantastic collection of songs illustrating the survival struggles of the film’s penguins. Emilie Simon is frequently described as “the French Björk”, a lazy label which only connects the pair because they’re female singers who also happen to be “foreign” and users of unorthodox electronic arrangements. The recordings here feature glitch-inflected rhythms and glass instruments which means they were far too interesting for the American release of the film. The Hollywood version dropped the songs in favour of a traditional orchestral score.

Alaska Melting (2006) by Monolake.
The latest album from Monolake, aka Robert Henke, was released earlier this month. Silence has a winter scene on the cover and a track entitled Infinite Snow but winter isn’t a predominant theme. While the music is up to Henke’s usual high standard, it’s a lot less urgent than Alaska Melting, a one-off release on 12″ vinyl with two slices of vibrant techno that foreground Henke’s environmental concerns. The most uptempo and abrasive work on this list.

Previously on { feuilleton }
A playlist for Halloween: Voodoo!
Dead on the Dancefloor
Cristalophonics: searching for the Cocteau sound
A Clockwork Orange: The Complete Original Score
A cluster of Cluster
Fragment Endloss by Robert Henke
Another playlist for Halloween
Thomas Köner
A playlist for Halloween

Cristalophonics: searching for the Cocteau sound

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The enigmatic hibiscus: Le Testament d’Orphée (1960).

Here’s a conundrum for you: what connects Jean Cocteau, Ravi Shankar, Doctor Who and March of the Penguins? Read on and all will become crystal clear….

This latest { feuilleton } examination of the byways of musical culture isn’t concerned so much with an individual artist, more with a particular sound. Timbre is the keyword here, usually defined as “the distinctive property of a complex sound”, and my own interest in unusual timbres goes back to a childhood fascination with those corrugated plastic tubes which produce a variable, high-pitched drone when whirled over the head. The principal characteristic of that sound is the purity of its tone, a quality also found in electronic music, of course, but that purity was known hundreds of years before synthesizers in the music produced by glass instruments. This post isn’t intended as a detailed history of the world of glass instruments and glass music, the subject is bigger than you might imagine. Consider this an aperitif, and an account of the solving of a nagging musical mystery.

The conundrum begins when I returned from Paris two years ago with a DVD of Cocteau’s Le Testament d’Orphée, a film unavailable on disc at that time in the UK. The French connection here is an appropriate one, as will become evident. One of the many motifs in the film is the recurrent image of a hibiscus flower given to Cocteau by actor Edouard Dermithe. Cocteau carries the flower with him in subsequent scenes and whenever it’s shown in close-up a peculiar musical signature of three short notes is played. I thought at first this might be an electronic sound but there seemed to be no way to find out for sure. It transpires that the answer was hiding in plain sight all the time but the roundabout discovery has taken me into areas I might otherwise have missed. Whatever the solution, I was sufficiently intrigued to sample it and make it the text (SMS) ringtone for my phone.

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The next piece of the puzzle was also film-related and came with the acquisition of a Ravi Shankar album, Transmigration Macabre. This short work was recorded in 1967 as the score for a British “art film”, Viola, which is sufficiently obscure to be absent from IMDB’s database. The second track on the album, Fantasy, was a revelation; in place of sitar, the whole piece is played on the same instrument which was used to create the Cocteau sound…but what was it? My copy was missing the necessary credits so I was left guessing. Was it some strange Indian keyboard? Something played through a ring modulator? Mentioning this mystery to my good friend Gav—he of the Metabolist vinyl, Igor Wakhévitch albums, vast Jandek obsession, and the only person I know who might care about this kind of pressing issue, never mind be able to solve it—prompted the suggestion that the instrument might be a glass harmonica (below). Well yes and no; the sound of a glass harmonica (or hydrocrystalophone) is close but has a higher register which lacks the depth of the Cocteau/Shankar instrument. Björk used one for a track on Homogenic and as an instrument it’s certainly unusual and fascinating. glassharmonica.jpgContemporary models are based on Benjamin Franklin’s treadle-operated machine which turned the familiar arrangement of tuned wine glasses or “glass harp” (something Björk has also used) into a proper musical instrument. Franklin’s machine uses a foot-powered treadle to turn an iron spindle holding 37 nested bowls; the bowls are soaked with water and wet fingers applied to the bowl edges to create the sounds. The unique timbres produced by the instrument aren’t so surprising to an audience familiar with electronic sounds but were novel enough in the 18th and 19th century to inspire rumours of the instrument causing madness in players and listeners. Wikipedia has a wonderful example of glass harmonica playing which demonstrates its ethereal quality. There’s something very magical about sounds produced by non-electronic means which yet seem so otherworldly; theremins can sound shrill and graceless in comparison. That Wikipedia page also contains the solution to my musical mystery but the answer for me came via a different source.

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left: Structures Sonores No. 4 by Lasry Baschet; right: La Marche de l’Empereur by Emilie Simon.

Discussion of the Cocteau/Shankar question prompted the remembrance of another soundtrack with a similar quality, a theme for a long-running TV programme for British schools called Picture Box. The programme itself was undistinguished (short films from around the world) but Gav and I had always been intrigued by the strange title music which accompanied film of a spinning antique glass case. That title sequence had to be on YouTube, right? Of course it is, together with the reminiscences of people traumatised when they were kids by the “scary” title music. And this was indeed the Cocteau/Shankar instrument! A quick jump to TV Cream supplied the vital details: the theme was Manege from Structures Sonores No. 4 by Lasry Baschet, a 10-inch vinyl release from the 1960s on Disques Bam. So the instrument in question was revealed as—voila!—the Cristal Baschet or Cristal as it’s now known. Sure enough, looking again at the opening credits of the Cocteau film, Lasry Baschet are mentioned for their “Structures Sonores”. Georges Auric is the credited music composer yet having watched the film again recently I noticed brief snatches of Cristal music in two scenes. The Lasry component of Lasry Baschet was Jacques and Yvonne Lasry, two Cristal players and composers, while Baschet was Bernard and François Baschet, a pair of inventors who developed the instrument in 1952. “For 150 years,” François Baschet said in a 1962 TIME interview, “the only instruments that have been invented have been the saxophone, the musical saw and concrete and electronic music. Why?” Why, indeed. The Cristal was one of their answers to that question. Contemporary Cristal player Thomas Bloch describes the instrument:

The Cristal Baschet (sometimes called Crystal Organ and in English, Crystal Baschet) is composed of 54 chromatically tuned glass rods, rubbed with wet fingers. So, it is close to the Glassharmonica. But in the Cristal Baschet, the vibration of the glass is passed on to the heavy block of metal by a metal stem whose variable length determines the frequency (the note). Amplification is obtained by fiberglass cones fixed on wood and by a tall cut out metal part, in the shape of a flame. “Whiskers”, placed under the instrument, to the right, increase the sound power of high-pitched sounds.

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A modern Cristal from the player’s side.

The original glass rod “keyboard” was vertical which must have made playing difficult. This was changed to a horizontal arrangement in 1970. It’s the combination of metal and glass that gives the instrument its distinctive timbre, with the large metal amplifying cones adding the tonal richness which the glass harmonica lacks. This page notes its use on the Shankar album and, showing again the attraction for those wanting distinctive soundtracks, it transpires that original Doctor Who producer Verity Lambert had been eager in 1963 to commission Lasry Baschet to create a theme for the BBC’s new science fiction series. The idea was dropped when negotiations proved difficult so Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire (the subject of an earlier post) were called in to create their now famous theme tune.

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Thomas Bloch with one of his Cristals.

The Cristal is still in use today with Thomas Bloch and Michel Deneuve being two of its principal virtuosi. Bloch also plays the glass harmonica and that other fine example of Francophone ethereality, the Ondes Martenot, and has a great set of YouTube performances including this multi-Cristal concert. France is certainly a country which enjoys these kinds of sound and all the main players of the Cristal seem to be French. It’s significant that the sole example of glass instrumentation on Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones: Experimental Musical Instruments, a 1996 book and CD documenting unusual instruments, was by Jean-Claude Chapuis, another glass virtuoso who also plays the Cristal. It’s significant too that the Cristal is most widely-known for its use in soundtracks. This is often the fate of new or experimental instruments; Oskar Sala’s Trautonium is permanently linked to Alfred Hitchcock after it was used to generate some of the sounds for The Birds. And I was reading recently about the Hang, a metal bowl used by Cliff Martinez in his score for Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris. Emilie Simon‘s marvellous, award-winning score for the original (French) release of March of the Penguins (2005) featured Thomas Bloch playing his Cristal, glass harmonica and Ondes Martenot. (Simon’s score was deemed by Hollywood to be too weird so the film was re-scored for its American incarnation.)

All this Cristalography leaves little room for an examination of other glass musicians or music, some of whom are considerably more avant garde (and often less harmonious) in their approach. As I said, it’s a big field but mention should at least be made of The Glass World of Anna Lockwood (1970) (later Annea Lockwood), a collection of atonal scrapes, shrieks and clangs produced by various pieces of glass, including wine glasses. Then there’s Angus Maclaurin’s excellent Glass Music (2000), a unique work which Pitchfork called “an album of beautiful claustrophobia”. And Harry Partch, of course, with his Cloud Chamber Bowls. Lastly, minimalist composer Daniel Lentz wrote a stunning wine glass composition, Lascaux, which has recently been reissued on CD. An earlier version of that piece required the glasses to be filled with wine, not water, and for the players to drink the wine at various moments during the perfomance; this would alter the sound of the instruments and affect their playing.

Much of this activity, you’ll note, is lodged firmly at the “serious”, classical end of the musical spectrum, despite the efforts of Björk and Damon Albarn (a Cristal fan apparently) to broaden musical horizons. We’re still awaiting the Joanna Newsom of the Cristal, someone who can take the instrument as their own and lift it away from the classical repertoire and the realm of soundtrack novelty. Throw away your guitars, boys and girls, the crystal world has much more to offer.

Thanks to Gav for his invaluable record collection and assistance with this piece.

Further listening:
Difference Tone: A Cristal Concert | Streaming audio at the Internet Archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
A cluster of Cluster
Max Eastley’s musical sculptures
The Avant Garde Project
White Noise: Electric Storms, Radiophonics and the Delian Mode
Chrome: Perfumed Metal
Exuma: Obeah men and the voodoo groove
Metabolist: Goatmanauts, Drömm-heads and the Zuehl Axis
The Ondes Martenot
La Villa Santo Sospir by Jean Cocteau
The music of Igor Wakhévitch