SANE HYSTERIA: THE MUSIC OF GHEDALIA TAZARTES
By David Grundy
Ghédalia Tazartès’ music comes from everywhere, and nowhere. One would thus be tempted to call it a kind of sonic utopia, the imaginary concoction of a place of diverse accents and melodies, a Pangaea-like state. One would be thus tempted, if the music was not so profoundly concerned with, and related to, the material realities of the now – in its use of cheesy keyboard sounds, modern recording technologies, and the most ancient and, conversely, the most immediately accessible of all sounds – the human voice, in all its guises and disguises: high, low, fast, slow, amused and despairing. Ghédalia Tazartès: voice-box, juke-box, ventriloquist, mouthpiece.
His music, then, runs the gamut: no utopia, no idealisation, but the gamut of human emotion and invention traversed, even if only dipped into by the faintest touch of the toes; a manic but scatty musical encyclopaedism which shows up the absurdity of its own project and revels in this, at the same time realising it as part of a flawed human condition, where relation is unclear and where leaps in logic and association are just part of the helter-skelter tapestry of thought and life, at once exhilarating and terrifyingly tipping to the abyss, spinning out of control into who knows what void.
I said that Tazartès’ music comes from everywhere and nowhere. But of course I should have said that it comes from himself. As the liner notes to one of his records put it, “Ghédalia is the orchestra and a pop group all in one person: the solitary opera explodes himself into an infinity of characters.” He is indeed a one-man orchestra, generating almost all of the sounds on his records and patching them together by overdubbing, though of course his use of sampled sounds and interactions with traditions, however warped and barely-recognisable, lets something else speak through him. What that something that speaks is, is what constitutes the compelling individuality of his sound, even as it seems to come from something beyond individuality. To adopt the title of one of his pieces, the music of Ghédalia Tazartès might also be ‘Le Dernier Concert’: the last music in the world, the only thing that is left but which contains within itself every other kind of music there has been; so utterly singular as to sound like very little else, in its totality, yet so peppered with reference and sonic similarity that it almost overburdens itself to the point where chaos sinks to noise, or to silence. Poised on that edge, dancing crazily all the while, one finds the enigmatic figure of Ghédalia Tazartès.
Who, though, is this man? Paris resident, he was born to Turkish parents in 1947 (making him just over 60 at the time of writing, though it’s hard to tell his age from the available photographs, given the ever-present Trilby which covers the upper part of his head). There’s not really that much detailed information to go on, although the recent interview in ‘The Wire’ magazine has prompted him out of the obscurity in which he was immersed for so many years, since the recording of his first album in 1979. We can even view images of the apartment in which he has lived since 1967. It’s not so much cluttered as packed full of things: a mirror ball hangs from the ceiling and a set of pan-pipes hangs on the wall above a hat, next to which a globe perches precariously on the top of a very large speaker, both leaning at rather lop-sided angles, while a pair of rather antiquated-looking keyboards are wrapped in plastic as if they haven’t been touched since purchase. Such diversity, of course, makes its way into the music, and it’s therefore possible to see how the man’s life is connected with his output (he goes as far as to say that he doesn’t know if he would be a musician without his apartment). But I’d want to be cautious about biographizing things too much, as that would lose us the wonderful singularity which these works of art so obviously gift us.
If the man’s biography is obscure, the music trail he’s left isn’t much better-known. Between his 1979 debut, ‘Diasporas’, and his latest album, ‘Hysterie Off Musique’ (reviewed in the previous issue of ‘eartrip’), he’s released a total of ten albums, not all of them full-length, on various labels. Not the largest corpus over a thirty-year period, and not the most easily-accessible, either: many of the albums are either out-of-print or extremely hard to get hold of, despite a number of re-issues, meaning that few people actually have the chance to listen to the music, even if they have heard of its elusive producer.
I came across Tazartès quite by chance: browsing a ‘sharity’ blog under the ‘experimental’ tag, I came across a download link for an album entitled ‘Tazartès Tansports.’ I knew nothing about the artist or any other recording details – even the date of release – but the music was utterly captivating and I listened to the album repeatedly over the next few days. Utterly disregarding any generic conventions, any categorisation, I found ‘Transports’ to unfold in a manner that was both hypnotic and disorienting, full of what seemed to be echoes of other musics, but ending up sounding like nothing else I’d heard. Vocal samples wove their way in and out of the music: often, these were gravely beautiful, Arabic-sounding melodies, sometimes played normally in the midst of much complex electronic trickery, sometimes speeded up, sometimes slowing down, sometimes simply allowed to unfold in a quietly meditative haze. The same samples re-appeared on different tracks, a woman’s laughter sounding light and airy on one piece, sinister and nightmarish on another, dissonant noise building up underneath until, just at the climactic moment, the music unexpectedly switched direction for a moody, vaguely Oriental soundscape full of high-pitched electronic speaks and sqanks and something that sounded like a bird…or a cicada. Screams of “All animals have personalities” added a comedic touch to the fifth piece, and at another point, Tazartès produced something which, for a few seconds, seemed strangely like an Evan Parker saxophone solo. ‘Transports’ was intriguing not just for the sheer variety of sounds, but for the way it merged the human and the machine, the emotional and the robotic, cutting-edge electronic sounds with the simplicity of ancient melody.
Before popping Tazartès’ name into google (as one does), I thought that this must be contemporary electronic music, of the Autechre/Aphex Twin variety (though a lot stranger) – my evidence being the dirty groove of ‘Transports 10’, and the squelchy, watery sounds heard on ‘Transports 8’, which are familiar effects in clubs today (though what Tazartès does with them this isn’t exactly what I’d call dance-able).Unbelievably, though, I discovered that it had been recorded back in the 1980s (with three more recent, slightly less adventurous bonus tracks). Such a historical disjunct, such an apparent impossibility, seems even more extreme than Miles Davis’ anticipation of so many developments in contemporary dance and electronic music on ‘On the Corner’. Stranger still because, whereas Miles’ album sprang to fame (or, to put it more accurately, to infamy), Tazartès work simply never appeared in the entire official story of musical development, even in accounts which pride themselves on delving into the most obscure corners, investigating the dustiest and most untouched nooks and crannies.
This might actually be a good thing, as well as a manifest injustice. The fact that this is not a ‘known’ music (let alone ‘well-known’) allows one to focus solely on the sound, shatters a reliance on knowing ‘background detail’, on explaining what one hears as the manifestation of some extra-musical trend. And that is surely the best way to approach any music, not just Tazartès’ perplexions. In the rest of the article, then, I’ll explore in detail some of the man’s recorded output and see what I can make of it, with as little resource to biography or background as I can (although I’ll also try to avoid presenting it as something hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world).
To begin, then, with the first record, ‘Diasporas’, released in 1979 on the Cobalt label. A pair of pieces which are, respectively, the fourth and fifth tracks on the album, succinctly demonstrate the mixture of more traditional sounding, acoustic work and more experimental electronics. ‘Quasimodo Tango’, a fairly straight tango piece by French electroacoustic composer Michel Chion, is nonetheless made odd both by its subject (the odd/grotesque pairing of Hugo’s hunchback of Notre Dame with tango), and the way Tazartès’ voice comes in and out of the mix. ‘Reviens’, meanwhile, is off in entirely stranger territory, and has to be heard to be believed.
Of course, there’s much more on the record than just these two short tracks, and it’s worth considering the ‘thematic backdrop’ to the whole. A diaspora is the dispersion of people from their original homeland, and so one could hear the music as reflecting some of this (often deeply distressing) sense of loss and change; but at the same time Tazartès’ diasporas create their own new homeland through music, a geographically unspecific region drawing on many cultures – a kind of cultural home. This is a new flexibility of nationhood and being, belonging. The utopian ideal realised in music! Babel vanquished! Or maybe more something closer to the imaginative visions of Rimbaud in ‘Illuminations’, pushed to the brink of meaning in an aesthetic experience which, perhaps, realises what can, or does not exist in the ‘other’ world, the ‘real’, the ‘physical one’.
There might be a fair share of worry (even guilt) behind this, as well as celebration, and we find this a few years later with ‘Transports’. As Jan Opdebeeck puts it, “Transports is a dark, jagged record which maybe even stages a social reality; a feeling which is evoked by the (trying, aggressive, shying…) way of speaking and singing, and the diversity of contexts (which are provided with a social charge) and manipulations.”
That’s not to say that there’s oppressive doom and gloom: indeed, the previously-mentioned ‘Transports 5’ adds a broadly comedic touch, with Tazartès screaming “all animals have personalities” in completely whacked-out fashion. Nonetheless, there are definite moments of melancholy: ‘Transports 6’ sounds like it’s a vocal with instrumental accompaniment (a dulcimer, a piano?) being played backwards, giving it that trippy effect familiar from the Beatles’ work after their return from India, but with a more introverted, mournful quality, as a second vocal strand is overdubbed at the end and the voices gracefully entwine, before an abrupt cut into the harsh chanting and grunts of the next piece. Meanwhile, ‘Transports 2’ which piles up a thicket of electronic sounds, clanging church bells overlaid with various whines and buzzings, before a pensive clarinet lays a melody over the top.
What’s intriguing about these last two pieces, and the album as a whole, is the way they merge the human and the machine, the emotional and the robotic, cutting-edge electronic sounds with the simplicity of an ancient melody. It’s the sort of concept that could easily overwhelm the work, or just come across as crude, but, as it is, Tazartès pulls it off magnificently.
‘Tazartès’ (1987) finds the artist using his new keyboard to create drones and weird multi-tracked figures that repeat round themselves in filigree swirls, all underneath his vocals, whether declaimed as on ‘Merci Stéphane’, or leading a dance on ‘Yama Yama’. Signs of the times (the taint of the 80s) are also the repeating beats, though the majority of these might as well have come from any time – the repeating guitar loop and percussion sounds on ‘Merci Stéphane’could have come from a 70s jazz-funk record. And that’s why Tazartès’ music is like ‘counterfactual’ history: a vision of what music might have been, the creation of an impossible fantasy whose impossibility is nonetheless challenged because it is perfectly audible on these records.
At this stage, it might be worth quoting Matt Ingram, a.k.a. Woebot, whose blog contains some thoughts on Mr Tazartès which seem particularly apposite to our lines of enquiry at this point. “Key to the proceedings is the character Tazartès presents to us. His is a profoundly Burroughsian vision. Like Burroughs’s story ‘the talking arsehole’, concerning the boundary between matter, flesh and character, Tazartès poses uncomfortable questions about the Western conception of “the human”. Distorting his voice into a cretinous rasp, ululating like an animal, wailing like a child, smearing the boundaries between Arabic and French pronunciations and languages he is always engrossing to listen to. In some senses the accompanying electronics, which form the score to his voice, would be of secondary interest were the concrete pile-up of found sound and prehistoric mantra-onics not so equally fascinating. Tazartès adopted the pose of Tibetan Bedroom Buddha decades before the likes of The Aphex Twin and his ilk, and it’s a cruel shame that his work isn’t more widely admired.”
There’s a lot to unpack, and admire, in this account; most of all, I think that Ingram’s emphasis on Tazartès’ self-presentation, as character, is an instructive one. To a certain extent, there’s a really explicit sense that Tazartès is creating this identity called ‘Ghédalia Tazartès’, whether it be real or fictive, or a mixture of both. Either way, it’s the weird case of an identity created solely through music (only in recent years has Tazartès’ visage become visible, through photos in the scattered available interviews – most recently, that in The Wire – and through the concert appearances, perhaps sparked by that Wire coverage). Due to this fact, and due to the magpie, polymorphous nature of the musical identity itself, one could argue that Tazartès is enacting some sort of an escape from a fixed identity – or, to put it another way, is multiplying his identities out, constructing a hosts of selves which refuse a compartmentalisation of self off from experience, from tradition and from the world. Both more honest and more whimsically fictive than something more stable, it teases out certain philosophical profundities through its playful teasing; labour disguised as play, thoughtfulness disguised as wild, mischievous anarchism. Maybe more than this – the breakdown of such simple oppositional categorisation, so that labour and play, thoughtfulness and the mischievous, seriousness and humour, collapse into each other, in almost dialectical resolution, which one would hesitate to call a resolution at all.
‘Un Ivrogne Sur Le Mont Blanc’ – ‘A Drunkard on Mont Blanc’: the title suggests a deliciously absurd and rather precarious situation whose whimsical conception seems typical of the way that Tazartès mind works. His shivery vocals hint at the mountainous chill; underneath, the processed keyboard sounds remind one of Indian tablas, though this reminiscent is conditional on a realisation that they are an imitation. The very falsity of this imitation is highlighted – one realises that these are not tablas almost straightaway – so that these see more like the idea of tablas, the reconstructed dream, the treated reminiscence of the quality of sound present in tablas (perhaps arising from the hazy fog in the mind of the titular drunkard). Tablas, then, function as a kind of spiritual presence: abstracted from their environment (the music Tazartès spins round them has little in common with the Indian classical music where the instruments are normally found) and from themselves (these are not actually tablas), there is nevertheless a kind of affinity which one might call the ‘spirit’ of tablas.
‘Elle Eut Des Étouffement Aux Premières Chaleurs Quand Les Poiriers Fleurirent’ is a line from Flaubert’s Madam Bovary: “With the first warm weather, when the pear trees began to blossom, she suffered from shortness of breath.” It would be foolish to go so far as to seeing the piece as an explicit illustration of that line – particular as it is completely ripped from the context of the novel’s narrative, so that it suggests its own, separate narrative, becoming poeticised into a statement whose propositionality is made to suggest a hovering, non-propositional sense which surrounds it like an aura. Rather, the piece relates to its title in the same way that the non-propositional aura relates to the statement it surrounds, in a mysterious fashion which one cannot identify precisely – and which one could easily discard completely. Yet the desire is to retain it, to cling to the mystery at the same time as wishing to probe it – a conflicted urge which somehow re-imagines conflict as pleasure (and thus, might it not be too fanciful to say, attempts to negate conflict’s divisive and destructive force).
Tazartès’ declamatory, multi-tracked vocals are faintly reminiscent of a Turkish muezzin’s call to Friday prayers, before a startling jump cut creates the impression that his voice has morphed into that of a woman singing a-quasi operatic aria. I call that moment a jump cut, and I think it has the same disorienting effect as the filmic technique pioneered by Jean-Luc Godard in ‘A Bout de Souffle’: the violation of the 360-degree rule whereby two shots shown in succession must be 360-degrees apart; the result of breaking this rule is that the eyes perceives a jump, a leap between the two shots, disrupting the smooth continuity of perception that we expect from the moving image. The impression is one of simultaneous disruption and an odd merging – where what seem like two unrelated images are at the same time revealed to in fact be very nearly the same shot, and thus create a puzzling near-simultaneous conjunction and disjunction, literally in the blinking of an eye – a process too fast to be fully comprehended by the human brain before it has gone. Tazartès’ sudden switch from his own voice to that of the female singer has a similar quality, although its process is essentially a reversal of that I have described: what initially seems to be the same voice (Tazartès cuts himself off at a point when he is singing in quite a high register) is revealed to be that of a different person: what the ear, the mind perceives as the same voice is actually a different one, an odd merging which is actually illusory but which suggests a continuum of voices that once more refuses to create polite boundaries, this time between singers. The woman’s aria is at first accompanied, then slowly interrupted by short samples of applause triggered by drum taps which at first sound like firework; the background having dissolved the song, Tazartès re-enters, his gentle and tender multi-tracked song over a quiet, almost inaudible keyboard accompaniment abruptly cutting into Middle-Eastern style declamations (again, multi-tracked) over looped percussion. Appropriately enough, the track cuts off in peremptory fashion, this final section forcibly concluded by the sound of something crashing over – perhaps the singer falling off a chair.
‘Check Point Charlie’ (1990) extends the technique of ‘Elle Eut…’, bringing together a number of short fragments into one continuous piece in suite-like fashion. ‘Traces des Coups’, the 15-minute long opening track ends with a quasi-medieval instrumental passage whose strangeness is amplified by being played on a rather tacky 1980s keyboard. It is as if Tazartès simultaneously realises the absurdity of the sounds but mitigates this by treating the instrument completely seriously, playing beautiful music on an un-beautiful instrument. Yet this is the opposite of the po-faced seriousness and ersatz grandeur of Vangelis or Jean-Michel Jarre; rather, it is a seriousness which is simultaneously absolutely genuine and completely absurd and hilarious. And that is frequently Tazartès’ secret. He makes ‘funny’ vocal sounds, sings in a high-pitched shriek of a low croaky groan, enacts little dramas and dances, references styles in a manner that defies common sense, that hints at narrative but refuses to be linear, that suggests unity but only through dislocation.
The second track, ‘Charlie’s Retire’, makes use of more varied spoken word. Tazartès uses snippets and loops from an absurd English dialogue he recorded with a young woman, peppering the final cut with “bloopers,” thus playing on both levels (the fiction and the creation of the fiction) at the same time. The dialogue also seems to contain some sort of political comment, though one which emerges from associations which seem deliberately randomized, in an almost improvisatory fashion, rather than from absolute specificity of intention. What one is presented with, then, is a patchwork of voices in which one ‘reads’ or ‘listens’ to the words with new meanings in different contexts – there is talk about officers, about liking where one is, which is not here, which cannot help but suggest displacement the imprisonment, enforcement and exclusion created by the Berlin Wall, at the same time as the fantasies it might generate (the desire not to be trapped where one is, to be ‘not here’, or nowhere), all undercut by a sexual, vaguely sado-masochistic edge.
Six years later comes ‘Voyage a L’Ombre’ (1996). The first seven tracks form a suite of short, linked pieces, the longest being 4 minutes long, the shortest only 40 seconds. ‘Voyage a L’Ombre 1’ comes across like some demented distortion of Kurt Weill, Tazartès’ high-pitched singing accompanied by the muffled, crackly sounds of what appears to be a looped recording of old-fashioned danced music. The following piece finds him again in a high-pitched register, his voice quavering in patterns that twist around opening and closing held notes, the sung phrases of similar lengths over a keyboard-loop and occasional bursts of a drum machine creating a repetitive, locked-in structure. Switching to a gruff growl, he sings over the unconventional rhythmic backdrop created from a loop of clapping hands and a child’s laughter, before his own voice drops out for a short burst of a soprano singing what sounds like an unaccompanied opera aria. This is then electronically distorted, fading in and out of the texture as if it were trying to push itself back into the pure clarity of its initial manifestation, quickly reaching complete failure as a new keyboard loop begins and establishes itself as the backdrop for the next few minutes. Over this, Tazartès once more comes in, deploying laughter as a musical device, in a hysterical and fairly disturbing way which is nonetheless near to being absolutely hilarious, especially as he adopts a ridiculous, hectoring high-pitched speech-sung register full of rolling ‘r’s and yawning vowels. The keyboard loop, with its faint delay setting, is left to its own devices for the next few minutes, and the suite ends with another brief fragment of song, Tazartès quietly spinning variations on simple melodic shapes, as if singing to himself, the faintest traces of electronic accompaniment (reminiscent of a whirring fan) and the slightest sounds of distant human activity suggesting that the setting is his apartment, the window open at a quiet and contemplative time of day.
As indicated by this account, a significant characteristic of the album is the way in which several voices are juxtaposed: one voice or a group of voices sing out a melody or variations, which are then looped alongside a speaking voice – or a voice making sounds somewhere between music and speech, such as the gurgling baby and the nonsense syllable soothings of the parent in ‘Berceuse’. The latter is an instance which also questions notions of what constitutes a conversation – for, though neither can really understand what the other is saying, in a propositional, semantic sense, meaning is nevertheless communicated in a different way – a kind of communication poised between the meaning-based sounds of language and the less obviously significatory sounds of music, which collapses the boundaries between the two. As Jan Opdebeeck puts it, “speech, singing, and music lose their identity as it were, only to become absorbed in the abstract, choral composition.”
Such resistance of categorisation is paralleled in the piece’s other ambiguities: what sounds like a flute setting on a keyboard plays unquiet, rather unsettling chromatic lines underneath the baby’s happy gurgles and Tazartès’ own lullaby whisperings, ending with just the voice and faint traffic rumble. It’s not your conventionally peaceful lullaby, but manages an intimacy arguably far greater than in such a convention – a deeply loving and tender urge to sleep which encompasses the fears that yet lurk within this act – whether they be the fears of the child, unwilling to cease its wide-eyed wondering gaze at the world, or the fears and worries of the parent whose own experience tempers his enjoyment of such an innocent vision of the world. As such, it’s probably the most convincing musical exploration of parenthood in existence – and yet it is far from being simply this. That one interpretation, I’m sure, is just one of many that could be made, and which it would do an injustice to the piece to ascribe as the sole ‘meaning’.
The French word ‘ombre’ means shadow or shade, darkness or obscurity, and the disc’s title thus translates as something like ‘Voyage to the Shadows’. But I think it might not be too fanciful to pick up on the sonic similarity between ‘Ombre’ and ‘Homme’, man – this is a journey of man, or of a man, in and around the shadows which he inhabits and which are at the unreachable, the undecipherable parts of his actual existence – which could mean a kind of interior journey into the heart of the self, an examination of the very nature of one’s being, of the aspects of one’s being which one still knows so little about.
It could also be one of those journeys of development – the life of man, the different stages of life, though not in the traditional linear fashion. Rather, I’d see it as being an interaction between different stages, merging the perceptions and perspectives with which experience is viewed: child-like but knowing, infantile but wise – a kind of dramatisation of the relation between different generations (most specifically, as we heard in ‘Berceuse’, between parent and child) which simultaneously takes the role of all its main actors, both assuming the perspective of none and the perspective of all.
That interpretation, I think, is supported by the front cover – or, if not supported, prompted by it. A photograph shows a baby looking at the camera. Sunlight would be streaming onto his face, blinding him, were it not for the protective hand held up by the woman who cradles him in her arms – her gesture gives more than a hint of religious iconography, the photograph echoing a serene painting of Madonna and Child. The baby’s look is as ambiguous as baby’s expressions so often are: between the smile into which it will probably evolve, simple drop-jawed wonder and surprise, and an almost vacant uncertainty. It’s exactly the same kind of hovering enacted by the ‘Berceuse’ piece.
One might also reflect that the shadow which the mother’s hand places over the child’s face is a protective one. This would mitigate against the way we might be tempted to read the ‘Ombre’ in ‘Voyage a L’Ombre’ as having negative connotations – death, shades of hell, uncertainty, the unknown, the echo of originating objects which are absent or unseen (as shadows are the echo of the objects which cast them). Rather, the shadow is a protection from the blinding sunlight which would, paradoxically, not enable one to see (the opposite of light’s usual function).
“Human kind cannot bear very much reality”, as Eliot put it: this shielding off is thus a necessary reaction to an overabundance of sensory experience, that kind of overwhelming volume of data which one might expect to be a baby’s initial impression of the world and which must soon coalesce into more organised impressions, impressions which shut off certain data as irrelevant in a selection of what is relevant at that particular moment. This development might not be unambiguously celebrated – it involves the narrowing off of perception as well as its clarification, the hardening into set ways and modes of viewing the world, the development of prejudice and blinkered version.
And one might now feel tempted into another interpretation of the album: that in its gleeful refusal of boundaries and-deliberately un-categorisable, un-placeable strangeness, it reconstructs the infant state. Yet I would argue that there is by no means a regressive desire for the naively innocent over-abundance of the initial child-like perception; rather, knowingness exists alongside unknowingness in a way that is both fertile and exists as the worrisome reminder of processes that are more complex than we would like them to be: simultaneous loss and gain, a Hegelian inseparability of progress and decline.
There is more, much more, but for now, let’s content ourselves with Tazartès’ latest album, ‘Hysterie Off Musique’ (2007). Individual tracks are named after particular genres (Soul, Country, etc), but this is clearly ironic, for the artist encompasses and moves beyond so many genres that to limit himself to one would be not merely undesirable, but, one suspects, virtually impossible. ‘Soul’ is ‘soul’ in the sense of passion, emotion, more than the sense of a particular genre of twentieth-century African-American music. Tazartès, it seems, is more interested in the emotions and significations behind genres than in their explicit content or even form.
Perhaps no better concluding words can be found than Tazartès’ own, from The Wire Interview: “My music is like human nature, which is paradoxical. If somebody falls over, you laugh. But he has to fall over for real. If he’s pretending to fall over, nobody laughs. When it’s completely serious, then it’s funny.” And that is frequently Tazartès’ secret. He makes ‘funny’ vocal sounds, sings in a high-pitched shriek of a low croaky groan, enacts little dramas and dances, references styles in a manner that defies common sense, that hints at narrative but refuses to be linear, that suggests unity but only through dislocation. It verges on the ‘hysteria’ referenced in the title to this latest album, but, the more you think about it, the more you realise it’s the sanest hysteria you’ve heard.