In conversation with JONATHAN HEPFER (Nice, France - 2011)
It has always amazed me how many incredible percussionists came out of Paris in the early '60s. Would you tell me about your colleagues at the conservatoire (CNSM de Paris) those days? What kinds of things were you studying? What sparked your interest in contemporary music?
I had several fantastic colleagues when I was studying at the conservatoire. Jean-Pierre Drouet was my classmate, along with Jean-Claude Casadessus, who now conducts the orchestra of Lille. Both of them were a few years ahead of me at the conservatoire. Not very many people know this, but before he was a conductor, Casadessus was a percussionist and timpanist, heavily involved in contemporary music. Also in that year was a great friend of mine who organized the beginning of the group Les Percussions de Strasbourg named Jean Battigne. And then there was Diego Masson, who was a very good friend of Jean-Pierre Drouet's. Masson lives in Toulon these days, and we speak on the telephone from time to time.
At the conservatoire, we learned to play classical music, but from my point of view, we always played pieces too academically. We had to learn this music in this way in order to pass our examinations and earn our prizes. And the conservatory was not bad for learning this type of subject matter; one was obliged to play snare drum, timpani, and all of the rest of the percussion instruments brilliantly. We had excellent teachers for that.
But at that moment – and I think that Jean-Pierre Drouet felt the same way – I wanted to play solo percussion. Maybe I was mad, but I had an ambition to become a soloist on my instrument. The problem was that I had no music to play. In the conservatory, I learned the six suites for cello of Jean-Sebastian Bach, arranging them for vibraphone, because we had more vibraphones at that moment than marimbaphones. Today, obviously it’s the contrary, and it’s better to play those pieces on the marimbaphone.
At that time, I didn’t have any special technique for playing percussion. But I had fantastic luck, because at that moment, an institution called the Group de Recherches Musicales (G.R.M.) was founded on the Rue d'Université on Radio France, which was focused on electronic music. Composers like Luc Ferrari, Bernard Parmegiani, François Bayle, Fraçois Bernard-Mâche were there. The musicians who were interested in this type of music went there, and each week we would play concerts. And if you didn’t like that type of music, you stayed away. You had to be careful, though, because some of the compositions were not so good! (Laughter)
But some of the compositions were fantastic. For example, it was in this studio that I played Atrées by Iannis Xenakis for the first time. And like that, I came to know Xenakis. It was around '62 or '63 maybe, I don’t remember exactly.
Wow. That's some incredible company to keep!
Ouais! Wow is right! And which percussionists do I see playing these concerts? Jean-Pierre Drouet, Diego Masson and Jean-Claude Casadessus! (Laughter) We hadn’t learned yet how to play contemporary music. Each one of us was just beginning to figure everything out. We all had plenty of work to do.
For example, I had originally learned snare drum with traditional grip, the same way that students also learned back then in USA. But quickly, I saw that for contemporary music, this approach was not possible. After all, how are you supposed to play like that with many instruments? So, I changed my technique to holding the sticks the same way with both hands, matched grip. But also, this was not like timpani, because there I played with my thumbs on top of the sticks. Instead, for contemporary music, I played like this (demonstrates matched grip) because it was easier for me. I tried things, I struggled, and I learned.
Through a great deal of persistence, I found a way forward with this music, and I learned my craft well, because twelve or fourteen years after all of this began, I played Psappha with this same technique that I developed in these earlier year – but with four mallets, of course! During the early '60s, it wasn’t yet normal to play with four mallets.
You know, I once heard Boulez say that the xylorimba and vibraphone players in the earliest performances of Le Marteau sans maître (1955) played those parts with two mallets, rather than four, as is de rigueur these days. You also played Le Marteau Sans Maître in those early days, right?
Oui. With Boulez conducting. But I played the part of the four bongos, not the xylorimba or vibraphone parts.
Ah! What a coincidence! That's the part I played a few years ago as well! And even with Boulez conducting!
Ah! Wonderful! You know, I tuned the bongos in a specific way because he wanted them to be very close to each other in terms of pitch – the difference between the lowest and highest bongo should only be a whole step. Did you know that?
Actually, yes! I remember Boulez making that exact point, now that you mention it! (Laughter) Returning to your colleagues from the conservatoire, that is an absolutely incredible crew of musicians. Did you ever attempt to form an ensemble together or anything like that?
Once upon a time during that era, Diego Masson created a percussion quartet with Jean-Pierre Drouet, Jean-Claude Casadessus and myself. It was an excellent group, but we only gave one concert! (Laughter) It was impossible to continue the quartet because of course we were all so busy with all of these projects individually.
During those years, Jean-Pierre Drouet and I became very good friends. We probably played the Sonata of Bartók six hundred times. We played many tours of this piece with Katia and Marielle Labèque.
But, ultimately, Jean-Pierre and I chose different paths. You mentioned that he spoke with you before about his own artistic direction, but he was always supportive of me, and told me emphatically that I should take the way of becoming a soloist.
As I told you before, I always wanted to play as a soloist, but what existed for a percussionist to play at that time? Nothing. Of course, I could play timpani on the ninth symphony of Beethoven. Yes, okay. But only with eighty musicians, chorus and so on.
And I don’t know – maybe I was mad – but I wanted to play alone. And I had fantastic luck, because of the founding of the G.R.M. and all of our other attempts to create new things in those things. We didn't know exaclty what we were doing, but we tried things. When you have an idea or dream, especially when you are young, you have to follow it. And maybe no success comes with that pursuit, but maybe it does. You must try.
Anyway, this period was soon after I had finished my training at the conservatoire, which, as I mentioned, was a very academic form of learning. Nevertheless, it produced strong results, and if I may say so, maybe I did not play so badly, because I succeeded in becoming the principal timpanist of the Opéra de Paris in ‘68. I must have been about twenty-eight years old at the time. I felt that I played my instrument very well, but playing timpani in the opera was never enough for me.
However, it was a great stroke of fortune that I joined the opera, because what happened there? I was asked to play Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Zyklus with the ballet! And when I saw the partition, I was both excited and overwhelmed. It is important to remember that in 1968, only Christoph Caskel had played Zyklus. And the piece was written in 1959! But as of 1968, only Caskel had played this piece. And I don’t know why Caskel didn’t come to Paris to play it himself.
But listen to this: the ballet dancers were learning their movements based on the record of Caskel. And so they asked me to play the version of Caskel! This is obviously not how Zyklus should be done! I should play my own interpretation! But the opera said no; it was necessary to learn Caskel’s version.
I remember that Jean-Pierre Drouet helped me to work through the piece. I would listen to the recording and think that I was playing the same thing as Caskel. And Drouet would listen and say, "no, it’s not quite the same. Look, it’s different there. And it’s different there." So I kept working, and finally, with Jean-Pierre's help, I managed to get it right. And so I played the version of Caskel with the ballet – myself surrounded by twelve dancers – and it was a fantastic success! And so I entered the opera first as a percussionist and six months after, I became the first soloist on timpani. It is a wonderful memory.
And after hearing about this fantastic success of my performance, Stockhausen came to Paris because he wanted to listen to my version himself. I tried to play percussion at the same level of musicianship as any other instrumentalist; to play Zyklus with the same degree of rigor and virtuosity as one plays Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or Scheherazade, and so on. I never consider contemporary music as something you can treat carelessly, in contrast to spending countless hours on orchestral excerpts. You have to treat both with the same level of care and exactitude!
For me, the most important thing is always what is written. One must first play every note as it is written! Afterwards, if I have a good grasp of the score, I can, like a great pianist, develop my own interpretation. Because it’s my life, my spirit, it is my love – mon âme – my soul.
Back then, I played Zyklus many times, always with great success. And eventually, the record label Erato asked me to record the piece in ‘70. I agreed to record the piece, but not the version I had learned for the ballet, because this was the version of Monsieur Caskel. For the performance at the opera, it was understandable, because I think Caskel could not come. But for the recording, I felt that I had to make my own version.
What an incredible stroke of good luck that was! I'm curious about other composers you met around that time that were significant in your life.
Around 1968, in the Rue d’Université (ORTF – Office de Radiodiffusion Télévion Française), a Greek composer named Marius Constant arrived on the scene – he was an important figure in the landscape of French music. And Marius formed an ensemble called Musique Vivante, which Drouet, Masson and I all played in. I told you: it was always the same percussionists! (Laughs)
And Marius told me that he heard in an interview with me that I was eager to play as a soloist. He told me that he would like to write a piece for one person with a four-person choir that looks like an ancient theater with a Greek chorus. And thus he wrote The 14 Stations (1970). I don't know if you know the piece, but it is on my first record with Zyklus, which came out in 1970. And I performed the premiere of this piece with Musique Vivante. This was very important for me, because this piece was big, big, big.
Another person worth mentioning at this point is Claude Samuel. He was really somebody who did a tremendous amount for contemporary music in France during this period. This whole scene began in ’62 or ’63 at the Rue d’Université. And after this scene was established, Claude Samuel founded a big festival for contemporary music in Royan, where Messiaen, Stockhausen and Xenakis would all come. Messiaen was in a different position than the other composers, because his career was already well established, but for the younger composers, this festival was an explosion. Atomique! (Laughs) Because we began with nothing – and suddenly, something emerged! Ensembles and festivals; an entire culture began to take shape!
For me, it was all a dream, you know? I was working with the biggest, most important composers in second part of twentieth century at that time. Of course, I arrived just when it all was starting to happen in Paris. More so, at that moment, even than in Germany. Although, of course, much was also still going on in Germany, which always had so much going on in contemporary music. But in Paris, many things were happening. What more could I ask for?
Jonathan, you are young, and you’re interested in how this all happened. I can tell you: it all happened simply. Today, we can talk about institutions and traditions, but at that moment, there were no institutions or traditions. We were just trying to do something. Every concert was nothing more than an attempt.
For example, 14 Stations, which was the first piece I played after Zyklus, lasted twenty-eight minutes! I had to think about everything, because it was a big risk. I didn’t want to say it to Marius Constant, but I wondered: if the public doesn’t like the piece after fifteen minutes, and they begin to boo and yell for the piece to stop, what would I do then? But no! It turned out that there was nothing to worry about; the performance was a fantastic success!
In one very special performance I remember well from around that time, I played The 14 Stations on the same program as the Bartók Sonata, which I played with Jean-Pierre Drouet, Katia and Marielle Labèque and the Ballets Blaska at the theater of Pierre Cardin (the Éspace Cardin), near the front part of the Champs Elysées. Pierre Cardin liked new things, and they even dressed me in his clothes for that performance! This must have been in ’70, just after Royan (*N.B. Date of performance: December 17, 1970 in Le Monde.*).
I eventually recorded The 14 Stations with Marius Constant and Musique Vivante. Marius Constant was incredibly important in my life. To me, he was one of the great composers of that era, although he's not very well known. He’s dead now, but toward the end of his life, he was at the Academie Française, like Messiaen.
All these people were students of Messiaen – Constant, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Boulez – tout le monde! Messiaen was the statue; the commandeur. (Laughter) I don’t know if I can say that he was the ‘grandfather’ of this music, but he was somebody formidable. Because he wrote so many pieces, I played many, many performances of his music, and therefore had many interactions with him. Unfortunately, he never wrote a piece for percussion solo, only for ensembles. And of course I saw him all the time at various concerts.
It was a great pleasure for me all that the young composers in Paris grew to know me very well. You know why? Because at the conservatory, Messiaen would analyze my recording of The 14 Stations. So, the students would listen to my record, and every time I had a concert, a young composer would come and speak with me, telling me that he knew my recordings. Nowadays, you cannot find this record anywhere. The same is true of my recording of Psappha.
I've noticed that! I haven't been able to find your recordings anywhere. Which seems tragic.
I mention this because I see that you don’t know 14 stations, and 14 Stations is very important in solo percussion. This is just my opinion, of course.
Anyway, after I performed 14 Stations, Iannis Xenakis, whom I knew very well for about eight or nine years from the G.R.M., mentioned to me that he was interested in writing me a piece for solo percussion. And of course I was interested! After we initially spoke, he took some time to think, and one day he finally said to me, “now I have an idea: I don’t want to write a piece like the 14 Stations; I want to write a study on rhythm.” And that was how Psappha came into the picture.
You know, last year during a lecture I gave in Australia alongside Steven Schick, I spoke about 1975 being the year that Psappha was born. Steven Schick stopped me, and said “Sylvio, may I tell you something, please? Psappha was written in ‘76!” In front of the entire public! (Laughter) I said, "yes. Thank you." (Laughter)
But to me, the year that the piece came into existence was '75, because in ‘75, I began to work with Xenakis. Not to "work" per sé, but rather, just to seriously conceive of the piece together. In contrast to the 14 Stations, which has an enormous amount of instruments, Xenakis told me that he wanted to write a study with not too many colors. He wanted to concentrate on a smaller array of instruments.
I would be so curious to know what you two talked about as the piece was being conceived in Xenakis' mind.
I must tell you, Jonathan, that I never would say to a composer, "ah, I would like you to write for marimba and so on." Never. They have the freedom to write what they want. Afterwards, it’s my problem, dealing with what is written. I am an interpreter. But interpretation doesn't simply mean playing what is written. Because if you play only what is written, you are just a student! Okay?
The interpreter should have something to say. For example in Psappha, there is not necessarily much to say, but there is something beyond the notes. And I was able to say something about Psappha quickly because I knew Xenakis very well. I saw Psappha as something tragic. Not dramatic, but tragic. There is a difference.
I viewed Psappha in a tragic manner, something extremely intense, full of energy. When I start the piece, I already have the energy of the end in my head. The beginning needs to already have the energy of the end. Because you need to keep that intensity throughout. Those famous thirteen minutes, or in my case, rather, twelve and a half. (Laughter)
If you listen to my recordings with enough concentration, you will see that I never merely execute the notes. I always try to go beyond the notes. Whether for 14 Stations, Phenix, Rebonds, Psappha, Aïs or Kassandra, I attempt to reveal something in the music beyond the notes.
If you were to ask Xenakis what he was trying to do in Psappha, he would tell you that he wanted to make a study concerning rhythm. Psappha refers to the Greek poetess Sappho who invented the concept of irregular meters in poetry. She lived in the 8th Century before Jesus Christ (spoken in French). She invented the concept of irregular meters. There are alternating groups of two, three, four and so on all over the piece. This is also the similar to many of Monsieur Messiaen's rhythmic ideas. (Laughs)
Okay, so Xenakis will only tell you that much. But beyond all of that academic background information, I tried to find the spirit of Xenakis in this music, because Xenakis would never explain that to you directly.
And I can tell you that Xenakis would say that if you feel something should be done a certain way, then you should do it. He would never say that he liked something. However, if he didn’t like what you were doing, he would tell you. He was a good friend, but he could also be brutal. He knew very deeply what he wanted. But if you played very well, he would tell you that too.
Do you find that there are any pieces that seem to resist this approach of going beyond the notes in your interpretation?
When I speak about interpretation, I mean that I try to find the spirit of the person who wrote a given piece, and channel it in my performance. However, this was not the case for Zyklus, because Zyklus is very intellectual, you know that. You have many possibilities, and you must make your own composition, based on the elements of Stockhausen.
And therefore in the sense that I am talking about with respect to Xenakis, Constant and others, I have no interpretation in Zyklus. I simply try to play only exactly what is written. When he writes three F’s, he doesn’t mean two F’s. When he writes three P’s, he doesn’t mean two P’s. It’s not my approach for other music, but I spoke with Stockhausen, and he wanted that way of working: rigid and exact.
Do you feel that your experiences playing contemporary music affected your work as a timpanist in the opera?
Thanks to Xenakis, I can tell you, Jonathan, I have learned to play a better, bigger fortissimo, even when playing timpani in the opera. Because Xenakis always wanted the biggest sound possible. And in my interpretation, because he asks the performer to choose his own instruments, I tried to choose the widest spectrum possible. The deepest instruments to the highest.
How did you go about choosing your palette of instruments for Psappha? That must have been quite a challenge, given that you were inventing the piece from scratch!
At the time that I was preparing Psappha for its premiere, I had no gran cassa. I found the right gran cassa, but quickly, I knew it would not be ready for the first performance in London. It was an enormous gran cassa one meter wide. I kept it because it was the Stradivarius of gran cassas. (Laughter) It was like that! (Snaps and makes exploding sound) Xenakis was very happy with this instrument. (Laughter)
For the low drums (Group C), at first, I used the Bulgarian Drums called tappans. But I always broke them, so I had to find another solution. Eventually, I found the contrabass toms, as you know, but at that time, we didn’t have so many in France. Many years later, in Taipei, I found a tom tom – I didn’t play with mine – and I brought the drums back with me because they were so sensational beautiful and deep. Xenakis wasn’t alive to hear them, but if he were, he would have been in awe. They were fantastic.
For my Group B instruments, I used a tumba and bongos. After that, for the A group, I used wood, because after all, it is up to you as the interpreter to choose the instruments you like.
And for Iannis, the wood was never strong enough. He would say, “you can choose, but choose wood that is hard. No, not wood. Something harder than wood.” But of course, I chose wood, but (makes soft sound) it was never strong enough! I said, "okay, Iannis. I can not play them any louder, but I will try to find something to help."
And so I went to my friend who was good with tools, and I described the sound I wanted. And he told me that the wood I was looking for was called Iroko, and we tapped on some pieces. I told him that I agreed that it was the right sound, but I knew for sure it would not be loud enough for Iannis. So I asked him if he could build me some sort of case to put underneath the wood to make it more resonant? So, he built me box that functioned like the resonators on a marimba. And I played it – bang! And I brought that for Iannis eight days after, and he was finally satisfied.
Once, when we were refining the selection of metal instruments I was going to use for Psappha, I said, “Iannis, it is impossible that I can play gongs in this section.” He saw that I had a valid point, and asked me what I suggested as a replacement. And at that moment, workers were finishing the construction of the Centre Pompidou. And the two of us went to the construction site, and we told the workers we were two artists. And course the workers thought we were crazy. I brought many sticks, and for three hours, we tried out every piece of scrap metal we could find.
When I finally performed Psappha, all the instruments I used were my idea. And I felt that it was important that the public who listened to Psappha would really experience the piece as something new. That meant that if I used gongs for my metals, for example, it would simply blend in with a lot of other music being written at the time. At that moment, in 76, audiences had heard many, many, many pieces for metal by other composers. Composers wrote far too much for metal percussion at that time. Therefore, I was not satisfied to use those instruments, you understand?
And we found a metal that sounded different than everything else at the time. And for the skin instruments also, I used the contrabass toms, which were new at the time. Now, everybody has them. Big bass drum too; there are many nowadays, but at that moment in history, that was not the case! During those years, the largest bass drums, even in the orchestras were only ninety centimeters. I took one that was one meter and five centimeters. Big. Big! And I said, I would like to try that out. Maybe I am making a mistake. We shall see. And I eventually had one made that was two times that size. I am very happy with my gran cassa.
With Kolberg, I made the signature Gualda gran cassa. It is beautiful. The opera of Paris has one, as do many orchestras. I am very happy about that.
As I told you, as with timpani, I progressed in making a big, deep sound from my instruments. Rrrrrrarrrrr! Big sound. I don’t like when the percussion plays hard – pointue comme ça. I always like to hear a sound, a beautiful sound. Of course, it can be hard too sometimes, if it suits the music. But you can not simply play “tak, tak, tak, tak.” Whatever you are playing must be more musical than that. And when I worked on Psappha, I was obliged to find a way of making the sounds beautiful despite the speed, the difficulty, the virtuosity.
I needed to learn how to go back and forth between the heavy, deep booming of the bass instruments and the lighter passagework on the higher, quicker instruments. Much like when a pianist goes BOOM in the bass, and then has to play something staccato in the midrange. But in Psappha, there is no staccato. I play détaché, but never staccato. I don’t like when staccato is written in percussion “ti ki ti ki ti ki ti ki.” No. Because at the end with the metal instruments, the notes go by quickly (sings pulsing bass drum and example of ‘F’ material at the end of Psappha). But if you play (sings same passage with smoother phrasing), it is beautiful!
If you play this part staccato, it is so harsh to listen to at fortississimo. And when Xenakis writes four F’s, he means four F’s! (Laughter) Don’t try and take away one forte, because the composer did not ask for that! And I repeat, Monsieur Stockhausen also demands this precision and care in Zyklus. However, your personal version of four F’s and my version will never be quite the same. It means to play as loudly as YOU can.
Jean-Pierre Drouet has an extraordinary sound. He is just a natural. He plays everything fantastically, you know? He has every musical possibility at his fingertips when he plays. When we were students, with respect to contemporary music, we had no teacher who could say, “be careful in this passage,” or "try it this way in this part." Rather, we figured everything out by ourselves. We found ways to solve problems, and to work through this or that difficulty. I had great luck to work with Jean-Pierre Drouet, because he is an exemplary musician in that way.
By the way, in Taipei with Cadeson, they made five signature snare drums to my specifications. I spent three weeks there to try different woods and so on. I am terrible when I work. At first, I was not so happy with the wood, because the drum was not singing enough. So we changed this and that and that and that, and finally, it was fantastic! The snare drum, in my opinion, is meant to sing. It isn’t “ta ka ta ka ta ta.” It must not be too heavy, but rather leggiero, leggiero. With the gran cassa I made with Kolberg, I told them to make it very heavy! Very dark and German sounding! (BOOM!) This is okay, but for snare drum, no. (Laughter) And they made it very well.
Not to state the obvious, but I think that anybody who studies the score to Psappha will distinctly remember the first time they laid eyes upon the score, which is so completely unique in the percussion literature in terms of its appearance. How exactly did this come about? Was the notation your idea or Xenakis's?
Do you know the story of the original partition of Psappha? At first, Iannis gave me his papers, and it was all written without any time grid or meters. Just dots. (Laughter) He told me something like “I know that it is exactly thirteen minutes, forty-two seconds.” And I said "Iannis, excuse me, I can barely see what you’ve written!" Xenakis's writing was so small. I couldn't imagine how I was supposed to play what I was looking at.
And so Xenakis said to me, “do whatever you want with the score! Make it clear for you!” He told me to telephone Salabert, and instruct them to engrave the score in the way it made the most sense for me. So I called Salabert from London for two hours, which at that time cost a lot of money. And I said to them, "I want the score to be sixty centimeters." And I explained to them that I wanted a grid with horizontal lines for the instruments, and vertical lines for the pulse. There should be no meters, only dots on this grid. And I said to Salabert, please do one line. When I returned to Paris, Salabert gave it to me and they gave it to Xenakis and Xenakis said, “Wow! This is fantastic!”
But the original score was not good when I received it. I kept the original, and I suggested the score that we all use today. And of course, even after my input, this notation was completely new in ’76. But it was possible. The original was impossible.
I want to clarify something: when Xenakis told me to do whatever I wanted with Psappha, he only meant that I should make the notation to his score clear for the interpreter. But he never asked me to improvise with the material. He never said, “voilà, here are some notes. Do whatever you’d like.” Because I play exactly what is written, you see? That was always my way of working.
I knew some of the great improvisers. Jean-Pierre Drouet, as you know, is a great improviser. But I never could do it as well as somebody like him. And I have too much admiration for his way of playing to do it myself. I was an interpreter. Give me a score, and I will give you an interpretation, with my reflections.
So, once you received a satisfactory version of the score from the publishers, what happened next?
By the time I had chosen my instruments and received the engraved score, I had only four weeks to learn Psappha! (Laughter) And the first performance, which was in London, was such a success, that I when finished, the public demanded that I play it a second time as an encore. And Xenakis came onstage with me and said, “look Sylvio, you have to play. Look. Look at the public.” I said, “no, no, no, no. Iannis, I am very happy. Okay? I have played it one time and survived. I am happy!” I didn't want to play it again because it was too difficult. (Laughter) But finally, he convinced me, and I agreed to play it a second time.
I was very happy to play the piece, and I told Iannis that I wanted to play it in Greece. But after a few performances, I said to Iannis, please, let’s take a break from this piece. I would like not to play Psappha for a little while. And so I took a break from playing the piece in May of ‘76. The next time I would play the piece would be in February of '77. And that was the création française of Psappha was on my recital at the Opéra Garnier.
And what did I do in the meantime? I had a concert in Germany, and I decided not to play it. I didn’t play it because I felt I needed to work on it. Even though I was playing the score correctly, and Xenakis looked happy, I saw many things in the music that needed improvement. In only a few weeks of working, I hadn’t mastered the score yet. I needed time. The 14 Stations was like that also.
So, you would often prepare a piece quickly for its premiere, and then stop performing it for a while until you’ve had a chance to work on it more deeply?
It depended on the piece. If the piece was complicated, then yes. Nowadays, when you prepare a piece, you have some reference. You have Steven Schick, you have Gualda, and so on. But back then, when we were playing these works for the first time, it was important to look at it with some distance after the some initial exploration.
I always saw Psappha as a tragic work; I found that when I played it in that frame of mind, it changed completely what I was doing. The beginning goes along with all of the changing accents, and then comes the part with the silences. And for me, the silences must be still. I never moved during those silences. It is like antique theater, no? But it is not theater – it’s musical. Xenakis. One shouldn’t be feel the need to be "theatrical" about the silences, but the public should breathe as you breathe! If you don’t succeed in gripping the audience during these silences, the piece will be very long. It will be terrible.
For that, I needed to play "BOOOOOM – CHIK!" And you count the pulse in you mind, but physically, you stay completely still onstage. And you don’t breathe. You stay like a statue and you don’t breathe for, I don’t know, eighteen seconds, if it’s possible. And there, the public becomes obliged to be completely focused on you. I never, never, even in winter, heard anybody sneeze (hachoum, hachoum) when I did that. Never.
This fact makes me happy; it means that you are doing something that fully commands the public’s attention. Even if somebody needs to sneeze, he or she will suppress it. Sneezing would be out of the question! (Laughter) I think, afterwards, he will sneeze. I don’t know. But I never heard anything, because I was playing so hard. When I get to the part after the long silences, the audience member can sneeze, cough or chat with his neighbor if he wants! But not during the stillness of those silences. (Laughter)
With respect to Psappha, you asked me about its theatrical qualities, as well as a general approach to theater in music, especially concerning percussion. And for that, I say to Monsieur Drouet, “chapeau!” Because he was the one to forge that path. Before him, it didn’t exist at all. You went to see him because he is the king of that domain. He is the emperor of that affair! (Laughter) He created that whole field! And when the Trio Le Cercle played Dressur of Kagel? Jean-Pierre Drouet was phenomenal. But that’s just one example of his brilliance, obviously. Monsieur Kagel was also a great intellectual. Every detail in his music has a significance socially and politically.
Practicing is always a major issue for percussionists after they leave a conservatory environment. It seems that one is always busy teaching, performing and traveling. How did you manage to learn so much music and to keep your interpretations so finely tuned over the years?
Because I was often on tour, and didn’t have access to instruments, I would often have to prepare pieces mentally. For Psappha, I was obliged to learn the piece so quickly. I remember that I only received the score maybe five or six weeks before the premiere. But the piece was so difficult, I could not begin to work! I began by finding the instruments by trial and error – maybe that, maybe that – but honestly, I had no idea about the piece. How could I have? I brought the score with me on my trips, but pffff, it wasn't as though I could sing through it. You understand?
With Bernard-François Mâche's Phenix, for example, the case was different. The composer gave me the music, and during my flight to China, I sang through the piece to myself, and I arrived there, at that moment, just after the death of Mao Tse-tung, when everyone was obliged to go to sleep at night, and I could not work too much, because I had to give lectures and so on. I played Phenix after maybe twelve hours of work. Not more. I had no time! But I work a lot with my head.
What are some other pieces of wisdom that you think are important to share with a young percussionist working on Psappha?
Something I’d like to mention: you said that you use the contrabass tom-toms, as I do when you play Psappha. It is important to always find your own way of doing things. For example, Steven Schick doesn’t play the piece with very large instruments, but that's his unique way of doing things! But he plays fortissimo. He plays pianississimo. It’s okay! I heard him play in Australia, and it was fan-tas-tic! He has a great view on the piece. He’s very clever, this man, and a deeply feeling musician. Wonderful.
In Xenakis, you have also to think about expression. Well, maybe not expression, because in Xenakis, as with Stockhausen, Messiaen or Boulez, it is important to play exactly what is written. But in Xenakis, you can find something humanist. The music says something beyond the notes.
When Xenakis spoke to me about his idea of writing a study on rhythm, I didn’t quite understand him at first. But after I played the piece, I said to Iannis, “yes! Now I understand!” Because at that moment, the idea of a study for percussion seemed like a student exercise. But, if you mean a "study" in the same sense as Monsieur Chopin, ah! This is okay! I'm still interested!
Xenakis never told me what instruments he would have wanted if he himself were to play Psappha, but rather, he left me to develop my interpretation as I wanted. However, I would always see him after every concert. After twenty, fifty, one hundred performances, and he was always there with his partition! (Laughter) I said, “Iannis, please forget that score! If I do a mistake, please just let it go.” Because if I ever made a mistake, he would invariably say, “Sylvio, be careful here or there!” (Laughter)
He would stop me during every rehearsal and say, “Sylvio, excuse me, but don’t forget that when you play an accent, the upstroke has to be rebondissant. Because if not, we don’t understand the gesture.” And I would protest, “oh Iannis!” (Laughter) It was terrible!
At the beginning of our work together, while I was learning the material, he would always want to hear the entire piece. Once, I remember, it was in the opera, and it was a Sunday. It was a beautiful day. And he asked me if he could listen to the entirety of the piece. And I said “no, Iannis, it’s not a good idea. I know you, and you are a good friend, but you will tell me that what I am doing is shit! The end.” And he would respond, “but Sylvio, I would like to hear the piece...”
So I played it. He listened, and he told me, “well, it will be good, but right now, it’s not good, Sylvio. You have a lot of work to do.” And I said, “you see! I already knew that! Next time, if I am not ready to play, you don’t get to listen!” (Laughter) “Because you don’t give me power or encouragement! You tell me this is not good, but I already know!” I didn’t want, for example, to play the end, which as you know is very difficult! I was not ready!
He would tell me that I needed to work, so on and I would say, “I know, Iannis! I don’t sleep, I only work!” The reason I'm telling you all of this is because I want you to see that I am just an ordinary man. During this time, I had many concerts! I had the opera! I had students! I tried to do less of these things during this period, but I had concerts I was obliged to play. And I didn't have ten hours a day to work! So for three weeks, I didn’t sleep too much. (Laughter) All the nights, evenings and so on were nothing but work, work, work, work and work. However, it was a fantastic period, and I don't regret anything. Fantastic.
I’m curious about Rebonds. The two movements are virtually ubiquitous on conservatory recitals these days.
There is much interest for students to play Rebonds nowadays. But the students in the conservatories don’t all play the piece very well. Tell me if all the pianists in the music schools play Rachmanninoff well. Of course not. Do they play the Polonaises of Chopin very well? No. Rebonds is not easy, but it is possible! More so than Psappha.
I notice that many conservatory students these days play either Rebonds A or Rebonds B, but rarely do you hear both of the movements performed by the same person on a concert. They make a more efficient setup for one movement or the other, which removes one of the piece’s main difficulties. And out of principle, I don't like the idea of removing what is difficult about the piece, because the difficulty is a big part of what makes the piece so beautiful. What are your thoughts on this topic?
Today, yes, that’s true. On a competition, maybe. What you say is completely right. I’ll explain to you.
Excuse me, Jonathan, but please be careful to note when exactly these things were written. I premiered Rebonds B (1987) in Villa Medici in Rome, and after one year, it was maybe in June, in the theater in Avignon, we do the entire Rebonds (1989). A and B! But in Rome, part A was not written yet. And when I played, I played A and then B, because I like to finish with B. And for me, it’s beautiful to end movement A, which dies out so quietly, and then pause, and then suddenly to launch into part B. And my set up doesn’t change at all from movement to movement. Everything is set.
But you know, Jonathan, your or my difficulties as percussionists – this is not important! You, as an interpreter, have to find your own solution to whatever these difficulties might be. Since you ask me, and you’ve come so far, I have to explain to you, that even though we are sipping cappucinos and eating ice cream while discussing percussion on a rooftop overlooking the Mediterranean on a gorgeous day, my way of working was always rigor! (Pounds fist on table) Rigor! I was in conservatory and I won the first prize because I played percussion very well. I was taught to play everything as written.
And when I played contemporary music in ensembles, I learned to play what was written. And as I mentioned, in ’68, I had to learn Zyklus – not my own version, but the version of Monsieur Caskel – I did exactly as he did! But for every piece I played, if I had some difficulty, I didn’t think, 'ah! I should to leave out this or that note from the score.' No! Never!
Xenakis, in the partition of Rebonds says that A and B must follow one another. You choose the order of the movements, but they must follow each other. You cannot wait. Find a solution. Of course it was difficult for me, because I began with B. He wrote B, and after I received A, I was obliged to put the bass drum there, and the other bass drum there. This means that I had to re-learn part B! Because when I played, I just changed the sticks. I take four mallets for part A, and two for B. Enchainée.
Yes. Attacca. This makes it difficult. Jonathan, if you are the interpreter, then this is your difficulty. You must not oblige the person listening to you to hear your difficulty. You understand? You have to find the difficulties and work through them.
Piano is a very difficult instrument. All the pieces they are required to play – Rachmanninoff, Beethoven, Mozart – all of them are extremely difficult. But does Monsieur Pollini tell you about the difficulties of learning the concertos of Beethoven? No! You play or you don’t play! End of discussion! (Laughter)
My criticism is that I think people make it too easy by excerpting one movement of the piece. Rebonds is supposed to be two movements that directly follow one another. If you only play one movement of the piece, then it doesn’t feel like complex or challenging enough to be Xenakis.
Exactly. That's not the piece. Listen, to answer your question, Rebonds, is not Rebonds A or B. It is Rebonds A and B. It is not the same.
In an international competition, sometimes, they will have you only play one movement, but they will tell you this only five minutes before you go onstage! You have to arrive prepared to play everything, and the committee will maybe say that this or that is too long. There are forty competitors, so we’ll only listen to one movement. To play only one half of Rebonds is not the piece! But competitions are different. In competitions, they can take a concerto, and for the first round, they might say, “we’d like to hear the adagio from the Mozart,” or whatever they want.
Xenakis told me once that what he loved about my playing was that my strokes are always rebondi (rebounding). He told me that before he wrote Rebonds.
[Here Gualda compares a dry version of Rebonds or Psappha with a vital, dancing version, demonstrating the superiority of the dancing version.]
In part B of Rebonds, there is not as much power as in part A. However, one way to generate power and energy is that whenever a section stops and a new one starts, you lock your body. You finish one phrase (sings phrase and freezes) – hey, change! And move on to something else. The music continues, but you, the player, are locked. There is a little, tiny silence where you freeze – that is what I mean when I say locked. Okay? It gives the interpretation vibrancy and makes it less academic.
An academic interpretation is when there is this (lifelessly intones a Strauss waltz). You play the waltz, but there is no Vienna. (Sings phrase again, this time with rubato and more nuanced pauses) Germans and Austrians play this music beautifully. This little “lock” changes the music. It takes you somewhere. And there you say, "this is music."
Jonathan, you and I are both percussionists, but for two hours, we have spoken not only about percussion, but about music. I must tell you: first, you must play your instrument very well. Then you must learn to play contemporary music very well. And after you are able play music very well, you have to truly give something of yourself to the music.
I played Psappha once in Greece for ten thousand people. I was afraid, because if I wasn't able to captivate the people, what would happen? The drummers in jazz, they do it the best. (Laughter) Okay, but jazz is not written; Psappha is. The piece is absolute. But you have to give something to the music to make it come to life in the way that great jazz drummers do. Otherwise, you risk losing the public.
I am very happy to hear what you said about Rebonds, because teachers and students today think okay, we can do Rebonds. And it’s a difficult piece too, no? It wasn't the same type of challenge as Psappha, because Psappha was completely new. Gualda was completely mad to do that. Psappha is music for someone who is living on the moon. (Laughter) Rebonds was more accessible, more down to Earth. However, it is still Xenakis. It only looks accessible.
You mentioned Xenakis's piece 'Atrées' earlier. It seemed very important to you. I am not familiar yet with that piece. What does it mean for you?
Try to find Atrées when you go back home. I am certain that you shall see why I speak of it. I’ll try to explain. Atrées is very important! When Atrées was written, he wanted the skin of the drums in the percussion part to be loose, like water. Détendu. Detuned. In Psappha, he changed his mind. Because he saw what I did with my contrabass toms and my gran cassa, and I find JUST a little bit of pitch from each drum, and accorder (tune) the two.
In Atrées, the tuning of the drums is way down. And of course I did what he wanted at that moment. But I wasn’t convinced. Between three or four toms, I couldn't really hear the difference. In Boulez, it’s not the same with the four bongos in Le Marteau. Make no mistake, he wants the four very near to each other in pitch, but you can clearly hear the difference. He wanted it this way so that the sound of bongos doesn't disrupt the harmony of voice, the guitar, the viola, etcetera. In Boulez, the bongos are supposed to be one single sound – a single sound that comprises a total interval of a whole step between all four of them.
Xenakis and Boulez were both students of Messiaen, but they wound up becoming completely different composers. Xenakis remains the maestro for percussion. It’s him who reinvented the way percussion is conceived of and written for. Because many composers – although fewer nowadays – tried to imitate the way Xenakis wrote for percussion. Aperghis’s Le corps à corps, for example, was heavily influenced by Xenakis. So, he started a trend, which many composers ended up following, which was a great thing!
Another piece that fascinates me is Kassandra (1987). It's hard to believe how many of these classic pieces were written with you in mind as an interpreter.
Yes. Kassandra, from the opera Oresteia (1965/66). Xenakis and I spoke frequently on planes about Kassandra, and ancient Greece in general. He knew that I loved it, and so he trusted me with pieces like Psappha, Kassandra and Aïs.
Kassandra is tragique, tragique, tragique. Kassandra, is the story of Orestaiea, Lots of killing, and a lot of blood. For example, when Kassandra comes, the percussion warns her to be careful, because this and that happens. The percussionist must really know the story. If you don’t know what happens, you might play timidly during these violent moments.
Kassandra is extremely strong and dense. When it finishes – toun toun toun, trrrrr – and then the orchestra resumes, you truly want to say, “Stop! Kassandra, that’s enough! Stop telling us about all of these catastrophes!” And between the baritone and the percussion solo that ends the piece, it seems to say, “Yes, yes. That’s enough. Basta.”
Since we are talking about Xenakis, I am obliged to tell you that during the same time that I am describing, the Group de Strasbourg begins to have their pieces, and Xenakis wrote three pieces for them: Persephassa (1969), Pléïades (1978) and IDMEN A and B (1985). He also wrote several important large-scale works, one of them being Aïs (1980).
Aïs is for baritone, percussion solo and big orchestra. Spiros Sakkas and I were the soloists. It was an enormous orchestra, probably a hundred muscians. There were six trombones for example. I played this piece with so many of the orchestras across the world.
Aïs was premiered in Los Angeles with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. Salonen is a composer, like Boulez. So, he understood the score very quickly, and listened to my suggestions, which made working together easy. He liked me very much and he invited me. I played the piece with the London Symphony Orchestra, and with the Oslo Symphony. Fantastic. The Bayerische Rundfunk in Munich was wonderful too.
Aïs is a piece I know only by name. I’ve never listened to it.
Try to find a recording. When he wrote Aïs, I was a little anxious. I'll tell you why. With the trombones and the percussion, it seemed to me to be a type of requiem. Well, several years after the premiere, I started to read that the piece had a certain rapport with death. And I think I knew that intuitively, before ever reading about it.
If you can find a recording of this piece at a discothèque, please listen to it. It’s a very strong piece. I’m getting to know you and your sensibility, Jonathan, and I think it will really do something special for you.
Do you think that Rebonds has a similar sentiment to Kassandra? Because the musical language in the percussion is similar.
I’m not sure about that, Jonathan. In my mind, I don’t associate the two. Because, you see, I haven’t really yet spoken about Rebonds. The interpretation that I give always tries to respect – how should I say it? – the piece’s intensity. You see, for Rebonds, I think in terms of intensity and respect for the double accents to give everything you’ve got. With Xenakis, don’t be fooled. There is a force. There is a special energy.
Personally, I find that deep rigor brings a certain type of energy to my work. And I am someone with a great deal of energy. But, this is because I fell in love with music. And I have tried to serve this music to the best of my abilities. Because it was my life's work back then; now it is your turn to serve the music. You are young. It’s always about serving the music, not serving yourself through the music. It’s different, you see?
And I believe that with Xenakis, I saw a man with an incredible energy. That’s the thread that connects two of us, our common overabundance of energy. It made us very compatible as composer and interpreter.
I already spoke about this piece, but Constant's 14 Stations is an expressive piece. It’s about expression. It’s about the fourteen stations of being human, but through the lens of Christ. So, it’s an expression of that journey. When I am interpreting the music of Xenakis, I don’t search for expression, but rather I try to I try to find Xenakis the man; to find what is most human in the music. And since I knew him so well, I knew that he was a great humanist. I had spoken to him about so many things, and I learned that he was someone universal.
That’s an extremely important point for me. You said that you were interested in the culture of ancient Greece, as well as ancient Christianity, probably for The 14 Stations of Constant.
Yes, you are completely right. Marius Constant never stopped saying that in 1970, it would be pretentious to write a piece on the subject of Christ. But for Xenakis, for Marius Constant, and for me, everything we did in music was always brought back to the human scale.
You are young. But of course life obliges you with various problems, even if they are small, you see. So, these are the stations that you pass. One moment, you have a success, one moment you have a failure – ah, zut, merde – how should I handle this? You fall, and then you get back up again. Well, we must learn, adapt and grow, if we are to come back from our failures.
But it is true that in my family, especially from my mother’s side, we are very, very, very Christian. That’s very true. So, it was a good fit, working with Marius Constant. But I have to restore the truth here, because Marius Constant had not wanted to write a piece based on Christ.
Rather, he took his inspiration from the 14 Stations of Claudel. But he didn’t make a piece out of it, because Monsieur Messiaen already did that very well. Monsieurs Haydn, Mozart and Verdi also. No, this wasn’t the level of the piece, although you are right to ask about the Christian aspects of the title. If you don’t have this level of understanding, you can’t truly play the piece.
You see, when I spoke to you about Xenakis, it is impossible to imagine an interpretation if you don’t have rigor and discipline within. There’s technique, of course, but after that, the ability to feel what the composer wanted in terms of energy, you see? So, all of this, this is a culture you, Jonathan, have within yourself. I can tell this because even in your questions, you’re asking things and posing problems that most musicians, unfortunately, never consider.
And so, speaking of these problems – well, "problems" is not really the word – these experiences that exist in life. These are not problems, they are experiences. The different experiences and everything that makes up your culture. It’s from this point that one can begin to form an interpretation.
Another piece I wanted to ask you about was 'May' by Nyguyen Thien Dao. I have never heard of anybody performing this piece in recent memory, and it seems like a shame, because the piece is quite strong.
Yes. I agree. Nguyen Thien Dao was a French-Vietnamese composer, and May was a very poetic piece. The piece is really worth knowing. It came about thanks to Messiaen.
One day, Messiaen came to my studio, and he brought a young man with him and said, “this man will be a great composer. He’s one of my most brilliant students. I would like to propose that he write a piece for you.” And I said, "ah, merci, Maître!" And with that introduction, I was very happy.
So, Nguyen Thien Dao and I had a meeting, and he said, “I would like to write you a long piece!” Suddenly, I became a bit nervous. One has to beware, no? Marius Constant had written a very long piece, and it worked, but you have to be careful. The 14 Stations is thirty-five minutes or so, but thankfully, it is great.
And Nguyen said, “I would like to write a piece with an éclatement at the end.” And you can find this piece on my second record, along with Psappha, if you can find it in a record shop. The piece ends with an éclatement, but otherwise, from the beginning to the end, the piece stays between silence and mezzo forte at the maximum. It’s a beautiful, poetic piece. Voilà.
He made a mixture of the European culture of Messiaen with his own culture, which was Vietnamese. I played this piece a lot.
Speaking again about expression – voilà – May was a poetic piece. I had to learn to slow down my motions, because I played with a sense of nervousness at first. Nguyen Thien Dao didn’t know how to play percussion, and sometimes I would ask him what he meant by this or that in the score. And although he could only play percussion poorly, he had a way of demonstrating things that was much slower than the way I had been playing.
And he told me, “I had the idea of writing you the piece, because whenever I watched you play, I notice that when you make a sound, we, the audience always feel it, because we can hear that the sound is prepared. Even when you play quickly, one sees that you prepare the sound.” This aspect of my playing impressed him very much.
I played like that because it came naturally. I never studied the way I did things. I just did them. But after I did things, I would go back and analyze them. And when a student would ask me about my way of playing, I studied what I was doing, and I tried to transmit the knowledge, because I always wanted young people to benefit from the things I had to learn myself. Anyone who grows old and keeps that type of information for himself, I believe is very selfish.
It was thanks to Nguyen Thien Dao that I learned to relax in performance. Because he wrote sometimes very, very slow music. And, contrary to all of my preconceptions about playing percussion, in the end, that is what he called “virtuosity.”
This is perhaps a little bit like the Japanese Noh theater. The virtuosity of slowness.
Yes. Very, slow. Very slow. But in Noh theater, there are many silences. However, in May, there is a continuo, so something is always happening. There are silences, but throughout the piece, there are little things to shake, things that connect the phrases. This material connects the passages of the gongs, the metals, and the skins. There’s also a part with the inside of a prepared piano that I had to work very hard on. I had to find the sounds, inside that instrument, which was actually the thing that ended up costing me the most time. We tried many things that didn’t work before we were both happy with the piece. The work never ends when you collaborate with composers! (Laughter)
I will certainly make a point to investigate this piece and composer when I return to Freiburg. I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions so generously.
The thing that interests you, as you said so well earlier in our conversation, is that you have read, or seen, or heard that I premiered this or that piece. It’s interesting to discuss, of course. I am seventy-two now. If I were to be ninety, then perhaps in the meantime my memory would have disappeared, and you could not ask me such questions. You could read about what I did, but you couldn’t ask me these questions directly yourself, which is what you are doing.
I am glad you’re asking me all these questions, Jonathan. It’s good that you’re asking me to tell you my whole story, because now I’m finally in a position to speak about all of this. During my career, I didn’t always have time to explain my experiences to friends who asked me about these pieces, or even to myself, because I was too busy doing things. But when young percussionists ask me things, I always try to be helpful. Not necessarily in long interviews like this, but I always try to help the young generation. Nowadays, I have more time. But now that I have more time, it is good to reflect and share my stories and explain my perspectives.
But I repeat: it is very important that to say that when I was doing all of these things, I didn't think of them in historical terms. I was simply giving my energy to music I loved only because I liked it. I wanted to do it. And I never said no to a piece. And I also have to tell you, Jonathan – and this is also important, because we are talking about all the "great composers" – but I have also played many other concerts and pieces that were not so great. For example, if I went on tour, I would always present one or two premieres. And I have played so many of these that were not at the level of 14 Stations, Phenix, Rebonds, or of course, Psappha. It’s just like that. But I have always presented many of these pieces because I feel strongly that it is important to support young composers.
You seem to be very passionate about passing on your wisdom and experiences to a younger generation.
This is also why I worked with Claude Samuel to run the percussion class at Centre Acanthes for twenty-five years. Especially at that time, conservatories weren’t doing a good job of teaching contemporary music. And young French percussionists – and musicians – everywhere wanted to know about these pieces that only one mad man – me – was playing. (Laughter)
You know that I gave the premiere of Psappha in ‘76. And nobody young, or less young, or professionals played this piece until ‘86. That means that ten years went by without anybody playing the piece other than me. And during those ten years, I tried to ask people why they did not want to work on it. And in ‘86 we did big tour with Centre Acanthes to Aix en Provence, to Greece, and to Salzburg, the city of Mozart.
And in Salzburg, one or two percussionists attempted to play Psappha. But they only played two pages! Nevertheless, the process began, and now you know that all young people attempt to play the piece! But during those first ten years, everybody thought that Psappha was a piece reserved only for somebody who was not very well in the head. (Laughter)
And I have to repeat that I did not try to keep any secrets for myself. I tried to give everything, to share everything I knew with these students. I explained how I learned Psappha! But at that moment, nobody was interested in learning the piece. Now, everybody wants to play it. But back then, that wasn't the case. However, I wanted to help. I wanted to open doors for the younger generation, because I didn’t have any guidance of this type when I was a student. I didn’t have a teacher for that.
Nowadays, you have teachers that you can approach if you want to learn this music. For example, Steven Schick in California. Germany has so many excellent teachers for this music. In Trossingen, there is a great teacher, Franz Lang. Also Michael Rosen in the USA does fantastic work.
I stopped teaching three years ago. Only three years ago. But when these students would ask me things, I would always be interested in the way they would try to investigate. If what I did with my life interested them, I would tell them what I did.
But I was speaking about the young generation. The main point here is that I asked all of them to try things! Because at that moment, young people were starting to develop a lot of technique, so there were a lot of musical possibilities.
When I was working with students, what I always wanted to communicate was that it was our goal to play percussion as well as the great pianists play piano, especially in contemporary music.
Maurizio Pollini is for me a good example. For my taste, he plays fantastically well. For example, the way he played Points on the Curve to Find of Berio is just incredible. You cannot imagine! Jean-Pierre Drouet and I would always talk about that! We needed to play percussion as well as any other instrumentalist, whether piano, clarinet, violin, or anything else. I was trying to push, to push, and to push. Of course.
When I was forty-one, the governor of Versailles asked me to teach at the conservatory there. At that time, I looked very young. At the beginning, I had not so many students, maybe one or two.
So, I had a few students, and I would take a room. And to take a room, the students had to see if it was free. And I would tell my student, "okay, please reserve three hours this studio." And I would take the studio for the entire afternoon. Three hours would go by, tok-tok. And the other students in the conservatory would enter and tell me, "please! You have been in there three hours! And now, I would like to you to finish, because I would like to practice my piano!"
I would say, "okay, okay. As you want. However, maybe you don’t know, but I am the new teacher at this conservatory" – although I was not “new,” since I was the first teacher in Versailles – "and this is one of my students." (Laughs) "And if you want me to continue teaching here, I’ll need two more hours." And the unsuspecting pianist would say “ahh, excuse me!” (Laughs)
At first, I would have students who were twenty-five or twenty-six, although after a while not anymore, because now you know that percussion players begin so young these days. Younger and younger. But at that moment, I received students that appeared as if they were the same age as me. As with you, you told me that you are friends with Pascal Pons, you know. You’re not so far away in age. And these students wanted to listen, to learn.
One thing that I can definitely tell you that is important is that I never had a vision of a specific career path in mind. Today, I can say, ah yes, I did that, I did that, and yes, it looks like something I constructed consciously. But as I was doing it, I was not thinking of anything in those terms. I did everything simply because I had a passion to do it.
My experience playing Zyklus with the ballet was fantastic. I was very nervous to embark upon this project. But Diego Masson told me, “Don’t listen to anybody. If you want to do it, then do it!" So I worked on the piece. Nobody knew who I was at the time. But when I performed the piece? Fantastic success. Of course, if it hadn’t gone well, who knows what would have happened. Bad success in the Paris opera at that moment would have been terrible. It’s very difficult in Paris if you make a mistake, if you play a premiere and it’s not good. London was fantastic for Psappha, but I was very anxious about Paris, because Paris is very difficult.
I forgot to tell you something. My career was all just an exploration. With all of these events, I was simply very interested in something new that led me to someone. This is why I am speaking about these all these pieces. I also played many pieces by composers that nobody speaks of anymore, maybe because the pieces were not remarkable in the way that those of Xenakis, Constant and Nguyen Thien Dao are.
It’s interesting what you’re saying, because all of the people that I’ve interviewed for this project are the opposite of businessmen. They’re all true artists and wanderers. There’s virtually no commercial aspect of their lives.
Thankfully! But, I mean, that's how it should be. We had the chance to do what we wanted and to live how we wanted. You know, when you asked me my age, I responded right away. But sometimes, I have to pinch myself, like that, to remember that I am that age. It is true that I get a little tired sometimes, but in general, I have not noticed the years passing.
And as you noticed, I am not an homme d’affaires. Me, I always did whatever pleased me. And moreover, I always lived however pleased me. Jean-Pierre Drouet, Gaston Sylvestre and I all earned our lives. It’s seems normal now, but at the beginning, it wasn’t normal. (Laughter) This appearance came with time.
But it’s very nice what you say, Jonathan. And I take this compliment for my other colleagues as well. For Jean-Pierre Drouet, it’s the same. I know Jean-Pierre very well, and there is nothing commercial about him. There was no construction of a career. No type of precise calculations. It was rather, “that seems interesting, let’s do that, let’s do that.” There was no sense of “in five years, I have to do this or that, otherwise I will be a success or failure for my age.”
That’s why allow myself to give you a little advice. Only with age can you trace your path. When you are living, you can only say “I would like to do that, even if it is difficult.” And I wanted to play alone. I never asked a composer “would you like to write something for me?” No. It just happened like that. That’s how it happened with all of the pieces, all of these ensembles. Diego Masson said to me, “you like to play alone, so why don’t you do this?” And he himself became an orchestral conductor! Because that was the direction that interested him. Voilà!
There you have someone who created his own path. He had something to say, and a need to express himself, and he couldn’t do it with percussion. Jean-Pierre Drouet, on the other hand, did exactly that. Jean-Pierre Drouet would have been an excellent conductor. He’s someone with an extremely vast sense of culture. And he’s someone who is not interested solely in flams and ratamacues. He has a musical dimension that he is just born with. It’s due to everything that he knows, his experiences. I don’t mean years of experience, I mean that in terms of things that he knows from having experienced life.
Speaking of culture, what are some things outside of music that spark your interest?
As for myself, I am interested in mythology. Others can be interested in whatever they like. But I am very interested in history. When I say that, you’ll think that I’m an old ass. When I say that to friends, usually they prefer not to talk about history. They say, “oh la laaaa, he loves history.” But I find it interesting to know how people lived, nevertheless. It’s good to know, of course the story of Louis XIV and that he made the wars and so on, but I am more interested in how people lived at that time. It is fascinating to learn what was going on, because one understands better what might happen in the future.
It also helps me to understand contemporary history, the century in which I lived. Because I was born at the beginning of the Second World War. And it is interesting to know how everything happened. When I was young, many people wanted to tell me about the First World War, and I would say “oh, fais chier.” It always bored me. It didn’t interest me. But I was wrong. It was interesting. While afterwards, being born there and then, remembering that when I was five years old, the last battles took place, I was interested in knowing a little what happened.
So I tell you a little bit about how I function as a human being. I also love painting. Claude Samuel asked me recently if I had gone yet to the Picasso Museum in Antibes. I said no, but don’t worry. I will go and look. And so I went, because I know that collection of Picasso by heart. But I went to the museum, because they apparently discovered a new Picasso painting this summer. So, I had to go again. (Laughter) Painting is another big area of interest for me. I don’t like to remain too focused only on music, or worse, just percussion. I say that only because you rightly admire Jean-Pierre Drouet.
But with Jean-Pierre Drouet, it’s the same. The conversation can always bifurcate into another domain. His mind is fantastic. He knows about so many things. For example, as you know, he was always interested in the theater. That was his thing.
You seem to be very in tune with life. With family. With friends. With nature. It's beautiful to observe.
I love the Mediterranean. As chance would have it, my son married a Niçoise and he lives here, so I come to visit him, because now I finally have more time. (Laughter) So, I see the Mediterranean which I like so much, but I didn’t go to the beach today, since I don’t go every day, because it’s not really my thing. But I go from time to time with my son and his family, with his little son. But the beach is not really the thing that interests me the most, you know?
If I go to the beach alone, I always take a good book. So there, it can be good, if one is not too bothered. Sometimes, if I come and there are not too many people, it is interesting, hearing the sound of the sea and reading this beautiful book. It’s not so bad. These are the pleasures in life! And more specifically, these are the pleasures in life for which I never had the time! Because with everything I’ve told you, I had to find the time to do all of that.
Any final thoughts?
We had the chance to do what we liked. I know that for Jean-Pierre Drouet, it was the same. We had the chance to DO what we wanted, and LIVE as we pleased. Voilà! Today, I appreciate all of that. Before, as I was living my life, I never had the time to reflect like this. But now, here with you in front of the Mediterranean, reminiscing about my life, it’s wonderful.