Career Retrospective | Discography | Christian Vander interview
The material for this article comes from Issue Number 8 (Fall 1995) of EXPOSE.
The World of Magmaby Peter Thelen Imagine a world, many centuries into the future, when society as we know it has decyed into chaos and degradation, voide of spiritual guidance. The colonizatin of space is well underway, and space travel has become commonplace. It is in this setting that a handful of enlightened Earth people seeking a better existence finance the construction of a private spacecraft and leave the planet in search of a new world where a new, more spiritually guided civilization can be reborn. They finally find that new home after a long and hazardous journey on the distant planet Kobaia, where the party settles and begins anew.
Magma is a concept band whose albums explain the origins and development of the new civilization on Kobaia, and their interactions with the people of Earth and other planets. All of their lyrics are sung in the language of the new civilization, 'Kobaian.' As one might expect, the music from Kobaia several hundred years from now is very unlike what we are accustomed to on twentieth century planet earth. Magma's music is very strange, beautiful, and ultimately rewarding, but it does require an open mind on the part of the listener. It is music that must be experienced fully with body, heart and soul: not simpley a cerebral performance of some kind of space opera by clever musicians, but a full blown spiritual experience with the music acting as the connecting vehicle between performer and listener.
Led by drummer Christian Vander, Magma began in the final months of the sixties in France, pretty much apart from the underground music scene of the times. In fact most of the original members had worked in other rock and jazz groups before, although without much notoriety. The band has since gone through an almost constant stream of personnel changes, but the alumni list looks like a who's who of top caliber French musicians: Klaus Blasquiz, Guy Khalifa, Claude Engel, Jannick Top, Bernard Paganotti, Patrick Gauthier, Francis Moze, Rene Garber, Jean-Luc Manderlier, Benoit Widermann, Didier Lockwood, Teddy Lasry, Yochk'o Seffer, Michel Herve, Florence Berteaux, Daniel Denis, Clement Bailly... and the list goes on. All the while, the one constant is Vander and his vision- although the contributions of the other musicians of the other musicians to the execution of this vision cannot be downplayed. The creation of the development of the original concept and the Kobaian language was in fact a group effort. Some players were more influential than others, but with each change in personnel came a slight change in the sound of the band.
The first album, a 2 LP set simply title MAGMA, is where the story begins. The first disc concerns itself with the departure and journey to Kobaia, arrival at their destination, the long and patient process of building a new society according to their vision, and their process of learning how to live in harmony with their new surroundings, while attaining a high degree of technological advancement. The second disc involves the rescue of a foreign spaceship which gets into orbital difficulties over Kobaia- this ship turns out to be manned by a crew from Earth. The visitors tell of the continued degeneration and disasters that have afflicted Earth, and at the same time are impressed with the progress that the Kobaians have made, their philosophy and societial organization, and how they have learned to live as one at peace with their surroundings. The Earthmen request that the Kobaians visit Earth and attempt to propagate their philosophy in order to save society from its certain destruction. After some deliberation, a small party agrees to accompany the stranded visitors on their journey home.
1000 DEGREES CENTIGRADES, the second Magma album from 1971, begins with the arrival of the Kobaian party back on Earth, and the seemingly friendly welcome they receive. The Earth people listen to the stories of the establishment and growth of Kobaian civilization, to their philosophy, and ideas for the betterment of life on Earth through purification and spiritual enlightment. But after airing these ideas at a meeting with the Earth authorities, the Kobaian party is promptly imprisoned and their spacecraft is impounded. But a message is sent to Kobaia, and a rescue effort is begun. The Kobaian rescus party offers the Earth authorities the choice of releasing the imprisoned Kobaians, or face certain destruction by the Kobaian's ultimate weapon. The imprisoned Kobaians are promptly released, and although they vow never to return, their visit is to be remembered by the few they came in contact with for a long period of time, their ideas preserved and passed on for future generations.
One of these people who remembered the essence of the Kobaians' visit was a man named Nebehr Gudahtt, a spiritualist who is the subject of the third Magma album, MEKANIK DESTRUKTIW KOMMANDOH, recorded in 1973. His message to the people of Earth is that their only salvation from an ultimate and certain doom is through self purification and communication with the divine spirit of the supreme being, the Kreuhn Kohrman. With this album we are introduced to the story of the Theusz Hamtaahk (literal translation: Time of Hatred) concerning the period of time on Earth between the Kobaian visit and the celestial march for enlightenment led by Nebehr Gudahht which concludes this album. At first Gudahtt's message is rejected, and the people march against him, but as they march they begin to question their very existance and purpose. One by one, they begin to see his truth, slowly reaching enlightenment, and begin to march with him instead of against him.
MDK is the third movement of the Theusz Hamtaahk, which leads one to the question- where are the first and second movements? Originally, the Theusz Hamtaahk was ambitiously planned to be three cycles of three movements each (nine movements total), but the idea was apparently abandoned after MDK- at least further movements beyond that point were not identified as such. The second movement appeared the following year as the soundtrack to the Yvan Lagrange film 'Tristan et Yseult,' recorded by a scaled down 4-piece version of the band and officially listed as a Christian Vander solo record. In fact its CD re-release is credited to Magma and restores its proper title WURDAH ITAH (translates to: Dead Earth). The first movement of Theusz Hamtaahk, a full length thirty-five minute opus, was performed regularly live, but was not released on record until the 1980 live album RETROSPEKTIW I-IV.
With their forth album KOHNTARKOSZ, Magma began what is presumed to be the first movement of the second cycle of the Theusz Hamtaahk, the story of Ementeht-Re. Here the story gets a bit more cryptic, intentionally so, as by this time Magma's music is taking on a more spiritual and purely musical nature, where vocals seem to be more an element of the music than a vechile for delivering lyrics. Kohntarkosz is a man who discovers an old Egyptian tomb of an ancient master, murdered before reaching his aim, which was immortality. When he enters the tomb, he has a visioin of Ementeht-Re, and all of his secrets are then revealed to Kohntarkosz.
The story goes on. A presumed second movement of Ementeht-Re was never recorded in one piece, but is scattered randomly across the next two albums MAGMA LIVE (the tracks 'Hhai' and 'Ementeht-Re') and UDU WUDU (the tracks 'Zombies,' 'Soleil D'Ork' and 'De Futura'). At this point, the story becomes increasingly unclear. Other tracks like 'Om Zanka' and 'Gamma Anteria' (from the live album INEDITS) and 'Ptah' (from the unauthorized live MEKANIK ZEUHL WORTZ) seem to be into the general concept as well, but Vander offered few clues as to where the story goes after Kohntarkosz. Magma's 1978 album ATTAHK appears to have a theme also, but it seems to be unique unto itself and not tied with any of the previous records. Again, Vander offers few clues. This also marks the last studio album which is sung exclusively in the Kobaian language.
And thus the Kobaian story closes. Magma's next studio effort MERCI in '84 is sung in French and English, with a couple obligatory tracks in Kobaian, yet it seems very clear from the music and the overall direction that the band is moving in, that the Theusz Hamtaahk and the whole seventies concept of Magma is something they were trying hard to put behind them. This would also be Magma's final studio release. Within months, Christian Vander's new band Offering was born, moving further and deeper into the more acoustic Coltrane-inspired Jazz directions that Magma had ever dared to travel before. One senses the liberation that Offering provided, allowing Vander to explore new avenues that were unsuited to the seventies Magma style. Christian's Jazz Trio was also born in this period also, plus numerous solo projects, all of which very much deserves to be heard.
Clearly, the seventies version of Magma was one of the most influential of all French bands, equaled only by Gong and Ange. They have left a legacy of music that defies any of the standard and convenient classifications of rock, operating instead in a realm of their own creation. It waits to be discovered by new converts, and continually by older fans alike. Kobaia iss de hundin!
MAGMA, (Seventh, 1970)
1001 DEGREES CENTIGRADES (Seventh, 1971)
MEKANIK KOMMANDOH (Seventh, 1973)
MEKANIK DESTRUKTIW KOMMANDOH (Seventh, 1973)
BRUSSELS '74, (Sprial, released 1994)
WURDAH ITAH (Seventh, 1974)
KOHNTARKOSZ (Seventh, 1974)
LIVE (Seventh, 1975)
THEATRE DU TAUR, TOULOUSE 1975 (AKT, released 1994)
THEUSZ HAMTAAHK (Kisses, recorded 1976, released 1992)
MEKANIK ZEUHL WORTZ (Kisses, recorded 1976, released 1994)
UDU WUDU (Seventh, 1976)
INEDITS (Tapioca, 1977)
ATTAHK (Seventh, 1978)
RETROSPEKTIW III (Seventh, 1981)
RETROSPEKTIW I-II (Seventh, 1981)
CONCERT - BOBINO 1981 (AKT, released 1995)
MERCI (Seventh, 1984)
MYTHES ET LEGENDES VOL. 1 (Seventh, 1985)
LES VOIX DE MAGMA
LES VOIX DE MAGMA (AKT, 1992)
TO LOVE (Seventh, 1988)
LES VOYAGES DU CHIRSTOPH COLOMB (AKT, 1993)
A TOUS LES ENFANTS (Seventh, 1995)
CHRISTIAN VANDER TRIO
JOUR APRES JOUR (Seventh, 1990)
65! (Seventh, 1994)
OFFERING I-II (Seventh, 1986)
OFFERING III-IV (Seventh, 1990)
A FIIEH (Seventh, 1993)
CHRISTIAN VANDER INTERVIEW
By George Allen and Robert Pearson
April 22, 1995
GA: IS THE EMBLEM FOR MAGMA MEANT TO DEPICT A BIRD OR IS IT ABSTRACT?
CV: When I created it, I never thought of a bird. I had an idea inside about a symbol or emblem, and just wrote it down on a piece of paper, sketched it. The idea at the beginning was something like the dress of the Egyptians. It was supposed to be like a piece of cloth or articulated metal sheets that would mold over the body, over the ribcage. It was to be similar to breast-plate armour, but supple, not rigid.
GA: THE NAME MAGMA, IS THAT PART OF KOBAIAN OR DOES IT REFER TO LAVA? IS IT REFLECTIVE OF THE STYLE OF THE BAND?
CV: Yes, it refers directly to lava. Back in 1966, I had written a piece and I was already in a band with Bernard Paganotti, who became a bass player. Already, I was searching for the right word. The tune I wrote back then was called Nogma. I was looking for the word Magma, but didn't know it was what I was looking for. One day the band didn't have a name at the time, and they were standing in fornt of a fairly well-known club in Paris. The club management told me if you don't have a name, you can't come and play tonight. So we went for coffee, at the shop next door. I thought deeply, you know, and the word Magma came out. At the same time, I founded Univeria Zekt. I wrote this down on the receipt from the coffee shop and kept it.
GA: DOES THE NAME MAGMA MEAN TO REFLECT THE QUALITIES OF FLEXIBILITY AND BEAT. WOULD THOSE BE CHARACTERISTICS OF YOUR MUSIC THAT YOU VALUE?
CV: At the beginning, when I found the name, the name was bigger than me at the time, but it was inside of myself at the same time. I had to learn in time; I didn't know what it meant. And I kept on practicing to be at the same level as the name. And I am still practicing, to live up to the name and the evocation of the name.
GA: ARE THERE ANY PLANS FOR A 25TH YEAR ANNIVERSARY MAGMA REUNION OR TO RECORD MORE MATERIAL UNDER THE NAME MAGMA?
CV: Yes. I even have the name of the record. I have all the titles, but I haven't focused on the music yet. When I woke up one day I wrote all the titles of the album down. If you repeat the titles in the right order, it sounds like a magic formula. It happens quite often that I dream the tunes, get up in the morning, and go to the piano, and write them down.
GA: DO SOME OF THE LYRICS COME FROM UNCONSCIOUS STATES OR DREAMS, LIKE AUTOMATIC WRITING?
CV: The music and the lyrics come up at the same time. If I am singing, and if it has to be in Kobaian, they come up in Kobaian. Sometimes there is a word that is maybe French or English and I leave it in because it is there, and it's natural. The lyrics come at the same time, parallel to the music. For pieces like Mekanik, they were not written in one shot or one session. I had to run a tape recorder to be able to capture it instantly- it goes very fast. I sing with new words that I don't know, and when I am improvising further, the same words come back, even though I don't know them. But I didn't learn them, they impose themselves on me.
RP: (REGARDING THE LYRICS) COULD YOU COMMENT ON HOW YOU FEEL THEY HEAL THE HUMAN SPIRIT, HOW HEALING THEY ARE?
CV: Because they arise naturally. I feel that somehow they must be healing.
RP: THERE WASN'T AN INTENTION TO MAKE HEALING MUSIC?
CV: No, it happened naturally. If I created a word artificially, it would be different, but the words come up instinctively. I do not want to work artificially. I want to work from instinct. I have done everything to keep the instinct fresh and alive, quick, sharp.
GA: IT'S BEEN REPORTED THAT COLTRANE'S WORK HAS HAD AN IMPACT ON YOU. DO OTHER ARTISTS, SUCH AS PHAROAH SANDERS, ARCHIE SHEPP, OR ALBERT AYLER, FOR INSTANCE, HOLD A CONTINUING INTEREST FOR YOU?
CV: I am always listening and attentive to what they do. I am open to listen to what they do. But for my work, it is still Coltrane who actually gives me the real material to work on, to be able to move on.
GA: SUN RA AND THE ARKESTRA ARE A CONTINUING SET OF MUSICIANS WHO OPERATE MUCH AS A BAND, AND THEY ALSO HAVE A MYTHIC APPROACH TO OUTER SPACE THEMES. DO YOU LISTEN TO OR LIKE SUN RA?
CV: I have not really listened to Sun Ra but every time I've heard Sun Ra I've felt that there was something, a real connection. What's funny is that before Magma the band already had a long name in mind, and it sounded very much like the whole long name of Sun Ra and the Arkestra.
RP: WHAT ARE SOME SPIRITUAL INFLUENCES THAT YOU COULD POINT TO, LIKE GURDJIEFF OR THE GOSPELS?
CV: Its difficult to answer because at different times in my life, I have tried different philosophies but I don't think that Gurdjieffs' teachings and the laws surrounding that teaching really apply today. It doesn't work for today.
RP: WHAT WORKS FOR TODAY?
CV: For example, the monks in Tibet. They pray all the time for peace and they have been doing that for a very long time and what is happening is that there are less and less of them and they are less and less heard, so my question is 'Are their prayers really working?' Today the prayers are heard less and less and the world is going down and down. I think that I understand part of the things that do not work and I plan to write a philosophical book. The book will look like a novel. I already have 800 pages written.
Also see our 1999 interview with Vander and our 2011 article on Magma
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