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

Pynchonian cinema

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(Pynchonian? Pynchonesque? Pynchon-heads can no doubt supply the most common descriptor but for now Pynchonian will do.)

Is it possible to identify a Pynchonian strand in cinema? This question came to mind while I was reading the end of Gravity’s Rainbow, and probably a little before then during a scene that takes place in the Neubabelsberg studio in Berlin. The Pynchon reading binge is still ongoing here—after finishing the Rocket book I went straight on to Vineland, and I’m currently immersed in Mason and Dixon—so I’ve been watching films that complement some of the preoccupations in the Pynchon oeuvre, at least up to and including Vineland. This is a small and no doubt contentious list but I’m open to further suggestions. Inherent Vice is excluded, I’ve been thinking more of films that are reminiscent of Pynchon without being derived from his work. Elements that increase the Pynchon factor would include: a serio-comic quality (essential, this, otherwise you’d have to include a huge number of thrillers); detective work; paranoia; songs; and a conspiracy of some sort, or the suspicion of the same: a mysterious cabal–the “They” of Gravity’s Rainbow—who may or may not be manipulating the course of events.

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The President’s Analyst (1967)
I’d be very surprised if Pynchon didn’t like this one. James Coburn as the titular analyst, Dr Sidney Schaefer, has little time to enjoy his new job in Washington DC before half the security services in the world are trying to kidnap him to discover what he’s learned about the President’s neuroses. This in turn leads the FBI FBR to attempt to kill Schaefer in order to protect national security. Pynchonian moments include a bout of total paranoia in a restaurant, Canadian spies disguised as a British pop group (“The ‘Pudlians”), and a visit to the home of a “typical American family” where the father has a house full of guns, the mother is a karate expert, and the son uses his “Junior Spy Kit” to monitor phone conversations. Later on, an entire nightclub gets spiked with LSD. This is also the only film in which someone evades abduction to a foreign country by the cunning use of psychoanalysis.
Is it serio-comic? Yes.
Is there detection? In the background: the CIA CEA and KGB agents have to work together in order to outwit the FBI FBR and discover who the ultimate villains might be.
Is there paranoia? You only get more paranoia in one of the serious conspiracy dramas of the 1970s like The Conversation or The Parallax View. (The latter includes the same actor who plays the All American Dad, William Daniels.)
Any songs? Yes. Coburn hides out for a while with the real-life psychedelic group Clear Light, and helps with their performance in the acid-spiked nightclub.
“They”? There are multiple “They”s in this one.
Pynchon factor: 5. Maybe a 6 for the LSD.

Continue reading “Pynchonian cinema”

Weekend links 574

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Poster for Beauty and the Beast (1978) by Josef Vyletal.

• Next month, Second Run release Juraj Herz’s 1978 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast on region-free blu-ray. I watched this last year on a Czech DVD so it’s good to hear it’s being given an upgrade. Herz’s film is a distinctly sinister take on the familiar tale, with a bird-headed Beast that’s closer to Max Ernst than anything you’ll find in illustrations for Perrault’s stories.

• “In a coincidence so unlikely it almost seems, well, magical, the girls traced illustrations from a book of folklore that also contained a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, a reflection of a reflection of a reflection.” Audrey Wollen on the Cottingley fairy photographs. Related: The Coming of the Fairies by Arthur Conan Doyle.

• “[Mark E. Smith], with his love of Stockhausen, HP Lovecraft, and (bizarrely) the sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, becomes a reverse coder, an apostle of avant pulp, a ‘paperback shaman’.” Sukhdev Sandhu reviews Excavate! The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, edited by Tessa Norton and Bob Stanley.

• “Found photos of men in love from 1850–1950“. Maybe. As before, I’m always cautious about imposing a narrative on old photographs.

• Mixes of the week: A mix for The Wire by Pamela Z, and a dose of post-punk esoterica by Moin for XLR8R.

DJ Food takes another dive into back issues of International Times in search of ads for London’s Middle Earth club.

• At The Smart Set: Colin Fleming watches John Bowen’s drama of pastoral horror, Robin Redbreast.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Heavily plotted non-linear structures whose velocity lacks narrative drive.

Ryan Gilbey attempts to rank Robert Altman’s features into a list of 20 best.

• Still Farther South: Poe and Pym’s Suggestive Symmetries by John Tresch.

• New music: At One Point by Scorn.

Visionist‘s favourite albums.

The Beast (1956) by Milt Buckner | Leggo Beast (1978) by Gregory Isaac’s All Stars | This Beast (1983) by Tuxedomoon

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

Lynch dogs

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Last year I decided that rather than watch the new series of Twin Peaks via whatever dubious downloads were available, I’d wait until the whole thing was released on disc. Last weekend I finally pressed “play” on the first episode, but prior to this I’d spent the past couple of months working through David Lynch’s filmography, from his earliest shorts to Inland Empire. I also watched a couple of episodes from the first two seasons of Twin Peaks (the pilot and the final episode of season two).

Watching a director’s collected works used to be a difficult thing without an obliging repertory cinema or TV channel. In the days when the BBC and Channel 4 (UK) still treated cinema as an art form we were given seasons of films by Orson Welles, François Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Altman and many others. When was the last time a (non-Swedish) television channel showed all of Bergman’s films, I wonder? It was memories of watching an Altman season that led me to spend the summer of 2016 watching all of the director’s films from That Cold Day in the Park (1969) through to A Prairie Home Companion (2006), 33 films in all. I then followed this with a viewing of nearly all the Hitchcock films that are currently available on blu-ray. Watching a director’s oeuvre in this manner makes you notice things that seem less obvious when the same films are viewed in isolation: the recurrent use of actors becomes more notable, while themes, obsessions and directorial tics make themselves more apparent.

David Lynch shares shares with Altman and Hitchcock a compulsion for using the same actors from one film to the next, but I’d not noticed before how often dogs appear in his films. So that’s what this post examines, some of the canine moments from his feature films. Since I didn’t watch the whole of the first two seasons of Twin Peaks they’re omitted from this listing (unless you know of a dog in any of the episodes) while some of  Lynch’s minor works such as the short-lived On the Air series, and one-offs such as The Cowboy and the Frenchman (1988), I either haven’t seen for years or haven’t seen at all.

The Grandmother (1970)

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The Grandmother not only introduces the elderly woman/suited boy pairing that recurs later in the Twin Peaks mythos, but it also establishes the canine theme when the boy’s parents are shown mewling and barking like dogs. Whatever other qualities dogs may possess, Lynch is drawn to the disturbing and often threatening nature of the sounds they make.

Eraserhead (1977)

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The potential for threat is reinforced in Eraserhead when Henry is startled by barking dogs on his way to visit Mary. The only dogs that appear before the camera are the puppies and their mother on the floor of Mary’s home.

Continue reading “Lynch dogs”