2. Music of Aliens
Simona: Let’s start by saying “Nommos” is a fascinating piece in the sense of exploring in a very futuristic way the earliest modal chords of the planet. So considering the origin of this attempt, the music of the dogon people is even more fascinating because they might have been extraterrestrials. So, the album gives that out-of-space yet totemic feeling. So was this insight also your initial intention?
Craig Leon: Yeah, well, the idea wasn’t so much to make the music of the dogon, ‘cause it isn’t, it was a thing that came from seeing an exhibition of the art of the dogon, in NY, in the ‘70s. And the art of the dogon people relates totally to their mythology, or religion or whatever you want to call it. They don’t think it’s a mythology, they think it’s real so for them it is real. And they have a theory that extraterrestrial beings from another planet came and pretty much did the same task that angels in our culture did (catholic culture, protestant culture or whatever) but the angels came and taught them how to have civilisation and all of this and they were very specific about a lot of things, about these angels. They knew how they looked, they knew how they functioned on the Earth, differently than the way people did, but more interesting, they had a very complicated philosophical system that they said this was talked to them by these other beings. And they wrote all of this down and it becomes sort of the roots of the Egyptian religion, which is very close to the dogon area, and it’s very similar, it’s the ancestor of it. But in any case the interesting thing is they also were told in their story where the angels came from, and they said this is where they came from and they described a double star planet system (a. n. Sirius) that revolves around itself, that has planet and that this one is a dead planet and that one is alive. It takes about four Earth years for one to go around the other; and they knew that planets go around the Sun, that’s old stuff that’s not so modern, it was forgotten for a thousand years or so, but the ancient guys knew that.
So in any case, they were very specific and there is a star system that does that and it is in the place where they said the angels came from, so it’s kind of a good coincidence. In any case, maybe they were correct, maybe this is true, so let’s make a kind of a speculative fiction piece of music about it which was not so much making the music of the dogon, but to make a piece of music which would be the music of the people from the other planet; what their folk music would be on their planet.
We would go back and I would say, if the dogon were taught things like how to catch a fish and all this kind of stuff, then let’s look at the earliest music from that area. So I took and made a completely made up system - it’s not trying to be true - but I made a system of very simple rhythmic patterns that are like what you would find in North Africa, the three beats against two or four all the time, and then the other thing would be a five notes musical scale for each piece like the earliest pentatonic music. I didn’t want to use the real pentatonic scales; I made new ones because it was coming from another place (or maybe older ones) and then I made it with a sound that’s very different, because their hearing was obviously different.
You see, when I went to this art exhibition, we saw the pictures of the dogon that they made - the dogon made these angels which they called Nommos - and the pictures of the Nommos were all very tall, very thin looking creatures that could also live in the water and on the Earth, so obviously their ear hearing would be different and all the pictures from the dogon and their whole civilisation, the only art that they have is a representation of what the nommos look like. So you go in a room where they say: from 400 years ago - here’s a nommos, 600 years ago - here’s a nommos, they were obviously very intense. It’s like in our art, all you’ll see in the time of the Renaissance or in Pre-renaissance art, all you see are millions of pictures of Jesus and Mary, or Jesus as a baby, so that’s the same thing - they never got out of that stage, maybe they are now but were really hung up on what these things looked like. I tried to make up what their music would be, so I was consciously trying to do that, to make music of aliens, or at least a science-fiction story of music of aliens.
S: And somehow that sounds like folk-music from Sirius.
C: Exactly! That was the idea. If you were to go to Sirius, like, we’re talking about Romania and Enescu; look at all the folk music from Romania, somebody on Sirius is collecting the folk music of Sirius and maybe it sounds like what I’m making. I don’t know, it could be completely different in reality. Or it could be nothing, it could be no one there, but it’s kind of funny how they had all of these theories. Later, people come along and say “oh, a priest taught them this in 1920” or something like this, and taught them about where the stars are but then why would they be making something 4000 years ago of what these things look like. That statue is 4000 years old, not 40, or under. So it can be as true or not as our own stories, so why not?
S: Also I think it’s such a good moment in our pop-culture to re-release this album right now. I mean, with all these messages from outer space being received and lots of discoveries being disclosed. For example there are these Paracas skulls in Peru, whose DNA is proven to be not of human origin, and they also look a bit like totemic skulls.
C: Like Easter Island statues looked like. It’s a kind of a coincidental thing and unfortunately, about 40 or 50 years ago a guy wrote many books about this, Erich von Daniken was his name, and he was not really a scientist. He made a story “Chariots of the Gods and it was all wrong, no facts and nothing. It gave a very bad idea in people’s minds about aliens and such but I’m just looking at it realistically, and I’m not going to say I know the aliens personally or anything, because I don’t, but there must be some culture out there, and probably they came and visited us. With all the planets in the world we would have to have very, very big thoughts about ourselves to say that we’re the only beings that exist in the whole universe, it’s kind of crazy just to think that, you’d have to think “I’m very special”.
S: Yeah, that’s why I think it’s an album of these times so much. So how did you get the idea to re-release it now? How did the circumstances concur to this?
C: It came by itself. I was actually doing some re-recording on it, couple of times, in 1995 and also in 2008 and I’ve always had the original patches written down of what it was, and the original drum patterns that I used and I was always trying to improve it. The thing is that I was trying to do this for many years and I made two albums around the same time, Nommos and another one called Visiting and because vinyl didn’t have a lot of time on it and there wasn’t a lot of money, we had to do them one and then the other and they were always supposed to be the same album. About 1995 I thought I’d make them the same album and I re-recorded some of it to be part of a television show which you can still see, I did it for Discovery Television. It was the 40th anniversary of man going to the Moon in 1969 and 2009 and I put some of Nommos in it as the score for this, so it came out because of that. I never had the time to do it because I do a lot of other things, but then I heard that people were interested in it and it was originally going to be a ballet for a company in New York who did do it, in 1991. Then in 2013 a lady named Karole Armitage who was the dancer of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, a very famous troupe in New York - she has her own troupe now - she did some of it in a ballet. People started talking about it so I said, now I better put it out, because there have been some bootlegs that came out, and a version of it that I didn’t like and all of these kind of stuff and I said: look, I’m getting older and if a don’t put out a version of it, I have so much other work that is available that I better put out the old stuff. So I put it out, luckily, with my colleagues at the French label and also this limited edition vinyl from the US put it out as well. It’s the same album on both things, but two different names. The funny thing is that the vinyl one is called Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music; we’ll get into why that is - that was originally the title of it actually.
S: Oh, I see. And it came to be the name of this re-issue.
C: Yeah, the re-package or whatever you want to call it. Part of it is the original and part of it isn’t.
S: Did you change much from the original Takoma Records issue?
C: Not really, it’s just played with better resolution and we play it live, you saw it live, it was originally written out like a score so people can play it, I played it with a string quartet, I played it with a full orchestra also, and it doesn’t change. I mean I could jam on it if I wanted to but it’s the same thing every time so it’s supposed to be that piece, it’s not improv. It’s written like that.
S: It’s very coherent.
C: When you look at it, it’s written logically.
S: Exactly. Especially because you use scales that you made up.
C: Yeah, the method is very real; I mean, you can make a theory of composition of the Nommos on this album if you want to.
S: That’s a good idea!
C: Would be a cool book!
photo credits: Jacopo Werther - Paracas skulls at the National Museum of Achaeology, Anthropology, and History in Lima