Weekend links 449

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UK poster, 1950. Cocteau’s film receives a UK blu-ray release this week.

• Into the Zone: 4 days inside Chernobyl’s secretive “stalker” subculture by Aram Balakjian. (Again. There’s an implication in Balakjian’s piece that illicit Chernobyl tourism is a new thing even though people have been doing this for a while now.) Related: Jonathan’s visit to the Chernobyl reactor control room, and photos of Soviet-era control rooms (plus a couple of stray American examples).

• “He’s a very interesting author: a disabled, gay writer during the Third Reich…who somehow survived only to be shot by a Red Army patrol days before the end of the war.” At the Edge of the Night (1933) by Friedo Lampe will receive its first English-language publication via Hesperus Press next month.

• “The tradition of the painted still life has been reinvented by contemporary photographers with pictures that pose a puzzle and slow the viewer down,” says Rick Poynor.

• Comic artist Matt Howarth has been writing short reviews of electronic music for many years. Sonic Curiosity is his archive site.

Bauhaus at 100: what it means to me by Norman Foster, Margaret Howell and others.

• RIP Jonas Mekas. Related: a conversation between Jonas Mekas and Jim Jarmusch.

• Beyond the Buzzcocks: Geeta Dayal remembers Pete Shelley‘s electronic side.

• Where to begin with Jean Cocteau: Alex Barrett goes through the mirror.

• Mix of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 278 by Sarah Louise.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Jud Yalkut Day.

• Undulating Terrain (1995) by Robert Rich & B. Lustmord | Darkstalker (2000) by Bohren & Der Club Of Gore | Stalker Dub (2012) by John Zorn

Zone music

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Undulating terrain: Stalker (1979).

Marking the boundaries of an obsession, this post follows the discovery last week of the Sine Fiction soundtracks for science fiction novels, one of which was five tracks by Jos Smolders for Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. That album set me wondering what other recordings might have been inspired by that bounded region known as the Zone, whether derived from the Strugatskys’ novel, from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker (for whom the Strugatskys provided a screenplay) or even from the real-life Zone around the irradiated Chernobyl disaster site in Ukraine.

The cult status of the book and film can be measured by the following list which I’m sure will have many omissions, not least because searching music sites for “stalker”, “zone” and “roadside picnic” yields multiple results; all three of those terms happen to also be the names of musical artists or groups, as well as the names of labels, albums and individual recordings. (I’ll skip over the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of computer games. All have music but since I’ve not played any of them I can’t say much about them.)

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The stalker’s dream from Stalker.

The first release is of course the haunting film theme by Edward Artemyev, a mere five minutes of music which nonetheless adds a great deal to Tarkovsky’s unforgettable images. Artemyev also provided music for Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and Mirror (1975) yet nothing else I’ve heard by the composer resembles this piece which wouldn’t be out-of-place on a compilation of German Kosmische music from the 1970s.

While that long camera shot over waterlogged objects is still in mind, there’s the following from Nova Swing (2006) by M. John Harrison, a science fiction novel which riffs on both Stalker and Roadside Picnic:

Upstairs, Emil Bonaventure was propped upright against the pillows like a corpse, his skin yellow in the streetlight from the window, his old ribs slatted with shadows. The energy had drained out of his smart tattoos and he was breathing ever so lightly. Edith watched the pulse in his neck. She could almost see the life through the skin, the thoughts in his head, and what were they but the dreams he couldn’t any longer have? Shallow water over cracked chequerboard tiles and cast-off domestic objects, books, plates, magazines, empty tunnels smelling of chemicals, a black dog trotting aimlessly round him in his sleep on some dirty waterlogged ground neither in nor out of anything you could think of as the world, while a woman’s voice mourned open-throat from a house not far enough in the distance.

Nova Swing will be available in a new edition later this year.

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Stalker (1995) by Robert Rich & B. Lustmord.

The doomy atmospherics which have become the hallmark of Zone music begin with this album by Robert Rich and B. Lustmord. Seven tracks take Tarkovsky’s film as an inspiration with vaguely allusive titles—Undulating Terrain—and occasional snatches of dialogue buried in the mix. A superb piece of late-night listening even without the associations.

Continue reading “Zone music”

Sine Fiction

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Sine Fiction VI: Nova Express (2003) by Eucci.

More Burroughsian music, and a selection that includes another interpretation of The Ticket That Exploded. Sine Fiction is a music project curated by Aimé Dontigny that commissions electronic artists to provide soundtracks to science fiction novels. The project has been running since 2000, and has so far managed twenty releases, the most recent of which—Dontigny’s own music for Ballard’s The Drowned World—appeared in 2011. In addition to three Burroughs titles there’s another work with considerable cult status, the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic, which Jos Smolders accompanies in a very minimal fashion. I’d still go for the gloriously doomy atmospheres of Stalker (1995) by Robert Rich & B. Lustmord but there’s room in the world for multiple interpretations.

All the Sine Fiction releases are available as free downloads at the No Type site or (if you prefer) at the Internet Archive.

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Sine Fiction VII: Soft Machine (2003) by Kevin M Krebs.

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Sine Fiction IX: The Ticket That Exploded (2003) by A_Dontigny.

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Sine Fiction XIV: Roadside Picnic (2004) by Jos Smolders.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Ticket That Exploded: An Ongoing Opera
A playlist for Halloween: Drones and atmospheres

Weekend links 136

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Der Triumph des Tintenfisches from Meggendorfer-Blätter (c. 1900). Via Beautiful Century.

Much dismay this week at the news that Coilhouse—the web and print magazine founded in 2008 by Nadya Lev, Meredith Yayanos and Zoetica Ebb—was closing its doors for the foreseeable future. I always loved what they were doing, and was delighted when S. Elizabeth interviewed me for the website two years ago. Looking at the list of their featured articles is like seeing the contents of my head laid bare. Have a browse and see what you may have missed. And fingers crossed they return soon.

• “I think we are just used to seeing naked women because they are used as objects of desire in advertisements and TV. Naked men are not that common—we are not used to seeing a penis. I think that is the main problem for people.” The shock of the (male) nude.

Michael Clarke asks “What Can Publishers Learn from Indie Rock?” Also: Michelle Dean on the value of used books.

Queers find themselves on both sides of the free speech question. Those of us who are writers want the freedom to write and say what we want. I know I do. Yet a preponderance of LGBT people have become part of the larger wave of those who would limit free speech. Because while we want to be able to say whatever we want about “them,” we do not want “them” to say whatever they want about us.

Victoria Brownworth on The Case Against Censorship

• Caspar Henderson re-reads The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges.

One hundred classic minimalism, electronic, ambient and drone recordings.

• BLDGBLOG visits the Chand Baori stepwell in Abhaneri, India.

Brion Gysin’s Dreamachine is launched in the UK.

Ken Hollings visits Ludwig II’s Venus Grotto.

• A guide to Meredith Monk‘s music.

• RIP Boris Strugatsky.

Maldorora: a Tumblr.

Stalker: Meditation (1979) by Edward Artemiev | Undulating Terrain (1995) by Robert Rich & B. Lustmord | Stalker (2004) by Shackleton.

The Stalker meme

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The Stalker’s dream from Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).

The innocuously-titled Roadside Picnic is a Russian science fiction novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, first published in 1972:

Aliens have visited the Earth, and departed, leaving behind a number of artefacts of their incomprehensibly advanced technology. The places where such artefacts were left behind are areas of great danger, known as ‘Zones.’ The Zones are laid out in a pattern which suggests that they resulted from the impact of an influence from space which struck repeatedly from the same direction, striking different places as the Earth rotated on its axis.

A frontier culture arises along the margins of these Zones, peopled by ‘stalkers’ who risk their lives in illegal expeditions to recover these artefacts, which do not obey known physical laws. The most sought one, the ‘golden sphere’, is rumoured to have the power to fulfill the deepest human wishes.

The name of the novel derives from a metaphor proposed by the character Dr. Valentin Pilman, who compares the visit to a roadside picnic. After the picnickers depart, nervous animals venture forth from the adjacent forest and discover the picnic garbage: spilled motor oil, faded unknown flowers, a box of matches, a clockwork teddy bear, balloons, candy wrappers, etc. He concludes that humankind finds itself in a situation similar to that of the curious forest animals.

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UK paperback, 1977; cover art by Richard Powers.

Surprisingly for a novel that’s still very much in copyright, a number of online versions are available, including this PDF. The Strugatsky’s idea seems to be a particularly attractive one for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. Is it because it works an sf twist on old fairy tales or myths such as Theseus and the Minotaur? Or is the central conceit of drawing a boundary around a dangerous area then sending in your characters the one that strikes a chord?

stalker_poster.jpgWhatever the answer—and with the Zone we can’t necessarily expect answers—Roadside Picnic was brilliantly filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979 as Stalker. Tarkovsky described the film’s production in his diaries as cursed; there were arguments with the original cinematographer and problems processing the film that ruined many of the original takes. The film was more cursed than he realised. Unbeknownst to the crew, the area around an old power station in Tallinn, Estonia, which provided many of the Zone’s ruins was highly polluted. This only became apparent several years later when cast and crew began dying prematurely. Tarkovsky himself succumbed to cancer in 1986. It’s impossible to avoid thinking of this when watching the film, especially when you see the actors wading into filthy water.

Stalker is available on DVD in a less-than-satisfactory transfer (annoyingly spread across two discs) but at least it doesn’t suffer the sound fault that plagues the DVD of Nostalgia. Nostalghia.com is the best Tarkovsky site, with several Stalker-related features.

The most notorious example of Soviet-era pollution is, of course, the Chernobyl disaster which occurred a few years after Stalker. In one of those typical examples of life imitating art, the 1,400 square mile quarantined area around the power station is referred to as the Zone of Alienation, the Chernobyl Zone, the 30 Kilometre Zone, the Zone of Exclusion or the Fourth Zone. Scientists who study the forbidden region (and guides who take people there illegally) have referred to themselves as “stalkers”. This site features a huge amount of photographs of the abandoned buildings inside the radioactive area. Bldgblog also has a photo feature.

The Stalker meme has infected the music world. In addition to soundtrack albums by composer Edward Artemyev, Robert Rich and Lustmord produced Stalker in 1995, a marvellously atmospheric album of dark ambience inspired by Tarkovsky’s film.

Latest work to explore the theme is Nova Swing, a science fiction novel by M John Harrison. This book is set in the same future as his excellent Light, “less a sequel…than an independent novel set in the same general universe.”

We are in a city, perhaps on New Venusport or Motel Splendido: next to the city is the event site, the zone, from out of which pour new, inexplicable artefacts, organisms and escapes of living algorithm—the wrong physics loose in the universe. They can cause plague and change. An entire department of the local police, Site Crime, exists to stop them being imported into the city by adventurers, entradistas, and the men known as ‘travel agents’, profiteers who can manage—or think they can manage—the bad physics, skewed geographies and psychic onslaughts of the event site. But now a new class of semi-biological artefact is finding its way out of the site, and this may be more than anyone can handle.

You can read an extract from Nova Swing here.

I don’t think we’ve heard the last of the Stalkers. The Strugatsky’s story seems like the Zone itself, leaking an influence into the surrounding culture that then mutates into strange new forms. It seems you can’t keep a good meme down or, for that matter, contained.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Nova Swing
Solaris