Exploring Flying Lotus' Cosmogramma
Updated: May 13, 2020
This month, Flying Lotus’ (Steve Ellison’s) seminal 3rd album Cosmogramma turned 10. Though it was far from the world’s first taste to Flying Lotus’ music, or even his first genre-defining release (that honour would arguably go to 2008’s Los Angeles), Cosmogramma took the smaller scope of its predecessor and shot towards the heavens. Literally – the word ‘Cosmogramma’ itself refers to a map of the stars. Cosmogramma feels like the first expression of the true breadth of Ellison’s influences, and the first time they were fused together into one complete statement far more than the sum of its parts. To my mind, it was the blueprint that foretold the shape of every Flying Lotus album since – each is an intensely cinematic, expertly paced linear journey that hurls listeners into an unfamiliar world of sound and texture. While its successor Until the Quiet Comes was my first introduction to Flylo (and to a certain extent electronic music as a whole), it is Cosmogramma that remains his most essential release. It is of the most towering achievements in its field, and as dizzyingly awe-inspiring and emotive as it was upon release.
Cosmogramma represents more than just Ellison’s artistic breakthrough, or even a hallmark release of 2010s electronica – its achievements point towards something broader and more fundamental to 21st century music making. Its audacity to whip between sounds never previously heard together to create a genre-blind, unclassifiable whole contributed to an artistic trend that to my mind remains one of the defining qualities of the current era, whether in electronic music, jazz, or anything else. I think it’s an album that we can all learn from and appreciate through this accomplishment alone, but the added bonus is that this is a perfect ‘gateway’ album to get into a host of new genres and sounds you may be more unfamiliar with. If you’re a jazz nerd eager to branch out, I can’t recommend this highly enough! Or, if you’re into electronic music (IDM, instrumental hip-hop or otherwise) and are interested in delving into jazz, this would be the perfect stepping stone.
So, in order to understand and fully appreciate Cosmogramma we need to examine each of its influences individually, and the role they play in the album as a whole. The rest of this post is going to be divided up into sections that look at the jazz, electronic and film influences that built Cosmogramma. Feel free to flick through, and check out the above Spotify playlist to listen to the music that I reference throughout!
To all the jazz aficionados reading this: if knowing that Steven Ellison is the grand-nephew of Alice Coltrane doesn’t pique your interest, I don’t know what else to tell you. There’s jazz all over this album. Ellison cites George Duke’s Feel and Sun Ra as points of reference, and it can be felt in everything from the harmony and drum grooves, to the live instrumentation (I could write another article on Thundercat’s stunning contributions on virtually every track alone). There’s a feeling of rawness here, as though everything was created in a single instinctual moment through one formidable imagination, though that isn’t even half close – the inexhaustible sonic details and long list of collaborators make that abundantly clear.
Ultimately though, it’s the lineage of the Coltranes that’s most important: Alice Coltrane’s ghost haunts every corner of Cosmogramma, and it’s clear this was a deliberate choice. Cosmogramma was written in the midst of Ellison’s grieving over the death of his mother, and in this process he turned to the music of his family. Drawn to Alice in particular, Ellison says he ‘could hear her dealing with John Coltrane's passing’, and so her spirit is invoked literally on Cosmogramma through the sampling of her harp. But even when Coltrane herself isn’t heard, she can still be felt. Much of Alice Coltrane’s music was influenced by her time as a spiritual director of the Shanti Anantam Ashram in California (Journey in Satchidananda’s title references an Indian religious teacher and public figure she spent time with), and to a certain extent Cosmogramma reflects this. Ellison attended many of the religious services Coltrane did and their impact can certainly be felt in songs like ‘German Haircut’, with its live drumming by Richard Eigner and saxophone work by Ravi Coltrane (Alice Coltrane and John Coltrane’s son). But where Alice Coltrane’s music sounds like the soundtrack to a spiritual meditation, Cosmogramma sounds like the visceral sensory journey one may undergo internally while meditating. Tracks like ‘Picked!’ show this more hyperactive side of Ellison’s approach to jazz, and it is here where the aforementioned George Duke becomes relevant. For Flying Lotus, the language of jazz is often a compositional shorthand that invokes spiritualism. It’s transcendentalism for the internet age.
Stones Throw and Warp: beat music and IDM
As mentioned before, Flying Lotus’ music generally is put under the umbrella of electronic music but this is far from sufficiently descriptive. So to be more specific, Flying Lotus’ specific brand of electronica can be interpreted as straddling two separate traditions/communities, and interestingly, these are represented explicitly through his past and present record labels. These record labels are Los Angeles’ Stones Throw, known for their soul-tinged underground hip-hop, and Warp, a UK label most famous for fueling the rise of ‘IDM’ (intelligent dance music) beginning in the 90s.
While Flying Lotus was working towards his debut album 1983 in 2006, he was interning at Stones Throw Records in California. It’s clear then that the music and artists of Stones Throw were a formative influence on Flying Lotus’ sound, and he has spoken of two releases of this period of particular influence: J Dilla’s Donuts (famously released just three days before Dilla’s death), and Madlib’s Sound Directions album (a moniker for his project Yesterday’s New Quintet). Ellison spent time with J Dilla at his house, and his revolutionary unquantized drum programming can be heard almost everywhere on Flying Lotus releases (as well as broadly across contemporary music). The short vignette-like tracks (often 1-2 minutes) that were rapidly strung across releases like Donuts are also clear templates for the track lengths and structure of Cosmogramma. A track like ‘Zodiac Shit’ is a perfect example of Lotus’ take on a Dilla beat – a unquantized wonky beat backdrops static, repeated keys and string samples that makes a big impression and gets out almost as quick as it enters.
Madlib, a contemporary of Dilla’s, was in a period of experimentation and growth in 2006. Most notably known as a hip-hop DJ and beatmaker, he began to branch out from the solitary musical life of an electronic producer by inviting session musicians to collaborate. Yesterday’s New Quintet and the aforementioned Sound Directions album meaningfully incorporated live instrumentation into Madlib’s mastery of sampling and electronic production, and in doing so blurred the lines between a live band and sample-based production. It was most likely that spark that led to Ellison’s similar incorporation of live instrumentation on Cosmogramma on tracks like ‘Table Tennis’, which features ghostly vocals from Laura Darlington and beautiful acoustic guitar work on top of the titular sample of a table tennis game. Though the aesthetics Ellison invokes through his musicians’ presence are pretty different than Madlib, his straddling of live and programmed instrumentation was likely important to Flying Lotus’ development.
In 2007, Flying Lotus was signed to Warp Records. Perhaps it was this auspicious moment, getting signed to a label as coveted and high-profile as Warp, that pushed him to incorporate more of the label’s ‘sound’ into his music. For the uninitiated, there are a large number of classic Warp artists that could have a hand in Flying Lotus’ sound – Boards of Canada, Autechre and Squarepusher are just some of those names. But perhaps it is Aphex Twin that Ellison has paid his most overt dues to – the track ‘Windowlicker’ appears on Flylo FM, Ellison’s fictional radio station inside Grand Theft Auto V (more on this later), and Lotus cites Drukqs as his favourite Warp album, listening to it ‘all the time’. The synth programming and twitchier, glitchier, more disruptive style of Aphex Twin feels particularly relevant in songs like the Thom Yorke featuring “...And the World Laughs with You” – a song dominated by synthetic production and more ‘on the grid’ rhythms. But this doesn’t even mention the opening track ‘Clock Catcher’, which immediately throws the listener into a chaotic frenzy of chromatic saw-wave arpeggiations and a stop-start drum groove far too aggressive and subversive to recall the smoother sounds of Dilla or Madlib. But when these two subgenres are placed side by side in the track’s second half, a richer and deeper expressive language is created, as both parts contribute to a greater whole.
It’s important to remember that despite Ellison’s formidable musical pedigree, talent and career, he didn’t receive formal musical education. Instead, before his music took off, he attended the Los Angeles Film School and Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Clearly, Flying Lotus is much more multidisciplinary than on face value – this can be seen later in his career in his work on Grand Theft Auto V. He directed and co-wrote Kuso in 2017 as a bona-fide filmmaker, but also has scored countless short films, taking a particular affinity for horror (Perfect) and science fiction (Blade Runner: Black Out 2022). Clearly, even back in 2010 his education in film was crucial in the making of Cosmogramma.
My theory here is that this influence can be felt the structure and pacing. Flying Lotus has gone on record to explain that he approaches each of his albums as journeys to be consumed in one sitting, going so far as to call them ‘suites’. Cosmogramma and every album since has been intensely linear in its structure, both on a small and large scale. Many tracks on Cosmogramma are multi-phase and contain little to no recurring elements - often starting with one feeling and ending with another. And on a larger scale, Flying Lotus albums often end in a very different sonic space than where they begin. The most obvious example of this is 2014’s You’re Dead!, where hyper-complex and stimulating jazz fusion in the first half gives way to a more meandering, ambient and mystical second half. On Cosmogramma, a similar but less overt structure exists – a frenzied and tenser first section gives way to a groovier, soulful middle portion, before finally landing on a smoother, more introspective final portion, ending on the euphoric ‘Galaxy in Janaki’ (featuring the sounds of his mother’s hospital room, no less).
This music is some of the most intensely programmatic I’ve heard, but despite this any narrative placed upon it is clearly metaphysical rather than literal. In this way, a similarity to a filmmaker like David Lynch can be felt. I don’t just say this cause I love Lynch – Lotus has made a point of this! Most overtly, David Lynch makes a spoken-word appearance on Flying Lotus’ latest album Flamagra, but Ellison has said that he’s been trying to work with his ‘hero’ Lynch for ’11,12 years’, acknowledging his influence through his commitment to ‘the art life’ (a phrase Lynch coined). Besides the aforementioned structuring, I think a sense of the surreal (which Lynch is known for) can be felt in the hybridist nature of Flying Lotus’ music we’ve been talking about this whole time – the way it puts things in the context of things they normally aren’t, and warps identifiable influences is what makes surrealism what it is, and these things are all present throughout Cosmogramma.
So in conclusion, as well as being one of the true classics of recent memory, Cosmogramma’s melding of all of these disparate elements into a cohesive whole is what makes it special. Ellison found his musical voice not through mining into a specific genre or subgenre, but through the referencing of the entire breadth of his artistic experience, so as to create a work that contributed to the narratives of several genres simultaneously. The way that voice is then poured into an emotional, cinematic exploration of grief is what gives Cosmogramma its staying power, ensuring its relevance so that we will be still dissecting it even 10 years from now. After all, while musical trends come and go, individuality and emotional intent will never go out of style – this is what makes art timeless. And that, on Cosmogramma and every subsequent release, is Flying Lotus’ greatest achievement.