Bernard Szajner \ Biography
Composer, theorist and visual artist Bernard Szajner released five albums of innovative, avant-garde electronic music between 1979 and 1983. Although widely acclaimed at the time, Szajner afterwards abandoned music for two decades, and as a result his music lapsed into relative obscurity. For connoisseurs, however, Szajner remains a leading exponent in his chosen field.
Born in Grenoble (France) in 1944, Szajner (pronounced Shy-nerr) first made his name as a lighting and visual effects designer for artists such Magma, Gong, Stomu Yamashta and the Who. During the 1970s he moved on from conventional lighting technology and pioneered the creative and commercial use of lasers, with blue chip clients including Cartier and Renault. Szajner then set about inventing a novel laser harp (or 'Syeringe'), partly inspired by a fictional instrument in the book Nova by Samuel Delany. The new instrument reversed the orthodox logic of light triggered by music, to create music triggered by light, as well as controlling sound in a manner impossible with conventional synthesizers, and delivering a wider octave range. Despite costing £15,000 to develop, and proving problematic at the first public display at Les Halles, the laser harp soon became the stuff of legend, and Szajner agreed to build another for Jean-Michel Jarre and his concerts in China.
An admirer of A Rainbow in Curved Air by Terry Riley, Szajner also set about recording soundtracks for his own performances, Despite being a professed non-musician, who had stopped listening to music in 1977. 'But I don't want to play the laser harp too much,' he admitted, 'because people will think of me only in terms of the man who plays this instrument, which is wrong.' Moreover: 'People got seduced by the power of the harp itself, and forgot to listen to the music.' That said, Szajner would subsequently develop several other son et lumière instruments, including a sphere responsive to touch, and another involving a hologram with outstretched virtual hands which, when touched, triggered notes.
The first Szajner album, Visions of Dune, was released in 1979 and credited to the group name Zed. Inspired by the Frank Herbert sci-fi novel Dune, the album featured a stellar cast of guest musicians including Hahn Rowe, Klaus Basquiz, Colin Swinburne, Clement Bailly and Annanka Raghel. Visions of Dune sold 5,000 copies, but to some extent was lost in the wash of anonymous synth albums released in Europe during this period. However Szajner's music was very different: 'The Germans were making only pleasant, obvious sounds which would please the ear immediately, that were beautiful and all that. I thought, well, this is so limited, pleasantness is only one aspect of perception. Unpleasant things exist also - you can express them and you can create emotion with them. You can enjoy something which is even ugly if you're interested in that sort of ugliness.'
Szajner delivered on this promise (or threat) in 1980 with Some Deaths Take Forever, an emotive and sometimes disturbing musical imagining of the feelings of two prisoners on death row, initially conceived as the soundtrack to a short film by Amnesty International. The complete album placed dark, angular and unnerving electronic textures within dynamic rock arrangements, guest musicians including Klaus Blasquiz and Bernard Paganotti of Magma. Once more sales were healthy, and the album described by Melody Maker as a 'modern electronic masterwork' and one of 'the most exciting and innovative piece of electronic music to be released this year', while Sounds judged that his 'frantic, outraged music shames the bulk of oscillator nuts peddling their dodgy little repetitions around.' New Musical Express also praised Some Deaths as 'unquestionably one of the decade's most accomplished fusions of sophisticated electronics and driving rock.' Behind the music lay serious intent, as Szajner explained: 'That specific record was not made to make people feel at ease. If people feel uneasy that's perfectly right because one of the aims was to make people think, "something's not right about inflicting death".'
In July 1981, Szajner performed with the laser harp at the Festival de la Science Fiction et de l'Imaginaire in Metz. Melody Maker reviewed the show thus: 'Moving to the front of the stage, he triggers off a series of events which at first baffle the audience as they try and work out if this is a purely holographic illusion or if it's happening for real, and then pulls them through several degrees of amazement. An object that looks like a flimsy, triangular cardboard framework lifts into the air as a metallic venus fly trap opens beside him. Suddenly a series of green laser beams shoot up from the base of the triangle, fanning out like the strings of a harp, and Szajner raises his hands and, using karate movements, shaves into the beams. It takes a few seconds to realise that the action of breaking the lasers is actually triggering one of the synthesisers. It's a striking, bizarre spectacle but it's also more than mere visual gimmickery.'
Interviewed by journalist Lynden Barber, Szajner explained that sound and vision were equally important. 'For me, vision is totally linked to sound. Sometimes you can say that if the visual is too strong it is going to distract from some very fragile musical elements which must be perceived, so the visual has to be very static. Sometimes the visuals will reinforce the music because they go in the same direction. This is synergy, two forces going in the same direction, creating a third force which is stronger than any one of the two. Because I cannot separate vision and sound I will always have something visual, whatever it is. It may be a light bulb rolling across the stage, if it has a reason.'
Szajner also epnded on the limitations of contemporary synthesizer technology. 'Synthesizers have a big problem, they have very few harmonics, they have so few oscillators that they will just give very primitive sounds, which means you can add up stacks and stacks of synthesizers and they will roughly sound the same. That's why I'm pretty sure I will never make completely electronic music, I will always have other instruments with it... But electronic instruments are the first that do not take care of human limitations. When you play a piano it has a certain width, because your arms can't go any further. The synth was conceived so that it expands the possibilities to create music.'
Szajner chose another radical departure for his third album, Superficial Music, released in December 1981. The first side featured four tracks of so-called 'superficial music' compiled from source tapes for Visions of Dune, played backwards at half speed, and enhanced only by sparing use of analog and digital effects. The title was deliberately contradictory, and appropriated from Journey Without Maps by British author Graham Greene: 'Superficial music which just tickled the surface of the mind, didn't tiresomely claim any deep emotion whether grief or exaltation.'
Broadly comparable to the 'readymade' concept pioneered by Marcel Duchamp, and the oblique strategies of Brian Eno, the album again attracted widepead critical praise. In Melody Maker, Lynden Barber wrote: 'It shows the tape experiment to be a significant success, a wholly involving and frequently disturbing blanket of continually contorting synthetic sound. Yet Despite its uncompromising atonality, it's music that is easily accessible, communicating its intensely anxious messages with outspoken candour and remarkable intelligence.'
Felix Jay of NME agreed: 'Superficial? No, superlative music! If you care at all for soundscapes that eschew cheap escapes, that demand clear perception without preconception, this album will do far more than tickle the surface of you mind... This new release marks a penetrating, persuasive look into the possibilities of pure tape music. This is music of almost overwhelming purity, whether played at discreetly ambient or totally engulfing levels. Reworking old material, it's almost Accidental Music. Except for the fact that there's a remarkably perceptive intelligence at work here. The tapes play backwards; logic is effortlessly reversed. Half speed gives extraordinary depth to the bass. Spare but telling use of the digital harmoniser and other studio treatments spin a sensitive skin of transparent texture over the naked harmony. Particularly on the second side, the impression is of a sizeable orchestra playing just beyond sight, a stately, spacious, but somehow eerie sound... It's hard to believe, in the fashion-enhanced, category-entrenched 80s, but you won't find many obvious influences here. If that sounds like critical shortchanging, I could suggest that Superficial Music occupies intellectual territory somewhere between Pierre Henri and Messiaen. Similarly in his rock mode he thrusts forward the standard so disappointingly dropped by Christian Vander. Irreconcilable? Not for Szajner.'
The second side of Superficial Music was taken up by the chilling triptych Oswiecim, and marked a return to his obsessive theme of life and death. Szajner explains: 'I was born in France in 1944, of Jewish parents who emigrated from Poland via Germany, where they stayed a few years until the Nazis started getting rough. France had a poor record on deporting Jews during the Holocaust. So, I was born under a false name (Wolf) and hidden in a cave. After the liberation by real family name (Scheiner) was transformed by the French administration into Szajner. When I was young I heard my parents speak about my uncle Moszek, who was held in the camp at Beaune la Rolande and then disappeared in Auschwitz. Years later, I tried through music to evoke for others the impressions and sensations of my parents' storytelling.' Oswiecim is, of course, the Polish name for Auschwitz, the Nazi death factory at which more than one million people were murdered between 1942 and 1945, the great majority of them Jewish.
In 1981 Szajner also began working with Karel Beer as The (Hypothetical) Prophets, whose cerebral brand of alternative, often witty electro pop found acclaim across Europe, and a licensing deal with Epic Records. As well as the singles Back to the Burner, Person To Person and the exceptional Wallenberg, the duo released an album in 1982, Around The World, although at the time the identities of both protagonists remained a closely guarded secret, hiding their faces in photographs, and donning masks for a rare live performance at a CBS sales conference. The enigmatic duo released a final single, Fast Food, in 1983.
In Britain, Szajner's solo work was favourably compared to Peter Gabriel, David Byrne and even Simple Minds. The result was a three-album deal with Island Records, the first of which, Brute Reason (1983), featured lyrics and vocals by former Magazine frontman Howard Devoto. However Szajner felt that Island tried market the laser harp as a gimmick, and lost money on a string of ambitious live concerts, the whole experience souring his enthusiasm for music. Following two 12" EPs released through Paris independent New Rose - The Big Scare (1984) and Indécent Délit (1986) - he elected to abandon music, donating his equipment to a school, and moving on to other creative ventures, including painting, light sculpture and theatre direction.
Most of Szajner's music remained out of print for two decades. However name-checks from admirers such as Detroit techno producer Carl Craig, who listed Some Deaths Take Forever as his favourite record of all time, and appearances on landmark compilations such as So Young But So Cold (Tigersushi, 2004), have ensured that his music was never forgotten. These new CD reissues of Some Deaths Take Forever and Superficial Music serve to reintroduce two important musical works, and include previously unreleased bonus tracks recorded in 1982, and inspired by The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll. Following a long interval, new music is expected from Szajner in 2009.