[18 July 2014]
Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music is Craig Leon’s reworking and re-recording of his two astonishing records, Nommos and Visiting. Nommos consists of instrumental pieces by Leon and Cassell Webb. These were created as a simplistic form of music based on ostinato (repetition) simple drum rhythms, and simple melodic systems as found in examples of the earliest known music on Earth. Leon linked this to a theoretical speculation of the kind of music might which may have been listened to by the Nommos, the legendary or mythical “aliens” on the long spaceflight to bring to the Dogon tribe, of Mali, hope for the future and explanation of the past. It is an absolute gem, a classic recording in a genre of one. Originally issued more than 30 years ago on John Fahey’s Takoma label, it more or less immediately disappeared as if lovingly consigned to a tomb constructed to house only itself, before it was joined by the equally superb “Visiting”.
Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1 is not a simple reissue. The Nommos master tapes were lost and Leon has re-recorded the album, guided by precise audio signals mapped out in the original studio notes. Visiting has been remastered and both albums have been subject to “subtle edits and compositional additions”. The result is equivalent to unearthing a splendid jewel from beneath the monotonous morass of sonically compressed and conceptually derivative modern culture: something new and marvelous under the sun.
Craig Leon worked as an A&R/staff producer for Sire Records in the 1970s. He brought Talking Heads to the attention of the label and helped with their earliest demo recordings. His involvement with the development of the Ramones, Suicide and Blondie, was much more hands on, helping these groups produce the distinctive initial sound they wanted. In the ensuing decades Leon has continued to add to an impressive list of production credits. He was, though, trained in classical music and wrote music at a very young age, and was always doing his own music throughout his pop production career, even if he didn’t necessarily release it.
Anthology has sombre, stately, even mystical aspects which reflect Leon’s classical music training but also playful and fleetfooted rhythms which almost predict the electro and house music genres. It is beautifully understated yet bracing music, with an urgent compositional prowess trumping any trace of dreaminess or sentimentalism and a series of individual pieces which are all striking and memorable. All of which befits the theme of a strange and inspiring encounter with a higher power. The concept underpinning this work is not academic, ethno-forgery, cultural borrowing, ethnic or “world” music but a singular theoretical vision that I suspect will only become more intriguing with the passage of time.
Each track on this collection is striking and memorable. The ones I mention here are not necessarily my favorites. “Donkeys Under Cups”sounds like a raw tribal siren, with simmering wobby undertones suggestive of hedonistic bliss. As it seem to be ending it evolves suddenly into a splendid morass of discernable loops and spasms and then fades into the sombre start of title piece “Nommo” as smoothly as a champion 100 meter relay runner, gliding above a surface beneath which bubbles the rhythmic square root of The Human League’s “Being Boiled.”
“Four Eyes to See the Afterlife” is of a more epic processional length and otherworldly vibrating beat with a section sounding much like an ethereal female serenading a small creature which is playing in a tumble-drier while encased in a Slinky. “One Hundred Steps” begins as a lush piece of layered synth waves, quickly gaining adroit percussive elements, hastening the sublime flow, before the piece snaps into “Region of Fleeing Civilians”, a fantastic, fresh, blipping, snipping, track better than anything which could have resulted if someone had put Neu and funky-era New Order in the studio together.
“Three Small Coins” is like a failing robot jukebox being submerged beneath a tide of radio waves and “Visiting” has a slow, mesmerizing beats and glorious guitar-like chimes which merge the hypnotic with the ecstatic—at which point I fear we may have reached the foggy cul de sac just south of the crossroads of Subjective and Descriptive.
The music on Nommos reflects the fact that the Nommos themselves were able to live underwater, whereas Visiting sounds more terrestrial. Leon’s approach, inspired by his viewing of an exhibition of Dogon sculpture, is appropriately sincere—given that astronomers have since discovered the ancient Dogon calculations to be accurate in locating the presence of stars which until recently were invisible to the naked eye—without being in the slightest bit dull.
Craig Leon has long lived in England. His earlier pop productions were far better received in Europe, he found more work there as a producer, and his “classical” and modern music also got more of a response in Europe than the U.S. He was kind enough to also relate to me an old music business tale: In the 1950s, there was a label called Roulette Records that was run by dubious character named Morris Levy. The label had many early rock ‘n’ roll and 1960s pop hits. The legend goes that one day Mr. Levy was approached by one of his artists who had just had a big hit on the label. The artist was trying to find out when he’d get his royalties from the sales of the hit. Levy replied ” Kid, you want royalties, move to England.” A lesser quality version of Nommos was issued a while back, by a well-meaning website, but without Craig Leon’s permission. Leon has stated that he always intended to update the work and, with this timely release, he has reclaimed his creation. Comparisons are odious, but this exquisite release belongs in the same exalted realm as Laurie Spiegel’s The Expanding Universe.
Leon and Webb used Roland JP-4 polyphonic/compuphonic, Oberheim OB-X analog polyphonic, and Arp 2600 semi-modular monophonic synthesizers, and a raw LM-1 prototype drum machine. I believe we also hear Webb’s voice on one piece.
Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1 is a 2xLP package, complete with detailed artwork and two essays from Leon: one on the complete history of the Dogon stargazers and another on the whole evolution of this fantastic musical milestone.