Features I by I 04.10.14

The Visionary: legendary electronic auteur Bernard Szajner on Carl Craig and laser shows

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Bernard Szajner Interview

Bernard Szajner is a consummate artist.

Born into a family of Polish Jew exiles in France, he first made his mark in the 1970s as a lighting and visual effects technician and visual artist working with influential French bands like Magma and Gong, as well as British rockers The Who. It was during this decade of primary visual work that Szajner first explored a self-avowed desire to find the perfect blend of visual and auditory art, a desire that would turn into a life-long quest with unexpected twists and turns.

In the late 1970s Szajner achieved two things that would have a lasting impact on his career. First, he entered the world of music in 1979, with no classical training or musical ability, with an album inspired by Frank Herbert’s science fiction opus, Dune. Visions of Dune was Szajner’s attempt at depicting the book’s vivid world through sound, created largely with loops made using an Oberheim synthesizer and sequencer, lent to him by a friend for about eight days, and a two-track tape recorder. As a result, Szajner began a short recording career under his own name (and the moniker Zed he’d adopted for Visions) and with Karel Beer as The (Hypothetical) Prophets. By the end of the 1980s, he abandoned music and turned back to visual arts, though his work would continue to inspire artists to come, including a certain Carl Craig.

The second big moment in Szajner’s career is one he no longer publicly talks about, but which cannot be underestimated in its contribution to live music. It came in 1980, through a combination of another sci-fi novel – Samuel Delany’s Nova – and his work with laser technology, which he’d largely helped pioneer for live shows. Thus Szajner created the laser harp, a futuristic instrument that reversed the sublimation of visuals to music and put both on an even keel like never before. Shortly after, French synth pop pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre ordered a harp from Szajner for his China tour and popularised the instrument, while its creator refrained from using it too much for fear that people would equate him to his most well known creation. These fears, as well as Szajner’s fascination with creating his own instruments, would continue to inform his life’s work.

Following a string of early 1980s releases (including the exceptional Some Deaths Take Forever LP) Szajner more or less disappeared from the world of music for close to 25 years, focusing instead on visual, plastic and, increasingly, digital arts. Earlier this year he re-appeared via French label InFine, who announced a reissue of Visions of Dune complete wit, two tracks deemed “too futuristic” at the time and new artwork. Szajner is now focusing his attentions on a new musical project, Evolution, his most ambitious attempt at combining visuals and audio yet.

I called Szajner at his home in France, and found someone not unlike a wise elder – a man who had as much to share from his experiences as he knew he had to learn and discover from those of others. We discussed Visions, the importance of innovation through limitation, and his slow return to the fray.

How did the re-issue of Visions of Dune come about?

Well… it’s funny. I had approached the label, InFine, but not with the idea to re-issue Visions of Dune. I had approached them with new material that I have composed in the past few years. And they said they wanted me to go and play a live concert in what they call a workshop, which they hold every summer close to Poitiers, in France. And so I did, with the same musician who is playing with me on my new project Evolution, Gregory Hoepffner aka Almeeva, and another friend doing visuals. We played an improvised set for about 45 minutes and it was a tremendous success. I suppose that this triggered InFine to further explore the possibility of working together. After a lot of thinking Alexandre Cazac, the head of InFine, decided that the Visions of Dune album was incredibly modern and in tune with what a lot of kids were listening to nowadays, which he told me was synthesizer music with a certain view of analogue sounds. So he thought that strategically it would be preferable to try to create a bridge between young people today and Visions of Dune rather than to immediately release this new music I had.

Did you have much input into the packaging and presentation of the reissue?

Not much. Alexandre found a guy in Berlin for the mastering and I trusted him completely. The only real input I gave was that I didn’t want to do a remaster that would cheat with the original sounds. The term I used is ‘I don’t want it to be too spectacular.’ Alexandre said the guy he had in mind was someone who could do something soft and precise, and that he wasn’t into spectacular displays. So I was happy with that.

As for the cover, I had some input, in that I didn’t want the original cover. I wanted something relatively simple that would bear almost the same pseudonym I used when I did the album. That pseudonym at the time was Zed, and I wanted it in a simpler way, so just the letter Z. But the reason is also that it’s a letter that haunts me. It haunts me everyday in my name, Szajner, and nobody knows how to pronounce it.


So I got into the habit of enhancing the letter in my name by putting it in red. Thus that letter stands out and people tend to forgot the s in front of it and just pronounce my name with a z sound at the start. Which suits me very well. The important thing for me is for people to remember it. So that’s why I took that letter, and it also happens to be my signature for the visual work I’ve done and exhibited around the world. Z is my signature, with one dot in front to evoke the s that is missing and another dot after to evoke the rest of my name. So it’s perhaps not really a pseudonym, more like a shortening of my name. Un raccourci.

The story of how you came to write the album is fascinating. You very much innovated through limitations.

I always do that, I have a lot of limitations. I’ve found that it helps me to reveal that I have so many limitations because I’m not ashamed of having them. I’m a human being after all and humans have limitations, lots of them. I think that not being able to play a keyboard, not being able to compose like someone who has been trained in a traditional way, I think that’s a great help. Also, I feel absolutely free, I can explore the way I want, I have no second thoughts. If I do something that sounds like someone else it’s pure chance, hazard. I’m incapable of imitating or copying, I don’t even know how to do it. So I’m quite satisfied with my limitations and at the same time I also imposed other limitations on myself. When I started composing Visions of Dune I quickly noticed, after maybe three weeks, that when I turned the knobs of the synthesizers to find the sounds that evoked for me situations or characters from the book that the more I twisted these knobs, and those of the sequencers, the less I was listening to other people’s music. By the end, when I’d finished Visions, I wasn’t listening to anyone else’s music anymore. And that has stayed throughout the years with me. I never listen to anyone else’s music, even mine, of course. When people send me links or CDs, I’ll listen to it once and that’s it. It might strike my curiosity but really I don’t listen and I think that’s another freedom, another real freedom.

How did you become attached to the project?

At the time I was not a musician at all, or a composer. I’d never touched anything. I was creating light shows for groups, French and English rock groups like The Who. I was trying to be extremely creative doing visuals that in my mind hopefully would be a reflection of what the music was or what the music expressed but also trying to synchronise these things intellectually. To create something that would be a blending between the music and the visuals. But the musicians I found were largely uninterested by the project, they just wanted to make music and have fancy liquids squirting on the screen and slides smashing on the beat or whatever. They were only interested in doing what I’d call their thing. So this made me angry, because I supposed something better could be achieved in the link between music and visuals. I was quite upset that they didn’t want to do it. So I finally said, “OK, if they don’t want to do it, I’ll make the music as well as the visuals.” As I couldn’t play any instruments, someone at the time told me to try synthesizers and sequencers for loops, thinking I could create something new with it. So a friend lent me some Oberheim synthesizers and that’s more or less how it all started.

And I should add, when I began to play with the synthesizers my visual practice totally dropped. I was so concentrated on the music that I forgot to add the visuals. It’s only really in recent times that I’ve reunited the two, especially with this new Evolution project and the show at the Centre Pompidou we have planned for later this year. I took time out from music in the past 25 years but this new project is really about trying to make images and music work together in a very fascinating, emotional and intellectual way. However, I have not done the visuals for this new show. I have directed some of them but asked others, most of them digital artists, to create visuals that would really blend for the first time in my life. So it’s taken me something like 35 years to achieve my original aim [laughs] We’ll see if it’s a success or not, but at least I’ve tried one more time to really put the two together.

“What’s important is what you have to say, not what you’re using to say it. The synthesizers you use are not important.”

I find it fascinating that your situation back then – the limitations, the innovation, the lack of musical knowledge, the subverting of technology – is similar to the birth of hip hop which happened at the same time. And it also echoes the birth of something like techno a few years later in Detroit, and Carl Craig has lauded some of the work you did after Visions. It feels somewhat poetic in hindsight.

I try to be as modest as I can, even when it’s pleasant to hear things like this, because there is a lot of hasard [chance], we say in French, that came into this. Some things happened the way they should have and some didn’t. But I discovered a lot in the process. I completely trusted my instincts. And it was telling me that, in the moment, this was the right sound. And if I didn’t have the sound I was looking for I would search for another until it felt right. There’s une citation [a quote], I can’t remember how you say it in English, I like to give as an example of this, which is from Picasso. It reads, ‘when I don’t have red, I paint with blue.’ What’s important is what you have to say, not what you’re using to say it. The synthesizers, sound generators, you use are not important. They’re accessories. You need them of course, but if you don’t have what you want, you use something else. In my case I prefer to build my own instruments, because I can do things that are more satisfying with them, but if I didn’t do that I would probably be like the hip hop guys, I would use what I have at hand to bang on and put the microphone in front of it. I really like electronics, I think it’s a material that allows you to open regions of sound so I would surely find a way to incorporate that in there somehow too. But the key is that I would do something with what I have because I have the urge to do these things, I feel I must do them as much as I can.

You have another quote from Picasso I like, ‘I never paint what I see, I paint what I think.’ You’ve talked about your attempt to have Visions of Dune be like an audio movie, a retelling of the book in audio format. Is it right to assume that this desire came from your background as a visual artist as you explained earlier?

Certainly. These were my visions of the book. At that time it was all extremely linked. My visual work was also about creating visions. The images or the visual effects weren’t important, what was important was the piling up of images on the screen and how your brain, when it sees them, cannot immediately perceive it all because some of them are abstract and moving. Some of the images would be realistic too, and that would trigger the brain to take another direction and start to imagine that it had seen something and this is really what interested me at the time. That extra perception Picasso talks about, which is imagination. And I thought you could push people to see things that aren’t there. You don’t know what they will see, everyone will see something that is personal, based on their life experiences, but they will see things that aren’t on the screen. At the beginning of the ’80s, I was doing these light shows in the Museum of Modern Art and there was an article where a journalist said, ‘I loved that moment I could see the golden motorcycles on the screen.’ And I’d never used a golden motorcycle image in the show. I’d never used one in my life. But that journalist saw one, and he did because his brain was triggered, he was imagining. He was doing what Picasso is talking about.

The press release for the album mentions your belief in the importance of an artist telling a full story. With Visions, that meant sequencing the album so it could be as close to one piece as possible and when you play live you have no breaks, no pause. Why is that important for you?

Because I am a storyteller. That’s the truth. I tell stories. I can do that with words, with music, with my body, the gestures I use on stage, not dancing, so it’s a complete thing, with a start, middle and end. Evolution is like that. It’s one hour long without any breaks. Throughout it I read some short texts I wrote, and these are from the skeleton of a story that I hope will trigger people’s imagination. It’s not a precise story, I hint at things and people are left to grab those and let their imagination take them further. They can fabricate their own stories, their own interpretations of what I am saying. But it is really a story, in which my new instruments participate and these instruments are also characters in the story. They’re more than just instruments. So I play with these people – well, they’re demons actually. I created these two instruments and named them demons. I use the Japanese word ‘yokai’ for them. Yokai implies mischievousness, like say spectres but some of them are pretty terrible demons in their own ways. When I started building them five months ago I imagined that they could be demons and that I would play with them, not play them. So that changes the interpretation of the whole thing, theoretically, intellectually of course. If you’re playing with forces you can’t master you’re liable to make mistakes, to have to react against the demons, which won’t make your life easy. So these instruments, with that concept in mind, they won’t make my life easy whilst I play with them.

I wanted to talk some more about the yokai, so we’ll do that in a minute, but closing on the reissue of Visions… you said one of the drives behind it is to introduce your work to a new generation?

Well… we’ll see about that. But hopefully it will. This is why I didn’t want to play the Visions of Dune album live on stage after the reissue, which was something that perhaps some people might feel was logical. To me it was something I wouldn’t do because that album is in the past. I fully respect that people can like it, love it and enjoy it with the re-issue but for me it is not something I have to say today. And I need to say the things I want to today. I will do that with the new project. I made a compromise in a way though, which was quite fun, in the shape of a remix of a track from Visions which is part of the new show. It’s totally different from the original though, much longer and more modern. It was fun to do and I worked on it with Almeeva. But what I want to play is what I need to express today. And in this new show my position is more that of a visual artist, someone who exhibits in art galleries, in the sense that these artists, and some musicians too, are people who I believe have ‘un regard sur le monde’ [ed note: loosely translated as a view of the world]. That’s what a real artist is to me. He watches the world and tries to express what he feels, what he thinks it is, what he understands of the world. And some of them also express their opinions, even political ones, but that’s not my case. I’m more interested in the poetic aspects I can perceive in the world that is around me. Sometimes it’s very harsh poetry, it’s ugly, but I can sense a form of poetry in the world.


I was going to ask about the positive and negative aspects of the re-issue and I think you’ve just answered that, by saying you don’t want your past to define your present.

I don’t want to keep on playing what could become an old success. It’s not what I want to do. I’m not very young and if I can’t do what I feel I should, what I feel I must, it’s not worth my while. My view when I made Visions and my view of life and the world as I see it today are completely different. This is why I’m trying to express what I feel now.

I have a quote I wanted to put to you, from an artist in Los Angeles, which I think is very relevant to your work on Visions, and the stuff you did in the ’80s. It’s not verbatim but it essentially says that there is a beauty in discovering music that is new to you, even if it’s 30 years old, and that strikes a chord with the sensibilities of the present you live in, like say the melodies or the arrangement. 

It’s very interesting. It hits a point I’m interested in. I have a form of contempt for musicians who speak only about their equipment, their gear and who spend time discussing what they do with it. I don’t believe in that, I believe in what are you saying with the music? Are you expressing something or just putting nice notes one after the other? I’m not interested in making nice music. I don’t even know that I can make nice music. What comes out of me is sometimes pretty awful and terrible. But it’s a form of reality, of how I can feel and sense the world. And to tell you the truth, the music I’ve made in the past few years is harsher, more rugged, like sandpaper, than what I did in Visions. And it’s perhaps because of my view on life which, even if it’s a little poetic, is also pessimistic. This is why events that happen in the world everyday, like the recent horrible execution of a journalist in Iraq, prove me right in a way. This is a terrible view of our humanity but 200 years since the Age of Enlightenment it seems that our capacity to be better, more humble and more honest has grown but simultaneously the exact opposite has also happened.

In a way, your music from the late ’70s to the mid-’80s sounds like the feelings of the time, of society at the time. It sounds like you captured the potential of those times, the feelings people had towards the future that we now live in.

The potential is probably more right than anything else. The music in a way relates to the future and the potentials more than the actual now I was living in. Maybe I’m not in sync with my time, maybe that’s why.

You were too futuristic in 1978, as the label said then, but today the music that was too futuristic then in the eyes of some is perfectly suited to the reality we live in.

Ok, so let’s hope the project I’m doing now isn’t going to have the same fate, because I won’t be around in 35 years! I don’t take myself too seriously, I believe a musician is a human being, with thoughts and views and the need for fun, but am also very serious and intense in what I do. I really try to be honest and to express what I really see, what I feel in my mind. But that doesn’t mean I have to be extremely pompous all the time.

What drove you away from music in the 1980s?

I found out that what I was producing was absolutely uninteresting to my mind. I thought it was boring, nothing was coming out of me that I had any interest for anymore. I felt empty, my capacity to compose was gone. That’s what I felt at the time. So I stopped and became a visual artist. I focused on visual arts. I started with painting, sculptures, then I did installations and nowadays I do all kinds expect I don’t paint anymore. My work has gotten more abstract, and more geared towards installations and the digital realm.

And so how did you find your way back to music?

Ha! It was a fan who found me online, maybe eight or nine years ago. He got in touch and wrote me a very charming email saying how much he loved my music, and he was clearly not just a fan, but someone who also loved music and had opinions on it. It was very interesting. He wanted to meet. I was so far away from music at the time that I avoided it. He kept coming back and after three months I agreed to meet him and have coffee. He was in his 30s, and when he was in front of me he became very intimidated. So I put him at ease and he showed me this magazine called Future Music, and in there was Carl Craig’s all time top 10, which included one of my solo albums.

Before showing me he asked if I knew Carl Craig. I said, no, I’ve not listened to music for years, I have no idea who he is. He went on to explain Detroit, techno and Craig’s place in it. When I saw one of my albums in the number one spot of this list I was really touched. I realised the work I’d done was not in vain. It did help some young people to find their own way, their own music. That was like a veil lifted from my eyes, I could see that maybe it was possible to start creating and composing music again. So then this young man asked if I still had my equipment and I said no, I’d given them all away when I stopped working on music. I gave them all to a school hoping it would help young kids to learn to write music. So then he asked about computers and gave me some software. And that’s how I started making music again, all inside a Mac computer with no hardware, just a laptop and a pair of headphones. I wrote four albums in five years like that. So this is really how I started making music again, thanks to this guy who lifted up my morale and also gave me the new tools I now use. I wouldn’t even have known how to start with software.

What a story. You found your way back through your old music in a way.

Yes, but I began to compose again for myself, very happily. I would write at night mostly, with the headphones. I’d spend my sleepless nights composing, and I wrote four different views of life and the world, which to me are the same thing. The life we live in this world, the view of the world and how we live in it is what I try to express in the music using four different types of music. Genres. My knowledge of music is limited as I don’t listen to it anymore, so when I was talking with this young guy he told me about some ‘new’ genres, and those are the ones I used. One was ambient, another electronica, which he said had more tempo in it, a third was electro rock, whatever that could be, I imagined a mixture of the two, and then the last was really my interpretation of classical music, fulfilling my life’s desire to have been a great classical, but contemporary, composer. So I took piano samples and composed piano pieces but without a keyboard, as I can’t play one. I composed them on the screen with a pencil, and note by note I put each one on the scales thinking about whether it was the right time, the right note, the right intensity, the resonance etc… it probably took one to five minutes for each note like this. So I composed twelve pieces, short ones, and the album is called 12 Pieces for Grand Piano and Invisible Pianist. It’s supposed to be more in the tradition of contemporary music but also melodic at the same time.

“It’s taken me something like 35 years to achieve my original aim.”

As you’ve mentioned before, Evolution is your new project.

Yes, with my two demons! The story, which I’ll touch on briefly, is about a man who calls his familiar demons until they appear to him. His demons are his desires, his hidden desires. He will become, for a while at least, a slave to these desires. He’ll respond to them and at the end I will let the public decide what has happened with this man. Did he learn to get rid of these desires? And the desires are really about vanities, and that relates to contemporary art too and a type of art that relates to death, which in French is called vanities. So there’s a voluntary ambiguity there – will this man, who may be me but isn’t but could be, or could be you, or anyone, come out of this experience stronger by challenging his inner demons? Or, on the contrary, will he end up completely possessed by them and turn out to be not very human anymore? People decide the ending. The text itself is very short, it’s about 8 minutes of speaking in the whole show which is an hour long. Just glimpses of what can happen in the mind of such a man.

And the show itself is the story?

Yes, with visuals and music. At one point in the story this man no longer has any carnal desires, he’s so taken by other things, and at that point I will project images created by Laurence Lenoir of the flesh that are really what I’ve been talking about. They don’t look like the flesh at all and yet perfectly evoke the idea of it. The sensuality of flesh, which the character can no longer perceive.

Where did you get the inspiration to use the Japanese word, and idea, for demons?

It was because I’d already built one. There are two. One is Akateko, he is the yokai of a child perched in a tree and you only see his hand, which is red. This was inspired by something visual which led me to try and create an instrument, a musical instrument, that could capture a particular image. The second yokai is called Mikoshiyudo, and he’s really my impersonation of me. He’s an old man but the more you look at him the more you risk dying. So he’s dangerous in that sense, because each time you look at him he grows bigger. So it was a bit of fun for me to imagine myself being the prey to my own wishes and desires of being famous. I tried to make fun of it and said that’s a demon. That’s why I looked to yokai for inspiration, because they allow you to really humanise these ideas, these emotions.

To finish I wanted to ask: what do you think older generations can teach the youth?

There was a young composer on Facebook who wrote to me the other day. He thought it was wonderful that my music could still teach him, and others, new things. He used the words “young generation”, I think. I replied that we can only teach the youth if they want to be taught, if they want to learn. This is what the older generations can bring: shortcuts in ways to discover art, music, whatever, shortcuts in discerning how life is wonderful and how we can try to keep it wonderful by creating. Many people have the ability to create but they have not been placed in a situation where they can and so they don’t even know that they could. That’s my perception anyways.

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