In conversation with JONATHAN HEPFER (Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany - 2010)
I'd love to know a little bit about where you’re from. What were some of your earliest musical experiences?
I was born in Bordeaux. So it is very simple. My father, my mother and my brother were musical. Everybody. All of them were musicians. My mother was a piano player. She was playing in the opera in Bordeaux and she was the solfège teacher in the conservatory in Bordeaux. My father played flute and my brother played violin. He played in the Opéra de Paris as a violinist.
Originally, I played the piano. I wanted to be a professional concert pianist, but when I was twelve years old I had an accident: a truck smashed my left elbow. And after that I couldn’t go on playing piano, because the position on the keyboard was too hard for me; I couldn’t move my wrist in a certain way anymore. So I had to quit my piano studies. I kept playing piano, but I knew that I couldn’t be a professional pianist.
Instead, I decided to play an instrument where you don’t use the left hand, so I learned trumpet. But at the same time, also I learned percussion also because I was very interested in jazz and I wanted to play drums, so I managed to build up a kind special technique in spite of my wrist to be able to play. And after that, a succession of particular circumstances pushed me in the direction of percussion. So I went to the conservatory in Paris and got my prize there, studying with Félix Passerone. And after that, I was a percussion player. (Laughter)
If I recall correctly, you told me a funny story once about your audition to get into the Paris Conservatory. Something about a snare drum solo...
Ah! Yes, yes, yes, yes. The way I taught myself to play the drum set was by holding the two sticks in the same way, which is now more or less standard in the conservatories. Matched grip. But at that moment, you had to take the sticks in a special military position. Traditional grip, I think it’s called. All of the great drummers of that time, for example Buddy Rich played that way. And so my teacher told me that it is obvious that in front of a jury you will be lost. So, I pretended to be left-handed and so I took the stick in the other way with my right hand playing as the hand with the special grip.
You know, Ringo Starr was the first drummer to popularize the match grip that you taught yourself.
Yes, but he did that after me! I opened the door for him! Because I did that in ’54 or ’55. He was a baby back then! (Laughter)
When you came to Paris to study at the conservatory, you also studied composition.
Yes, not in the conservatory, but independently, with [René] Leibowitz.
In the conservatory, when I passed my solfège examination, I was very good. They played a lot of things on the piano, and I could say yes, yes, yes, yes. I had good ears. (Laughter) And so, some of the people who were examining me spoke about me to a composition teacher who wanted to meet me and wanted me in his class, but I knew the music he was writing, so I said “No! No, no, not that one!” (Laughter)
And after that I had a good friend in the percussion class named Diego Masson who started as a percussion player, and later became a conductor. We were very good friends. And he told me if you want to learn composition, then you should come with me to the classes of a man called René Leibowitz. And of course I was interested. I had heard some things about Leibowitz. For example that he was an excellent student of Schönberg. And his classes were very interesting, especially concerning harmony. So I decided to work with him.
And also I attended the analysis lessons of a French composer from the same generation as Boulez – Jean Barraqué. I learned about him because I had a group of friends who were jazz musicians who told me they were going to him to hear him analyze compositions and so I went with them. And so at the same time with Leibowitz, I also went to Barraqué to listen to his ideas, which were very interesting. (Laughter)
Wow! That’s quite a scene! Did you go to any of Messiaen’s analysis classes at the time?
Alas, no. I played some pieces of him many times in a big festival in the south of France in the beginning of the ‘60’s. Every year, there was a Messiaen concert there. And every year I was there playing the same part on Oiseaux Exotiques. Every year. And every year, he would come to me and say, “ah, Mr. Drouet, I wanted to say hello.” And at that moment, he would show me the score, and tell me “don’t start with the left hand that you are playing on the xylophone. Otherwise, it won’t work. Start with the right hand, even if the note is lower.” EVERY YEAR he would tell me the same thing! (Pounds table and laughs) Of course, he had forgotten he had told me the same thing the last year, and the year before that. And of course, at that moment, percussion was perhaps not as developed as it is today, but I was coming with the Domaine Musicale, so you would think he would trust that I knew what I was doing! (Laughter) He was so nice, so gentle. He was wonderful.
Have you always had a priority in your life, in terms of performing and composing? Do you consider more as a performer or composer? Or do you not care to make that distinction?
No, I don’t think about being one thing or the other. In fact, I don’t care. I think I am gifted as a musician. But I’m not a very good percussion player, and I am not a very good composer. BUT I AM a good musician. Therefore, when I play or when I write music, something usually comes out. And maybe even special things. (Laughter) But if I had to decide whether I am more of a composer or percussionist? Of course I am both a composer and a percussionist. But a good one? No. Now there are hundreds of people playing percussion who are much better than me. Especially now that I am old! (Laughter)
At what point in your life did you start working with non-Western percussion instruments? You studied primarily tabla and zarb. When in your life did you start serious study?
I started zarb (tombak) around ‘60 or ’61, I believe. Fifty years ago! (Laughter) And that was completely by chance. I was playing in a small orchestra in a theatre in Paris and the guitar player I remember was very interested by non-Western music. He was learning the tar, which is the Persian lute. And one day he told me that I should come with him to this school for oriental languages.
There were lessons for Iranian music there, and there was a guy who is playing an instrument which was called the zarb. He thought I would be interested. So I said, “oh, thank you, maybe, yes, I’ll go.” But I didn’t actually know what that was. Maybe two or three months later, I was close to that place in the center of Paris and I decided I would go and listen to this man. The man was [Djamchid] Chemirani. I don’t know if you know his name, but he was a fantastic musician.
When I first saw Chemirani at the university of oriental languages, I saw this man who was maybe twenty or twenty-one years old. He was studying mathematics in Paris. He had a scholarship from the Iranian government. And what he was able to do with that small drum? (Laughter) It was incredible. So I went away and it took me three months before to decide to go back to take lessons. I couldn’t decide to go, because I was a little bit frightened. I didn’t know it was going to completely change my way of thinking about percussion! And after that I started following his teaching very closely. It was wonderful. I was crazy about it.
And the tabla came for me a little bit later. I came to them also by chance. One day I went in a record shop. And at that time, you could go into a shop and choose a record and ask to listen to it. It’s not like that anymore, but at that moment, you could. So I was looking at all the records and I saw one of Indian classical music. And I said “oh! Classical music? How strange! I wonder what they call classical music?” So I asked to listen to it. It was Ali Akbar Khan.
And it was similar to the day I saw Chemirani. When I heard that I said, “Ah! What are we doing with our lives? This is music! Not what we are doing in Paris!” (Laughter) And I said to myself that I needed to learn about this music. I bought a lot of records. And again, par hazard, by chance – always, everything happens by chance, I think – I was playing with a French composer, Jean-Claude Éloy.
One day, Jean-Claude told me that there were two fantastic Indian musicians coming to Paris. He asked me if I would be interested in meeting them, because one of them was playing the drums from India. And of course I enthusiastically said yes! I want to meet Chatur Lal and his brother, who was a sarangi player! And so Jean-Claude introduced me to them. And I was fascinated by their personalities, by their music. And I had my first tabla lessons with Chatur Lal. But I only had lessons when they came to Paris. Once a year, I had two or three lessons.
Chatur Lal was very funny. He loved hot food. Extremely spicy. When we would go to a restaurant, he would always take two pieces of bread, cover them in butter and red peppers and it eat. So we were watching him, and I remember Diego Masson came with us that time and thought that the peppers must not be so strong. And I told him, “I advise you to be very careful.” But he didn’t listen. And he took one without biting into it. He just ate it whole. And he became so RED! I thought he was going to die on the spot! (Laughter)
So after that that period, I went on taking tabla lessons with Allah Rakha every time he visited Paris with Ravi Shankar. So I went to him and I explained him that I took some lessons from Chemirani and he said, “okay, okay. I’ll take you.” So again, I had a few lessons with him and also with Ravi Shankar, who was very nice to me. We became fast friends and he gave me some rhythms to learn.
Sometimes, I would see him thinking about something when he was walking around. He would sing a passage in the Indian rhythmic solfège, and I would have to repeat it. (Laughter) It was so nice. He loved to teach. And he’s such a fantastic musician. So, over the years, I was able to make a lot of progress in that way. I was very happy to play tabla sometimes. Such a difficult instrument.
And one day my parents sold a little house they had in Bordeaux and they gave me part of that sum. And the girl with whom I was living at that moment, told me, “NOW! This is the right moment. You should go to India with that money and take lessons there.” And so I did. And at that moment, I found a teacher in New Delhi and studied very seriously. Every year for six or seven years, I went for about two months of the year. I learned so much during that time, but now I’ve forgotten everything. (Laughter) But it was great.
You’re very well known for your involvement with several famous pieces for percussion pieces that use voice and percussion, which of course is a well-established connection in some percussive traditions. Did you have any special vocal training growing up?
(Hesitates) No. Not at all. I started playing normal contemporary music of the time without the involvement – without the voice. And we started improvising with the New Phonic Art, as Vinko mentioned when we met at the train station, then there I started to make things with voice or acting. Strange things. I would dance sometimes to escape disaster. (Laughter) But this didn’t really develop my voice.
What happened around then was that I started to work with Aperghis. Aperghis was always asking me to use my voice. In Le Corps à corps, I was speaking and with Kagel in Exotica, singing. There was one very important one Italian composer named Giorgio Battistelli who wrote a piece for my percussion trio, Trio Le Cercle. And it was a piece called Jules Verne. And in that piece, he wrote the operatic vocal parts for the percussionists. Bel canto! So the three of us had to take singing lessons. (Laughter) That was in the beginning of the ‘80s or so.
Just before that, though, I went to India every year for six or seven years. And I was crazy about Indian music. And when I heard the Indian singers, I decided to take some lessons. So I started practicing singing with Indian teachers. That was before the Battistelli. Then in order to play that opera, each of us in Trio Le Cercle took lessons from real opera singers, and that’s how I developed my voice. In the beginning, it was not my idea at all to develop my voice. I had no idea that it would become such an important component.
In zarb pedagogy, is there a sort of onomatopoeic rhythmic language equivalent to the one you find in tabla playing?
For zarb, no. They can sing it, but there is not a definite language for that. It’s just imitative.
Speaking of pieces with strong connections between voice and percussion instruments, you said something interesting about Berio’s Circles when met spoke a few years ago. You mentioned that your study of instruments like zarb and tabla were sort of a response, or counter-reaction to the sort of explosion of enormous, cumbersome percussion setups in Western contemporary music that began with pieces like Stockhausen's Zyklus. Did you consider your study of hand drums a response to this musical trend? It seems like you were interested in all of the hidden possibilities of a single object.
I must tell the things in the order in which it happened. I met Berio in ’58 or ’59. And with Cathy Berberian, Jean-Claude Casadessus, and Francis Pierre, we premiered Circles. At that moment, I wasn’t practicing hand instruments at all, so I was completely going into the approach of using a lot of instruments. And it was only after that that I met Chemirani. And it was such a shock for me, because I realized that one drum could make almost as many sounds as with a forest of percussion instruments surrounding me. I was also impressed by the economy of energy.
So, after having met Chemirani, I started to try to take more out of a single instrument. Before I met Chemirani, like most composers at that time, I thought that if I want more sounds, I needed more instruments. After seeing what was possible with zarb, I re-evaluated. But that was after I had already worked with Berio.
I’m curious about the formation of Trio le Cercle. This trio is responsible for many of what I consider to be the masterworks of percussion ensemble literature nowadays, for example Kagel’s Dressur, Xenakis’ Okho and Aperghis’ Les guetteurs de sons. When did you meet Willy Coquiat and Gaston Sylvestre? And how did the idea to form a trio come about?
I met Willy Coquillat and Gaston Sylvestre playing in contemporary music ensembles like Diego Masson’s ensemble Musique Vivant or Marius Constant’s group Ars Nova. So we knew each other, but I wouldn’t have thought to form a group with them. It was a Swiss film composer named Arié Dzerlatka, who is not very well known today, who had the idea of a percussion trio. And he thought the three of us would work well together. And it was a good idea! (Laughter)
As a young percussionist and chamber musician myself, I can only imagine what logistical difficulties you might have faced in those days with a percussion trio. It's hard to imagine traveling with a piece like Dressur. I know that you made a film version of the piece, which I have only heard about, but never seen. But were you able take Dressur on tour? Or did you only play it in Paris?
We traveled a lot! We went almost everywhere in Europe – Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, England, and so on. Everybody asked us to play Kagel’s piece. And yes, you're right. Kagel directed the film version of Dressur. This was a special version of the piece, a little bit different from the printed score. In the film version, over the course of the piece, each of us grows older and older, so we begin the piece as ourselves, and end the piece as old men.
Was there an artistic leader amongst the three of you in Trio Le Cercle? Or was it quite democratic?
We did it in a completely democratic way. But (pauses and leans in) I was the leader! (Laughter) They did not realize it, but in fact, I was more or less conducting! (Laughter)
Did you approach composers to write for the group? Or did they come to you? For example, how did Xenakis’ Okho come into existence?
I don’t remember exactly. I think it was the Festival d’Automne who organized a concert with the Arditti Quartet and Trio Le Cercle. They commissioned one piece for each group, and then they commissioned Aperghis to write a piece for both groups at once. That piece is called Triangle Carré, for string quartet and percussion trio. I don’t remember who wrote a string quartet for the Arditti, but the festival commissioned a percussion trio by Xenakis.
It wasn’t really the preferred aesthetic of Trio Le Cercle, but we played it anyway.
One piece that I have only recently learned about that was premiered by Trio Le Cercle was Giorgio Battistelli's opera Jules Verne. I haven't heard the full piece, but I saw a brief video clip. It was hard to believe my own eyes. Is it true that Gaston Sylvestre sings in full bel canto style while wearing no shirt?
Yes! In that piece, he was standing in a big aquarium filled with water. And at one moment in the piece, he goes completely underwater. (Laughter) It is a wonderful piece.
Having spent a little bit of time with you and Vinko, it is clear that you two have been friends for a long time. I get the sense that Aperghis is also a close friend of yours. In general, do you create work with composers because you're already friends? Or do you become friends in the process of working together? Or are some composers just work colleagues?
Globokar, as you can tell, is a very old friend. After all, we went to conservatory together. I knew Xenakis and of course we had met on many occasions. I was not necessarily a friend of his music, but personally, we had a good relationship. With Battistelli and Kagel, we became friends while we were working. Not before. And Aperghis and I became fast friends when he came to meet me for Le corps à corps.
Aperghis knew my zarb playing because he had seen me improvising, and doing things like this. And one day, he called me and said that he would like to write me a piece for the zarb. Would I be interested? And I said of course. So, he wrote the first page, and he came to my house and he showed it to me. I played more or less a kind of reading of the page and he said, “okay, thank you.” He went away, and two or three weeks later he came with the whole thing and said, “here you are!” (Laughter)
It seems clear to me that composers like Aperghis and Globokar were inspired by your work as an improviser with instruments and voice. During the composition of Toucher, did you and Vinko ever speak about the choice of Brecht for the text of the piece?
With respect to Toucher, Vinko wrote the piece and he came over and explained to me what he was going for conceptually. He knew that maybe it would be difficult, but he explained what he wanted, and that part became clear. But no, we never discussed the text in advance.
As far as I know, you’ve never really held a teaching post. Is there a reason you’ve avoided teaching?
I tried two times to teach in conservatories. The first time was Gaston Sylvestre’s idea. He was at that moment at the Conservatoire of Pantin, which is one of the suburbs of Paris. And he decided to open a zarb class. So, I was there for two years teaching zarb.
And after that, the direction at the school changed, so I stopped. And during that time, I had four students who were very good. Very, very good. They play better than me now! (Laughter) However, I was more or less happy that it stopped because at that moment I had a lot of concerts everywhere, so I was ashamed to not be able to give the students the proper amount of attention. I would go off somewhere to play my concerts and when I came back, I would have to have extra meetings with the students to make up for the lessons I had missed. So, I was all the time traveling, playing somewhere, rehearsing, coming back, giving lessons, and then going away to another place. So things like family life, composition, personal practice all became very difficult. So when the program stopped, I said, “oh, that’s fine with me!” (Laughter).
And a few years later, in Bordeaux, which is my native country, there was a percussion class in the music school and my two parents were living there at that moment. They needed a percussion teacher at the conservatory, and I said, “yes, of course I’ll take it.” So, I was still living in Paris when I started to teach there, and it became exhausting. Paris, Bordeaux, Paris, Bordeaux. I was still having concerts everywhere, and when I would come back, I would still have to go between Paris and Bordeaux.
And one terrible thing in that class was that I had to also teach little children beginner level snare drum. So, it really wasn’t a good fit for me. The motivation wasn’t enough to stand all of that weariness! (Laughter) So after two years of that, I said okay, I cannot go on.
Other music schools asked me to teach over the years, and I always said yes, but I want a class only with high-level students. I didn’t want to work with beginners, but it never worked out successfully.
Are you particularly interested in the visual arts, theater, literature or poetry?
Yes, of course. I read a lot of poetry and novels. I read a lot of things. And I love paintings, and I've always had good friends who were painters. I really love painting. Of course theater and dance also. I have always worked with choreographers and theater directors, too. Well, almost always. Since the end of the ‘60’s, I was always working with theater and dance companies. I’m still doing it now.
Would mind telling me a little bit about your late wife Claudine Brahem? She was an instrument maker and sculptor, right?
Yes. When I met her, she was working as a stage director with Aperghis. He had a small theater in the suburb of Paris where he could do anything he wanted. It was wonderful. So he could let his imagination run wild. He had NO pressure of earning money or generating an audience or anything. It was a very small theater. Maybe eighty people could attend a performance at the maximum.
And my wife Claudine was a stage manager and a stage director in that theater. She made the lighting for him. And when I met her, he was very happy that we became a couple, because it was eight years after the creation of Le corps à corps. So we knew very well each other. We were all very good friends. And when I arrived with Claudine, he said now we must do something together! And he had the idea of a trio. It was called Conversation for two comedians – Edith Scob, who was Aperghis’ wife, and Michäel Lonsdale – and me.
And I remember one night we were meeting at his house and we were talking about what I could do at his theater musically. And he asked me if I had any ideas for which instruments I could use. And after he told me about his vision of what he wanted to do, I said to him, “but it’s impossible. I cannot bring a bass drum, a snare drum or vibraharp. It is ridiculous. Wouldn’t it be better if we find instruments like organized noises or something like this to go with the atmosphere of the action on stage?” And so he said, “oh yes, it would be great to have a kind of piano with pieces of wood or with sounds made of stones or things like that.”
And at that moment, I said to him, “why don’t we ask to Claudine to make the instruments?” Because I knew she was very gifted for constructing things. She was very clever. And she was an architect also. So she knew how to build something simple and strong. And she made her first instruments for me for the piece that Aperghis wrote for Edith, Michael and me. And after that, she made many more instruments, because a lot of people became quite interested. She made many instruments for Aperghis. Also for Kagel, Battistelli, Nicolas Frise, Fred Frith, and of course for ME! (Laughter)
At one moment there were many of these instruments and there was a friend of ours told her, “you should make a touring exhibition, and maybe it could be very interesting for children to see, because it’s like toys.” Fantastic toys! (Laughter) So she made the exhibition, and it was a big success. It went everywhere in France. Also in Italy, in Holland, and so on.
And Claudine had noticed that the children came and they were very fascinated, and they brought their parents. And the parents always told Claudine, “it would be wonderful if there were some sort of professional use of these instruments.” So at that moment, she had the idea to ask Georges if he could make a kind of show with that collection of instruments. So he said “yes, let’s make that piece,” which is named Parcours. And we played this probably, I don’t know, two hundred times. It was a one-man show going from one machine to the other.
Ah, yes! Is this related to Aperghis’ collection of poems, Zig Bang?
Oh yes! All the poems used in Parcours are in Zig Bang. But Zig Bang is quilted together out of everything that Aperghis wrote for different pieces. So there are all the poems from Conversation. But also from different pieces, and I chose the poems that I liked. When we made this show, the book didn’t exist. But I knew many of these poems, so I chose some pieces, some of which he had originally written for Claudine’s instruments, and others, which were without instruments. And with each poem, I made a sort of orchestration with one of her machines. And I submitted the results to Aperghis, who was very happy! (Laughter)
One item that we absolutely still have to discuss is your involvement with equestrian theater: The Horsemen of Bartabas.
Ah! Bartabas, yes! When I met Claudine, she was working with Aperghis, but she was already a very good friend of Bartabas. She had worked for him some years ago in a small theater he had at that moment. And she was still a very good friend of his. He was one of the first people that she introduced me to.
At that moment, he was preparing the first version of Zingaro, with his equestrian theatre. He was preparing, I remember, in a place near Arles in the south of France. It was in a kind of desert, where they put up some tents and things like this, all full of mosquitos! Thousands of mosquitos! They had a small circus, and they were preparing there. There were four people, and three or four horses.
And they were preparing this first version of Zingaro. We saw the rehearsals, and with Claudine and I said this will be an incredible success, because it was so beautiful. And at that moment, even with no money, no costumes, no lighting – nothing – it was fantastic. And the year after that, he produced this show for the first time, and just as we predicted, it was an enormous success! So, after that, we remained friends. His first spectacle was an equestrian cabaret. A cabaret for horses. And it was so nice. He made three or four versions of that.
After that project, he decided that he wanted to make an equestrian opera. And for, he asked me to take care of organizing the music. He wanted to have music from around the world, so he had one choir from Russia, which sang with very DEEP voices. Fantastic singers. And one choir of North African girls from Morocco. And he wanted me to organize that! Together!
He also wanted me to prepare some music, to write some music for all of the solos that would dance alone with his horse. So, for that, I wrote violin pieces for a beautiful girl who played violin very well, and who played my pieces in the middle of all of these horses. (Laughter) It was very nice. So we did that together.
The next thing he did was to invite an orchestra and singers from Rajasthan to come. And this time, he asked me not only to compose things, but also to play. There would be four Rajasthani singers and four Rajasthani musicians here, and me there, face to face. And he asked Claudine to make a lot of different instruments. And I improvised with those instruments and made music for that. I had a kind of coat with a lot of small instruments attached to it and I had gloves with metal things attached to them, so I could play cymbal and woodblocks and so on. And responding to my improvisations, there was Rajasthani music and then me. It went back and forth like that.
And I came down and we had, I don’t remember, maybe four or five numbers alone, Bartabas and me. And I was dancing with him and his horse. We were dancing together, and it was beautiful. (Laughter)
Did Pierre Boulez once compose for this?
No, he didn’t compose for it. Rather, for one of his shows, Bartabas wanted to make an equestrian ballet to Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps and Symphony of Psalms. And he asked Boulez if he could use his recordings of the pieces. And he decided to also have a separate piece in the middle of the recording, and again he went to Boulez and asked him if he had a suggestion of what he should put there. And Boulez gave him the spatial piece Dialogue de l’ombre double for clarinet and tape. So, in the middle, between the two pieces by Stravinsky, they played Boulez’s piece for clarinet and electronics. And they came with a whole team from IRCAM! (Laughter) So, he didn’t compose anything specifically for Bartabas; the piece already existed.
And also a few times, I don’t remember where it was, but it was a huge place in Paris, he performed those pieces WITH Boulez and the Orchestra Nationale de France! (Laughter) You had Boulez and an entire orchestra accompanying the horses! And I remember at that moment somebody asked Boulez, “why did you agree to do all of that with horses?” And he said, “I would have done it even with elephants!” (Laughter)
So, as we wind this interview down, is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wish I would have?
No, no, not especially.
My final question for you is: do you have any advice for young percussionists?
As for advice for young musicians who are young percussion players, I don’t think I want to give any idea of direction because this is never a good thing. You must find your direction by yourself, not based on somebody’s advice. Even if it’s somebody that you look up to very much, this is something you have to find yourself.
But the thing I will say is that it is important to try every kind of music. Listen to, learn about and practice as much as possible. Maybe don’t become too specialized in one thing, for example zarb, or tabla, vibraharp, or I don’t know, jazz drumming.
I know that today, the world doesn’t really work like this. The organizers are always looking for specialists in every field. But I think it is important to develop yourself broadly, and after that to choose your direction.
You should be open to everything that comes around you. Because chance - le hasard - is responsible for so many things. When you are closed off to certain possibilities and say I only want to do this or that particular direction, and something else appears and you reject it without trying, there is a risk. And that could be a big mistake, because it could be something fantastic that could enrich you. So, stay open to every possibility, and work...(pauses)...hard! (Laughter) But that’s not very original! (Laughter)
Be interested in art. Not just percussion. And be a really authentic person. I would say be careful about crossover projects. (Laughter) You should always try to make music as authentically as possible. Authentic jazz. Authentic Brazilian music. Any type of music, but authentic.