gysin copy

Nothing is True Everything is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin
John Geiger
Disinformation HBK, $27.95

Marcus Boon

In recent years, Brion Gysin, best known as the inventor of the cut up, has begun to step out from the shadows of his co-conspirator William S. Burroughs. While Gysin’s ideas, originally conceived as Moroccan magical techniques applied to post World War II art, literature and music, can be recognized just about everywhere in contemporary culture, as the act of cutting, pasting and reconfiguring found materials becomes an almost universal gesture in all media, Gysin’s own work is being excavated and resurrected, in a retrospective show of his visual art projects mounted by the Edmonton Art Gallery, along with an accompanying book, Brion Gysin: Tuning In To the Multimedia Age, CDs of his sounds works on Sub Rosa and other labels, Back In No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader, edited by Jason Weiss, which gives a solid overview of Gysin’s writings, and now, finally, the impeccably researched, astute biography that Gysin’s life and work has long demanded, by John Geiger.

The book tracks Gysin’s line of flight from Edmonton, Alberta, to London, to New York, Paris and Morocco, where Gysin encountered the Master Musicians of Jajouka and started up a nightclub in Tangiers where they performed nightly. He was always on the make, but never quite making it, his list of friends and associates a who’s who of the post World War II international art scene — writing novels, producing sound poetry, an aborted film script for Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, paintings, performances, yet rarely receiving any real recognition for his work, aside from Burroughs’ enduring support. Although the cut up, which was popularized by Burroughs in books like Nova Express, was originally conceived as applying a montage technique from the visual arts to the written word, it became most influential in rock music, and it was finally in the rock world that Gysin got some recognition, as generations of rockers, from the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the 1960s, to Iggy Pop and Bowie in the 1970s, to the industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, applied the cut up to song lyrics, and to looped recordings of voices, breaking apart received meanings in phrases in an attempt to “rub out the word”.

Geiger’s last book, Chapel of Extreme Experience, was a fascinating look at scientific and artistic experimentation with flicker and strobe effects in the 1950s and 60s, including Gysin’s dream machine, a revolving, trance inducing stroboscopic sculpture. Geiger’s other trade is writing biographies of explorers – and in a sense, this book continues that work, describing the life of one of the pioneers of the exploration of inner space, an explorer who, at the moment where the planet itself appeared to hold no more outer frontiers (think H Bomb experiments in the Pacific in the 1950s, or the Space Program), turned inwards. Drugs, trance inducing machines, games of chance, Islamic mysticism, sound as a universal principle: Gysin played with, and in some cases invented, the whole deck of cards of the post war avant garde. An untimely presence in his lifetime, perhaps we can finally hear and see his full stature today.

Originally published in The Wire, 2005.

Georges Gurdjieff – Harmonic Development: The Complete Harmonium Recordings 1948-1949: A Review

Georges Gurdjieff – Harmonic Development: The Complete Harmonium Recordings 1948-1949
Basta DVD with mp3s plus 2 CDs.

Armenian mystic Georges Gurdjieff (1866-1949) placed considerable emphasis on music as a spiritual tool, a manifestation of his ideas regarding cosmic law, and an accompaniment to the various dance/movement exercises that he encouraged his disciples in Europe and America to practice. Gurdjieff was best known for his piano music, scored and arranged by his Russian disciple Thomas de Hartmann. Although Gurdjieff was not himself a professional musician, he also improvised and composed on the harmonium after his famous, well attended talks. In the last two years of his life, his disciples recorded a number of these improvisations, many of which receive their first public hearing on these disks.

Harmonic Development is an exemplary archival production, executed by Dutch musician and producer Gert-Jan Blom. The centerpiece is a DVD with 20 hours of mp3s, containing intelligently restored copies of all of Gurdjieff’s harmonium recordings. An attached 2 CD set includes selected highlights from the recordings. The whole thing is encased in a 140 page book with photos and numerous reminiscences of the circumstances under which Gurdjieff played – in particular at the Hotel Wellington in New York where Gurdjieff took over a suite and made dinners for 50 to 150 people, copiously watered with top-notch armagnac, conducting numerous toasts to all the types of “idiots”, as he liked to call them, in the room, before retiring to the salon to play the harmonium.

The testimonials to the effects of this music on his disciples range from ecstatic to indifferent, though it’s notable that there are few attempts in the documentation to solidly link the “noo moosics” heard to Gurdjieff’s philosophy. While devotees will be moved by these material traces rescued from sonic oblivion on paper tapes stored in a small shed by a pool in a villa in Southern Spain (amongst other places), to the non-devotee the recordings sound like sad Caucasian folk music, improvised around slowly building, simple forms. Or La Dolce Vita-style film music. Or, as a friend said to me, “some dude playing an accordion in a bar”. But there’s something going on that makes you linger with these sounds – contemplative, emotionally rousing, lacking in gimmicks or distractions – music perhaps for concluding something: a dinner, an investigation, a life.

Originally published in The Wire, 2005.

Group Inerane – Guitars From Agadez: A Review

Group Inerane – Guitars From Agadez
Sublime Frequencies LP
Guitars from Agadez is the second of two recordings of extraordinary electrified guitar music from various parts of the Saharan diaspora issued by Sublime Frequencies this year. Like Group Doueh’s startling Western Saharan fusions of Hendrix and Sahrawi music, Group Inerane will be filed under “ethnic” music, and indeed they are strongly related to traditional musics, in this case Touareg music from Agadez in northern Niger. But setting aside the trademark feminine north African ullulations which explode whenever things really get going, these disks sound not unlike vintage Sun City Girls — amplified, turbulent, complex, abstract while at the same time, hard and funky. In other words, as “modern” as anything made in Europe or America today.
Touareg guitar music was born when these nomads of the Sahara inhabiting a vast desert area spanning parts of Mali, Niger and Algeria were exiled to refugee camps in Libya during political unrest in the early 1980s. Amplified guitars, songs containing otherwise banned political commentary and bootleg cassette tapes became a cultural/political rallying point for performers such as Abdallah Oumbadougou, who also hails from Niger, and the better known Tinariwen, from north east Mali.
Those familiar with Tinariwen will recognise the sound here, but Hisham Mayet, who also made the terrific DVD of music from Niger released by Sublime Frequencies (which also features a performance by Group Inerane), gives a rougher, more lo-fi sound to the group, which threatens to distort and at times disappear entirely in ways that are refreshing after the slickness that still dominates “world music” recording.

Originally published in The Wire, 2007.

Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted – Baghdad, 1925-9: A Review

Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted – Baghdad, 1925-9
(Honest Jon’s CD)

We are living in a golden age of archivists and curators, from which are coming music that eclipses in interest most of what individual musicians and artists working today are producing. While recent CDs such as Dust to Digital’s Black Mirror and Victrola Favorites are built around the eclectic tastes of particular collectors of 78s, Honest Jon’s is issuing a series of disks drawn from The EMI archive in Hayes the second of which, Give Me Love is drawn from recordings made by the company (then known as The Gramophone Company) in Baghdad between 1925-9. These disks offer a fascinatingly specific look into the history of the recording of the musics of the world: the sound quality is excellent and there is the promise of much more to come.
Iraq in the 1920s was under British control and recording engineers traveled several times through Baghdad, making over a thousand recordings which were issued in Iraq on the Company subsidiary His Master’s Voice, where they were eagerly bought up by coffee house owners who played records for customers until the advent of radio in Iraq in 1936. The city itself was a complex, cosmopolitan place where many histories and cultures intersected caught in the enormous rupture created by European colonialism. Indian movies, Egyptian music, British marching bands all fed into complex network of Kurdish, Shiite, Jewish folk musics which were eagerly consumed even in places like the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, where public sale of such recordings was virtually impossible.
The history of this archive and the process by which these recordings were made, issued and consumed is so complex and fascinating that it almost overshadows the actual music which, despite its topnotch quality, and intelligent documentation via copious sleevenotes, translations and reminiscences might sadly remain opaque to listeners unfamiliar with the many styles of music collected here. There is music from Bahrain and Kuwait, Hebrew hymns of praise featuring hearty cries of “Allah!” courtesy of local Jewish musicians, terrific Kurdish fiddle improvisations, gorgeous laments by Baghdadi chanteuses some, we are told fulfilling dual roles in nightclubs as courtesans, while others sang a religious repertoire for women-only gatherings. Still, lyrics like the following from Mulla Abdussaheb’s “Ya Yumma Weya Baba” – “Ooh, just look at her black headband, so ‘a la mode’ …/You’re trouble — I have abandoned my family for your sake/ The tribulations of your love have turned my black hair into grey/ My family and tribe persecute me because of you” also go to show that some things never change.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.

FM3 + Dou Wei, Hou Guan Yin: A Review

FM3 + Dou Wei — Hou Guan Yin
Lona CD

The Beijing based duo FM3’s popular Buddha Machine distilled improvisations and sounds shaped in the course of several years of live explorations down to a series of thirty second loops, set to infinitely repeat. As disks like Staalplaat’s Mort aux Vaches testify, American born Christiaan Virant and Szechuan native Zhang Jian’s live improvisations have a real strength to them, that goes beyond concept and packaging. Zhang Jian began his career as a live musician, playing keyboards in various Beijing based rock ensembles in the mid 1990s. Dou Wei, who plays drums on Hou Guan Yin, is a key figure in the Beijing rock scene, dating back to the early 1990s when he had a goth band called The Dreaming. He’s collaborated with Zhang before in the Bu Yi Ding (“Not Sure Yet”) Band, and with FM3 on 2004’s Story of Flowers in Mirror.

Recorded live in Beijing in 2004, the sound on Hou Guan Yin (Guan Yin being the female Buddha of compassion in China), is firmly ambient, slow repeating loops, with a film soundtrack feel to them that connects with Zhang’s other musical career as a composer for Chinese film and television. Virant contributes some moody guitar lines, while an array of samples from all over the map chatter in the background. The drums are sparse, atmospheric, minimal, often playing an ornamental or improvisatory role while the loops keep up a throbbing rhythm. On other tracks, the extensive use of dub effects starts to sound like Vladislav Delay or vintage Chain Reaction. The whole has a strangely gothic atmosphere, like music for a particularly dark and forlon sequel to celebrated Hong Kong mystery films like A Chinese Ghost Story.

Originally published in Signal to Noise, 2006.

Henry Flynt, Purified by the Fire: A Review

Henry Flynt — Purified By The Fire
Locust CD

Purified By The Fire is the latest installment of Locust Records program of previously unissued recordings by philosopher and fiddler Henry Flynt. A colleague of La Monte Young and Tony Conrad, who revolted against modern classical music, developing his own avant garde hillbilly sound, Flynt made a remarkable series of recordings from the 1960s to the 1980s when he abandoned music for lack of any audience. In the 1970s, Flynt studied with Hindustani classical vocal master Pandit Pran Nath, and in 1980-1 made a series of recordings with fellow Pran Nath student Catherine Christer Hennix supplying tambura drone tapes. These are gorgeous sprawling pieces that, aside from their debt to Pran Nath, fuse sarangi master Ram Narayan’s elegance, with classic hillbilly riffing and the ecstatic quality of early 1960s John Coltrane. That of course is no small achievement. A single 41’ 41” track, Purified By The Fire, holds up well in comparison to the more trebley, tart C Tune and the explosively psychedelic You Are My Everlovin’. The sound is warmer, more meditative perhaps – and along with its siblings, it remains utterly remarkable, 23 years after it was recorded.

Originally published in Signal to Noise.

Éthiopiques, Volumes 22 & 23: A Review

Alèmayèhu Eshèté – Ethiopiques 22: More Vintage!
Orchestra Ethiopia – Ethiopiques 23: Orchestra Ethiopia
(BudaMusique CDs)

Alèmayèhu Eshèté will already be a familiar name to followers of Francis Falceto’s Ethiopiques series – a major star of the thriving Ethiopian pop scene of the 1960s and 1970s, up there with the more driving rock sounds of Mahmound Ahmed or the soulful vocals of Tlahoun Gèssèssè. More Vintage! makes available all the Ethiopian disk recordings Eshèté made that were not issued on Ethiopiques 9, which was also devoted to his work. Eshèté was strongly influenced by American R and B, both in terms of his James Brown style haircut and Mr. Please Please Please moves, and his sound which fused cutting funk-style guitar with pentatonic scale horn riffs, psychedelic keyboards and arrangements by the great Girma Beyene. The tracks on offer here, which date from the 1972-4 period, don’t offer any particular new news concerning this period of Ethiopian music – if anything , the grooves are less frenzied than on Ethiopiques 9, and a swinging sixties R and B Little Willie John style vibe is more prevalent – but almost everything here is exquisitely nuanced pop music, drenched in a nostalgia all the more powerful because of the brutal years of dictatorship that silenced the music.

Orchestra Ethiopia was an ensemble that existed from 1963 during the period of Haile Selassie’s reign in Ethiopia, to preserve and develop Ethiopian traditional music. Originally borne in the Haile Sellasse University in Addis, the Orchestra was the love-child of an Egyptian composer Halim el-Dab who, funded by a Rockefeller Foundation ethnomusicology grant, wished to bring together many different Ethiopian folk forms and musicians. Later the ensemble was run by American Peace Corps worker Charles Sutton and others, who all contributed their own compositions, so the Orchestra itself could hardly be called an embodiment of pure folk form. The CD’s accompanying booklet describes the fascinating complexities of a group trying to represent and fuse diverse “Ethiopian” traditions at a moment where modern westernized sounds of the kind so well documented by the Ethiopiques series were in the ascendant. Predictably, it was a successful tour of the US in 1969 that finally got the Orchestra real respect back home. The sound on these previously unissued recordings is terrific and the performances, combining vocals, with traditional woodwinds, strings and drums are vibrant, although they could also be described as generically ethnic, at least to someone not familiar with the forms being mixed and matched. Ironically, the Azmari minstrels who formed part of the backbone of the Orchestra, are still alive and strong in Addis Ababa today, a timely reminder that living folk musics don’t require preservation. Nevertheless, the reconfigured traditions on display here certainly have their own unique charm.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.

Eric Chenaux – Dull Lights: A Review

Eric Chenaux – Dull Lights (Constellation)
Eric Chenaux is a key figure in Toronto’s improv and alternative music scenes, co-curating the excellent Rat-Drifting label, while playing in a variety of ensembles including The Reveries, Drum Heller and The Draperies. Although Chenaux’s guitar style is emphatically post-Derek Bailey he and fellow Rat Drifter Martin Arnold, who contributes banjo to this disk have long had a taste for British folk music, and traditional song structures. A number of songs on this disk, Chenaux’s first solo record, have already been interpreted by other Toronto folks, notably the wonderful Ryan Driver Quartet, who play the songs alongside “You Go To My Head” and others. Still, if this is British folk music, it is Dave Swarbrick and Martin Carthy on too many downers, drifting away from each other and back again in the night.
If this is folk music, it is truly some of the most washed-out, abstract folk music ever made, a tenth generation cassette copy of an old Topic recording, listened to outdoors on a windy day. These are indeed “dull lights”, barely visible to the naked eye – or audible to the casually listening ear. At first, it sounds about as catchy as a Francisco Lopez record, as sensual as a Robert Ryman painting. But as with the Reveries strange decision to physically gag themselves and obstruct their arm movements when they play jazz standards, the obstacles and austerity here serve to intensify the attempts to communicate something, and to allow an intense soulfulness to emerge in a most unlikely way. Difficulty in communicating, or aversion to it, might be a Canadian motif (think of the trauma victims of Atom Egoyan’s movies or David Cronenberg’s The Fly for that matter). Although Chenaux’s music has little to do with ideas of a national music, the pathos of these ghostly folk forms, transmitted with fierce sincerity through time and space, has considerable depth and honesty to it, and feels more real than the retro gestures and irony of many of the new folk folks. Abstract they may be, but flying low beneath the emotional radar, these songs can nevertheless break your heart.

Originally published in The Wire, 2006.

Eliane Radigue – Mila’s Journey Inspired by a Dream: A Review

Eliane Radigue – Mila’s Journey Inspired by a Dream (Lovely Music, 1987)

Milarepa was a legendary Tibetan saint who, after a youth spent in banditry and pillage, embraced Buddhism, achieved enlightenment and became a wandering ascetic Crazy Wisdom master. Milarepa taught villagers the dharma by singing spontaneously formed didactic songs known as dohas, and both these songs and the tradition of spontaneous song-teaching are alive today in the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. In 1987, Paris-based composer and Buddhist Eliane Radigue, known for her remarkable just intonation tuned synthesizer droneworks such as Adnos I-III, produced this remarkable recording, simultaneously an hour plus drone, an English language narrative retelling of part of Milarepa’s life story by Sonic Arts Union composer Robert Ashley, and a Tibetan language rendition of some of Milarepa’s songs of enlightenment. Much of the piece’s charm comes from Ashley’s sly storytelling style, which resituates Milarepa as a blissed out but crafty old timer in a Spaghetti western, or a signifyin’ Southern Brer Rabbit character. If Radigue’s exquisite drone represents the perpetual presence of the infinite and timeless, and the story, the manifestation of relative, impermanent names and historical events within that infinite flow, the songs of Milarepa affirm the possibility of the union of the absolute and the relative in sparks of gorgeous melodic and linguistic form. And this union, as song or otherwise, is in fact what Mahayana Buddhists call enlightenment.

Originally published in The Wire.

Eccentric Soul: Mighty Mike Lenaburg and Good God! A Gospel-Funk Hymnal: Review

Eccentric Soul: Might Mike Lenaburg and Good God! A Gospel-Funk Hymnal
(Numero Uno)

In 2006, after 25 years plus of rare funk and soul compilations, it’s a wonder that there are any crates anywhere in the world left that have not been thoroughly dug through. The most interesting diggers, compilers and DJs have developed increasingly baroque tastes and collections, focusing on highly local or obscure scenes. Numero Uno has put out disks of little known labels from Columbus, Chicago, Miami and Detroit in its Eccentric Soul series – and, as the title indicates, specializes in songs that barely fit in the genre of soul, whether through lyrical extravagance, bizarre genre hybridizations, or ruthlessly lofi production values that make the average Pebbles garage psych band sound like the Blue Oyster Cult. Mighty Mike Lenaburg concentrates on the soul and funk scene in the unlikely location of Phoenix, Arizona. Lenaburg, actually born in the UK in 1946, became a DJ in Phoenix in the early 1960s, and started putting out soul ‘45s later in the decade. While some tracks here are fairly straight ahead soul, others like Michael Liggins and the Super Souls’ “Loaded to the Gills” and We The People’s “Function Underground” match blasting horns with clip-cloppy latin percussion, flutes and rock guitar, creating an improbable but delightful Tejano-funk-psychedelia fusion, equal parts mariachi, JBs and Sir Douglas Quintet.
Good God! covers the gospel-funk scene of the 1970s whose best known exponents are probably the Mighty Clouds of Joy. The sound here is much rougher than the tracks found on Soul Jazz’s excellent Gospel Soul collections – this is definitely “funk” complete with chattering scratch guitars, breakbeats and ferocious call and response vocals that attempt to overpower their musical accompaniment through their zeal and devotion. John Fahey observed in his notes to Revenant’s pre-war gospel collections that beneath the heavenly harmonies and Christian words of African-American spiritual music lurks an unbowed pagan spirit. That goes doubly here for the James Brown screams and booty-bumping bass whose sensuous, electronically amplified bump is heading across town at high speed on the down-low, away from the church and back to the players’ lounge. The quality of the selections is terrific – from The Voices of Conquest’s 1968 choir meets breakbeat “O Yes My Lord” to simultaneously raw and overproduced rolling funk monsters like Cliff Gober’s “A Poor Wayfaring Stranger”. The disk ends on a particularly high note with the mind-boggling Hustler’s Convention meets Sunday sermon of LaVice and Company’s “Thoughs Were the Days” (sic), a nostalgic look at the joys of hell, taken from an unlikely church basement musical in Philadelphia called “Two Sisters from Bagdad” (sic).

Originally published in The Wire, 2007.