An Interview

Benoît Delbecq & François Houle

This interview with Benoît Delbecq and François Houle was conducted by email during September 2011.

Tony Reif: François and Benoît, your first duo CD (Nancali) came out in 1997, the second (Dice Thrown) in 2002. This one has been much longer coming. So what were the circumstances and considerations around making a 3rd record? And how did you select the repertoire?

Benoît Delbecq: François and I have regularly performed together in a duo format since 1996, but since we live in two different parts of the planet it is problematic in a way. We are both involved in many projects and our schedules are pretty full. Now, we took advantage of this recording opportunity given François was coming to France for three gigs… wish there had been 12 gigs!!! Nevertheless, this recording has a scent of the new in the new: our last duo recording took place nine years ago… a time long enough for ideas to mature, and to come with new cards in hand. Sure, we both had new cards, but we didn’t tip our hand before playing – that was the great surprise, as always.

François Houle: We actually did a third CD (La Lumière de Pierres), but in trio with Evan Parker as a guest, which was released on his Psi label in 2007. I think part of the reason we took so long in recording again had to do with a number of factors, including family, economics (grant cutbacks, erosion in cultural support in our respective countries, and our individual busy schedules with other engagements). We have however continued to exchange notes, talk on the fly, and kept up a healthy email correspondence and occasional skype conversations. Our desire to keep this duo going has always been mutually shared, despite these real-life forces.

BD: Repertoire wise, we both came with recent compositions – François actually brought more than I did, but in the end we used the live take “Nancali,” a tune of mine that gave the name to our first record on Songlines. This version of “Nancali” represents a celebration of our collaboration: if you compare the 1997 version to the 2011 live version there are details in the playing that show a lot of maturity, and calm in the approach to the music. The 1997 version has quite a thrust I have to say, I was totally into studying polymetrics, just like a kid playing basketball in the courtyard!!! This live take of “Nancali” was the first tune to be played at our Petit Faucheux concert a couple of days after the recording in January 2011. When I listened back to the live recordings of this last short tour (we recorded two out of three gigs multitrack, which is great, and Igor Juget shot everything!) I was thrilled by the impression of ease in the flow of the music. That’s exactly where you want the music be, whatever the project. But there is something special with François, like there is something special with a bunch of great players I love to work with… a very simple magic that can be triggered anytime… just hearing François’s sound when he assembles his clarinet parts already provides for me a strong way to jump into our music.

FH: Most of the repertoire was selected at the recording session itself! I actually wanted to write specific material for this session, as well as drawing from a number of pieces in my catalog that I thought would lend themselves well to the duo’s aesthetic. The Ellington piece I brought in because Benoît had just introduced me to Duke’s solo concert at the chateau of Goutelas in 1966. “The Mystery Song” is a piece that I played for the first time with Seattle-based French horn player Tom Varner. I fell in love with this composition instantly and I believe Benoît did too! His treatment of it on this recording is absolute magic to me, somehow uniting a number of sound worlds into a very cohesive statement.

A few of my compositions were the result of a project/collaboration with BC based writer/playright Christiane Raymond, and some were written for a project on hockey which was presented during the 2010 Cultural Olympiad in Vancouver (“Concombre de Chicoutimi” is dedicated to Hockey legend Georges Vézina and the circumstance around his untimely death). The inclusion of “Clichés” stems from our mutual love of Steve Lacy the man and the artist, who touched our lives in a very deep way. Benoît had recorded Steve’s “Flakes” on his solo CD Circles and Calligrams, and I suggested we do one of his pieces together, as they have seldom been covered since he passed away. “Clichés” is one of my favorite pieces of his, one which I had lifted from a duo CD of Steve’s with drummer Steve Argüelles (Ah-Um Music, 1989). I learned and played it for Steve when I was a student of his in Paris in the mid-90s.

BD: I actually knew “The Mystery Song” from the Steve Lacy / Don Cherry record of November 1, 1961.

FH: Wow, I did too! I completely forgot about that.

TR: Did the recording pretty much turn out the way you expected? Would you say it moves your collaboration in new directions?

FH: No. It’s a natural continuity, a constantly expanding constellation of possibilities and openness. I don’t ever go in the studio with expectations. I just trust Benoît implicitly, and was confident it was the right time to do a recording with him last January. So the CD is, simply put, a new step on an amazing journey.

BD: I don’t know if it moves our collaboration in new directions, because our direction has always been a special one, and I don’t think it should artificially change, change for the sake of changing things. But each new composition brings new grist to mill. What has changed is the two of us, our experience, our practice in terms of the details, and maybe our way to analyze weaker points and try to turn them into good points.

TR: Francois, your brief note in the folder talks about a shared language, a clear vision of what you want to express and a deep mutual respect and admiration. Could you both tell us something about how all this plays out musically, especially in the improvisations?

FH: Duo playing is about the most intimate way to communicate with another musician. And probably, after solo playing, the most difficult. You have to agree on certain things and make room for differences. I have grown to have a deeper understanding of Benoît’s language and sound world, which always provides me with clues as to how to execute ideas in different ways. But the beauty with this sound world is that there are so many mysteries yet to investigate, so many stones yet unturned, and so many dice to be cast!

How this plays out is that we don’t try to formulate premeditated structures, or to ever adopt a traditional call and response, solo/accompaniment thing, except for the Ellington and Lacy pieces, mind you, which seemed to require a certain structural rigour. Our improvisations are much more akin to embroidery, painstakingly paying attention to the kind of fabric we want to create, working symbiotically to achieve that by complementing each other. Of course solos emerge, but that is in consideration of what each individual has to state in the context of the performance.

TR: And can you point to any interesting creative differences between you or surprises that helped spark ideas as you were playing?

FH: That’s a difficult question. There has to be some discord, or ‘disagreements’ in the music making, otherwise it would be devoid of tension. The joy of improvising is to find solutions to certain situations. It doesn’t always work out, but most of the time new ideas emerge, new ways of looking at things are discovered.

TR: Would you say the synergy is more melodic/harmonic or rhythmic/textural?

FH: It’s all of that, in my view. A very holistic discourse. We do share an affinity in describing our work together as fabric, a weaving of textures and colours.

BD: I think things move so fast inside when we play that it’s complex to describe what’s going on. I remember something Dave Holland told me, back at the Banff Jazz workshop, 1987: “Playing needs to be unconscious and accurate while accurate listening has to be fully conscious.” I think this sentence totally applies to our duo. There is something highly conscious in the instant auto-analysis of the playing, and something definitely unconscious in the freedom we use – which is, for me, what a jazz ‘ear attitude and altitude’ is all about.

TR: In terms of stylistics and expression one could draw a parallel between the extended techniques on clarinet and the prepared piano textures, but am I right that on this record they don’t often happen simultaneously?

BD: Well… it is so much part of our worlds now that I don’t even think we looked closely at this point!

TR: Actually I have the impression that a lot of the playing here comes across as less consciously avant-garde than on the previous collaborations (though I’d have to listen to the other records to confirm this). And there’s a certain austere, ‘crystalline’ side, at least to the studio session, that seems even more inward directed somehow than previously – inward directed to some shared internal state and/or aesthetic concept that is. If you agree, what do you attribute this to? Was it something you talked about, or did it just happen?

BD: I think it just happened. I find the musical flow very special on this recording, it is calm and somehow feverish all together, a pretty rare feeling I have to say. I love it.

FH: Yes, it just happened. We are never in position to say “hey, let’s lay this technique over this piano preparation.” It’s all very spontaneous, instinctive and organic (a bit cliché to use these words, but so relevant to our music-making.)

There is a paradoxical change that has gradually crept into my playing lately, where I pay more attention to melodic constructs than I used to, and in contrast to that an interest in letting go of conscious control of the instrument, to allow ‘accidents’ to happen, forcing me to work my way out of difficult situations musically. This is a result of discussing the idea of ‘obstacles’ which Benoît has dealt with for a long time, and which I observed in the music of Monk and Pee Wee Russell (amazing that they were ever put together on the same stage at Newport!). Of course, most of Benoît’s music has an intrinsic poetic quality which manifests itself in liquid melodic lines. I respond to that very deeply, in some ways even more than to the rhythmic aspects of his music. Note that almost all my compositions on this recording are all about melody, instilling a slower pacing to the proceedings than in past recordings where the accent was perhaps slightly more focused on rhythm and virtuosity (the preparations and other instrumental devices we have cultivated tend to lead to an intensity of execution that is almost unavoidable).

TR: A follow-up to the last question: the two live pieces are the longest on the record. Not that that’s unusual, but when you were in the studio were you perhaps trying to create performances with strong internal structures rather than the typically more expansive/intuitive development of a concert performance?

FH: No, it just happened that way. Again, it comes from this mutual trust in knowing when something has been said, and having the foresight to leave some things unsaid.

BD: Well, the concentration of energy in a studio is simply another story compared to that of a concert. Plus, on that very day we had a gig in the evening at la Dynamo in Pantin/Paris. We arrived at the studio at 10 am and had to run to the soundcheck before 4 pm, including (a quick) lunch and a nap! We started with tunes that didn’t require preparations for the piano – which I always do to take advantage of the spectacular piano tuning by Philippe Bailleul, who was just walking out when we arrived (my preparations don’t alter the tuning at all, but a piano is a living thing, and after a few takes it already loses its splendid magic – fair enough). Then we followed the list of things we had in mind to play ¬– actually, it is very funny to see on the footage of Igor’s video how relaxed and unpressured the session was. Only experience can allow this to happen. No ego, no tension, just the pleasure of playing together, studying a new piece together, making decisions, then pressing REC! Adding to which we hadn’t played together in a while and to meet in the studio was fun! Now, back to the live tracks, I think the presence of an audience tends to offer the musician the possibility of developing things on a more extended basis. I like discs to present concentrated music. I think endless solos are rarely convincing on record, whereas live it may be the opposite. François and I always have the option on hand of accompanying each other, and it’s not the momentum of “theme-solo-theme,” it’s wide open… the concert situation allows this as well – it’s a phenomenon of expansion of forms for sure.

TR: Benoit, you have a stable group of technical/artistic collaborators whose names appear regularly on your Songlines releases. Your engineer Etienne Bultingaire for example – what was his contribution to how this record sounds?

BD: Etienne is, for my taste, the best recording engineer I know for acoustic music in France. I have this intense memory of a Pierre Boulez concert near Avignon, outdoors. The sound was amazing, mixing acoustic instruments and electronic signal processing (Dialogue de l’ombre double, then Repons were the two pieces performed by the Ensemble Intercontemporain, this was back in 1986). At the time I was still studying sound engineering while playing music professionally as well, and it is incredible that, years later, in 1998, I got to work with Etienne on a studio and live recording with the large band Los Incontrolados. Listening to his rough mixes at the time was quite something. Later he told me he was the guy doing PA for Boulez in Avignon!!!! I couldn’t believe it, because what had already thrilled me at the time was his relation to phase, timbre and transients – and that hasn’t changed since! More recently we’ve had a very intense working relationship, and the mixes are actually made by the two of us. Pooplplayers was our first collaboration on a project of my own. It was a grand moment too – Etienne had never mixed for 5 channel SACD! I mean, he’s doing a lot of PA for Pierre Henry, Boulez, and so many greats (also jazz guys!) – with Pierre Henry he uses sometimes up to 120 different speakers (last July he did the sound for Pierre Henry at St. Eustache, one of the most intense musical emotions of my entire life as a spectator). But that was his first multichannel mix on a recording.

Etienne also has an incredible knowledge of clarinet – François can testify to that! He works for Alain Damiens, Carol Robinson, Michel Portal, Louis Sclavis, Denis Colin… and was very happy to work with François whom he knew of, of course. Etienne and I completely agree on how to record the piano. The piano’s in a room, with walls, a certain intonation thanks to Philippe Bailleul’s genius-like talent as a piano tuner… It all goes very smoothly – while we rehearse, he tries things. We record a bit… and… most of the time… there’s nothing to be said, just as if he was making us sound even better than what we think we sound like.

His rough mixes were amazing as always. So, meeting again a couple of months later for the mix was a great pleasure as always. He brings his white tea, some chocolate… we have our little habits. I tend to let him work while I go out for a phone call or a cigarette etc. – then, back in the control room, he always plays me things without me knowing what he did. I might meddle with some decisions of his, but it is always a dialogue, a close collaboration.

This time I finished the mixes of the studio session by myself (because of a technical problem we couldn’t finish mixing in just one day, and Etienne was so booked we couldn’t find another 1/2 day) and I mixed the two live tracks. But it was easy, simply because the live recording was done by… Etienne himself. What always thrills me about Etienne is his spectacular minimalism as far as equalization is concerned. You should see the filter adjustments! Some mics on the ProTools tracks have no plug-ins on at all. The positioning of the mikes is so good there’s nothing to be done but phase work (panning or signal-delay).

TR: And what about Nicolas Becker’s reverberation impulse responses – what exactly are they and how are they working here?

BD: An Impulse Response is the response of a given volume (a room etc. ­ in our case, a gigantic greenhouse built in the 18th century) when a Dirac Impulse is sent through speakers and the resonance of the room is recorded at different positions in relation to the sources/speakers in the space. Once processed with DSP it becomes a reverberation response (IR). It¹s so to speak the timbre/colour of the room, of any instrument combined with the envelope of the room. This reverb plug-in receives an audio signal sent to be transformed, calculates the FFT (Fast Fourier Response) according to the specific IR parameters, and then, using convolution and filtering algorithms, calculates the reverberation signal in real-time before returning it into the audio, which then can be balanced with the dry signal.

My friend Nicolas Becker is a master Foley artist and sound designer who works worldwide for the film industry as well as for visual/sound artists as an advisor. We founded together in 2009, a co-op of drummer/producer Steve Argüelles, Nicolas, and myself. A couple of days before I met with Etienne at PlushSpace for the duo mix I spoke with Nicolas on the phone, and he said, “You should try the IRs I did in this chateau greenhouse a couple of weeks ago, I put them into the Altiverb files, and knowing what you like I’ll bet you’re going to freak out.” I did go to his studio the day before to check out these new IRs, and… yeah, I freaked out!!!

Using such an IR means that you’re placing the duo with François virtually inside this greenhouse, just as if we had played in it; it simulates ambient mics catching the resonances of that volume. You send some of the mics (the craftsmanship is choosing which ones) into this preset, and there you go, then you just have to adjust the general tone of the reverb returns – there might be two or three different presets mixed together. I like the feeling of constructing an imaginary ideal venue when mixing.

In the cinema industry sound engineers, Foley artists, actually use a lot of their own IRs. For instance, after a day of shooting a scene in a bar, the Foley guy has the room silent to himself for a little while to produce IR recordings. He places (usually DPA, ex-B&K) mics according to his intuition, shoots a number of shots with a special gun (acoustic gun or whatever it’s called), and records the whole process. The IR software in the reverb DSP (such as Altiverb) then takes this data and transforms it into reverberation presets. As simple as that – this way, they can mix voices, sound effects etc. in the same acoustical environment as the location of the shooting. The same things applies for traveling shots etc. If the location sound is weak there is still the option to post-sync the actor’s voice in that same acoustical environment, simulated by the IR and Reverb devices at work together.

TR: And what about the piano – you often use this Bösendorfer when recording, right?

BD: Indeed. A Bôsendorfer 235, from the 70s. Must be the 14 or 15th disc I’ve recorded on this piano, can’t say exactly. It was totally rebuilt a few weeks before I recorded Circles and Calligrams in June 2009. Maybe it’s time for a change! But I definitely like its character, very different from a Steinway D. Actually I’m looking for a studio in Europe with a New York Steinway B. Not easy to find. I’ll probably end up recording in NY or something for my next solo disc. I love US Steinways Bs!!! But I also love Hamburg Steinway Ds (Philippe Bailleul recently found out where the great D from Théâtre du Chatelet had been sold to, that’s great news, I’ll be able to rent it for recordings, thinking of the double trio with Fred Hersch next May!)… also some Yamaha CF3s… some Faziolis…

TR: Have you thought about playing as a trio, and if so who would the third person be?

BD: We’ve already played live trios with Steve Argüelles, nice! – also with Tony Wilson, both many years ago at the Vancouver Festival – also with Evan Parker in Montreal (a record I like very much)… But what to say… a duo is a duo… a trio is just another story, you know. I’d be curious to see what comes up with JJ Avenel for instance, or with Joëlle Léandre (funny, two bass players…)… I think we could also consider playing with Toma Gouband, a younger drummer/percussionist I work with in France (with Silencers, who just released Balance des Blancs on SOFA MUSIC (Norway))… a very fascinating player with a very personal touch and time-feel, playing with stones and branches… Toma stayed with B’aka pygmies in the rainforest a few years ago, and I like him a lot. Now, François is hiring me for his next ensemble in June 2012, that’s great news – I’m really looking forward to this, just as, I guess, François enjoyed working in my Delbecq 5 project… I regret we have no offers for that quintet, which was so intense, to perform… maybe it’ll come again.

FH: My personal intention for the near future is to include Benoît in this quintet/sextet project with New York musicians. I also would like to work with Mark Helias in a trio setting. He’s a brother to both of us!