Weekend links 460

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Black Hole (1987) by Suzanne Treister.

• “Most people who are considered heroes are always to be found messing about in someone else’s affairs, and I don’t think that’s very heroic.” Robert Altman talking in 1974 to Jan Dawson about The Long Goodbye.

• “Tea is calming, but alerting at the same time.” Natasha Gilbert on the science of tea’s mood-altering magic.

• Alien spaceship, Hammer horror? Philip Hoare on the pulsating visions of Harry Clarke.

“…world cinema, particularly European cinema…hasn’t shied away from sex and, in fact, has often found ways of using sex to tell a story. Movies like The Duke of Burgundy or Sauvage or BPM gracefully integrate eroticism into the narrative—even when the sex itself is far from graceful. Even the American films that have focused on sex tend to do it with a leer and luridness, regarding sex with a certain narrative fetishism, as opposed to matter-of-factly.”

Rich Juzwiak talking to Catherine Shoard about the current state of sex in the cinema

• Chernobyl again: photographs by David McMillan from inside the exclusion zone.

Lasting Marks: the 16 men put on trial for sadomasochism in Thatcher’s Britain.

• Before Tarkovsky: Michael Brooke on the Russian TV adaptation of Solaris.

• Mix of the week: XLR8R Podcast 588 by Rouge Mécanique.

• Dustin Krcatovich on The Strange World of Mark Stewart.

• Your Surrealist literature starter kit by Emily Temple.

John Peel’s Archive Things (1970)

5fathom: Things rich and strange

Hole In The Sky (1975) by Black Sabbath | Thru The Black Hole (1979) by Metabolist | Black Hole (1993) by Total Eclipse

Weekend links 170

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Owl portrait by Iain Macarthur.

• “Ghost Box is a glance through a window seeing something running alongside our version of reality. Like, what if Paul McCartney had made records with the Radiophonic Workshop?” Ghost Box designer and Mr Focus Group, Julian House is interviewed.

• “…that book with the girl with the hatchet in her head…” Dave Tompkins remembers Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973), a formative influence of mine, and that of many other people, it seems.

Salvador Dalí’s 1946 illustrated edition of Macbeth. Related: From Macbeth to the Wizard of Oz: New exhibition explores the erotic side of witchcraft.

I do not want to live in a world where the government and a select few conservative feminists get to decide what we may and may not masturbate to, and use the bodies of murdered women or children as emotional pawns in that debate. It is supremely difficult to achieve radical ends by conservative means. Feminists and everyone who seeks to end sexual violence should be very cautious when their immediate goals seem to line up neatly with those of social conservatives and state censors.

Laurie Penny on the recent Tory policy of attempting to limit online pornography.

The Facebook page for The Wicker Man has details of the pursuit for a complete print of the film. A Blu-ray edition will be released in October.

Anne Billson visited the Hotel Thermae Palace in Ostend, the columnated location of Daughters of Darkness.

Kenneth Anger on how he made Lucifer Rising. The ICA in London is screening his films this weekend.

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Roy Krenkel illustrates Tales of Three Planets by Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1964.

The Electric Banana Blows Your Mind: The soundtrack library alter ego of The Pretty Things.

• Mix of the week: an ambient (in the 90s’ sense of the word) DJ set by Surgeon.

Bernie Krause shares the happiest sounds he’s heard in nature.

• RIP Walter De Maria, sculptor and musician.

Sexodrome by Asia Argento with Morgan.

• Metabolist: Identify (1980) | Curly Wall (1980) | Ymuzgo/Pigface (1981)

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

Metabolist: Goatmanauts, Drömm-heads and the Zuehl Axis

metabolist.jpgNo, not the school of Japanese architecture, we’re concerning ourselves here with a UK band from the early 1980s. There’s still a number of important albums from this period that remain caught in a curious limbo between the end of the time when vinyl was the prime carrier for new music and the start of the CD era. A few groups such as Metabolist expired before CDs became something commonly used by smaller labels and their recordings have tended to evade reissue. In addition, what recordings there are were often released in small quantities through obscure independent labels (the origin of the now thoroughly disreputable term “indie”) which means that the original works can be hard to find.

Metabolist were Malcolm Lane (guitar, synth, vocals), Simon Millward (bass, vocals, synth) and Mark Rowlatt (drums, percussion), with Jacqueline Bailey designing the covers in a Suprematist style that would no doubt have pleased Kazimir Malevich. All Metabolist covers feature variations on the same line of Helvetica plus a coloured (or black) square. As to the music, here’s my good friend Gav (who carefully digitised his Metabolist collection for me) on an old forum posting:

Initially very underrated and now just unknown, Metabolist were reviewed in the UK music press (NME & Sounds specifically) alongside The Pop Group, Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle & This Heat as part of a brief vanguard of new UK experimental music, and for a little while it looked like fractured noise and Europe-inspired riffing might become an important part of the independent (as opposed to indie) mainstream…but alas…

According to “Eurock” magazine in 1980:

“gladiators of independent music, Metabolist have existed in one form or another for 3 or 4 years, the present group consisting of Malcolm Lane, Anton Loach, Simon Millward and Mark Rowlatt. The group is run along co-operative lines to include Jacqueline Bailey who handles publicity promotion, etc. The five of us have all reached the decision to work outside of the large companies in the music business and have therefore formed our own company – Drömm Records. So far we have released 1 EP, 15 minutes of music incl. “Drömm”, “Slaves” and “Eulam’s Beat”, plus a cassette tape of first take rehearsal material called “Goatmanaut”, also containing 3 tracks “Zordan Returns”, “Chained” and “Thru the Black Hole”. The groups first album “Hansten Klork is released in January 1980, closely followed by a single, “I Can’t Identify”. All these recordings have been made at the group’s studio with members of the group being responsible for recording, mixing and editing. We feel that this is the only way, apart from having unlimited cash, that Metabolist can have control over their musical output at every stage. All artwork and sleeve design are also handled within the group. Thanks to the growth of alternative distribution networks in recent years our records can now become available worldwide, so we consider independence to be both viable and desirable. Musically the group has been through many changes, Metabolist refuse to be dictated to by fashion, or by establishing a Metabolist “sound” and sticking to it for ever after. You can therefore find that you love the album, but hate the EP and so on. You will have to trust us as we do not intend to have 10 versions of a hit sound on our LP’s.”

Metabolist only released one full-length vinyl LP, 2 cassettes, a 7″ EP and a single, and their entire oeuvre, including peripheral compilation contributions, would fit onto a nice double CD comp, but none of it has ever been re-released – DURTRO were rumoured to be interested at one time, but as all original members were either untraceable or uninterested, it remains up to original fans (like myself – for the record I bought all their releases directly from the band) to champion their cause – and a worthy cause it is: imagine a lo-fi garageband Magma rehearsing & recording in a gents’ toilet, minus the chorale but compensating with the intensity of ‘Metal Box’ PiL or ‘Monster Movie’ Can, grunted vocals in a kind of proto-Kobaïan neo-dialect (‘Chained’, ‘King Quack’), or short bursts of bleeping and burping feedback and electronics like a lost ‘Faust Tapes’ outtake (‘Racing Poodles’, ‘Zordan Returns’)…and at a time when ‘Krautrock’ was just the first track on ‘Faust IV’ and ‘Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh’ was a quid in any and every secondhand record shop, Metabolist were citing Der Kosmische Music and Magma as major influences, not a good starting point for a suspicious post-punk record-buying public…I’ve always loved this band because they did it their way, they rocked hard, and they then just disappeared, leaving a small but perfectly-formed Ur-Cosmic body of work that will be rediscovered at some point…surely…

Surely, but not yet. My summation of the Metabolist sound would be something like “Magma’s Christian Vander jamming with This Heat”, but seeing them as a poor man’s This Heat is rather unfair since they have their own distinct personality beyond the few areas of sound and production (This Heat also had their own studio) that overlap with Brixton’s finest. In place of This Heat’s standard-issue Socialist concerns, Metabolist are often fiercer and weirder, deliberately plugging themselves into a post-Magma “Zeuhl” axis as they growl many of their songs in an invented (?) tongue. Little wonder, then, that they remain beyond the pale. Other bands from the period such as Wire, The Gang of Four—even The Fire Engines!—have been resurrected, reissued and even reformed, with younger groups declaring them as influences. We’re currently lacking any enterprising Drömm-heads prepared to take this formidable sound as the starting point for something new. If they’re out there, they’ll need to be hardy souls with little expectation of reward; Franz Ferdinand wouldn’t have graced the charts shouting incoherently into an echo chamber while heavy bass rumbles and drums pound and ricochet in the background.

Thanks to Gav for permission to re-use his words. And for the music, of course…

The recordings:
Dromm (7″) (Drömm Records, 1979).
Goatmanaut (cassette) (Drömm Records, 1979).
Hansten Klork (LP) (Drömm Records, 1980).
Identify (7″) (Drömm Records, 1980).
Split (7″) (Bain Total, 1981).
Stagmanaut! (cassette) (Cassette King, 1981).
Tracks appear on:
Compilation Internationale No.1 (LP) Le Grand Prique, Chained (Scopa Invisible, 1980).
Miniatures (LP) Racing Poodles (Pipe, 1980).

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The album covers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Maximum Heaviosity
The music of Igor Wakhévitch
This Heat