Barrio Chino

Miraculously, a CD reissue appeared about this time last year of Superstitions (MUSIC À LA COQUE COQ-05) by Nu Creative Methods, an item which originally came out on cassette in 1984 on ADN tapes. This is the team of Pierre Bastien and Bernard Pruvost, both unique creators in the field of jazz-inflected French experimental music of the 70s and 80s, and part of a pantheon which by rights ought to include Jac Berrocal and Pascal Comelade as twin deities at the top of a very high but relatively unknown totem pole, with Daniel Deshays cavorting at their feet, acting as the medicine man. I think this is the third item from the duo; they also made a release called Nu Jungle Dances in 1977, of which the vinyl original on Davantage is a pretty major rarity, likewise Le Marchand De Calicots which came out on the same label in 1981. Bastien has been building his own musical instruments pretty much as soon as he could climb out of his playpen, and is fairly well known for his mechanical orchestra, built using Meccano parts, which comprises instruments which can “play” themselves by means of rotary engines (often using turntables), producing a clunky but extremely endearing musical effect that is akin to a three-dimensional music box. I suppose Bruce Lacey would be the nearest UK equivalent to this delightful genius, if we’re looking for parallels…

Superstitions doesn’t feature that mechanical orchestra, but Bastien plays his own weirdified electric guitar on three tracks, and contributes cornet, double bass, and alarm clock elsewhere. Pruvost plays an astonishing array of percussive and stringed instruments, including a thumb piano, xylo drums, and a hunters harp lute. Most of his arsenal is derived from African and Eastern instruments, there’s a lot of tuned percussion, and the music created by Nu Creative Methods leans towards an ethnic sound, distorted and détourned in imaginative fashion by Westerners, even taking in some influence from free jazz or improvisation, and using a map provided by Harry Partch to assist as they navigate this uneven and bumpy terrain. Imagine Don Cherry’s Mu as remade by cartoon mice from an unseen and suppressed black-and-white animated film of the 1930s unearthed from the Gaumont Pathé archives. Conventional rhythms are non-existent, and each tune rattles along like a rustic hand-made cart passing over a rickety bamboo bridge; in like manner, melodies bypass all known modal scales and the notes tend to land where they may, as contented as a swarm of fat bees or horseflies settling on the backs on a herd of moving cattle. The music is never out to shock or startle us, but remains perpetually surprising and extremely engaging in a gentle, open-ended way; all the more impressive for being 90% acoustic; even the electric guitar is not heavily amplified, the better to let us hear and appreciate Bastien’s odd swoops and glissandi, his hands darting about like friendly spiders.

If you don’t fall in love with this music instantly, then scope the back cover image of the pair; how can you resist? Just the sight of Pruvost blowing his transverse horn buru and wearing a decorated jacket to die for ought to make you clasp this release to your warm bosom, not to mention the mouthwatering array of musical paraphernalia strewn across park benches. I wish I’d been picnicking there on that day! There’s also a photograph inside the CD cover which suggests Superstitions may have played some part in a dance theatre piece; Bastien has certainly been involved (with Pascal Comelade) in creating music for dance companies, but I have found no evidence to link these recordings to any specific performed work. There’s also artwork on the CD which resembles Bali shadow puppets, making a not-inappropriate visual link to gamelan music. This reissue includes a short bonus track, ‘Alpinic Railway’, a jaunty and jolly little throwaway piece which in both title and sound exactly recreates the feeling of being transported along a bumpy and mountainous route by old-fashioned, steam-driven, mechanical methods – much like the entire record. At a time when so-called civilisation is attempting to digitise just about everything that moves, what a refreshing treat to hear great acoustic music made using an understanding of old school Newtonian principles.