The lost world of Ana Olgica

The lost world of Ana Olgica

(edit 22nd August 2018 – readers may also be interested in the careers of Amity Cadet and Enno Aare)

Ana Olgica on Spotify.

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Continuing from my profile of the work of Amity Cadet, I thought I would focus on another artist, once legendary, now only known by a fraction of their life’s work.

Unlike Amity Cadet, however, Ana Olgica is represeneted on Spotify by not one, but two works. Here, from YouTube, is “Sugarcane”:

On 7th September 1968, the Venice Film Festival was concluding, with the Golden Lion being awarded to Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed directed by the West German philosopher Alexander Kluge. In New York, an organisation called New York Radical Women organised a protest against the Miss America pageant that seared the practice of bra-burning into the public consciousness. Elsewhere in New York, the New Yorker on that date published George Steiner‘s essay “A Death of Kings”

Steiner’s essay begins:

“There are three intellectual pursuits, and so far as I am aware, only three, in which human beings have performed major feats before the age of puberty. They are music, mathematics, and chess. Mozart wrote music of undoubted competence and charm before he was eight. At the age of three, Karl Friedrich Gauss reportedly performed numerical computations of some intricacy; he proved himself a prodigiously rapid but also a fairly deep arithmetician before he was ten. In his twelfth year, Paul Morphy routed all comers in New Orleans – no small feat in a city that, a hundred years ago, counted several formidable chess players. Are we dealing here with some kind of elaborate imitative reflexes, with achievements conceivably in reach of automata? Or do these wondrous miniature beings actually create?”

As it happened, 7th September 1968, in the city of Novi Sad, in what was then the Socialist Republic of Serbia, which was a constituent republic of what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a baby girl was born who would become known to the world as Ana Olgica. And she would perform major feats in all three “intellectual pursuits” Steiner identified.

Her real name, and her parentage, are unknown. Rumours would abound in the Belgrade of the later 1970s. They were university professors, demoted in the aftermath of the 1968 student protests in Belgrade. Or they were in some way linked to Tito’s inner circle. She made public appearances alone, without reference to a mother or a father.

At the age of five, Olgica performed on a Belgrade stage, playing over fourteen nights Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas. At the age of six, she defeated Boris Spassky – still, perhaps still, perhaps, not quite recovered from his defeat by Bobby Fischer in the famous 1972 World Championship, in a ten game series held in Rome. At the age of seven, she delivered a paper On the stability of the linear mapping in Banach spaces to the American Academy of Sciences.

With an infectious smile, Ana became a propaganda fixture of the latter days of the Tito regime. This deflected somewhat from her gargantuan talents. Furthermore, there was continual speculation that some kind of trickery was involved. Never mind that she played music and chess in exactly the same conditions as any one else, or that her mathematical papers were subject the the full rigour of the worldwide mathematical community’s review. What did she herself think of this suspicion? Her warm smile and sunny demeanour on stage seemed to suggest that she was at ease. But no press interviews were ever allowed; not even with supine Yugoslav state media.

As the 1970s progressed, the world seemed to tire of the precocious girl. Like so many prodigies, what seemed initially miraculous soon became ho-hum, run of the mill. Just as the world reacted with wonder at Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon but the stupendous achievement of Apollo was met with more and more indifference, Ana Olgica continued to excel in her three areas to be greeted by international indifference. The Yugoslav state would send her on visits to various nations, during which she would perform the most challenging works in the repertoire on the piano, deliver a mathematical paper to a suitably eminent audience, and beat a Grandmaster in an exhibition. This schedule did not vary. In the later 1970s, Ana Olgica did not appear in public at all.

It was May 4th 1984, three years to the day after the death of Tito, that Ana Olgica reappeared to the world. She released a record, a single entitled “Sugarcane.” Yugoslavia, more Western-leaning than the Warsaw Pact, had something of a music industry, and through this the mysterious, placid, self-contained “Sugarcane” was released. It would become an hit in Yugoslavia, Norway, Belgium and San Marino. And Ana was as inaccessible to the media as ever. Now 15, there were no publicly available photos. Rumours spread that she was the cover for a German disco producer’s dabbling in the new ambient style.

Over the rest of the 1980s, a torrent of Ana Olgica works followed. They followed a similar style to “Sugarcane”, but utilised a bewildering range of solo instrumentation. Pipe organ, harpsichord, cello, double bass, trombone, tuba, glass harmonica, gamelan, french horn, oboe, bassoon, violin, violin, steel drum, xylophone, theremin, trumpet, flute, guitar, accordion, banjo, ukelele, bass drum… all were used individually, to create a world of gentle, yet flowing enchantment. These albums came out via the Belka Tashmaydan label, and achieved milestones internationally. The first commercially available CD in New Zealand was her “Glowing”, recorded entirely on hammered dulcimer. The highest selling album in Japan in 1988 was her “Panoply”, recorded on Northumberland bagpipes. A recording of her piece “Smoothness”, recorded on Fife drum, was launched into space aboard the space probe Galileo.

And then Yugoslavia broke up. Even more obscure than the obscurity of Ana’s prior years is what happened over the next decade. It is as if the stage were in shadow, and suddenly a kind of reverse spotlight thrust her into deeper darkness. What did happen is that Belka Tashmaydan became the subject of UN sanctions, and in the aftermath of these it transpired the company was being used to launder money from the heroin trade in Milan. The assets of Belka Tashmaydan, including the Ana Olgica recordings, remain in a legal limbo, and her albums of the 1980s cannot be released, or even mentioned, due to ongoing cases in the courts of eleven countries.

So her songs go unheard. Except “Sugarcane”, which was not released by Belka Tashmaydan, and one more song which appeared in 2000, just after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic. “Atoms” is a song of quiet devastation, with a sense of loss that both sums up and transcends its historical moment. Ana Olgica may record again, but in “Atoms” she achieved a summation of all her musical work before. In a way, to hear “Atoms” and “Sugarcane” is to hear all her vast, eternal output, and to recognise that here was one prodigy who survived the crushing expectations of a demanding state and jaded global public to achieve a measure of peace.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/1nPTaQHgrjKhSGb5ILEV47

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The lost world of Amity Cadet

The lost world of Amity Cadet

(edit 22nd August 2018 – readers may also be interested in the careers of Ana Olgica and Enno Aare)

The works of the Vietnam-born French composer and pianist Amity Cadet have all but vanished from public consciousness. Of her innovative and eclectic body of work from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s, only one song – “Romances” has made it into the era of YouTube:

and Spotify:

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Cadet was born in Saigon on the 7th of May 1954 – symbolically the day of the fall of Dien Bien Phu which would mark the end of the French presence in Indochina. Cadet’s father was a railway engineer working on the maintenance of the North-South Railway Line, her mother a teacher in the Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat:

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Amity Cadet’s destiny was to move from lost world to lost world; it is not clear when exactly the Cadets left Vietnam, but they next were in Algeria, just in time for the escalation in the Algerian War of Independence that followed the Philippeville Massacre. They stayed in Algeria somewhat longer, until the mid-1960s. After all the Cadets were not pieds-noirs, and it seems that Mr Cadet secured employment with the post-Independence. In 1964 the Cadets relocated to Quebec City. At that point, Quebec remained a highly traditionalist, Catholic province. This suited Mrs Cadet, who at this point had become intensely devoted to the Most Immaculate Heart of Mary, but in the familiar pattern Quebec too was about the change, if not as violently as Vietnam or Algeria just as decisively.

Cadet’s teens spanned the years 1967 to 1974, but contemporaries did not recall her seeming terribly affected by the supposedly epoch-making events of the time. “She was a calm, placid girl. She liked slightly cheesy music – Neil Diamond, John Denver, that kind of thing.” She had begun learning the piano in Algeria, and kept up her lessons with Madame Press, a legendary Quebec City music teacher of fearsome repute. Yet, uniquely among Press’ students, Cadet had a calming effect on the irascible, ancient woman who had been been brought to Canada by her parents fleeing an Odessa pogrom in the year 1881. “Things that, from anyone else, would bring forth a hail of Yiddish curses and blows from tiny fists, would be greeted with a benevolent smile if Amity did them,” recalled a contemporary from the Quebec City Conservatory.

It was in 1975, aged 21, that Amity Cadet began to release albums on the legendary Montreal label Les Enfants d’Esprit. The pioneering dronerock act Nul and the “extreme singer songwriter” Benoit de Boniface (whose ninety five minute strums on open chords had so divided opinion during the first Festival De La Sagesse held in 1972) were the best-known acts on this label. The Les Enfants d’Esprit archives, including the cover art for all records released on the label, were destroyed in a fire in 1983.

All known copies of Amity Cadet’s debut, Piano de l’Enfer were destroyed in the flames. Perhaps, somewhere in a mouldering jumble sale or in an attic, there remains a copy of this album described by Canadian music critic Doug Bundle as “at the same time terrifying and arousing, like the lovechild of Charles Manson and Richard Nixon” (to which Amity Cadet reportedly replied “What does that even mean?)

Whatever the merits of Bundle’s clotted prose, Amity Cadet’s debut was a milestone in the development of minimalist music. One contemporary said that the best way to imagine it is “Ligeti’s Musica Ricercerta II – played in hell by a pianist being slowly disembowelled by the lovechild of Charles Manson and Richard Nixo.n”

The years went on – Charles Manson and Richard Nixon became somewhat lesser cultural touchstones – and as the 1970s became dominated by punk (according to ageing music critics) and the Bay City Rollers (in reality), Amity Cadet found herself swimming against a musical tide of triviality, swimming against a cultural tide of cynical materialism, and swimming against a personal tide of repeated bad relationships. In 1979 a nightmare date with Donald Sutherland, followed by a nightmare date the following Saturday with Leonard Cohen, was immortalised in her minimalist piece “Threnody On Nightmare Dates with Donald Sutherland and Leonard Cohen on Two Successive Saturdays” She persuaded Les Enfants D’Esprit to release this fifteen hour work in a twenty-LP set, no small vote of confidence in a work that consisted of Cadet repeatedly pressing all 88 piano keys at the same time using a length of wood.

The album “Romances” appeared in 1981. It is from this that the one surviving Amity Cadet track that appears on Spotify and Youtube comes from. Along with Tubular Bells, it is regarded as the high water mark of New Age music. “Romances”, the song, is the paradigmatic piano relaxation song, one whose structure however contains hidden repetitions of note sequences that encode the opening verses of the Books of Revelations.

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Later in the 1980s, Amity Cadet renounced music. The death of her mother in a train crash, for which her father, who had been unaware his wife was on the train, was later held criminally negligent for, deeply affected her. She used what royalties she had gained to buy up her records and destroy them, and to pulp entire runs of magazines that mentioned her career. She, like her mother before her, was to devote her life to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and music played by the lovechild of Charles Manson and Richard Nixon in hell did not quite fit this aspiration. Some tender impulse, however, led her to spare “Romances” from the memory hole, and to this day we can enjoy this epitome of piano relaxation.

From “The Poetry of Thought”, George Steiner

We do speak about music. The verbal analysis of a musical score can, to a certain extent, elucidate its formal structure, its technical components and instrumentation. But where it is not musicology in a strict sense, where it does not resort to a “meta-language” parasitic on music – “key”, “pitch”, “syncopation” – talk about  music, oral or written, is a suspect compromise. A narration, a critique of musical performance addresses itself less to the actual sound-world than it does to the executant and the reception by the audience. It is reportage by analogy. It can say little that is substantive of the composition. A handful of brave spirits, Boethius, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Proust and Adorno among them, have sought to transfer the matter of music and its significations into words. On occasion, they have found metaphoric “counterpoints”, modes of suggestion, simulacra of considerable evocative effect (Proust on Vinteuil’s sonata). Yet even at their most seductive their semiotic virtuosities are, in the proper sense of the idiom, “beside the point.” They are derivative.

Music For Another World. Ed. Mark Harding. SF Site review, 2011

This is a rather grumpy review. I found the writing in this anthology by and large ponderous and forced, too self-consciously “literary.” I think that is pretty clear from the review overall but I note in the penultimate paragraph I give a fair bit of praise. I barely recall any of the stories except “Blue Note Heaven” and the premise of Jim Steel’s. 

Music For Another World

“All art aspires to the condition of music.” Walter Pater’s famous axiom is directly invoked in one of the stories in this anthology of speculative fiction linked by the theme of music, and is one of the first quotes that springs to mind when considering the artistic challenge of capturing music in words.

Another well-known quote about music and writing is Frank Zappa’s — “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Like sex, like religion, like love, music is one of the more difficult things to write about. In a few bars, music can evoke emotions, passions, memories and desires. All of this can seem clod-hopping on the page. Writers about music either seek refuge in the technical vocabulary of the conservatory, or write not about the music but about the sociology, the fashion, the politics, the personalities, or the history related to it. Look at the music reviews (in any genre) in your local paper — how many of them fall back on clichés, on regurgitated press releases, and how few make you approach the piece in a different way?

What is a writer to do? My own sense is that (as with writing about sex) a direct approach will invariably fail. Sentences, paragraphs, pages will seem heavy-footed and all too literal, compared to the immediate access music grants to the senses. All the stories in Music For Another World are well crafted, readable, and in that most damning of phrases of faint praise, interesting. Few leave much of a lasting impression, however, and overall I was left with a sense of disappointment.

There are definite highlights. Cyril Simsa’s opening tale, “The Three Lillies,” is an atmospheric vignette set in a subtly altered Eastern Europe that is the closest any story in the collection comes to the condition of music. Jim Steel’s “The Shostakovich Ensemble” is a clever alt-history story in which Dmitri Shostakovich was purged in the Twenties, the USA never entered World War II and the Iron Curtain fell across the Atlantic, and the post-punk music of the late 70s and early 80s (like all music) is under the control of a centralised state agency. Chris Amies’s “Cow Lane” has something of the sweaty frenetic energy of punk, married to a delicious frisson of the supernatural. Vincent Lauzon’s “Festspeel” is an engaging epistolary piece which becomes a meditation on being maimed and encounters with the alien.

There is wit and imagination in abundance. There is literal space opera (Jackie Hawkins’ “Figaro”), there is an afterlife segregated between secular and devotional music (David H Hendrickson’s “Blue Note Heaven”), there are Bruckner-devoted Manicheans hurtling through deep space (Sean Martin’s “Deep Field”) These are all entertaining, diverting stories, in their own way.

I realised something when I came to consider why the stories, well-crafted etc. as they were, didn’t engage as much as they could have. Music features in all the stories, not only as a background or plot point, but as something integral. Indeed, it is the transcendent power of music that is key in almost all the stories. So all feature passages of prose bordering on purple describing the moment of transcendence. And here is where the authors hit the heavy-footed, all too literal (in every sense of literal) factor mentioned above. Simsa’s story, so brief it is more of a parable really, is the one that comes closest to the condition of music. Perhaps transcendence is best hinted at, approach from the side, than described literally.