Drone Mass

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Design by Florian Karg.

You’d think someone would have used the title Drone Mass prior to this new release but it seems not. The album is the premiere recording of a late composition by Jóhann Jóhannsson, performed by the composer’s regular collaborators in the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, together with Theatre of Voices and their conductor Paul Hillier. The album title and the presence of a choral group raises expectations of a religious Mass but John Schaefer’s notes draw attention to the title’s ambiguities, Jóhannsson having said that he was thinking as much about airborne drones as sustained sounds. (The Khephri scarab on the cover has a rather drone-like appearance.) Schaefer also notes that the word “mass” can refer to physical substance as well as religious ritual.

As to the substance of the music, there is a superficially religious quality to the first two pieces, a feature deceptive enough to make the album the kind of thing I’d like to play to the unsuspecting. Without knowing what to expect you could easily imagine the rest of the suite developing like an Arvo Pärt composition (and Theatre of Voices/Paul Hillier have performed Pärt on several occasions) until you reach the dissonant waves of the third piece, Triptych In Mass, after which various electronic rumbles and distortions arrive to take the album into a very different sphere. One of the pleasures of Jóhannsson’s compositions was this juxtaposition between the familiar structures and instruments of classical composition with sounds processed by computer software. The combination isn’t exactly new, Edgard Varèse was doing the same as far back as the 1930s (he also discussed his music in terms of “sound masses”), but in 20th-century examples the orchestral component is always striving to seem as fresh and as different as the electronics genuinely were. What you didn’t get then—because any such music would have been deemed old-fashioned or even reactionary—is this blending of traditional chords and harmonies with sounds that originate in the latest digital processes. After the release of Last And First Men I hadn’t been expecting any new Jóhannsson compositions (although previously unreleased soundtracks keep turning up) so this is all very welcome.

If you’ve looked at Florian Karg’s cover and are wondering what any of the above has to do with Ancient Egypt, an explanation may be found inside the album where a photo shows the 2015 premiere performance of Drone Mass taking place outside the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. That bright yellow Deutsche Grammophon logo has become something to watch for in recent years. The DG cartouche has always been a trademark of quality where classical recordings are concerned but the label has a somewhat broader remit today, releasing many more soundtrack albums than they would have done in the past, in addition to non-soundtrack works by Jóhann Jóhannsson, Max Richter and others. Oddly enough (considering the news last week), the new direction was begun by Vangelis in 1985 when his Invisible Connections album was released on DG instead of its pop sibling, Polydor. This was very surprising at the time even though the label had been releasing avant-garde compositions for many years; the first Stockhausen album I bought in 1981 was a secondhand DG release of Mikrophonie I & II. Some of the recent remixes of old Berlin Philharmonic recordings will have set Herbert von Karajan spinning in his sarcophagus but the label hasn’t pushed things too far in that direction, and if the poppier works pay for new recordings such as this one then I’m not complaining.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Jóhannssonia
Last and First Men

Vangelis, 1943–2022

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NME ad for the China album, April 1979. Via.

Farewell, Captain Nemo. In the past I’ve been known to describe Blade Runner as a very large and very expensive music video for a Vangelis album. (I mention this because so many of the headlines about the late musician are referring to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece and that boring film about athletes in big shorts.) Blade Runner is rather more than a music video, of course, but the viewpoint is a useful one if you’ve watched the damned thing so many times in so many different versions and formats that any re-viewing is almost enough to have you mouthing the dialogue along with the characters, like Charlton Heston in The Omega Man watching Woodstock for the 100th time. Vangelis recorded almost 40 albums under his own name, and many more as collaborations; he was much more than a soundtrack composer, which isn’t something you can always say about soundtrack composers.

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He liked Outer Spacers. The composer accepts a chutney-flavoured cosmic snack, circa 1979.

All the same, film and score are so inextricably connected it’s impossible to imagine Blade Runner with any other soundtrack, just as it’s impossible to imagine Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy without Ennio Morricone’s whip-cracks, bells and whistles. The thing is—and this is the reason for my facetious music-video comment—Morricone’s Western scores were tailored to their content in a way that Blade Runner‘s music wasn’t at all. If Blade Runner had never been made, many of those musical cues would have worked perfectly well as another Vangelis solo album. Three of the albums he made before Blade Runner that feature his beloved Yamaha CS-80 keyboard—Spiral, Opera Sauvage and China—contain elements that coalesce in the film score; there you’ll find the same synthesizer timbres, filter sweeps, percussive crashes, Fender Rhodes solos and musical pastiche (Chinese rather than Middle Eastern). Another album, See You Later, is a patchy collection of songs, instrumentals and spoken-word pieces but it does contain the original version of Memories Of Green. That melancholy piano and all the bleeps, sirens and metallic square-waves that seem so intrinsic to the shots of Deckard moping around his apartment were recorded two years before the film soundtrack. For years I’ve been urging anyone who only knows Vangelis from his most famous soundtracks to listen to those earlier albums, especially Opera Sauvage (itself a soundtrack for a TV series that nobody ever mentions) and China.

Speaking of China, here’s a short film of Vangelis in his studio miming to pieces from the album. And I’m pleased to find that the Spanish TV film showing him in 1982 improvising on his CS-80 has resurfaced again. I linked to a copy years ago but YouTube is a useless archive so it vanished soon after. This clip seems to be better quality as well.

• “Vangelis wasn’t just a film composer – he blew apart the boundaries of pop

Previously on { feuilleton }
Blade Runner vs. Metropolis
Synthesizing
Salvador Dalí’s apocalyptic happening

Weekend links 569

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City with Eyes in Blue (1989) by Paul Lehr.

• “Lehr chose science fiction illustration because he saw it as a path to making a living and an opportunity to ‘depict the epic’. ‘War, destruction, celebration, congestion, marching armies, waving flags and banners—the strange and mysterious atmosphere of it all, rather than the literal illustration.'” Jane Frank on the art of Paul Lehr (1930–1998).

• “Time isn’t the only thing Harrison treats as firmly malleable. The same is true of his willingness to play with genre conventions…” Tobias Carroll on M. John Harrison, and an article where you have to ignore the clickbait clichés in the headline.

• The narrators for the forthcoming audiobook of Voice of the Fire by Alan Moore have been revealed.

• At Public Domain Review: A remembrance of aerial forms: Odilon Redon’s À Edgar Poe.

• The weight of the ritual: Frank Rynne on The Master Musicians of Joujouka.

• “Cerne Giant in Dorset dates from Anglo-Saxon times, analysis suggests.

Aaron Moth, the artist creating exquisite collages from vintage [gay] porn.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins on revision in illustration.

• At Wikimedia Commons: Lesbian pulp fiction.

• Mix of the week: A Wire mix by BLK JKS.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Psychedelics.

Colleen‘s favourite albums.

Ritual Fire Dance (1969) by Tuesday’s Children | Ritual (1973) by Vangelis | Rituals (1981) by Bush Tetras

Solid Space: Jon Anderson’s cosmic voyage

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Jon Anderson’s solo debut, Olias Of Sunhillow, is reissued this week in a double-disc set comprising a remastered CD plus an audio DVD. I’d been hoping for some time that this album might be given a proper reissue, it’s one I like a great deal but my old CD has never sounded as good as it ought to. The album may command cult status round here but you don’t see it mentioned anywhere outside Yes forums or partisan enclaves like the Prog Archives. This post may be taken as a small corrective to the neglect.

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Olias Of Sunhillow was released in 1976, and was the most unusual of all the solo albums recorded by the individual members of Yes in the mid-70s, being a spin-off from some of the group’s early albums, or at least their cover art. Roger Dean’s first cover work for the group was on Fragile in 1971, for which he painted a miniature world rather like one of MC Escher’s planetoids. This was Dean’s idea, the band had suggested a broken piece of porcelain as the cover image. The back cover of the album showed the same planet in a state of fragmentation with a fish-like spaceship floating above it (see below). Another drawing of the fish-ship was added to the front cover before the album’s release, and it’s this ship, and the narrative it suggests, that leads eventually to Anderson’s solo album. Two years after Fragile, the planetary disintegration had turned into an exodus on the group’s triple-live album, Yessongs, the back cover of which shows pieces of planet being towed through space by a similar fish-ship. The other panels of the cover depict the arrival of these fragments on a newer, larger world. Anderson’s album takes this sequence of events then filters them through Vera Stanley Alder’s mysticism to craft a musical odyssey which Discogs describes as:

…the story of an alien race and their journey to a new world due to catastrophe. Olias, the title character, is the chosen architect of the glider Moorglade, which will be used to fly his people to their new home. Ranyart is the navigator for the glider, and Qoquaq is the leader who unites the four tribes of Sunhillow to partake in the exodus.

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For many years in British music circles it would have been a grave error to even acknowledge this album’s existence, never mind admit to actually liking it. This was partly the old animus against progressive rock, an unexamined prejudice that lasted well into the 1990s, but Anderson’s album had so many strikes against it that it might have stood as the winner of a disapproval lottery for the more ideologically rigid writers and readers of the NME. It’s Jon Anderson (strike 1), the lead singer of progressive rock (2) group Yes (3), whose album is a science fiction (4)/ fantasy (5) concept (6), littered with Tolkien-like invented names and words (7), and with a multi-page sleeve embellished with detailed fantasy illustrations (8) by David Fairbrother-Roe. The design was art directed by Hipgnosis, who subsequently designed the next two Yes albums. Anderson originally wanted Roger Dean to create the packaging, which would have provided a further strike of disapproval against the album, but Dean’s career had gone into overdrive following the publication of Views so he either didn’t have the time or didn’t want to be involved. In Views Dean mentions “another project” based on the fish-ship’s journey which may be a reference to Anderson’s forthcoming album, the credits of which thank Dean for “planting the seed”.

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Roger Dean’s original artwork for Fragile (1971). Another fish-ship was added to the final cover art.

Continue reading “Solid Space: Jon Anderson’s cosmic voyage”

Weekend links 529

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Naruto Whirlpool, Awa Province, from the series Views of Famous Places in the Sixty-Odd Provinces (c. 1853) by Hiroshige.

• Eric Margolis: “Yukio Mishima may have gone out in an inglorious blaze in 1970, but three of his previously untranslated works have been released in the English-speaking world in the last two years, with another on the way.” The forthcoming novel is Mishima’s only venture into science fiction (!), A Beautiful Star. The book was filmed by Daihachi Yoshida in 2017.

• “[Ace in the Hole] did well in Europe but not here, perhaps because Americans expected a cocktail and felt I was giving them a shot of vinegar instead.” Billy Wilder discussing his career with Charles Higham in 1967.

• Mixes of the week: All these things invisible by The Ephemeral Man, and Secret Thirteen Mix 306 by Yogev Freilichman.

“So I got a phone number for Vangelis, he was living in Paris and I went there and called him up. He said (affects a gruff Greek accent) ‘Hello’, I said, ‘My name’s Jon Anderson’. He said ‘What?’ I said, ‘I’m in a band called Yes’, he said, ‘Are you a singer? Well, come over’, so I went over. There was this big guy with a long kaftan on and a bow and arrow around his shoulder. I got into his palatial apartment near the Champs-Élysées and there’s quite a long hallway down to his living room, and there’s a little old man there sitting by the TV. Vangelis takes out his bow and sends this arrow down the hallway and it goes right through the window, because the window was open. I said, ‘Vangelis, you could have killed somebody’, he said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, I’m Greek’. I said, ‘I know you’re Greek, but come on’.”

Jon Anderson talking to Duncan Seaman about his first encounters with Vangelis

Tarot cards though the ages; examples from a new book on the subject published by Taschen.

The Suspended Vocation again: Ryan Ruby on Pierre Klossowski, “Brilliant Brother of Balthus”.

• Secret Sound podcast #17 is devoted to The Galaxy of Turiya aka Alice Coltrane.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Shaye Saint John Day.

Kenneth Anger smiles!

Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) (1975) by Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel | Uncertain Smile (1983) by The The | Fleeting Smile (1988) by Roger Eno