Marching to the beat of a very different drummer
The early 1970s. A house in Ostend, Belgium. Number 29. A small drawing room the size of a large bread box. A black and white television. Two channels. Yours truly switches from the Belgian channel to the French, and is struck speechless. No matter that French is supposed to be the native tongue; the language used on this broadcast is unknown - the performers' own fictitious dialect.
Noteworthy also is the large, ominous logo on the musicians' black shirts, on the drums of Christian Vander, and on the large chain around his neck. The performance is dark, menacing, irresistibly moving in its intensity and exotic novelty. It would be years until that hypnotizing logo surfaced again before these eyes, but it is now familiar enough to carry a name: Magma!
Magma is the brainchild of drummer extraordinaire Christian Vander, born of his love for jazz and experimentation via mentors Elvin Jones, Kenny Clarke, Chet Baker (who gave Christian his first drum kit), and of course Vander's supreme influence, John Coltrane. jazz, rock, rhythm and blues and the bombast of classical composers such as Wagner, Stravinsky and Bach are key ingredients Vander blends into Magma's arcane musical stew.
At the tender age of 18, Christian writes his first compositions for his first band, Les Wurdalaks. The year after, John Coltrane dies - a passing Vander has never fully come to terms with, as suggested by the bitter seriousness coloring his life and his music.
In 1969 Vander founds Magma. Were the fanciful language, logo and musical style all products of a singular inspired vision?
"The idea for Magma started during the summer of '69. I then knew what kind of music I wanted to create," says Vander. "The name we searched for one particular evening. The logo happened a while later, but all the various elements came together in a short space of time.
"A name for a band most of the time is formed out of a couple letters, and the band's logo is then created out of these letters. I thought we had to find something much stronger, and had to find a unique shape rather than some words or letters. I had to find something which you could write in the sand and yet everyone would directly recognize it."
That television performance by vintage Magma described earlier smacked of an army onstage; an aggressive, pseudo-militaristic vibe, to be sure. That strong logo was everywhere. And the performers were uniformly garbed ...
"An army? What do you mean 'an army?!" Vander grouses at the impression. "Nowadays, people all over the world wear the same clothes, the same jeans, the same T-shirts. What is the difference with our exposure?"
It is quickly offered that some journalists have gone as far as to dub the band fascist, one suggesting that Magma resembled a collection of neo-nazis!
"That's proof that people have never been able to analyse what Magma is all about," counters Vander, "that people have never understood the meaning of Magma. I love black because for me, its a symbol of silence, peace, You have to know that the very beginning of the band situates itself right at the end of hippy culture, a trend known for its very vibrant colors. I found these colors took attention away from the music, so I used only black so people could fully focus on our music. We also always had a very sober show, where the lighting was reduced to a minimum. Maybe the whole concept frightened people?"
That comes close to explaining Magmas provocative nature. Once, Vander said he saw the audience as his enemy, that with every crash on the cymbals he "killed" someone in the crowd. Has Vander always felt such aggression?
"In certain periods of my life, I have been very angry," he admits. "Not angry about the media, but angry at the entire world because I could not understand that people would not want to see reality.
"In whatever part of society, everyone showed a different picture than what reality really was all about, and that really made my blood boil. I wanted to confront each and every one of them, show them they were wrong, that they had to speak the truth, that they had to ban all forms of hypocrisy. I did not know that there are certain 'codes' [taboos] in life, things you should definitely not talk about, that there are things you can speak and discuss about freely but others about which you must remain silent. I didn't know all of that, so I stood on the barricades as the true rebel. I simply didn't know the 'code'! "
Could this be why Magma created its own language for lyrical expression? The suggestion is that Vander developed a covert method of transcending societal taboos in musical performance. Yet, the irony is that few listeners, if any, can discern the words' meanings beyond immediately apparent emotional hues.
The mystery remains just that. Vander (and perhaps his bandmates) know what the words mean, and perhaps that's all he needs to be satisfied.
"The language which you refer to, 'Kobaian', was created [as part of the Magma identity together with the name of the band and the logo. I had not been searching for this language because it 'happened' spontaneously during [the band's formative period]. I needed to find sounds that could express the atmosphere perfectly," Vander says. "If I had used real words and sentences, then I had to know the 'code.' But as I didn't know it, I had to invent my own code, my own language.
"Because 'Kobaia' was the very first word I invented, I thought it would be logical to call all of the language Kobaian. There are some French and English words in there as well, but for me they were used because they fitted the sounds I was looking for. However, it is not so we can 'talk' in our language, that we have specific Kobaian words for every word that normally exists in everyday life. It might be that we have a word which to us means as much as 'tree,' but this is open to your own interpretation. So there won't be a dictionary on the Kobaian language!"
Those familiar with the music of Magma know the group uses multiple voices, with singing usually handled by a three-member (or more) chorus. The same goes for the group's varied instrumental attack: Magma's presentation has always been symphonically oriented, and Christian notes that his ambition always has been to perform with a large orchestra. But this has never come to pass.
It remains a dream to work with loads of horns and a choir of around 60 voices who would perform our music. Unfortunately, we never had the chance to do it," Vander says. "However, our music can easily be done with piano and one voice. There are people out there who think we've been sent around the world as cultural [ambassadors] for France, but this is completely untrue. We are still waiting for support from the French government!"
Magma's setup somewhat resembles the world of Frank Zappa. Zappa, too, used loads of musicians with varied backgrounds. Vander explains that the primary reason so many musicians have gone in and out of Magma over the years is that the group's music is very physically demanding.
At one time, Magma performed about 25 gigs a month, with band members doubling as roadies.
"We hardly got a sandwich to eat, and didn't know if we'd get a hot meal that night. In the beginning all goes well, but after living in each others' pockets for so long, things tend to go bad and people get annoyed. In the end they quit, so you have to look for one or more replacements," Christian says. "Adding new talent to the band can be very interesting. You should not forget that I have said from day one: Magma is my life and I will continue until I die!
"What happens with Magma after my death is no longer my business, but as long as I live, Magma will continue. That's for sure! It has to be said that we had a very difficult period in between 1972 and 1973, resulting in me no longer having any musicians left. The material we recorded then did not have the same impact as the kind of music Magma was used to composing... "
Christian's wife and bandmate Stella Vander joins the improvised conversation, as reference is made to the financial suicide which distinguished the first-ever Magma album, the double-LP Kobaia (1970).
"The people from the record company were ever so enthusiastic about what they heard and saw," recalls Stella. "These guys were so overwhelmed by our music they were convinced they could sell this material to everyone. We did, however, only get four days in which we had to record and mix the album - a task which seemed impossible. However, we were so well 'trained',we had rehearsed so much that we recorded most of the album in one take."
Christian picks up the tale: "We had everything under control because we had rehearsed an awful lot. During the recording of the track 'Malaria,' guitarist Claude Engel had to switch to another sound by means of a foot pedal. But unfortunately he didn't 'click' the button deep enough, and only got the required sound much later.
"This never happened during rehearsals but did during the actual recording. We, didn't stop and continued playing. We could have stopped and started all over again, but we didn't even think about it!"
Adds Stella, "Our record company at the time, Philips, didn't have to invest much whether it concerned a single or double album. At that time you could sell lots of albums easily, regardless of the price!"
Considering the band's 30-year track record and sophisticated, almost formal chamber-rock style, its curious that Magma has not received at least a token degree of support or recognition from the French government.
Not that the band hasn't tried. The Vanders have attempted making inroads by writing various government cultural officials, but have yet to receive a single reply after all these years.
"We have been able to survive thanks to the goodwill of small companies. Its thanks to them that we still exist and not thanks to the French government," Christian says. "We have worked for two years on what we see as our ultimate goal, which is having Magma perform with a huge symphonic orchestra. We had everything organized, even the director for the orchestra! We asked for a certain budget to be able to create it all, but we never got any reaction. So, it looks like we will have to put this idea on hold for the time being.
"Currently, we are working on new compositions which would be fantastic together with ballet. I think the main reason why the government isn't supporting our music has to be found in the fact that our music is too difficult. If only wed bring more accessible music, then we would probably get the needed finances. In France you also need to be able to 'label' your music, otherwise things get very difficult indeed."
Now that the word 'label' has been uttered, one is immediately curious to know how Magmas members identify their music.
"I really don't know," Christian ponders. I play the music I feel way inside. A friend in America calls it modern classical music. In fact, every artist should have his or her own style, so putting a label on their music should no longer be necessary.
"From the moment you hear an artists name, this should be sufficient in order to 'label' that artist. There are thousands of drummers, yet you can notice a certain drummer by his own style, his own sound, a combination of various sounds. A 'do' remains a 'do,' a 'la' remains a 'la,' yet its the way it's performed which is important not the musical note itself.'
While Magma is loved by aficionados of complex progressive rock, fans of jazz and avant-garde alike, the group is founder of its very own style known internationally as Zeuhl. Artists such as Univers Zero, Sub Niggurath, Eider Stellaire, Yochk'o Seffer, Xalph, Eskaton, et al., all belong to the Zeuhl family, following the soul and spirit of Vander and Magma.
But what exactly is Zeuhl? Vander ventures an explanation. "L'esprit au travers de la matière. That is Zeuhl. Zeuhl is also the sound which you can feel vibrating in your belly. Pronounce the word Zeuhl very slowly, and stress the letter 'z' at the beginning, and you will feel your body vibrating. That is exactly what our music is all about: the kind of sound which comes from way down.
"The bands do not ask us if they could join the Zeuhl movement. You either feel automatically if you are part or not. You are right in saying there is no group in the world who composes music the same way Magma does. When you listen to, say, Bartok in the beginning of the 20th century, you don't hear classical music,' but jazz. It's the same with Bartok because there is no one like him either.
"From the moment that scores of his music were available, it enabled other people to look into his dreamworld. But there are always little things which make that music entirely unique. It's precisely those little things, those mysteries, which create the unique end result. So you could say that in the beginning, I tried to make Magma unique so all of the bands respect my view and there is no band in the whole world who can copy the Magma feeling."
Those familiar with Magma history also are aware of side projects - the overtly jazzy Vander Trio and the project Offering.
"Even if the music of Magma is very difficult, we do work alongside a certain pattern," notes Christian. "With Offering, everything is improvised. We know where we start and we know where we'll finish, but the road we have to take to get from point 'A to point 'B' is pure improvisation. That's why one night our concert might be disastrous, and the next can be pure magic. It's no longer a question of my own input, but of the whole band. With Magma, if someone isn't feeling too well, it will not change the end result. On the other hand, Offering is very fragile!"
In 1986 the band launched its very own record company, Seventh Records. Stella Vander fills in the details: "Our music was the property of various record companies," she says. "Some of them did their job but never paid us. The others didn't do their job and didn't pay us either. There would be discussions about sleeve design, then the cost for the studio was too high, and so on.
"We thought it would be much better if we had all the various elements in our own hands. We knew that we would sell much less than through a major label, that we would have to 'find' our fans and create a new data base of contacts. We would, however, have all the control ourselves, and that was a bonus - something we would benefit from later on.
"About two years ago we launched our website and we feel this is a great medium for us. In the beginning, we had to negotiate with all these record companies in order to get our master tapes back so we could exploit our own catalogue of music. We also launched the sublabel Akt, because there is a big demand for 'old' and 'rare' recordings. I can guarantee you that we have many hundreds of recordings from the 'old' days, so we could release a new album on the Akt label every week for years.
"The main reason we recorded all those concerts over the years was simply as documentation for ourselves, to listen and learn from our mistakes. Later on they became souvenirs, but now we'd like to share them with our fans. Way back, it was impossible to sell the record company another live recording of Kohntarkosz. Today, we can."
Magma's vocalists start their warming-up exercises. Christian Vander has his hands taped very tightly. The rest of the Magma 'army' is ready to perform their mix of Wagner, Stravinsky, Bach and Zeuhl. Once again they will leave the audience baffled and exhausted, as if a huge battle has just been waged and the dead and wounded have to be counted.
Magma has always been unique. And you can bet they will continue to do so until Christian Vander finally sees John Coltrane once again.
John "Bo Bo" Bollenberg
Progression, issue 34, Winter / Spring 2000
Zeuhl Merci : Daniel Schweizer
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