The story of Craig Leon’s groundbreaking synth works of the early ’80s begin with the Dogon people of West Africa, a civilization whose traditional religion is said to have originated centuries (perhaps even millennia) ago with a visit from an alien culture that traveled here from the star Sirius B. When Leon, in 1973, happened upon an exhibit of Dogon sculptures, showing the Western world, for the first time, what the tribe thought the alien people (who they called “Nommo”) looked like, it sparked an idea: What kind of music would these people bring with them when they landed on earth? What would it be like to create a composition that imagines the sound that existed during a people’s origin story?
By 1981, after a few years spent as an A&R scout for Sire Records and a producer for acts including the Ramones, Suicide and the Fall, Leon was ready to realize his idea. Released in 1981 on Leon’s own Arbitor label, both Nommos and Visitng were composed and arranged works, created in the studio using then-new instruments and synthesizers. Roger Linn, inventor of the Linn Drum machine (think Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit,” or better yet, the song that samples it, Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy”) lent Leon an early, beta version of the studio gadget, which Leon used to create many of the albums’ rhythms. The dry, staccato hits of the LM-1 pair well with another synthesizer, the Roland JP-4, the textures of which are dense and heavy.
Nommos begins with the sound a classic synthesizer of the era, the Arp 2600. On “Ring of Concentric Circles,” an arpeggiated carousel of notes skips through a shimmering ambient electronics. The mood shifts to motorik, a musical reference Leon consciously points to, and evinces again and again on both Nommos and Visiting. The “Nommo/Nummo” culture has traveled space to get to our planet — in Leon’s musical imagination they are an industrious civilization of movement and progress. The percussive sketches throughout both compositions borrow from African polyrhythms as Leon’s wife, Cassell Webb, lends her beautiful, entrancing voice throughout the sonic travelogue.
Interest in Leon’s two solo records has grown steadily since their release more than 30 years ago. At the behest of collectors and enthusiasts from around the world, several attempts have been made to restore, remaster or reissue them, but instead, Leon went into the studio in 2013 and early 2014 to recreate Nommos and Visiting. As they were originally composed works, it once again became only a matter of technology. This time Leon processed the sounds of an orchestra, instead of the slightly crude and budget-specific synthesizers available to him 30 years ago. The reissued and remastered Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music, Vol. 1, released by Brooklyn’s RVNG Intl., restores Nommos and Visiting to one whole cosmic work. Compositions often rely on concepts, contexts and points of reference in human history, but for Leon and the Dogon origin story, the possibilities extended to something otherworldly and extraterrestrial.