Miles and Miles

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I listen to music all the time when I’m working but it’s not always a good idea to give new music an airing when you’re also concentrating on new work. What often happens on these occasions is that the album will fail to make an impression and end up being laid aside in favour of more familiar sounds, which is what happened to the copy of Milestones (1958) by Miles Davis that I bought last year in a charity shop. Listening to it again this week provoked a “Wow!” response as well as making me realise that I’d heard the tune of the fourth track, Miles, somewhere before. Miles, or Milestones as it’s confusingly also known, is covered by Barry Adamson on his 1996 album, Oedipus Schmoedipus, a simpler version but still jazzier than everything else on the album. I’d always suspected that Adamson was referring to Miles Davis with the title but since I’d never looked at the writing credits until this week I didn’t make the connection. Davis had a habit of naming new pieces of music after people he knew—John McLaughlin, Billy Preston, Mtume, producer Teo Macero, etc—so Miles (as opposed to Milestones) can be taken as an early example of the habit even though it refers to him and also doubles as a reference to measurement rather than a person. The same title, but not the same piece of music, appears on a 1985 album by Sly & Robbie, Language Barrier, the track in this case being a renamed reworking of Black Satin from Miles Davis’s On The Corner album. Language Barrier in turn was produced by Bill Laswell who later remixed the original Black Satin for his excellent compilation/reconstruction of Davis’s electric period, Panthalassa, and who may have suggested that Sly & Robbie record their own version of the Davis piece. Whatever its origin, Miles (Black Satin) is credited to “B. Laswell, M. Davis, R. Shakespeare & S. Dunbar” which brings us back to Barry Adamson whose Miles has a similar credit at Discogs (but not on my CD…) although Laswell is now (bizarrely) “William Laswell”. I still don’t know what connection Laswell or Sly & Robbie have with Adamson’s track, unless it’s a Discogs error or contains a sample I’ve missed, but the ghost of M. Davis might at least be satisfied that he was influencing popular music after so many years on the outside looking in. Always miles ahead. And that’s the title of another Davis album I’ve yet to acquire…

Chance encounters on the dissecting table

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In times of great uncertainty about our mission, we often looked at the fixed points of Lautréamont and De Chirico, which sufficed to determine our straight line.

André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, 1928

1: The metaphor, 1869

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You can’t read the history of Surrealism for very long before encountering some variation of the most famous line from Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont/Isidore Ducasse: “beautiful as a chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”. Translations vary, as do misquotations; the page above is from the Alexis Lykiard translation where you can also read the surrounding text. The context of the description is seldom mentioned when the quote is used, and reveals that the words are describing the attractiveness of an English schoolboy living with his parents in Paris. The insipid Mervyn is stalked, seduced and finally murdered by the villainous Maldoror. Lautréamont’s metaphor, like so much else in the book, carries a sting in its tail.

2: The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, 1920

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Man Ray, like Mervyn, was a foreigner living in Paris when he created this artwork. The “enigma” may be taken as referring both to the wrapped object (a sewing machine sans umbrella) as well as to the mysterious author of Les Chants de Maldoror, who died at the age of 24 after writing his explosive prose poem, and about whose life little is known. I first encountered Ducasse’s name in art books showing pictures of this piece which is one of the earliest works of Surrealist art. For a young art enthusiast the enigma was more in the name itself: who was this Ducasse, and why was he enigmatic? The original of Man Ray’s piece was subsequently lost, like many of his pre-war sculptures, but may be seen inside the first issue of La Révolution Surrealiste. Editions of the work that exist today are recreations made in the 1970s.

3: An illustration for Les Chants de Maldoror, 1934

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Salvador Dalí created 30 full-page etchings and 12 vignettes for an illustrated edition of Lautréamont’s work published by Skira in Paris in 1934. Dalí must have seemed an ideal match for a book whose prose descriptions offer copious atrocities and mutations but, as with many of Dalí’s illustrations, the pictures owe more to his obsessions than to Lautréamont’s text, and could easily be used to illustrate something else entirely. Plate 19 does, however, feature a sewing machine.

4: Electrosexual Sewing Machine, 1935

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A Surrealist painting by Oscar Dominguez which emphasises the sexual nature of Lautréamont’s metaphor, or at least the Freudian interpretation of the same. Breton and company took the sewing machine for a female symbol, while the umbrella was male; the dissecting table where their encounter takes place is, of course, a bed.

[In Electrosexual Sewing Machine] the dissection appears to be under way. There is a strange abusive surgery being undertaken, the thread of the sewing machine replaced with blood which is being funnelled onto the woman’s back. The plant itself may even echo de Lautréamont’s umbrella. Domínguez has taken one of the central mantras of Breton’s Surreal universe and has pushed it, through a combination of painterly skill and semi-automatism, in order to create an absorbing and haunting vision that cuts to the quick of the movement’s spirit. (via)

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Weekend links 521

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Au Lion d’or (1965) by Mimi Parent.

• After the recent announcement of Jon Hassell’s health issues it’s good to see he has a new album on the way at the end of July. Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) follows the form of the first volume, Seeing Through Pictures (2018), in reworking elements of earlier recordings into new forms. Not remixes, more reimaginings, and a process that Hassell has been applying to his own work for many years, most notably on his collaboration with Peter Freeman, The Vertical Collection (1997). The latter is an album which is impossible to find today and really ought to be reissued, together with more scarcities from the Hassell catalogue.

• Death of a typeface: John Boardley on Robert Granjon’s Civilité, a type design intended to be the national typeface of France but which fell out of favour. It wasn’t completely forgotten however; I was re-reading Huysmans’ À Rebours a couple of weeks ago, and Civilité is mentioned there as being a type that Des Esseintes chooses for some of his privately-printed books.

• At Plutonium Shores: Kurosawa versus Leone in A Fistful of Yojimbo. Christopher Frayling makes a similar analysis in his landmark study, Spaghetti Westerns (1981), but I didn’t realise that Leone had based so many of his shots on Kurosawa’s film.

• More lockdown art: Seen from Here: Writing in the Lockdown is a collection of new writing edited by Tim Etchells and Vlatka Horvat. A PDF book whose sales will go to support the Trussell Trust, a UK food bank charity.

• The week’s culture guides: Ben Cardew on where to start with the back catalogue of Miles Davis, and Hayley Scanlon on where to begin with the films of Yasujiro Ozu.

• “We can no longer ignore the potential of psychedelic drugs to treat depression,” says Robin Carhart-Harris.

• At Dangerous Minds: Laraaji returns with a new album, Sun Piano, and a preview of the same, This Too Shall Pass.

• Mixes of the week: The Ivy-Strangled Path Vol. XXI by David Colohan, and XLR8R Podcast 647 by The Orb.

Penelope Rosemont on the humorous Surrealism of Mimi Parent.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Jeff Jackson presents Free Jazz Day.

The Golden Lion (1967) by Lomax Alliance | Dread Lion (1976) by The Upsetters | Gehenna Lion (1982) by Chrome

François Schuiten record covers

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Claudine Simon (1980) by Claudine Simon.

Continuing an occasional series about artists or designers whose work has appeared on record sleeves. Belgian artist François Schuiten is a familiar name here, being the co-creator with Benoît Peeters of the Obscure World, one of my favourite zones of fantastic invention. The Obscure World has grown to become a multimedia endeavour so Schuiten’s involvement with some of the later entries in this post goes beyond providing the cover art to being connected to the music itself.

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De Wolkentrapper (1983) by Herman van Veen.

Herman van Veen is a Dutch writer and singer who produced a number of albums and singles in the 1980s featuring Schuiten cover art. The gravity-defying people are from an early comic strip unattached to the Obscure World mythos, Going to Pieces.

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Signale (1984) by Herman van Veen.

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De Wisselaars (1985) by Herman van Veen.

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Sedimental Journey (1985) by Peter Principle.

The Obscure World makes its cover debut on this solo release by the late Peter Principle, bass player in Tuxedomoon. Principle was American but Tuxedomoon were based at the time in Europe, and their record label, Crammed are Belgian. Obscure World aficionados will recognise the structure about to be submerged by a vast wave as the Network, an inexplicable object first seen in Fever in Urbicand (1985).

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Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey

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Cover design by Jim Tierney; photo by Richard Corman.

When so many current biographies are recounting the lives of those about whom we’ve already heard a great deal (see the new biography of Oscar Wilde by Matthew Sturgis), a book exploring the career of a previously undocumented yet worthwhile figure is especially welcome. Such is the case with Born to Be Posthumous, Mark Dery’s life of the elusive Edward Gorey: artist, writer, illustrator, book designer, book creator, bibliophile, theatre designer, cat lover and balletomane.

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The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963).

Gorey’s small books have long been one of the more curious fixtures of American culture: many of them look like children’s books but aren’t (unless the child is Wednesday Addams); others look like comic books but they aren’t comics either. The books are sometimes (but not always) Surrealist fables; or brief accounts of irreducible mystery; or sombre inexplicabilities; or camp ripostes to the pieties of Victorian morality; infrequently spiced with black humour and with lurches into outright horror. Gorey delivered his miniature tales in an idiosyncratic drawing style that combines a cartoon-like stylisation with the density of shading found in old wood engravings, a blend that would prove influential as his popularity grew. As Dery notes in his book’s introduction, without Edward Gorey’s work there would be no Lemony Snicket, while Tim Burton would be a skeletal shadow of his present self. (Given the latter’s current output, this might do him some good. But I digress.)

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The Doubtful Guest (1957).

In Britain, however, Gorey remains a cult rather than cultural figure, still overshadowed by better-known contemporaries such as Maurice Sendak and Charles Addams. Until the publication of the Amphigorey story collections Gorey’s books were produced in small editions with such a limited availability you were more likely to encounter his art on the cover of another author’s book than within the pages of his own. I became aware of Gorey’s work by gradual osmosis. The first substantial piece I read about him was his entry in Philip Core’s Camp: The Lie that Tells the Truth (1984), in which Core’s mention of an art style “recollecting Victorian engravings” marked Gorey as an artist to be investigated. Two years later he received a longer entry in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural edited by Jack Sullivan. (Camp and horror: how many other artists sit so easily in both worlds?) But Gorey is absent from many books about 20th-century illustrators, and despite the sequential nature of his work you won’t find him in histories of comic art.

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Edward Gorey’s Dracula: A Toy Theatre (1979).

In a way it’s fitting that the work of a man who was adamant in his determination to avoid being pinned down should be so difficult to find. But it’s also a shame that the work of an ardent Anglophile should be hard to find in the country that fuelled his imagination. Among Gorey’s literary favourites Dery lists Jane Austen and Agatha Christie together with Ronald Firbank, Saki, and EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels. (The latter trio are all present in Core’s book on camp, which no doubt makes Gorey camp to the core. Whether he would have approved of being labelled as such is another matter.) I wasn’t surprised by the mention of Saki when so many of Saki’s story titles (The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope) sound like Gorey books, while many of the stories themselves are like Gorey scenarios in prose. Not all Gorey’s work is camp or comic, however; the 32 drawings that comprise the wordless masterpiece of The West Wing (1963) are closer to David Lynch or the “strange stories” of Robert Aickman, the latter an author that Gorey illustrated on several occasions. Dery emphasises how Gorey’s love of silent cinema contributed to The West Wing and other pieces, especially the serials of the Surrealists’ favourite filmmaker, Louis Feuillade.

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