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Christine Abdelnour : il respiro intimo del suono

 


Christine Abdelnour Interview for 06:00am blogspot

 

 When did you start playing music? How do you describe what is it that you do when people ask you?

 

In 1997, I got attracted by improvised music. When I was young, I did a little bit of classical music on piano and guitar but it was too strict for me. Then, when I was 18, I started directly with improvised music on the clarinet and the saxophone. I did some workshops of improvised music and then I entered the orchestra of INSTANTS CHAVIRES in Paris. The INSTANTS CHAVIRES was the place to be for that kind of music. I was going there two or three times a week to listen to some concerts and I practiced there too through workshops. At this period, I was very impressed by saxophonists like John Butcher, Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann or Mats Gustaffson. I learned some techniques, just by listening some of their solo on cds and trying to reproduce the same sounds. Then, I felt more attracted by electro-acoustic or purely electronic music and I tried to get rid of the specific sounds of the saxophone itself. The more I was playing, the more I got fed up with this instrument and tried to find ways to escape the instrument. I tried to develop my own techniques and now I hope that I don’t sound at all like a saxophone.

I’m trying to produce sounds that are close to those of electro acoustic music but on a purely acoustic instrument.

 

When people ask me what I do, I tell them that my interest in music is sound. I approach sound as a malleable material, rich in concrete textures which combine breath, silence and countless acoustic distortions. I’m exploring the microtonal aspects of the saxophone and its high-pitched tones, but also tonguing techniques, unpitched breaths, spittle-flecked growls, biting, slicing notes and breathy echoing sounds. Far from any narrative effects, my music tries to deal with perception, time and space. 

 

What is music for you?

 

As I said, in my music, I’m interested in sound itself but the important thing for me, that creates the music is the creation and the construction of a shape. This “work in progress” that will build the music is primordial for me.

 

How will a sound emerge? What is the purpose of a sound, its laws of movement?

Does the musician create the shape or is it the shape that creates the musician?

 

Beyond my work on sounds as a multiplicity of techniques, what interests me when I improvise is to try to analyse how the brain works in music. I’m more and more against this “romantic” idea that improvising is only related to the body of the musician, that would just “feel” the music without any intentions. I’m convinced that the brain is also very active in this process, that it’s a decision and a will that will conduct the music. That when the musician feels or perceives, he is theorising in the same time and his brain obeys to some codes in a causal system. ( Ref : Jean-Luc Guionnet)

 

Music is a language. Language has some codes. Moreover, music is a structural system or an organism where every sound is in interrelation. Every sound that we product has to be stretched towards a change in the shape or has to pass on some information. No sound has to be anecdotic or useless. The musician has to be always in this state of mind of urgencies that results from the process of listening. Playing when it’s just necessary and being precise and concise. Less is more.

 

I can’t also think of music without the concept of “listening” : to listen is all ready in a gesture of composition.

The big emotional strength of the music comes exactly from this abstraction of the space-time.

 

This is music when I do it.

 

But sometimes, when I listen to music at home, I don’t think about all this at all. For example, I never listen to improvise music at home. I don’t listen to jazz and I won’t define my music as jazz.

I listen to all sorts of music, read all kind of books and watch all kind of movies.

I’m not a fetishist of anything and I don’t feel related to any kind of musical history.

 

In your opinion what is the role of art in periods of economical, political and social turmoil?

 

It seems to me that one of the main function of the artistic commitment is to push away the limits of what can be made and show than art consists not only of manufacturing objects in galleries but being invovled in a “context", putting in relationship the art and the reality. But what is the reality? Within the postmodern speech: the reality would be an overtaken "concept", because it is constituted by the exchanges of mediated signs taken from heterogeneous fields, where the the artists are such as "tourists” far from their own experience.

In front of this idea, I think that artists have to create another reality. They have to create a kind of new power of reality that dig into movements, displacement and the meeting with the other or the perpetual search of something or somewhere else. Art doesn’t have to reproduce the visible but to make visible the invisible. Art has initiate a new perception, returning to its unconscious premisses of its own functioning, create another reality that the one that we believe in and explode the shell of the social by creating undergrounds paths where the deep intimacy of ourself can express itself.

 

What is your relation with Lebanon now? Have you lived there for a long time before moving to France?

 

I was born in France and lived all my life in France. My parents are lebanese and the link with Lebanon has always being strong. I go there one a year at least to see my family. When I was a child I had a lot of lebanese friends because the lebanese diaspora in the 80’ in Paris was very present.

 

You organize the experimental music festival IRTIJAL in Beirut. Can you talk a little bit about it? How do you think it is a political gesture to organize a thing like that in Beirut?

 

I can talk to you a little bit about the experimental scene in Lebanon but I only organized IRTIJAL in the first years. After some personal problems with some lebanese musicians, I am now not related anymore to the festival or the musicians there.

So, the guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui or the musican Mazen Kerbaj would be more efficient than me to talk about music in Lebanon.

 

Nevertheless I can speak to you about the beginning of irtijal in 2000.
In Lebanon after fifteen years of civil war and decade of reconstruction, the artistic situation was very poor. The artists were more worried about surviving than of creating. In music, from the Arabic pop to the group of hard rock or standards of jazz revisits, all that we could hear was copies of western fashions. Then things began to change in 2000 with the arrival of the generation born at the beginning of the war and more interest was shown in forms of aesthetic resistance, not a negative resistance but an affirmative and creative resistance.

 

We have created in 2000 with sharif sehnaoui and mazen kerbaj the MILL association (free improvised music in the Lebanon) with the irtijal festival (improvisation in Arabic). The objective was to present the contemporary and experimental practices in music but also to register the music in a permanent dialogue with all the Lebanese artistic space. The idea of irtijal was to present a maximum of international artists, while trying to make them interact with the local artists by improvisation. Even though irtijal was the only individual initiative and in that we were only volunteers with no local or international structure, the festival was and is still the main event of creative musics and the biggest structure of this type all over the Arabic world.

 

What time do you wake up in the morning?

 

I love to sleep and I sleep a lot ( 9 hours ) so I wake up very late depending on what time I sleep.

 

What was the environment like in the first years of your life?

 

I was born in Paris in a very wealthy environment. My parents were immigrants from Lebanon. They were very protective with my sister and me. Being far from their country and family made them very much in need of love and they surrounded us with a lot of tenderness and affection specially my mother. My father was very afraid of being in lack of something so he was giving us all that we asked for in the material field. He was very generous and a big spender, throwing money out the windows as we say in french.

On some aspects, they were not strict at all. For example they didn’t care if we were good at school or not but on others aspects, my father was very anxious and afraid of everything so we had to be always at home. We lived a little bit confined in this family “bubble” without a lot of contacts with the external world except our private and catholic school which was the opposite of our family world. With this excess of love and maximal protection, my sister and I were very unsociable and very timid, we had also a reverse reaction : a kind of overdose, which brought us to the feeling of guilt, to a big consciousness of the value of things, a bit against the idea of wasting and the feeling of being “over responsible” of our lives and education. A classic adolescent crisis followed when I discovered music and underground worlds where I had a lot of internal fights with my father trying to conciliate all this existential oppositions … I was extremely shy when I was 18 and the discovering of music and improvised music as another “social” world was really a key to open another door that could help me escape and reconciliate everything. But it was a very long process of destruction/reconstruction, war and reconciliation and I can say that now at 34 years old I’m just reaching my real self.

But playing music now is not easy for me, it’s not like I know what I want and I’m doing it. Playing music is all about doubting and a kind of despair for me.

To make some music it is like digging. The hollow grows. But I keep saying to myself that the hollow carries us and that our inside is huge. That it is maybe necessary to empty outside all this inside. With all the questions and the pain, playing music is not simple, it is not just happiness and it is not shining in static answers.

Also, I don’t really care about the saxophone. Even sometimes, I hate this instrument. The instrument is only a medium to express myself. It could have been a piano, paint or a sculpture.

But also in the same time, it’s not only a pure coincidence that I chose this instrument; I chose it because I felt that it was a good extension of my body, an extension of my “air”. What interested me in the first place was that it is was a breath instrument. The resonance of the saxophone felt good directly physically. The mouth is like the door of the body. It is a peaceful cavity surrounded with complex ways. It is our hollow space. It opens and closes a cycle of roads. It is not a question of expelling our air and emptiness but crossing it in the body.

Something is very powerful with the breath : we can touch a kind of intimacy and I feel that it brings something more, like a kind of a very sincere exposition of yourself. The link between the inside and the outside is very narrow.

There is a sentence of Beckett that I like very much. I’ll try to translate it here: “On one hand there is the outside, on the other side there is the inside. That can be as thin as a blade. I am neither one nor the other one, I am in the middle, I am the partition. I feel that I vibrate, I am the eardrum, on one side it is the skull, on the other one the world. I am neither of them.”

 

Which kind of ideas initiate the formation of a concept for a release?

 

No ideas, nothing written, just improvising with the language of others individualities.

I don’t like the word “improvising” because It is always a reproduction of some codes and some structures. The thing is that it’s hard to reproduce always the same sounds precisely. There is some accidents that can create surprises and improvisation. Also, different contexts with musicians that you are not used to play with can generate more improvisation.

 

What are your set of rules when you improvise? By which parameters are these rules affected?

 

For me, six codes or abstract parameters are important in the process of improvising :

 

- The time or the duration of a sound.

- The choice of the timber in the surface in the pitch.

- The precision in the locations and the proportions.

- The density in the choice of volume or frequency.

- The intention or the dynamics.

- The articulation or transitions.

 

It was a long process for me to develop this parameters. It took me all my life to develop those ideas. But it’s a process with no end. So, it can change anytime.

There is a famous sentence saying “ce qui compte ce n’est pas l’enoncé du vent, c’est le vent” that can be translated by “what matters it is not how you enunciate the wind, but it is the wind. this is a little bit how I live the music.

 

What is happiness for you?

 

To be super healthy and in love.

 

Do you often go out of your house or do you like to stay in more?

 

I’m better now but I’m still quite unsociable so I love to stay at home. I’m very lazy and I love my slippers.

That’s why touring is sometimes very difficult for me.

 

What is so nice about collaborating that you cannot enjoy while working alone and what is so nice about working alone that you cannot enjoy while collaborating? (Examples of collaborations you have enjoyed are very welcome)

 

The duo is for me the easiest and the most beautiful group. It is like a couple which exchange. If you put four persons in a room, the conversation will be less fluid and more difficult. There will be alliances, disagreements. Improvised music is like a social network. Being two or being alone is sometimes easier.

 

I like also to play in solo. Actually, solo doesn’t really exist because in solo, the room where you play is becoming a partner too. The environment is indeed very important. Music is like a landscape. You have to dump in a network and then move with sounds within this network. The question of energy and emergence is fundamental. By penetrating into the space, the public feeds it and makes it live too.

The acoustic aspect of the room is also important. Is it a dry place, a very resonate one, a noisy one, this can bring unexpected result. Also, the time, the weather or the accidents caused by the public can be a source of influence.

Usually, I prefer to play inside in a very silent environment with a little bit of resonance. I like to be surrounded by the audience and not on a stage.

 

In solo, the concentration is also very different. Knowing that everything can arrive in a visible and quantifiable geometry. Every sound, every gesture is important.

The question is: why and how what I am going to make now is going to change everything and how is it going to dictate to me the continuation?

How can I go in and how can I go out of the shape?

How every sound has a secret tendency for the whole without ever being able to create the totality?

 

Maybe I can add some words about my recent groups because I just had two new cds that has been released this month. (MYRIAD with MAGDA MAYAS ON UNSOUNDS LABEL and AS:IS with Andrea Neuman and Bonnie Jones on OLOF BRIGHT label)

 

Magda is like my “alter ego” in music. We sound immediately in tune, we are so locked into each other that is unclear who's doing which sound. This fluidity in our dialogue allows to bring together intensity and inventiveness, sharpness and softness. It is quite an unique experience.

 

Bonnie plays electronic and Andrea plays inside piano and mixing board. Andrea Neumann being one of the leading improvisors in the Berlin scene, master of the inside piano. Bonnie Jones, Baltimore and Seoul, one of the creators of the new South Korean impro, a challenging unique artist on electronics.

 

I just want also to add something about my duo called SPLIT SECOND with Ryan Kernoa because it is also one of my favorite groups and because we had been playing quite a lot this year. Our music is particular because it is a duo. We are working in producing the same frequencies and same sound in the same time. It is made of multiple frequencies, pulsations, interferences between different harmonics that creates the particular effect of 'beating'. The aim is to let perceive lines and shapes in music, appearance and disappearance of vibration. It is all about disorder and confusion: the sound stands still and begins to live inside the one who listens.. It is difficult to classify the music of Split Second. It’s different from the current "classics" of the contemporary music and also from the improvised music. We appeal alternately to sound techniques referring to minimalism but also, due to our work on frequencies, drones or feedback, of the electroacoustic music or even rock music. The duet unwinds a sound space combining sharp and low sounds, dense and continuous frequencies which evolve very subtly in time. Our music exploits the space in all its directions: depth, height, but also the 'invisible' space of silence.

 

Can you send us an example, a picture that best illustrates for you the significance of art in our lives to post along with your answers?

 

 A picture where Gordon Matta-Clark cuts a house on two.

 


 

HIS VOICE

FREISTIL

IMPROJAZZ

THE NATIONAL

During the last few weeks, my friends and family have mistaken the work of Christine Abdelnour Sehnaoui for both a broken air conditioner and a car dying outside my window. I can't say that I blame them. Her recordings call to mind unoiled hinges, deflating balloons, asthma attacks. This Parisian alto-saxophonist, born 31 years ago to Lebanese émigré parents, plays like music does not exist. When she performs live, Sehnaoui clamps her eyes tightly shut - an expression that speaks to the intensity of focus she applies to her challenging and surprisingly diverse oeuvre. At a recent concert in Amsterdam that I was fortunate enough to attend, she began her set with a metre-long stick of PVC tubing inserted into the bell of her horn. The otherworldly timbres she generated were amplified by a microphone mounted above her head. About 15 minutes into the half-hour improvisation, accompanied by the guitarist Andy Moor, I spotted something else peeking from inside her instrument. A few moments later, she pulled out a plastic water bottle which had been acting as a sort of mute. It was an absurd sight but, as the saying goes, a fine line often separates the ridiculous from the sublime, and Sehnaoui delights in trampling all over this arbitrary border.

Preferring to play collaboratively, usually in duos or trios with like-minded friends, she never notes her pieces down. As a die-hard devotee of spontaneity, she places as much emphasis on her reaction to the environments in which she performs as those she has to her fellow musicians. "I work a lot with breath, with microtonality, with small modulations in the sound," she explains. "I'm also interested in creating trouble within an acoustic space - [making people ask], 'Where does this sound come from?' It's all about feeling an environment and embracing everything in it, but also creating something very small and very intimate in the ears of the audience."

 

Sometimes Sehnaoui's saxophone sounded thin and machine-driven, an effect achieved by unusual finger placement and inspired by minimalist electronic noise music. Every so often a run of clean notes escaped, offering a brief flash of the massive legacy of Sehnaoui's instrument of choice; everything from Albert Ayler to Maceo Parker, condensed into a few brief seconds. Still, regardless of the resonances embedded in her explorations, the jazz canon means little to Sehnaoui. In fact, she ignores it almost entirely. "I don't really have a historic [appreciation] of the saxophone," she explains. "It's just a medium to express myself with. I'm more interested and much closer to the history of contemporary art - abstract painting or installations, working in space and working with time. I don't feel like a musician. I see sound largely as a plastic material."

Sehnaoui comes from a school of improvised music obsessed with the sonic possibilities of things. For instance, Pascal Battus, her sparring partner on the 2010 album Ichnites, uses the motors of old Walkmans to vibrate sheets of paper and cardboard, pieces of plastic, wood, metal and polystyrene. Like their counterparts in the visual arts - think of the densely layered paintings of Antoni Tàpies - these avant-gardists operate as janitors of cultural history, recycling and extracting new significance from the tired and well-worn. In her efforts to revitalise the saxophone, Sehnaoui produces rumbling exhalations, distorted crescendos and delicate atonal passages. Commonly referred to as "extended technique", her approach abandons traditional virtuosity in favour of idiosyncratic personal engagement.

 

Magda Mayas, a frequent collaborator with Sehnaoui, plays the piano in much the same way. Her music frames the instrument not as 88 keys arranged in tidy scales, but as a sonorous tangle of wood and wire. As a result, Teeming, an album by both women released earlier this year, is as much an exercise in listening as a demonstration of performative skill. Both musicians manoeuvre from frenetic swells to extended interludes of wandering contemplation. Like all of Sehnaoui's output, there is no rhythm or melody, but a narrative momentum drives the action. While Mayas's piano remains recognisable in its gentle deconstruction, Sehnaoui's sax inhabits a more hermetic soundworld, one closer to the synth blips of musique concrète than any form of handmade art.

 

All seven albums that Sehnaoui has released over the last five years have been culled from live performances and jam sessions. The most noteworthy of all is Shortwave, a duet with the late Dutch artist Michel Waisvisz, released in 2008. As the director of Amsterdam's STEIM - a centre for the research and development of electronic instruments - Waisvisz pioneered a variety of innovative electronic performance interfaces. Although his resumé included partnerships with Laurie Anderson and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Shortwave is the first instance of recorded work since the 1970s and a perfect example of his process. On it, he used an invention called "the hands", which, as explained on his website, were fitted to his fingers and "littered with sensors to translate movement immediately into sound".

With "the hands" Waisvisz controlled synthesisers alongside real-time sampling and processing of Sehnaoui's saxophone. The physicality of her playing is only underscored by this abstraction. Throughout Shortwave, the horn is made to sound like an extension of Sehnaoui's respiratory system, delivering reedy flutters, tinny wheezes, and rasping expectorations. Aided by Waisvisz's near-tactile sampling methods, the pair perform with exquisite sensitivity to each other. Bottom of the Pond offers nearly 10 minutes of struggle between quiescence and feral power. Sheared of any glimmer of standard musicality that may be found elsewhere on the album, Sehnaoui's contribution is swampy and convoluted without Waisvisz's intervention. Still, even at its most frenetic, the piece feels neither aggressive nor confrontational. If anything, it feels like a quiet and private moment, amplified into audibility; what sound might be like if you could look at it under a microscope.

 

The album was Sehnaoui's second release on Al Maslakh ("The Slaughterhouse"), a Beirut-based label run by her ex-husband, the guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui, and the trumpeter and cartoonist Mazen Kerbaj. Both men are central figures in the city's small experimental music scene. Kerbaj's most famous work - Starry Night, an improvisation for trumpet, backed by the exploding bombs of the Israeli Air Force and recorded on the balcony of his Beirut apartment in July 2006 - offers an illustration of the stoic, do-it-yourself ethic behind the imprint. Sehnaoui was co-organiser of their festival, Irtijal, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last August. A duet between by her and Kerbaj opened the event in 2000 ("The first ever public performance of free improvised music in Lebanon," they claim), and it has continued ever since, uniting Lebanese and international experimental musicians for a few days each year.

By most accounts, audiences for leftfield music in Beirut are better than their European counterparts. Instead of self-selecting patrons who know what they're getting, Al Maslakh's Beirut events draw a broader crowd: large, curious, and open-minded. "Playing at places like [the established Parisian venue] Instants Chavirés is playing for an elite - people who know this music very well and can judge and compare it to the history of improv," says Sehnaoui. "In Lebanon it's more for the very curious, and the reaction is usually very positive. In France it's: 'You made this sound at this second, what was that?' In Lebanon it's much more like a political gesture to come and experience this music."

However, when asked about her relationship with music from the Middle East, Sehnaoui is quick to deny any connection. Unlike the Iranian avant-garde composers Ata Ebtekar and Alireza Mashayekhi, she neither hears nor proposes any link between her work and the traditional music of the region. As a teenager she rocked out to David Bowie and Frank Zappa, later she studied the work of the free-jazz saxophonists Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker. Although she is comfortable situating herself firmly within this lineage of European (and predominantly male) musical adventurers, the politics of identity still occasionally trump self-definition.

This usually ends up being a good thing, Sehnaoui explains: "When I play outside France, there are often some people who come because I'm Lebanese. They're expecting Lebanese music, and are positively surprised by what they discover." To illustrate her point further, she relates a story of a recent performance in Weikersheim, a sleepy German town that has, over time, become an unlikely and much-loved stop on the European improvisational music touring network. "A group of women wearing veils were there," she says. "They had come because I was Lebanese, too, but they still stayed and enjoyed the show."

 

 

Instrumental exploitation

When Christine Abdelnour plays her saxophone she doesn't want it to sound like an acoustic instrument, in fact, she doesn't want it to sound like a saxophone at all. The French-based Abdelnour rejects orthodox techniques and established sounds in favour of un-pitched breaths, spittle-flecked growls, biting, slicing and echoes. You won't hear a story when Abedlnour's plays, instead you'll hear a physical exploration of time and space, you'll witness the transformative relationship between the player and the listener. Primarily a solo artist, Abdelnour has collaborated with Kernoa Ryan, Andy Moor, Magda Mayas, Pascal Battus and many others in various tours and projects and loves to participate in the visual arts, dance, theatre and poetry. While Abdelnour won't define the music she makes, she has played within many genres including free jazz, rock, electronica and noise.

When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions or influences?

In 1997, I got attracted to improvised music. When I was young, I did a little bit of classical music on piano and guitar but it was too strict for me. Then, when I was 18, I started directly with improvised music on the clarinet and the saxophone. I did some improvised music workshops and then I entered the orchestra of Instants Chavires in Paris. The Instants Chavires was the place to be for that kind of music. I was going there two or three times a week to listen to concerts and I practiced there too through workshops. In that period, I was very impressed by saxophonists like John Butcher, Evan Parker, Peter Brotzmann or Mats Gustaffson. 

I learned some techniques, just by listening to their solos on CDs and trying to reproduce the same sounds. Then, I felt more attracted by electro-acoustic or purely electronic music and I tried to get rid of the specific sounds of  the saxophone itself . The more I was playing, the more I got frustrated by the instrument and I tried to find ways to escape the instrument. I tried to develop my own techniques and now I hope that I don't sound at all like a saxophone. I'm trying to produce sounds that are close to those of electro acoustic music but on a purely acoustic instrument.  

But sometimes, when I listen to music at home, I don't think about all this at all. For example, I never listen to improvised music at home. I don't listen to jazz and I won't define my music as jazz. I listen to all sorts of music, read all kind of books and watch all kind of movies. I'm not a fetishist of anything and I don't feel related to any kind of musical history.

What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?

My duo with Michel Waisvisz was very important for me. With him, I started to play with electronic music. His playing was amazing because it was not just flat and virtual electronic music but his body was really involved. His music was wonderful in rethinking music and the relationship to the body. So it has inspired me to play something different, like how can I sound like him with my acoustic instrument.

My duo with Andy Moor is also very special for me. It is the more improvised duo because sometimes I really don't know which direction we are going. Our music is very rock in terms of energy and quite intense for me physically. We play a lot with the presence of the amp, feedbacks, it is very electric and "no-jazz" but at the same time there is this kind of minimalist repetition and irregular rhythm. Our music is very open and versatile.

My duo with Magda Mayas, was also a big thing for me. Magda is like my alter ego in music. We sound immediately in tune, we are so locked into each other that it's unclear who's doing what sound. This fluidity in our dialogue allows us to bring together intensity and inventiveness, sharpness and softness. It is quite a unique experience.

My duo called Split Second with Ryan Kernoa is also fundamental for me. Our music is made of multiple frequencies, pulsations, interferences between different harmonics that creates the particular effect of  'beating'.  The aim is to let the listener perceive lines and shapes in the music, appearance and disappearance of vibration. It is all about disorder and confusion: the sound stands still and begins to live inside the one who listens. It is difficult to classify the music of Split Second.  We appeal alternately to sound techniques referring to minimalism but also, due to our work on frequencies, the drones or feedback of electro-acoustic music or even rock music. The duet unwinds a sound space combining sharp and low sounds, dense and continuous frequencies which evolve very subtly in time. Our music exploits the space in all its directions: depth, height, but also the invisible space of silence.

What are currently your main artistic challenges?

I would love to go beyond the idea of a simple concert. For me it is too limited and often frustrating. I would like to record more. I would love to be involved in a more global project in order to analyse how music can be related to theatre, visual art, literature or dance.

What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?

In my music, I'm interested by sound itself but the important thing for me is the creation and the construction of a shape. This work in progress that will build the music is primordial for me.

How a sound will emerge? What is the purpose of a sound, its laws of movement? Do the musician create the shape or is it the shape which creates the musician? Beyond my work on sounds as a multiplicity of techniques, what interest's me when I improvise is to try to analyse how the brain works in music. I'm more and more against this romantic idea that improvising is only related to the body of the musician, that would just feel the music without any intentions. I'm convinced that the brain is also very active in this process, that it's a decision and a will that will conduct the music. When the musician feels or perceives, he is theorising at the same time and his brain obeys to some codes in a causal system.

Music is a language. Language has some codes. Moreover, music is a structural system or an organism where every sound interrelates.  Every sound that we produce has to be stretched towards a change in the shape or has to pass on some information. No sounds have to be anecdotic or useless. The musician has to be always in a state of mind of urgencies that results from the process of listening.  Playing when it's just necessary and being precise and concise. Less is more. I can't think of music without the concept of  listening: to listen is a gesture of composition.

How important are practising and instrumental technique for achieving your musical goals?

Practising is not so important for me. I must say that I don't practise at all. All my techniques are inside me. The more important thing for me is being in the right state of mind. Being focused and open in order to listen.

The wind itself

Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?

I approach sound as a malleable material, rich in concrete textures, which combine breath, silence and countless acoustic distortions.  I'm exploring the microtonal aspects of the saxophone and its high-pitched tones, but also tonguing techniques, unpitched breaths, growls, sliced notes and breathy echoing sounds. 

Also, for me, six codes or abstract parameters are important in the process of improvising: 

  • The time or the duration of a sound.
  • The choice of the timbre in the surface in the pitch.
  • The precision in the locations and the proportions.
  • The density in the choice of volume or frequency.
  • The intention or the dynamics.
  • The articulation or transitions.

It was a long process for me to develop these parameters. It took me all my life to develop those ideas. But it's a process with no end, so it can change anytime.

There is a famous saying "ce qui compte ce n'est pas l'énoncé du vent, c'est le vent" that can be translated by "it's not how you say the wind that matters, but the wind itself".  This is a little bit how I live the music.

Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?

The duo is for me the easiest and the most beautiful group. It is like an exchange. If you put four persons in a room, the conversation will be less fluid and more difficult. There will be alliances, disagreements. Improvised music is like a social network. Being two or being alone is sometimes easier.

I like also to play in a solo context. Actually, solo doesn't really exist because in solo, the room where you play becomes a partner too. The acoustic aspect of the room is important. Whether it's a dry place, a very resonant one or a noisy one, these factors can bring unexpected results. Also, the time, the weather or the accidents caused by the public can be a source of influence. Usually, I prefer to play inside in a very silent environment with a little bit of resonance. I like to be surrounded by the audience and not on a stage.

In solo, the concentration is also very different. Knowing that everything can happen in a visible and quantifiable geometry. Every sound, every gesture is important. The question is, why and how? What I am going to make now is going to change everything. How is it going to dictate the continuation to me? How can I go in and how can I go out of the shape? How does each sound have a secret tendency for the whole without ever being able to create the totality? 

Some people see recording improvised music as a problem. Do you?

Absolutely not!! I would love to have more time to experiment with different recording, to use different mics, try different mixes ...

I'm very frustrated to be always on the road for concerts and not have more time for a residency where I can record what I want.

A living thing

In the 20th century, the relationship between music and other forms of art - painting, video art and cinema most importantly - has become increasingly important. How do you see this relationship yourself and in how far, do you feel, does music relate to other senses than hearing alone?

When I listen to a sound, sometimes I can see colours or lights. When I look at an image, I can hear a sound. When I listen to certain kinds of music, I can feel that I'm standing in different geometrical forms and architectural spaces.

Beyond academic divisions, I can't ignore the growing relationship between the plastic arts and music in the world of contemporary art: the so-called 'sound art' where space is taken as a full dimension of a musical project and where time becomes a concrete component of a plastic work. I love this idea of an architectural space that takes its existence in a specific time and becomes like a living body where all the senses are working together.

In how much, do you feel, are creative decisions shaped by cultural differences - and in how much, vice versa, is the perception of sound influenced by cultural differences?

I think that with globalisation, there are less and less cultural differences. I like the idea of an emergency in ethno-musicology, which invites us to protect the numerous musical directories that are disappearing before our eyes.

Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?

Improvisation allows the audience to assist with a live process. Sometimes, I like to make very obvious transitions but I believe the musical beauty comes from the surprise, when you disturb the listener in their interior listening. Nobody expects it, and the music takes a strange turn.

Usually, it is considered that it is the job of the artist to win over an audience. But listening is also an active, rather than just a passive process. How do you see the role of the listener in the musical communication process?

The environment is very important. Music is like a landscape. You have to lay down a network and then move with sounds within this network. The question of energy and emergence is fundamental. By penetrating the space, the public feeds it and makes it leave too.

Music-sharing sites and -blogs as well as a flood of releases in general are presenting both listeners and artists with challenging questions. What's your view on the value of music today? In what way does the abundance of music change our perception of it? 

Contrary to some musicians who criticizes the excessive digital consumption of poor quality MP3 music, or in the face of hackers who "kill artists", I think the abundance of music is very positive. It promotes democratization of music and its access to the greatest number. It's now possible to have access to very rare resources and to discover artists more easily. I listen to a lot of music on websites like Deezer, Spotify or Myspace. It allows me to discover artists that I would have never discovered without the Internet. Besides, my own music also becomes more accessible due to Facebook or Myspace. I get often emails from people who discover my work by coincidence.

Objectively, the Internet doesn't kill anyone, it doesn't steal anything and instead it allows the exchange of culture between communities and networks of friends. The artists get together more easily through networks according to their aesthetic, political and artistic affinities, and this is very positive to me. It is also easier to produce music and get in touch with an audience. Traditional media like CDs etc. is renewed and it's great.

Please recommend two artists to our readers which you feel deserve their attention.

 Sven-Ake Johansson

 Pascal Battus

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