This interview with Benoît Delbecq was conducted by email during July-August 2010.
Tony Reif: I believe these two records are the first entirely under your own name, i.e. not collaborations, since Phonetics which came out in 2004. As fascinating as those other Songlines records are (Kartet, Poolplayers, and the duo with Andy Milne – and of course there have been collaborations on other labels too), was it a different process creating and recording these two new programs, a trio (your first trio record) and then your 2nd solo piano record, about a year apart?
Benoît Delbecq: Yes, it has been a different progression, quite new in both cases. The recording of the trio was made four weeks after its first performance. We had the opportunity to spend five days rehearsing together as part of my residency in Lozère region (central France), and we recorded the project while ‘in the flow’ at La Muse en Circuit near Paris, after a wonderful day of rehearsal, under the roofs of Paris, at Jean-Jacques’s apartment, using his small electric piano and a gourd (calabash) for a drum kit.
For the solo record it was different, because I was awarded a fellowship by the New York foundation Civitella, and I knew eighteen months in advance that I was going to be able to isolate myself for six weeks to create it. So I reserved the studio La Muse en Circuit for my return from Italy, the location of the Civitella Residency residence being Umbertide, in Umbria near Perugia. When I arrived there I had already planned to dive back into older tunes of mine, dig inside them some more, observe them from another angle, but obviously also to conceive a group of new works. Then, in the process of working, other ideas arose, and I’m still working on them these days.
TR: It seems like in a way these records might be something of a career summation: the trio CD includes a number of compositions that have appeared on previous releases with other groups – “Le meme jour” is on Phonetics, Kartet’s The Bay Window, and Where is
Pannonica?; “Pointe de la courte dune” and “Yompa” are on Phonetics; and “Poursuite” as well as “A Lack of Dreams” (from the solo record) are on Pursuit – plus “Ando” and “Le sixième saut” are on both of the new releases (although treated quite differently on each). Or is it more the concept of recycling coming into play? – take a familiar set of melodic-rhythmic patterns or instructions and see how differently the music spins out in new contexts.
BD: Naturally I intentionally put “Ando” and “The Sixth Jump” on both discs. The sense of mirroring between two versions of the same piece on Ornette Coleman’s In All Languages has always been a trip for me. That said, I was not consciously inspired by Ornette when I made that decision, it is only speaking to you today that I realize this.
Since I knew that the two discs were going to be released either with a time lag between them or at the same time, it felt interesting to create bridges between them. I would have preferred to release a double album, but that turned out to be complicated. Together with designer Sylvie Astié I opted for the same graphic idea for both covers, an image which suits me well as it shows the calligraphic designs I’ve been developing since 1992. It’s my good fortune that I’ve been involved in the adventures of a significant number of groups which continue to think to the future (Kartet is 21 years old! Ambitronix 13!), and that all these collaborative “ear attitudes” have helped to refine mine.
It’s clear that although a career summation was not my intention – I consider myself a searcher, I have a temperament that forbids me from locking myself into a static practice – nevertheless I think that a listener who discovered my music today through these two discs could perceive a sort of a whole, a rather typified version of my music.
If there is an element of fate in the encounters along the way which helped me refine my discourse, I did not find my style by chance, it’s been a long process stretching out over more than twenty years, with inspiration from a number of people (artists, writers, philosophers, linguists, mathematicians…) and some wandering around also.
TR: I think I’m hearing some different preparations this time – technically are there any particular innovations, or an evolution in your aesthetic, that we should be looking out for?
BD: There is nothing that new for me in terms of materials placed inside the piano (I stick to the wood and the eraser families, which are organic), except that for certain tunes I prepared the piano lower (by a sixth?) than previously, and I did use a few new bits of wood on the highs of piano, as well as an unknown brand I found in Canada with Andy Milne! But sometimes, day by day, I would remove preparations as the work evolved (like in “Meanwhile,” which ends up having no preparations except in the extreme highs). As for “Circles and Calligrams” for example – yes, there is a certain novelty there in terms of register. I also opted with sound engineer Etienne Bultingaire for a closer miking than on Nu-turn, which was recorded in a 300-seat hall. For several albums on Songlines now I’ve been working with Etienne, whose ears delight me; it’s teamwork because I’m very sensitive to the definition and imaging of the music, and Etienne has a way of recording the piano that perfectly reveals the details, space and depth of the instrument. While listening to the mix my friend Nicolas Becker, a sound designer and foley artist who has big ears, said he could almost physically feel the depth of the soundboard, meaning the physical length of the soundboard (it is a Bösendorfer 225, 7′ 4″, 92 keys). I record all my Parisian projects on this piano. Not that I dislike Steinway US or Hamburg at all, but this one renders exceptionally well the sounds of my preparation options. Furthermore it has just been restored and regulated, and Philippe Bailleul is definitely an extraordinary technician, I have worked with him for twenty years. His tuning palette has a magnificence which belongs to himself alone.
But I think that if my sound may be perceived as changed, it’s because from an instrumental point of view a good number of things have changed these last two years. At the end of 2008 I met a pianist who received a classical training at an international level. We saw each other again later, and I was fortunate to be able to observe her practicing. I questioned her about a whole set of gestures which I never used myself. Through this experience, which might seem insignificant considering that I began learning to play piano at the age of 6 or 7, I changed my seating position – I now sit farther from the instrument, I totally renewed my technical relationship to the keyboard, and gained power on accents, in sound, in speed, and consequently in my polymetric skills also. It’s very perceptible on the solo record – for those who know Nu-turn you can easily hear an evolution. But of course Nu-turn was recorded in 2001, which is already quite a while ago.
TR: Looking more closely at The Sixth Jump for a moment, this great trio features three of your closest collaborators over the years: Jean-Jacques Avenel on bass, Emile Biayenda on drums, and Steve Argüelles doing remixes. Perhaps you could talk about what it was like working with J-J and Emile (have they performed together in any previous group of yours?); I’m particularly interested in how the bass and drums interact with the piano – for example, there’s considerable timbral overlap between some of your preparations and the drums/percussion but also at times the bass (e.g. in “Yompa”), so discovering how to maximize the group interplay while developing the polyrhythms and interweaving lines in a crisp manner would seem to be an interesting challenge. How long was the group together before you recorded? The fact that Emile is from the Congo, which is also the home of the Aka pygmies, whose hocketing singing has been an inspiration of yours, while J-J is deeply into west African music, suggests that African rhythmic feels must be a particularly important touchstone for this group. By the way, what is the significance of the title The Sixth Jump?
BD: One can look at the title in two ways. First, it’s related to a little mathematical observation. I was going through a radical storm in my personal life just as I had to write for this record. I won’t go into details but I was seriously vacillating. I was about to celebrate my 42nd birthday – the end of the sixth cycle of seven years. Thus I was approaching the seventh jump – this is purely a mathematical remark, I am not superstitious, and if I use the properties of numbers to compose it is more like a lego process by which to pose questions to myself than as a theory to be applied. But since the end of the 6th cycle felt like an emotional rape, I needed to transform it into a very quiet piece, although retaining something a little tragic about it, and it’s also a bit unusual for me in the sense that it’s working with harmonic movement that’s in a single rhythmic dimension – anyway it’s a piece loaded up with 7 years of my life and those of my three children, the rest is private. The second thing about the title is that it’s a nod to the Bergman film The Seventh Seal (seal/sceau and jump/saut sound the same in French), which I haven’t seen since my adolescence.
For a long time I’ve been curious about bringing together Jean-Jacques Avenel and Emile Biayenda in a band. I remember having said quite a few years ago to the double bassist Hubert Dupont, who is more than familiar with African music (he’s part of the African scene in Paris), that we ought to try something with Emile. But then, thinking about it later, I told myself that because we were fortunate enough to have known how to create a durable vision for the group Kartet with the four of us (Hubert, Chander, Guillaume and myself) there was no urgency to start a new group together… which however wouldn’t prevent us from doing something with Emile one of these days!
Anyway, a bit later I produced Waraba for Songlines, Jean-Jacques’ record of mandingo jazz with Lansiné Kouyaté, Moriba Koïta, Yakhouba Sissokho and guest Michel Edelin. During the mix I started imagining the sonority that Jean-Jacques and Emile would have together as a rhythm section, and I think it didn’t take that much longer for me to get used to the idea of imagining playing in the trio format, a format which had not attracted me enough till then to do anything about it. To try something, which I wanted to be fresh, I needed a certain basic sound. At no time did I say to myself “we have to change how the trio works” – no, it’s about a musical dream becoming reality with these two wonderful musicians. And I carefully avoided listening to any trio recordings at all, so as to create a certain vacuum.
As you know I first met Emile during a memorable tour we did in 6 countries of Central Africa in 1994 (Jazz Mic Mac, DOC 1995). As soon as Emile settled in France around 2001-2002 I created my Unit, which brought Emile together with Mark Turner and Mark Helias of the New York scene (Phonetics, Songlines 2004). I loved this meeting but it’s awfully difficult to tour this group for a bunch of extra-musical reasons.
Mark Helias had worked for 15 years with Ed Blackwell (one of my heroes!) and there was something of Blackwell in Emile’s playing… Emile is not exactly what one would call a jazz drummer in the sense of a typical New York drummer for example. Even if he feels perfectly at ease with me and Jean-Jacques, his approach to cycles, his sound, are coming from another place than strictly jazz, his playing brings another dimension, a very different dimension. And that should be obvious, since he grew up in Brazzaville! His playing is an expert mixture of Afro-American jazz drumming (Roach, Blackwell) which he learned there from records, the jazz groups he worked with in Brazzaville, and his fabulous large band Les tambours de Brazza which is based on the music of his village (200 km south of Brazzaville). The bass drum, for him, incarnates the earth, the cymbals, the air, and the snare drum the spoken word… so there’s this oral character, the transmission of his heritage. Also, in the trio he uses two different snare drums, two gourds (one filled with water), and I suggested he attach to the bat of his bass drum an ankle shaker with seeds inside that his drummers use in Les tambours de Brazza – he adopted the idea and kept it throughout the recording and in concerts too. This actually adds a lot to the band sound, it’s somehow reminiscent of those ringing ankle bracelets that women wear for the dance in Aka pygmy ceremonies, one shaken seed sound per step – well, here we have it, one shaker sound per bass drum hit.
Jean-Jacques is passionate about traditional Manding music among others – he started playing the kora in the ’70s – and of course he is the double bassist we don’t have to introduce any more, one of the bass giants of the contemporary scene. I eventually suggested to both that they become members of my trio, taking advantage of a “Carte blanche” invitation from the General Council of Lozère (central France) mid-2008. This invitation activated the process of creation for the trio, in fact made it possible.
As for the choice of the compositions, again it was a very particular period for me from the personal point of view, which explains that I was unable to write more than four originals for the session… weighed down by this temporary disability (but faced with these dates set for the residency and the recording), I realized that there was nothing preventing me from revisiting older pieces and seeing how they might work in the trio. My elders didn’t avoid doing this. So, in a way, I broke with my usual motivation, which is to try building new things. My age maybe was a factor in that it’s becoming harder and harder to elaborate profoundly new things, conceptually speaking in particular.
So I scanned through a large number of pieces of my ‘catalog’ and picked some. Jean-Jacques is twenty years older than me and always asks with a laugh not to write things for him in too complex cycles (e.g. Kartet-type rhythms) – and I wanted to respect that so that he could shine in a context that wouldn’t throw his experience, which is so rich and creative, too far off balance. It was the same for Pursuit – it had provided me a certain number of constraints, rich constraints actually. Now it turns out that I very much enjoy working on a composition with limitations, in other words I really like to set working directions and follow them through, even before having written a single note down on paper. Today I am very happy with this selection of older tunes.
Emile and Jean-Jacques both have a magnificent sound and feel, they are masters, a source of inspiration. During the rehearsals, which I conducted without any pressures, I had the feeling of simply diving, as one would dive into a sea which one had heard about and which turns out to be completely incredible, a water of particular density, particular temperature… and it was this way with every piece. A delightful water indeed.
Also what I love in the alchemy that Emile and Jean-Jacques create is their relation to the hierarchy of cycles, it is very free, very intuitive, very relaxed – they come to complete at an equal level my ‘flexible rigor’ so to speak. Timbre creates other cycles, ‘subterranean’ cycles, the effect obtained is mysterious. With Emile we call this phenomenon esprythme (spirhythm, from spirit and rhythm). For example “Aka,” written and recorded for the first time in 1992 (Paintings, with Steve Argüelles on drums – Deux Z), then in 1994 (with Emile, Jazz Mic Mac), is approached here with a lot of freedom in the timbres and cycles – the piano is prepared, sometimes playing overtones, these very pure sounds (same process as on a guitar, except a bit of eraser is dividing the strings), or in contrast very non-harmonic overtones, and this allows JJ to launch into one of those dazzling improvisation that only he knows the secret of and which bounces along very freely on the ‘meshing in mutation’ Emile and I are playing.
In “Yompa” I let JJ choose his tonal centers – I call that ‘ear attitude’ – in other words I did not tell him “this is rather in A flat, in F” etc. He picked up on the lowest prepared note of the piano, which is not the fundamental (if there is a fundamental here, because for this piece I’m not thinking in those terms), and the resulting mixture of both timbres on this B flat provoked something special (my prepared B flat is not at all tempered!) and his whole improvisation naturally reflects the effects of this. And then, the way Emile approaches this 12/8 time is such a kaleidoscope under construction – that’s my image for Emile’s feel, and I’m always staggered by his choices, how he picks where to bounce off what’s going on in the music with his punctuations, his rhythmic ‘spoken word’. I’m often tempted to say “I have no idea what’s going on,” because in a way the mystery remains almost entire, his time is coiled up around the cycles rather than coupled to the cycles or caught up by them. His science of punctuation is well beyond a certain school of jazz that is not immune from clichés and set methods.
TR: Where did Steve Argüelles come in in the process of creating and recording the music? His remixes give the record a very different feel, and each of the remixes is working with a different kind of sound and concept (also Drum Page and Piano Page appear to be solo remixes, but Bass Page seems to be a piano/bass track). Did you talk about the remixes with him and/or give him specific material to work with?
BD: I gave Steve the complete multi-track sessions, after my selection of the takes and plans for edits. I simply asked him for three rather short pieces, each one being a close-up on one of the instruments of the trio. I believe he produced those tracks in an improvised way, with some retouching certainly, but I believe he wished to retain the freshness of the performance vibe which we currently share in Ambitronix or our new group Manasonics, remixing in real time using the Usine software and his Sherman filter. His remixes throw things off balance – you can easily identify the provenance of the sound which you’re hearing now, later in the record, as an electronic echo, yet their content calls into question our respective performances – in other words, Steve’s approach to the editing/remixing always seems to reveal elements of my playing which I am not necessarily conscious of, for example in PianoBook (Plush, 2000).
My twenty-year collaboration with Steve is a major factor in understanding my musical evolution, we’ve known how to keep this complicity alive throughout all these years, and it keeps going to our very great pleasure. I very much wanted to associate him with this trio even if at a distance, it’s clear to me that my playing and my musical spirit wouldn’t be what they are if I hadn’t met him. This is true also of many other players, but when preparing this trio disc I already knew that Steve would be there to input his ear-attitude. When the sound trio of the trio disappears and then re-appears, listening to the record is nourished by this musical journey that Steve offers. It’s perhaps rather film-like, in the end, these sorts of narrative ellipses.
TR: Turning to Circles and Calligrams, what led to the decision to do another solo record and in what ways do you think of it as a different kind of project than Nu-turn (if you do)? Although I haven’t compared the two in depth, listening to the first track of each suggests some differences. The first thing you notice is the closer piano sound on the new record, magnifying so to speak the resonances of the strings. And perhaps this is mirrored in the playing, which on “In Rainbows” (the first track of Nu-turn) has an almost classical poise and order, a reflective quality let’s say, whereas “Circles and Calligrams” seems to embrace the chances of the moment in a more restless and immersive way.
BD: The fact of having been awarded the fellowship of the New York Civitella Foundation definitely pushed me to rethink my evolution as a solo pianist. Without this opportunity it would have taken me several years I believe to really get into that. Moving forward is difficult, there’s a lot of inertia, a slowness even if one is working on things.
Very simply, I had never worked this way, in this kind of isolation. Although I had no need for a new solo disc, I did need to rediscover myself through my researches. These six weeks in Italy, alone in my studio at the top of a hill, were, simply, an important step in my life.
There is a major difference between those two records: Nu-turn was conceived as a set of studies of polyrhythmic fabrics, whereas Circles and Calligrams was crafted as a performance set. In that sense Circles projects itself outward, while Nu-turn, as a first solo attempt, seems to me more introverted. Still I remain very much attached to Nu-turn, it brought forth my solo piano music and that was an achievement.
There is another difference relating to my approach to the piano. As I mentioned earlier, my contact with the piano has dramatically evolved in the past two years, and having six weeks at the piano and at the table (I didn’t even take one day off I was having such a great time!) has confirmed a swing towards pure pleasure. In other words, I made peace with my relation to the instrument, because what Alessandra Agosti showed me in a few hours put everything in a different light. I now sit farther back, arms way more relaxed, and as a result my field of vision of the keyboard has changed, the sound coming back from the instrument as well, my relation to the different momentums and/or speeds… this has resulted in an evolution in the sound of the accents I play at the keyboard, I can pivot more and it seems the entire body is involved in the vibrations. Well, not that I didn’t have this approach before, but my inner calm of today is something new. Saying this I’m not at all negating the time before this evolution, but listening to Nu-turn today I hear certain things that I couldn’t do then and can do now, new kinds of statements. There’s another thing that underlies this evolution, which is that I’ve been performing solo a lot during this whole period. What I need to do now is take a closer look at what happened in Circles and Calligrams and pick out little fragments which carry something mysterious that I like, so I can understand how to add them for good to the procedures I use in my playing, because for some of those statements I have no idea how I did it. It came as the result of a vast process.
TR: How in fact did you go about preparing the music during your Civitella residency?
BD: I did a lot of thinking before leaving, I made notes as always: I describe what I want to hear and then ask myself how I’m going to do it. This is a thought routine I learned from my composition teacher, Solange Ancona, at Versailles Conservatory at the end of the ’80s. I knew very well that I couldn’t possibly produce a whole new set of tunes in six weeks even if I was arriving with notes (which is already a good start), because when I begin working on a new piece the time that’s necessary to physically assimilate its concepts is really long, awfully long. I’m just very slow when it comes to learning new directions, even if they’re mine (it takes me even longer for the music of my peers!). This explains why only about half the program is new. But let’s be clear here, I revisited older compositions of mine and spent a lot of time on them at Civitella, the idea being to arrive at the studio in top form, forget about those six weeks of work and immerse myself in the playing…
But in the course of working at Civitella, as often happens when you isolate yourself for an extended period, dozens of little ideas popped up, and among them one big idea about how to notate my musical ‘dreams’… and those ideas can be heard in Circles and Calligrams, my playing and the themes I composed took quite a lot from them. This residency allowed me to extend my boundaries when I was not sure at all I was capable of doing so – it couldn’t have come at a better time. I would wish for any artist questioning how to pursue his path to be able to live moments of such artistic intensity, because this residency was at the same time a whole sensorial, mental, emotional and physical experience, and I think the music must reflect that.
TR: How much of the overall organization of a piece and the structuring of the improvising did you work out in rehearsal? Do you have certain basic models that you can choose from more or less independent of a piece’s melodic material, vamps and preparations, or are the structures really tailored to those specific things?
BD: You are pointing here to exactly the kind of work I was doing at Civitella. I revisited a number of sound fabrics I used in previous compositions. It’s necessary to understand that when the function of a single finger is shifted, well… you almost have to start all over again, fabric-wise. So, I was digging around. I would alternate say two hours at the piano, then an hour at the table to think and take notes, draw (I drew a lot of circles and calligrams!), write metaphors about what I wanted to inject into an idea, etc. This cycle of work repeated itself several times each day.
The bi-dimensional idea of complex numbers (where one part is real, the other imaginary) is a good image to describe my process of conception and putting things into practice. I imagine things, usually rather abstract at first – that’s the imaginary part – then I try to make it real using rhythm fabrics, notes, dynamics… that’s the ‘real’ part… Basic complex numbers are usually represented in two dimensions, but they have immense possibilities for behavior, on top of which they’re a pure invention of the mind dating back to the 16th century – new and used ideas! Those numbers don’t ‘exist’, but… Mandelbrot showed that certain dynamic functions of complex number functions approach the forms that Mother Nature has already designed… this is very mysterious and has fascinated me since my very first math class on this topic in the early ’80s. I also use other little mathematical tools in my compositional process, but at the level of primitive bricolage.
In this way I elaborate sound fabrics which can evolve along with the playing, little machineries generally consisting of a few pretty simple synchronized gears (in music you would call them hemiolas) which I practice on the instrument, in different registers, the piano prepared or not. Then, the thematic part is like a second network, a second dimension whose source is the craving for melodic forms – I’m quite inspired by poetic forms over the centuries in both English and French. Only when everything begins to be integrated, in the body and on paper, do I assemble.
And, as you point out so well, sometimes, only sometimes because in most cases I think of one axis as going with the other, I will use a certain fabric in place of another fabric… When that happens the meeting points (the virtual downbeats) become very fresh, they appear under my fingers, sometimes to my great surprise, and the result of this ‘random’ vibe actually produces my music. My solo piano music (I try to do it in my groups too) is the result of the combination of knowledge and forgetting, of control and randomness. Of course I keep in mind that “A throw of the dice will never abolish chance” (Stéphane Mallarmé)! There is some John Cage in my procedures, but also some Ligeti or Monk, just to name three greats – not that I’m trying to apply their ideas in piece X or Y, but definitely I’m inspired by what I understand or think I understand about their modus operandi (and this applies to other artistic disciplines as well as physics, chemistry…)
All I’m doing is postulating or speculating – and calling on ears, body and soul. Very advanced musical analysis doesn’t affect me – each composer has his way of doing things, it’s interesting to delve into but going too deep you can lose yourself. I’m not looking to produce a finished product, rather I’m trying to manifest fugitive and playful moments in which I had the pleasure of discovering unexplored areas.
TR: I think it would be fascinating if you could take one tune (maybe “Ando,” or whatever you like) and describe what’s going on in that particular performance, in terms of the different layers and sections and how you’re treating those compositional materials and moving from place to place.
BD: With “Ando,” which I originally wrote for the trio, I was thinking about JJ and Emile, trying to imagine inside myself the ‘living sound’ (a Messiaen expression my composition teacher Solange Ancona was using, being a student of Messiaen herself). “Ando” is built around the left hand piano ‘gimmick’, which came first (this isn’t always the case when I compose). I was thinking about the ngoni, this Manding lute played with a plectrum which masters like Moriba Koïta play with an infinitude of ornamental finesse that concedes nothing to the masters of the baroque. So I was looking for a base for variations that could evoke the fleeting aspect of Ngoni ornamentation – and it’s that last group of four very rapid notes of the 9/8 cycle. Once that was set though I immediately removed any sound in the prepared piano gimmick that could be construed as a downbeat, so as not to reveal any obvious root for the vamp, leaving a kind of abstract harmonic halo, a subliminal sound glow.
I also gave myself the role of silence, adding to the rotational feel – thinking that Emile and Jean-Jacques would brings lots of their own ideas. And I decided to ‘indent’ a certain combination of very low notes throughout the piece via the 3rd (middle) pedal, the one that leaves the selected dampers raised when you depress it. Using this (the sympathetic resonance phenomenon) I obtained a very special harmonic halo, perceived as an odd reverberation – the piano sounds more liquid, at least that’s how I hear it. Improvising on this vamp with this resonating effect opened a lot of doors.
Thereafter I worked on combinations of divisions or superimpositions of time to be played by the right hand, with other prepared sounds, in the highest octave and a half of the piano – but significantly, the right hand could also hit notes in the middle register including the very ones I’m using for the ostinato – which creates an off-kilter sensation, the vamp gets heard in another way, as if shot from another point of view. I do this for hours and hours, with a metronome, starting extremely slowly, looking at a whole lot of polymetrical options. Some require a dozen hours of practice before I can control them perfectly. Only long after that (in this case after probably a month of development) did I sit at my desk with my pen and paper drawing calligrams, with the vamp’s sound in my mind, looking for melodic/harmonic/rhythmic forms to superimpose, and I’m still in a sonic dream state which I liken to some inner visualization of ntshaks, those central African skirts or fabrics made up of numerous motifs assembled together in different superimposed stratas of visual rhythms and patterns.
That’s how the melody came, or rather the melodies (there are three quite distinct sections in this piece, the theme is in three parts, which is quite rare in my writing), as well as the group of chords at the end of the first and second lines of the melody. Only then could we rehearse altogether, JJ and Emile spontaneously finding ideas to enrich the tune, which then takes on a group beat, a group vibe. In this trio version JJ came up with this great bass line, following his own pace, his relation to my vamp, taking shifting chances as well. I saw Inception a few days ago, and I have to say that the idea of ‘dream levels’, the length of the dreams within dreams reduced at each level, unexpectedly seemed like a parallel with the levels of imagining that I fit together when I compose or improvise. As a metaphor anyway it felt quite close to me. To compose is in part to dream for me, and the film shows certain things… except that at some point the tune is ready to be assimilated, rehearsed, recorded.
TR: Let’s look at another example – in a fast piece like “A Lack of Dreams” (on Circles) which has an almost boppish aspect to it, how do you keep those two prepared vamps going (one in each hand) while improvising rhythmic-melodic patterns that relate to both of them (even as you vary them too), all the while keeping track of those extra prepared notes that you throw into the melodic material once in a while as a surprise? Among the qualities that characterize your
music, it seems that a rather demanding set of technical constraints is often involved. Are there times when you find you have to simplify things in order for the music to really take off? Incidentally, I assume there are no overdubs on either record – what about editing?
BD: There are no overdubs at all except of course in Nicolas’s remix which is based on 8 or 9 tracks. There is very little editing on the solo disc. Don’t remember how much exactly, but certainly not more than seven or eight edit points in total… although it took me a very long time to select the edit points since I had 4 hours of takes, which is a lot! Etienne, the sound engineer, had taken notes of the session, writing down my comments after takes etc., which made almost everything very clear. I only shortened pieces that were too long, there was no lego assembling of three different takes.
I revisited “A Lack of Dreams” with a different sound fabric than the original one used in Pursuit (Songlines, 2000). Solo playing is for me the occasion for taking chances in the combination of cycles, layers etc. On this track, sometimes the left hand catches up with the right hand’s division of time, the speeds of the note groups that the two hands are playing can dissolve together or segue: one accelerates while the other drastically slows… the possibilities are endless… It’s a freedom that I don’t really allow myself in the repertoire for Kartet for instance, I mean this connection with box-within-a-box structures… It feels like wandering inside a double gearing system whose wheels have different sizes, and their size and colour can shift at any time. Think of that immortal sequence in Modern Times where Chaplin adjusts the gears in a magical dance… it’s a good metaphor for what I’m doing in “A Lack of Dreams” as well as “Circles and Calligrams” – shifting from one suggested speed to another, digging in here and there, then back to base camp, then I’m off again with just the left… all the while the gears are turning… it is a form of dance of course. (Merce Cunningham or Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker are very inspiring choreographers!)
“Meanwhile” is in a way more stable, even if it feels loose. “Biobeat” develops an idea I initiated with the trio Les Amants de Juliette (#4, DOC, 2007), and always hoped to take deeper. It’s apparently a very easy, basic 6/8 vamp, but it contains two frameworks of approach, meaning this repetitive phrase played in the left hand has two possible downbeats, the offset is one eighth note, but neither of the two prevails over the other in a hierarchical sense, and I move from one to the other very freely, I wander around, take in the scene. Thus, everything that happens presents itself according to these two types of contours. I call it the ‘radio effect’, you know when you switch on the radio and there’s a Fela track, but for a few seconds your brain doesn’t know where the downbeat is and therefore invents one. When it eventually finds the ‘right’ downbeat, the sense of being back on solid ground is striking. I’ve been trying to reproduce this phenomenon for years.
In this way, sometimes, I succeed in losing myself… listening back, I no longer know at all what decisions I made during the performance, and so I never hear that moment the same way twice – it’s a bit like listening to a fugue, there are a multiplicity of listening possibilities, and I’d like to take this further.
TR: As for the ballads “Meanwhile,” “Le sixième saut” and the brief “Alpha,” pieces like these seem to be coming from a rather different place than the more animated, complex pieces. Are there any jazz pianists whose ballad playing you particularly admire? These pieces seem to carry their weight of feeling, yet unlike much jazz balladry they’re not at all sentimental or predictable. At the other end of the spectrum is “Fireflies,” which is even more darting and pointillistic than usual. Did the title for that come first, or the music?
BD: To be honest I don’t think in term of ‘ballads’ for my music. The music for piano by Scelsi or Berio is as much of an influence as Mal Waldron’s ballad style, or Bartok’s Mikrokosmos (“Letter to György L.” definitely has a Hungarian/Transylvanian ballad character, but this piece is an exception in my work). I think in term of movement. Those pieces you quote are slow pieces, but they all have something different in terms of why they’re here. I really love how Ran Blake uses slowness, Monk, of course, too… but I could also mention the young McCoy Tyner, Abdullah Ibrahim, Paul Bley… I’m not very keen on romantic jazz at the piano, specially when I hear young players do it. I believe it’s way too often an artificial feeling – I have to say “I don’t believe this vibe”… know what I mean? Honestly the hyper-diatonic ballad style of many pianists today gets on my nerves. I was told that a famous musician when teaching how to play ballads says, “You have to look very sad when you play this” – as part of a jazz-training workshop! Well, I’m not playing any attitude game… I consider that if my music elicits an emotion I shouldn’t be the one choosing what emotion it is, I intend to leave that choice to the listener. Sometimes I’ve had feedback on this, and it can be very interesting, a famous French publisher told me once, “Your music gives me emotions I don’t usually have with music.” I didn’t ask “What emotions?” as it felt like it was not my role to know, it was too intimate a question – well, this is the direction I’m into, leave the choice to the listener.
The “Fireflies” title came along with the practice of the fabric potential of the piece. At night there were loads of fireflies along the paths at Civitella, between the orchards, and I observed their movements in groups of dozens. Very inspiring, very beautiful! “Meanwhile” started from the idea of slowness, slackness, and multiple downbeats. There are two superimposed cycles of lines which don’t have the same length, which creates a slow hemiola, harmonically the result is a controlled bluriness. Even though the basic material is simple, the piece can be heard from a bunch of different standpoints. Nevertheless I would put “Meanwhile” in the same folder as “Fireflies” or “Circles and Calligrams,” however the speed is very slow.
A propos of slow tempos… In 2003 I wrote a solo piano piece for sparsely prepared piano for the great Jay Gottlieb, who recorded it for the Signature label, and by writing it I had meant to project an image of how ideally I wanted to be able to play slow. “Meanwhile” is an echo of this piece, but improvisation is central. As I was working it out an old unrecorded piece of mine, slow and ballad-like, suddenly popped into my mind. I had it written it while waiting for my first meeting to talk and play with Mal Waldron, in Paris in1983. I was 17 and just a bundle of nerves. And at that moment this tune had literally appeared like magic under my fingers… I had named it “While Waiting” but never recorded it, it is a very Waldron-esque tune… I have to say that while at Civitella I found myself somehow emotionally ‘visited’ by a certain number of people I know or knew, among them Mal Waldron…and he ‘invited’ himself into “Meanwhile”… so it’s a kind of hybridization phenomenon involving two tunes separated by 30 years! Moreover, the longer I live, the more people like Mal, Lacy, and Abdullah Ibrahim are present. These are artists I’ve known who encouraged me to find my voice. So there is certainly some nostalgia in this piece.
“Alpha” is the result of a writing process that was emerging, it’s just a trace of music. I didn’t improvise on it because I only wanted to present the origin of the idea, to celebrate it in some sense. What happened with Lacy’s tune “Flakes” is that once at the recording studio I felt totally incapable of improvising interesting things on it. I was like frozen – which had never happened before. Having never recorded any music by Lacy I think I was simply passing the first step of initiation so to speak, and I believe it’s good this way. I’ll definitely be back to Lacy’s music some day. But I really wanted his spirit to be present on this record, I owe him so very much – Waldron, Lacy, I knew both of them well, and they both welcomed me as their peers even though I was still very young.
As for “Le sixième saut” – I was talking earlier about the meaning of the title, it’s very emotionally charged, I felt insanely ill writing it. Among those pianists who play ballads beautifully there’s of course Monk and Paul Bley… Ran Blake is a giant. His slow playing has always dazzled me, the link between his sound and the slowness, fantastic! I also like the unpredictability of Misha Mengelberg or John Taylor, Django Bates… I have unforgettable memories of Mal Waldron live playing ballads such as “Soul Eyes” for example, he played it almost in a trance – he and Lacy as a duo had everyone rocking back and forth. Among those closer to my generation I like Marilyn Crispell, my friends Ethan Iverson, Andy Milne, Fred Hersch… More generally, as mentioned, I don’t appreciate emotional surrender at the piano too much… to tell you the truth, I never really believed in it. The solo piano music of Scelsi or Berio for example greatly influenced my slow playing, much more than Chopin’s… And I’m not forgetting Cecil Taylor, a case apart whose ‘slow’ playing is unique, because his inner beat, as he’s creating a trance, has rather a slow pulse I find.
TR: Re Nicolas Becker’s “Mille Nandie” remix, how did that come about? I believe Nicolas is primarily a sound designer and foley artist in the film industry – had you worked with him before? And what exactly did he do in the way of processing/editing etc.?
BD: Nicolas and I have worked together on a number of film scores, among which is Samuel Moaz’s Lebanon, recorded in a guerilla-type session worthy of such sessions by The Recyclers in the mid-’90s. The film was to be mixed in the next day or so, they asked me to join them in Cologne, I improvised on a few sequences following the directions of Nicolas and Alex Claude (the film’s sound designer). Then I said, “You guys do whatever you like,” because I couldn’t stay with them for the editing of my improvisations. I simply adore what Nicolas has done with those takes. His treatment, the choices, the restraint… everything felt right when I finally saw the film months later. Nicolas has now joined forces with Ambitronix (the new trio is called Manasonics), this encounter is at an exceptional level. He might not be a jazz instrumentalist or pop instrumentalist or whatever, but his savoir-faire and his imagination are so powerful – he is an inventor. A film mixer, Bruno Tarrière, recommended me to Nicolas – I invited him to join Ambitronix for a concert, actually we had to improvise the music for an old silent movie. It went magically, really. He immediately became part of the musical family!
Actually I was expecting another style of remix, more hectic, tampered with and dissected in detail… “Mille Nandie” is a trip of mental images that brings my music closer to film music. The title is an anagram of Andy Milne and I called it that because Nicolas’s remix evokes for me something of the spirit of Andy’s “Water’s Edge II” which we did as a prepared piano duo. Nicolas slightly shortened the piece, and every sound you hear comes from my piano itself, no other sound sources are added… it’s a ‘bio’ remix so to speak! We have lots of plans for collaborations together and the three of us with Steve have set up the collective Bureau de Son.
TR: On the trio record I’m curious about “Barragán,” evidently named after the famous Mexican architect. Co-incidentally I just picked up a book about him – his use of colour fields is extraordinary…
BD: Originally I thought of doing the trio project with the central idea of echoing a number of architects whose work I like, but this idea kind of exhausted itself. I’ve known Barragán’s work for a long time, I had architect neighbours/friends in the mid-’80s, and the mother of my older son is an architect, so I lived amidst architecture for a number of years and I learned how to look at it in a less superficial way, let’s say architecture as a carrier of sensations and feelings. I’ve only seen one thing of Barragán’s with my own eyes, a high rectangle of concrete painted bright orange, scraping the sky of Monterrey, Mexico. I love the purity of his lines, the relation between lines, austere surfaces and colours.
“Ando” is of course the architect Tadao Ando, I discovered his work during that same period, and I love that he came up with the idea of elaborating the concrete himself, in an almost silky way. His sense of form and space is unique. Also amazing is the crypt of the Couvent de la Tourette near Lyon by Le Corbusier: there are three ‘light wells’, each painted in a primary colour, and the exterior array of lights bouncing off them creates three beams of these three colours, a flow of colours. I’d never felt like this before. Architecture is an art of space and the senses, I feel close to it, and even though I don’t know much about it I have my way of feeling it. It has a dimension music doesn’t have, which is the place the observer situates himself in relation to a piece of architecture – where you’re standing, inside or outside, can make you feel totally different spatial emotions. This is a central inspiration for me. Where to look at something from is like where to listen in the sound to hear something else.
TR: There are lots of beautiful and unexpected sonic touches on the trio record – for example the water percussion on “Le sixième saut” (and the different percussion sounds on “Aka” and “Letter to Gyorgy L.”), and then there’s the one solo piano track “Le même jour,” where you seem to be incorporating not just the functions but also the sounds of bass and drums into your playing. How much of this came about in rehearsal or during recording, and how much did you have the idea of these different textures in mind early on, to give the production a sound beyond what you’d done before, and beyond what one would normally expect from a piano trio?
BD: Each piano behaves differently when prepared. I think of a basic preparation ‘patch’ or matrix for each piece, but it differs according to the situation and I may discover something new just seconds before a take. It’s a very intuitive use of prepared piano – spectral music for example (Grisey, Murail…) is super precise in the notation of sound spectrums, but with me it’s very empirical, I work with the impressions of the moment, how the piano sounds. I asked Emile to play with water on the bridge of “Le sixième saut” – as mentioned I don’t approach this piece as a ‘ballad’, it’s a slow piece which contains the idea of cleansing the affects, ‘depression laundering’ you might call it, and of deep states of soul probably too, reverent contemplation.
In the course of the rehearsals we definitely got into the details of sound. Between Emile and me there were plenty of things to try out, options to discuss. We proceeded in a collective fashion, with Jean-Jacques equally – his instrumental versatility meant that a change of register for example was going to change the whole perspective on a certain rhythm. But on “Aka” for example the piano preparation, before the takes, took some time… in the recording studio I have the time to search out a different palette of colours for each piece. In a live situation I have to make some compromises, but with experience I’ve learned how not to compromise the ‘tone-colour melody’ (klangfarbenmelodie) – the melody of sound colours was an amazing advance in music, Webern took giant steps with musical sound, and many others since then have leapt into the breach, myself included!
TR: By releasing these two records together I think you’re making a strong statement about your music, presenting two views of it that offer fascinating points of comparison and contrast but that share a unique personal approach that you’ve been developing now for over 20 years. I’m wondering what lies ahead…
BD: Manasonics is showing a new direction, an important one, we play 100% improvised music in our way, very special, very smooth-working. Kartet has a new disc in preparation. The Silencers are about to release our first disc, and The Recyclers are thinking about a new one too… I will continue to mine composition and improvisation and think about how to unite concepts together, perform playfully, etc. Also I would love to start a ‘loud’ band where the sound system and sound engineer have a central creative role – it should be with Andy Milne, but it’s still in the dreaming stage. Before that I’ll be working on a theatre production, and I’m preparing a performance based on an idea that’s been tickling me for 20 years. But if someone offers me another 6 weeks for another solo project… I’m in! The solitude of the solo project must be close to the writer or painter’s solitude, and I really got a taste for this islandish type of vibe, even if, paradoxically, I always wanted to be a musician in order to share musical experiences with others. In the end this is probably going to change the way I look at group music, and it’s good not to repeat one’s self too much, even knowing very well that there are things in one’s approach to music that are now set for good. As for the rest, I’ll continue to go out looking for musics that I can dream about, looking for ways to make them real…