Celebrating the prolific legacy of legendary French avant-garde ensemble Art Zoyd, 44 ½ years of music
Trying to make France's Art Zoyd fit into a single neat description is an exercise in futility. Sometimes they're fiendish sonic saboteurs bent on destroying listener's preconceptions about the way music works. Sometimes they're musical sorcerers conjuring strange but bewitching moments of lyrical beauty.
You could call them the original post-rock band, moving on from the dark, stormy sounds of prog legends like Magma and King Crimson to something that makes even those fearless explorers sound conventional by comparison. You'd be equally accurate in dubbing them avant-classical composers, whose experimental visions are influenced by Stravinsky and Schoenberg.
"Art Zoyd is a quartet, but their instrumental arsenal produces the sound of a mighty orchestra." -New York Times
They were charter members of the notorious Rock-In-Opposition movement alongside the likes of Henry Cow and Univers Zero. They're impressionistic soundtrack composers. They're a band. They're a multimedia collective. Ultimately they're simply Art Zoyd. And it takes a document as massive and monumental as the 12-CD/2-DVD set 44 ½, to be released November 24, 2017 on Cuneiform Records, to even come close to offering a comprehensive picture of what they're all about.
Containing hours of live and unreleased material from the vast Art Zoyd archives, 44 ½ delves into the dense jungle of wildly diverse periods in a story that goes all the way back to the '70s. But it also provides many of the missing links in their long, knotty discography, filling in the gaps between their official releases and weaving together all of Art Zoyd's disparate stylistic strands into a majestic, multicolored, even imposing tapestry.
The tale told by 44 ½ incorporates everything from decades-old demos for brilliant but abandoned pieces to live recordings of multimedia extravaganzas involving film, theater, and more. It encompasses intimate trio performances as well as full orchestral assaults featuring dozens of musicians in full flight. It offers explosive industrial soundscapes and sweeping symphonic surges, quiet dread and monumental wallop, delicate acoustic chamber pieces and bustling electronic outbursts.
"Art Zoyd ... is one of the most important collectives in the world - dangerous and challenging." -The Absolute Sound
Art Zoyd has always been a band in flux, not only stylistically but in terms of personnel as well. Countless musicians have come and gone through the band's ranks over the years, but most of them can be heard here, with core players like bassist/cellist Thierry Zaboitzeff, trumpeter Jean-Pierre Soarez, keyboardist Patricia Diallo, and violinist/keyboardist Gerard Hourbette providing the through-line.
On recordings that go all the way back to 1975, this sprawling set—you can't capture the gist of an ensemble like this without going heroically deep—spotlights the multitude of ways in which Art Zoyd blazed a trail unquestionably their own. Their constantly shifting sound was even a million miles from that of their aforementioned RIO comrades, let alone anything even minutely more conventional. They've always been the left field of the left field, the maverick's mavericks, and if anything, this set underlines just how diligently they've pursued that grand idiosyncrasy decade after decade, offering new views of their evolution in the bargain.
"The Rock in Opposition c0-founders marry dark, unsettling atmospherics à la Univers Zero to precise minimalist constructs with hints of Philip Glass or Steve Reich"-AllMusic
In a 1996 live performance from Copenhagen, we hear the sinister but subtle, foreboding atmospheres and nuanced textures of Art Zoyd's accompaniment for the classic 1921 silent film Haxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages). A 2000 concert recording from Maubeuge, France, finds the group joined by a 43-strong ensemble for the dense, brass-heavy orchestrations and pile-driving avant-industrial percussion barrages of the symphonic poem "u.B.I.Q.u.e."
"Final," from a 1975 show in Nancy, wrings an orchestra's worth of dark, gothic-flavored sounds from just guitar, violin, trumpet, and bass, while the 2000 live reading of the wildly diverse "La Nuit Du Jabberwock from Armentieres with Belgian ensemble Musiques Nouvelles features everything from neo-classical movements to electronic minimalism and mutated funk grooves.
In 44 ½ we also get glimpses of glories that were nearly lost to the ravages of time, like the previously unreleased 1990 demo for "Theopanie (Eloge de la Variete)," a piece where Art Zoyd comes off like '80s Tangerine Dream or Kraftwerk amid metronomic beats and a surprisingly linear latticework of synth riffs that would seem anomalous if the group wasn't so tough to pigeonhole to begin with. Then there's the demo for "Alabanje Kalabanza," where Eastern riffs and an urban framework come together for what could almost be the soundtrack to some bizarre crime drama.
Whether they were warping centuries-old classical styles with their sonic funhouse mirror in a piece for the 1989 bicentennial of the French revolution, transforming themselves into an alternate-universe jazz trio in their 1983 accompaniment to Didier Fusillier's play L'Etrangleur est Derriere Vous, or indulging in the unabashed beauty of the piano and choral voices on "Debut" three years later for another of Fusillier's works, Terra Terra, Art Zoyd has consistently flouted expectation at every juncture throughout a long, prolific career. And now, with the arrival of 44 ½, we can finally get a long view of all their most compelling twists and turns along the way.
Box Set Contents: There are eight CDs of live recordings stretching from the years 1972-2004 and four CDs of studio recordings, sketches and outtakes from 1980-2005. Of the two DVDs, one is comprised of historical television appearances from the late 70s into the end of the 80s and the other being the entire performance of their celebration at the RIO Festival.
Box Set Design: The box and all components (cover art, booklet layout etc) were designed by UK graphic artist Max Franosch, and feature his interpretations of the Art Zoyd logo and his original artwork.
12 CDs featuring:
• Live in Berlin parts 1 & 2, The Loft (April 1987)
• Häxan, Live in Copenhagen parts 1 & 2, European Capital of Culture (February 1996)
• u•B•I•Q•U•e, Live in Maubeuge, La Luna (January 2000)
• Le mariage du ciel et de l’enfer, Live in Paris parts 1 & 2, with the Ballet National de Marseille (Roland Petit), Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (March 1985)
• Theatre & Live
• LIVE brigades spéciales théâtre de la renaissance Paris (1976)
• LIVE Mons Danses Mécaniques (2000)
• “La Nuit du Jabberwock,” with members of Musiques Nouvelles, Live in Armentières, Le Vivat (2002)
• Live in Grenoble, 38èmes Rugissants Festival (1990)
• LIVE GRENOBLE NOSFERATU (1990)
• Live in Maubeuge, Art Zoyd with the Orchestre National de Lille (2000)
• Symphonie pour le jour où brûleront les cités (1975/orch. 2000)
• Live in Mexico, Art Zoyd with the Orquesta Sinfónica del Estado de México (1999)
• Armageddon, actes 2 & 3, Live in Lille (2004)
• Unreleased works
• Globe Arena (1989)
• Musique pour le Six-Centenaire du Beffroi de Bethune (1988)
• Bethune 1789 (1989)
• Les Inattendus de Maubeuge “Spoutnik” (1993)
• Les Trois Mousquetaires
• Flixecourt Tisserands
• La Guerre de Marguerite
• Au nom du Père (1991)
• Malbodium (1987)
• L'étrangleur est derrière vous (1983)
• Terra Terra! (1986)
• Live in Nancy (1975)
• Live in Reims, Maison de la Culture (1980)
• Live performance (excerpt) for Radio Tonkraft, Stockholm (October 3, 1979)
• Marco Polo (1984)
2 DVDs featuring:
• 44 ½ , the birthday concert, Live at Maison de la Musique, Cap’Découverte, Le Garric, France, Rock In Opposition Festival 2015 (September 19, 2015)
• Live in Berlin, Centre Culturel Français de Berlin (April 14–15, 1986)
• Live on Phase IV / FR3 TV, Hôtel de Ville de Maubeuge (December 1982)
• Nosferatu - Teaser (1988)
• Musique pour l'Odyssée / FR3 Nord Picardie TV excerpt (1979)
• Le mariage du ciel et de l'enfer (excerpts) / Antenne 2 TV (1985)
2 Booklets featuring:
• One Photos booklet, containing archival photographs in color as well as black & white
• One Texts booklet, containing CD and DVD listings for the whole box set, a two page spread on the band history, and three extensive interviews with the band over the years.
With more than 20 albums to their credit, France's Art Zoyd are a fearlessly experimental ensemble who have always operated in a sphere entirely their own. Heroes of the Rock In Opposition movement, they've been around for so long and seen so many changes that even just a few years into their career they weren't the same band as when they started out.
The band's first iteration began in Valenciennes in Northern France in 1969. At that time, though they were already operating far outside of the mainstream, they were at least nominally a rock band, making progressive music influenced by the likes of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart.
But both their personnel and their style began shifting quickly, as they would do for the rest of the band's lifetime. In 1971 a major turnaround in membership saw charter members depart while violinist/keyboardist Gerard Hourbette and bassist cellist Thierry Zaboitzeff come aboard. By 1975, Hourbette and Zaboitzeff were leading the charge towards a new approach.
The first version of Art Zoyd that resembled the group we know today jettisoned the trappings of rock, eschewing guitars, drums, and conventional rock-oriented song structures, in favor of an uncompromisingly forward-looking agenda and a lineup based around violins, trumpet, and bass for a sort of avant-chamber feel, still bearing traces of inspiration from the most experimental end of progressive rock, a la King Crimson and Magma, but much more influenced by modern classical composers and sui generis sound artists.
In 1976 the first Art Zoyd album, Symphonie Pour Le Jour Ou Bruleront Les Cites, was released on the group's own label, and soon the band was performing across France, opening up for their countrymen Magma. By the time they put out their second LP, 1979's Musique Pour L'Odyssee, Art Zoyd had become participants in the Rock In Opposition movement alongside England's Henry Cow, Italy's Stormy Six, fellow Frenchmen Etron Fou Leloublan, Belgium's Univers Zero, and Swedes Zamlas Mammas Manna.
Founded the previous year, RIO was a cooperative whose members were linked by a fierce commitment to making left-of-center music and subverting the traditional methods of operation within the music business. By design it would remain staunchly underground, but would become a hugely respected and influential movement.
In the '80s, Art Zoyd performed all over Europe, increasing its reputation as one of the premier progressive ensembles. In 1983 a turning point arrived when they were tapped to provide music for choreographer Roland Petit's ballet Le marriage du ciel et de l'enfer at Milan's La Scala Festival and Paris's Theatre des Champs-Elysees. It was the group's introduction to multimedia art events, which would become a significant part of Art Zoyd's work for the rest of their career as they scored silent films, theater pieces, dance performances and more, all across Europe, gaining new audiences all the while. It was in the first half of the decade that the group crafted some of their milestone albums, including Generation Sans Futur (1980), Phase IV (1982), and Le Mariage Du Ciel Et De L'Enfer (1985).
While the group's lineup continued its constant state of flux in the following years, Art Zoyd also expanded its reach, performing everywhere from Hong Kong and Japan to Australia and America. They became renowned for their film music, providing scores for silent films such as Nosferatu, Faust, and Haxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages).
Thierry Zaboitzeff's departure in 1997 marked the end of an era for the group, but scarcely diminished their momentum. A major development came when Art Zoyd opened up their studio and their creative process to outside artists. This resulted in a flood of new collaborations and directions. One of the first was Dangereuses Visions, created in partnership with the Orchestre National de Lille and incorpating music, video, and more. Performed everywhere from Maubeuge to Mexico, the piece was seen by more than 20,000.
In the new millennium, collaborations of this kind continued to dominate Art Zoyd activity, including Experiences de Vol (Flight Experiences). The project with Belgium's Musiques Nouvelles precipitated the creation of the Cross-Border Center for the Production and Creation of New Music, creating artist residency opportunities and birthing dozens upon dozens of works. 2001 saw the premiere of Art Zoyd's music for Fritz Lang's legendary film Metropolis, as well as Gerard Hourbette's score for Schrodinger's Cat, U.S. choreographer Karole Armitage's project with the Ballet National de Nancy.
All the while, Art Zoyd's discography has grown, with their film soundtracks becoming some of their most celebrated recordings. But in 2005, the group ventured into unknown territory even for them with Armageddon. Testing the boundaries of technology as well as art, the project involved not only Musiques Nouvelles but Louse-Philippe Demers, a robotics technician who aided Art Zoyd in the creation of the first-ever robot operetta.
Subsequent years saw the group premiering their music for the film The Fall of the House of Usher at the Louvre museum, creating the "spoken opera" Kairo based on Kiyoshi Kurosawa's novel, and even mounting a performance for young audiences with A demi endormi déjà, based on a story by Celia Houdart and illustrations by Francois Olislaeger.
Things came full circle with Art Zoyd's 44 ½ Birthday Concert at 2015's Rock In Opposition Festival in Carmaux, which brought together a multitude of musicians from the group's many lineups. The 2017 box set 44 ½, inspired by this event, similarly stitched together Art Zoyd's rich, complex history by spreading live and unreleased recordings from all throughout their career across 12 CDs and 2 DVDs.
Cuneiform Records is one of the world's most longstanding independent record labels, internationally respected for its high-quality releases of avant garde music in a wide variety of genres - from jazz to rock to electronic to post-classical to Rock in Opposition and beyond - especially in creative music that defies, re-defines and/or transcends existing musical genres, blazing future paths. Based in the Washington DC area (downtown Silver Spring, MD) since 1984, it has released more than 450 critically acclaimed albums to date. Its releases have been critically acclaimed worldwide, and have appeared over the years in Best-Albums-of-the-Year lists in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Popmatters, The Quietus, DownBeat, Jazz Wise,The Wire, and more. Its music has been featured worldwide on radio ranging from college and community stations to national radio(NPR, BBC, RAI, NRK). In addition, Cuneiform Records has been honored over the years by inclusion in a number of year-end lists for Best Record Label, sometimes under jazz and sometimes under rock/progressive rock. Widely recognized for releasing innovative recordings by some of the world's most acclaimed jazz artists, Cuneiform is also recognized for its extensive collection of Rock in Opposition-related and other genre hybrids. Cuneiform's artists include long-established avant garde icons in addition to young rising stars.
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