The Crafting of Interplanetary Folk: An Interview with Craig Leon

Posted by on July 17, 2014


Craig Leon is known in many circles as a producer. Active for more than two decades beginning in the early 70s, his output in that context is enormous and difficult to assess at a glance. In our interview, he jokes about incongruous entries in his past work; even the oddity of his own, less pop-oriented recordings existing alongside releases from the likes of Alan Ginsberg in the back catalog of a larger publisher. In the 80s, he released two stunning synthesizer albums shaped by an encounter with the Dogon, a Malian tribe with colorful traditions and a surprising grasp of astronomy for a long isolated culture. The intensely alien forms represented in their artwork inspired Leon to extrapolate a musical culture for the visitors he imagined, the people who had so overawed the Dogon as to leave a permanent mark on their understanding of the universe. The first result of that effort was Nommos.

Released at the cusp of the 80s on John Fahey’s Takoma Records (according to Leon, they wanted a “synth album” at the time), Nommos was also reissued last year by Superior Viaduct, though their license side-stepped Leon himself and used a different master. After more than a year of hearing this album in different forms, its more permanent reissue on RVNG — now bundled with his subsequent album, Visiting, and re-labelled to Leon’s original working title, Anthology of Interplanetary Folk — feels like the culmination of a long summer, though it only landed as of July 8th. For the definitive reissue, Leon was able to follow through on a long-held ambition to re-record the albums from his original notes, with some small additions made toward bridging the two collections. They compliment each other well, though Visiting represents a change in atmosphere, indicating to some extent the possibilities Leon generates within the framework of exploring the Dogon’s celestial visitors, the eponymous Nommos.

Leon was kind enough to spend some time on Skype covering more of the extended background and influences of both records, as well as a few particulars from his much varied career. Anthology of Interplanetary Folk is available now from RVNG Intl., and in a CD collection from Leon’s European publisher and the home for many of his classical outings, Harmonia Mundi.

What drew your interest to the Dogon?
I wasn’t studying anthropology or anything like that, it was an exhibition of art in New York in the 70s that repeated again later at the Brooklyn Museum… “Art of the Dogon.” Cassell and I saw it in a book and I was taken aback by the fact that their whole culture seemed to be representations of one thing, these creatures called the Nommos. It’s not a million miles away from representations of religious icons in Europe, you know, you get the same scenes over and over again. It’s obviously something that’s very prevalent in the psyche of people’s religions, and this was what the Dogon had. That led me a bit more into the mythology and the structure of their beliefs, and it turns out there was this story of beings from outer space who came down much like our angels and taught them civilization and sorts of things, organized them so to speak and gave them a religious structure… stuff that shows up a little bit in the Egyptian culture as well.

Dogon Exhibit

That is, visitations? Civilization emerging because of intervention?
Yeah, they had some very specific beliefs as to where these beings came from… when they were recorded by the anthropologists they described a star system that was quite unique. The anthropologists asked “How do the Dogon know where the Nommos came from?” and they answered “The Nommos told us.” They described a solar system with a dead star orbited by another, with planets revolving around that, and pointed to the one where the Nommos had come from. A lot of the details turned out to be pretty representative… we can see the Sirius system with a telescope, as they described it.

Not to be blasé about it, but that seemed like a reasonable sort of creation myth and I was already a big fan of speculative fiction, so I thought, okay, I’ll write a fictional musical piece as a sci-fi story about the music of the Nommos themselves, what they might have had with them when they arrived on Earth, as an extension of their bringing “knowledge” in this myth, like how to grow a crop, how to build a house. If they brought all that, surely they must have had some kind of art with them, or music of their own. So I made up a system that was loosely based on very simple African rhythms, like the earliest rhythms that we could find, and in very simple time signatures, usually 12 against 4/4, and very simple scales, we’d create the music, and it all blocked together over these rhythms. You find scales like that, not exactly the ones I’m talking about, but with the same technique as in ancient Phonecia and ancient Greece. So we said that’s the earliest musical material in that part of the Earth, they must have brought it with them. Of course then, because they were amphibious in all the Dogon’s representations, I thought they must have heard differently, so I made it quite a watery, edgy kind of sound to distinguish it from what we hear.

Is that interest in the material culture represented elsewhere on the albums?
The titles on Nommos and, to a lesser extent, Visiting – though we changed those a bit, because Visiting was conceived at the same time or very slightly after – are based on the names of the pieces that were in the Dogon exhibition. “She Wears A Hemispherical Skullcap” is named for a picture of a Nommos wearing a hemispherical skullcap, “Donkeys Bearing Cups” is a large Nommos riding on a donkey… [laughs] I think once that’s explained it makes a lot more sense or nonsense.

We can get into Frazer and The Golden Baugh, all that universal symbolism of everything, in all the different cultures… but it’s like, how can you humanize an alien? We wanted to give them a personality and a piece of music that might have been on their Walkman (what we listened with at the time). I think it serves a purpose to do that. Originally the piece was intended to be orchestral, which eventually may still be the case, since I have a lot of work already in orchestra music and now people are asking me to do new things, some of which will be orchestral and synthesized. That’s actually closer to what Visiting was, as Nommos had no acoustic instruments. Now, after many years a couple record labels are letting me loose to make new material… closer to Visiting, but, you know, different themes and tonalities.

I mean, one of the biggest influences on Nommos, musically, was George Antheil, who scored the Dadaist art film Ballet Mechanique in 1924. [Leon points to faded showbill on the wall behind him.] That came from Ezra Pound’s estate. He played bass drums with Antheil, who was trying to create a musical system based on our “industrial age,” which was still relatively new idea then. He composed some of the first sequential music to have drone in it, not always much, but it’s there. He tied several player pianos together and cut holes in each one to give them specific rhythmic patterns and they played together.

Are you much interested in working with your own kinds of “prepared music?”
Yea, I’m actually getting ready to do a show… I can’t announce where it is because they haven’t made it official yet, but later this year I’m going to do a transcription of Ballet Mechanique (I have permission from the publisher because fortunately they’re also mine) with synths, rather than player pianos, with an accompanying battery of percussion. That will be part one of the show and the Nommos orchestral will be part two.

In concert we’ve been doing Nommos mixed with a little bit of Visiting and other new stuff, kind of a halfway house version with a string quartet doing rhythm. We did that in St. Petersburg last year for the APositsia 9 Festival, MoogFest, and Le Poisson Rouge in New York (with ACME).

Have you enjoyed more of these recent performances?
They’ve gone really well, our position was very underground even though the show had a fair number of high profile people involved… the avant-garde isn’t at the top of the box office in Russia… what we did there was subsidized by the local government, not the evil one. MoogFest was great, we had full attendance in the hall for that, which was surprising… to me, at least… there may have been more people there than had bought Nommos the first time around. Le Poisson Rouge was good on a terrible, W.C. Fields “not a fit night for man nor beast” sort of night, one of the worst in New York for rain I’ve ever seen… about six inches in an hour.

Leon Live, w_ Visuals

Why is the reissue billed as “Volume 1…” ?
The full title is actually a play on the American Anthology of Folk Music put together by Harry Smith in the 50s. He was a devoted collector and became very knowledgeable about folklore, but was also very broke (he would have been at home on Takoma Records). When he received an offer to buy his collection of early folks records, rather than part with them, he worked instead to anthologize them. He ended up with…what he thought would be a great cross section of the American psyche in the 1920s up to when he was working. As an early liberal though, he actually thought that the collections – which had white and black music co-existing, almost interchangeably – would help end conflict between them. He was actually kind of right… the collection helped introduce a new generation to that music and inspired a protest movement. There’s an anecdote, I don’t know if it’s true, but in it Smith rightly predicts that “In fifty years we’ll have a black president.” So, mine is an anthology of Interplanetary folk, there aren’t any volumes 2, 3, or 4, though there may be, but really it was a joke on that. Why stop there though, I could say “In fifty years we’ll have an alien president.” Unfortunately Nommos isn’t really alien music, so I might have to find another legend to hang volume two on…

Can you tell us a little about Takoma’s involvement in the original release?
Takoma had done a couple of synth records before mine, John Fahey was a pretty eclectic guy… not an iconoclastic-folkie, “everything has to be organic and acoustic” guy, to say the least, and his manager/producer, Denny Bruce – who actually ran the label and was very much responsible for green-lighting Nommos – was into all sorts of music. He was managing a lot of folk artists, like John Fahey and Leo Kottke… blues artists like Buddy Guy, Mike Bloomfield, but he was quite electric himself. He’d been one of the original drummers for the Mothers of Invention. He was definitely into experimental music as well, so fortunately both of those guys saw Nommos as an obvious fit for Takoma when I approached them. They had a slot and wanted to do a synth album. They first asked a friend of mine who Denny also managed, Jack Nitzsche, to do one because he had a synthesizer… when it turned out he didn’t have time, Bruce and Fahey said, “Well, Craig should do one.” So I said, if it’s going to be on Takoma, it’s going to be a folk record… originally it would have had the full title, Anthology of Interplanetary Folk, but it was too big of a title and Peter Saville did such a lovely kind of monochromatic cover that we didn’t want type all over it.

Really though, I now feel like I have Nommos and Visiting where I intended them to be in the definitive “synth” version of the collection, because they both fit together. There are correlations between both — the key signatures, the tempo of the songs, and particularly now with the linking material we recorded.

Craig Leon - Nommos

[Above: Saville’s original LP artwork.]

How much new material was prepared for that purpose?
Not a lot. The beautiful thing about electronic music is that if you save your patches and equipment, and digitize what you’ve got, it will pretty much sound the same. Though we didn’t do as much to change Visiting, but in Nommos… there are new drones, a different “echo” obviously, and a few things were added and replaced to improve fidelity, but the notes are the same — as they will be in the orchestral version. The big linking bits were actually done in 1995, new drones to help with transitions.

Generally the new version seemed more full-bodied to me.
It’s much more widescreen because we had… better recording! The old recording is analog, and doesn’t have a great frequency response, and though the patches may be the same, the actual EQ and compression is much wider in the new version than what we had then. I mean, it was very primitive recording synths back then, no sequencers and digital recording had really just been invented, but it wasn’t for synths yet… just an experimental thing that some companies like 3M were doing [Editor’s Note: 3M was also designing a lot of digital production technology at the same time]. So all of that stuff was pretty much played in and looped to analog tape, or then manipulated and played, or physically played. We had a lot of limitations, crosstalk and distortion, though most of the sound is still the same.

Were you already planning a proper reissue when you started recording new material in 1995?
Yea, I was going to put them together because CDs existed, so we could start to think about a full length version of them. I was going to do it then, but the problem was at the time and until very recently I wanted to release it with both the old and new recordings. Takoma went through a whole bunch of owners, becoming more and more corporate over the course of several incarnations, and it didn’t look like I’d be able to work around our contract. I wanted to do it again in 2008, but it always ended up on the backburner because I’ve always been doing other things. Hats off to Matt at RVNG for perceiving the commercial viability, because it isn’t going to be a huge money-maker by any stretch of the imagination. Eventually I heard terrible bootlegs and decided to finish it off.

Were changes at Takoma why ‘Visiting’ was released on your own Arbitor imprint?
Exactly. Denny Bruce and I put together the label with a new distributor, Greenworld Distribution, who would eventually become Enigma Records. They were very experimental guys and they helped put it out. It would have been on Takoma, but they had been absorbed into another company, so John and Denny no longer had a stake in it. For a little while Lenny Bruce and Nommos were in the same catalog, with Alan Ginsberg!

How did your focus shift more into classical music?
I actually started off in classical work, as a kid, learning to play piano and composition and copying string charts, things like that. But it was the 60s — [was] Beethoven really relevant? We wanted Jefferson Airplane and things like that… it’s funny to remember. I didn’t abandon classical or avant-garde music, but I did sort of “come back” to it as the day job because… well, we’d rounded off Blondie’s career, which I was involved with since the beginning, peripherally all throughout. They reunited on an ultimate set of circumstances combined with laziness, they never broke up… they recorded an album in 1982 and their next, No Exit, wasn’t out until 1999. I worked on that and we had a good international hit, not so much in America, but #1 in something like 19 countries. I thought, well, that’s a good cyclical thing, now maybe I’ll go back and do what I want to do for the rest of my life, rather than just those few things that you can do, like producing, which is kind of like enhancing or trying to bring out something – there’s an artist, sometimes an intuitive one, but that just emphasizes the difference between intuitive and formal artists. I thought, “I know how to formally write things, so why don’t I try to get more into that?” Have artists interpret what I was doing… the problem was really that I couldn’t find as many artists that I liked in pop.

I worked on four or five albums for Virgin, that were orchestral with synths, with a guy who’d previously worked on some esoteric stuff with my partner Cassell Webb. Not a lot of people know those though. She’s from Texas so there’s this sort of Texas folk writing done with synths in the orchestra, beautiful albums that saw some demand in Europe but have been virtually unknown in America. But he became an A&R guy for Decca, which at that time was a big classical label, and he said he was going to turn me loose. All his artists were complaining that they had nothing new to do, so all of a sudden I was creating new concert repertoire and recording for Luciano Pavarotti and Andreas Scholl. I love on my website where I have the Ramones, Suicide, and Luciano listed in my past work. Joshua Bell too, to his chagrin. I did a very successful album of… kind of like the old 50s violin encore albums that Isaac Stern did, or Fritz Kreisler, even earlier. I did an orchestral chamber one with Joshua Bell playing various bits of vocal music that I rearranged, with Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and that was probably one of the most successful albums in Sony’s classical catalog, which I guess is why they indulge me by letting me make a few records now and then.

Craig Leon with partner Cassell Webb

Does a lot of your production work take place under the ‘Atlas Realisations’ heading?
Yea, it was my company from the very beginning, back in the 70s actually. I wanted to work with music from all over the world. A lot of what I do with classical is take music from other and ancient cultures, early music, and put it into my own modernized settings for concert hall, which is very traditional. So Atlas Realisations fits that. I learned about the record business and A&R from this sort of genius, old entrepreneur, and his advice was always, “If you’re going to have a new label, start its name with an ‘A,’ because you’ll be at the top of the list “[laughs].

How do you feel about contemporary electronic music?
I think a lot is just watered down pop… I feel like the medium could be so wide open for new things. I’m not puffing myself up here or anything, but Nommos is almost forty years old, and George Antheil – whose work pre-dates synths, 80, 90 years old – still sounds pretty wacked out to me. I could even just say more individualistic, because I think people could take it to a whole new level, and create a new genre… I’m trying to get synths integrated with orchestral music in a way that’s listenable. I think Nommos is close in the orchestral version because it can be played by someone without me. There are no recordings of really brilliant writers like Beethoven, so you have people’s interpretations of what they think he wrote, even though he was very specific in what he told them to do… they ignored the instructions, you know, why not? But I’ll enjoy having things set up so that people can actually “play” electronic music… and really a lot is found music, like My Life in the Bush of Ghosts did that really well, and it’s never been topped. Annette Peacock certainly did it right. But that found stuff can still be pretty strongly associated with what’s progressive in electronic music.

Ultimately I need to get the synth bits of Nommos better charted out and I’ve actually been speaking with Moog about integrating voltage control more evenly into orchestral instruments — you can do it, but I want to do it better, so everything doesn’t sound like a Theremin.

Craig Leon and Malcom Cecil in the Moog Sound Lab, Moogfest 2014

Are you in a position to talk about any upcoming projects or collaborations?
I have a few classical projects I can’t talk about, though I’ll actually be touring with someone that… if it works out, would be a very different pairing, not at all what people are going to expect. There are a couple of people who’ve asked me to do concerts with younger electronic artists, and I don’t know who I could necessarily jam with or who would do well with me. There’s one thing I may do with a French artist, Bérangère Maximin, but she actually does musique concrète. I definitely tend to want to play with older artists that I’m influenced by and who are still around. I did some very informal sessions with Famadou Don Moye and Sabir Mateen in Russia. Sabir was the principal saxophonist in Sun Ra’s orchestra for a while, among other things, and Famadou, again among many other things, worked with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I think we made some pretty good noise. One of the found music electronic people that I like is Holly Herndon, on RVNG, but still, who knows… it’s like chalk and cheese. She is making some inroads in computer generated music though, with found music, which is interesting. I also did a little duet with Malcolm Cecil at MoogFest, him on jazz bass – which he played jazz bass before refocusing on synths for Expanding Head Band – and I was on the moog and we ran everything through voltage control and messed around with it, so I may do something with him.