R.I.P. Vangelis: The Composer Who Created the Future Noir Soundtrack for Blade Runner Dies at 79

It would be difficult to overstate the prominence, in the late twentieth century, of the theme from Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire. Most anyone under the age of 60 will have heard it many times as parody before ever seeing it in its original, Academy Award-winning context. Unfortunately, encountering the piece in nearly every humorous slow-motion running scene for two or three decades straight has a way of dampening its impact. But back in 1981, to score a nineteen-twenties period drama with brand-new digital synthesizers marked a brazen departure from convention, as well as the beginning of a trend of musical anachronism in cinema (which would manifest even in the likes of Dirty Dancing).

The Chariots of Fire theme has surely returned to many of our playlists after the death this week of its composer, Vangelis. Even before that film, he’d collaborated with Hudson on documentaries and commercials; immediately thereafter, he found himself in great demand as a composer for features.

The very next year, in fact, saw Vangelis crafting a score that has, perhaps, remained even more respected over time than the one he did for Chariots of Fire. Set in the far-flung year of 2019, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner needed a high-tech sound that also reflected its “future noir” sensibility. This neatly suited Vangelis’ proven ability to combine cutting-edge electronic instruments with traditional acoustic ones in a highly evocative fashion.

Blade Runner‘s formidable influence owes primarily to its visuals, to the “look and feel” of its imagined future. But I defy fans of the film to remember any of its most striking images — the infernal skyline of 2019 Los Angeles, the cars flying between video-illuminated skyscrapers, Deckard’s first meeting with Rachael — without also hearing Vangelis’ music in their heads. Though it took audiences decades to catch up with Blade Runner, it’s now more or less settled that each element of the film complements all the others in creating a dystopian vision still, in many ways, unsurpassable. Vangelis’ own experiences across genres and technologies, which you can learn more about in the documentary Vangelis and the Journey to Ithaka, placed him ideally to imbue that vision with musical life.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Jean-Paul Sartre & Albert Camus: Their Friendship and the Bitter Feud That Ended It

At the end of World War II, as Europe lay in ruins, so too did its “intellectual landscape,” notes the Living Philosophy video above. In the midst of this “intellectual crater” a number of great thinkers debated “the blueprint for the future.” Feminist philosopher and novelist Simone de Beauvoir put it bluntly: “We were to provide the postwar era with its ideology.” Two names — De Beauvoir’s partner Jean-Paul Sartre and his friend Albert Camus — came to define that ideology in the philosophy broadly known as Existentialism.

The two first met in Paris in 1943 during the Nazi occupation. They were already “deeply acquainted” with one another’s work and shared a mutual respect and admiration as critics and reviewers of each other and as fellow resistance members. Both “intellectual giants” were targeted by the FBI, and both would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (though Sartre rejected his). Their fame would continue into the postwar years, despite Camus’ retreat from philosophical writing after the publication of The Rebel.

While we’ve previously brought you stories of their friendship, and its bitter end, the video above digs deeper into the Sartre-Camus rivalry, with critical historical context for their thinking. Their initial falling out took place over The Rebel, which championed an ethical individualism and critiqued the morality of revolutionary violence. Instead of exploring suicide, as he had done in The Myth of Sisyphus, here Camus explores the problem of murder, concluding that — outside of extreme circumstances like a Nazi invasion — violent political means do not justify their ends.

The book provoked Sartre, a doctrinaire Marxist, who had issued what Camus considered feeble defenses for Joseph Stalin’s purges and gulags. A series of scathing reviews and angry ripostes followed. The personal tone of these attacks chilled what little warmth remained between them. When the Algerian war for independence erupted a few years later, the staunchly anti-colonialist Sartre took the side of Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN), excusing acts of violence against civilians and rival factions as justified by French oppression. Such events “were beyond justification in the mind of Camus.”

While Sartre belittled Camus as “a crook,” the “acuteness of the situation was all the stronger for Camus since Algeria was his homeland. He could not see it in the ideological warped black and white of Sartre’s circle or the conservative French government.” The statement might sum up all of Camus’ thought. As Sartre finally conceded in a posthumous tribute; he “represented in our time the latest example of that long line of moralistes whose works constitute perhaps the most original element in French letters…. he reaffirmed… against the Machiavellians and against the Idol of realism, the existence of the moral issue,” in all its complex ambiguity and uncertainty.

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Albert Camus Writes a Friendly Letter to Jean-Paul Sartre Before Their Personal and Philosophical Rift

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

William Blake: The Remarkable Printing Process of the English Poet, Artist & Visionary

Few artists have anticipated, or precipitated, the fragmented, heroically individualist, and purposefully oppositional art of modernity like William Blake, a man to whom the cliché ahead of his time can be applied with perfect accuracy. Blake strenuously opposed the rationalist Deism and Neoclassical artistic values of his contemporaries, not only in principle, but in nearly every part of his artistic practice. His politics were correspondingly radical: in opposition to empire, racism, poverty, patriarchy, Christian dogma, and the emerging global capitalism of his time.

Nowhere do we see Blake’s visual radicalism more in evidence, argues Julia M. Wright in a 2000 essay for the journal Mosaic, than in his Laocoön, a work that not only seems to presage the modernist collaging of text and image, from Braque to Rauschenberg, but also looks toward hypertext with its nonlinearity, fragmentation, and intertextuality: “By combining as many as four different media in Laocoön — drawing, writing, engraving, and sculpture [in his depiction of the classical original] — Blake puts into play their different properties, engaging the debate in theory as well as practice.”

Through an art of visual pastiche, Blake resists the Neoclassical idea that visual art and poetry were mutually exclusive formal pursuits that could not coexist. (View a larger image here to read the poems and slogans that surround the image.)

We can see the influence of Blake’s radicalism everywhere, from zine art to the Blakes reproduced on the skin of special edition Doc Martens (the artist was also an enthusiastic defender of the Gothic over the Classical, Wright points out). An art like Blake’s demanded a radical process, and he conceived one through his professional skills as an engraver, an art he began learning at the age of twelve. “Right from his earliest childhood,” notes the British Library video at the top, “Blake was driven by two extraordinary and powerful aspirations. On the one hand as a poet, on the other as a painter… so how was he going to bring these two together in a form that would enable him to publish his own images in illustration of his own poems?”

The video demonstrates “Blake’s innovation” as an engraver and printer. The printing process at that point involved a number of different specialized workers, some responsible for setting text, and others for separately printing images in blank spaces left on the pages. Blake’s process “enabled him, with the exception of the paper, to be responsible for every stage in the production process, from writing the poems, making the drawings, using the stop-out varnish to write his text, etching and printing the impressions.”

He began working out his methods as a teenager, and they allowed tremendous creative freedom throughout his life to create personal works of art like the “Illuminated Books” (from which the other two images here come): containers of his complex mythology and some of his most passionate engravings. You can learn even more about Blake’s DIY printing process in the video further up from Ashmolean Museum. Blake’s futuristic art drew heavily from the past — from Renaissance masters like Michelangelo, for example — as a means of creating an alternate art history, one that opposed the values of domination and oppressive systems of order.

His formal and political radicalism is perhaps one reason Blake became one of the first artists to populate an online archive, with the launch of the Blake Archive all the way back in 1996, “conceived as an international [free] public resource that would provide unified access to major works of visual and literary art that are highly disparate, widely dispersed, and more and more often severely restricted as a result of their value, rarity, and extreme fragility.” Visit the Blake Archive here to see high resolution scans of hundreds of Blake’s prophetic works, all created from start to finish by his own hand, and learn more about his personal and commercial illustrations at the links below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Meet the Variophone, the Early Soviet Synthesizer that Made Music with a Film Projector (1932)

The early days of electronic instruments lacked commonly accepted ideas about what an electronic instrument was, much less how it should be used. No one associated electronics with techno or new wave or hip hop or pop, given that none of these existed. Every sound made by experiments in synthesis in the early 20th century was by its nature experimental, and most electronic instruments were one of a kind. It did not even seem obvious that electronic instruments had to be machines that were purpose built for sound.

In 1930, at the very dawn of sound on film, Evgeny Sholpo invented the Variophone — or “Automated Paper Sound with soundtracks in both transversal and intensive form.” It was, in simpler terms, a photoelectric audio synthesizer that made use of a film projector and spinning cardboard discs with sound waves cut into them in various patterns. When amplified, the device could turn the patterns into sounds. It also created “abstract spiral animation,” notes Boing Boing. Both “were way ahead of their time.”

If you’re thinking such a machine might be used to make film soundtracks, it was. But it was also “a continuation of research that Sholpo had been conducting since the 1910s,” the blog Beyond the Coda writes, “when he was working on performerless music.”

Sholpo wanted a device that would replace musicians and allow composers to turn complex musical ideas into recorded sounds themselves. He was aided in the endeavor by Georgy Rimsky-Korsakov (grandson of Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov), who helped him build the prototype at Lenfilm Studios in 1931.

The two produced their first film soundtrack for the propaganda film The Year 1905 in Bourgeoisie Satire, in 1931, and then the following year created “a synthesized soundtrack for A Symphony of Peace and many other soundtracks for films and cartoons throughout the thirties,” notes 120 Years of Electronic Music. The Variophone was destroyed during the Siege of Leningrad, but Sholpo built two more, continuing to record soundtracks through the forties. Unlike the first monophonic analogue synthesizers built a couple of decades later, the Variophone could create and replicate polyphonic compositions, since tones could be layered atop each other, as in multitrack recording.

You can hear several examples of the Variophone here, and see it synched to animation — both from its own sound waves and from hand-drawn films like “The Dance of the Crow,” below. What does it sound like? The tones and timbres vary somewhat among recordings. There’s clearly been some degradation in quality over time, and the technology of recording sound on film was only in its infancy at the time, in any case. But, in certain moments, the Variophone can sound like the early Moog that Wendy Carlos used to synthesize classical music and record film scores almost 40 years after Sholpo patented his machine.

via Boing Boing

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

David Cronenberg Visits a Video Store & Talks About His Favorite Movies

The excitement over Crimes of the Future, set to premiere next week at the Cannes Film Festival, suggests that David Cronenberg retains a strong fan base more than half a century into his filmmaking career. But many of us who consider ourselves part of that fan base didn’t discover his work in the theater, much less at Cannes. Rather, we found it at the video store, ideally one that devoted a section specifically to his work — or at least to his signature genre of “body horror,” which his films would in any case have dominated. Fitting, then, that the new Cronenberg interview above takes place among shelves packed with, if not the VHS tapes and Laserdiscs we grew up with, then at least DVDs and Blu-Rays.

This video comes from Konbini, a French Youtube channel whose Video Club series has brought such auteurs as Claire Denis, Hirokazu Kore-eda, and Terry Gilliam into the hallowed halls of Paris’ JM Vidéo.

“They have 50,000 movies, I think,” says the interviewer. “That’s too many,” replies Cronenberg, “so you need to give me a few.” The director of VideodromeThe Fly, and Crash turns out to have no trouble spotting and discussing movies of interest, and the list of his picks from the stock at JM Vidéo is as follows:

  • Federico Fellini, La Strada (“the beginning of my entrancement with moviemaking”)
  • Ingmar Bergman, The Hour of the Wolf  (“a beautiful movie; very much a nightmare”)
  • Roger Vadim, And God Created Woman (Brigitte Bardot “was incredibly sexual, beautiful — I was totally in love with her”)
  • Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Rosetta (which the Cronenberg-led 1999 Cannes jury selected in “the fastest vote for the Palme d’Or ever in the history of Cannes”)
  • Ridley Scott, Alien (some of whose elements “are exactly like my very low-budget film Shivers“)
  • Paul Verhoeven, Total Recall (a project for which he wrote twelve screenplay drafts, rejected for being “the Philip K. Dick version” rather than “Raiders of the Lost Ark go to Mars”)
  • Ken Russell, Altered States (which “combined a strange group of people who, normally, you wouldn’t think would make a science-fiction movie”)
  • Abdellatif Kechiche, Blue Is the Warmest Color (“a beautiful, sexy, interesting, intense movie with young actresses who are really very good, and giving everything,” including Crimes of the Future‘s own Léa Seydoux)
  • Olivier Assayas, Personal Shopper (“one of the movies that convinced me to ask Kristen Stewart to be in Crimes of the Future“)
  • Matthieu Kassovitz, La Haine (his introduction to the “fantastic emotional depth” and “intellect” of Vincent Cassel)
  • Julia Ducournau, Titane (a “very dangerous” genre picture that nevertheless won a Palme d’Or)
  • Richard Marquand, Return of the Jedi (when asked to direct it, he said, “‘Well, I don’t usually direct other people’s material,’ and they said, ‘Goodbye'”)
  • Brandon Cronenberg, Possessor (“my son’s movie,” the product of “a struggle that reminded me of all the difficulties I ever had making a movie”)
  • Ed Emshwiller, Relativity (the kind of film that showed him “you didn’t have to go to film school, which I never did, you didn’t have to work in the film industry, you could make a movie yourself just because you wanted to make a movie”)
  • Kathryn Bigelow, Strange Days (“one of the movies that convinced me I should work with Ralph Fiennes”)
  • Nicolas Roeg, Don’t Look Now (“a very, very strong movie, very strange, very much about death, but at first you’re not aware that that’s really the subject matter”)

As not just a film fan but a filmmaker, Cronenberg has plenty of related stories to tell about his own professional experiences in cinema. Not all of them have to do with the pictures that inspired him when he was coming of age in the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties. In fact, even as he approaches his ninth decade, he clearly continues to find new ideas and collaborators in the work of emerging directors. Perhaps that’s one reason he seems uncannily undiminished here, much like this survivor of a video store whose shelves he browses. Vive JM Vidéo, et vive Cronenberg.

via Metafilter

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Hans Zimmer Was in the First-Ever Video Aired on MTV, The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”

More than four decades after its release, The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” is usually credited with more pop-cultural importance than musical influence. Perhaps that befits the song whose video was the first-ever aired on MTV. But if you listen closely to the song itself in The Buggles’ recording (as opposed to the concurrently produced version by Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club, which also has its champions), you’ll hear an unexpected degree of both compositional and instrumental complexity. You’ll also have a sense of a fairly wide variety of inspirations, one that Buggles co-founder Trevor Horn has since described as including not just other music but literature as well.

“I’d read J. G. Ballard and had this vision of the future where record companies would have computers in the basement and manufacture artists,” said Horn in a 2018 Guardian interview. “I’d heard Kraftwerk‘s The Man-Machine and video was coming. You could feel things changing.” The Buggles, Horn and collaborator Geoff Downes employed all the technology they could marshal. And by his reckoning, “Video Killed the Radio Star” would take 26 players to re-create live. Paying proper homage to Kraftwerk requires not just using machinery, but getting at least a little Teutonic; hence, perhaps, the brief appearance of Hans Zimmer at 2:50 in the song’s video.

“‘Hey, I like this idea of combining visuals and music,” Zimmer recently recalled having thought at the time. “This is going to be where I want to go.” And so he did: today, of course, we know Zimmer as perhaps the most famous film composer alive, sought after by some of the preeminent filmmakers of our time. He and Horn would actually collaborate again in the early nineteen-nineties on the soundtrack to Barry Levinson’s Toys (whose other contributors included no less an eighties video icon than Thomas Dolby, who’d played keyboards on the Bruce Woolley “Video Killed the Radio Star”). By that time Horn had put performing behind him and turned super-producer for artists like Yes, Seal, and the Pet Shop Boys. The Buggles burnt out quickly, but one doubts that Horn or Zimmer lose much sleep over it today.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

What’s It Like Drumming For Prince?: Drummer Hannah Welton Describes the Genius of His Musicianship

Testimonials to Prince’s mind-blowing musicianship flooded the media after his death, from celebrated stars and not-so-famous musicians who played in the artist’s backing bands over the decades. In the former category, we have Prince’s own musical hero, Stevie Wonder — no slouch as a multi-instrumentalist — whose Songs in the Key of Life stood as a “perfect album” for the Purple One. Wonder describes their jam sessions as “amazing” for the variety of people and cultures Prince could bring together, and for the incredible range of his talent.

“He could play classical music if he wanted to,” said Wonder, in tears after Prince’s death. “He could play jazz if he wanted to, he could play country if he wanted to. He played rock, you know, he played blues. He played pop. He played everything….” He played all 27 instruments on his debut album, from electric guitar, bass, and piano to “mini-Moog, poly-Moog, Arp string ensemble, Arp Pro Soloist, Oberheim four-voice, clavinet, drums, syndrums, water drums, slapsticks, bongos, congas, finger cymbals, wind chimes, orchestral bells, woodblocks, brush trap, tree bell, hand claps and finger snaps.”

He did all of this with little to no formal training, teaching himself to compose in nearly any idiom and to switch up genres and styles with ease. In short, Prince was a “genius,” says drummer Hannah Welton in the Drumeo video above. Welton joined the New Power Generation in 2012, then helped form his new backing band, 3rdeyegirl. In the video above, the hard-working drummer makes it clear that she does not use this word frivolously. “I don’t know that I ever heard an off note,” she says. “Piano, guitar, drums, nobody touched any of those instruments the way that he did.”

Welton also talks about what she learned from Prince — after their first meeting when he asked her to play ping pong. “One thing,” she says, is that “the space between the notes is just a funky as the notes themselves.” In the hour-long lesson, Welton shows off her own drum skills in songs like “Women’s Intuition” (which she wrote with her husband Joshua Welton, one of Prince’s producers) and talks more about her time with the untouchable musician, including how he recruited her after seeing her on YouTube and what it’s like to have a “drum-off/bass-off” with him. As for whether she ever beat Prince in ping pong, you’ll have to watch to find out….

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Animated Map of Quantum Computing: A Visual Introduction to the Future of Computing

If you listen to the hype surrounding quantum computing, you might think the near future shown in Alex Garland’s sci-fi series Devs is upon us — that we have computers complex enough to recreate time and space and reconstruct the human mind. Far from it. At this still-early stage, quantum computers promise much more than they can deliver, but the technology is “poised,” writes IBM “to transform the way you work in research.” The company does have — as do most other other big makers of what are now called “classical computers” — a “roadmap” for implementing quantum computing and a lot of cool new technology (such as the quantum runtime environment Quiskit) built around the qubit, the quantum computer version of the classical bit.

The computer bit, as we know, is a binary entity: either 1 or 0 and nothing in-between. The qubit, on the other hand, mimics quantum phenomena by remaining in a state of superposition of all possible states between 1 and 0 until users interact with it, like a spinning coin that only lands on one face if it’s physically engaged. And like quantum particles, qubits can become entangled with each other. Thus, “Quantum computers work exceptionally well for modeling other quantum systems,” writes Microsoft, “because they use quantum phenomena in their computation.” The possibilities are thrilling, and a little unsettling, but no one’s modeling the universe, or even a part of it, just quite yet.

“Use cases are largely experimental and hypothetical at this early stage,” McKinsey Digital writes in a report for businesses, while also noting that usable quantum systems may be on the market as early as 2030. If the roadmaps serve, that’s just around the corner, especially given how quickly quantum computers have evolved in relation to their (exponentially slower) classical forebears. “From the first idea of a quantum computer in 1980 [an idea attributed to Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman] to today, there has been a huge growth in the quantum computing industry, especially in the last ten years,” says Dominic Walliman in the video above, “with dozens of companies and startups spending hundreds of millions of dollars in a race to build the world’s best quantum computers.”

Walliman offers not only a (non-hyped) map of the possible future, but also a map of quantum computing’s past. He promises to clear up misconceptions we might have about the “different kinds of quantum computing, how they work, and why so many people are investing in the quantum computing industry.” We’ve previously seen Walliman’s Domain of Science channel do the same for such huge fields of scientific study as physics, chemistry, math, and classical computer science. Here, he presents cutting-edge science on the cusp of realization, explaining three essential ideas — superposition, entanglement, and interference — that govern quantum computing. The primary difference between quantum and classical computing from the point of view of non-specialists is algorithmic speed: while classical computers could theoretically perform the same complex functions as their quantum cousins, they would take ages to do so, or would halt and fizzle out in the attempt.

Will quantum computers be able to simulate nature down to the subatomic level in the future? McKinsey cautions, “experts are still debating the most foundational topics for the field.” Despite the industry’s rapid growth, “it’s not yet clear,” Walliman says, “which approach” among the many he surveys “will win out in the long run.” But if the roadmaps serve, we may not have to wait long to find out.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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