Art Zoyd: 1976 to 1987
An 11-Year Storm
Photos of "Musiques De Mars" from Art Zoyd site
Left to right: Stevie Wishart, Serge Bertocchi, Carol Robinson, Laurent Dailleau
A semi-coherent aesthetic rant
in the paranoid-critical manner
by Mark S. Tucker
"And nothing to look backward to with pride,
And nothing to look forward to with hope."
Nowhere is art better served than by zealotry. The creator wholly consumed by a self-contained vision weaves the new realities, the next set of perceptions we all get to peer through. Via pan-centric viewpoints, fabrics within the neural-perceptic sieve are widened, refined, twisted. No matter the mode, the outcome's irrevocably stamped with the imprint and aura of maniacal insight. Looking at it with a musician's eyes, coming from the realm of chops, phrasing, and whole-cloth composition, this represents a form of gestaltian riffery, which, in turn, becomes the hook others are hypnotized by, soon aping.
Furthered by the expression of consequentializing an incalculably older (indeed genetically based) social centrifuge, the sense of impetus implicit in an art form becomes unbearably forceful, shedding contemplative serenity for urgent emotions. Music is the mode best suited for exposition on that level, most strongly fusing kinesthetics to pensivity. Time becomes frozen, committed to milieu and means, ironically more dynamic than any graphic or literary sister fields are capable of. Visual futurists and surrealists may be able to convey more arresting events and inferences than were previously possible but are still comparatively mild when held up to the sonorous arts. A Pollock canvas might well be eternally busy, but, compared to a Sun Ra opus ("The Magic City," "Pathways to the Unknown," etc.), it's tame. Every medium is, of course, captive to its limitations.
Dimension is just as important, though equally constrained. Dali's "Hallucinogenic Toreador," especially when the original canvas can be viewed, opens itself to the spectator's limbic system, seeping into depths not normally accessible, but listen, for instance, to Robert Fripp's chilling cross-dimensional solo at the end of "Groon" or his eye-of-the-storm tour de force all through "Lizard," and experience a warping of reality structures so profound that subconscious recognitions and reactions burrow straight down to the corpuscles. Such cartography rings with landscapes never seen but intuitively desired and environs well outside the pale of ordinary life. No graphic presentation could hope to embody the full range. Art Zoyd treads the same planes, mixing the phantasmagoric with the terrene, punching new holes in the matrix, setting frames around windows of possibility. Via a confederation of serial and neo-chamber avant-gardisms, they brew psych-theater blending Bartok with Roualt, Weill with Lovecraft, Glass with Ernst.
What spawned this neo-realist Gothic temperament, besides a group-common literate mind? What prompted this explosion of statement-making so intimately tied in with projected leviathan growth and change? A maturation of vision that was lacking in academic galvanics, for one, and, given the futuristic bent of the ensemble's compositions, a brio stemming from extrapolating the inevitability of myriad griefs portended by objectionable social trends more subtly apprehended. Revolution is almost, in its threshold spontaneity, beyond the control of its actors - almost but not quite, and this is the juncture separating the reactionary from the disciplinarian, containing dual compulsions to simultaneously go berserk and concurrently be calculating just to the point of flood gates, long held against innumerable perversions of group and individual nature, bursting.
The natural tendency is to strike out at unconfrontable controlling forces, which is precisely what a reactionary will do, but the probing mind knows to temper justifiable rage with intentionality and strategy. If the environment is indeed fraught with survival-inimical presences, there will be no room for mistakes. That's the chiefest of the revolutionary's concerns. In the heart of this dilemma is where Art Zoyd placed itself, acknowledging impulse while steadfastly opting for the longer more difficult path, the one best positioned to yield intended results.
Into the picture now ambles paradox, a key player. In relentlessly stalking the aggressor, the rebel must recognize that he and his compeers have been lax too long. They've let the monstrosity enjoy a society-spanning leash. But the conundrum goes beyond that. As an act, revolution, or for that matter: reaction, goes so far as to be the last push of the suppressed to force change upon external environments, rather than internal. Had the proper degree of mass self-integrity been previously practiced, there would most likely have been no need for backlash; no self-inspecting culture is likely to allow inharmonic rulers and interlopers when following the truism that it's never what's done to one that matters so much as what one allows to be done. The mien of the aggressor is the reflection of the invigilant, the slothful subjected, whose lack of discipline and inability to present a warning aspect inevitably groom aggression. The masses are their own worst enemy, the true problem is shared.
Intelligent solipsists know this and it becomes a prime threat to success in any urge towards change. An incursion upon status quo involves even those who only seem opposed to it, who never bothered to educate themselves to what they, too, may have to relinquish in order to gain proper ends. That is to say, many of the disenfranchised unconsciously uphold much of the oppressor's tenets. Though they bray for change, the roots of the historied acceptances of their oppression are disturbingly personal, almost completely inaccessible, unquestioned as 'givens', those elements which constitute inalterable existence. In challenging the elite, the rebel strikes at the obvious facile target but knows, deep inside, that the final obstacle is actually the class and company he's ineluctably born into: his caste, that segment of society closest to him, those with whom he rubs elbows daily... which is not the upper crust, else he'd never budge a micron. One's fellows are the ambient status quo, like it or not. Against the unconscious will of The Great Mass, no utopia is possible and revolutions will gain but little.
How, then, to bring about transubstantiation within a sea autonomically opposed to it? Education and incitation. The slumbering sea of zombies must be educated to realities beneath the unquestioned perquisites it cherishes, inculcated to self-motivation and revolt. It's the socio-politically motivated artist's fate that this is so.
What now becomes interesting is how creatives express themselves, how they get the education across, the modes and styles used. With Art Zoyd, we might attempt the obligatory stab at classifying their style as neoclassical, thinking of Berlioz, Penderecki, Bartok, perhaps Mahler and Xenakis. There's much to support this line of reasoning, a plenitude abounding in graphic similarities: insistent anxieties, semi-coherent multitudes bulking against backdrops of emotionally electrified deteriorating cityscapes, darkly brooding clouds gathering ominously, incessant threnody, insectal and bestial presences, the supernatural, etc..
As near-constants in AZ's early work, voices chant in animalistic choruses, ambivalently painting shadowy figures simultaneously of Cro-Magnons and regressed bureaucrats. Brass constantly shouts and recesses, grating on shred nerves, promoting further worrisome obsession against the anticipation of an undeserved ceaseless barrage. Strings thrum like mindless hornets, keeping a metronomically taut ambiance, buzzing as though swarms frantically tending an uncontrollably mutating nest. A clarion call rings out, but it's just the trumpeting of defiance and false hope. Blood pounds, eyes dart, hands clutch, reek and decay penetrate everything, collapsed buildings fester with Roualtian-hued lichen slathered indiscriminately on bleak walls and shattered cement hulks. Nightmare visions from a Ballardian paranoiascape emerge and ghost themselves, a drear sheen slicking every available surface... then surcease... but it's just a breath being drawn and no sooner are the lungs full than the lunacy recommences.
Interminably episodic, elegantly described, the vistas bubble up and shift cinematically. Each frame, every blink of the eye, each sound increment presents a new spectacle or a phased view of a previous one as a resonant thrilling of the central theme intrudes tidally. Some hapless victims are more insane than their fellows, others grotesquely too pathetic for the hopeless task, desperately attempting to construct a wafer-thin normalcy. All is drear and soul-less.
No matter how sophisticated the telling, Art Zoyd's early instrumentation weaves a story inevitably of primal fears and apocalypse. We're not facing the twilight of the gods so ceremoniously described in literature but, in its place, the self-destruction of mankind. This isn't a phantasmagoria of evil assailing a splinter of the Carlylian ethos, or of historied marvels, it's the grinding descent to extinction. The outside world is long dead, murdered through greed and folly, poisoning itself, scowling and unsympathetic, daunting in the funereal lack of motion. Everything's made of stone and ashes. The real drama occurs cybernetically, in the shared narrative of mood and emotion nakedly roaming more dimensions than the participants can comprehend. A continuing fall into the storm is unstoppable as any will to survive becomes a curse.
"We work in the dark,
we do what we can,
we give what we have.
Our doubt is our passion
and our passion is our task.
The rest is the madness of art."
This is all established in their first release, Symphonie Pour le Jour ou Bruleront les Cites (1976), a bleak panorama of relentless dementia. The later releases bear it out in one form or another, elaborating more refinedly on certain manias, exploring side passages, fabricating thematic bones from dark thready ruminations, but forever returning to an obsessive centrality. This is not revolution; rather, it is what causes it: the unshakable apprehension of a future forged as the unquenchable consequence of avarice and solipsistic blindness.
The second LP, Musique Pour L'Odyssée (1979), took three years to manifest but commenced straight from the fin de siecle decadences of Brouleront. Repeating motifs establish nervous intimations of lumbering invisibilities while leviathan attempts to hammer down the curling corners of reality are hastily erected at the bidding of a diseased faction. Everything bleakly lends a dismally tattered and alarmingly short hope that all might not be lost. Then a perceptual rift arises, holes puncture in, and an impatiently raging tempest begins to pour through. The former task of heartsick aspiration becomes a grim chore of suppressing the unkillable. Humanoids inhabiting the center of the theme begin to fear for their non-existent souls, not through a glimpse into the incipiently devouring weltenschaung, nor the more mundane aspects of exhausted and hallucinating fancy, but of a hideously omnipresent force larger than anticipation and more alien than the most leprous nightmare.
Nonetheless, oases of calm appear and the frantic cadre, curiously portrayed as more a splinter of the elite than the proletariat (perhaps mirroring the expressed desire to visit the creation upon its creators), rushes to them. As might be expected, the duration of each tiny pool of contrived normalcy is pitifully brief, giving the howling external force time to exponentialize. The rat-race is warping. For a time, all escape into various somnambulistic madnesses punctuated by extraterrestrial voices wafting down through storm clouds, but a signature beacon-trumpet blares lazily above the whole illusion, dragging everything and everyone back into the horror. Despite the strings' Herculean effort to recompose the crumbling dream, a re-awakening evolves, reality washes back in, and the small entourage discovers that the cataclysm has continued unabated in its absence.
This musical activity so closely parallels the ebb, flow, and chaoticisms of violent upsurge that it can be a trifle depressing to contemplate the matter. Such passages laminate reality with the patina of shuddersome insanities, the pathologies inherent in these situations. From there, it leaps into the collective unconscious, wallowing in tremendously amplified racial memories and hormono-cerebrally enhanced imagery, wedding creativity to the immediacy of experience, yielding a grimly memorable attenuation of linear logic characteristic of mass trauma.
If Philip Glass and the neoclassicists invade this work, then so do Christian Vander, Frank Zappa, and many other progressives, right down to invented language, shattered musical conventions, and a proto-Franco slant on one of several prog-serial sub-sub-sub-genres. One also retrieves shards of Van der Graaf Generator, King Crimson, the wilder jazz fusioneers (Miles, McLaughlin, etc.), and incidental strains of the near-entire, oft-hidden, intellectual face of standard rock music. Almost unnoticeable, lurking in Musique, these sympathies become hideously obvious in Symphonie due to the emergence of the guitar, rock's prime voice, transforming the imminent doom of side one into a relief of inventive musicianship well away from the consumptive neurosis...if only for a brief period of time. At the close of the release's last cut, "Scenes da Carnaval," the listener receives the figurative premonition that his quiet return to business-as-usual is false. As we come to see in Musique, that premonition is correct.
The band wrestles with a rise-and-fall cycle of exposition while contemplating more deeply upon what they really wish to say, refining techniques. By the release of Les Espaces Inquiets (1983), the effect is glaringly noticeable. The LP launches with a burbling squibbly sussurance but also signals less assaultive approaches. Revolutionary fires have dimmed, though the group's descriptive powers haven't. What is transcribed, however, is more a social anthropologist's detached view than the previous feeling of being existentially involved as a luckless cog in the wheels of disaster. This latter view, an inescapable enmeshment with the perceived outcome of current events, is the heartbeat of the desperate, a soul-shred encompassing the worst fears imaginable, defining what must be attacked.
It's common also to the reactionary modus, becoming the lynch-pin upon which moments are chosen. By this time, though, the Art Zoyd chaoticians have deliquesced into a state more involuntarily absorbed, reflective, refined, their musical characters less prone to flight and more taken with social metaphysics. Multiply, we're seeing the the deeper probings of an already radical turn of mind, and, wonder of wonders, there's even an acoustic piano interlude, very briefly, which expands in the accompaniment of a brilliant muted trumpet blowing lines worthy of Miles' inner city lamentations. Both slowly build in mournful tones. If this is revolution, it's leavened by those who have made their peace with the inevitable and turned to a closer examination of myriad deeper issues generating the abrasive environment, simultaneously not untinged with a modicum of guilty introspection augmented by concerned far-reaching insights.
The horns wax up rapidly into tremendous sentience, sometimes voiced in Braxton-speak, other times sketching out Zoyd-peculiar intonations, but many degrees removed from former architectures. They feel less restrained by homogenous exposition, freer to compose within unique roles. The result is maturer, less preachy; attention to detail has replaced outsized doom-mongering and chaos-proselytization. Introducing a relative quietude proves profound, as traditional beauty locates ingress and residence, albeit an uneasy lessorship not unmarred by the ghost of the beast, which rears its dissonant head toward the close of "Migrations," harking back to the the first two LP's.
If Espaces started on an odd note, Le Marriage du Ciel et de L'Enfer (1984) is odder still, with what seems to be seals barking amidst children's laughter, the latter recurring thematically. Marriage quickly reveals itself as the quintessentially ripened metamorphosis so broadly begun in Espaces, a complicated tapestry worthy of Boucher but also a Rivera mural, a panorama no longer reliant upon adrenalinic passion for singularized statements nor confined ranges of mood. Each turn of events loads into a paradigm schizophrenically terrene and unearthly, an ultramundane dimension not imparted by the transformative powers of the synthesizer but imbued with several penetrative aspects compositionally arcane. Like Eno's "Discreet Music," where a profoundly despairing sense of yearning is painted, Art Zoyd's managed to unearth hidden facets of the everyday experience dead to average humans, whose powers of cognition are either flighty or leaden, shaped and bounded chiefly by television and other forms of vicariously mistransferred living.
It's in this work that the group reveals the attainment of several transcendent visions foreseen - through various hints - since the first release. Drawing in a vast array of what appear to be influences, but are perhaps only a matter of kindred minds excavating paired perceptions through devices (the sort of machinery neither listener nor critic is privy to: the workings of the composer's mind), direct echoes of contemporaneous outside-the-pale pioneers are heard. These include a diversity: George Crumb, Jacob Druckman, Charles Wuorinen, the Long Hello band, Ben Johnston, etc. Taken in one assessment, Art Zoyd and this congeries of unsung composers reveal themselves as tone artists working on twisted Freudianism (a redundancy?) admixed with mysticism, congealed in transdimensional perceptions of infinitely layered reality zones.
But, where many of those composers were content to remain within certain contextual boundaries, Art Zoyd incorporates every aspect that will buttress its thematic contention, producing a much more forceful and convincing result, taking the next step in this unclassifiable movement. That this is the next step has gone unrecognized, just as the works of the above artists have also historically suffered.
"The poet ranks far below the painter
in the representation of visible things,
and far below the musician
in that of invisible things."
- Leonardo da Vinci
This is revolutionary in the classic sense, peculiarly French in many respects. To point to the case of Erik Satie would provide all the illustration necessary. As stubborn as the journalistically critical mind has ever chosen to be to that most artfully eccentric gentleman, the unerring correctness and ingenuity of his compositions have overturned stodgy fourth-estate reticence, securing a rightful alcove in the classical museum. Though Harold Budd may most appropriately be cited as the newly emergent Satie, with a nod to Federico Mompou, as his (Budd's) is about the only body of work to consistently match the stunning beauty of Satie's popular trademark (the gnossienes, gymnopedies, sarabandes, and so on), Art Zoyd is the best exemplar of the spirit of the rest of his work, the not-so-Rosicrucian body, perhaps best set forth in the "Parade" opus, though Satie would never have dwelt nearly so darkly in the inkiest corners of the AZ heart.
To conjure up Ravel and Debussy's enamorment with, and arrangements for, Satie's music is important but beside the point. They, like the audience at large, were captured most visibly with the simple pieces. Who can blame them, given the Impressionist spirit? But a listen to the whole oeuvre shows the composer had no uncertain fascination for the chaotic, for broad counterpoint, dissonant ambiance, and all the musical simulacra of ordinary life he could borrow or concoct. In the hurly-burly of "Parade" can be found many many passages emotionally kindred to Art Zoyd's stylistic choices. That they're not the sturm und drang of Zoyd's expostulation is immaterial. What's of the essence is the manner in which the musical problems are, in both cases, solved, how avenues are opened, and the clarity with which the sonic picture is painted. It's the how and not the what which allies him to his notesmithing countrymen. It should be no great surprise, then, to find Satie was considered a revolutionary, one who went beyond his time to present alternatives to problem-solving - social, musical, otherwise. Appropriately, he was a mannered contrarian, for what are such people if not those who buck the system?
Jumping ahead to 1987, we'll witness another mutation before we leave the ensemble. In Berlin, the Zoydians entered the computer age. Pouring the anthropologist's role into a futurist mold, they concocted an even more bizarrely mapped musical personna wherein Philip K. Dick, Larry Fast, and Steve Reich yielded progeny just this side of commentaristic opining, that side of curmudgeonly fact, and somewhere in the middle of speculativist fantasy. In the two pieces presented, there's a steely distancing from the passions so prominently displayed in the first several releases, even from the scientific psychologies succeeding them.
Berlin is a horizonless cyberscape of computer-mimicking pulses and spurts, gleaming surfaces with no hint of inner design, oblique flashing energies, clashing signals, and the endless orientations life takes beyond human shape-making. Humanity, in the environment of "Epithalame," the first piece, is just a memory, an ineradicable resonance that simply exists merely because it once existed, a sonic engram in the intangible fabric of creation. The song steps beyond the human to prescribe a metallo-electronic biosphere. What is 'thought' to a computer? What is 'emotion'? Whatever they are, we cannot grasp them, only perceive a chromium tang in the aftertaste. Such things move with a speed and methodology humans could never hope to recreate or access. Unconsciously, we're reduced back to the Cro-Magnons of the early Zoyd works, now set in a colossal computer clean room, gasping, trembling. We look around bewildered, not knowing what to feel, unable to interpret the signals flowing through the environment. Is fear appropriate? Nothing threatens us exactly, only our insecurity and failure to develop rapprochement. Can we communicate? How? Caught in the future of our own creation, we don't know how to act on even the simplest level. The child has titanically outstripped the parent, the brave new world doesn't even notice us.
"A Drum, A Drum" proves the agent of succor, reawakening from autism to a more contemporary setting half-way between non-Zoydian works and the forbidding "Epithalame." Preferring ostinato and serialism to incidentalism, it provides a reassuring sax-infused grounding, out of which spring not only our earlier encountered subanthropoids (now grown cocky and exultant while declaiming and muttering in guttural tones, cousins to the intrusive guest in "Tubular Bells") but arabesqued shenais, phased drones, and the chanting faithful. All resolve into a lively section alternating synth bursts with a whiskey-voiced trog inveighing against... something. The song seems a combination of lark and statement, as though the musicians wanted to lighten up for a while, afraid too-heavy meditations could seem excessively pontificatory. The song might well be designated as relatively "lightweight" were it not for the excellence of composition and performance. During a breath-catching aside, the players set out their skills until the whole thing climaxes in a chamber quartet-ish atmosphere, incorporating Sprechstimme in mock-ponderous lines beside a repeating piano motif closing the piece completely. The purposefully inserted ironic and mocking self-appraisal laid down in such grinning pedantry is something of a master stroke, yang to "Epithalame's" yin, interposing quizzicality to pomposity. Whatever is portended is unpredictable, and the listener's left nonplussed, intellect and intuition unable to rationally answer smoldering questions.
It would seem that by the time Berlin was released, the opportunity for any truly effective rebellious or revolutionary activity had come and gone, and that the group, while still holding fast to their ideologies, seized the opportunity to relax a bit. Of course, it could also be argued that their time in the sun had similarly vanished and that the proximity of potential effectivity was on the wane, natural victim to a cycle dependent on populist whim. However, it must be kept firmly in mind that the core audience, and probably the group itself, had known from the beginning that their documents would work only as slowly incrementalizing forces, important ingredients in a diet of divergently incorporated influences acting holistically upon whomever or whatever would be the next step in the process. In that, they succeeded within themselves, as, from the second and third release, in the person of Daniel Denis, arose Univers Zero, which has silently influenced a few of the most cerebral progrockers and, it must be assumed even though the composers never credit it, progmetalheads - the ties are too plain to be disputed even if the affects arrived distantly. A thin thread but also proof of the assertion that magnitudinous art must suffer near-anonymity while waiting for the world to catch up with it.
In summation then, it can be seen that the success of Art Zoyd's unceasing toil to uncompromisingly present itself as a potentially transformative agent for society, an expression of revolution in its proper framework, was successful, though monetarily disappointing and disseminatively limited. It must be seen as a benevolent time-bomb, or its long-term effects may erode and adherents themselves run the risk of contributing to a general misunderstanding and perhaps the eventual demise of the corpus (though this last may be a bit improper, as nothing in sound is irrescuable, especially in an age of increasingly inexpensive reproduction).
In avoiding the deleterious byproducts of improper regard, it's necessary to iterate the base premise and note that the undisciplined, willful, and immature academic explosion which sleeping historians may point to as even the inferentially generative act of revolution is wrong. That motion, in which they share the guilt of diversionary indolence, is the mass hysteria of a society unwilling to take proper responsibility for cleaning up the mess it created or allowed to be created, by no means revolutionary in any but the most deviant sense, neither creating nor solving anything, only insulting the act of revolution.
True revolutionary activity is seen in spans of years, not momentary incidents. A child having a temper tantrum is merely an incident, a reaction, and a retrogressive one at that, but the development of that child over time into a mature being is a revolutionary course. There is measurable growth away from destructive unuseful situations into those effectively utilizing the being's powers, never indulging his weaknesses. The spirit comes into its own because the action is so singular, so atypical of the society, and so violently at odds with status quo. It is now at its best and most effective, a quiet evolution, not drawing attention to itself, not inviting possible interference, working its way out from moored positions. To memorialize a reaction as "revolutionary" is the marker of a society badly in need of the discipline and of the will a true upleveling demands, ingredients it cannot succeed without. Nothing beneficial will occur in any situation birthed in wrathful spontaneity except that which plays into the hands of the oppressor. Revolution in such circumstances is impossible. To call it so is malignantly irresponsible, to accept it as such is ignorant and slothful.
If one wishes to class Art Zoyd as revolutionary, it serves no purpose to jumble them in with an antecedent social event so unheeding, though perhaps proper and inevitable, as the French Student Revolution of 1968 was; the two are diametrically opposed. Art Zoyd knows exactly what needs to be done and, whether the final tally of converts proves to be impressive or not, it is constantly successful in carrying out its design. The group has never been dependent upon approval or consumption for its validity. Historically, they've been doubling upon themselves, faithful to the seed design to such a degree that later refinements and revisions stand solidly with the establishing base, each a small artistic revolt in and of itself, one after the other.
Let us say that, like many powerfully advanced music alliances, the group didn't succeed in the milieu it so richly deserved in its own time. Like Satie, and like the various constituents of genres whose work has been so strong that they completely bypassed the whim of criticism and public understanding, Zoyd's music will prove to be a riveting inspiration to the near future. The much-belabored aphorism: "If you wish to be a good artist, borrow from the masters; if you wish to be a great artist, steal from them!" Salvador Dali will be once more proven in what will be plundered and incorporated by artists yet to come. No matter how one regards the definition of 'revolution,' the one proof which should burn the dross will be the success of the act. Art Zoyd has refused to lay back in the meager laurels given them, heedless of acclaim or its opposite, in order to pursue the muse and nothing but. They, in extent work, will continue to be successful long after all members have gone their separate ways for the final time and there are no more, none willing to continue the task or the name. Perhaps that has already happened.
Of course, the closing question would be: "Why on Earth would any self-actualized individual even care about such tags as 'revolutionary'?" 'Teacher' would be far more appropriate.
"Art does not explain itself.
It lives itself."
- Art Zoyd
Also see Part 1 of the Art Zoyd article
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