In conversation with JONATHAN HEPFER and ALICE TEYSSIER (Marseille, France - 2011)
I'd love to start at the very beginning. Would you tell me a bit about your earliest days as a musician? How did this wild journey of yours get started?
My life as a musician started when I was four years old when my grandmother put me in piano lessons, and I continued with the piano until I was nineteen. Then, somehow I was accepted as a percussionist at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris, without knowing anything about percussion. I was too old to enter as a pianist, so for some reason they just stuck me in the percussion class. (Laughter)
When I showed up to audition at the Conservatoire, the professor refused to work with me before the audition, since I knew nothing, and had me study first with a student of his. So I started with a percussion student, but I still had fifteen years of piano behind me, so I was a very capable musician. I accompanied myself on concertos, singing the percussion parts, and after a week I knew everything by heart. Snare drum, on the other hand...well, I cheated a bit there. (Laughter)
I passed the first round, so I learned another concerto in the same way, and finally I was accepted. So that was my entry into the Conservatoire de Paris. And the first thing the professor said to me was: "Okay, you're part of the class now, but you have no snare drum technique whatsoever, so you're going to work on military drum rudiments." And I responded, "No need for that — I was discharged. I don't have to go into the army!" (Laughter) So, no military drum for me! I entered the Conservatoire to study contemporary music.
(Shocked) From the very beginning?
From the very beginning. I went specifically for that. As a piano student in Avignon, which is where I grew up, I had asked my piano teacher to introduce me to contemporary music. He told me that he really didn't know anything about contemporary music, so he suggested that I play Ravel. It was the most contemporary piano work he could find. (Laughter)
So when I arrived at the Conservatoire, I was hungry to know more about contemporary percussion. But I realized early on in my studies that the Conservatoire wasn't really the place for that; I was supposed to prepare to become an orchestral musician, like in all conservatories. In other words, students were being prepared to join orchestras, not to play percussion.
But through my friend Jean-Charles François, I was lucky enough to find out about what was known in Paris as the Centre Américain, which was led by an Australian pianist named Keith Humble.
Keith Humble was a little guy, really short. (Laughter) He was a great pianist, as well as a composer. We both arrived in Paris at the same time, around 1960. We met in 1961, and I started working with his group right away, playing the Bartók Sonata. We had something like two months of rehearsals for that Sonata. Every day! (Groans and laughs)
And we worked with everyone who came through the Centre Américain, including many people I hadn't necessarily heard of. John Cage came through. I didn't know who he was at the time, so I just thought of him as a composer I was happy to work with, like any other. I met so many composers through the Centre; and since there weren't that many of us in Paris at the time who were interested in this music, I was also part of the Domaine Musical, run by Pierre Boulez. So that helped with meeting composers too.
I also joined another group, Ars Nova, directed by Marius Constant, where I met even more composers, and I eventually formed a group with Diego Masson called Musique Vivante, which I was one of the leaders of. Throughout the period from, say, 1960 to 1980, I met and worked with all the composers you can imagine. There's nothing more educational than that!
These days, people are experts when it comes to percussion, but back in those days, we knew practically nothing. So we had to invent solutions with respect to our instruments and setups with every new piece. There was no tradition to learn from; we were all starting from scratch!
And on top of that, there were no instruments nor instrument vendors. In 1960, there was one marimba in all of Paris. It belonged to Luciano Berio, who had toured Circles in the United States, with Jean-Pierre Drouet and Boris de Vinogradov, and so it had come back to Paris with him. It was the only marimba that existed for us! (Laughter) It was a Musser with cardboard resonators, and it sounded marvelous! So that's the world that I was coming from: a piano background, and the desire to make contemporary music.
Where did the impulse to become a professional musician come from?
Ah! Where did this desire come from? I don't know where it came from exactly, other than to say that I simply wanted to be active in music. I knew that to become a pianist, it was already too late for me. So, already while I was growing up in Avignon, I searched for an instrument, and asked myself what I could possibly do in order to play music as a professional outlet. In any case, I coudn't imagine doing anything other than making music.
Was anybody in your family musical?
Yes! At that time, my father was an orchestral conductor on cruise liners. He would travel from Le Havre to New York, round trip, all the time. He would bring home jazz and free jazz discs he would find in the States, before they were available in France. So I was introduced to a whole panoply of great jazzers who were expanding the thresholds of their genre at the time. I heard that music as a language that belonged very much to the present moment. So that had an impact on my desire to sink my teeth into the music that was being written at that moment in history. I'm not sure I realized it consciously at the time, but that's what I wanted to do.
So your father was also a musician. What about your mother?
Yes, she was a pianist; and also her mother, my grandmother, was a pianist, so it was no surprise that I studied piano.
So, this impulse to be a contemporary musician was somehow within you from early on. I'm curious if any other art forms inspired you? Painting, dance, theater, perhaps?
Before arriving in Paris, I was studying at the Conservatoire in Avignon. Do you know Avignon? In Avignon there is the Palais des Papes, and across from it there is a tiny building called the Palais de la Monnaie, where the conservatory was housed. And during the summer, there is the Festival d'Avignon. When the Festival needed musicians for various plays, or pit musicians, they would come looking in the conservatory. So I played at the Festival d'Avignon starting in 1956.
I played for pieces like T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, Friedrich von Kleist's Le Prince de Hombourg, and Alfred de Musset's Les Caprices de Marianne. I played all the big pieces that came through the Festival d'Avignon, all under the baton of Maurice Jarre.
So, the contemporary adventure was already starting for me, since I was in the theater world, where the musical language was more forward-thinking than any music I was encountering in the conservatory at the time. I loved being part of the theatrical experience, and it quickly led to my discoveries of painting and dance. For example, Jean Pierre-Drouet once asked me to replace Sylvio Gualda on the Bartok Sonata with the Ballets [Félix] Blaska, and obviously that was a discovery. So I was receiving influences from every direction.
This helps to explain how one starts off in a standard conservatory setting practicing your scales on xylophone and ends up years later onstage shirtless performing a piece as foreign to the classical music milieu as ?Corporel! You created your own path. After all, there was no precedent for becoming a professional percussion soloist and chamber musician at the time.
That's true, there was no model for this career at the time. With respect to ?Corporel, there is a little bit of a backstory. Would you like to hear it? Okay. One day in 1965 or so, I received a call from the Festival d'Automne, I believe it was, and I was sent a score to La passion selon Sade by Sylvano Bussotti, saying that they needed a percussionist to play the part of the faun, and asking if I was interested. The faun is one of the mythical beings of ancient Greece — half human, half goat.
Nobody could be found to take on this part because Bussotti wanted the percussionist to be disguised as a faun, which is to say, shirtless, wearing only tights with a little tail. But that didn't bother me — if you have to go shirtless, you have to go shirtless. It's not a problem. So I said, “well, okay, I'll do it!” (Laughter)
And so I played La Passion selon Sade with Cathy Berberian, who was a sublime beauty — absolutely sublime — and we caused a sensation with this Passion selon Sade at the Odeon in Paris, and lo and behold, I was off to a good start on my path. (Laughter)
During that time, I was also doing a lot of things for the theater, so I worked with — I do not know if you know this director — Jorge Lavelli. With him, our company competed for the young theater company of the year for our production of Witold Gonbrowicz's Le Marriage. And we were in this young company.
Then in 1965 at the Théâtre du Recamier with the Argentine stage director Victor Garcia, we put on Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi with music by Jean-Charles François. For Ubu Roi, we had to paint ourselves from head to toe in black.
Afterwards in 1969 at the Festival d'Avignon, we presented Pierre Bourgeade's Orden with Lavelli directing and music by Girolamo Arrigo, conducted by Charles Ravier. That one was perhaps the first great musical theater work. Especially at that time, the Festival d'Avignon had a policy of presenting a lot of things like musical theater. And I think Orden was really the beginning of that. Almost the point of departure.
Another noteworthy production was Girolamo Arrigo’s Addio Garibaldi, which we premiered at the Théâtre de l’Opéra Comique in Paris in 1972 with the director Charles Ravier.
I'm curious about your experiences with non-Western music and instruments. I've noticed, for example that everyone I know who has studied with you plays the zarb (tombak). Did you study the zarb at the same time as Jean-Pierre?
I don’t know if Jean-Pierre already told you about this, but as for myself, I did not get a chance to properly study the zarb. Rather, I developed a certain approach to the zarb. But the story goes like this: one day, Jean-Pierre said to me, "you have to come with me! There is a guy who just arrived in France, and he teaches this instrument called the zarb, and it's absolutely fabulous. You have to come with me to learn from him!” And I told him, "Absolutely. I’ll be there!”
So I went to meet Djamshid Chemirani and during my first visit, Chemirani said, "How wonderful! Another percussionist who will come to work with me? That’s great — it’s party time! Hey, I just got a new zarb. Why don’t I sell it to you? That way you will have an instrument to work. And by the way, this is one of the most beautiful zarbs I have ever seen in Paris.” Well, I agreed to buy this zarb from him and he sold it to me, at the time, for a hundred francs, which was nothing. (Laughter)
And we met up the weekend after. During the week, I got a call and I was hired for every weekend until the end of the year, performing Mozart symphonies with a chamber orchestra with the conductor Fernand Oubradous at the Salle de Gaveau. At that time especially, I had no choice but to accept the offer because I had to eat! (Laughter)
But consequently, for an entire year, I wasn’t able to set foot in the zarb courses with Chemirani. And the year after, my contract with this chamber orchestra was renewed. So, at the end of three years, Jean-Pierre said to me: "Listen, you have the most beautiful zarb of Paris and you don’t even play this instrument. Sell me yours.” And I told him, "Jean-Pierre, you’ve got a point. That's understandable. I'll sell it to you for a hundred francs." (Laughter) Ten years later, I still couldn’t get this instrument out of my mind. And I kept thinking how nice it would be to see it again. And so I convinced Jean-Pierre to sell it back to me once again for a hundred francs. (Laughter) Since then, everyone wants to buy my zarb. (Laughter. Gesturing to his drum.) I mean, just look at him! He's a handsome devil.
Eventually, Jean-Pierre taught me the rudiments of zarb during the course of our many rehearsals with Trio Le Cercle. So, the zarb, for me, is an instrument that opened doors to percussion like no other instrument did.
To give you some context, in the '60's, Les Percussions de Strasbourg were the big thing in the world of percussion. They would advertise their concerts by saying “THREE HUNDRED INSTRUMENTS ON THE STAGE!” (Laughter) That meant that if a composer decided that five skin sounds were desirable, five different tom toms were played. In contrast, with the zarb, we discovered a single instrument where we have a gigantic panoply of sounds, and absolutely hallucinogenic colors, all produced simply with the fingers. And when we discovered the possibilities that this instrument offered, there was no looking back!
So, percussionists at the time had a complex — and I do not know if this attitude still exists today — but in the ‘60s when we were getting started, we always needed to have mallets in our hands . We did not yet know how to use our fingers. It lasted a long time, this culture of using mallets for everything.
A guy like [Christoph] Caskel never played with his fingers. And when Georges [Aperghis] wrote him a piece called Graffitis, he never played this piece because it had to be played with the fingers. And I understand that because we had a gigantic complex of wanting to appear powerful. But obviously when we listened to congueros or tabla masters, we realized that amazing sounds were capable of being produced with the fingers.
I assumed my first teaching post in '68 at the Conservatoire de Pantin. And I told Jean-Pierre that I was going there to teach percussion, and that I wanted him to teach zarb alongside me. And the deal for the students was that they work on zarb with Jean-Pierre, and then Western percussion with me. But everything they learned from Jean-Pierre on the zarb, they were to apply to the Western percussion instruments.
And so each student learned a separate series of exercises for the zarb, and I asked each student to teach their unique series to the other students, who, in turn, would apply what they were learning on the zarb to other percussion instruments. And so, all of a sudden, an absolutely extraordinary type of openness developed amongst the students that couldn’t be found anywhere else in the world.
When I arrived to lead the percussion class at the Conservatory of Rueil-Malmaison, which was a big school, I asked François Bedel to be my assistant and to teach zarb, since Jean-Pierre wasn’t able to join us. And François Bedel just left us last week. Yes. He died, uh, last Tuesday. At 54 years old. Yes, 54 years old, of a heart attack. It was a terrible shock.
So, zarb was an instrument that opened vast new horizons for me as a percussionist! And one of the pieces that took a long time to be accepted in the percussion community — because it’s almost impossible to play — was Carlos Roqué Alsina’s Themen (1974), which uses many techniques borrowed from the zarb, but applied to other instruments, either metals or skins. And at that time, no Western percussionists knew those techniques, so the piece was barely played at all.
It’s interesting to listen to you talk about “orchestrating” the techniques of the zarb by applying them to standard Western percussion instruments. Because this is essentially the relationship between Le corps à corps and Graffitis, which are extremely similar works.
Yes! Le corps à corps and Graffitis are nearly the same piece. But there is another piece too, which is not called Graffitis or Le corps à corps, but which is called La Velléitaire. (Laughter) It's exactly the same thing. (Laughter) So why is that the case? That too is an interesting story.
So, one day, I discovered this score to a piece by Georges called Graffitis. And I had known Georges for a long time, and I said to him, "you finally wrote a piece for percussion and you didn’t even tell me?!" And he responded that yes, it was true that he had written a piece for solo percussion, but he was really not happy with the result. (Laughter) The piece had been written for Caskel, but it was never played because it was meant to be played with the fingers, which was not something that Caskel wanted to do. So, instead of having me playing Graffitis, Georges proposed to write me something else instead. And so obviously I was thrilled.
In Graffitis, there's a sentence on the title page that tells the performer that the written orchestration by the composer is just a suggestion. Therefore, one could create another orchestration, and it would still be considered as the piece. So, at that time, I had a student named Robert Hébrard who had just come back from Bali, where he had been studying instrument-making.
So I said, "Listen, I am working on this new piece. I need a range of twenty-seven microtonal sounds in my setup. I need ascending and descending glissandi, and I need four or five characteristics of sounds. I would like to have all that in wood, and arranged on a table so that I can play everything without difficulty. (Laughter)
And he said, "no problem!" (Laughter) So he began to work on it, and one day he arrived with an enormous setup. There was, for example, a tube of bamboo which must have been about five meters long. Anyway, I worked on the piece for a while with these instruments and then I called Georges. He came by to see it, and he said, "Oh wow! That's incredible! Could I perhaps have a little bird in the corner?” Georges wanted a small bird. Because he felt that the instrument itself looked like a bird. (Laughter)
And I told that to Robert, my student who had made the instrument. And so he made me a little bird! Eventually, the instrument became an enormous structure, made entirely of bamboo, even with moving parts. There was even a gigantic wing, about two and a half meters wide. (Gaston is making gestures while describing the setup and laughing.)
So there was a continuously evolving process where my student and I would develop this instrument, and with each new development, Georges would respond by rewriting the piece, each time with a new text and onomatopoeic language. But in reality, the piece is always virtually the same, you know? It’s only the text that changes. Anyway, by the time we finished, the piece was called La Velléitaire.
The first version of the piece had a text by Goethe, right?
Yes. The original version has a text by Goethe and is called Graffitis. The second version was in French. Georges made this version for students, and the title remains Graffitis. He used the instrumentation for Sonant by Kagel, which is just a description of categories of a certain number of sounds. And the text for that version revolves around the ambiguity between the percussionist's mallet [baguette in French] and the baguette as it pertains to bread. (Laughter) And he created an onomatopoeic language that corresponded to the constant counting we musicians incessantly have to do. He created an almost mathematical yet imaginary language.
When Georges set creating the imaginary language for La Velléitaire, he was searching for phonemes that evoked the specific softness of bamboo’s coloring. And so it was not at all in the same vein as Graffitis. And instead of using Goethe, Georges found texts in the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci in which Leonardo describes the mechanics of the flight of birds; when a bird wants to rise, it achieves this by raising and pushing down its wings; it compresses the air and the subsequent air pressure lifts up the bird. This constant transforming of texts is a quintessential feature of Georges' compositional technique.
Does this instrument still exist somewhere?
I kept it for years, but eventually it went back to its luthier, Robert Hébrard. And we are waiting to see whether we can bring this instrument back to life. We want to film the rebirth of the instrument, because at the moment, the bird is almost dead. And so, like the phoenix, we would bring it back to life. I would play the piece again, of course. And then afterward, it would remain somewhere like a piece in a museum. And if anyone wanted to learn the piece, they would have to come to this place and work on it there. The piece can’t be played without the instrument.
I'd like to return to ?Corporel, if that's okay. This piece is very important to me. I encountered it early on in my life as a classial percussionist, and I loved it because I felt somehow that it connected the visceral intensity of playing the drums in rock and punk bands with a deep type of literary-philosophical sensibility. In 2006, I studied with Jean-Pierre at Centre Acanthes in Metz, and I witnessed many different interpretations of the piece, some quite violent, and some quite gentle. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the piece.
You know, both Vinko and I play ?Corporel. And after I saw him perform the piece, I told him, “Vinko, your version is shit." (Laughter) "I don’t like your version." But I asked myself why I felt that way, and I realized that for me, ?Corporel is not a masochistic piece. In my opinion, the piece much lighter. When you strike your body, it is not a form of aggression, but rather an attempt to produce a certain quality of sound from the body. Further, the piece does not consist merely of a series of disconnected, juxtaposed tableaux, but rather a single story. The fermatas in the piece create space that allows the performer to move fluidly from one state to another.
In contrast, in Vinko’s version of the piece is totally disjunct. It goes: Action. Okay, done. Silence. Next action. Okay, done. Silence. Turn the page. Next, action. Okay, done. Silence. And so on. And I totally disagree with this approach. Instead, ?Corporel weaves together little moments of theater and poetry, all of which are extremely strong, but never violent. Violence ruins the piece; if you’re violent and almost naked onstage, the two things cancel each other out. They’re antithetical to one another. They can’t coexist.
Over the years I’ve had several female students who learned ?Corporel. And one of them told me that she wanted to play the piece shirtless. So, I supported her. Why not? But, as her teacher, I was cautious to that she take some very strict and careful precautions. For example, she was forbidden to hit her chest, because it gives an image that could be understood as being degrading to women. The image of the unclothed body onstage doesn’t benefit from violence. The image of the body by itself is already interesting enough; you don’t have to put too fine a point on it.
If I take for example the very beginning of the piece, Vinko writes to put your hands on your face and spread your hands. Imagine you are in the audience and you do not know this piece: the lights come on very slowly, and you vaguely discover a silhouette that is like that on stage. It's already a very strong image.
If this image is transformed into something completely grotesque and disfigured — which is what Vinko does — you actually end up with something else. Because we clearly see that the hands are rubbing up against the face, while the voice produces the sound of air. So when the hands open, if there’s a totally neutral face, with a completely fixed look, and that the following gesture simply continues, and the rest continues, while the facial expression remains fixed, it is much more dramatic. The image is much stronger than if there is disfigurement. And everything stems from that in this piece.
I find that the piece is more interesting at first to present the image with a kind of modesty. So I decided to completely close my face in terms of expressions. And so the neutrality of the face and the strangeness of the situation makes an interesting juxtaposition. And therein is the questioning. And this interrogation continues throughout the piece. And when it’s over, you have no idea what you just witnessed.
Further, I find that many versions of ?Corporel are often excessively planned out and controlled by the performer. I have worked on the piece for a long time, and each time my version is slightly different. I try to always find new elements, new gestures, new expressions that bring the piece to life and give it continuity without turning it into something violent.
And what did Globokar think of your version?
He loved it! (Laughter) After he saw me play the piece, he said "well, and that's why you're a percussionist and I'm not!” (Laughter)
I’ve seen a video of Vinko's version the piece, but not yours. I would love to see a video of one of your performances.
Unfortunately, my friends and I have been very bad when it comes to this subject. (Laughter) I think we have been pretty good musicians, but with respect to documentation, we were not exactly experts. (Laughter) We never cared about that. It wasn’t our goal. Consequently, we have very few documents from our careers. We have a few, but only a very small percentage, considering all of our projects from over the years.
Another major question when performing the piece is whether to amplify the sounds of the body, since so much of the piece is very quiet.
I played this piece at the Tokyo Festival in front of two thousand people, and at the rehearsal, the hall staff arrived with a bunch of microphones. And I said, "No! No microphones will be necessary!" (Laughter) And they protested that the audience wouldn't hear anything. And I said, “well, that's my problem, not yours!” And the piece worked fantastically without amplification.
I had another experience like that once in Montreal. Again, it was a very big hall, and there I was playing Morton Feldman’s King of Denmark. And my approach to the piece was to play it exactly as Morton Feldman — whom I had met before — states in the score, which is to say as quietly as possible. My version had many, many instruments, so from the audience's perspective, it looked like I was going to make a lot of noise. However, when I played the piece, I was practically the only one who heard it.
So, what happened? Well, amongst the audience, a kind of nervous, unsettled energy set in. Because after a while, they realized that they were watching a guy fidgeting around on the stage, but they weren't hearing any sound. And since they did not know Morton Feldman's music at the time, they were wondering what the hell was going on. (Laughter) Finally, someone in the audience started to laugh, and then it spread to an entire row, so I stopped in the middle of the performance and waited for the laughter to stop. And then something amazing happened. Just like that, there was a whole kind of electrical phenomenon where the audience's listening was transformed, and by the end of my performance, even in the last row, they heard the piece.
And so I had this experience with King of Denmark, which was followed by an intermission. And then directly after the intermission, I opened with Zyklus! Fortissimo! (Laughter) And the public saw this same guy come up with another big setup and they leaned forward in their chairs to try and listen just as carefully as before. And then when I launched into the piece, I saw the entire audience jump with surprise!
So, I knew that even in big halls, we can afford to perform at pianissimo, if we know how to communicate the sound in a compelling way visually. And so this attitude is what I try to bring to my performance when I play ?Corporel. We don’t need to try to do anything more than that.
Morton Feldman had an extremely particular sense of hearing. In his own house, Feldman had two or three carpets on each wall. And the floor was carpeted too. It did not support loud sonorities. When we worked with him in Paris, we played a piece for large ensemble, with tuba, and so on. And as soon as our sound went above pianissimo, it was hard for him to bear. And so in King of Denmark, he writes a beautiful piece for his own idiosyncratic way of listening.
I'd like to hear about the origins of Trio Le Circle. What was it that brought you together?
How was it formed? It was formed precisely for the reason of being diametrically opposed to the idea of Les Percussions de Strasbourg, which was to have three hundred instruments on the stage. Instead, we decided that we would have only three. (Laughter) And the first piece we worked on was a piece that Jean-Pierre wrote, which is called Combien de cercles superposés?
It was a piece that he wrote for a painting exhibition at that time. A painter had looked at the geometric lines of Paris as a city. And there was also a poet who had written a great poem on precisely this use of the geometric line. The poet discussed, for example, that the verticality represented by the columns, is the symbol that one finds in front of all the banks and all national buildings. This verticality symbolizes power.
Take, for example, the great temples of Ancient Greece, or the National Assembly here in France. These buildings have columns in front. These vertical columns represent power. The diagonal lines represent the exchanges between the different strata of society. The circle represents the most warm, friendly place. So in these buildings, if we go the cafeteria, for example, it will be in the form of a circle, because it creates a good environment for gatherings. Conference tables, for large meetings, are generally shaped like a circle or an oval, for this same reason.
So, Jean-Pierre had composed four movements for three percussionists. And that is where Trio Le Cercle started, which was in 1974, around the same time as Roqué Alsina’s Themen. The first movement of Jean-Pierre's piece was called Les Cercles. And we began to work with our hands, with the idea of touching the instruments. He started by having us make circles. In other words, having removed the spoken voice, you could still hear the word "circles" repeated through the sounds of the instruments. The second movement is called La courbe (The Curve). The third is called Verticale, and the fourth movement is called Combien de cercles superposés?
The piece was full of games, and it used many small instruments, with cymbal trees that are played vertically (rrahhh!), with guiros that were in a horizontal way, and so on. So, everything was according to these geometric images and that was the first performance the trio ever gave. Afterward, we traveled to Geneva to play this piece, and the friend who had invited us to perform asked us what we were called. We said that we didn’t know! (Laughter) We hadn’t thought about it yet.
So he said to us, "I propose that you call yourselves 'The Circle.'” So we asked him why this name. And he said that it was into that geometric form that one can put the greatest number of friends. And we said, “sounds good to us!” And that was that! (Laughter) That's how Trio Le Circle was born.
In those days, my wife Brigitte worked a lot with Mauricio Kagel. And one day she mentioned to him that I was now performing in a percussion trio. And Kagel said, “oh really?" And he asked Brigitte if we might be interested in having him write a piece for us. Brigitte called me immediately, and I said, “absolutely! Whenever you want!.” And so Kagel agreed to write us a piece. And that piece was Dressur. (Laughter) And that was the first piece written for the trio!
After that, we played a lot of Kagel’s music. We played Dressur, the solos from Exotica, Con Voce, The Hippocratic Oath, Rrrr..., Variété, La trahison orale and we have’t stopped ever since! (Laughter)
So Dressur was the first piece. And then your collaborations with Globokar, Aperghis and Xenakis came later.
Much later, yes. Dressur arrived in 1977, and Tribadaboum extensif sur une rhythme fantôme was in 1981 and Les guetteurs arrived in 1982. Okho was the last piece. We premiered that in 1989.
Did you play any works by composers who were less well-known?
There were some pieces that we played that weren’t written for us, for example Visible Music II by Dieter Schnebel. We premiered a piece by Thomas Kessler called Voice Control. It’s a piece that involved computer programs that were triggered by voice commands. It never worked. (Laughter) But it used a computer program designed to help people with disabilities.
I want to ask you about a piece that has a mythological status in my mind: Giorgio Battistelli's Jules Verne. I can't seem to find any recordings or scores for this piece, but when Jean-Pierre described it to me, I fell in love with the idea of an opera of this kind.
Yes! This is a very important piece. And still today, nobody other than our trio has played the piece, which is catastrophic! (Laughter) It’s a very complicated undertaking. However, a score does exist with all of the details. Everything. It would be an extremely ambitious project for any new performers starting from scratch.
In order to play Jules Verne, each member of the trio really has to train his singing voice, because it's an opera where you sing nonstop for an entire hour. (Laughter) So the voice has to really be in shape. And it's real operatic singing - in French! The three of us took voice lessons with diction coaching and so forth for an entire year in order to play the piece. There’s no getting around that. And the three musicians have to be able to play the piano reasonably well. And after those basic challenges, one still has to construct the set and make a film, which would be tricky, because the piece is constructed for the three of us. We would have to talk with Giorgio about how to handle various aspects of the piece if a new group were to take it on.
Because this piece refers to the three main characters of Jules Verne. Professor Lindenbrock from Journey to the Center of the Earth, Doctor Ferguson from Around the World in Eighty Days, and Captain Nemo from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. And here begins the ambiguity.
The actual historical figure Jules Verne had a nephew named Gaston. (Laughter) And this nephew was mentally ill, likely suffering from paranoia or schizophrenia. Anyway, one day, he shot Jules Verne in the leg, leaving his uncle with a permanent limp. It is thought that Verne was homosexual and that he had relations with his nephew.
So from there, Giorgio took the biographies of these three fictional characters, combining them with the biographies of Jules Verne and his nephew Gaston, and to which he added the real-life biographies of Jean-Piere [Drouet], Willy [Coquillat] and myself.
So, what Giogrio asked of us in this piece is wildly complex. Above the stage set, there was a video screen. And Giorgio traveled to Jean-Pierre, Willy and my mother’s houses in order to film each of our actual mothers in order to project these scenes over the course of the opera. (Laughter) Giorgio is crazy! There were costumes and an elaborate set onstage including an aquarium, stones, large pipes, and a ship’s sail. It was directed by the actor Michaël Lonsdale.
And Michael said to Giorgio, if we have a film that is going the whole time, then people will only watch the film, and ignore what is going on onstage. So the film only comes in in a few short episodes. But these episodes are with each of our own actual mothers.
In the piece, we play characters from various famous stories by Jules Verne, and these films that Giorgio shot with our mothers were related to these stories. So for Captain Nemo, he filmed my mother in front of the library, because he wanted to create the cozy interior of a submarine. For Journey to the Center of the Earth, he filmed Jean-Pierre's mother it in front of a monstrous fire in a fireplace in order to convey the atmosphere of the center of the Earth. (Laughter) And the third, with Willy's mother, he filmed her on a bridge covered with snow, because his story was Around the World in Eighty Days. I told you, this guy Giorgio is a little crazy. (Laughter)
How did you meet Giorgio Battistelli?
Actually, both Jean-Pierre and I had him as a pupil at the Conservatoire de Pantin, where he was studying percussion with me and composition with Jean-Pierre. And he would tell us about things he was doing as a composer that sounded insane to both of us. And one day he told us that he'd like to write a piece for us. So we accepted his offer with pleasure. And one day Jules Verne arrived. (Laughter)
That's it. So it's a strange piece with a lot of difficulties built into it. But it's a monumental work, and it deserves to be done again by a new group of musicians. It's an indescribable piece; you forget your own name leaving the theater after seeing it. The audience finds themselves howling with laughter. One hears this strange and beautiful music, and one sees these guys onstage doing a series of totally surreal things. It's incredible. In Jules Verne, I play the marimba, and while I’m playing the marimba, I'm standing in an aquarium full of water. Eventually I lie down in the aquarium and do a backstroke while singing. Somehow, I keep winding up onstage without my shirt. This time in a swimsuit. (Laughter)
We played it maybe a hundred and fifty times. We even traveled to play it three times in Taiwan and China.
I absolutely have to play this someday. Hopefully when I return to California.
I’d be happy to come to California to work with you! (Laughter)
Since we’re talking about practical realities, I’m curious about whether the trio travelled often to perform these pieces. For example, were you able to play Dressur in many places? Or was it only in Paris? Where did you keep your collection of instruments? I could imagine that these practical aspects of rehearsing and touring could be difficult.
To perform Dressur? Oh, we traveled everywhere! We had a truck for the instruments. I’m not sure if we played it a hundred times, but certainly we played it much more than once. I think we played it three times in Paris alone.
Once, we played Dressur at the Brahmssaal in Vienna, with Kagel present. And for Dressur, it is imperative that the stage is seven meters by seven meters. And so we arrived at the Brahmssaal, which must have been at least five or six meters by four or five meters, but with two columns in the middle of the stage. (Laughter) I said to Maurizio, "do you really want us to play here?” And he said, "listen, this is an historic hall! This is an incredible opportunity. We will do Dressur in the Brahmssaal, it’s not over yet! (Laughter) And somehow we managed to work around the difficulties.
Earlier, I mentioned that we were asked to go to Taipei for a concert. There, the festival asked us to perform Jules Verne, not Dressur. And I asked the festival directors if they were sure that they were prepared to help us present the piece with all of its logistical difficulties. Obviously, it is an enormous stage setup. And they insisted that they could handle it.
So I talked to Willy and Jean-Pierre who said that they thought there was no way this idea could work. And they wanted to give up. But I said that I thought we should at least try, and see what happens. So, I took photographs of our set and sent them a sketch of the various dimensions of the stage. Soon after, they told us that the stage was ready and we could come as soon as possible. And my two colleagues thought that we were going to find a total disaster. And so we arrived in Taipei, only to find that the stage decor they built was perfect, and even more beautiful than the original. And they kept it after our performance! It’s still there to this day. (Laughter)
Did Jean-Pierre tell you about our Balinese adventure?
No. Not at all. Was this with the trio?
With the trio, yes. One summer, we were in Avignon in a hotel, sitting by the pool, thinking, "we should find something interesting to present in the fall. We should find a village where they play percussion and put on plays." And we thought about Bali, Indonesia. So after we returned to Paris, I went to see the Ministry and I told them that we had an idea for a collaborative project with a village in Bali. And I asked if they were interested in the idea, and they embraced the idea enthusiastically!
So we went to see Georges Aperghis and we asked him if he would be interested in joining us for this project. And he equally enthusiastically said yes.
So we made an appointment with the Minister and we proposed to carry out the project, but first, we would hvae to visit Bali and learn more about the possibilities for working together. So they planned a first trip for us, and of all four of us — Willy, Jean-Pierre, Georges and me — I was the only one who was free.
The Minister told me that I was scheduled to leave on such and such date in November — this meeting was in July — to go and lay the groundwork for this collaboration. So I agreed. And we never heard from the Minister again. We were certain that the project had fallen through. And then three days before the scheduled trip, I get a call from the Minister who told me that my ticket was all ready. And I said, "my ticket for where?" And he said, "for Bali, of course! We had set the date back in July!"
So I told him that we never heard back from him and therefore had assumed it had fallen through. I mean, what was I going to do there now? Tourism? I hadn’t gotten in touch with anyone. He agreed that we could set another date. So this time, we found dates that worked for Georges, Willy and me. Not Jean-Pierre, unfortunately. We established contact with the village that we were going to work with, and Georges decided we were going to do an opera called Faust and Rangda. Rangda is one of Bali’s most sinister mythological figures.
So we came back to France, where we formed a team of about ten people, and left again for Bali, this time for a month and a half, to put on Faust et Randga. After a month and half, we’d barely gotten through half of it. We came back to France and went to see the Minister. We had had the foresight to take along a camera, filming what we could of our work. The Minister was impressed and agreed to schedule another trip the following year, on the condition that we also take a director and two actors. So when we returned it was with a twenty-person team.
I was the one managing budgets. Many times, Jean-Pierre told me it wouldn’t happen, that we wouldn’t be able to go. But in the end, it did happen. Not only did it happen, but we toured Indonesia with our collaborators from the village. So, the three of us were a trio performing across from the complete gamelan — twenty-seven people playing Indonesian percussion instruments, dancers, and deities — in any case, there were about forty people from Bali, and the three of us from France. Face to face. Our trio played only Aperghis. The Indonesian musicians played only their own music. And the music would crossfade between our two ensembles, with 32nd notes from Aperghis, and twenty-seven Indonesian musicians responding.
It was truly amazing. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. It was absolutely incredible. We toured Indonesia, then brought the village here [to France], where we played at the Marseille Festival. We gave five performances at the Festival d'Avignon. We played at the Festival in Paris. And then the Indonesian performers went home. For budgetary reasons, we had bought a gamelan; it was cheaper to buy than to have theirs transported. And that’s how we ended up with a complete gamelan. When the trio disbanded, the other two thought we should sell the gamelan. I simply couldn’t sell it, emotionally, so I bought it. I bought out the other two and ended up with the complete set, and I have played it ever since. I have it here now in Marseille. So regarding whether I engage with non-European music, I play gamelan.
One of the things I love most about the Trio Le Cercle is that even at incredibly high level of musicianship, you always manage to bring the character of the music to life. Very often, I see performances of contemporary music that excel from a technical perspective, but are hollow when it comes to channeling the character of the music. I think that like all of the most compelling musicians of the world, the three of you have not only been technically brilliant musicians, but also highly charismatic figures onstage. This is something not often taught in conservatories.
Music is often very serious, but you must never forget that within seriousness, there is always humor; there is the comic situation. Music is also inherently a form of theater. I’ve argued a lot with my students over the years because they would always use these enormous scores that would obscure what they were doing at their instruments. I would always ask them: are you making music for yourself or for the audience? Invariably, they acknowledge that they are making music for an audience, and so I tell them to take away their music stands. Or at least to lie them flat.
Since they are facing the public, the audience must be able to see what they are doing. A performance is a gift the performer gives to the public. If you make music only for yourself, that’s fine. But if the performance is a gift you offer to the public, if you obscure yourself behind walls of sheet music, it’s not worth presenting. It’s things like these that are essential.
In the same vein, I tell them: a fermata is not the time for you to fidget or do your housekeeping. A fermata is a pause in the musical discourse. You must be absolutely still during the pause. If you are shuffling pages or changing mallets, you ruin the fermata. You’ve stopped playing, and you must wait and before moving on to something else. If you stay completely still, then I as a listener can understand the fermata. That all comes from theater as well. Because, at the end of the day, music has always been theater.
When I see a symphony orchestra, ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the conductor steps out from côté jardin (stage right) to find his podium. Never côté cour (stage left). And he always exits on the same side. Before he arrives, the orchestra sets up. Then the concertmaster arrives. He gestures for the orchestra to tune, then is the last to sit. They tune again, having already tuned backstage. But that doesn’t matter, they give the A anyway. Finally the conductor emerges. If there’s a soloist — for example, if there’s a pianist — he will adjust his bench two-hundred-fifty times, even though it was perfectly set at the sound check. He will place his handkerchief on the left side of the piano, in case he needs it, which he never does.
All of the gestures we make onstage are part of the theater of the experience — whether they are done consciously or unconsciously. Everything becomes theater. For example, why is it that we still see symphony orchestras wearing tuxedos? It corresponds to nothing in our present reality. A century ago, it made sense, because that was the type of clothing people would wear when they went to a party. So it was logical that the orchestra would wear tuxedos. But now, it no longer makes sense and the orchestra seems out of touch. Why is the orchestra crazy? Nobody knows!
The minute we set foot onstage and face an audience, it becomes theater. It can be sonic theater, it can be visual theater, movement theater, but it's theater! We must never lose sight of this!
Speaking of musical theater, how did you come into contact with Mauricio Kagel?
The first time I met Kagel was at the Théâtre de l'Odéon in Paris. This was a huge theater. They were playing Sonant, which requires harp, double bass, two percussionists. The two percussionists slated to play the piece were Jacques Delécluse and Jacques Remy, two founders of the Domaine Musical. However, after seeing the score, they refused to play it. So it wound up being two composers who played the parts. In any case, you didn’t really have to know how to play percussion to follow Kagel's code.
Sonant (1960) is a very quiet piece. I was sitting at the very top of the theater with the other students, dans le poulailler [in “The gods” or “Paradise”], as theater people call the cheap upper balconies seats. The intelligentsia, on the other hand — who were responsible for funding the Domaine Musical — were seated downstairs. So when they played the piece on the stage, from our seats, we heard nothing. Eventually, there arose a sort of din of heckling, so especially then we couldn’t hear anything. We didn’t hear a note of the piece. After the piece ended, downstairs on the floor amongst the intelligentsia, it was received as a triumph. Everyone was applauding wildly. On the other hand, up top, we all started whistling and hissing, yelling, "It's a piece of shit! Get out of here!” Pretty much a scandal. (Laughter)
Finally, during the applause, we saw a very big guy arrive on the stage, and he gestured to the audience to be quiet. And there, a complete silence filled the theater; a frozen silence. And Kagel looked down at the audience and said, "I provoked you.” Then he looked up at us, saying, "you have reacted. And therefore, I am happy." And he left. (Laughter) And at that moment, all the people below started booing and all the people from above began to applaud. (Laughter)
First of all, that's quintessential Kagel. I mean, it's signature Kagel. To tell the audience that they had been provoked and confused, and therefore he, as the composer, was happy with the result. Kagel always knew how to invert value systems and subvert those who were in power. He stunned me. And I knew right then and there that I had to get to know that guy. That was 1960 or ‘61.
This sounds pretty rowdy! Do you feel that that the behavior of the audience has changed since then?
Before the '90s, virtually every concert contained a scandal. In these concerts, people would nearly get into fights amongst those who approved or disapproved of the work they just heard. Nowadays, one can present almost anything, and the audience will applaud politely, pretending that they have understood and appreciated what they've just heard. And afterward, people go home. No one dares voice their disapproval.
Ah! Beautiful. I see that you played Zyklus. What was the duration of your performance?
I think it was about eleven minutes.
My version was eight and a half minutes! (Laughter) I began with the idea of compressing a maximum of parameters. But in the end I didn’t go all the way.
Wow! How did you manage to do that? The piece is so difficult!
Ah, yes, that's true! But we still have some virtuosity up our sleeves! (Laughter)
Did you ever get to work with Stockhausen? Speaking of mythological characters.
Yes. On a few occasions. Stockhausen was not an easy character to get along with. (Laughter) The first time we worked together, we both insulted each other in rehearsal in front of everyone. We went lower than the earth. The source of our tension had to do with instruments. We were playing a piece — I can't remember which one — and, as I mentioned before, at that time in Paris, there were no instruments.
When I played for him, he claimed to be dissatisfied with my gong choice, which he said wasn’t big enough. And so he insisted that I find the largest gong in Paris. Well, I said, "Karlheinz, this is the one.” And he replied that that was not true, because he knew the biggest gong in Paris, which he told me belonged to Jean-Pierre Drouet. And he told me that I needed to go and pick it up from him. And I said to Stockhausen, "I present to you: Jean-Pierre's gong." It was his all along! (Laughter) Then it all went haywire. I told him off. We insulted each other to no end, in front of the whole orchestra. And after rehearsal, I went up to him and I said, "I will never work with a fascist like you again!"
About two years later, Diego Masson called to tell me that Musique Vivante had a big project on the horizon with Stockhausen playing his piece Momente. And apparently, for god-knows-what reason, Stockhausen had requested that I play the percussion part. I said to Diego, "Are you fucking kidding me? You remember the last time we met!” And Diego replied that he remembered the incident well, but Stockhausen still insisted that I play the part. (Laughter) And I said I would not play with him anymore. There wasn't a chance in hell.
On the other hand, this was a huge project for Musique Vivante, and Diego Masson was my friend. And Diego kept insisting, so finally, I offered — for Diego, not for Stockhausen — to help him find percussionists to play the parts. Masson agreed. So I went out looking for percussionists to play the parts. I needed to find three. I found one, then a second one that wasn’t that great, and finally a really good third one, but he couldn’t make the first few rehearsals. We explained that to Stockhausen and he said "No. Absolutely not. I want all three percussionists present for all of the rehearsals. And amongst these three, I want Gaston.” Masson tried to convince me again, but I didn’t care. I told him it was up to him to convince Karlheinz, and I stopped looking.
So finally, after so many exchanges, I agreed to play. And so we were able to put Momente together. The piece was completely crazy, but, wow — it was a real joy! If I hadn’t played the piece, I think I would have regretted it all my life. I had a great time and we worked like madmen. Stockhausen was such a difficult guy, but in the end, he was wonderful.
So, after the last performance of the piece, which took place at the Festival de Royan, I was about to take the train to return to Paris. And on the platform of the station that morning, there was nobody else. Except for one other person: Karlheinz Stockhausen. (Laughter) And he walked over to me and says, "Ah, I'm glad to see you in private like this. There’s something we must discuss.” I asked him what that might be.
I have very big projects on the horizon on my mind. So you will come live in Cologne. We will redo all the recordings we made before — and I want you to do them! We will redo all the recordings and you will live in Cologne. (Laughter) I said, "Look, that's very kind of you, but my wife and family are in Paris, so I'm afraid that it's an impossibility."
And he said, "that's not a problem. I'll find you another woman!” (Laughter) And I told him, "Listen, the first time we worked together, we were at each other's throats. But this time, our work together was beautiful. I don’t think we should tempt fate. I’m staying in Paris.” (Laughter) That was Stockhausen, though! "I'll find you another woman. No problem!" (Laughter)