or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Let’s get this out of the way first: how to pronounce the name. “ZAY-ner is the best approach,” says the Parisian electronic musician and visual artist. “The original Polish pronunciation is ch-ay-ner!”
For someone who long had members of Magma in tow, collaborated with post-punk pioneer Howard Devoto, is cited as monumental by Carl Craig, and is sometimes termed “the French Brian Eno,” Bernard Szajner comes off as remarkably unpretentious. The French-Polish artist’s first and greatest successes probably lie in the field of lighting design, but Szajner fell into experimental and electronic music on almost a whim. He began composing electronic music in the late ‘70s; by the time 1980 rolled around, he found himself inventing an iconic musical instrument that would come to define New Age artist Jean Michel Jarre’s monumental performances. Still, Szajner approaches his career philosophically, refusing to acknowledge his status as an underground pioneer. When talking music, he speaks of those he admires (Eno, Klaus Schulze, Amon Tobin) and of his many burned bridges (Jarre, Gong’s Tim Blake, the Who) with equal reverence, like someone who knows that living isn’t just all about reveling in the good stuff.
Szajner’s is a journey that began not in music, but in light. A visual artist by profession, Szajner began working on light shows in the late ‘60s, eventually developing some of the first laser shows in France. Soon attracting the attention of musicians from all over Europe, he was tapped to develop shows for Gong, Magma, and the Who (a nightmare gig that Szajner claims he never even got paid for). His light experimentation would eventually result in the invention of a remarkable instrument called the laser harp, but we’ll get to that later.
Szajner’s knowledge of laserworks assured him steady work in stage design, as he was recognized as one of the most capable light technicians in Paris in the ‘70s. However, after losing money and tiring of the big personalities, Szajner decided to focus on smaller shows. He initially gathered unknown artists to play to laser shows he designed, but he became frustrated with their unwillingness to compose music for his shows. “I thought to myself that if none of these people were going to make an effort to make some music to go in with our visuals,” Szajner told Faceout, “then perhaps I would have to do it myself.”
At that point, Szajner had never touched a musical instrument in his life. A professed non-musician, Szajner intentionally adopted the approach of a dilettante—much like a man to whom he is often compared, Brian Eno. He began by borrowing a little sequencer and making his own tapes, initially using Frank Herbert’s Dune as inspiration. With the help of Magma vocalist Klaus Blasquiz, ex-Magma drummer Clement Bailley, and others, Szajner recorded Visions of Dune and released it under the name “Zed” on a small French label run by longtime lightshow collaborator Karel Beer.
Visions of Dune may have taken inspiration from Herbert’s novel, but it rarely calls upon the work’s thematic cues. The book served more as a starting point: a sketch from which Szajner could elaborate with sound. More palpably, the influence of kosmische, Tangerine Dream, and the Berlin School seeped into the mix. Individual pieces flow into each other in waves of cold sequencer-driven synthesizer and dots of hazy guitar. The few “vocals” that appear only briefly surface from a muck of vocoders and processing, mere shadows in Szajner’s first musical treatise on light. But despite Dune’s stiff-sounding origins, the album at times sounds loose and improvised. That’s partly due to his veteran posse of Zeuhl musicians (check out the jazzy prog on “Fremen” and “Harkonnen” for examples), but it’s to his credit that he’s able to fold his collaborators’ strengths into his compositions. A remarkable effort for a non-musician, Visions of Dune nevertheless received a poor reaction from critics in France’s electronic music community. Luckily, fresh ears prevailed and the record sold almost 5,000 copies in two years.
This surprising public reaction prompted Szajner to build a recording setup for another release. Whilst he was still in the middle of acquiring professional modular synthesizers and custom sequencers, inspiration struck again. Szajner was approached by Amnesty International with a request for a thirty-second piece for a film campaigning against capital punishment. This request for thirty seconds turned into a concept for a forty-minute full-length, 1980’s Some Deaths Take Forever, a towering record dedicated to A.I. and the abolition of the death penalty. By this time, another Magma member, bassist Bernard Paganotti, would join in recording, and it’s his striking riff that drives the opener “Welcome (To Death Row).” A six-minute beast, “Welcome” begins with a tuneless sequencer freakout reminiscent of something off Visions of Dune. It quickly gives up ground, however, to Paganotti’s motorboat bass and a repeated, insistent piano chord figure that has drawn many comparisons to Another Green World. Elements of the Berlin School pop up all over the seething soundscape of Some Deaths, with synthesizers trading fire with guitars on “Ressurector” and “The Memory.”
In fact, Some Deaths may be considered the pinnacle of Szajner’s exploration of the rock idiom inside electronic music. DJ Carl Craig has listed this album as his all-time favorite and Tigersushi recently featured “Welcome” on its compilation So Young But So Cold: French Underground Music 1977-1983 (along with Szajner’s band the Prophets, but we’ll get to that later as well). With Some Deaths, Szajner still tapped into synthesizer techniques preferred by the likes of Klaus Schulze and Jean Michel Jarre, but he used the rich progressive backbone of his backing band to add vocal chants, guitar, and bass fills, and grow a more organic sound: the rock counterpart to the Berlin School.
Which brings us to the laser harp. In the late ‘70s, Szajner continued designing light and laser shows for groups even though he had kick-started his own musical career. It was a simple task to rig synthesizer notes to trigger lasers; at some point, Szajner began to experiment doing just the opposite and create music by manipulating light. He found that splitting a single laser with a diffusor allowed Szajner to shape the beam into multiple smaller beams that radiated outward in a pleasing harp shape. Using a series of photo-resistors at which the lasers are aimed, Szajner found he could interface the beams with a synthesizer and set it to play certain notes whenever he blocked a “string” of light (essentially “plucking” the harp). It’s like one of those infrared sensors that chimes when you pass through it to enter a convenience store, only instead of emitting a tinny little bell sound, the harp is hooked up to a big-ass synthesizer.
One of the first to utilize Szajner’s laser harp design was electronic composer and mega-star Jean Michel Jarre. Jarre debuted the harp for his huge 1981 Concerts in China tour, a landmark event that was one of the first officially sanctioned Western music performances in post-Mao China and was reportedly attended by over 120,000 people. It has become an integral part of Jarre’s live show to this day, although Szajner has since criticized Jarre’s ersatz personality and music. While the functionality of the laser harp has been debated (partially due to Jarre’s tendency to mime playing it live), it’s been proven to work in a live setting and now occupies a space akin to the keytar as a quintessential elaboration on the ‘80s synthesizer.
It was around this time that Szajner was actually beginning to rely less and less on his synthesizer, or at least its epic, atmospheric qualities. Teaming up with longtime collaborator Karel Beer in the synth-pop band the Prophets, Szajner released two singles and an album on Epic entitled Around the World With the Prophets. He moved even further away from the elaborate sequencer work of his early records with 1983’s Brute Reason, with Howard Devoto of Buzzcocks and Magazine fame on vocals. With these records, Szajner moved further and further into the French “synth-punk” sound similar to Metal Boys and early Suicide. He also showed an increasing taste for dissonance in chord structure, as well as the sort of spoken-word vocals you’ll find on “Welcome.” And then, after a few singles on the label New Rose, Szajner tired of making music and withdrew from an experimental French electronic scene that he never was really a part of, but which he helped to define.
In 2005, Szajner re-surfaced on his website, Szajner.net claiming four concurrent albums in development that reflect his current views on the electronic music scene. He even has a snappy interface for sample songs and everything. He’s still trying to finish up the albums, but for now Szajner is focusing on his work as a “contemporary visual artist.” His art, viewable here, shows a man still enamored with installation and palpable qualities of light. You can’t change a guy like Bernard Szajner: he finds a world in need of creation, and then creates it. His flirtations with the musical avant-garde have colored his career as an artist, a musician, and an inventor, but through it all he’s remained a dilettante, bringing together his favorite visual and musical shades like a proud amateur. This attitude insulates you against trends and criticism, so even today, his followers remain few but rabid, his contributions murky but profound. Bernard Szajner, the French Eno, beloved of Carl Craig, is one of the true believers who think that art is a process that allows you to adore more than you are adored, and that a name is exactly what you make of it.
Bernard Szajner’s first two albums, Visions of Dune (as Zed) and Some Deaths Take Forever, were re-issued on CD by Spalax in 1999. Both are currently out of print. Tigersushi’s Volgaselect Presents So Young And So Cold: Underground French Music 1977-1983 compilation contains “Welcome (To Death Row)” from Some Deaths Take Forever as well as two Prophets tracks.