On the release of his second solo album While Whirling, Frantz Loriot speaks with Andrew Choate about "unlearning" classical music, making drastic decisions and the origins and evolution of his artistic philosophies and making "extreme" music.
Frantz Loriot is a French-Japanese musician born in France in 1980. After having lived in Paris and New York City, he now resides in Zürich, where he is doing a master in Transdisciplinary studies at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK). He studied classical violin with Mari Yasuda-Raclot, the Pons brothers, Nicolas Dupin and Yukari Tate. He attended masterclasses with Ivry Gitlis in Pont Saint-Esprit and Pascal Robault's chamber music class at the Conservatoire National Regional of Créteil in France.
In the early 2000s, Loriot definitively switched to the practice of viola. In the meantime, he has studied musicology at Université Paris 8 – Saint-Denis and started the practice of improvisation. He attended extensive workshops by Régis Huby, Hugues Vincent, Joëlle Léandre, Barre Phillips, David S.Ware and Marc Ducret. Loriot also toured in Europe for a decade with the ska-rock band le Pélican frisé.
While living in New York City in the late 2000's, Loriot created and co-curated two musical series dedicated to avant-garde and experimental music: Ze couch, an apartment series in different locations in Brooklyn and the Avant Post in Harlem. Both series were dedicated to avant-garde and experimental music. In 2021, he launched Recordedness, an online writing project centered on the nature of recordings in music.
Loriot's first solo album, Reflections On An Introspective Path was released by Neither/Nor Records in 2015. He has released twenty-five collaborative albums as well. His new album, While Whirling, is his second solo album and his first with Thin Wrist Recordings.
The following interview was conducted over several sessions from 2020-21.
Andrew: How do you describe your relationship to your music to your family?
Frantz: Coming from a classical musician family (I am the third generation) and originally trained as a classical musician, I had a rupture with this education and practice. I had too much pressure, and I had to free myself from that environment. From a young age, I was always attracted by other musics. Basically, I was listening to everything except what I was actually playing on my instrument. I also had a serious issue with the hierarchical relations within classical structures. The ceremony, the dress code, the chiefs, the blames, the institutions. I couldn’t really relate to my colleagues either. I felt disconnected and unhappy with the music I was playing then. The audience as well was a problem for me - distanced, mainly white, and/or bourgeois social class.
I had to make a decision. Rupture was the only exit so I took another chance and tried something else. I didn’t want to force myself to fit into something I was fed up with. So, the way I‘d describe my relationship to my music is that it is for me a necessity. I hear and feel the music this way and I won’t make any compromises. At least, not on music!
You moved to New York on an emotional conviction, and you left New York because of a different kind of emotional conviction - can you compare how you experienced those emotions and what it felt like to turn those emotions into actions?
There is something very satisfying about taking action. Even if you would fail, at least you would try. When I decided to move to NYC, there was an emergency for me to move forward. In Paris, I felt stuck. I left everything behind and there was no return possible for me - I didn’t want it. When I arrived in NYC, I had this huge feeling of satisfaction and fear. Satisfaction because I took action but fear because I was in front of a completely blank page I would have to fill up. It was also very exciting! The rest of my time in NYC was definitely an adventure! No regrets!
Moving back to Europe was different than going to NYC. I had another emergency I had to take care of - fatherhood. It took me to another level of life. It is exciting and an everyday wonder. The existential questions became different and the decisions and actions too. There is less time for myself, so I have to go quickly to the essential, and my decisions and actions are more sharpened.
How do you think your family and friends would describe you?
People see me as a shy and/or calm person. It is true that I am not the most demonstrative and talkative person, at first. I might seem unconfident since I constantly question myself, but my actual feeling is that people feel and see my listening. People would say I am honest and frank - I can’t lie or pretend. I sometimes make drastic decisions because I hate to get stuck in mitigated situations.
Or how do you think they would describe the relationship between you and your music?
Hopefully, they would say that in a way, one portrays the other and inversely.
Can you describe the process of studying with Joëlle Léandre, Barre Phillips, David S. Ware. How was each experience different? What kinds of things did you do with each/ learn from each of them? Anything especially pertinent in your university studies or with other teachers that had an impact?
Meeting and working with Joëlle was a real stimulation. I was pretty young when I met her, just starting the practice of musical improvisation. She brought me to a political consciousness of our practice. What would it mean/ what does it mean to do such a music, and why? Let’s say she showed me a possible path to take, aesthetically and politically - but I must say I do not agree with everything she says and does. She is a very strong character and figure, and she has her own way, and her own fights, which are totally respectable, but not mine. Nonetheless, she was a very important person for me. Her generosity really touched me, and she really tried to help me in moments of my life which were not easy.
Was this when you were getting started?
I had already been improvising since a couple of years. But I was still studying and playing classical music and playing in various classical music projects and a rock band. It was a period where I was open and ready to step in new fields that were not as steep, hierarchical, and competitive. I just didn’t feel at the right place, I guess. Attending improv music workshops was definitely a very good way to meet new people who would potentially be interested in the same things that I was. This is where I’ve met some of my best friends and regular collaborators.
I met Barre after I encountered Joëlle. His approach was totally different. Barre has something very airy. Grounded but airy. Pretty sanguine, I’d say. Less “serious” than Joëlle maybe in his discourse, but nevertheless radical and powerful. You could feel he really didn’t have the need to prove anything. A big lesson I learned from him is to always challenge yourself, be in movement, and go into uncomfortable zones, putting yourself at risk. I remember a solo concert of his in Berlin. I didn’t hear him for a while and a solo he played in a cathedral in Bordeaux a few years back came into my mind. This other solo had a lot of beautiful “classical” double bass playing. In Berlin, the room was sounding great as well, but he only played “noise.” It was just another world or field and I found that statement to be very strong. For me it was like “Don’t stick to one thing/genre! Be in movement!” I had a few opportunities to play with him later, through one of his large ensembles, EMIR, and also his trio with Urs Leimgruber and Jacques Demierre. Every time I got to play with him, I always felt his grounding, his large calm energy. It always felt like having someone pushing you confidently forward. Barre has this very strong listening you can literally feel. He also communicates a lot through sight. Energetically speaking, a powerful musician and man!
With David S. Ware, the experience was in a way quite “brutal.” David was this amazing, tall, extremely charismatic Afro-American saxophonist. He came to Paris for a residency and asked to work with string players. We were a little group of white western string players. It was brutal in the sense that he literally kicked our butts. We were never loud enough for him. Not powerful enough. He was screaming at us “Louder!” “Down bow!” We were not allowed to play in lower registers (of volume) – it had to constantly be full blast. Once, during a concert, some musicians tried to bring the music to a lower level, playing softer, trying other sounds, but David didn’t let it happen. He yelled at them, on stage! For David, that was his way of expression. It had to be loud, dense, and powerful. The rest wasn’t relevant or valuable to him. It was also somehow a matter of life and death.
He also confronted us to another political reality – we were white western folks, and the meaning of playing “free” music meant something else to us. We were from another generation, from European cultures, playing classical instruments, with all the occidental tradition and culture, most of us freshly out of conservatories even if some of us had studied jazz at music schools. You could definitely feel that David had experienced another story. He had that power and strength in him, like a lion. David is the one who showed me the capacity of power and resistance within us, he pushed us to seek and draw this power and endurance deep inside ourselves. He had this very esoteric and spiritual approach to music. He is the one who taught me the most about Coltrane’s music, I believe – and this was a very privileged moment. He was sometimes really rude to us. But he gave himself entirely, honestly, and that was a gift.
All three were very generous and I realize how much I owe them for sharing their knowledge and humanity. But after a time, I also had to detach myself from their visions in order to become myself. It is not that we have to erase or forget what we have been taught, it would be more about uniting all these different influences, put them in movement and make them, turn them into your own. Try to go beyond…I am a mixture of all of them, in a way. I would relate this sense to the poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant, who talked about and defined the concepts of Creolity and Relation (in Poétique de la Relation among others). I think we could all be creole in a way: we absorb and become by putting in movement all the different knowledges and influences we have been through and carry in and with us.
In another interview, you said "I have a great experience almost every time I play a concert or on tour. It is a timeout from normal life." How is music a "timeout?" What is the relation between music and normal life for you?
Haha! Maybe the term timeout is not the right one. I am not sure… And it also happens that I have ended up in very uncomfortable and overwhelming situations while performing music. But I must admit that this hasn’t happened for quite a while – and I am really glad!
I believe music is part of our everyday life, and so is “improvisation.” In the sense of timeout, maybe I wanted to tell that the moment I am performing (and on tour) is just completely different from my “regular” life with its routine - not that my life is the most settled, but I have and need my moments of stability let’s say. The moment I am performing is when I am totally doing what I am doing. Nothing can really disturb me. I am not thinking. I AM - in the moment – in a deep listening state. It is a moment where I am trying to be completely connected to everything and to everybody. I relate this state to meditation somehow. One of the deepest experiences I had once was when I went listening to a solo piece for bass clarinet by Eliane Radigue, performed by Carol Robinson in New York City. I was in such a deep listening state that I felt everything was connected – the noise from the audience, the person breathing next to me, the traffic outside the venue, the planes flying above us, people talking on the street, etc. It was something I never experienced that deeply before. There were no hierarchies; things were individual but also connected, participating in a whole - not intentionally, but, nevertheless: whole, unconscious participation. Afterwards, I couldn’t touch my instrument for a while. That experience moved me so much and I had to let it flow.
I experienced this feeling a few times while performing afterwards. Of course, it wasn’t as strong as the first time but nevertheless, it is a good feeling when you attend that state. Everything is where it belongs. So, is it a timeout or is it an all-togetherness. Or like a rhizome, with all these little and bigger individual things happening at the same time, things which seem not related, but which actually are or can be? Or is there some kind of acceptance involved? I am not sure.
“There are certain percussive or organic sounds going on which can't be easily explained since several sounds are going on simultaneously. In the future, scientists will look back... and question what Mr. Loriot is doing or if he has gone too far. Hear this music now so you can enter the discussion and be prepared.”
- Bruce Lee Gallanter on Frant Loriot, Downtown Music Gallery Newsletter, 2015.
Your music has been described with phrases like “gut wrenching intensity,” and “unwilling[ness] to compromise.” Bruce Lee Gallanter says that scientists in the future will look at your music and say that you were “going too far” – is your music extreme? If so, how so? Is your music extreme to perform? If so, what makes it so?
I don’t believe my music is extreme. It might sound different and unusual. It is true that I go for the “forbidden” sounds in the classical formal way of playing and hearing string instruments. But I wouldn’t qualify my music as extreme. It is in movement and it is pushing away the borders, somehow beyond the usual practice. I would actually consider the traditional way of playing extreme, in the sense of its inertia and conservatism. I wouldn’t say traditional/conventional playing is forbidden to me of course (I love a lot of it) but why would it be considered extreme when it is only different? I do admit I do not compromise. Because I believe compromises do not help to push and go beyond boundaries. I find it interesting to see that frozen visions of things (conservatism) are never considered to be extreme. I think it should be the other way around, actually. Whatever would be frozen would be extreme, in my opinion. It is like in our world, with the institutions. Being a good citizen with bourgeois values is not considered to be extreme; it is considered a goal to achieve. It is the norm, this vision of stability (a skewed vision in my opinion) based on compromises. But if you’re out of these norms, living another way, or thinking differently than these norms as defined by capitalism, you’re considered to be extreme. If we would stop, consider, and look at the consequences of this way of thinking about life - in terms of values, the style of living that this way of thinking encourages/demands, which is based on consuming not living - I would qualify that as extreme. We are now deep into the neo-liberal system, which is probably the biggest totalitarian system we live in, but it is considered to be the “right, stable and sane” norm – or, at best, the least-worst. We are in an era that uses Newspeak to express the old form of exploitation. The aspects have changed but not the substance, and I find that seriously questionable.
I actually like what Bruce Gallanter says about going too far. I’d rather go too far than stay in an enclosed and confined perimeter. I find it way more exciting to try an adventure than to stay in safe and comfortable zones. Getting out of these zones feels alive. Saying this, I also know that the space I am creating is also somehow becoming afterwards an enclosed space I will have to get out of to be in movement.
My performances are not at all extreme, I would say. Physically speaking, I am trying to avoid any kind of visual attention. I would rather that people focus on the sound more than the visual aspect of my work. I try to condense and minimize my gestures to put the attention beyond my person. I want to bring the spectator into my sonic dimension, the physical and visual aspects are secondary.
The only thing which I would consider extreme would be my commitment in the performance moment, to keep the energy and attention from the beginning to the end. But this would include all types of performance.
I genuinely think both the kind of music you make, and the content of what you make, in particular, are totally accessible to anyone that has an honest passion for music, even if they have no experience with it. In the same way that conservatism is actually the extreme, how possible is it that free improvisation is accessible and not “difficult” to listen to - just a different kind of engaging?
I agree. I guess it is a matter of a relation between the performer and the spectator. Both have to engage and commit to the experience. The rejection comes usually because our minds are structured by institutionalized visions, mainly transmitted through education, about what is right or wrong. There would maybe also be a lack of curiosity and to question a practice (I think of classical music but I guess this would be true with other genres and fields). It is not that you would have to radically change your practice, but to be aware and, if not, at least open. Then, you like or you don’t, but I would say this is not really the question here. I often realized that people who like this kind of music are non-musicians!
What do you feel when you perform? Describe the experience of musical space for you, and does it relate to how you felt listening to Carol Robinson play Radigue.
When I perform, there are different states. First, there is the “before” - before the first sound from the performers appear. It is the moment everybody in the room, audience included, understands we all have to commit. I’d say music starts already there, in this “quiet” moment which is before the first played sound. The room is already playing. What’s happening outside the room is already playing and once we all have listened to that, we can integrate and play with the space. For me, there are different ways to fill up a space. You have to keep the tension, even in a silence. There is no such thing as emptiness; or it would have to be played somehow and be a strong moment. It feels like we are just some medium through which some energy is passing. There is no desire for control. Things are where they belong to and we are just here to get them out. When this happens, I feel connected to everything: the room, its surrounding, the audience, the collaborators. It is like concentric circles which would all be connected and participating in this act, or this act would be related to the rest. Like ripples.
It is obviously not always happening, but this is a state I am always trying to attain. So, I guess, this is pretty close to what I’ve experienced with Radigue’s music.
You talk about “attempts to unlearn” things on your first solo record. What about on the new one?
Do you have exercises you do to “get rid of your habits”?
For my first solo recording, I indeed really tried on purpose to “unlearn”. What I mean by that is that I am coming from this very strong classical, trained background - which I felt I needed to surpass. Before I released that record, I played for over ten years in solo, but I was never really satisfied by what I was ending up with. Somehow, the music always referred to some idioms and some influences I had back then. I had to go beyond to make something of my own. I finally found a direction and a way to express my own language. For this second record, the situation is different. I have gained in experience and I would say this solo record is a continuity, a development, of what I started a few years ago. I didn’t feel the necessity of getting rid of my new language yet, but I felt I had to bring and search for new elements. They could be sonic material, it could be formal, it could be in the recording’s technical approaches and processes, etc. Here I would say I put myself in position/in movement to grow and evolve, not in rupture like it was for the first record.
“The term acousmatic was borrowed from the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, who taught his students from behind a curtain so that they could not see him nor his movements, allowing them, therefore, to focus on the voice without being disturbed by sight. Indeed, consciously or not, we tend to see images while hearing noises or listening to sounds. Pierre Schaeffer put this idea into a musical form and created music and sounds, which had no visual references, through the use of the new technologies of his time”
What is the relation of your music to technology? The sounds of technology? You have worked in all kinds of musical contexts, but when it comes to your music, and specifically your solo music, what is the relationship of it to technology - not just the way we think of machines and electronics (that too) but also the technology of the viola, the strings, etc.
I would say my music refers a lot to electronic music because its aesthetic influenced me quite a lot. The sonic material was truly an inspiration, and the approach to it as well. But the dependence on the technology was something I had a bit of an issue with. For me, a musician using a technology such as a computer or other electronic device has to have the same ability as an instrumentalist to switch quickly – at least in an improvised music context – be reactive and not depend on the tool (although, these restrictions could also help to develop a certain aesthetic). I would say I usually like the aesthetics created by technologies, but I do not like the dependence we have towards them. Same thing in non-musical reality. We depend too much on technologies. I would say I am trying to translate a technological aesthetic into an acoustic, analogic one.
As you mentioned, the instrument itself is a technology. My feeling is that we haven’t taken into account all its sonic capacities. String instruments are wooden bodies made of maple, spruce, and ebony. Taken separately, they would sound differently. There are different parts with different densities in each instrument which sound differently – the body, the neck, the keys, the tailpiece, the bridge and of course the strings made of steel. The bow has hairs and a stick. If you just consider these elements as potential objects to produce sound, the possibilities and the combinations are big. I feel like we have been trapped since centuries in conventional cultural approaches and structures to the way to play these instruments, and maybe my goal is to create something beside them.
And the technology of the buildings you perform inside. This could be related or separate, but how does architecture inform your musical creativity?
The place we perform is indeed influencing the musical performance. Being in a very resonant space or a very dry one would obviously affect the performance. I often like to see how much I can play with the strictures imposed by space. Sometimes, you have these funny resonances or bounces from the sound in a specific room - this could become a material to play with. I also like to see how much you can fill up a space, sonically speaking. In a very resonant space, you get this feeling of spreading and saturating a space but also leaving enough distance and air. In a dry room, conditions are way harder, and you have to look for other strategies and methods. So, I would definitely say architecture is influencing the musical structure of a performance.
For this record, however, I picked a venue called Das Institute, in Zurich which was pretty balanced acoustically. Not too dry, not too reverberant. I didn’t want the architecture to be too much of a factor in the music. I had specific musical elements and ideas I wanted to share, so having a very reverberant room would have been problematic for what I wanted to achieve for this specific record.
You said: "If I would compose, I would always refer to another topic or discipline than music." What kinds of topics are you especially thinking of? What is the biggest non-musical influence on your work?
I would say it’s architecture and geometry. But also the relation to time. In a composition or in an improvisation, the form has obviously its importance. How do I play with this architecture and geometry in time, that’s probably what I like to focus on. A topic which I am often concerned with is the concept of symmetry or balance. These are probably the main topics I am mainly concerned when it is about musical aesthetics. I have to admit that the political, or, maybe more philosophical, aspects are also something important that I consider in my practice. I am just not completely sure this is appearing in the music in itself. A lot of theorists tend to say that sound cannot be charged with discursive content. Which might most probably be true, but I would say that sound is never alone and is always situated in a context. The politics and/or philosophy would maybe be the most non-musical influence? I am really not sure we could actually disconnect these fields from each other.
How does how you think about that topic (or influence) relate to how you think about what you make?
I would say there are different levels of understanding this question.
I will first pick the example of hierarchy to answer, here.
For example, if we work in a hierarchical relationship, this will influence the way I work with my collaborators, and also of course the final artistic object. In all my collaborative ensembles, I am confronted with different levels of relationships. There is the artistic aspect you have to define, and usually– since it is collaborative–you often have to discuss and agree on a path, to search for a common ground where everybody will be able to find his/her own space of expression. It is somehow a constant balance you have to consider since we are all in permanent movement. But is there a leader? Someone who decides? With all the ensembles I work in now, we do not have this clear hierarchical relationship. We all take our part of responsibilities. But then, you also have the very pragmatic relation to all the things that are actually around the artistic practice. Who is in charge of what? Who is organizing the tour or the performance? Who took care of the financial conditions, transportation, grants etc.? Does all this give legitimacy to a certain hierarchical relation in the ensemble? In my case, I try to avoid this type of relationship but, unfortunately, it doesn’t only depend on me. Another example could be when you play with someone who’s “known.” Is “fame” a legitimate reason for someone to get more shows? If you deal with this aspect, do you treat that person better than the others?
Personally, I try to break these relations in all aspects - artistically and humanly. I find the meritocratic way of thinking, with people who believe they deserve more than others absolutely problematic, in all levels, artistic as much as in human relations.
I think I know what you're saying here but I want to make sure meritocratic is the right word here. Meritocracy usually is used to mean that talent and achievement are rewarded -but I think you mean something more subtle - when people that don't necessarily have talent, but do have fame or notoriety, get rewarded, or think they deserve more than the people they work with. What do you think?
In french, Méritocratie is a word related to awards (or merit) and power. “You deserve this higher position because you worked hard, so you will get more power and have more legitimacy to continue than others to continue working”. There is something like this in our business because some people believe and build these “power” relations (with curators, journalists, promoters, etc.) in order to play at this or that festival or venue, shake hands, and spend an incredible amount of time on social media to make sure they're noticed - and it works (unfortunately)! This often has nothing to do with artistic discourses but business. Unfortunately, at least in Europe, this is how things are working. What I mean is that I truly do my best to avoid any kind of relation like this.
I would also like to answer the question of influence in another aspect.
I think the relation between how I think about a subject and how I think about what I make is focused on the idea of translation. Or let’s say that translation is the relation between the subject and what I make of it. Translation would be the common thread. Translation here would be a process. I usually try to translate an idea or a concept into a sonic language. I would use different parameters to translate: sound, form or the relation to the audience. Translation permits me to reappropriate some ideas and concepts and put them in a sonic and musical form.
How do your transdisciplinary studies relate to your music or musical thought? John Butcher is an improvisor whose scientific work is frequently discussed in relation to his music; how and why might your non-musical work be relevant to your music?
I have realized that since I am improvising, my musical production was always somehow related to other disciplines. When I compose, I always refer to another topic or discipline besides music. I have also performed with interdisciplinary projects related to dance, theater, film, poetry etc. Thorax, for example, was a science/ sound/ performance act involving a weightlifting machine with circuit-bending sensors installed and activated by my exercises with the weights. Cie Un Instant is an ensemble of musicians and contemporary dancers that I’ve been involved with for some time, and I’ve made regular collaborations with Cie Deuxième Groupe d’intervention in the realms of street theatre performances and sound-social-installations. To me, music is related to the rest of the world and is a medium which connects to and translates the different fields. I guess it is never about music only, it is related to something more.
What are the politics of solo music?
Soloing is an interesting act. It is pretty frightening at first. It feels like being naked and standing on a fragile wire. And it takes time (at least it did for me) before you find something you really want to say. It is a moment when you speak out and stand for yourself. You share and make people listen to how and what you hear. It is the moment when you can clearly expose your visions. You do not have to compromise. You can absolutely do whatever you want. My politics in solo is that I take full responsibility for the content I share and the moment of the performance. It is the intimate moment you will exchange with the audience. So, I would say you’re never completely alone in a solo performance.
I think it is also one of the types of performance I am never completely sure if it is improvised or composed. Sometimes, when I have to play, I know more or less what I will be playing–structurally and material speaking–and sometimes I know only that I have my language, but I have no clue how I will start nor where it will be going. It depends pretty much on my mental state.
I truly love to listen to solos. It is like a portrait; it says so much about the person who’s performing. I would mention people like Bertrand Denzler and Jean-Luc Guionnet, but also Jürg Frey, Christian Wolfarth, John Butcher, Phil Niblock, Zbigniew Karkowski, KK Null, Dave Phillips, Otomo Yoshihide, Barre Phillips, David S.Ware, Okkyung Lee, Ellen Fullman, Audrey Chen, Theresa Wong, Yasumune Morishige etc.
There’s an awkwardness of development in some of the phrases you create and hone on this record; it makes me think of, and guess at, the process of sculpting in marble: all that obtuseness and finely shaved rock finery in the air and on the ground. Maybe by awkwardness I also mean surprise. But it’s more than the unexpected, because it’s on a practically-microscopic level: the tonal qualities you play with are odd, and then the rhythms with which you toss them around and shear them into shape maintain an equally beguiling form. An awkwardness pushed so far that it becomes basic, desired. So sensible that it reasserts itself as retroactively obvious. How does the tension between the bewildering and the fitting play itself out in your philosophy of music?
This is a difficult question to answer. This awkwardness you talk about is something which belongs to me or is in me or is possibly even me, in a certain way. I accepted it and I re-appropriated it and put it in movement. I am not even sure I asked myself if it would fit into anything or not. My experience with the Radigue piece is related…there was something evident about it, things belonged and fit where they had to. Maybe is it also related to my attraction to the otherness? I think otherness could also be a different point of view on the same object. It has to do, at least for me, with the unexpected, the surprise. I could interpret it as a need to be walking on a wire and go beyond the fear. My impression is that we constantly have to fight our own fears (fears which have been implanted in us through education, society systems, etc. - inner and external fears). The same fears affect the practice of the arts even if it appears to some that art is fearless or without fear. I have the feeling that many artists are always trying to fit in and, by doing this, sincerity is lost on the way. I am not trying to fit the awkward, but I definitely try to play with it and see how it shapes.
Another performance that really struck me was a performance by Jürg Frey. His performance was such an “other thing”; the experience was so strong that it was difficult to forget it. It was in a jazz venue in Zurich. The performance gave a weird impression; it was bizarre in the sense it really didn’t fit the venue at all. Jürg Frey was performing in solo. It started with a sound installation on stage with 4, 5 small speakers. From these speakers was playing a long drone on accordion, punctuated by sparse and quiet words in German. This lasted for about 10 minutes. Then, he showed up on stage, and started repeating a sequence of words of his own, with the exact same intonation - this for 10 minutes again. Then he left stage and the drone installation started again and went on for 10 minutes. He comes for the second time on stage and plays short pieces on Bb clarinet. It reminds me of Kurtag’s Signs, Games and Messages pieces. Short, pretty and nice pieces. Then, he leaves again back to the drone. Until now, we really didn’t get the point of this performance and some people have already left and are still leaving, one by one. Third and last part, Jürg Frey shows up again: he plays one of these old fashion violin tuners you have to whistle into. It just plays a perfect fifth interval. On his right, there is a music stand bent into a horizontal position, with dried leaves on it, and a mic directed on it. He just passes his hand on and through the leaves while whistling. Ten more minutes of this…Then he leaves stages and the performance ends finally with the drone.
I remember wondering what the hell was going on! But in a way, it made it even stronger. It was really awkward, there was no “obvious” narrative, people would leave the room one after the other, but I was literally stuck on my seat – and I couldn’t leave because I really wanted to know and understand what this was all about and how it would eventually end. It was this feeling of being in another dimension, it was going beyond the norms and it didn’t care about pleasing or not. I loved it because I didn’t know where it was taking me, and I was enjoying it. It was a fantastic experience!
This is how I would relate to awkwardness or oddness. It attracts me. We were talking about getting out of the zone, previously. Searching the odd phenomena for me is probably a way to get out of the comfort zones. And once you taste it, it is difficult to go back to conventional forms. All this awkwardness is taking part in our world, but maybe it’s faded away, it is not enlightened enough and put aside but nevertheless it is here, being part of an all, and fitting into it after all. We would just not consider it enough. I would be this medium who would just bring them up, in the front. If it builds a conflict, it would create a third space with this cohabitation of antinomic entities as an ensemble. To get back to Édouard Glissant and his concept of Relation, we would all be archipelago with all our own awkwardness - but, however, related. And whatever or whoever wouldn’t like to fit in or accept the other in this evidently opaque relation is just showing resistance to this togetherness we’re all part off. When you can create and experience this antinomic togetherness, I guess you don’t even try to make it fit. It is here anyway. Recently, I was working with Jean-Luc Guionnet in a duo and also in a trio with the electronic musician Gaudenz Badrutt. It was interesting to realize that musically it was really “happening” when we were not trying to fit with one another, but instead when we were each just oneself. It maybe requires the medium of time for you to realize this togetherness. First, the attention or the attraction is maybe focused on one or two characters, but with time, one can realize this “all together.”
Many times when I listen to your music I hear instruments or sounds that aren’t really there - glass bells or shoveled dirt, vibraphones or harpsichords. Are you consciously working on making sonic equivalents to optical illusions? Alternatively, how does the experience of being sonically confused relate to optical illusions? (I don’t consider clarity and confusion to be antithetical or non-simultaneous experiences in this context.)
I would somehow answer yes; I am consciously zooming in on the material, like the idea of the microscope: to find richness in the smallest element, realize that it is richer and more complex than it sounds like at first. Going so close also permits me to go really far out (zoom out) and realize that there is something common between the very close and the very far - a multiplicity of layers. What would differentiate these states (very close and very far) would be the quantity of air or this untouchable, opaque material in between the material itself and our ears. But in both cases, what I like is the confusion it provokes. The loss of the pillars of sight and knowledge, being thrown in different zones of uncertainty. For example, sound is always referring to sight. When we hear something, we quasi-automatically attach a visual referent to it. So when we listen to music, unconsciously or not, we refer to the instrument, the body, etc. What I like to do in my personal practice is to jam all these visual referents, and I like to confuse the listener. Sometimes, people wonder if I am using any effects, they don't recognize the viola at all.
You’ve mentioned the impact Tom Cora had on you in other writings and interviews, etc. - primarily because he was playing the cello unconventionally from a classically trained perspective, yes? Can you describe his sound and how it affected you when you first heard it vs. when you think of it now? How does his presence persist in your music today?
Indeed, Tom Cora truly affected me because he was playing cello in a different register than mine. His sound was really special: no abusive vibrato, harsh and dry attacks with the bow but warm and generous sound, nevertheless. He was playing dirty, amplified, improvising, playing with rock bands. The first time I heard him was on the record “Scrabbling at the Lock” with the Dutch rock band The Ex. My hairs just all stood up. There was an energy and an attitude I could never find in classical music. It had something rebel and punk in the sound, something dark also. A scream… Unfortunately, I never had the chance to hear him live. He passed the year I discovered his music. When I listen to him today, I still like it. It makes me nostalgic. What I kept from him is maybe a similar attitude or the substance of his music but not the aesthetics. I guess, like a lot of people who truly inspired me, I had to get away from their aesthetics.
A follow-up: I want to know how architecture and geometry inform your music. How are your experiences or thoughts in relation to architecture and geometry realized in your music? How do you use “symmetry and balance” to work with architecture, geometry, and time?
To me, geometry and architecture and their concepts of form are important. I like my music to be shaped and structured – as clear as possible, statement speaking. And if it is blurry and opaque, it is a voluntary gesture which would be situated in a global or general form. The situation (about being situated, geographically, in time, in knowledge) also has an impact on my music. The formal architecture which will be built will be specific to this situation and will consider various aspects of the surroundings.
Symmetry permits me to always focus and be conscious of an axial line or point, like a mirror, towards the audience. But also towards my collaborators. Once you have this axial line (or point), you’re almost obviously in a balanced relationship. It doesn’t mean it always has to be an equal relationship, that would be pretty boring. Since we are always in movement, so are the axial lines and points and balance. I really like Kandinsky’s painting for that reason. It is balanced and there is somehow a sense of symmetry, but it is never equal. The unequal relations between the objects are well-distributed in space and this gives you the feeling of symmetry and balance.