The Greatest Albums Never Made, part 1
By Christian Kiefer
Monday, March 9th, 2009

John Coltrane and Merzbow
Live at Pompeii: The Complete Phoenix Sessions

Coltrane’s legacy was obviously well-cemented by the time he happened upon the kind of glitch-based electronic music that would dominate his post-1980 output.  Perhaps it was only a matter of time before he found himself in Japan, exploring the Japanese underground with the same vigor he had shown when first encountering work of Ornette Coleman, African music, and the various other influences that had found their way into his fluidly manic playing style in the mid-to-late 1960s.

It was Otomo Yoshihide and Sachiko M. who first introduced Coltrane to the sounds of sonic annihilation that were the forte of Masami Akita, better known as Merzbow.  Coltrane had befriended Yoshihide and Sachiko during a noise festival in Toronto in 1999.  The relentlessly unlistenable sine wave work of the duo struck a chord in Coltrane, a point he made in a 2001 interview with David Fricke.  “I don’t know what it was,” the saxophone master said.  “I could feel the holy spirit in that sound.  It took everything I did before and burned it into a thin line.  Just incredible.”

Otomo Yoshihide and Sachiko M. organized a short series of near-secret shows in Japan for Coltrane soon after the Toronto show.  Coltrane’s work was well known in Japan and in fact a recent documentary on his career had further raised his profile, so much so that any publicized gig would have likely caused a near-riot amongst his new, younger fanbase.  But Coltrane had moved from saxophone, to analog electronica, to laptop and sampler, and now was experimenting with mechanical equipment-gears and pulleys pirated from old factories (and assembled to be musical controllers with the assistance of Thomas Dolby) that he would use to dramatic effect, his horn actually being bent and broken as he played it, but somehow always being intact enough to continue to emit sound.  It was an equipment-heavy show, and also one that Coltrane perhaps did not know would actually work artistically or financially, hence the secrecy of the performances.

Yoshihide and Sachiko shared the stage with Coltrane at many of these shows and despite the equipment Coltrane was employing at this time, the shows themselves tended toward the quiet and contemplative.  (Listeners can hear some of these on a variety of Japanese bootlegs, the best of which is the awkwardly titled Japafrican Joyosa).

Masami Akita attended all but one of these private shows but he did not introduce himself until the third or fourth performance.  Akita was understandably nervous, but it turned out that Coltrane was already well aware of Merzbow’s work.  At a subsequent performance, Akita handed the saxophone innovator a copy of the 50 CD Merzbox, a voluminous document of his work in harsh noise, cut-ups, and sound manipulations, much of it of the pummeling, ear-rupturing variety that Merzbow has become known for.

Masami Akita aka Merzbow

Masami Akita aka Merzbow

Coltrane was quite interested in the Merzbox-both the scope and extent of which is indeed staggering-and it was not long before he and Akita began preliminary plans to work together later that year.

“Amazing,” Akita noted during a recent interview.  “That Coltrane was interested in my work…what can you say about that?  An honor, to be certain.”

As it turned out though, the discussed Coltrane-Akita sessions did not immediately materialize.  Despite alienating many of his jazz-based listeners via his abrupt turn to experimental electronica and subsequent foray into synth-based dream pop instrumentals (listeners will remember when it was difficult to discern between ‘Trane and Tangerine Dream), Coltrane still had many other obligations, both live gigs and sessions, that kept him busy through the rest of the year.  Merzbow’s own recording and performing schedule nearly matched Coltrane’s pace.  There were various missed connections and sessions set up and canceled (including one set up in New York by Naked City drummer Joey Baron, who was also to play on that ill-fated session).

It took an anonymous Microsoft millionaire (and apparently a fan of avant-garde music/noise) to make the project finally come to fruition, but not as a proper recording session in a studio.  Jim O’Rourke explains: “It’s every musician’s dream.  I get a phone call from a man who wants me to record Coltrane and Merzbow!  What do you say to that?  Not only that, but the guy has an unlimited budget.  He asks me if I would mind if he hired a director to film it and I asked him who he had in mind.  He said Ingmar Bergman.  I’m having a heartattack at this point.”

The donor had one stipulation: He did not want it recorded in a studio but would pay for a field recording somewhere “scenic.”  He hoped the results of the pairing would be monumental and he wanted the scenery of Bergman’s film to be equally so.  But he would leave the choice of locations up to Bergman himself.  Perhaps the donor thought that Bergman would choose to film it around his native Faro Island-after all, the director was 83 years old and was not nearly as mobile as he had once been.  All were surprised to learn, though, that he chose instead the ruins of Pompeii.

The flight from Stockholm to Rome is now legendary, with O’Rourke’s essay “My Afternoon with Ingmar” spelling out the details of their lengthy philosophical conversation over Europe.  In Rome, Bergman and O’Rourke met Coltrane and Akita and the four, various sound engineers and film crew in tow, set off for Pompeii.

It has been much speculated that choice of the Pompeii amphitheater for the filming of the concert was a tribute to Pink Floyd’s famous audience-less concert film Live in Pompeii.  However, contemporaneous interviews with Bergman reveal that the director was unfamiliar with the film.  “I chose it because it’s so beautiful,” he told a Swedish reporter soon after.  “Devastatingly so.  How could we not make the film there.  Such pain and beauty.”

So it was that in March of 2001, the seventy-five year old Coltrane picked up his saxophone and joined Merzbow’s arsenal of wires, circuits, and laptops at the Pompeii amphitheatre.

Bergman’s use of the amphitheater was temporary, though.  It was the initial meeting of the two juggernauts of sound, the younger Akita and the old guard Coltrane shaking their musical hands for the first time.  The first piece, as evidenced in the box-set Live at Pompeii: The Complete Phoenix Sessions, indicate a tentative skittering.  Merzbow’s sonics are more akin to the tentative scratchings of an alien feline and Coltrane’s squeaking and jittering saxophone sends little flurries of information back and forth.  At 27 minutes, it is the briefest of the many pieces recorded by the duo, a statement that itself indicates the scope of the work that they would do in subsequent days and nights.

A clip from Bergman's film with Coltrane in full color in full swing.

Coltrane in a clip from Bergman's film.

Despite his years working in black and white, and the general similarities between the blasted landscape of Pompeii and the Swedish landscapes he favored in his films, Bergman went for blazing color when filming Live at Pompeii.  The director had draped much of the ruins of Pompeii in thin colored cloth and had hired a full special effects crew to work it with wind, smoke, water, and, in the end fire.  What occurs during the duo’s sonic experimentation, then, is a constantly sinuous, moving field of ruin and color, each seeming to try to both negate and add to the other, the cameras spinning mercilessly around the two figures huddled together at the center of the wriggling madness.

At one point, Akita taped a variety of contact microphones to Coltrane’s saxophone, making it appear more like some alien weapon than a musical instrument.  These microphones were used as control voltages for Akita’s battery of analog synthesizers, which in turn ran back into Coltrane’s own battery of giant machines. This piece appears in the new box set as the sole track on disc 3, the aptly named “I.V.”

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The final collaboration saw a huge version of what Coltrane had already started with the Japanese shows two years earlier.  Coltrane’s machines, many of which now included parts from huge decommissioned American and Japanese battleships, were arrayed around the Pompeii ampitheater.  The entire area was colored in colored paper and cloth so it appeared as if some weird, outerspace rainbow beast had wrapped itself around the geography and then, abruptly, had died there.

Coltrane’s saxophone was floating amidst a collection of ropes and gears, with Coltrane himself able to play only by sitting in an suspended chair.  Merzbow could barely be seen from his own station amongst the apparatus, his head appearing only to when making quick, almost surreptitious eye contact with the saxophone master.  Each note Coltrane played seemed to have an effect on the mechanical and electronic works around them and in fact, Coltrane himself seemed to be effected equally.  “I began with my whole self-all my fingers, my mouth, my breath.  But as it went on I felt the use of my fingers slipping away.  It wasn’t part of the machine or anything-just part of the performance.  But by the end I was just blowing and then even that seemed impossible.”

It’s true that listening back to the performance one can hear, amidst the chaos of notes and textures, that Coltrane himself is shutting down.  First a barrage of endless notes and then, by the end, fewer and fewer until ‘Trane’s saxophone is emitting only one endless, high-pitched squeal.  It is not unlike the sine waves of Sachiko M., that sound that had so intrigued Coltrane a few years early.

Merzbow too moves from an blast of complex noise that is a combination of screams, static, manipulations, and chaos and, like Coltrane, moves further and further into monotone as the playing stretches past the hour mark.  And then, one hour and 22 minutes into the performance, once can hear the first pop of a electrical component, a vacuum tube, exceeding its life.  A few seconds later, the second pop and then the groan of a huge gear beginning to wrench itself loose.

In Bergman’s film, we can see the whole thing in striking color.  The twists and turns of colored cloth and paper begin to erupt into flame, the camera swooping around as if upon wings of its own, breaking not only many of the conventions of film but many of the convention of film that Bergman himself had developed.  In the middle of the increasing conflagration, the machines themselves-analog synths, amplifiers, and there at the center, Coltrane’s horn itself, begin to rent themselves asunder.  And Coltrane and Merzbow themselves-in a beautiful fin de siècle-begin to rise out of the fire like twin Phoenixes.  It is Bergman’s greatest achievement (and oh so un-Bergman-like) as it is Coltrane’s and Merzbow’s.

With Live at Pompeii: The Complete Phoenix Sessions, we can at last hear the entirety of what was recorded during those days and the newly restored set of three DVDs reveal much that has been hidden from the general public.  Bergman’s film is beautifully clear and colorful and the bonus DVD of interviews and behind the scene footage, is wonderful, particularly the footage of Jim O’Rourke trying frantically to retain the sound quality of the recording which still being a part of the general sonic mayhem of the event itself.  The truth is that there could not be a better combination of elements and it will remain as one of the most important, innovative, and interesting live performances ever placed on film.  Special kudos to the box set designers for spending the time and money to put together a physical package so beautiful (although it took me a good long while to determine how to open it).

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