The Official Orchestra of the College of Pataphysics

Two from Fou Records received 15 Feb 2022. Les Vraies Richesses (FR-LP 08) is a recent solo record by Jean-Marc Foussat (the label owner) recorded in a single session in 2019. Foussat is one of the few improvisers I know who makes great use of his own voice, and hearing him here doing it with a combination of noises from his Synthi VCS3 seems to me a very “pure” expression of his artistic intent. His vocal work isn’t really about singing, but using the voice like another instrument; on ‘Providence’, he may start out with a low chant like a Buddhist monk, but the work soon grows into a many-layered, complicated howl of emotion. I say complicated because the work presents a rather mixed content – we can’t tell if he’s anguished, angry, or simply shrieking with the joy of a new-found liberation. ‘Providence’ comes and goes in waves of very dense sound, some fairly extreme synth settings and that gibbering, alien voice, echoed on top of itself as its owner apparently travels back in time to a primordial age.

After that epic piece of science fiction, ‘L’inattendu’ comes across as a more restrained and thoughtful piece, the Synthi working like a typewriter to produce intricate details of unusual mosaic sounds in the Pierre Schaeffer mould, while the voice elements (still echoed and looped) drone, gasp and issue plaintive wails that might be mistaken for prayers or hymns. Foussat isn’t afraid of addressing strong and painful emotions, and this feels like a very personal cri de coeur, full of poignant loneliness and longing.

Nouvelles (FR-LP 06&07) is the real gold nugget today, though. It’s a reissue of an earlier release, originally put out by Potlatch in 2001 as a CD-ROM (complete with a 25-minute video!); it seems to contain recordings from the 1970s and 1980s, with the earliest work from 1973. Here, our man JMF plays not just the synthi, but also guitar, piano, percussion, electronic music, tapes, and assorted objects, and uses his voice; plus he composed and arranged almost everything, although the album does include his versions of songs by Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers, and there are guest players appearing briefly on a few tracks – including Pauvros from Marteau Rouge, and the great trumpeter Jac Berrocal. It’s not exactly a compilation or sampler, but this contains some astonishing unclassifiable works from the career of this wonderful player.

You won’t be prepared in any way for hearing ‘I.E’, a 1984 composition which he made at home for a super 8mm film soundtrack; synth and/or tapes create a lurching, wheezing rhythm, there are sound effects resembling rushing water, and on top he plays wayward, raw, free-jazz shapes on the piano. It’s like encountering Cecil Taylor on board a futuristic steam-driven train ride. And that’s just the first half…obligatory purchase if you want to experience a delirious master-stroke of musical lunacy. Equally nuts are the two tracks appearing under the “Green Candle” rubrick (an obvious reference to Pa Ubu, the pataphysical king of anarchy) – this version of the Soft Machine’s ‘We Did It Again’ has to be heard to be believed, with help of rhythm section P. Bouscaillou and M. Bohy, the heavy lifting done by JMF’s menacing growl of a voice juxtaposed with a tape of a crying baby. Pure surrealism…enhanced by what I assume is speeded-up tapes, adding to the carnival air of unreality. It segues into ‘Better than a Garbage Can’ – it’s about time someone reversed that brilliant Kevin Ayers pun title ‘Plus Belle qu’une Poubelle’ – where JMF tames his synth into a more relaxed version of the Ratledge organ and burbles further sublime gibberish and angelic, wordless singing with his “human trumpet” effect.

There’s also Vielgestältiglasterhaft, a highly perplexing suite of six separate tracks, again with help from Bouscaillou and Bohy plus guitarist J-F Pauvros, Berrocal…while insatiable tape machines spin at two million MPH, synths go crazy and everyone on the session plays like the end of the world is nigh. The four minutes of ‘Longum Iter’ are like the lost sessions to a missing album on Futura Red – an astonishing example of free music that embraces rock and jazz elements in a somehow typically French manner. Foussat rounds out this amazing album with two tracks of ultra-minimal process music, ‘Usure’ and ‘Attente’, which clear the palette before the three parts of ‘Resolution’, piano music created by overdubbing two instruments (I think) with one of the layers employing varispeed; baroque nightmares these are, somehow combining the sturdy complexity of J.S. Bach with the most unhinged free playing, JMF attacking the keys with such intensity that it’s as though Handel, Scarlatti and Vivaldi were all holding a dagger to his throat.

“Dishevelled and Disruptive,” wrote Fred Frith in his concise liner notes on the original Potlatch CD, summarising in three words the achievement of this great album; “am I bent music?” he asks. You sure are, Nouvelles!