MAGMA: THE STORY OF THE LAST DAY
illustration by bob kurthy
Christian Vander grew up surrounded by the music of greats like John Coltrane, Clifford Brown and Art Blakey, sitting right up front by the drum kit at jazz clubs when he was as young as four or five years old. As an adult, he created—with godlike vision and acumen—the group called Magma, legendarily known as one of the greatest (even definitive) prog bands, although they actively defy categorization in any genre, with quick-changing unexpected time signatures and operatic Orff-ian backing vocals that result in something evolved from jazz, prog, rock and pure force of will. (Naturally, they invented their own language, too.) The Magma founder joined us to talk about the art of astral projection, the future of artificial intelligence, and the day he realized John Coltrane was going to die. They perform Mon., Apr. 6, at the Echoplex. L.A. RECORD is proud to present what may well be Magma’s only interview for this tour, conducted by Kristina Benson with Sabrine Mhiri.
What attracts you to jazz music? What are musicians missing out on if they don’t listen to jazz?
Christian Vander: My mother was very musical, my father was a pianist and my step-father, Maurice Vander, was a pianist. So I spent a lot of time in the milieu of jazz. I was very young in these clubs, including in famous clubs in Paris at the time in the 1950s: Club Saint-Germain, where I had the chance to see the biggest musicians that passed through Paris, like Art Blakey, people like that. So when I was sitting next to the drum set it was like a dream—I was going to these clubs when I was 3 or 4 years old! I was truly very young when I was introduced to this music, and then afterwords, I took the common path—listening to all these musicians, particularly Clifford Brown, all those guys, and then arrived John Coltrane. And there he was! And then my mom spotted him and was with Miles Davis at the beginning, in the 1950s, especially with the record Cookin’.
When you listen to John Coltrane, do you still learn? What can you learn from him after all this time?
For me, John Coltrane teaches me every day. I want to say every day and for periods of time too. You see what I’m saying? Every time I hear the configuration of his rhythms, I hear them differently. How he sends out his phrases—it’s never the same. For example, we noticed—me and my mother—that very often in the chorus, on some tracks, he took a breath like that [hums a tune] and we were inspired! But in fact no—in later years, I noticed that when he plays the phrase, he does it differently than we thought he played it when we were so inspired—you see? So he even breathes within the interior of the music itself! Yes, there were still things to learn, and to discover in John’s music. He never left us at a dead end. And he has truly opened channels with his music. I think that he has accomplished what he should have, because obviously he died very young, at forty and a half. But he never left a dead end, that’s I would say.
How do you pick up where he left off? What did he leave to explore that you’re interested in exploring?
In a lot of ways, his entire career. Especially the moment when he began to truly play his music during the 1960s, and, as he said in his famous record A Love Supreme, ‘Seek and ye shall find!’ And we wondered what more there was for him to seek or find! From ’64, that was an extraordinary take-off, and ’65 was an extraordinary year and towards the end, it meant also the end of the quartet with Elvin Jones, McCoy and Jimmy—not Jimmy Garrison, he remained with him and continued on that path with Alice Coltrane, Rashied Ali, and the famous record Expression, which for me is the culmination—truly, like is name indicates, you see! I had a hard time listening to it when he passed away. I listened anyway, but it took me about ten years to be able to truly listen to his records again. It was terrible for me. And in addition, no one had expected him to pass away. He hadn’t said anything, and it’s remarkable that he didn’t tell anyone in his entourage, or confide in anyone, or that no one tried to find out he had cancer until the end, when it was over. And I think that it’s amazing the energy he had and that in his music, he let go. I think that, in fact, towards the end—I actually call this music a little bit between two worlds: you can really feel that it has a foothold elsewhere, you know what I mean? It’s incredible that he was able to transmit this and at the same time, be aware of it. I understood in the introduction of ‘My Favorite Things’—I understood. I heard, ‘He is going to die’ but I didn’t even know that he was sick. I heard that note, the first note of the introduction of the theme of ‘My Favorite Things,’ I heard a sort of seppuku. I said, ‘He is going to die.’ And in fact, I heard the news ten months later. At that time, Expression hadn’t been released. And so he died before the record came out in France.
What are musicians of other genres are missing if they don’t listen to jazz?
I regularly practice jazz, independently of the music of Magma, because it’s extraordinary in terms of the level of listening, the speed of expression, the speed of action, to be responsive, to exchange with other forms, or forget the forms and discover other rhythms. Getting to play a structure, as they say, a form, in free time, liberated. John Coltrane did not get on stage to play A-A-B-A—he spoke from inside, he went back and forth with musicians as in a dialogue. He completely abandoned and surpassed the issue of structure. And that’s what we try to do—it’s really opening the ears that makes the music, to me.
Does this connect to why you developed your own language Kobaïan—because French seemed to you to be too limited for what you want to express?
No, it was not premeditated. The sounds of the new language came along with the music. They could have been love songs or pseudo-philosophies, or I don’t know—love songs or I don’t know what. The issue of Kobaïan—the sounds arrived alongside and totally together with the music. And then, gradually, I analyzed the sounds that had been conjured, and then I called them Kobaïan because the first song that I composed, ‘Kobaïa’—it has four words: ‘kobaïa, kobaïa, koba shibewa.’ And this was the first sound that came, in fact. It was because of this that I called the language Kobaïan. But they were sounds—vibrations. I’m like a receiver for them. I don’t think that one should seek out a compositions to compose, but I think music should come to you and you should always be ready to receive it, in a state within a state, a state of reception, of receptivity.
You’ve said in many interviews that you wish you could have an orchestra as big as Orff’s or Wagner’s to play Magma’s music. For live performances of course, this is difficult. But in the studio, with programs like ProTools and Ableton, it seems like it would be possible to create a virtual orchestra as large as you want. Have computers opened up any opportunities for you that you couldn’t pursue before?
I’ve tried with all the possibilities that exist today. For example, on stage there are always three voices, three singers and—rarely—a fourth added as an additional voice,. So if you have three singers, then for sure, if you want to have, say, fifty in the studio, it’s much easier. But I have found that if it’s not fifty real voices, each with its own timbre and expression, the sensitivity of the music and the expression of it is lost. So what happens—for example, with the last record—I tried as always but in the end, I practically always left the arrangement with three voices. And I found that this way, there was much better expression of emotion. I’ve duplicated voices and added six or seven voices at times, because the arrangement with the piano sometimes, was in effect, seven or eight voices and I wanted it to grow. But in the end I decided it loses so much, that using Protools and the like is not a solution. It’s more complicated than that—one must imagine the situations that you can not artificially create. When one takes on a choir of fifty people, there are an enormous amount of nuances and differences. But to create that artificially, to me seems impossible. So it is better to actually work with fifty people, that’s certain. Because we are chosen, you see—you can say, ‘Oh it sounds like that—‘ but in a recording session or a performance, there are a number of people, they are alive, and so this version is alive, and there you are. We have been selected in this moment in time, see. You know Miles Davis ‘Kind of Blue’? That version happened on that day. Maybe the next day was not the day, and we would never have had a piece of classic jazz music if they had played the next day, you see. It happened that day. That is all—we are chosen, and after some time, we say, ‘This record there, this version.’ I can tell you, Carl Orff is one of the pianists in a group I discovered early in Magma. I’d never had the opportunity to listen and that’s when I said indeed, this is the ideal training for Magma. With marimbas, vibraphones, all those things, plus chorus, brass, symphony. At times we’ve had offers to play with a symphony orchestra but it never came to be. It was overly complicated, frankly. But this is the dream. Maybe one day it will happen, I dunno.
Your music deals a lot with space. Many see it as a void, but you see it as a place with limitless potential.
I do a lot of travelling inside the inner world, you see—it’s exactly the same as regular travel but it emits less greenhouse gasses. [laughs] But yes, I think that the inner journey is the same, infinitely. What interests me is infinitely small and exactly the same. I think it’s the center we can see, we can all admire—not the outside— and hence the idea of multi-music, you see. And I work in this way—for example, playing a triplet that is not quite a triplet. While I am quite precise, the problem is that I always leave a space—never maybe. Always! That’s what is very important too. Getting to say the thing at the same time with a side of possibility of very fast response. I think if we just talking about drumming, if one thinks of a rhythmic pattern like, ‘tchenkedé, tchenkedé, tchenkedé, tchenkedé’ you see, well that drummers began to play ‘tché-ke-e ken-keng-ding-kin-da-ke-ke-ke-ke-dung-deng-é’ for example—to talk, well, it’s not very technical, eh? In any case, it does not slow down, you see. Not one plane allowed him space, so it’s “é-é,” perhaps “thud-e-ke-e-ding-e-dingédéding” and not “kékeding, kékeding, kékeding” you see? He finished his phrasing and his momentum, his breathing. You see what I mean? It allows [inhales and exhales] lightening, support without weight. Lots of things like that. So this suspension exists, and you sit riveted—for example as a drummer is riveted to his seat, the problem is that in space, it is not there at all. He does not sit in this way, It should really have this flexibility to be truly all-round. For example there was a girl who had transcribed a chorus of John Coltrane, and she brought him the score. John Coltrane looked at it and said, ‘I am unable to play such a thing.’ Because in fact between what we decide to do and what actually is … is something that we’ll never know. These people are nimble enough to make music but that means having sufficient ease in space. To be released fairly rhythmically, because the pace is very important to develop anything. We first develop the part of the rhythm and the melody that leads to more known rhythms, which allows us to create melodies, and then those can be arranged harmonically, if necessary … or if you can. From the melody comes rhythms. If you have very little rhythm, you tend to overload and overdo it. Otherwise, only the tempo—the rhythm—permits evolution within free space. Plus you have given these spaces precisely the same sensations of weightlessness, too.
Do you think that the development of artificial intelligence will be a positive or net negative benefit to humanity?
Well, if you think we can look at robots from old science fiction movies and think, ‘Well, we can not get there,’ I think unfortunately we can. We can, and we might get there very soon and quite easily. That’s both exciting and distressing, but it’s where we are today, maybe. And after that, how will it evolve further? Will robots have souls? That’s all that matters, in the end—it’s part of the questions about artificial intelligence, I believe. I believe they will have souls. In any case, I also engage with things besides music— not really spiritualism, you see, but what I want say is that there are forces at work and things. Once, in the past, I had to make a choice—and I decided, ‘I need to focus solely on the music.’ Because I had a kind of gift. I could move objects with my mind, using telekinesis, I think? I’m not sure what people call it, but you know what I mean—there were forces, you see. And other stuff, too—astral travel, where I’d be saying ‘Here, I’ll lie down for five minutes. I want to take a little rest,’ and I’d arrive at a state where I felt my body become detached. Later I studied up on it and I saw that in these cases it was necessary to be very careful to be able to return to my body. So during these times I had to close the doors to whatever room I was in and if I experienced astral projection, not let anyone disturb me or I wouldn’t be able to return to my body, or so I thought. Gradually, I admit, I became afraid of these things. I thought, ‘I may not be ready to attempt these journeys.’ But on the other hand, I lived through them, and I found out that people who had experienced things like that reflected on them a little in the same way. I got the impression of being like two pieces of wood glued—attached, with filaments. I have had this image or sensation, like … experiencing myself as held together by all these small filaments that are connected to the body and which slip apart at the same time.
Was this before Magma?
No, during Magma. But if you want, I’ll tell you something about a dream I told friends about a long time. I was at school and I talked about it like a dream, but in fact I realized years later that it might actually be a journey. When I was, I would say ten years old, I was living with my uncle and my aunt that time—I went to school, then, and in the morning my aunt woke me, and said, ‘Christian, it’s 8:00.’ I dreamed that I was in the town where I lived, which was next to Paris. I was in town and I heard her voice say ‘It’s 8:00.’ Yes, but how can I wake up? And I could not get out of the dream. So I had the idea to approach my street in the dream because I was dreaming I was in the city, and I approached my street and I said, ‘Well, then, what I’ll do, I’ll walk up my street, and then climb the stairs I’ll wake up in my bed. I’ll open the door and wake up in my bed.’ So I was … I was heading home, and I’m seeing the street where I lived completely illuminated and in color while the rest of the whole dream was in black and white. I was a little stunned! I hit the pavement with my foot, tripped, and then I hit my head on the floor. And then I woke up. So OK—good! that was one way to wake up. That dream lasted for days and days. So every day, at 8:00—
Always the same dream?
Yes, always the same dream. It lasted for weeks. Unless I was going to school, or would wake up naturally—but then when I went to sleep again it would resume its course. I was used to it after awhile, so I went directly towards my street, stumbled on purpose, and then woke up. And one day, I don’t know what happened, but I arrived at my street and I stumbled, and then I fell a few meters ahead of the sidewalk. Which was unexpected! And then I woke up in the same room—but at the top of the room, really! And I could see well. I could see my aunt sleeping in the same room as me and directly below me, and I also could see the ceiling. I really saw the ceiling well and I was descending very, very slowly, and I also saw below me as well. So then afterwards, I read about these kinds of travels, and I thought, ‘Well, its a sort of astral projection.’ Because I was detached—I wasn’t in my body, I wasn’t in the room. And I reunited and reintegrated with my body and I saw myself. And then … [makes noise to describe rejoining with his body] I got up instantly! I should have known what it was at the at the time, but I didn’t know about all these things back then.
You’ve said that you wanted your music to change the world. Is this still the case?
Yes, I’m still hoping! Someone said recently there was an article that said ‘Slag Tanz, the last Magma record released, gives hope. It gives hope for the future.’ I don’t know how they wrote it, but: ‘It gives hope for the future of humanity.’ So change comes slowly maybe. The problem with this kind of music too is that it comes in stages. To give an example, there are a lot of periods and stages of Magma, and Magma is always changing… For example, take a statue, if you like. In one moment, you can admire the beautiful discovery of this statue, and the second time, you’ll understand its proportions, its relation to the golden triangle, and then the third time, you can enter into a direct vibration with this statute. And yet the statue is the same. So it’s an issue of one’s level of consciousness, or level of perception.
Back in 2009, you did an interview wherein you said you wrote a song in 1977 called ‘The Story of Zero.’ When you decide to finally record it, you said, it will be your last piece. Is this true? Why haven’t you recorded it? Why will it be your last piece?
The piece you’re speaking of, I think, is called ‘Zëss.’ The song for me is not complete—I still need to go through a lot of things. It’s just a little summary of the whole history of Magma, and then also everything I have—all the images and strong sensations I have had of other musics, other types of music that I could place within this theme. It is, in fact, the idea of the theme is the day of the Void—le Néant, when everything stops all of a sudden. So this is the subject, in brief,the story of the last day. Everyone knows that this will be the last day, the stars will be in alignment, all on one point, and will swallowed by a sort of center somewhere. Then there will be a rendez-vous for all beings who have lived in the universe. And then finally you will see a little idea, all gathered into one moment at the end of the song, and it implodes. Voilà! Sometimes I ask myself, ‘And now, where is ‘Zëss’?’ But I can’t know. Besides, I just tell myself that if I finish ‘Zëss’ I can’t compose anything else afterwards.
What was the last invention that you were excited by?
The last invention? Honestly—one of the most beautiful inventions is the piano. Or the saxophone!
MAGMA ON MON., APR. 6, AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8:00 PM / $27-$31.00 / 18+. THEECHO.COM. GET TICKETS HERE! MAGMA’S SLAG TANZ IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM SEVENTH RECORDS. VISIT MAGMA AT SEVENTHRECORDS.COM