Facebook R&B crooner Mario has been relatively quiet on the music front for…
- Posted on Nov 18th 2008 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
But these are also questions inherent in 'In the House of Mirrors,' the new and, sadly, last album by unclassifiable composer/producer/contextualizer Hector Zazou. The Algerian-born, Paris-based artist passed away in September at age 60, having just completed this project for which he formed the group Swara with four musicians from India and Uzbekistan working in classical/traditional formats. It's at once the most straightforward album he ever made -- and the most profound example of his distinctive, if elusive, stamp. (There are long samples of the songs that can be heard here.)
On first listen, particularly if not a very intense listen, 'Mirrors' sounds like a very good Indo-Asian border crossing, aesthetically compatible with such projects as Ghazal, the Persian-Indian collaborations anchored by Iranian composer-musician Kayhan Kalhor. But then even in Zazou's highest-concept (and highest-profile) works -- 1992's 'Sahara Blue' with Gerard Depardieu, Dead Can Dance and others celebrating the centenary of poet Arthur Rimbaud; Björk, Suzanne Vega, John Cale and others interpreting folk songs of northern lands for 1994's "Songs From the Cold Seas;" Laurie Anderson, Jane Birkin, Lisa Germano and other distinctive women singing on 2003's 'Strong Currents,' and playing as a member of the ad-hoc post-rock band Slow Music with Robert Fripp, R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and leader Bill Rieflin -- his touch can be hard to pinpoint. And never has that been so true as in this album.
"You need to immerse yourself in the album to start discovering the subtle processing, various layers, micro-echoes and stuff like that, which makes 'House of Mirrors' extremely special," says Marc Hollander, who as founder, president and A&R executive of the Belgian label Crammed Discs has been involved with Zazou releases since the early '80s, starting with a 12-inch single, 'Melimba,' a collaboration with Congo star Papa Wemba. "This album manages to sound at the same time very organic and very processed and sonically exciting. The processing, which is actually massive and omnipresent when you analyze it, always remains just a notch below the outer surface. He really did comprehensive in-depth work to shape these pieces, in general and in the smallest details. Yet he managed to never sound intrusive or artificial, and the album does sound entrancing and inspired."
Music is organized noise, as they say. But some organization -- or reorganization -- of it happens in your head. Zazou went ahead and did some of that latter step for you. Which might just tick your brain off a little -- in a good way. Both Zazou, in his last interview before his death, and Hollander cite avant-garde composer-performer Terry Riley's 'Poppy No-Good and the Phantom Band' and the proto-ambient collaborations of Fripp and Brian Eno on 'No Pussyfooting' (the cover of which shows the artists in a mirrored room) and other albums, both of which had musicians getting phrases they'd just played "reflected" back at them and sometimes distorted in the process, to be sorted out and responded to. And all that purposefully evokes the eponymous carnival house of mirrors that contains the dramatic climax of Orson Welles' 1947 movie 'The Lady From Shanghai.' [Spoiler alert]
"The central idea of this record is to make the musicians react to 'electronic' treatment of their own performance," Zazou said in his last interview, done by Crammed Discs as part of the album's promotion setup. "I didn't want to use any synthetic sounds but rather to build harmonic textures, which would be generated by their own notes. This idea didn't come all of a sudden; I didn't wake up one morning saying, 'Eureka! I found an original idea and I'm starting to work on it right away.' Everything started while I was producing Sevara Nazarkhan's album in Tashkent. I made some solo recordings of her doutar player, Toir Kuziyev. I thought that he was great. His playing made me think of some kind of Ry Cooder from the steppes, with a sensitivity which was both Asian and Western. Really exceptional! I kept these recordings and figured that one day maybe I'd find the right context to collaborate with him."
At some later point, Zazou was commissioned to create several pieces for Radio France and returned to the recordings he'd made with Kuziyev, drawn in particular by the resonance of the doutar and the possibilities that presented for his subtle manipulations. Hollander, after receiving an MP3 of the results, encouraged Zazou to expand the concept for a full album. For reasons not made entirely clear, Zazou started to seek Indian musicians for the project.
"I first looked for Indian musicians based in the U.K.," Zazou explained. "I approached management companies and specialized labels, but nothing came out of that. I'd receive copies of albums with flashy improvisations with cheap electronic backings ... or messages from musicians who'd tell me, "Let me know which style of playing you want me to emulate." These are obviously the musicians I'm trying to avoid ... I finally got in touch with someone in charge of Indian-British cultural exchanges, who was extremely helpful. I explained that I'm looking for very restrained, introverted players, with excellent and very controlled technique. He replied that he'd personally be unable to judge, but that Ronu Majumdar, a flautist friend of his, would probably be able to help me. The name was indeed familiar: He recorded an album, 'Hollow Bamboo,' with Ry Cooder and Jon Hassell. So Ronu introduced me, by email and MP3, to the work of violinist Milind Raikar, and Milind in turn introduced me to Manish Pingle. Before going to India, I knew very little about Indian guitars."
Soon he was on his way to Mumbai, with Kuziyev flying in from Uzbekistan. In a flurry of sessions, he recorded the ensemble's members in various combinations to get as much variety of interplay as possible. Returning to Paris, he complemented the flute with wind instruments by his friends Nils Petter Molvaer and Carlos Nunez, both improvising to the Mumbai recordings, and then had at it with his further computer fiddling, ultimately sending 80 minutes of music to Hollander, who was given the job of editing it down to a fitting length.
And where does this fit in the Zazou legacy?
"Zazou was a true eclectic, a renaissance man of sorts, someone who was always curious, didn't like to repeat the same experience and was always in search of new approaches, new areas of music to explore," Hollander says. "That wasn't so much a deliberate method as simply the nature of his character, his personality, his taste -- and maybe that's why we got along so well, why his various endeavors fit so well with our general approach here at Crammed. It's therefore virtually impossible to pinpoint a single 'contribution' to music, except the attitude of never-ending curiosity."
Just look at how the final pieces of the 'Mirror' images came into place, if you need an example:
"While working on 'In the House of Mirrors,' I was also producing an album by Bulgarian vocal quartet Eva," Zazou recounted. "During a trip to Bulgaria, I encountered the excellent Hungarian violinist Zoltan Latos. His Balkanic style combined with his knowledge of Indian music -- he studied in India for several years -- seemed to fit with the Swara project. Several weeks later I was in Andalusia, again for Eva, working with flamenco pianist Diego Amador. I honestly had no idea that I would use some of his improvisations for 'House Of Mirrors.' The idea occurred later, as an experiment, but I wasn't sure about it. I thought: 'We'll see, if the piece sounds too strange, I'll let someone else make the decision.' Marc Hollander kept the piece in his selection, and I accepted his choice."
It's all about exploration and chance, with an open mind.
"Whichever the situation -- working for others of for myself -- I've always tried to avoid wearing a [mental] safari jacket and a pith helmet," Zazou said. "What I love is finding myself in the situation of a student who comes to learn rather than to teach something, I'm the one that comes out enriched from these sessions. I don't remember any awkward moment with the musicians I've worked with. Some have looked at me with condescension when I happened to propose unorthodox solutions, but they quickly understood that I was doing this with modesty and came to my aid."
Yeah, that's your music on brain.