Revolutionary Eruption: The Violent Sound of Magma and Musical Fusion in 1970s France

Sounds French book cover Jonathyne Briggs

What follows is an excerpt from Sounds French: Globalization, Cultural Communities and Pop Music, 1958-1980, the new book by Indiana University Northwest professor (and ToM contributor) Jonathyne Briggs.  It examines the history of popular music in France between the arrival of rock and roll in 1958 and the collapse of the first wave of punk in 1980, as well as the connections between musical genres and concepts of community in French society. During this period, scholars have tended to view the social upheavals associated with postwar reconstruction as part of debates concerning national identity in French culture and politics, a tendency that developed from political figures’ and intellectuals’ concerns with French national identity. In contrast, Briggs attempts to reorient the scholarship away from an exclusive focus on national identity and instead towards an investigation of other identities that develop as a result of the increased globalization of culture. Popular music, at once individual and communal, fixed and plastic, offers a way of investigating such transformations in social structures by looking at how musicians, musical consumers, and critical intermediaries re-imagined themselves as part of novel cultural communities, whether local, national, or supranational in nature.

Briggs argues that national identity was but one of a panoply of identities in flux during the postwar period in France. He demonstrates that the development of hybridized forms of popular music provide the French with a method for expressing and understanding that flux. Built upon a broad source base of printed and aural sources, including music publications, sound recordings, record sleeves, biographies, and cultural criticism, Sounds French will prove an essential book for both scholars and general readers interested in popular music and postwar France.  The following passage is from Chapter 3, “Sounds Revolutionary.”

Jazz and pop were two critical elements in French progressive rock’s attempts to formulate a new culture for a revolutionary community. However, other groups in France explored the boundaries between rock and that most revered of musical cultures: classical music. The cultural distance between these two musical forms was evident, according to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in the continued divide between social classes in France. Despite the increased wealth of the working classes as part of the economic miracle, class distinctions remained durable during the 1960s, which Bourdieu linked to the reinforcement of cultural difference among various classes. In Distinction, Bourdieu observes the importance of social origin in dictating the habits of cultural consumption of classical music, as those of higher classes had a stronger grasp of classical works due to their education and socioeconomic upbringing.The conflation of aesthetic conventions of classical music and rock was central to the efforts of groups such as Magma and Heldon, which sought to integrate aspects of modernist composition into their works to fulfill progressive rock’s promise as a form of “new classical” music. While other groups politicized progressive rock in support of leftist causes, Magma and Heldon instead recorded music that was political in its aesthetic transgression. Their embrace of classical modernism was a critical characteristic of the power of progressive rock to subvert cultural distinctions. In this sense, their use of legitimate, high culture within the context of rock music defined how progressive rock attempted to compose a new, holistic sound for a community of listeners interested in tearing down barriers and creating a new France.

Like pop and rock, classical music denotes a metagenre, a broad category that encompasses much of the art music of Europe and serves to demarcate high cultural values from the more commercial concerns of pop music. The notion of art music as a counterpoint to the more trivial expression of music (pop) was famously articulated by Theodor Adorno in his writings on jazz and composition during the 1930s and ’40s, which stressed a mechanistic and ritualized nature of mass-produced popular music in contrast to the more liberated expressions of modernist composition. Adorno believed that “new music,” which developed out of the traditions of nineteenth-century compositional music, represented the culmination of the artistic tradition of modernism. However, the importance of classical music’s distance from the marketplace obscures the increasing use of the concept as a form of marketing and underscores its centrality to cultural distinction. As Julian Johnson notes, “Classical music is distinguished by a self-conscious attention to its own musical language. Its claim to function as art derives from its peculiar concern with its own materials and their formal patterning.”

In France, classical music in the twentieth century encapsulated a rich diversity of sounds and styles, including the proto-minimalism of Eric Satie, the high modernism of Igor Stravinsky, the electro-acoustic explorations of Pierre Schaeffer, and the experimentation of Pierre Boulez, not to mention the continued influence of German composers on Parisian concert life. Christian Vander of Magma and Richard Pinhas of Heldon culled parts of their sound from these very sources, merging them with other elements associated with the sound of the other progressive rock groups of the counterculture, distinguishing themselves through long (and often instrumental) suites that ignored the structural conventions of pop music, especially the patterns of verse and chorus. The structural invention in the music of Magma and Heldon provided a level of tonal sophistication that emphasized the importance of the sound of progressive rock as an example of a significant new cultural form.

magma band

Similar to other progressive groups, Magma formed in 1969 from fragments of various blues and jazz groups but quickly moved beyond those influences toward a more ambitious musical project. One reason for the divergence was the impact of the work of John Coltrane, the American jazz saxophonist whose album Love Supreme tremendously influenced the musical style Vander was developing, which he called Zeuhl (celestial music). A combination of the symphonic structures of modernists such as Stravinsky and Béla Bartok, the choral music of Carl Orff and Gregor Ligeti, and the rhythmic improvisation of free jazz, Zeuhl was, as Vander put it, “music of the universal might.” Kevin Holm-Hudson observes that Vander’s conception of Zeuhl as a spiritual music signaled the influence of Coltrane’s religious yearnings expressed in his music. Hudson also asserts critical aesthetic differences between Magma and the British progressive rock groups, especially in the former’s rejection of what Hudson called progressive rock’s “Romantic nostalgia.” The aesthetic invention of Zeuhl distinguished Magma from not only other French groups but the British groups that had been a critical influence on the development of a French musical scene. It also reveals Vander’s interest in using cultural means to effect social change.

The sound of Zeuhl developed over the course of several albums. On their first recording, 1970’s Magma, the group instead favored the common musical inspirations of other progressive groups: blues, psychedelia, and free jazz. While drawing from similar influences as those groups involved in the political struggle, Magma did not directly engage with the political struggles of the New Left and at times was at odds with the rest of the French progressive scene. Magma, for example, did not participate in the groupuscules seeking to unify political groups and rock bands. The group was sympathetic to some aspects of the New Left but distinguished their musical efforts from those of other progressive groups; as singer Klaus Blasquiz asserted, “We are Leftists at heart and anarchists in deed [but] we are not in favor of militancy.” The comparative harshness of Magma’s musical approach and the discipline Vander instilled in the group were often misread as evidence of fascist tendencies, allegations that alienated the group from the more overt political bands of the French counterculture. Instead, Magma was interested in the potential of aesthetic transformation in changing French society, invoking metaphors of battle to describe their music: “Unfortunately, France has become a terribly conformist country that only encourages strongly recognized values . . . therefore with this attitude there is only one solution: combat.” The group’s dystopian rhetoric illustrated its disenchantment with contemporary society, but pianist François Cahen understood that Magma’s real political challenge was in its musical approach.

Magma distinguished itself in its lyrical approach as well, developing a rich mythology rooted in science fiction that linked together its albums. Vander invented the Kobaïan language, a combination of German, Russian, and Hungarian, to “avoid using a language exhausted of meaning”; Vander emphasized the influence of modernist composer Olivier Messiaen, who used the language of birds as part of his rejection of traditional music. Magma’s albums tell the story of the Theusz Hamtaahk (Time of Hatred), which begins at the end of the twentieth century with civilization on Earth on the verge of collapse. A bold vanguard decides to leave the planet and seek a new life elsewhere, an act that brings this group into conflict with the authorities. After a series of travails, they are successful in escaping Earth and find a new home on the distant planet Kobaïa. The Kobaïans, humanoid creatures who evolved from humans, established a harmonious civilization thanks to their discovery of the nature of man. Kobaïa is a utopia, a world without conflict or anxiety. A benevolent race, the Kobaïans return to Earth years later to share their wisdom and help humans solve their social and environmental problems, an act that ultimately fails due to the suspicions of humans. The apocalyptic overtones of Magma’s work echoed much of 1970s science fiction, another influence on progressive rock’s aesthetic, while also illustrating Vander’s spiritualism that he equated with Zeuhl music.

Balancing the utopianism of Kobaïa was Magma’s pessimistic view of contemporary human civilization, brutally reflected in their eponymous album’s cover art. Depicting a giant reptilian claw crushing Earth—a mishmash of people with faces frozen in screams, crumbling buildings, and factories squeezed through the beast’s fingers—the scene is described on its back cover: “The Judgment of Humanity for all its cruelty, its dishonesty, its uselessness, its vulgarity, and its lack of humility.” Magma’s critical focus on the problems plaguing Western society—industrialization, anomie, and ecological disaster—echoed Red Noise’s more overtly political lyricism and the ideas of the New Left, but its use of Kobaïan distanced Magma’s work from Vian’s direct political tone and from the rest of the French underground. But for all the sophistication of the Kobaïan narrative, the group’s music had not fully developed into a mélange of rock and classical music, as their initial recordings still relied heavily on the techniques of improvisation associated more with jazz and psychedelia. Although the band was seeking to challenge cultural conformity, Magma had yet to formulate an approach that would establish a new type of music. The group’s follow-up, 1971’s 1001 ̊C, revealed the continued efforts at experimentation and stretching the boundaries of rock music. Still, Vander remained the bandleader and the membership of Magma changed numerous times between 1970 and 1973, allowing the group’s sound to develop beyond their initial influences and into unexplored musical combinations that fully engaged with legitimate culture. He continued to focus his creative vision, culminating in the release of Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandoh in 1973, which for Vander signaled the true birth of Magma.

Mekanïk, the final part of the Kobaïan trilogy, evoked for many critics a harmonious fusion of rock, classical music, and the rhythms of jazz. In the words of Jean-Pierre Lentin of Actuel, “The music is pure; it has freed itself from the constraints of technical virtuosity, incredibly complex musical phrases, and muddled ideas. [Igor] Stravinsky, Honegger, and [Carl] Orff remain as [the group’s] influences . . . and [Magma has created] a symphonic work of monumental power.” Magma had finally moved beyond their earlier rock efforts to create an entirely new cultural form, and Lentin’s acknowledgment of the link between Mekanïk and the neoclassical symphonic form underscored the connections between progressive rock’s emerging aesthetic and the modernist tradition in compositional music, a position reinforced by Magma’s members. An important element in Magma’s success in uniting these different influences was the musical training of its members. Vander had studied jazz with numerous American players and even claimed to have beaten out the rhythms of “Rites of Spring” on a tambourine as a child. Other band members—Jannik Top, contrabass saxophonist Rene Garber, and pianist Gerard Bikialo—all studied compositional music in various conservatories, which provided the musical background that allowed the group to integrate classical influences seamlessly into its music. Educated in legitimate culture, the members of Magma used this knowledge to expand the style of Zeuhl and move beyond the conventions of rock, jazz, and classical music altogether. While education, according to Bourdieu, was a linchpin in maintaining sociocultural order, in this case it fostered the breaking down of cultural barriers rather than their reinforcement.

The story of the Mekanïk album dealt with the aftermath of Earth’s rejection of the Kobaïan ways and the continued crisis of civilization. A messianic figure, Nebehr Gudahtt, offered enlightenment to humans, preaching the importance of ego denial and purity, which ultimately led to his persecution on Earth. Gudahtt cursed mankind for failing to understand his message and called upon divine forces to help him: “Unfurl upon mankind your silent incandescent legions / that they may crush the Earth / wipe out the crowds and erase space / and that in this inextinguishable apocalypse / ashes should burn forever.” After an epic battle between Gudahtt’s followers and his enemies, humanity achieved spiritual purity and escaped the Earth and the problems associated with it. Lyrically, Vander’s apocalyptic tone mimics Richard Wagner’s operas while evoking the idea of revolutionary battle. On Mekanik, Magma integrated not only the lyrical theme of opera but also the musical primitivism of Stravinsky’s Russian-period work.

Vander drew great inspiration from Stravinsky’s Les Noces for the vocal arrangements on Mekanik. Les Noces, composed between 1914 and 1921, was based on a collection of Kireievsky’s Russian folk poetry detailing a peasant wedding. Stravinsky scored a miasma of voices that blended together over a piano motif throughout the four-movement, twenty-three-minute piece. The vocal patterns of melodic oscillations, repetitions, and crescendos on Mekanik borrowed heavily from Stravinsky’s score, which, in the words of Eric Salzman, “create[d] a kind of ritualistic vision made of great, overlapping cycles, utterly objective and detached yet encompassing and enormous in scope.” Vander’s composition also borrowed the percussive four-piano rhythmic structure of Les Noces, which for Stravinsky was “perfectly homogenous, perfectly impersonal, and perfectly mechanical,” an interpretation that in many ways mirrors Vander’s intent for Mekanïk. For instance, the overture for Mekanïk, “Hortz fur dehn stekehn west,” contains several layers of pianos and vibraphones in a four-note pattern, countered by Jannik Top’s bass guitar as the melodic instrument—a technique common in progressive rock—and with the chorus of male and female voices weaving in and out of the musical structure in a style similar to that of Les Noces. The song jettisons the obvious conventions of rock, lacking electric guitars, lead vocals, and a chorus. The rhythm eventually shifts with the introduction of the drums, and the song explores all the melodic motifs that appear on the remainder of the album.

The other classical composer who directly influenced the sound of Mekanïk was Carl Orff. In his Carmina Burana (1936), Orff united choral music with complex percussive meters to orchestrate an imagined primal scene of elemental struggle. Vander’s desire to dramatize his cosmic opera led him to incorporate Orff’s massive and dramatic choral style into songs such as “Ima Suri Dondai,” which evoked Orff’s famed “O Fortuna” overture. Layering male and female voices and abandoning the traditional verse structure of rock music, Vander married Orff’s style with rock instrumentation. While Vander would often acknowledge Orff’s influence on Mekanïk, the latter composer’s association with fascism brought criticism from the French underground.

magma attahk album cover

Critics consider Mekanïk as Magma’s aesthetic high point, although the group continued to release music in the 1970s, including more conventional releases such as 1978’s Attahk, which contained songs with more contemporary influences rather than extended musical cycles rooted in the aesthetics of modernism, undoubtedly seeking to build a larger audience. Like many of the political groups, Magma lost momentum toward the end of the 1970s and moved away from the sophisticated experimental nature of their early work, work that reflected the band’s attempts to bring together diverse audiences through the creation of an entirely new style of music. While Magma influenced other groups that adopted the Zeuhl sound, their own move away from the style suggests the limitations of forging a revolutionary community solely through sound.

Nevertheless, Vander’s willingness to transpose Stravinsky’s and Orff’s primitivist musical forms and styles into the rock context redefined the aesthetic boundaries separating the two cultures as he claimed a place for progressive rock in the genealogy of musical modernism. Magma’s music served as a challenge to the perceived rigidity between popular music and legitimate music, and while Vander labeled his efforts as something outside of these distinctions, he nevertheless maintained his music’s relationship with pop music. And numerous popular music critics recognized the genealogy Vander posited for his music as part of the neoclassical tradition, which defined itself as a simplicity and sobriety in composition that also reconstituted older styles. As Pop Hebdo stated in a 1976 survey of the Magma catalog, “How does one describe the music of Magma? It has an inheritance, of course, from jazz, rock, and classical music from the early twentieth century”; and Frederic Délage noted in his book on progressive rock: “The appearance of Magma represented a true revolution in the timid world of French pop music which up to then [was] almost exclusively impregnated with Anglo-Saxon influences.” Popular music critics, in agreement with Vander, saw Magma as practitioners of style that emerged from the classical tradition of the modernist avant-garde.

The fusion of these two styles challenged the cultural division between the two, as Magma’s aesthetic success posited the possibility of the creation of new cultural forms that challenged established notions of distinction. Magma’s commercial success further enhanced the significance of the group’s sound, as Magma was one of the few French groups to have records released outside of France. Magma lacked the insularity of the political groups and had a sound that demanded consideration as a serious form of art, the very thing that gives classical music its significance. The melding of sound and experimentation and the idea of the continuation of the modernist tradition reveal how Magma looked beyond the more traditional politics of the counterculture and attempted to formulate a revolutionary community through sound. As the biographer Antoine de Caunes asserts, “One must understand that the music of Magma is still a subversive music, a music of struggle, and the [sound] of the struggle itself.” The importance of spiritual reinvention and the persistence of utopianism, while obfuscated through the group’s use of an invented language, were still known to listeners through record sleeves and interviews. Magma approached these lofty aspirations through the belief in the transformative power, the inherent spiritual nature of music, believing that music, more than politics, could change the static society of 1970s France.

Jonathyne Briggs has taught courses in modern European history at Indiana University Northwest since 2007 and is the recipient of the Founder’s Day and Trustees’ Teaching Awards.  He is the author of Sounds French: Globalization, Cultural Communities, and Pop Music, 1958-1980 (Oxford University Press), and numerous articles and book chapters, including “God Save the Village Green: Pastoralism in British Rock.”

Reprinted with permission from Sounds French by Jonathyne Briggs, published by Oxford University Press © 2015 Oxford University Press.