The art of fusion

The first time I became acquainted with the term fusion had to be in the context of music. In my earlier years I discovered a number of progressive rock bands of the 1970s. Many experimented with complex harmonies, heavy orchestration, unconventional forms and instruments, also drawing influence from other genres, most notably Jazz and Classical music. While not strictly considered fusion, I began to associate the term with progressive rock.

Bands such as Pink Floyd and King Crimson frequently incorporated elements of Jazz into their compositions. Groups among Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer focused more on the classical music background. Other notable players in the trend include the bands Procol Harum, Colosseum, Soft Machine, the polish group SBB, and arguably Jethro Tull, Moody Blues, Queen, although the latter bands didn’t precisely cater to the progressive category. Many of the same bands and others also drew inspiration from the 1960s psychedelic rock movement.

Later, as my interests diversified with focus less on Rock, and more on Jazz, I eventually uncovered Jazz Fusion. Nowadays, upon hearing the term Jazz, one not acquainted with the journey of Jazz evolution over the last 130 or more years, might automatically yield to the traditional combination of elements characterizing Jazz - swing, improvisation, ‘blue’ notes, and likely a set of woodwind or brass instruments.

However, if we further explore Jazz evolution, we’ll find it shaped by certain fusion all throughout. Earlier forms of Jazz drew influence from the 19th century Ragtime. Then followed various Cajun, dance, and swing music influences, slowly gravitating to the Big Band, New Orleans, and Chicago formats of the 1920s and 30s. Soon after, with Blues also becoming a key ingredient, the Bebop movement became the trend, characterized by a smaller quartet/quintet/sextet format with the mentioned elements of swing (not to be confused with the dance), improvisation, and the ‘blue’ notes.

The earlier forms of Bebop facilitated improvisation, but limited it to the anchored rhythmic structure of frequent chord changes, giving the players restricted window of improvisation. Later developments of Hard Bop, Modal Jazz, and the more experimental Free Jazz, gradually relaxed the chord structure and enabled more opportunity for improvisation.

All throughout there had been other developments among Cool (West Coast) Jazz, the Big Band revival mixed with Hard Bop, Bossa Nova, until reaching the height during the period of Jazz Fusion starting in the late 1960s. However, the generic term Jazz became associated with the state of Jazz evolution somewhere in the Bebop - Hardbop period.

As Jazz had developed from a combination of older musical forms, Jazz Fusion had further incorporated elements of Rock, Funk, Latin, Mediterranean and various African music. Miles Davis was one of the driving figures in this period of late 60s to mid-70s. The trend at times ventured so far beyond the traditional frontier that many no longer regarded it as Jazz. Further milestones would continue to appear with Smooth Jazz, Acid Jazz, Jazz mixed with Hip Hop, but no particular development challenged the innovational peak of the 60s/70s.

Beyond music, I want to showcase some notable cases of fusion in cinema and literature.

In Cinema

One of my favorite Japanese animes Cowboy Bebop, directed by Shinichirō Watanabe, takes a 2071 Science Fiction setting, suggestive of a traditional space opera action recipe, but mixes it with a series of genres unconventional for the form. Musically, the anime employs a score composed of largely Jazz and Funk, but also with Folk and Western themes. Adding further retroactive touches, the anime, varying stylistically between episodes, fuses cinematographic elements of predominantly Westerns and Film Noir, supplemented with Cyber Punk, 80s action, classic martial arts films and psychological thrillers.

Unlike the American animation Futurama, which employs the fusion as an element of satire, Cowboy Bebop employs it first for the pure aesthetics, but also to emphasize the very human aspect that defines these characters and dominates the psychological themes throughout the story. The familiar character development is the element of focus, not the unfamiliarity of the futuristic universe. The aesthetics glorify the storytelling, but don’t steal the show.

All considered, the anime played the right notes, considering the cinematography, the musical arrangement, and the nonstop engaging story. And where else would you find, in one scene, both a spacecraft and a cowboy on a horse?

Another anime among my favorites is Samurai Shamloo, also directed by Shinichirō Watanabe. While not as critically acclaimed, it applies the opposite fusion approach to Cowboy Beebop. It takes a samurai story of the Edo period Japan but mixes it with an anachronistic musical arrangement of hip hop and funk, glorifying the action with what I perceived to be elements of 70s glamour.

The anime Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, directed by Mahiro Maeda, takes one of my favorite stories and places in a Science Fiction setting in a way that completely knocked me over the head. The element of surprise naturally strengthens the impression.

When I first stumbled upon the anime, beyond the setting’s inspiration from the Alexandre Dumas adventure novel, I lacked further insight. I then immediately noted the strange artistic design, entirely unconventional in Anime. Wikipedia classifies it as a combination of “Western Impressionist and Art Nouveau painters with Japanese Ukiyo-e artwork.” This touch, when first witnessed, only fortifies the feeling of antiquity in settling within the traditional story.

The introductory ten minutes position the viewer in the Rome ark of the story, with the setting still quiet ambiguous but not overly indicative to suggest any drastic alteration to the original. Similar to Cowboy Bebop, it doesn’t reveal anything unnecessary beyond the human element integral to the storyline, until the necessity otherwise arises. Consequently, imagine my authentic display of shock in the sudden appearance of a spacecraft.

The storyline, as it turns out, takes place in the 51st century, a fact it unravels with such grace by virtue of effective suspense. And beyond those moments necessary to ground the story arc with the time period, the visual aspect easily suggests 19th century France with a series of retroactive artifacts to solidify the impression, including the fashion.

The above cases fit within the ‘soft’, or at least the softer Science Fiction genre and highlight an important detail. The setting, be it most extraordinary or magical, need not take but the minimal supporting role in a predominantly human story.

In Literature

Take Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, another soft Science Fiction work. The novel, while set in a distant, technologically evolved universe, places more emphasis on religion, ecology, linguistics, and sociology. It leaves plenty of flexibility to the aesthetic interpretation, allowing the reader to project much of the setting to as much the future as the past. Consequently, this enabled much flexibility in the cinematic interpretation. The David Lynch 1984 version, whatever critical failure it became, I consider somewhat entertaining if projected to a stage of a 1980’s pop music video. Similarly, the Alejandro Jodorowsky unfilmed storyboards suggested lavishing psychedelics and a sensation of glamour rock.

Alternatively, Stanisław Lem’s Solyaris opens another soft Science Fiction stage, characterized by an element of the extraordinary that purposely acquires no physical shape. The defining protagonist throughout the story is the human question. If confronted with severe amnesia in the novel’s development, I could easily fall under the impression of reading an early work of Dostoevsky.

Now, this being a case where I prefer Andrei Tarkovski’s cinematic interpretation of Solyaris to the source material, the 70’s film makes the Science Fiction appear softer even, enhanced with that element of effective suspense before the Science Fiction makes the debut appearance some 40 minutes into the film. I had never previously seen a Science Fiction film of this nature. One also notes a similar effect in Andrei Tarkovski’s Stalker, a loose interpretation of the Strugatsky brothers Пикник на обочине (Roadside picnic). In fact, a number of the Strugatsky brothers works I’ve read apply genre fusion to an amazing end.

How about Magic Realism, a literature genre that fuses traditionally disparate elements of brutal daily reality with a drop of the supernatural? The few following works I mention, beyond their profound impact, have entirely redefined my literary expectations.

Master and Margarita of Michail Bulgakov, takes the stage of 1930s repressive Moscow, and produces elements of satire, fantasy, historical parallel, theology, and Bulgakov’s self-referential treatment to his own literary journey. Aesthetically, the work reads in a way I’ve not read anything prior. I’ve also detected subtler elements of Magic Realism in Bulgakov’s earlier satirical effort Дьяволиада (Diaboliad).

The classic Cien Años de Soledad by Gabriel García Márquez requires no introduction. At first glimpse it reads like a 100-year family history in a small Latin American village Mocondo, originating back to the village founder José Arcadio Buendía. The tale is interspersed with the extraordinary, but this doesn’t become immediately apparent.

It begins with the initial of the many to follow gypsy visits to Mocondo, and their bestowing a series of innovations upon the villagers, among which appears a standard magnifying glass. It is during this time-frame that ice is considered as something novel, a fact unravelled fairly early in the plot, as early in fact as the introductory sentence.

Contrary to the uninformed villagers, none of this appears extraordinary to the reader, who may wonder if the lead gypsy innovator, Melquíades, is nothing but a charlatan from Emerald City. Yet in no time, the novel acquires a twist not only magical, but poetic in the way the story unravels and the history repeats itself.

Isabel Allende’s debut novel La casa de los espíritus is the most magically realistic of at least her early works that I’m acquainted with. Similar to Cien Años, it traces the history of a family throughout many decades. It too employs a combination of seemingly mundane set of developments, at times transitioning into extremely harsh events to beset Chile (the unmentioned but presumed setting), yet fused with the magical, with the occult even. And likewise, early on we are given a symbolic figure to represent the extraordinary, in this case the adventurous uncle of Clara Del Valle, who, contrary to the rest of the family wrapped in practical affairs, seems to live in a disconnected world resembling a fairy tale.

Haruki Murakami, debuting at a similar time frame as Isabel Allende, too produced a series of works I could only classify as Magic Realism, but with a unique style for the time, mixing the Japanese with the Western. Murakami, like Márquez, showcases solitude as a recurring theme throughout virtually all his novels I’m familiar with. He also takes his passion for Jazz and Classical music and incorporates it in some form into nearly every work. For this reason, sections of his novels read like musical commentaries.

Murakami-san might not be a Jazz Fusion enthusiast, if his musical commentaries, projected onto the characters, reflect his own tastes. However, I shall hold no grudge. After all, unsuspecting to the reader, in but a brief moment, a talking cat might appear around the corner. Or a second moon.