Golem (2012)

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“There are always more golems,” I wrote back in August, and here’s another. The artificial entity this time is a military computer that’s the subject of Golem XIV (1973), a science fiction story by Stanislaw Lem that was later expanded into a novel:

The book is written from the perspective of a military AI computer who obtains consciousness and starts to increase his own intelligence, moving towards personal technological singularity. It pauses its own development for a while in order to be able to communicate with humans before ascending too far and losing any ability for intellectual contact with them. During this period, Golem XIV gives several lectures and indeed serves as a mouthpiece for Lem’s own research claims. The lectures focus on mankind’s place in the process of evolution and the possible biological and intellectual future of humanity. (more)

Golem (2012) is a seven-minute film by Patrick Mccue & Tobias Wiesner which uses elaborate and detailed CGI to illustrate Lem’s story. The music is an original piece by Cliff Martinez that in its final moments echoes his score for Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002). Watch it here. (Via Coudal.)

Previously on { feuilleton }
More Golems
Das Haus zur letzten Latern
Hugo Steiner-Prag’s Golem
Barta’s Golem

Screening Kafka

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Kafka (1991).

This week I completed the interior design for a new anthology from Tachyon, Kafkaesque, edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly. It’s a collection of short stories either inspired by Franz Kafka, or with a Kafka-like atmosphere, and features a high calibre of contributions from writers including JG Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, Carol Emshwiller, Jeffrey Ford, Jonathan Lethem and Philip Roth, and also the comic strip adaptation of The Hunger Artist by Robert Crumb. When I knew this was incoming I rewatched a few favourite Kafka-inspired film and TV works, and belatedly realised I have something of a predilection for these things. What follows is a list of some favourites from the Kafkaesque dramas I’ve seen to date. IMDB lists 72 titles crediting Kafka as the original writer so there’s still a lot more to see.

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The Trial (1962), dir: Orson Welles.

Orson Welles in one of his Peter Bogdanovich interviews describes how producer Alexander Salkind gave him a list of literary classics to which he owned the rights and asked him to pick one. Given a choice of Kafka titles Welles says he would have chosen The Castle but The Trial was the only one on the list so it’s this which became the first major adaptation of a Kafka novel. Welles always took some liberties with adaptations—even Shakespeare wasn’t sacred—and he does so here. I’m not really concerned whether this is completely faithful to the book, however, it’s a first-class work of cinema which shows Welles’ genius for improvisation in the use of the semi-derelict Gare d’Orsay in Paris as the main setting. (Welles had commissioned set designs but the money to pay for those disappeared at the last minute.) As well as scenes in Paris the film mixes other scenes shot in Rome and Zagreb with Anthony Perkins’ Josef K frequently jumping across Europe in a single cut. The resulting blend of 19th-century architecture, industrial ruin and Modernist offices which Welles called “Jules Verne modernism” continues to be a big inspiration for me when thinking about invented cities. Kafka has been fortunate in having many great actors drawn to his work; here with Perkins there’s Welles himself as the booming and hilarious Advocate, together with Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider and Akim Tamiroff.

Continue reading “Screening Kafka”

Designs on Kafka

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Book covers of the week are a series of new Kafka designs by Peter Mendelsund for Schocken, a set comprising eight paperbacks which will be out this summer in the US. What’s notable about these designs aside from their minimal style is the way they dispense with the visual clichés which have accumulated around Kafka’s work. So no sombre author photos, ominous shadows or views of Prague, just bold colours and simple shapes to create a beautiful collection. The script typeface is Mister K by Julia Sysmäläinen, a design based on Kafka’s handwriting. Peter Mendelsund has the rest of the covers and some words about their design on his blog. Via Coudal.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The book covers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Kafka’s porn unveiled
A postcard from Doctor Kafka
Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker
Hugo Steiner-Prag’s Golem
Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka
Kafka and Kupka

Kafka’s porn unveiled

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Pages from Der Amethyst (1906) showing Reh-Inkarnation by Thomas Theodor Heine.

Okay, don’t get too excited, I simply wanted to make a couple of points of order while this story is still causing a stir. I noted earlier the recent (London) Times piece about James Hawes’ new book, Excavating Kafka, described as a work which:

seeks to explode important myths surrounding the literary icon, a “quasi-saintly” image which hardly fits with the dark and shocking pictures contained in these banned journals.

Hawes claims to have been surprised, if not shocked, by the discovery—new to him but not to Kafka scholars, it seems—of Kafka’s collection of Franz Blei publications, The Amethyst and Opals. Blei published Kafka’s short stories as well as other literary works and fits the mould of many small publishers (Leonard Smithers and Maurice Girodias come to mind) who financed poorly-selling literature with erotic titles. Kafka may well have been “paid” for his writing with these books. However:

Even today, the pornography would be “on the top shelf”, Dr Hawes said, noting that his American publisher did not want him to publish it at first. “These are not naughty postcards from the beach. They are undoubtedly porn, pure and simple. Some of it is quite dark, with animals committing fellatio and girl-on-girl action… It’s quite unpleasant.”

Read the rest of the breathless saga here. The Times doesn’t show any of the pictures in that piece but the paper edition showed a drawing which looked like the usual erotica of the period, a slightly cruder version of the kind of thing done so well by artists like Franz von Bayros. So not photographs, then, but drawings. Sure enough, descriptions of Blei’s books list well-known names such as Aubrey Beardsley, Alfred Kubin, Thomas Theodor Heine, Karl Hofer, Félicien Rops, and von Bayros. Yesterday’s Guardian examined some of the reaction to Hawes’ assertions from other Kafka scholars which is generally hostile, their counter-assertion being that he’s making a mountain out of a molehill. That piece includes another description of the depraved contents:

They include images of a hedgehog-style creature performing fellatio, golem-like male creatures grasping women’s breasts with their claw-like hands and a picture of a baby emerging from a sliced-open leg.

Hmm…Beardsley, sliced-open leg? That could only be Aubrey’s illustration for Lucian’s True History. Sensitive readers may wish to avert their gaze.

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Birth from the Calf of the Leg. Illustration intended for Lucian’s True History (1894). Not used, but published in An Issue of Five Drawings Illustrative of Juvenal and Lucian by Leonard Smithers, London (1906).

Shocking stuff. Allow me to veer from the point for a moment with Beardsley scholar Brian Reade’s explanation of that drawing:

This illustration (was) rejected from the 1894 and 1902 editions of Lucian’s True History. At the time when it was drawn the artist was obsessed by foetuses and irregular births; creatures derived from the foetus form occur in the Bon-Mots series, in The Kiss of Judas, in Salome and elsewhere. That he chose to illustrate this subject suggests that there may have been a latent strain of homosexuality in Beardsley. Lucian describes in his True History the way in which children are born in the kingdom of Endymion on the Moon. “They are not begotten of women, but of mankind: for they have no other marriage but of males: the name of woman is wholly unknown among them: until they accomplish the age of five and twenty years, they are given in marriage to others: from that time forwards they take others in marriage to themselves: for as soon as the infant is conceived the leg begins to swell, and afterwards when the time of birth is come, they give it a lance and take it out dead: then they lay it abroad with open mouth towards the wind, and so it takes life: and I think thereof the Grecians call it the belly of the leg, because therein they bear their children instead of a belly”. Lucian also explains that “their boys admit copulation, not like unto ours, but in their hams, a little above the calf of the leg for there they are open”.

The other drawings mentioned by the Guardian don’t sound familiar but may well be by Alfred Kubin who produced a number of curious erotic pieces, one of which is in my Art of Ejaculation post. Meanwhile Die Welt Online reproduces some of the Félicien Rops pictures in a small gallery, all of which are rather innocuous depictions of prostitutes.

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Rops could be a lot weirder and wilder than this. (See his Octopus drawing of 1900.) I haven’t seen Hawes’ book yet, but going on this evidence it seems the Kafka scholars may have a point about his inflated claims. Much of this work was shocking at the time, of course, and open publication of some of it would have been an invitation to an obscenity prosecution. But I’ll let the Kafka scholars haggle over Franz’s reputation, quasi-saintly or not; the main point for me was that the works in question are very familiar to anyone who knows the art of the period. So in place of rancour, here’s a nice homoerotic painting by another of the artists published by Blei, Karl Hofer, in style and colour reminiscent of Picasso’s Rose Period pictures.

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Drei Badende Jünglinge by Karl Hofer (1907).

Update: this volume finally turned up in the Savoy Books office so I was able to look through it. The Beardsley picture above is indeed among the very few examples of “Kafka’s porn”, used without any credit and Beardsley receives no mention in the index. There’s also a Félicien Rops drawing with a caption which says it “may be Victorian”, along with a couple of other pieces, all equally uncredited. Yes, that’s the level of the scholarship at work here; the author couldn’t even be bothered to research the art in question. Summary: worthless.

Previously on { feuilleton }
A postcard from Doctor Kafka
Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker
Hugo Steiner-Prag’s Golem
Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka
Kafka and Kupka
The art of ejaculation
The art of Félicien Rops, 1833–1898

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