Stomu Yamash’ta’s Seasons

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If you’ve ever watched The Man Who Fell to Earth then you’ve heard music by Japanese percussionist and composer Stomu Yamash’ta. The opening scene where David Bowie’s duffle-coated alien stumbles down a hillside (falling to earth for a second time) is scored with the first few minutes of Poker Dice, the opening track on Yamash’ta’s Floating Music album; more Yamash’ta pieces are heard later in the film. Floating Music has just been reissued on CD by Cherry Red in Seasons, a box set which contains all seven of the albums Yamash’ta recorded for the Island label from 1972 to 1976, with each disc housed in a facsimile card sleeve.

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Stomu Yamash’ta’s artistic profile was very high in the 1970s, high enough to make his apparent disappearance in the decade that followed an unusual thing. Unusual for me, anyway. I only started to notice his name in the early 1980s, mostly in connection with feature films, and couldn’t work out why he was no longer mentioned anywhere as an active artist. In addition to the Roeg soundtrack he plays on the soundtracks for Robert Altman’s Images (1972) and Saul Bass’s Phase IV (1974); he’s also one of the performers on the Peter Maxwell Davies score for The Devils (1971) although Ken Russell’s film gets to be so chaotic I’ve yet to identify his contribution. Later in the decade Yamash’ta was the only non-Western artist to appear in the final episode of Tony Palmer’s television history of pop music All You Need Is Love, in a programme that explored new musical directions. Away from films and TV there were numerous concerts; Yamash’ta’s history as a percussion prodigy in the 1960s had seen him performing compositions by Peter Maxwell Davies and Toru Takemitsu when he was still in his teens. His energetic performances gave way to a frenzied recording schedule—in 1971 alone he recorded six studio albums—which culminated in 1976 with the founding of Go, a short-lived jazz-fusion supergroup whose lineup included Steve Winwood, Al Di Meola, Michael Shrieve, and (surprisingly) Klaus Schulze.

Yamash’ta’s “disappearance” in the 1980s was really a retreat from the spotlight after a decade-and-a-half of almost continual public activity. He returned to Japan where he continued recording but gravitated away from jazz and avant-garde music towards the spiritual side of Japanese culture. Most of his albums since 1980 have only been Japan-only releases, another factor contributing to his obscurity elsewhere. More recently he’s taken to playing the Sanukitophone, a bespoke percussion instrument made from a variety of volcanic rock unique to the Japanese archipelago.

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Freedom Is Frightening (1973), one of three Yamash’ta albums with cover designs by Saul Bass.

The albums in the new box set encapsulate what might be called Yamash’ta’s “Kozmigroov” period, although Yamash’ta’s name is absent from the generally thorough and wide-ranging Kozmigroov Index. This is also his most commercial period. Prior to 1972 Yamash’ta’s recordings were soundtracks, performances with orchestras or improvised freakouts; from 1980 his music seems to be predominantly meditational (“New Age”, if you must) but I’ve not heard most of it so can’t say much about it. Kozmigroov is jazz fusion at core, usually combining a variety of disparate influences, which is what you have here: extended arrangements of jazz, funk, soul, rock, electronics, and occasional moments of traditional Japanese music. The continually changing group names testify to a restless nature: Floating Music (1972) by Stomu Yamash’ta & Come To The Edge (a British jazz group), Freedom Is Frightening (1973) by Stomu Yamash’ta’s East Wind, The Soundtrack From “The Man From The East” (1973) by Stomu Yamash’ta’s Red Buddha Theatre, One By One (1974) by Stomu Yamash’ta’s East Wind, and Raindog (1975) by Yamashta [sic]. Then there’s the self-titled Go album (with a cover design by Saul Bass) and its live counterpart, Go…Live From Paris. (A third and final album by the group, Go Too, was released on Arista so isn’t included in this set.) The sound evolves from semi-improvised instrumentals on the first few albums to songs and more rock-oriented arrangements on Raindog and the Go releases, with the Steve Winwood songs on the latter coming across as a step into more predictable territory compared to the earlier recordings. The Go live album is much better than the uneven studio set, a sustained suite of songs and instrumentals linked by Klaus Schulze’s synthesizers; Schulze gets a big cheer when the band is introduced. If you like jazz fusion there’s a lot to enjoy in this box, a third of which I hadn’t heard before. Dunes, the opening track on Raindog, unfolds over 15 minutes with an insistent groove that brings to mind the Mahavishnu Orchestra and early Santana, although Maxine Nightingale is a better singer than anyone on the Santana albums. And if you are familiar with The Man Who Fell to Earth then you get all of Yamash’ta’s music from the soundtrack scattered across these albums, most of which is only heard as extracts during the film.

With the recent reissue of Sunrise From West Sea “Live” I’m tempted to think that we might be due for a resurgence of interest in Stomu Yamash’ta’s music, but the prior availability of the Seasons albums as individual CDs doesn’t appear to have prompted a clamour for more. There’s a lot more out there, however, especially the rare Japanese releases from the early 1970s. Follow the links below for more detail.

The Infinite Horizons of Stomu Yamash’ta by Gregor Meyer.
The Strange World of…Stomu Yamash’ta by Miranda Rimington.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Devils on DVD
Directed by Saul Bass
Saul Bass album covers
Images by Robert Altman

The Immortal by Jorge Luis Borges

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“This City” (I thought) “is so horrible that its mere existence and perdurance, though in the midst of a secret desert, contaminates the past and the future and in some way even jeopardizes the stars.”

This is the kind of thing I love to find: a BBC adaptation of a story by Jorge Luis Borges which I didn’t even know existed until this week. The Immortal was written in 1947 and published in the fourth collection of the writer’s fiction, El Aleph, in 1949. Anglophone readers will be more familiar with the story from Labyrinths, the most popular Borges collection, and the book I always recommend to those curious about his work. (And with the usual nagging proviso: avoid the Andrew Hurley translations if you can.)

Borges’ immortal is a Roman soldier during the reign of Diocletian whose life is recounted via a manuscript discovered in 1929 inside a volume of poetry. (The volume is Pope’s translation of The Iliad; Homer is never far away in Borges-land, especially in this story.) Disappointed by his military career, the soldier leaves his legion to go in search of the legendary City of the Immortals which is reputed to lie somewhere in the African desert; he finds the city, of course, and also (inevitably) receives more than he bargained for. Borges’ other fictions are seldom as traditionally fantastic as this, although the story’s philosophical musings are enough to set it apart from similar tales, as is the author’s habit of owning up to his recondite literary borrowings, like a magician revealing the secret of a trick at the end of a performance. Even so, The Immortal was generic enough to turn up in an American paperback collection in 1967, New Worlds of Fantasy edited by Terry Carr, along with stories by Roger Zelazny, John Brunner, JG Ballard and others. The Ballard story, The Lost Leonardo, is an uncharacteristic piece about another immortal character, Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, cursed to roam the world until the Second Coming of Christ. Ahasuerus was a popular character in the 19th century, whose legend and predicament was enough to sustain Eugène Sue for 1400 pages in a ten-volume historical saga, Le Juif Errant. Borges alludes to Ahasuerus via the name “Joseph Cartaphilus” although this is one obscure reference that he doesn’t explain for the reader. By contrast with the logorrhoeic Monsieur Sue, Borges requires a mere 15 pages to deal with 2000 years of history.

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Given the challenges of staging a complex historical drama on a TV budget Carlos Pasini’s film is little more than a 22-minute sketch of its source material, but Borges adaptations are scarce enough that there’s a thrill in seeing the material presented at all, as with the brief dramatisations in the Arena documentary, Borges and I. The Immortal was given a single broadcast on 20th November, 1970, as part of a now-forgotten BBC 2 arts programme, Review, where it was intended as an introduction to the author’s writing following the UK publication of The Book of Imaginary Beings. Mark Edwards plays the Roman soldier whose narration is taken verbatim from the story. Borges’ international reputation had reached a plateau of popularity at this time, after growing steadily during the 1960s. 1970 was also the year that Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg’s Performance was released, a film that quotes verbally and visually Borges’ Personal Anthology while also featuring a photo of the man himself. A year later, Michael Moorcock’s first Jerry Cornelius collection, The Nature of the Catastrophe, included the dedication “For Borges”; Jerry Cornelius is another immortal (or timeless) character, one of whose progenitors may be “Joseph Cartaphilus”. Pasini’s adaptation can’t compete with these heavyweights but as a taster of Borgesian prose and ideas it serves its purpose. The director has made it available for viewing here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Borges on Ulysses
Borges in the firing line
La Bibliothèque de Babel
Borges and the cats
Invasion, a film by Hugo Santiago
Spiderweb, a film by Paul Miller
The Library of Babel by Érik Desmazières
Books Borges never wrote
Borges and I
Borges documentary
Borges in Performance

Weekend links 531

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Cover art by Ian Miller, 1979.

• Ray Bradbury was born 100 years ago today. Emily Temple expresses surprise that Truman Capote encouraged the publication of a Bradbury short story at Mademoiselle in 1946. I’m more surprised that Bradbury was paid $400 for his work; no wonder he was so eager to write for the non-genre magazines. Elsewhere: Ray Bradbury—The Illustrated Man: the BBC’s Omnibus arts strand profiled Bradbury in 1980 with enthusiastic assistance (narrating/reading/performing) from the man himself; Ray Bradbury book and magazine covers at Flickr.

Anna Smith asks whether Linda Fiorentino was the greatest femme fatale ever in The Last Seduction (1994). A substantial claim, especially for a neo-noir playing so self-consciously with the theme, but it’s a very good film, and one I’d like to see again.

• “Bad as a work of art, and morally bad…” Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita being reviewed by Kingsley Amis, a writer who preferred the peerless prose and stainless morals of Ian Fleming. Dan Sheehan looks at other contemporary reactions to Nabokov’s novel.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Mary Ellen Bute Day, and (how could I avoid it?) ClicketyClack presents…Brothers Quay Day.

• More from The Art of the Occult: S. Elizabeth offers a glimpse of the contents of her forthcoming book.

• Make the letter bigger: John Boardley on the development of the illuminated capital.

• In 1987 Anne Billson talked to Nicolas Roeg about his latest film, Castaway.

• Five controversial arthouse features from Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono.

• It’s that group again: Joe Banks on the strange world of Hawkwind.

C82: Works of Nicholas Rougeux.

Fahrenheit 451 (1982) by Hawkwind | Something Wicked This Way Comes (1996) by Barry Adamson | The Martian Chronicles (2007) by Dimension X

Weekend links 490

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An engraving from The Geometric Landscapes of Lorenz Stoer (1567).

• Curtis Harrington’s cult horror film, Night Tide (1961), receives a lavish blu-ray reissue from Powerhouse in January. The limited edition will include an extra disc of Harrington’s early short films which encompass Poe adaptations and also Wormwood Star, his portrait of occult artist (and actor in Night Tide) Marjorie Cameron.

• “He was the first American representative of an electronic sound that was largely coming from Europe, from bands like Kraftwerk, or producers like Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte…” Jude Rogers on Patrick Cowley.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins examines Hans Poelzig’s and Marlene Moeschke’s work on Paul Wegener’s 1920 film of The Golem. Wegener’s film is released this month in a restored blu-ray edition by Eureka.

• “Conrad was uncompromising in his beliefs until the end, sticking to his ideals with tenacious fervor.” Geeta Dayal on Tony Conrad: Writings, edited by Constance DeJong and
Andrew Lampert.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: 47 dead films. One of the films, Hu-Man (1975), a French science-fiction drama starring Terence Stamp, isn’t as dead as was assumed.

• The Danske Filminstitut has made a collection of Danish silent films available to watch for free online.

• The Last Time I Saw John Giorno, an Extraordinary Performance Poet by Mark Dery.

• “Like looking through butterfly wings”: Ira Cohen’s Mylar chamber—in pictures.

Callum James reviews the Early Poetical Works of Aleister Crowley.

• Drawing the Gaze: Revisiting Don’t Look Now by Jesse Miksic.

• Mix of the week: FACT Mix 745 by Visible Cloaks.

Mind Warp (1982) by Patrick Cowley | Go-Go Golem (1986) by Golem Orchestra | Night Tide (1995) by Scorn

Weekend links 441

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Red Parrot on the Branch of a Tree (c.1771) by Ito Jakuchu.

• Reporter John Stapleton (later a fixture of BBC TV) visits the Portobello Road offices of British underground newspaper Frendz for newsreel service British Pathé. The date says 1969 but it’s probably 1971 since earlier that year the magazine had changed its name from Friends. Among the unidentified interviewees is Rosie Boycott, later the founder of Britain’s first feminist magazine, Spare Rib, and now Baroness Boycott. She may have predicted the former in 1971 but I doubt she would have expected a seat in the House of Lords.

• At Expanding Mind: Erik Davis talks with martial artist and psilocybin explorer Kilindi Iyi about African martial arts, high dose psilocybin work, African-American psychedelia, Dr. Strange, and the metaphysics of darkness.

Bloom, the generative music app by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers, is given a tenth-anniversary relaunch this month. The new app will also (finally) be available for Android as well as Apple machines.

Early on, I realized my interest in [William] Burroughs’ work was less to do with the cut-up novels and more with the documented research and investigation of the human condition, technology, control, travel, dreams, drug culture, shamanism, and Hassan-I Sabbah. Books like The Job, The Electronic Revolution and especially, The Third Mind with Brion Gysin were particularly important to me. […] As for integrating Burroughs’ work into the music, it’s not about the history of a literary collaboration, but rather the complete fusion in a praxis of two subjectivities that metamorphosize into a third. From this collusion, a new author emerges—an absent third person, invisible and beyond reach, recording the silence.

From 2017: Bill Laswell in a satisfyingly lengthy interview with Anil Prasad

Secret Satan, 2018: being the annual Strange Flowers “round-up of giftable cultural history with which you can unmistakably signal your degenerate cosmopolitan values”.

• Laurie Spiegel’s second album of electronic music, Unseen Worlds, was never given a proper release in 1990. This situation will be rectified in January.

• Mixes of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 272 by Paulie Jan, and XLR8R Influences Podcast 12 by Ripperton.

• More Gorey: biographer Mark Dery and design historian Steven Heller discuss Edward Gorey’s life and work.

Rumsey Taylor on Roger Excoffon’s Choc, “the mystery font that took over New York”.

• More Nicolas Roeg: David Thompson on one of Britain’s greatest film directors.

John Waters picks his films of the year.

• RIP Bernardo Bertolucci

In Bloom (1991) by Nirvana | Bloom (2001) by Brian Eno & J. Peter Schwalm | Violet Bloom (2010) by John Foxx