Weekend links 511

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Design by Romek Marber, 1963.

• The death of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki prompted so many “Shining composer” headlines you have to wonder what kind of notices he might have received if his early work hadn’t been purloined by Hollywood. György Ligeti always seemed ambivalent about having his music used as cinematic illustration (Kubrick annoyed him by altering some of it without permission) but Penderecki worked as a composer for Polish films in the 1960s, not only providing a score for The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) but also (surprisingly) writing music for a number of short animations. I’ve been listening to his music for almost 40 years, after a chance discovery of the stunning Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima led me to seek out more. I have to admit that the appeal of his recordings lay in their ability to thrill and terrify—qualities that musicologists seldom address—and I’ve never paid any attention to Penderecki’s later work which was less of an assault on the senses. At The Quietus James Martin argues for listening to the entire oeuvre, not just the early works. For more about the composer’s life and work, Culture.pl has a number of good articles, eg: Mazes, Notes & Dali: The Extraordinary Life of Krzysztof Penderecki, and Music Is Not for Everyone: An Interview with Krzysztof Penderecki.

• The late Romek Marber (1925–2020) was a designer/illustrator whose name is familiar to collectors of Penguin books via the Marber Grid, the template he created in the early 1960s for the Penguin Crime series, and which was later extended across the entire paperback range. Marber talked about this period of his work in Penguin by Illustrators in 2009. Elsewhere: Rick Poyner on Marber’s design, and a suggestion for how the Marber Grid was designed.

• “…you’ll see Lego and children’s toys, but also Rawlplugs, tile spacers, Monopoly houses, cigarillo tips, curtain hooks, biofilters, Smarties tube lids, fishing beads, broken security seals, razor parts, bits of toothbrushes, roofing screw caps, medical lancets, golf tees, false teeth, plastic soldiers, posties’ rubber bands, bungs and stoppers.” Beachcomber Tracey Williams talks to Andrew Male about the undying ubiquity of plastic waste.

• “Thanks to Bookshop, there is no reason to buy books on Amazon anymore,” says Alex Lauer. The caveat is that the service is limited to the USA. I order books direct from publishers or from eBay and Abe; the latter may be Amazon-owned but you’re still paying most of the money to the individual sellers.

• Mixes of the week: Radio Belbury 19: Family Fun Time, and Through A Landscape Of Mirrors Vol. VII – France IV by David Colohan.

• “[Amanda Sewell’s] Wendy Carlos: A Biography is a great work of scholarship,” says Geeta Dayal.

• “Part of me expects to go on forever.” David Barnett on Michael Moorcock at 80.

• “What is the point of a critic if not to tell the truth?” asks Rachel Cooke.

John Boardley on medieval road-trips and the invention of print.

Anna Bogutskaya on where to begin with the Weird West.

• Inside Tove Jansson’s private universe by Sheila Heti.

• Memory Of Hiroshima (1973) by Stomu Yamash’ta’s Red Buddha Theatre | Hiroshima Mon Amour (1977) by Ultravox! | Hiroshima (1982) by Borsig

Weekend links 500

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Projet onirique (tombeau pour un poète) (1901) by Henry Provensal.

• “20 years later, Sexy Beast remains something of an oddity…It offers a deconstruction of the genre, which is then reconstructed to marry the unhinged, convulsive beauty of surrealism with sturdy, universal storytelling.” Thomas H. Sheriff looks back at Jonathan Glazer’s debut feature.

Blau Gers, a new piece by The Alvaret Ensemble: Greg Haines (piano), Jan Kleefstra (voice, poems), Romke Kleefstra (guitar, bass and effects) and Sytze Pruiksma (percussion).

Wendy Carlos: A Biography by Amanda Sewell, the first study of the life and work of the electronic composer, is out in March.

The prejudice against writing sex in Anglo-American literature is something that utterly baffles me. What a bizarre thing it is to claim that this central, profound territory of human life is off-limits to literary or artistic representation. Sex seems to me one of the densest and most intense human phenomena, one of the things I find it hardest to think about—and so something I want to think about in art. The biggest surprise to me about the reception of my first book—other than the fact of there being any reception at all—was how much discussion there was about the sex in it. There isn’t very much sex in it! It said something about the culture of mainstream publishing in America in 2016 that a novel with maybe three or four pages of explicit sex between men could seem surprising.

Garth Greenwell talking to Ilya Kaminsky about literature and life

• Some (but not all) of the museums of Paris have made thousands of artworks available for free online.

• The Work of Fate: AS Hamrah introduces a screening of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée.

La Labyrinthèque: Histoire de l’art jouissive & enchantements littéraires.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins on the art of the (book) cover.

Tom Huddleston on 10 great stressful films.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Malcolm Le Grice Day.

François de Nomé’s Imaginary Ruins.

Sexy Sadie (1968) by The Beatles | Sexy Photograph (1995) by Ui | Sexy Boy (1998) by Air

Tomita’s Mind of the Universe

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In the week that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon here’s a cosmic flashback from 1984. (I wrote about my own memories of the Apollo era in July, 2009.)

Mind Of The Universe was an ambitious outdoor performance of music by Isao Tomita for the annual Ars Electronic Festival in Linz, Austria. I’d known about this event ever since the release of the subsequent live album, and always wondered if there was more of a visual record than the one or two short clips to be found on YouTube. This 65-minute documentary from NHK TV was made following Tomita’s death in 2016, and features a much longer recording of the concert, together with a look at the preparations undertaken by the composer and his Japanese team. The documentary is in Japanese throughout, but I’ve had Tomita’s albums on continual play for the past couple of weeks so it was a welcome discovery. The Linz footage is bracketed by a short studio discussion of Tomita’s work and the concert itself with two of his assistants, Hideki Matsutake and Akira Senju. Matsutake is better known for his programming work with Yellow Magic Orchestra, and his own albums under the name Logic System, but he began working with synthesizers as Tomita’s studio assistant in the 1970s; Senju is a composer of anime soundtracks. The documentary includes some all-too-brief film footage of Tomita’s studio in 1974, and a sequence (with Tomita-san on a motorbike!) concerning the Dawn Chorus (1984) album which incorporated recordings of the electromagnetic “Dawn Chorus” phenomenon.

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Part of Tomita’s Moog system, the backbone of his early electronic recordings.

Mind Of The Universe (or Tomita’s Universum as it was advertised to the citizens of Linz) comprised a nocturnal performance spanning the River Danube, with Tomita combining some of his earlier recordings with new pieces created for the event, including an extract from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This was conducted by the maestro and assistants from within a transparent pyramid suspended by crane on the river bank. Speakers were positioned on both banks of the river, and there was a lavish lightshow with fireworks and lasers, all of which was somehow meant to depict the entire history of the Universe, from Big Bang to the present moment.

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Discussing Dawn Chorus, and a visit to a radio telescope.

If this wasn’t ambitious enough, Tomita had musicians and a choir floating on boats and platforms in the river: Goro Yamaguchi played a traditional Japanese piece on shakuhachi while seated in a perilously small craft being towed behind a larger vessel; the bigger boat provided a stage for violinist Mariko Senju whose excellent performance of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending is the musical highlight of the concert. This was followed by a violin rendition of the five-note motif from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a nod to Tomita’s UFO-themed Bermuda Triangle album, which introduced one of the less successful aspects of the event in the noisy arrival of a helicopter bearing a platform laden with lights and speakers. The helicopter provided the booming response of the Close Encounters mothership although this isn’t obvious on the live album where all you have is the music and the noise of the rotors. Tomita’s concept of “pyramid sound” is more evident in the TV documentary than on record.

Continue reading “Tomita’s Mind of the Universe”

Weekend links 413

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Cover art and design by David Pelham, 1974. The author’s name is set in Marvin (see below).

• Revelation of the week is a lengthy, career-spanning interview with Igor Wakhévitch, the French composer whose extraordinary run of albums from the 1970s are cult items in these parts. (Previously) Wakhévitch isn’t exactly reclusive but he lives in India, and hasn’t recorded anything since the 1980s, so in recent years he wasn’t visible or even known much at all outside France. The release in 1998 of a CD collection, Donc…, and a handful of vinyl reissues, brought him out of obscurity, although all the reissues to date have been in limited quantities. Work of this quality really warrants a wider release.

The Sky Torn Apart is a new album by Paul Schütze, his first for several years. Very good it is too, 56 minutes of growling and glittering atmospherics that could equally suit the enervating heights of summer (as in Wendy Carlos’s drone piece from Sonic Seasonings) as the depths of winter, the inspiration being the apocalyptic cycles of Norse mythology.

• At Lambda Literary: Cathy Camper talks to cartoonist Justin Hall about his planned film, No Straight Lines, about the history of queer comics. There’s a Kickstarter for the project, and more background detail at QueerClick (NSFW).

• Introducing Marvin Visions, a digital revival of Marvin, a photoset typeface first launched in 1969, and very popular during the 1970s on science-fiction cover designs. Marvin Visions is free for personal use.

• The second number of the relaunched Wyrd Daze—”The multimedia zine of speculative fiction + extra-ordinary music, art & writing”—has arrived.

• At New Noise: Dylan Carlson (again) talking about the influences on his solo album, Conquistador.

• Video Drone: Russell Cuzner talks to Rose Kallal about her audio-visual concerts.

• Mix of the week: a Dark Souls-inspired drone mix from Justin C. Meyers.

• RIP Glenn Branca

The Ascension (1981) by Glenn Branca | Ascension (1992) by O Yuki Conjugate | Ascension (2014) by The Bug

Tomita album covers

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Snowflakes Are Dancing (1974); art direction; Joseph J. Stelmach; artwork: David B. Hecht.

The Japanese composer Isao Tomita died last week so I’ve been listening to some of his early recordings, and thinking—as usual—about their cover designs. Tomita was by far the best of the many electronic musicians in the 1970s who took advantage of the huge success of Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach (1968) to create their own versions of classical music with Moog and other synthesisers. If this makes Tomita sound like an opportunist (and his 1972 collection of electronic pop covers was titled Switched On Hit & Rock), he quickly developed his own approach to electronic composition which ranged from quirky humour to his own brand of cosmic pictorialism. The latter was very different from the equally cosmic meanderings of Tangerine Dream which seldom strayed too far from the rock world. Tomita had a genius for taking very familiar pieces of classical music which he fashioned into synthesizer soundtracks for imaginary science-fiction films. (He also produced actual scores for a number of Japanese films but few, if any, of these were released outside Japan.) This approach is shown to great effect on The Bermuda Triangle (1979), an album that in the UK was subtitled “A Musical Fantasy Of Science Fiction”, and which filters Prokofiev and Sibelius through a library of paranormal paperbacks, with references to UFOs, undersea pyramids, Agharta, the Hollow Earth and the Tunguska Event.

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Pictures At An Exhibition (1975); artwork: bas-relief by Gene Szafran. The first appearance of the logo that became a fixture of Tomita’s albums. No designer is credited but I’d guess it was the work of Joseph J. Stelmach. The logo typeface is Sinaloa.

As for the covers, Tomita’s recordings may have been classical music but RCA targeted the albums at a rock audience so there’s no sign of the venerable composers heads that appear continually on the sleeves of orchestral recordings. The examples here are almost all the Western releases which—surprisingly—tended to have better covers than the Japanese originals. This is also a partial selection, favouring Tomita’s own releases (no soundtracks), and mostly the early albums. The later albums aren’t as impressive, and many of them were only released in Japan.

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Firebird (1975). No design or art credit. I’d not noticed before that the logo evolves by degrees, here gaining some extensions.

Lastly, I’ll dedicate this post to my old friend Nik Green who died in March. Nik was a session musician of some note, and the first person I knew who owned a synthesizer (an ARP Odyssey); he was also a great Tomita enthusiast who shared Tomita’s sense of humour, and relished the quirkier moments on many of these albums. I can’t listen to the opening of the Mars section of Tomita’s The Planets without remembering Nik shouting “Moog horns!” when a synthetic fanfare interrupts the sounds of a spacecraft lift-off.

Continue reading “Tomita album covers”