Weekend links 69

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Peacock Apocalypse (detail) by Julie Evans in collaboration with Ajay Sharma.

Here at { feuilleton }, home of the curly bracket affectation, your correspondent is still surprised to find his postings the subject of a critique by Rick Poynor in the latest edition of Eye magazine, the international review of graphic design. I haven’t seen a print copy yet but you can read Mr Poynor’s appraisal here. Meanwhile, over at Design Observer this week there’s another Poynor piece about the collage illustrations of Andrzej Klimowski.

Alan Moore (yes, him again) discusses the moment when the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen gets all swinging and psychedelic. And Iain Sinclair (yes, him again) is still doing the interview rounds promoting his current book, Ghost Milk.

Ayin Acla, a short film by Anna Thew with a soundtrack by Cyclobe. The most recent Cyclobe album, Wounded Galaxies Tap at the Window, was previously vinyl-only but is now available on CD.

• Bones and beads and other things in Wren Britton’s Pure Vile clothing and accessories. Related: Patrick Veillet’s wearable bone sculptures.

Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities Q&A: Ann & Jeff VanderMeer answer questions about their latest anthology at Fangoria.

• Being a lifelong introvert, I’m sympathetic to Four Ways Technology Can Enable Your Inner Introvert by Philip Bump.

• In an all-too-rare meeting of minds and talents, Roy Harper talks to Joanna Newsom.

Jon Macy’s Teleny and Camille is reviewed at Lambda Literary.

• Author Carol Birch tells us how best to read Finnegans Wake.

Joel Pirela’s Design Classics posters.

Each And Every Word Must Die (1999) by Cyclobe | Brightness Falls From The Air (2001) by Cyclobe | Indulge Yourselves With Our Delicious Monster (2006) by Cyclobe

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

The Golden Apples of the Sun

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The Golden Apples of the Sun, the first release on Arthur Magazine‘s Bastet label has been one of my favourite compilations of recent years. Golden Apples was/is one of those landmark music anthologies that appear from time to time and seem to fix a moment perfectly as they capture a sudden flourishing of new music, in this instance the emergence of folk/acoustic/post-Old Weird America bands and artists. Devendra Banhart is one of those artists and he compiled the anthology and produced the cover art. The first pressing sold out but it’s now being reissued and you can order a copy here.

This is more than a compilation–it’s expertly sequenced and paced, like one long, slow flow of a particularly rich vibe. Liner notes are by the artists themselves, paying tribute to each other, all handlettered by Devendra, who also provides artwork on cover, back cover, sleeve, tray and the disk itself.

“Essential.” — Mojo, September 2004

“Sparkling.” — The Wire, July 2004

“8.6 (out of 10): [Its] sprawling landscape presents a persuasive case for the depth of a scene that seemingly sprung up (like mushrooms) overnight.” — Pitchfork, July 8, 2004

Track listing:
1. Vetiver (with Hope Sandoval) – “Angel’s Share” (from the “Vetiver” LP)
2. Joanna Newsom – “Bridges and Balloons” (from “The Milk–Eyed Mender” LP)
3. Six Organs of Admittance – “Hazy SF” (previously unreleased)
4. Viking Moses – “Crosses” (from “Crosses”)
5. Josephine Foster – “Little Life” (prev. unreleased home recording)
6. ESPers – “Byss & Abyss” (from “ESPers” LP)
7. Vashti Bunyan & Devendra Banhart – “Rejoicing in the Hands” (from the “Rejoicing in the Hands of the Golden Empress” LP)
8. Jana Hunter – “Farm, CA” (prev. unreleased)
9. Currituck Co. – “The Tropics of Cancer” (from “Ghost Man on First”)
10. White Magic – “Don’t Need” (from the Drag City EP)
11. Iron and Wine – “Fever Dream” (from “Our Endless Numbered Days” LP)
12. Diane Cluck – ” Heat From Every Corner” (from “Macy’s Day Bird”)
13. Matt Valentine – “Mountains of Yaffa” (prev. unreleased)
14. Entrance – “You Must Turn” (prev. unreleased home recording)
15. Jack Rose – “White Mule” (from “Red Horse, White Mule”)
16. Little Wings – “Look at What the Light Did Now” (from “Light Green Leaves”)
17. Scout Niblett – “Wet Road” (from “Sweet Heart Fever”)
18. Troll – “Mexicana” (from “Pathless Lord”)
19. CocoRosie – “Good Friday” (from “La Maison de Mon Reve”)
20. Antony – “The Lake” (from “Live at Saint Olaye’s With Current 93”)

Previously on { feuilleton }
So Much Fire to Roast Human Flesh
Summer of Love Redux

Ys by Joanna Newsom

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Joanna Newsom‘s extraordinary new album, out on November 14th. Recorded by Steve Albini, mixed by Jim O’Rourke, orchestral arrangements by Van Dyke Parks.

Ys is the mythical city supposedly sunken off the coast of Brittany. It’s also the name of a piece on Alan Stivell‘s celebrated 1971 folk album, Renaissance of the Celtic Harp. Since Ms Newsom plays the harp, it’s a safe bet that there’s a reference here back to Alan Stivell.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Jake Shears likes Van Dyke Parks
Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys

Summer of Love Redux

The New York Times finally gets hip to the new folk/weird America thing.
Arthur receives a passing mention.

Summer of Love Redux

By WILL HERMES
Published: June 18, 2006

ASA IRONS of the Vermont musical collective Feathers is stroking his beard. It is formidable beard; a biblical beard. He and his band mates—who mainly operate out of a rural farmhouse without cellphones, Internet, manager or booking agent—are at WNYC radio to perform their enigmatic, pixie-ish folk-rock on the long-running show “Spinning on Air.” Today their instruments include a lap harp, a toy xylophone, a Middle Eastern hand drum and an acoustic guitar hand-painted with animals and rainbows.

Ruth Garbus, a dark-eyed 24-year-old whose T-shirt depicts tractors flying through space, is talking about conjuring mystery with music, “that whole psychedelic thing of letting your mind go where it will.” Mr. Irons, 24, his long hair tied up in a bun, chimes in with a story about working as a carpenter and about growing up with parents who were “woods hippies, not town hippies.”

“I’m all about the old world, man,” Mr. Irons says with a mischievous laugh.

Perhaps. But he and his band mates are also about a new world: one of the most creatively vigorous strains of underground music. Initially dubbed “freak folk,” it looked like a trend of the moment a couple of years ago, when two California artists, Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart, attracted attention with charmingly shaggy, deceptively whimsical, largely acoustic albums.

But the scene they spearheaded has grown steadily and expanded sonically, getting less folkie and more, well, freaky. It has also gone international. And this season—the Summer of Love 2.0—it comes into full, wild bloom with releases, tours and festival appearances that promise nothing less than a new age of Aquarius.

Continue reading “Summer of Love Redux”