Learned Pigs and other moveables of wonder

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All moveables of wonder, from all parts,
Are here—Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs,
The Horse of knowledge, and the learned Pig,
The Stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,
Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl,
The Bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,
The Wax-work, Clock-work, all the marvellous craft
Of modern Merlins, Wild Beasts, Puppet-shows,
All out-o’-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things,
All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts
Of man, his dullness, madness, and their feats
All jumbled up together, to compose
A Parliament of Monsters.

William Wordsworth, The Prelude/Book VII

In the post this week, a book I’d missed buying in a charity shop a while ago which I spotted on eBay for a lot less than the usual asking price. Outside the USA the late Ricky Jay is probably known more for his occasional acting roles in film and TV than for his magic performances, although it was on British television that Jay established world records with his card-throwing act. Jay’s real business was stage magic, past and present, both performing it—sleight-of-hand and card tricks were his speciality—and operating as a historian of the art. His voluminous knowledge of conjuring and unusual stage acts was condensed into a self-published magazine, Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, and a number of books, not all of which concerned magic. Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women was published in 1986, being an account of favourite Jay anomalies from the theatres and circuses of the past. The US edition of the book was popular enough to inspire a related CBS TV film. I’d not seen this before but it reminded me about another TV film directed by Rex Bloomstein for the BBC’s Tx strand in 1996, Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pranksters, Jokesters and Ricky Jay. As the title suggests, Jay himself is the subject of the latter documentary which includes contributions from friends Steve Martin (who also appears in Learned Pigs) and David Mamet. Bloomstein’s film contains two sequences that show Jay’s exceptional skill with a pack of playing cards. I have a vague idea how the trick in the second sequence might be performed but I’ve no idea at all how the wordless opening sequence is possible, where Jay unwraps a fresh pack of cards then proceeds to cut and shuffle them continually, after which all the cards are somehow still in perfect order.

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Ricky Jay is the kind of character I would have idolised when I was a magic-obsessed 13-year-old, not only for his skill as a performer but for his interest in the offbeat, the eccentric and the esoteric. We also share a taste for antique illustrations, Jay’s books and journals are littered with old playbills and engraved vignettes. In Britain in the 1970s little attention was given to conjuring on television beyond the perennial David Nixon, a decent enough magician but with a genial persona that was very English and consequently rather dull. (In Nixon’s defence, he did help finance the development of the Mellotron. Strange but true.) Jay’s character had an edge of menace and a touch of the mountebank or con artist, a quality exploited in David Mamet’s excellent directorial debut, House of Games (1987), for which Jay also acted as consultant. Jay’s most popular book after Learned Pigs is probably Cards as Weapons (1977), a typically humorous guide to the art of throwing playing cards. As with magic tricks, it’s very easy to show someone how to do the thing, but doing it well requires skill and a great deal of practice. In the Hustlers film we see Jay break a pencil in half with a thrown card.

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Cover of the 1988 reprint.

The popularity of Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, together with Ricky Jay’s prominence as a historian of magic, has given us The Learned Pig Project, a single-volume collection of 47 books about magic and related matters by some of the celebrated magicians of the 19th and 20th centuries. This is an unwieldy document of over 5000 pages but it’s a treat if you’re interested in the history of conjuring. Stage magic has a peculiar sibling relationship with ritual magic; both are dependent on texts for the recording and transmission of their workings, and both have traditionally required that those texts be kept secret, to guard against persecution on the one hand, and unwanted revelation on the other. So too with covens, cabals and, in the case of stage performers, “Magic Circles”. Serious stage magicians are often serious book collectors, mining the past for new ways to startle the present; Ricky Jay was an exemplar in this regard, as we see in the Hustlers film which shows him browsing his personal library. I don’t know what he would have made of so much knowledge being made so easily accessible via the The Learned Pig Project—the whole purpose of Magic Circles is to keep the secrets inside the profession—but there have always been books about magic tricks, and young magicians have to start somewhere. As with card throwing, anyone can be shown the secret of a magic trick but that doesn’t mean that those who learn the secret can master the performance. Talented magicians, like sapient pigs, are rare creatures.

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Magicians
Hodgson versus Houdini
A London Street Scene

Synapse: The Electronic Music Magazine, 1976–1979

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Synapse magazine has been mentioned here before, but only briefly in a weekend post. Looking last week for one of the back issues revealed that the scans of the magazine placed online by the publishers in 2012 have now vanished so this post links to an archive of PDFs at Monoskop. The publishers didn’t have copies of the first two issues so the run begins with issue 3.

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Synapse wasn’t around for very long but it’s of great interest for people like myself who have an enthusiasm for the analogue synthesizer music of the 1970s. The magazine was small but managed to secure interviews with major synthesists of the period (and Stockhausen!), as well as lesser-known figures who you wouldn’t expect to see in the general music press. Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno have never been starved of attention but the interviews with Isao Tomita and Michael Hoenig are valuable ones; the latter discusses his earlier career in the Kosmische band Agitation Free as well as his new album, the very Tangerine Dream-like Departure From The Northern Wasteland.

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Elsewhere in the magazine there are the usual technical articles that were common in journals of this type (the border between art and engineering in the early synthesizer world used to be as permeable as it was in the first decades of science fiction); and the latest synth-related albums receive reviews, many of which are more equivocal than you might expect. It’s a surprise seeing an album such as Ricochet by Tangerine Dream being treated with scepticism but then the reviewer evidently preferred the recordings of the group’s pre-Virgin period. Likewise, Kraftwerk were featured in the third issue but their Man-Machine album is given the same “Is this the future we really want?” appraisal they used to receive from the rock press.

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As always with old magazines, the ads are often as interesting as the editorial, and Synapse is filled with promotional material for a wide range of synth gear, from the major keyboard manufacturers to tiny electronic companies. It’s not every magazine where you can see a full-page command to “Trade in your Mellotron”.

Synapse contents list at Wikipedia

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Continue reading “Synapse: The Electronic Music Magazine, 1976–1979”

Weekend links 347

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Dream Animal (1903) by Alfred Kubin.

• The week in Finland: A set of Finnish emojis includes icons for notable cultural exports such as Tom of Finland and Moominmamma. Tove Jansson’s creations have received fresh attention this month with the debut release of the electronic soundtrack music for The Moomins, an animated TV series made in Poland in 1977, and first broadcast in the UK in 1983. Andrew Male talked to Graeme Miller and Steve Shill about creating Moomins music with rudimentary instrumentation.

• Russian company Mosfilm has made a new copy of Andrei Tarkovsky’s science-fiction masterpiece, Stalker (1979), available on their YouTube channel. Tarkovsky’s films have been blighted by inexplicable flaws in their home releases, as Stalker was when reissued on a Region B Blu-ray last year. The new Mosfilm upload looks better than my old DVD so for the moment this is the one I’ll be watching.

• Before straight and gay: the discreet, disorienting passions of the Victorian era. Deborah Cohen reviews A Very Queer Family Indeed by Simon Goldhill. Related: Kevin Killian reviews Murder in the Closet: Essays in Queer Clues in Crime Fiction Before Stonewall, edited by Curtis Evans.

• “How many graphic designers owe their introduction to typography to a teenage encounter with the typefaces and lettering found on album covers?” asks Adrian Shaughnessy.

• Mixes of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 210 by Ascion, FACT Mix 587 by Seekersinternational, and The Séance, 4th February 2017.

Pankaj Mishra on Václav Havel’s lessons on how to create a “parallel polis”. Related: The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel.

Hans Corneel de Roos on Dracula‘s lost Icelandic sister text: How a supposed translation proved to be much more.

• “I live outside the world in a universe I myself have created, like a madman or a holy visionary.” — Michel de Ghelderode.

• The Metropolitan Museum of Art makes 375,000 images of public art freely available under Creative Commons Zero.

Richard H. Kirk on Thatcherite pop and why Cabaret Voltaire were like The Velvet Underground.

Emily Gosling on what David Lynch’s use of typography reveals (or doesn’t).

White Noise Sounds of Frozen Arctic Ocean with Polar Icebreaker Idling.

John Gray on what cats can teach us about how to live.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Day of the Mellotron (Restored).

The Warburg Institute Iconographic Database.

Sastanàqqàm by Tinariwen.

Tanz Der Vampire (1969) by The Vampires of Dartmoore | Dracula (1983) by Dilemma | Vampires At Large (2012) by John Zorn

Directed by Saul Bass

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Phase IV (1974).

It’s been a thrill recently poring over the Saul Bass monograph, Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design by Jennifer Bass & Pat Kirkham, a large volume that weighs a ton and is as revelatory about the career of a great designer (and his wife and frequent collaborator, Elaine Bass) as you’d hope. One pleasure was getting to read about Bass’s film work from his own viewpoint for once. The curious science-fiction film he made in 1974, Phase IV, is well-known enough to have a cult reputation but too often his long involvement with Hollywood is passed over as a footnote to the careers of the directors for whom he worked. In addition to his celebrated title sequences, Bass was also a visual consultant responsible for the planning and filming of what used to be called “special sequences” within films, the most notorious of which is the endlessly argued-over shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). (See this authoritative post by Pat Kirkham on Bass’s special sequences, and the disputed history of those few seconds of black-and-white film.)

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Phase IV (1974).

All of which sent me to YouTube looking for some of the shorter films that Bass directed from the mid-60s on. The monograph explores these and Phase IV in some detail, for the latter showing pages of sketches for unfilmed sequences. I’m not sure these would have improved a film which I find flawed and occasionally ludicrous but it’s good to see what the director had in mind. The film on DVD has no extras at all but a trailer can be found on YouTube that shows off some of the startling imagery, and also includes a few shots that were cut by distributors foolishly eager to try and sell it as a horror film. It’s ironic that a man who gained world recognition for his poster designs wasn’t allowed to design the poster for his own film.

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Quest (1984).

Of the short works there’s Why Man Creates (1968) here and here, an examination of the creative impulse that’s been so popular with art teachers over the years that it’s probably been seen by a lot more people than his marauding ants. Both this and The Solar Film (1980), a documentary about solar energy, utilise Bass’s hand-drawn animation. The latter is also of note for its final shot of a baby walking into a sunset, a still of which was turned by Bass into an album cover for Stomu Yamashta in 1984. Also that year, Saul and Elaine produced their strangest work, Quest, a half-hour piece of science fiction based on a Ray Bradbury short story whose quest theme is overly-familiar from a dramatic point-of-view but which typically yields a wealth of memorable visuals. In Phase IV there was a nod to Dalí with the dead man’s hand filled with burrowing ants; in Quest we find imagery borrowed from Magritte (a floating castle-topped mountain) and MC Escher (his Cubic Space Division). The copy on YouTube is rough quality but it’s certainly worth a watch. I’m amused to discover how much Saul & Elaine were prog-rock heads (not that there’s anything wrong with that…): Phase IV has Stomu Yamashta and David Vorhaus from White Noise on its soundtrack, The Solar Film features a dubious cover version of Tubular Bells, while the score for Quest is mostly original music (with some borrowings from Holst) that sounds much of the time like Tangerine Dream when they were leaning on their Mellotrons.

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Saul Bass album covers
Pablo Ferro on YouTube

Aguirre by Popol Vuh

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Design by Sawyer Studios, painting by Michael J Deas.

If you’re a music obsessive d’un certain âge it’s a common thing to get bees in your bonnet about the reissues of favourite albums. For Krautrock aficionados the reissues of Popol Vuh‘s releases have been more frustrating than most. Aguirre was the band’s seventh album released in 1976, four years after Werner Herzog’s film, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, for which the group provided a score and from which the album borrows its title.

The album isn’t quite a soundtrack—although it contains a snatch of ethnic music from the film and a recurrent theme—and it’s also less of a whole than the albums which preceded and followed it. The film’s ethereal title theme was played by Florian Fricke on a “choir-organ“, a mysterious Mellotron-like instrument which had previously been employed by Amon Düül II. The rest of the album was fleshed out with variations on tracks from earlier Popol Vuh releases, none of which are used in the film. Side 2 of the vinyl edition featured a single track entitled Vergegenwärtigung (Visualisation) which is also absent from the film and whose doomy ambience would have been more suited to Herzog’s later Nosferatu the Vampyre. This lengthy piece is a drifting slab of drone-werk which would have been recorded in the early 1970s when Florian still had his enormous Moog synth. It’s probably the most minimal thing in the whole Krautrock canon, sounding at times like a lost fifth track from Zeit, Tangerine Dream’s collection of drones which featured Florian as a guest performer. As such Vergegenwärtigung is an overlooked, if minor, piece of Kosmische electronica which has only ever been available on vinyl. And there, dear reader, is the rub.

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No designer credited but it was probably Peter Geitner.

The various CD reissues of the album added and removed tracks from the band’s catalogue seemingly at random. I have the Spalax reissue which featured the film’s title theme then nothing else from the original album, the following tracks being the entirety of Popol Vuh’s second album, In Den Gärten Pharaos, and a beautiful solo piano suite, Spirit of Peace. Yes, it’s nice to have them there but, you know…it’s not Aguirre! When a Japanese edition appeared in 2006 the track they call Vergegenwärtigung turned out to be the errant electronic piece with additional pieces of music layered over it for no apparent reason. The Japanese are usually very good with CD reissues so this was a particular disappointment. After many years of living with a ruined vinyl copy of the album it was gratifying this weekend to find an mp3 of the original of Vergegenwärtigung which can be downloaded here. For the moment you’re unlikely to find it anywhere else.

YouTube has some choice Popol Vuh moments including a Florian Fricke Moog improvisation from 1971 and the band miming to Kyrie from the Hosianna Mantra album. Most fascinating for me has always been this scene from Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser with Florian playing a blind pianist. The music is a variation on his Agnus Dei theme which he obsessively reworked on several Popol Vuh albums and which is also one of the highlights of Aguirre.

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A cluster of Cluster