Bernard Szajner’s phenomenal synthesizer music is little known, but his invention the Laser Harp has been heard by millions of people, thanks to it being a key component of popular French composer Jean Michel Jarre’s live setup (Little Boots also uses it). The Laser Harp is an electronic-musical interface with which musicians can generate majestic, harp-like sounds by palming the laser beams projecting out of it; it looks and sounds amazing. But of greater interest is Szajner’s actual music, which he created in the late ’70s and early ’80s: Visions of Dune (an imaginary soundtrack for Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi book Dune, cut under the alias Z), Some Deaths Take Forever, Superficial Music, and Brute Reason. These works comprise some of the most visionary, menacing synth creations ever, and their chilling sound resonates in many of today’s underground electronic producers (Jonas Reinhardt, Demdike Stare, John Elliott’s Outer Space, latter-day Wolf Eyes, and Seattle’s Meridian Arc; also, Detroit techno great Carl Craig has called Some Deaths his favorite LP of all time).
But the main reason we’re discussing Monsieur Szajner today is his 1982 collaboration with Karel Beer, Around the World with the (Hypothetical) Prophets, which the InFiné label reissued earlier this month. Ostensibly a more accessible cold-wave effort, Around the World nevertheless still projects Szajner’s trademark sinister moods and wry sense of humor. When the album was originally released, its creators used pseudonyms—Joseph Weil and Norman D.Landing—and it was publicized as a record that was “smuggled” out of the Soviet Union as a protest against the nuclear arms race.
But Around the World isn’t a lighthearted listen. It often bristles with Mutually Assured Destruction-induced tension, and it made most of the era’s synth pop sound like sheerest fluff, the toy-town dabblings of naïve children. Yet Around the World isn’t totally devoid of levity. “Fast Food” is a facetious paean to its titular subject and it throbs like an intestine bedeviled by indigestion. “I Like Lead” ladles on more sarcasm with a heavy trudge of a tune about enjoying environmental degradation. “Person to Person” satirizes ’80s romance-ad spiels with an understated, Fad Gadget-like sprightliness. However, Around the World is at its best when it reflects the floating anxiety of living in a time when many thought the super powers would incinerate the planet at any moment—see “On the Edge of the White Zone,” “Wallenberg,” “Back to Siberia,” and “Budapest 45.”
Below, I talk to Szajner (pronounced “Shy-nerr”) about the (Hypothetical) Prophets, his other solo releases, his post-1984 activities, the KGB, the punchability of Jean Michel Jarre, and other topics—but not about his time doing visual effects for Magma, Gong, the Who, and Klaus Schulze, because I just plain forgot.
The Stranger: What were your goals with the (Hypothetical) Prophets? Were you trying to get onto the radio and into the charts? Or was the band more of a parody of the era’s synth pop? It sounds like a departure from your solo works, which explore a much darker vein of synth music—although tracks like “Budapest 45,” “Wallenberg” do hint at the morbid atmospheres of Some Deaths Take Forever, Superficial Music, and Visions of Dune. This is kind of a roundabout way of saying that Around the World with the (Hypothetical) Prophets strikes me as a bit of a schizophrenic record due to the tension between accessible and challenging elements. And that largely contributes to it being such an interesting work.
Bernard Szajner: Interesting comment that shows that you DO know about my work! And yes, indeed, the Prophets was a very different experience… as a matter of fact, personally, I am still quite dark (probably due to the fact that I was born at the end of [World War II] in a cave and stayed hidden in total darkness for a few months)... and “Budapest 45” and “Wallenberg” are the two pieces which I am the most at ease with and may play live in a few of my solo concerts. And NO, we were and are not interested at all at being in the charts; we were just aiming to have “fun” (for one, for me) and describe the world we were seeing about to change in an amusing way. Schizophrenic? As far as I am concerned, everything I do tends to be schizophrenic—pulled between the desire to be “lighter” and my observation that in no way is the world getting any “cooler,” as the kids say forever nowadays… I don’t find the world “cool” at all.
Why did you put parentheses around Hypothetical?
Originally, we named ourselves “the Prophets” (from the Russian “Prorocky,” a residue of our first record together, which relates the tale of a Russian scientist building a nuclear plant), but after a year or so (no internet in those days), we found out that there were already a few bands in the USA using that name… adding “hypothetical” was in the mood we were at that time...
Can you talk about the framing device of the (Hypothetical) Prophets LP and your and Karel's desire to maintain anonymity when it came out?
We were indeed quite concerned that the KGB, very active at that time, might be offended that our first recording (and not very light) was about the Soviet scientist who built a nuclear plant that goes wrong and he ends up being sent to Siberia in a distant Gulag… very first-degree cliché about Soviet Union which amused us a lot, but the KGB was not very known for its sense of humor...
There’s an overwhelming sense of imminent danger in your compositions. Was it your intention to create music that suggested dystopian civilizations? How strongly did political and social issues impact your creative process?
Of course, all of the album is a “sour” view of the social issues we felt were about to arrive (“Fast Food” and “I Like Lead” are extreme examples, but almost all were “criticisms with a smile,” including the very conceptual beginning title Around the World… We naturally pulled these criticisms towards a view containing at least a slightly cynical smile… had I treated these themes personally, the result would of course have been treated much less lightly :) but that is the advantage of being a team: You can (even temporarily) see other points of view.
Some Deaths Take Forever is such a mind-twister of a sentence and it’s my favorite album title of all time. What was the inspiration for it?
I met someone working for Amnesty International France one day and he asked me to compose a small piece of music for a short cinema advertisement concerning the death penalty, which was still a “tradition” in France—which I did… and it was so successful that they then suggested that I would create an entire album. So I decided to get into the subject, got very involved, did a lot of research and ended up with an album that relates on one side the daily life of a man condemned to death—and his only view of the exterior world is through a radio (no TV at that time in prisons)—hinting that the view you receive of the world via a radio is biased (a series of “cliché” views). Side two was more of his hopes, feelings, despairs… leading to the actual execution piece, for which I used part of a real recording of a public meeting of Benito Mussolini.
Were Heldon and Richard Pinhas a big influence on you? I especially hear similarities between them and Z’s Visions of Dune.
I was aware of Richard’s work, but very superficially… We met once briefly and I don’t really remember much of that meeting. Was he of influence ? Actually, not at all. I suppose we both had to go our own way. Actually, I never to this day listened to Richard’s music. You see, when I started composing, I progressively stopped listening to music (even mine, when the work is completed, I never listen to it). There are rare occasions nowadays when a friend sends me a link, saying “listen to this,” and I do, but otherwise I never listen on my own. It so happens that for some odd reasons, Richard got in touch a few months ago, and we decided to play live together (this is when I listened to his work), but this has not happened yet and may even never happen unless I find a proper agent capable of making it happen.
There was so much incredible, inventive progressive music coming out of France in the ’70s. To what do you attribute that and did you feel inspired by any particular artists from your home country?
Oddly, the ’70s and ’80s was a strange musical period for me. I was in between England and France and really felt the the British seemed to respond with contempt at French musicians’ efforts to mimic Anglo-Saxon music. And oddly I was quite proud that I was the only one from France to draw attention from British journalists who came to see some of my concerts in France and even put me in their “top ten of the year” (Melody Maker) in front of great musicians and groups such as Magazine and Simple Minds. Again, oddly, my only French inspiration was Serge Gainsbourg and French contemporary composers such as Pierre Henry and Olivier Messiaen, two audacious composers with whom I had the honor to work.
Are you surprised that labels now want to reissue your old music and that a whole new generation of listeners is getting into it? I think it’s a testament to how ahead of your time you were that this is happening more than three decades after the release of your albums.
I must stop to use constantly the word “oddly”! but it does seem odd. For me the reissues are from the past even if it’s my past… I am aware that when InFiné reissues my old albums, it is a way to attract the attention of the younger generation, and the [reviews] I received are unbelievably generous. However, I am impatient to see my recent works published. And never mind if I am still considered to be 10 to 20 years “in advance”—if it is too much in advance, it won’t sell, but what should I do? Become “trendy” and make “nowadays” music? I am not sure that it’s my role in creation.
What other soundtracks for science-fiction movies might you want to create, besides Dune? Are there other film genres you’d want to score for? Do other sources interest you for soundtracks?
Interesting question again! When I composed Visions of Dune, I was reading a lot of science fiction, which I don’t nowadays. However, I have noticed that all of my music being “dark” will almost inevitably fit perfectly—as it is—with any somber film… Game of Thrones, for instance, would have been a perfect match for most of my music. The difficulty is that, as we say in French, “it’s a pious wish,” meaning that unless some filmmakers (of “dark” films) listen to my music, it will never happen.
What’s your opinion on acoustic drums versus drum machines?
Long and difficult question for me. As a principle, I will always prefer acoustic drumming, because it has human deficiencies. One of my entire page interviews in Melody Maker in the ’80s was entitled “The Emotional Life of a Synthesizer,” and part of that interview was about my fabrication of a drum machine that would randomly make small tempo errors, humanizing perfection.
Did you use vocoder on your records?
Never! After stopping my activity as a composer for 20 years, I asked a young fan who tried to push me into recomposing music (which I finally did)... I asked him what was “trendy” in electronic music nowadays and he answered (among a few items): “vintage synths sounds,” “computer-generated voices,” and “vocoders”—to which I said I don’t know if I will ever compose again, however, as I deeply dislike everything that is trendy. I will not use any of these trends.
Despite the darkness of your music, hints of humor creep into it. How important is humor to your work? The message ALL HUMAN IS ERROR strikes me as high comedy.
Again, you may have “struck oil.” Yes, that quote is an attempt at humor, but unfortunately, even if in daily life I smile and laugh a lot, I am not successful in my attempts to be funny.
Is there a reissue planned for Some Deaths? Troy Wadsworth from Medical Records here in Seattle says he’s been discussing the possibility with you.
Yes, he has, and has been extremely patient, and I am very thankful to him for that! However, it is a bit of a delicate situation. I am faithful to Infiné (my French label) because of all the efforts they put into reissuing a number of my ancient works and would like to leave them the decision of reissuing or not Some Deaths. Unfortunately, Infiné are continuously overworked and it seems that the very few moments when I can communicate, there are so many other priorities that come up that I can’t manage to raise this issue. I do hope to raise it soon so that I can give a decent response to Troy’s [request].
It’s been a long time since you’ve released any new music. Have you done much recording over the last 30 years and, if so, can you discuss the nature of it?
Too big a subject… I will make a short try: same mood, somewhat different music… Still dark but more “abstract,” voluntarily less melodic. Melody nowadays strikes me as being somewhat [inessential] and I less and less feel it necessary to express emotion and bring the listener along with me in a complex and demanding but more fulfilling world. For those who would wish to imagine what I have been up to after some 20 years out of music (working mostly in digital arts), you can catch a glimpse of my intention in this subtitled video interview filmed at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (the avant-garde contemporary art museum) and hear glimpses of the music too… 38
Have you recorded anything that’s gone uncredited?
I may have. This world is going much too fast and I am much too busy to spend time searching for these matters.
Did Christian Vander ever ask you to tour with the retooled Magma?
No, we lost track and as I just said, I’m too busy. I am still a bit in touch with [Magma vocalist] Klaus Blasquiz.
Will you ever do a US tour?
Just waiting for that… Will I wait forever? Depends on finding the proper agent. I would LOVE to!
Why did you use "Z" as your pseudonym for Visions of Dune?
Embarrassing question! The is a “Z” in my name: sZajner provokes a “crash” and most people are embarrassed as how they pronounce that name. The encounter between “S” and “Z” makes it difficult for most people to ascertain how to pronounce that name. It occurred to me that sometimes when you have a problem, it may be useful to enhance it, thus my pseudonym is and will be .Z.: The dot in front symbolizes the S and the one at the rear symbolizes the rest of my name.
Do you want to punch Jean Michel Jarre?
Sometimes. :) But less and less! Some people are on earth to show off and pretend and others are there to have a harder but sometimes more fulfilling life just being sincere.
What would you want your last death-row meal to be?
I’m not sure I would have any appetite in such circumstances!