THE MUSICAL PHILOSOPHER
By: M.M. & J.M.
What can lead a musician to disenchantment and mistrust? No doubt, all that which has to do with imposed commercialism.
Bernard Xolotl has made from the seventies up to now many and very good electronic music works, several of them never released. Nevertheless, this musician is a clear example of the artist who rebels against the commercialism imposed by the record labels and who, because of that, misses the chance to earn loads of money. He conceives his artistic career as a style of life.
After several years of silence, a silence motivated not by a lack of creativity but rather due to financial poverty, Xolotl re- appears with the re-release of several of his most legendary works, which revealed him as an artist of great imagination in the seventies and eighties, and which today continues to be far more innovative than a lot of the music labeled as "alternative".
Through an interview that Xolotl has given us for Amazing Sounds, as well as other contacts that we have had with him since we interviewed him for the first time in 1988, we have been able to get to know his way of understanding art in depth during these years, as well as some of his experiences in his already long musical career.
Bernard Xolotl was born in France in 1951. At age 17 he realised that he needed more freedom to live and express his ideas than the one that old Latin Europe could provide him with. Therefore, he left his country and traveled all over the world. In 1974 he settled in California, where he has lived for 19 years. Currently living in France, he often travels to the United States. Anyway, he does not consider himself tied to any one place: "I never 'decided' to live in the USA, Scandinavia, Nepal or Polynesia, and I never wanted to 'return' to France or anywhere. Today, I am in California and I fly 'back' to Europe tomorrow afternoon. I am a complete nomad, an apatride, a citizen of planet Earth. If I had the funds of the Dalai-Lama or Mick Jagger, I would be commuting around the whole planet ceaselessly just as they do".
In his teenage years, Bernard became interested in electronic music, which in France had its first pioneers working within the trend known as "Concrete Music". "The first compositions of electronic music that I heard came from several works by Pierre Henry, Pierre Schaeffer and other pioneers, mostly French, around 1966-67, when I was 16. However, it was the first records by Pink Floyd soon after which fed my enthusiasm for electronic music, instead of Concrete Music, which in actual fact had never really interested me". He studied Arts and Philosophy up to 1969, just at the time when the first analog synthesizers were commercialized. The type of studies that he was engaged in, and the books that he chose to read, shaped his taste for this new way to make music that was cropping up. From then on, he would begin his travels and his activity as a musician. In the early seventies he was at the core of the rising Cosmic Music, more particularly related to the most classical trend of the genre, the "Berlin School". Xolotl met Klaus Schulze in 1972, during a festival in Switzerland, where he went together with Timothy Leary. He also made friends with Manuel Gottsching, Terry Riley, and other important leaders of the musical revolution of the seventies. He worked with some of them. For instance, he assisted Terry Riley and LaMonte Young during their European tours.
At that time it happened to be very difficult indeed for a musician who started, to succeed in having access to synthesizers and other innovative electronic equipment. In 1971-72, Xolotl used the electronic studios of a public character in Germany and Denmark. In the United States, he used the laboratories at some universities, often at night. Later, little by little, he established his own studio. In 1988, he said: "I have many synthesizers and my favorite one still is the PPG which I bought in 1983 and which was the first in America. I have many computers with every music software programs on the market and I spend so much time programming that my sixteen-track tape recorder does not get used very often these days. After all these years, I have become such an expert on computer music equipment that I am more often called for technical consulting work than for music which is a situation I find rather sad and want to change as soon as I can. The place where I live is the very heart of the technological 'revolution' and because of that, life here has become very expensive. The problem now is no longer to acquire more equipment but to afford a house to shelter it!"
Although the computer has lately become his main working tool, Xolotl feels far more attraction towards analogic synthesizers rather than the digital ones. In 1988, he said: "I prefer the old machines of Oberheim, Sequential, PPG, and others of this kind, rather than the new devices that cropped up after the appearance of the DX7 in 1983. These aren't so expressive or spontaneous. Most of them are a bunch of presets made for a massive market of unskilled musicians. On the other hand, before 1983, the synthesizers used to be produced only for an elite of experimental artists. This is the circumstance that marks the difference between both types of instruments, and this is why I dislike these new synthesizers, not the fact that they produce digital sounds instead of analogical ones. I like beautiful sounds, whatever their origin". About the digital medium he also comments: "This is a very interesting medium, and even though the sonic result can be debatable, there is no doubt that it opens new paths for the future. Given its numerical nature, everything digital is reduced to numbers. I'd like to remind you that Pythagoras was a good initial representative of numeric philosophy. I would also like to mention that my paintings, as well as my music, are carefully elaborated with respect to the harmonic progression of numbers as something fundamental. My album-painting Return of the Golden Mean refers to the renaissance of Phythagorical Philosophy throughout the Digital Era. 'Golden Mean' is the 'sacred' ratio 1.61809... which appears in the growth of shells, plants and galaxies".
When we ask him about what he thinks on the contribution of computers to music, he replies, today in 1997: "After so many years and so many times that this question was asked, I can really think nothing about 'computers in music'. Only the result matters. Who cares what it's made with at this point? Music existed before electricity, before the orchestra and even before human beings. Music is like love: either you do or you don't; whatever the cause, the cost or the consequences. As I predicted many years ago, everything has become computerized, but this changes nothing essential - you still need ears & loudspeakers. In 1870, Richard Wagner wrote that people had the impression that they traveled more because of the railroads, but that it was a complete illusion. Faxes and portable telephones are nothing more than the telegraph then and if you read the Diaries of that period, you will be amazed at the speed and amount of daily communications. The means are nothing without an end, and the end always justifies the means when Art is concerned..."
Bernard's recording career began in 1976, with a collective record in San Francisco. Soon after, Music by Xolotl was released. In this work, the artistic path that was to follow years later could already be appreciated. His second album, Journey to an Oracle, in which Bernard Largounez and Jean Baptiste Barriere collaborated, appeared in 1978. Prophecy was released in 1980, and in it Bernard counted with the collaboration of Cyrille Verdeaux. The music, as visionary as its title suggests, was made above all with a Prophet 5 and a guitar synthesizer of Zeta Systems. Return of the Golden Mean, recorded between 1979 and 1980, is one of the works that best display the deep, impressive vein of Xolotl's music. In the album, the composer performed with the guitar synthesizer of Zeta Systems, accompanied by Irene Gostnell on the violin, Jonathan Kramer on the cello, and Cyrille Verdeaux at the electronic keyboards. Procession (1982-83) contributed in a remarkable way to his international recognition as an innovative artist in the field of electronic music. In Last Wave, he once again offered an excellent sample of his talent, and also counted on the collaboration of some prestigious musicians in the performance of the pieces: Richard Horowitz (Tibetan percussion) and Daniel Kobialka (violin). Likewise, he gave a greater leading role to other electronic instruments, like for instance the Yamaha CS60, the PPG Wave 2.2, the Korg Monopoly, the Pro-One, the ARP Sequencer and vocoders of Roland and Korg.
In the following years, Xolotl acquired a reputation as a "countercultural artist". This was partly due to the fact that for a long time he kept himself shut in his home-studio, isolated from the outside, not seeing anyone, and concentrated in an almost obssessive way in musical creativity, coming to work up to twenty-four hours a day non-stop, which led him to dangerously ressemble the Phantom Of the Opera. Yet the main reason why he earned this reputation of "countercultural artist" is the fact that he was placed, in a way, in a "black list" of the recording world, because of his openly belligerent attitude against any wrong committed by a record label towards his copyrights. Limiting himself to the distribution of his previous works through his label Syntasy, to some concerts and collaborations, to developing some soundtracks, and to other artistic or technical activities on his part (including painting and writing), he continued to compose magnificient pieces, some of which guarantee him an important slot within the history of electronic music. Mexecho, one of his most brilliant albums, was released in 1991 by the German label Erdenklang, although most of the music had already been composed by late 1988. In 1996, his previous albums began to be re-released in CD format by the French label Spalax.
Xolotl is a versatile artist. As we have noted before, painting and writing are activities that he combines with that of composing. He has written numerous essays and articles, like for instance Art and Culture, Art and Technology, or his memoirs (titled Journal d'un Artiste Américain). In the field of painting, he is the author, for instance, of the covers of many of his albums. As these lines are being written, we know that soon a virtual gallery of paintings of his will be opened on internet.
We ask him whether he thinks that his artistic activity in these two fields is closely related to his musical work:
"No,it can never be close because they are all different worlds. Who could ever picture the engravings of William Blake after reading his poems? Who could ever guess the music of Jimi Hendrix from the words of his songs? or the paintings of Van Gogh from his great letters to his brother? There are thousands of infinitely different musical interpretations of the Gospels even if they remain the same and by the same composer. Hermann Hesse's, Henry Miller's or Henri Michaux's water colors can never give us any idea of their writings. One can experience a "synesthesia" in one's own mind, but just as walking, talking and seeing belong to different worlds so do the various senses manifest in concrete reality".
Thanks to his journeys and his desire to get to know other cultures all over the world, Bernard got to learn different philosophies, like for instance Tibetan Buddhism. This is why he has a global vision of all of them which allows him to understand the serious and topical error that many westerners make when they consider Eastern philosophy as if it were one thing only. "There is no such thing as 'Eastern philosophy' (or Western philosophy for that matter) - these are all stupid concepts invented by journalists in the (colonial) 19th century: like saying all Asians (or Blacks or Indians) are identical - in reality, there are many, many currents and times of thought in many, many places and cultures. One has to study History in the field for many years to even get a small idea of some of these 'philosophies' - there are opposite trends in all of them, of course. In most cases, one has to learn the language in order to reach a true understanding of any one of these. Furthermore, 'foreign' influences have swept over the East long ago (Islam, a monotheistic religion, all the way down to Indonesia; Christianity on the coasts and now Marxism in China and Tibet most unfortunately, etc.). Always, it is up to the individual to find out what is best for him or her in the (local) context of human life. Set ideas or opinions are a source of division and warfare between human beings and are thus better avoided. Religions, philosophies and ideologies are a curse. Before all this madness, human beings considered all things to be sacred (stone, river, tree, animal, etc., etc., etc.) and this is the best way to go - true Amerindians still think this way and most Tibetans also. The mind is obviously beginningless and thus any border, frontier or barrier you set to it becomes an obstacle, one way or another. The wisest is to strive for the Middle Way: to avoid the two extremes of Eternalism / absolute existence and Nihilism / everything is an illusion. There is no creator and there is no matter; only Being! The body deals with Time and the mind with Eternity: this is obvious and identical for all peoples, whether from East or West, past, present or future..."
We ask him whether his travels around the world have influenced his music:
"Frankly, no one in the world can answer this question. Were Bach or Wagner influenced by their travels around Europe? Most probably not. Was Wagner ever influenced by Mathilde Wesendonk to write Tristan und Isolde? Probably not either. Music is an utterly magical, immaterial and undefinable vibration very much like love which is never really influenced by anything, but can only manifest itself in a certain context or karma, outside of all planned boundaries. If we are thus talking about the present, you will need money to pay the electrical bill, the synthesizers and computers and the studio rent. But music in itself is influenced by nothing: it is pure ideality. In other words, my mind travels have obviously greatly 'influenced' my music, but my physical ones probably not at all".
About his relationships with other cultures in the world, we are especially interested in the one that he has been maintaining with the American Pre-Columbian cultures for long years. "Xolotl", his artist name, comes from the Aztec language. We asked him to explain how such a relationship began:
"Curiosity and passion for all forms of life in history and geography were, in early childhood, the driving force of my interest in distant, non-European, non-judeo-christian, cultures. Later on, shamanistic, experience-based, psychedelic and non-dualistic cultures, appeared like an antidote to the long-suffering, utterly fucked-up, modern world imposed by the West through the last centuries. It wasn't a fashion then and there was no eco-tourism as yet, but it is still and more than ever relevant..."
Xolotl has a powerful, unexpected answer on the question about what inspires his musical ideas, and which process he follows to compose:
"I am always inspired; I was born inspired; I do not need inspiration, I just need time, money and equipment to manifest the ever present inspiration of nature and the eternal Now. This answer seems to always create an uproar and endless controversy. I could elaborate forever but I shall leave it at that for the time being because it is still true; the French have a saying 'La faim vient en mangeant' and it's that way for me with inspiration even much more than with hunger. As for the second question: I do not follow a process to compose, I just create spontaneously as soon as there is the time and equipment to do so. Like all other true artists at all times, I try to do nothing but create".
He also has a very interesting answer to the question of how he would define his personal musical style:
"I have no 'personal music style' and I have fought all my life against such a concept. Mozart and Beethoven struggled desperately against the Sonata form; Wagner against the traditional Opera form, etc. In our lifetime specially, the musical inventions of the whole planet Earth are somewhat available, even to the average listener. Xolotl loves all good music from many, many places and times and could never restrict himself to one particular "style" (or nationality for that matter)".
We ask him whether he likes best the music he created years ago or the one he composes now:
"Since only a small percentage of the music I have recorded has been released and that I never did it for money, of course I like it and am proud of it; I only regret the poor recording quality of many of my older compositions because they were done with primitive and inadequate equipment which was all I could afford at that time. An Artist always prefers the on-going, present and future creations to the past ones; otherwise, he/she would stop creating".
Thus he summarized in 1982 what the synthesizers were contributing to music:
"In recent years, we have witnessed a phenomenon that I find very interesting indeed. Since the development of the synthesizer, many people who had not been educated as musicians in the strict sense of the word, who perhaps had been educated as artists, architects, poets... have been able to create on their own terms a type of music of great scope, extremely sophisticated, that is being more and more proclaimed as the classical music of the future. I am thinking of such musicians as Iasos, Klaus Schulze, Vangelis, Edgar Froese, Michael Hoenig, Kitaro..., and all the rest who use the synthesizer to create their own music. All this grows day after day, and no doubt we are entering what I like to call the 'Era of Synthesis'. The synthesizer has opened an immense and new repository of raw matter for our scientific and artistic expression." The revolution that is just beginning is of such a magnitude, that he does not hesitate to state that: "The artist of the future will have to become a scientist, and vice versa". Art and Science fused at long last, after centuries of apparent antagonism.
Nowadays, he thinks that this potential has been wasted, and the "Era of Synthesis" has been completely buried under the avalanche of the "Age of (random) Information": "The synthesis of the arts, the creation accessible to all the senses, the 'music of the mind', has never been so technologically available to us as now. However, we face a curious phenomenon: the increase in the technology has been in most cases inversely proportional to the quality and integrity of the music. I do not fear in the least to give here some examples. In the late sixties, the musicians that were at the avantgarde of technology and that created true original works with their small equipment (small according to our current standards), were moving towards a musical adventure which turned out to be too predictable, commercial and dull, as they kept advancing in the acquisition of more and more sophisticated hardware. In the seventies, this pattern worsened in a considerable way when many of the great pioneers of electronic music, who had created true marvels of innovative music initiating the genre of Cosmic Music (and utilizing a minimum of technology in comparison with the one available today), exhausted themselves to the core, and now, with a colossal arsenal of synthesizers and computers available to them, simply create a type of music very 'typical of Hollywood', an easy listening commercial, having nothing of the sophistication and originality it should have, making a meaningless use of their paraphernalia, accumulated during all these years. Such a situation is what gives electronic music its bad image".
Before this somber panorama that he describes to us, we asked him if the problem is, because nowadays it is necessary to make this type of commercial music if one wishes to make a living with electronic music. "I cannot speak for every musician on the planet. Commercial music is pollution and I try to avoid pollution as much as possible. I do not care for pop-music at all and I only myself listen to the great music of the past (from Bach to Richard Strauss period). However, artists always have a difficult time to survive in a commercial culture like our own and they should do anything they can to be able to create their important work".
In his opinion, the situation of the "avant-garde" music world scene is no better:
"Since the sixties, there is no such thing as a "world avant-garde music scene"; it has vanished and lost all meaning as a reference: Jimi Hendrix or Pink Floyd were very avant-garde, became popular and sold millions of albums. Miles Davis was inspired by Hendrix. The Grateful Dead started as a free experiment for Ken Kesey's Acid Tests, was then bought up and sold by Bill Graham, and later the Beatles 'repackaged' it, etc., etc. Meanwhile, the State functionaries of the 'official' avant-garde (like IRCAM, Soviet or American) lost all credibility forever and especially after the Japanese sold synthesizers by the millions..."
"There is no longer one (or even two or three) centers of culture. The world is utterly fragmented. For some people, RAI (Algerian pop music) is avant-garde, for others Californian New Age, for others yet South African tribal music. Bulgarian, Polish, Lithuanian, Aztec and even Corsican so-called traditional music, have become avant-garde in the last few years. Balinese, South Indian and Maori music is played on synthesizers. Techno is all the rage in Europe but virtually unknown in America, etc., etc., etc".
"The political 'Balkanization' of the world is reflected in culture. 'The communications industry has retribalized the world.' (Jack Weatherford). Any avant-garde can only exist in terms of a central reference and there is no such thing anymore. Hollywood's pop music is the only 'universally' available music and it is not a reference but a commercial swindle like junk bonds. The Russians (or Germans or Chinese) all want to live in the USA and each college in America has a different concept or specialty. There are as many avant-gardes nowadays as there are local identities or national / folk committees. Since WWII, Europe is no longer the center of the world, there is no center and avant-garde is only what you personally think it is. I know nothing about it. For me music is just that: music".
But, how could we define good music, the music made the best possible way? Can this absolute perfection be reached?
"Personally, I don't think there is an ideal music refering to all different peoples and places in the world. The Earth is like a sky body where different cultures represent different organs with specific functions, or different energy centers. Furthermore, there is a music for each occasion. What I would call ideal music is the music that would integrate all this into a single sublime unit. If we heard this music, we would listen to the Great Symphony of the Universe, from which Bach's Passions and the latest operas by Wagner are exceptional witnesses. This concept is not only applicable to music but also to the entire creative palette of humanity".
For Xolotl the goal to be attained by any artist is clear: "I consider the search for art as a sacred path, like the search for Enlightenment and the end must justify the means. What matters is the result (the work of art), not the tools used, or the reasons why it was created".
To end the interview, we ask him whether he is engaged in future works:
"Only about five per cent of my recorded music has been released so far on CD, so it is very difficult to answer this question since it does not depend on me but on the whim of record companies and what they think is fashionable at the moment... I have many musical plans for the future, of course, otherwise I would not be a musician or I would kill myself; but all these plans depend only on money like most 'important' things nowadays..."
To Xolotl, his artistic activity is not a mere profession to earn money, it rather is his life. Like any other artist, he often has his eccentricities, yet anyone who not only creates but also thinks and reasons the why and wherefore of what he is doing, has them. Haven't such geniuses as for instance painter Salvador Dalí had them, yet nobody denies them their talent? Xolotl possesses a strong personality, like the ones of such artists as Edgar Froese or Klaus Schulze, for instance, who count the most fanatical admirers as well as the most ferocious detractors. Let's then judge the artists through their art, not through their attitude before social conventionalisms.
-MUSIC BY XOLOTL
-JOURNEY TO AN ORACLE
-RETURN OF THE GOLDEN MEAN
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