Hartmut Geerken/Michael Ranta “The Heliopolar Egg” 6 x LP box (2010)

box set coverA rather impressive set of archival recordings unearthed here.  Both Hartmut Geerken and Michael Ranta are known for a impressive list of collaborations with major characters stretching back many decades, yet they both have fairly small discographies.  To narrow it down a little, I would say that Geerken is probably best known for his associations with Sun Ra who he brought to Egypt and later documented in the highly desirable book “Omniverse”.  Michael Ranta likely rings bells in heads immersed in the psychedelic sounds of his group Wired and his one off collaboration LP with Takehisa Kosugi and Toshi Ichiyanagi titled “Improvisation Sep. 1975”.  Of course these mentions only scratch the surface of these men’s accomplishments and the point of my writing here is not to review their entire histories.  Instead I want to focus on the 11 sides of unheard material in this box set.  “The Heliopolar Egg” is made up of recordings from a tour to the far east in 1976 which saw the duo landing in Teheran, Calcutta, Dacca, Manila, Seoul, and Osaka (as well as a few cities not documented in this set such as Karachi and Kabul).  Getting a gig for outside music in any of these cities save Osaka in the modern day would be quite a feat, so it can only be imagined that this was even more of a bizarre musical exchange in that long ago year.  What is likewise very impressive is the list of instruments they were carting with them.  One can only hope that the venues provided some of the larger examples such as piano, xylophone and marimba. Nonetheless, the variety of bells, gongs, horns, electronics and sundry electronics must have been making the hopefrom country to country with the musicians.  Unfortunately one thing this box set lacks is recollections on what must have been an amazing adventure and apparently a multi-media spectacle from the bibliographic references listed on Geerkin’s web site.  We are presented only with this list of instrumentation, a septet of black and white photographs, a list of dates and places, and the music itself.  But this is of not great consequence as the music alone is enough to speak volumes.

Each LP represents another city on the tour beginning with Tehran, Iran and the set spans less than a month from the first recording to the last.  Some of the sides are actually rather short and arbitrarily end in the midst of performance to be continued on the flip side of the disc. Within these constraints, the duo expand massively into heavily psychedelic experimental territory.  Varying from disc to disc enough to keep away any sense of monotony, there is often the presence of very cosmic analog electronics pointing to what Ranta had to bring to the table in his work with Kosugi and Ichiyanagi, or at least gained from it, as it echoes the beauty of Kosugi’s “Catch Wave” LP released the previous year.  Along with this are acoustic instruments played with the abandon of The Taj-Mahal Travellers or the ecstasy of Limbus 4 and Angus MacLise.  It is music to divinely drift to on one side while another side offers a multitude of little instruments (Famoudou Don Moye from the Art Ensemble of Chicago was another of Geerkin’s frequent collaborators) in mind freeing jams that are so open you could fall into them.  One can only wonder what people in Bangladesh and The Philippines made of this music as it would have been, and still is, a mind bending experience in the west.  Of course it might have been these audiences which encouraged them to explore so far out.  As by the time the set ends in Osaka, Japan the duo are playing in what might be called the outer reaches of avant-garde classical music (one of Ranta’s students was Stomu Yamash’ta).  From long, unnamed, free form improvisations, we have come to named pieces associated with named composers, one of them being Toshi Ichiyanagi.  Despite this, the music loses none of the fire of the earlier discs and ends up in cosmic territory again with the closing track “Coda” featuring Ichiyanagi on guest synthesizer (apparently Kosugi was playing on this concert as well, but doesn’t appear on this recording).

This music comes highly recommended and hopefully will see a proper reissue on CD at some point.  This is desirable for a few reasons.  One is the above mentioned splitting of concerts into two sides.  The other is the fact that even with six LPs, this is not the complete document of the tour.  As I mentioned above, this set includes 11, not 12 sides, as the first LP is single sided.  This is made painfully obnoxious by the realization that there is a deluxe edition of this set which puts a concert from Delhi on that blank side.  In an ultimate move of collector scum exclusivity, this 12 sided variant appeared in an edition of only 26 copies.  On top of this, Qbico have since released a very limited 10 LP box set compilation that includes a full LP in Bangkok from the same tour in amongst a variety of other artist’s work.  Why couldn’t there be a seven LP box to include everything in the first place?

Already “The Heliopolar Egg” box set itself was very limited.  I’ve never seen a number given, but very few were around and only with a small number of distributors.  And while an expensive item even in the regular edition, the set is rather plainly packaged.  The box itself is decorated with a black and white pasted on graphic on the top and bottom.  Inside are three single sided, black and white, A4 inserts while the LPs themselves only sport blank white labels.  The box itself seems to exist in a few variants.  Mine is plain brown, but I have seen others that have a crosshatched black and white pattern on them.

In many ways, the limitation does make sense however.  How many copies of a multi-LP set by two rather obscure characters could you realistically expect to sell, especially in these days of all too frequent uploading and downloading?  It is a giant financial risk to pour the funds into putting this music out into the world.  So can we really blame Emanuele Pinotti for making just the number he expected to sell?  In the end I am thankful to be not only alerted to the fact that this music was made and recorded, but also be able to hear it repeatedly.  Given the quality of the performances, I do hope that some other daring soul does republish this in the future as I’m  sure when the word slowly gets out, there certainly will be more adventurous souls want to explore these concert recordings in depth.  And geez, Geerken is a published author, some liner notes please!

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