This interview was conducted by email from September to November 2004.
Tony Reif: This is I think the first time you’ve had Americans in one of your bands (apart from Michael Moore who of course lives in Amsterdam). Isn’t it also the first time you’ve used a drummer from Africa, and included a violin or viola? What led to the creation of this particular group and instrumentation? Why these players and what general concepts did you have when you started writing for the group?
Benoît Delbecq: One really nice thing about the creative jazz scene is that there are no borders: any player who’s even a little curious can know pretty much what’s going on in the world, at certain festivals and labels for instance, and there’s also internet radio such as WNUR in Chicago for example.
I wanted to provoke an encounter between musicians I knew from different scenes, Europe meets North America meets Africa. I was familiar with their work individually and I was very excited to write for them and perform with them.
In 1994 I’d toured Central Africa with Emile, Parisian trumpeter Serge Adam and Cameroons bassist André Nkouaga (the band, formed in Libreville in Gabon, was called Jazz Mic Mac), and I wanted to play some more with Emile, who finally came to live in France not long ago. He’s a fantastic drummer who has a splendid sound and whose approach to the drums is a skillful blend of his village rhythms in Congo-Brazzaville and the history of jazz. He says that for him the cymbals are the air, the bass drum the earth, and the snare is the talking drum. Emile is the founder and director of the music and dance group Tambours de Brazza which is inspired by his Congolese traditions.
I heard Oene play viola at Groningen, Holland in 2001 in the Dutch band Bite the Gnatze, and listening to him made me want to invite him. He has a good knowledge of Indian classical music that puts him at a certain remove from post-bop, he also plays oriental melodies so well and ornaments his lines beautifully. Mark Turner I first heard spoken of in glowing terms by friends such as Ethan Iverson, Guillaume Orti, Chander Sardjoe and Kris Defoort. Unfortunately I had no opportunity to hear him live before writing for him, so I focused on some of his recordings as sideman and leader. He has a magnificent fluidity which radiates an intense warmth and inventiveness. Ethan and others encouraged me to get in touch with him.
Knowing I would have those mucisians in the band I proposed the project to Mark Helias, who I really admire (among many other records of his, Chicoutimi by the trio with Fred Hersch and Michael Moore is my bedside companion), and he was free to do it! I also felt he and Emile were going to have a good time as a rhythm section – there’s a little something of Ed Blackwell in Emile’s playing, and Mark played with Ed for many years. I had a hard time imagining that they wouldn’t click, but even so these things are risky.
Anyway finally I could imagine this band. When I started writing I had a sound in mind and in a way the work was to reveal it, considering we only had two days to rehearse for our concert premiere in Strasbourg, with the recording sessions following a couple of days later. The summer before the project Emile and I had gotten together several times for several days, trying to develop a very open but very rhythmic way of playing, and some of the tunes were inspired by those sessions. Others were stimulated by the potential blends of timbre we were going to be able to find with the instrumentation and the players’ sounds, but also by different directions I wanted us to explore collectively. The mixed sounds of tenor and viola were in a sense the key to the group, but I didn’t necessarily intend to focus on those two instruments and I didn’t want the whole thing to sound too arranged.
For example, in “Pointe de la Courte Dune” I had quite an elliptical melody written for piano and viola, on which the tenor and bass improvise freely over top. Emile then beings to haunt this ensemble with a Highlife beat, finally attracting piano and bass, while Mark T. floats on above and eventually closes the tune together with Oene. On “Multikulta” (kulta means gold in Finnish) it’s a strict rhythmic fabric that patterns the composed material, but I was interested in letting the bass and drums spontaneously mutate the form of it during Oene’s soloing. “Au Louvre” is an actual mutation of “Maat,” one of the pieces I wrote in 1990 for the collective group Kartet. Visiting the Louvre Museum with my older son a few months before the project with the Unit, I reimmersed myself in Egyptian antiquity and its architecture where everything is proportion, but now I saw things differently than 13 years earlier: the old, 14-beat bass line stayed, but lengthened by several notes. I love recycling myself – sometimes doctoring the material, somtimes affirming it as is. Each phrase of the theme begins at a different point in the cycle, kind of in the African way, and out of this Emile constructs these rhythmic micro-forms, which sets the bass line in motion along several different axes, just as I’d asked him to, a bit as if one were turning an actual object round in one’s hands to view it better or explain it…The downbeat or accenting is not an imposed hierarchy – you’ll see that Emile never really plays the crash cymbal as the marker of a rhythmic hierarchy, that’s so elegant!
Fractal mathematics, based on the reiteration of “complex” numbers (which contain a part that’s real and a part that’s imaginary) is something I’ve reflected on in my work for a long time. Sitting at my table to compose, I observe the behaviour of certain structures but I never leave them in their original form. How the imagination can come to modify the perception of something real like a set bass line is a phenomenon that fascinates me, a bit like the eye which deceives itself about the direction of rotation of a wheel in film at 24 frames per second….So I always start off with something quite simple in order to then “hide the stiches” in the second phase of writing (that’s the phrase my percussionist friend Philippe Foch uses). It’s the same process with melody or harmony. What I retain in the end in what I convey to the musicians is the result of this progression in the writing, and sometimes it represents only five per cent of what I’ve in fact committed to paper. Sometimes even less. But it’s fed by that whole development, and it seems to me it’s as a result of that perhaps that I’m able to explain the basis of each piece rather easily.
These are procedures I marvel at in literature, this possibility of recycling/deconstructing-reconstructing an idea or a vision of things – and yes I’m thinking here of my friend the writer Olivier Cadiot who I’m constantly reading and re-reading. For me he’s a great source of inspiration and an example of structuring which is super-elaborated and super-alive at the same time. Another, completely different example: Mémoires d’Hadrien (Memoirs of Hardian) by Marguerite Yourcenar: for me this too is an example of an idea (astounding in its historico-literary bricolage) that’s pushed to its limit. This is what I’m aiming for each time I compose or play my instrument, relatively speaking, since I’m only making music, not manipulating signifiers.
TR: Compared to the Delbecq 5’s Pursuit, where live sampling (using a microphone) was a feature of a number of tracks, layering a kind of ghostly echo/“memory” over the ongoing flow of musical events, this record uses only a subtle touch of live sampling on one tune. I think you’ve also used sampling (live or otherwise) a lot in keyboard-based projects like Ambitronix, your duo with percussionist Steve Argüelles. Did you plan to use more sampling here as well? Why the return to a more purely acoustic approach?
BD: My other quintet, Delbecq 5 with Michael Moore, François Houle and Jean-Jacques Avenel, has Steve Argüelles playing drums and electronics (he’s the guy manipulating the microphone and processing the electronics), and I’d like to extend this kind of work with Delbecq 5, work which has a lot to do with Steve’s intuition. That band’s always bubbling under, it’s far from my mind to give it up, but it’s hard to get work for a band that isn’t “in the news.”
As far as the Unit was concerned, I had in mind to play acoustically with only a touch of electronics. I had one tune that worked that way, 4MalW (for Mal Waldron, and today I’m thinking also of Steve Lacy, gone so quickly), and having just one could add colour to the set at a certain point. This tune is quite “lived-in,” it has a nostalgic feel; my piano part reveals how much Mal influenced me. In this case I didn’t use live sampling; at the rehearsals I pre-sampled the band with a microphone playing on the head of the tune, likewise for the solo viola intro, some bass solo bits, and the fixed piano chords. I would then be able to trigger these scraps of memory as the piece unfolded. What I love about samples is that they play tricks on your memory, they move the relationship we have with what is played or is going to be played somewhere else.
Ambitronix is totally improvised, the use of samples and loops is central, it’s the material we build all our music with. For the Unit I wanted the band to find its own kind of collective weaving together, one that’s particularly sensitive to timbre. First and foremost I’m searching for a sound, an “ear attitude” for each tune; the form as central idea of a piece comes as an outgrowth of the idea and doesn’t occupy the foreground in my investigations; in any case it quickly disappears in the course of writing, because I inject elements that break up the mechanism of, for example, a process based on calculations, whether it’s applied to intervals, accents, rhythmic structures, or timbre itself.
TR: Over the last 10 years or longer you’ve developed a distinctive way of preparing the piano and a highly sophisticated improvisational language incorporating preparations into your playing, influenced initially by Cage I assume but adapting preparation to an improvisational approach. This is a large subject, but could you talk a little about your use of preparations on this record as compared with Pursuit and your solo piano record Nu-turn? What kinds of strategies (rhythmic, melodic, timbral etc.) are you using, and in particular how do you incorporate the preparations when improvising? Do you continue to create new combinations of prepared and unprepared notes? Do you try to surprise yourself in performance with unfamiliar preparations?
BD: As a kid I actually built myself a little felt hammer to play on the strings of the family paino. But I don’t think I got very far with that. I played drums too, though I was never able to acquire a set at that time, and I still like playing them. To be more precise, I started preparing the piano a bit before I discovered John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes, which was a real shock, around 1989 I think. Then Steve Lacy introduced me to the work of Henry Cowell, Cages’s composition teacher. Incredible!
After that I searched for ways to develop coloristically the polyrhythmic potential that a piano and ten fingers could reveal. More recently, preparing for my solo record Nu-Turn in 2001 was for me a new immersion in this work – work which was already well underway, especially with groups. Each track is a kind of etude on a multi-dimensional matrix, and might be compared to a fabric in the process of being made using what would appear to be mysterious rules (whether they are or not), like the fabrication of Kuba cloth (in Zaïre), where motifs are embroidered in mysterious patternings.
In groups I want to leave space for the guys to improvise, and accompanying with prepared sounds allows the music to sound very open harmonically, while it places me on a different axis in the rhythmic web. The use of prepared piano also allows the mind to escape the piano in some way, and this can lead to rare blends, such as with viola playing pizzicato, or with tabla (in the group Les Amants de Juliette). In Pursuit I only wanted to prepare the piano a very little, leaving the “prepared” aspect of the music to Steve and his electronics. In Phonetics I play with it a bit more.
In “Le même jour,” for me at the piano a very long rhythmic cycle is involved that works with a piano mesh that’s partially prepared, but within which there’s no accentuation imposed on the group -– the first beat of each bar does not function to impart a direction to the listening. Emile and Mark H. follow me intuitively. The fingerings and determination of preparations were quite recent for me but I’d worked on it quite a lot.
The problem with uncontrollable sounds (coming from randomly placed objects such as the notorious ping-poing ball) is that you have no idea ahead of time what they’re going to sound like! In what I do I need to be familiar with the palette at my disposal – and the moment I prepare the piano is very important, it’s the moment when the timbral set-up is “printed” in my memory. What I’m interested in is playing the preparations as fabrics, quite mathematically. Though this remains rather rudimentary, it helps create proportional relationships in the rhythmic structure, a kind of inner life: measured figures played at non-determined points but fitting into the superposed rhythmic net. I change the tools for each piece, and each piece is trying for a different character in the playing for each person.
In this repertoire for Phonetics there isn’t in the end a huge amount of prepared piano – in “Yompa,” which is dedicated to Guillaume Orti, apart from the introduction where both hands are playing prepared sounds, my left hand is playing a 12/8 loop and sometimes my right hand joins in to vary it. In such cases it often happens that in the course of a piece I’ll modify preparations or add to them according to what I want to hear, and I do this very intuitively.
TR: Your music has a recognizable melodic-harmonic “signature.” You’ve sometimes been compared to Paul Bley, possibly because of a perceived similarity in your use of chromaticism and the typically inward, floating, spacious quality of your music. However I understand that you weren’t familiar with Bley’s music early on. You’ve talked about Ligeti’s piano works as an inspiration. Who were your formative influences as a pianist and composer?
BD : Paul has definitely had a strong influence on me, quite as much as Abdullah Ibrahim and Mal Waldron did at an earlier time. But Mal, when I was perhaps 17, was the first to tell me, after he heard a recording of me playing “Round About Midnight” in a version with several preparations and an exploded time sense and harmonic form: “I like that, Benoît, but you should do that with your own music.” Ever since then I’ve always been writing music. That was really something, coming from him. He knew what a big impression his playing, his story and his charisma made on me. Today, for me, everything seems to follow from that sentence. Oddly enough, at the time I was into standards but also free music, I was happy to be involved in Alan Silva’s Celestrial Communication Orchestra, and I didn’t place a greater value on diatonic harmony than on free harmony! Actually it’s the same thing today.
At that time I also tried to meet Abdullah Ibrahim after a concert, but he was clearly not at all interested in passing on anything to me or even chatting – for him I must have been just another little whitey from the suburbs,and I didn’t have a problem with that. He told me, “I don’t teach. I’m a cultural worker for South Africa” (this was well before Mandela’s release). After that I wore out the records of his I had, particularly “Anthem for the New Nations” as well as “Children of Africa.”
I love Paul Bley’s ear, his pulse and his touch. While I got to know Abdullah’s and Mal’s music when I was 16 or 17, around 1983, I wasn’t familiar with Paul’s music until two or three years later. The first record of his I had was the one with Rollins and Hawkins! I couldn’t get enough of it. Then I found the one with John Gilmore, Paul Motian…a revelation. Then “Floater” and all that, then with Giuffre and Swallow. So many great sides! The jazz of the generation that came up in the 80s, apart from Dave Holland and Steve Coleman’s quintet, held no interest for me.
In my Parisian suburb I was going out to hear Lacy (often, because he was playing a lot in Paris then), Braxton, Holland, Ornette, Steve Coleman, Don Pullen, Paul Bley of course. When I started to make music seriously I was really into Cecil Taylor. Alan Silva’s teaching (he’d been Cecil’s bass player) opened up all kinds of aesthetic doors for me….I was keenly interested in contemporary music, theatre, cinema, contemporary dance, but also traditional musics, and I began studying composition with Solange Ancona at the Conservatory in Versailles – Solange was a student of Messiaen – and studying the piano repertoire with Georges Delvallée. I also took some courses in diatonic harmony with pianist Bernard Maury, who was closely associated with Bill Evans. I drank in anything that tickled my ear: Ligeti, Berio, Donatoni, Bartok, Webern, Gesualdo, Varèse, Boulez, Huber…just to mention a few. I subscribed to lots of concerts at IRCAM, and taped all kinds of first performances of contemporary music off the radio.
Francis Jacob, musician and older brother of actress Irène Jacob, was also a major presence for me. Around 1987 we were neighbours, he showed me the rigour that I was then lacking. He lived in New York for a long time and played there while lecturing in French as a profession. He’s a marvellous guitarist. We listened to plenty of things together, Miles of course too who I haven’t mentioned up till now and who remains right at the forefront for me. And I set myself to studying other huge talents such as Monk, Bud Powell, Herbie Hancock, Trane, Ornette…musicians I admired who have such a distincitive language, such powerful visions.
The composer David Lacroix and I spent nights discussing the relation between composition and improvisation; I owe it to him that I started thinking about these things while a teenager. Then I met Guillaume Orti (in ’89), Steve Argüelles who was part of the London scene (1990), and twice I attended the Banff Jazz Workshop where I met lots of great musicians who had an strong effect on me (Jorrit Dijkstra for example). Following that, Noël Akchoté, François Houle… From that time on (around 1992) we all started moving forward together in some way, we became a sort of family. What I like in music is strong accents in free-flowing languages…take Marc Ducret for example, he too inspired me! In a similar way I’ve also learned an enormous amount from the musicians I’m lucky to have played with, since each one of them has his own ear attitude, his own well tempered musical character. The Etudes pour Piano by György Ligeti also certainly represented a turning point in my work: they make audible a whole lot of articulated micro-movements that result in a sort of elegant chaos…it’s magnificent music, and so subtle, I’ve spent plenty of time at the piano trying to play those Etudes correctly. And there are some more recent ones that I’ve barely looked at yet!
TR: Apart from contemporary classical music you’ve also looked deeply into African music, particularly the rhythms of the pygmies. Your metaphor for the polyrhythmic overlay and interplay of repeating and varied motivic cells is fabrics, which suggests to me the warp and weft of African cloth in motion, its abstract designs dynamically contoured by the human body walking, dancing. Was this metaphor helpful in working with the members of the Unit? How did you develop a group aesthetic?
BD: I use the prepared piano to try and create an impression of organized chaos, superpositions which mix cycles and divisions of time, in the most alive way possible. My discovery of the traditional fabrics of Central Africa at the Musée Dapper in Paris and then in Africa aroused in me an urgent curiosity about how I could try to express through music the idea of weaving, striated and/or smooth. (I’m thinking here of Mille Plateaux by Deleuze and Guattari, a book that’s been very productive for me, which was given to me…by a student!). Along with that, hearing the Aka pygmies around 1989 plus Ligeti and Cage etc. triggered this kind of research on the piano. By the way I’m told that Ligeti is fond of the word “weaving.” His son Lukas has a compositional process that also goes in that direction, I really like what he writes.
Certain effects of “polyvitesses” [multiple speeds] can generate the impression of the absence and presence of time. This results from the assemblage of active small forms which leave the music open to non-vertical harmonic elements, it’s the outcome of the adding together of several voices. This also leaves room for the melody of timbres and of registers. It can seem quite magical, and I’ve noticed that certain arhythmic combinations have their own efficacy over our senses. I don’t do all this with a scientific aim in mind, and I leave the burden of analyzing this phenomenon to musicologists like Gilbert Rouget who have worked in-depth on music and trance. Of course Emile is well acquainted with this in my work, he has it in his own culture. For Oene and Mark T. these are also very familiar phenomena, and I think Mark H. understands it intuitively in his listening and his way of positioning himself.
Deep down I feel an affinity with l’Oulipo, this literary and mathematical group which likes to place limits on itself in order to flex its creative muscle in a particular direction (the simplest – although not simple – example: George Perec’s book La Disparition, which contains not a single letter “e”).
Also I try to be precise in the metaphors I use to describe and convey the idea of a piece to the musicians, since metaphors are a way of conveying ideas separated from their strict musicological context. The idea helps to not give priority to a technique. And by not talking “music” you can contribute a lot. It’s the same thing as describing a good wine.
TR: This record was mixed multi-channel as well as stereo. You’ve been interested in multi-channel sound as well as DSD for several years, and Nu-turn’s final track, “Into White,” was both computer processed and mixed to 6 channels (including a height channel). Apart from the improved fidelity of high-definition sound and the ability to localize musical lines more clearly within a three-dimensional space, what approach did you and your engineer Thierry Balasse take in mixing this record to 5.0?
BD: I’ve always followed technical innovations that could improve the quality of sound recording and sound reproduction. SACD was a major sensory shock for me the first time I heard it, and consequently we recorded to DSD in Vancouver on my solo piano record Nu-turn using equipment provided by Sony. For the Unit we ended up recording in 24/96 and not in DSD because the recorder had only 8 tracks…but we mixed it to DSD. For the five-channel version we chose the option of putting the band in an imaginary great-sounding room. No instruments are panned to the rear channels etc. Also the TC 6000 reverb was a valuable tool for us. The mixing too was fascinating work.
TR: What plans do you have for the band? Any upcoming tours?
BD: Some options are starting to present themselves. It’s not easy given the geographical situation and the availability of the band members. Two live in France, 2 in the US, one in the Netherlands – as I mentioned before I have the same problem with my other quintet, Delbecq 5. It’s my ears and my ears alone that chose these musicians, and I prefer to play less than to play in groups organized in particular circumstances for commercial reasons. As for the Unit we should be playing again before the summer, and after that I hope: Canada and Benelux next summer, and a US tour is projected for late 2005. But the scene requires “events.” For Parisians it’s become almost impossible to play in a Paris club if you’re not releasing a record, a compilation. It’s absurd, and this behaviour on the part of club-owners has nothing to do with the music. But it’s a familiar refrain.