The Music of Bernard Szajner

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I couldn't find a decent page on the web about Bernard Szajner, so here's my own homage to his unique music...

[UPDATE: more pages are coming out of the woodwork...]


Born in 19??, Bernard Szajner could be considered France's answer to (pre-ambient) Brian Eno, in terms of quirky approaches to the rock idiom. His early albums mix inventive rock music with electronics and progressive ideas making something unique. His use of Zeuhl musicians and stylisms puts him firmly in the post-Magma camp, but his is a much darker, more industrial world; later albums move further into new-wave pop-rock. Originally a visual effects artist, he worked with Gong, Magma, The Who and Klaus Schulze, staging some of the first laser shows at their concerts. He also invented the Laser Harp, a pioneering device to control synthesisers using lasers, as used famously by Jean-Michel Jarre. Bernard continues to work as a high-tech theatrical and event designer, and claims (like Eno) to not be a real musician; his music came secondary as a soundtrack to his laser shows, after yearning to create true multimedia compositions rather than trying to accompany other musicians without proper structure. There's a certain naive innocence in his music, an honest simplicity in the melodies not unlike Haydn or early Gary Numan (another underrated pioneer). You have to like rippling analogue sequences to fully appreciate this music though; if resonantly chirping monosynths turn you off, or the idea of new wave cyberfunk concept albums leaves you cold, then look elsewhere.



Bernard recorded along with Karel Beer (director of IRC, and co-producer of many of his albums) under the name The Prophets, who released two singles and an LP:


Discogs has a more complete discography, as does his official site.


Visions Of Dune

Recorded under the name ZED, 'Dune' opens with mellow synths setting a majestic atmosphere conjured up by Frank Herbert's novel. Strange harmonized vocals herald the start of 'Bashar', into which an awesomely funky drum groove (by ex-Magma drummer Clement Bailly) appears flanked by Bernard's classic Oberheim sequences. Swirling synths cascade around with melodic pulses rising and falling, until it comes to a dead stop. 'Thufir Hawat' is a meandering ARP Odyssey synth solo over a steady sequence. 'Sardaukar' creates a more sinister feeling with edgey, buzzing sounds, until a lovely deep arpeggiated filter-swept bassline rides in. 'Fremen' swirls into view amidst an unashamed analogue meteor shower raining down like slow-motion Syndrums. There's more excellent drumming from Clem, laying down a bizarre groove in 8/4+9/8. 'Harkonnen' starts with some very nasty synths, plus electric guitar (Colin Swinburne) and bass (Hanny Rowe) with restrained drums: anguished and diabolical. 'Adab' returns to juicy analogue sequences and monosynths, falling over each other in phasing patterns. 'Gom Jabbar' is magically mesmeric as rippling filtered sequences shift around the stereo image. 'Ibad' features the already remarkable voice of Klaus Blasquiz, here further processed and vocoded, over dreamy electric piano and electronic percussion. 'Kwizatz Haderach' is a majestically rich tour-de-force of shimmering analogue patterns and textures, with the synthesised voice of Anannka Raghel.

Another review

Some Deaths Take Forever

The first Bernard Szajner album was dedicated to Amnesty International for its tireless work campaigning for the release of political prisoners. The title track welcomes an imaginary prisoner to 'Death Row'. It features an amalgam of aggressive electronic sounds and Bernard Paganotti's distinctive growling bass (Magma fans will enjoy his solo) contrasting surprisingly with heartfelt piano chords reminiscent of Eno's "Another Green World". 'Ritual' begins ominously with clinking drum machines and pulsing sequencers, before the Zeuhl-ish voice of Klaus Blasquiz enters. Some bizarre twangy guitar is joined by lo-fi electronic organ rhythms, before some coughing ends this odd track. The ominous opening theme of 'Execute' was later reorchestrated as 'Domestic Casualty' on Brute Reason; this original version sounds more primitive, with analogue white noise percussion, super-thick oozing bass synth and phasers set to kill. This is overtaken by oddly chugging electro-rhythms, lo-fi synths and tape cut-ups, building to a lethal frenzy of distorted noise.

The Second Phase begins side two with 'Ressurector': more dancing analogue sequences, this time with timbales duelling with guitar sounding like Michael Shrieve meets Fred Frith. There are also some vocals, later joined by rapid rock guitar riffs. The tracks on this side of the LP are interspersed with three Radio Phases culled from shortwave radio. 'Terms Of Reality' takes us around the world's airwaves with radio sounds, the political prisoner's only contact with the outside. In 'The Memory', bouncy sequencers accompany a lively guitar melody that sounds Eastern European with its curious rhythms and pauses, and would also not be out of place on a Fred Frith album. More radio static ('New Body Form') segues into 'Suspended Animation', where eerie monosynth creatures haunt the prisoner's mind. Gong-like guitar dances overhead until the monsters slide out of consciousness. After a final Radio Phase ('The Difference Is Not All That Great'), the closing track is 'A Kind Of Freedom', with plodding Schulzian synths and vocoded voice, a sort of brighter, less spacey version of Robert Schroder's ambient masterpiece 'The Day After X'.

Some Deaths Take Forever was voted Disc of the Week: (2000-11-17) and apparently, is DJ Carl Craig's favourite electronic album! Some other reviews:


Superficial Music

"Superficial Music is compiled from selected tapes previously used as the basis of my recording Visions Of Dune. The tapes in their present form have been replayed in reverse at half speed without any re-recording and are enhanced only through the discriminate use of digital and analog devices."

- from the sleeve notes of Superficial Music

[So I suppose you want me to spend ages manually back-spinning my vinyl at high speed to identify the origins of each track...?]

  1. 'Superficial Music 1' begins with analogue alarm clock trauma, from which emerge synth sequences and metallic clangorous sounds (ring-modulated no doubt).
  2. 'Superficial Music 2' sounds more obviously sdrawkcab|backwards with slower electronic percussion, and is in fact 'Ibad' without Klaus's treated vocal.
  3. 'Superficial Music 3' is an easily recognisable desrever|reversed rendtion of 'Thufir Hawat'.
  4. 'Superficially Accelerated Edits' is fourteen seconds as described, sounding like musique concrete or birdsong.

Side 2, entitled Oswiecim, is much more minimal, the sparsest of all of Bernard's music. I'd guess, since this was 1981, that he'd just got hold of a then-newfangled Eventide Harmonizer and was, like me, spaced out by the amazing sounds created by riding waves of feedback on the edges of space. It starts out with 'Ouverture': long pitch-shifted slabs of sound. 'Chant Funebre' is subtle slow drones, also with pitch-change feedback effects, somehow reminiscent of Brian Eno's sparse ambience without the long reverb. 'De-Terminaison' starts with oozing deep synths and distant pitch-shift clouds not unlike early Schulze-in-space abstractions.

So on the whole, this is quite a sensitive album, delicate and unique, and not as basic as the sleeve notes suggest. But I'd still rather listen to Visions Of Dune forwards.

"Superficial music which just tickled the surface of the mind, didn't tiresomely claim any deep emotion whether of grief or exaltation"

- Graeme Greene ('Journey Without Maps'), quoted on the cover of Superficial Music

Back To The Burner/Back To Siberia 7"

This single was released in 1979 and again in 1981 due to its cult appeal, under the name of The Prophets, who bore the pseudonyms of Polish/Frenchman Joseph Weill and Englishman Norman D. Landing, which I believe were Bernard Szajner and Karel Beer. This group also later released a 12" single 'Wallenberg' / 'Budapest', which was described by New Musical Express reviewer Viv Goldman as "so tedious that no-one will ever play it on the radio". It featured the bizarre concept of translating a cut-up recitation of the story of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenburg, who helped Jews escape the Nazis, but who 'disappeared' during questioning by the Red Army:

For the French version, this distorted version has been translated into French. Next, the record will come out in Sweden, in a translation of a translation. And then in Germany. Then Italy. Then Japan. The final version will be for the USA, translated from Japanese back into English, but by an American. Also, at each stage, a local musician will add another instrumental track to the basic recording.

An article in NME 1982-06-05 claimed they were also working on an LP for CBS, but I suppose this is what Bernard lists in an interview as "Around the World with the Prophets" (1983) [Epic].

This 7" has one track per side: 'Back To The Burner' (5'00") describes in Russian (with a humourous cartoon on the inner sleeve) a scientist building a nuclear reactor, and his fate when it explodes. Moody monosynths gradually build up a dark industrial feel over a primitive chugging drumbox accompaniment, and other strange electromechanical whirrings and radio warblings portray the scientist at work. This is pretty groundbreaking stuff even now and shows modern experimental music a trick or two.

'Back To Siberia' (4'15") begins with an eerie pulsing bass over a plodding organic (Roland CR8000?) drumbeat, with distant modular synth arpeggios rippling in the distance. Strange Russian vocals boldly declaim "a list of railway stations scattered across the Russian sub continent. These stations are notorious for seeing more passengers arrive than depart." [From the inner sleeve]

Brute Reason

My favourite album, probably because this was my introduction to Szajner's music (in my teens!). The revolutionary production and creativity of the arrangements still amaze me today. I'm not sure what to compare this music to, as the melodic style and unstructured structure is highly original for what is essentially a new-wave/rock/pop setting, albeit very non-mainstream. There's a great photo on the cover showing Bernard playing his laser harp surrounded by modular synthesisers.

'Without Leaving' launches the album into a strangely drunken riff over which wails an insanely-processed cello. Added to this are the quirky lyrics of Howard Devoto from Magazine, who comes in with the immortal line: "You look as though you've been dragged backwards through a bush..." before the song opens up with spacious synths and the cello solo spirals upward. There's some impeccable rhythm guitar work and did I forget to say that Bernard Paganotti's bass was very funky?

'Snow Prints' is a glittering icy instrumental with female spoken voice. Crystal bell tones of digital synthesis drip from ice caves. "Centuries passed in the frozen city"

'Brute Reason' features Taiko drum master Joji Hirota on wordless vocals and percussion. Rotating alert signals herald danger, and then the groove gets up with it. Joji's vocal gymnastics punctuate the groove here and there, before he launches into a percussion solo hotting things up. A sax joins in at the next level up, then a synth, as the voice echoes around and the analogue sequences whirl like a dervish, before the whole thing falls to the ground.

'Saracen Cards' is a mellower instrumental with dueting sax, guitar and keyboards.

'Crash Diet' is a hilarious little ditty composed by guitarist Xavier 'Toxidose' Geronimi (what a name!) It starts innocently with that Casio VL-Tone snap-crackle-and-pop beat and some funky guitar picking. The vocals (which I won't spoil for you :-) repeat mantra-like as the mix gets subsequently 'thinner' in sound... You really have to hear this highly original production to appreciate the genius of humour at work.

'Deal Of The Century' features Howard's lyrics sung in a duet with himself and also the found voice of 'Snow Prints'. It begins with a lazy groove of bass harmonics and understated drums. After the first chorus, it paces up with a guitar solo, and the bass gets niftier still.

A timid electric piano introduces 'Domestic Casualty', an epic slab of electronic rock, reworking the opening theme of 'Execute' from Some Deaths Take Forever. Paganotti's bass dances along effortlessly as crazy cutup vocal samples weave an aural film. Thundering drums and massed synths chase the frightened voice into a frenzy of guitar passages. Heady stuff.

Distorted guitar and pulsing electronics announce the start of 'The Convention', with bass and guitar throbbing along with multiple sequences in changing time signatures while Howard sings passionately of some love affair:

I've been looking at all the candidates' wives
you're the loveliest
object of worship

The middle-8 features a sublime mellotron melody recalling Tangerine Dream's 'Rubycon'. This is another favourite track, if just for the analogue basslines alone, which seem to pulse in and out independently.

The final track is The Snark, named after a strange 2m-long performance device that Bernard uses to control his PPG synth. It's a majestic instrumental finale with Schroeder's lyrical saxophone (and two bass players :-) bringing the album to a close.

The Big Scare 12"

This short 4-track EP from 1984 features the inimitable rhythm guitar of Geronimi 'Toxidose', and also Magma bassist Bernard Paganotti on one track. It's more new wave pop-oriented, like Brute Reason, with odd lyrics (often sung by two voices - male and female) and quirky arrangements. My favourites are on the B-side: 'Charity and Crime' and 'Indecision', a charming ditty which includes the following insightful warning:

One man's indecision is another man's break
Someone's making mileage from decisions you don't take

© copyright Malcolm Smith 2004-08-28 - last updated 2005-10-07 - links verified 2015-11-30