Joëlle Léandre

Interviewed in 1999/2000 by Brian Marley; translated from the French by Mary Lyons

Were your parents, or other members of your family, musical?

I come from a simple, working class background where culture, as far as music goes, was limited to songs - songs and opera. My father always listened to opera solos - the great singers or well-known melodies. The artistic side is essentially my father's, whose family was nomadic, a little bit gypsy. Well, anyway, on the road!

What was the first piece of music you remember hearing?

I remember a piano piece by Debussy, 'Doctor Gradus and Parnassum' [she sings], and 'The Happy Farmer', and then lots of terrible, rapid etudes for the double bass that hurt my little fingers to play - I was so young . . .

What musics were important to you when you were growing up?

Songs, pop music, Claude François, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, but also Edith Piaf. Not jazz . . . that was later, when I got to Paris. You know how it is when you're a child, you follow the teacher, the methods, etc., without really knowing where you're going - you study, you rehearse.

As a child you played recorder and piano, but from the age of 14 you began to concentrate more on the double bass. What was it that drew you to this cumbersome and intractable instrument?

I don't think it's intractable - it's a noble and sublime instrument [she laughs]. I've been asked the question so often, my answer now is: Why not!

While I was taking piano, the first year, my brother Richard began to study the double bass. Why? Pure chance. The piano tuner told us a new course would be offered at the Conservatory in Aix, a course for double bass with an extraordinary professor, a true teacher, very spirited, who really loved his instrument, you can't imagine how much! And there you have it . . . strictly chance. My brother began first, I followed several months later. No doubt the instrument's form, its large upright body, its deep tones, its presence, attracted me. Later I began working a lot with the bass, and stopped studying the other instruments. It's intractable, without a doubt, now that, with all the travelling I do, I've got to lug it everywhere. I've also turned it into a solo instrument, commissioning pieces from various French and foreign composers during the last 20 years. I myself have composed for the double bass, and written compositions for the theatre, for dancers, for certain performances in which I always include the double bass (loyal, as I am!). It's intractable because it's so heavy and cumbersome, undoubtedly . . . intractable because it demands so much of a certain kind of will and conviction, defiance even. But it's an essential and splendid instrument . . . the double bass is still unknown.

What is your relationship with your instrument?

The relationship of a musician who loves her instrument, life, people - a daily relationship of reflection and study: Why do low-pitched instruments lack their own repertory? What is the position of the double bass in the orchestra? It's role? etc. . . . After more than 40 years, I still ask myself these questions.

Nothing is ever given, we keep moving forward, changing a little. It's the same thing with music, the sounds. You have to stay open, reach out to the other. I've learned so much from other things - something read, a dancer, looking in a store window, at a tree isolated in the middle of a field . . . Now I find myself saying that music is social, it's a social act, whereas composition is a solitary act. I'm talking about playing music, in the sense of pleasure, jubilation - you reach out to someone else: "Who are you?" When I work, I always try to de-emphasise the differences, the hierarchies of performer and composer.

In 1976 you received a scholarship to study in Buffalo, USA, where you met Morton Feldman and John Cage. You must also have become aware, or more fully aware, of the music of Earle Brown and Christian Wolff. What did you learn from these encounters?

So much! It was a giant kick in the butt!

Be yourself! Do it! [spoken in English]

So important!

I'd played Cage's music with the ensemble Itinéraire in '70, '71, and I'd also read his Silence, For the Birds - what a shock and joy! He remains one of the most important thinkers, inventors, of the 20th century. I can still see him with his little chronometer during concerts, or even with his basket of food . . . his poetry readings. . . . After that, I met Cage often. But fundamentally it's America and its freeness that are important to me - the music, of course, but also the galleries, the jazz and clubs, the performances too, the lofts . . .

I discovered graphic scores. Earle Brown's 'December 1954', Christian Wolff and many others. Feldman with his minimal compositions spread throughout the sound, another substance, different from Scelsi. But also the jazz, downtown [in English]; I love those musicians who created the history of jazz, absolutely a state of mind and spirit, a cry, a freeness. It's important in the history of music. The '60s, '70s, were an extraordinary time for the arts - painting exploded. [Suddenly,] my music was written and thought-out differently . . . it was wonderful! I think it's the essential [component] in my work and reflections. I learned to 'voyage' as much audibly as visually - poetically, too. There were many definitive encounters with musicians, poets. Once I got back from the U.S., in fact, I listened differently.

In your CD of John Cage's music, issued by Montaigne, you describe yourself as "a citizen of the Cagian universe." What do you mean by that?

I practiced Cage's scores and read his ideas. I tried to understand, to listen in a new way to all the sounds, without a hierarchy. Who can say this sound is ugly, that sound is beautiful! The problem is, as he used to say, the music . . . that's so true. He gives us the freedom to be oneself, conscious, listening. It's about long, meticulous work, every day. It's about being responsible.

When did you realise what you were capable of as a musician, and what were the circumstances?

What a question! I began to study music when I was nine. One becomes conscious of things when consciousness awakens. Before that you follow the rules laid down by your parents, your teacher, you practice your lesson. That's a very long, slow process. Then you begin to be shaken up - by a phrase, a fragment, the simple pleasure of following the score. You develop your memory, you give pleasure to others - and to yourself, certainly - becoming a musician a little more each day.

I began playing with ensembles, chamber and symphony orchestras. With them, you understand there's an exchange, communication, dialogue. Later, you become a professional, the music is there every day and you earn your living with it. That said, I always held out against institutions, against that 'normality' of being, of required studies that have to followed. Very early on I approached people - theatre people, dancers, painters. I learned a lot from those encounters. I think the venture, and the real consciousness, is to be oneself - to be moved, changed, unsettled, angry, etc., etc. . . forceful and fragile, but to know that's what you are and to live it. My capabilitities are in perpetual motion - different now that I'm almost 50 than at nine when I began, ever and always with this vertical object made of wood.

What roles do noise and silence play in your music?

It's in all music, not just mine. My music is work in progress, in question - structures and forms, composition and improvisation, colours . . . what do I want to say, what do I want to say this particular moment, to whom, with which instruments and instrumentalists, etc. I've always thought that everything - each object, moment, tool, silence, sound - had a sense, a place, a usefulness . . . its own life and death, I'd say! Nature is a good example of this.

Silence is primordial to the way we hear, to thought. Rarely there is real silence. Even deep in the countryside, in a cave, there are noises, external sounds. Fundamentally, silence doesn't exist - it would frighten us too much. Alone, perhaps, in a state of vacuity, in the transcendence of nothingness, listening to oneself, detached from everything, is the truest silence.

Sound is not intellectual, not feminine or masculine; it touches you, unsettles you deeply, it is highly spiritual, it is simple. It's music that's complicated - its styles, modes, tastes, and those cultured people who try to determine what one should and shouldn't listen to. All, or many, compositions are created only with rules, justifications, or primary intellect. Do you think a bird is going to justify the form and structure [of its song] before opening its beak? It's going to express the state of its present being, its environment, etc.

Returning to a notion of simplicity, of pleasure, is very difficult in our wealthy, occidental culture so given to meaningless chatter. But let's not be too critical, dear!

I've learned a lot from listening to a fado, gypsy music, or African rhythms that can almost put you in a trance. One mustn't categorise, establish the sounds, name them. Abstractly speaking, there are as many sounds as molecules in the human body (that's a nice image, isn't it?). Let them accomplish their work!

Were you aware of improvisation – especially free improvisation – prior to 1976 when you began your studies in America?

Improvisation isn't taught, especially in the academic and classical institutions. Only organists, by tradition, are given 'homework' in style - Renaissance, Bach, etc. Free improvisation would create too many questions for the teaching staff and for our culture.

I liked 'playing' my instrument immediately, discovering the sounds, energies, different bowing techniques and . . . you know, the conservatories are conservative and conserve their traditions. How can you change the student-teacher relationship, for example? Arriving in Paris in '69, I discovered jazz, how to listen to records other than classical, then certain scores: contemporary, graphic, verbal . . . All that was extraordinary. Improvising is playing one's own music. By that I mean affirming, taking the risk to be oneself. How do you expect teachers to talk to us about that? It's a whole other field of possibilities, of thinking about music, science, even politics. There's a lot to say on the subject.

By 1974 I'd met dancers, theatre people. I worked with a percussionist. We searched, explored, we wrote, we improvised. We performed 'our' music for a play, Troilus and Cressida. Then, yes, '76, the United States and what awaited me . . . During those years at the Centre Americain in Paris I'd listened to Bill Dixon, Alan Silva, Frank Wright, Milford Graves, since '71 or '72. The freedom of those musicians was very important, shocking almost. When I remember the kind of student I was in Paris, playing my double bass "like a good girl" . . . Fundamentally, improvisation is the musicians' music.

Did improvisation immediately appeal to you, or were its charms revealed gradually, over a period of time?

The notion of charm in music isn't one of my strong points. The notion of truth, stripping bare, reflection, exchanges, doubtlessly jubilation; but responsibility first and foremost, consciousness, work . . . hard work!

How to most accurately communicate and synthesise your thought - it's the same process for written and improvised music. I think it was Stravinsky who said that to compose is to do a lot of improvising.

Your playing is tightly focused and structurally coherent. It sounds, in other words, more 'composed' and much less 'chaotic' than that of many double bass players on the free jazz scene. Do you think of yourself as a composer who improvises, or as an improviser who composes?

I'm an improviser who composes. I've also played lots of different kinds of music, read, analysed lots of scores, thus experienced all that - structures, forms, various compositions - for so many years. I've also learned a lot from composers, worked so much, broken down the individual elements of various styles . . . is it the result of all that? We are perpetually in the process of becoming. We filch from this or that. Listening to Coltrane, Mingus or Tosca, Liza Minelli, normally has to challenge you, doesn't it? One must love, understand.

It's similar to making a salad - inadvertently one might use too free a hand adding the oil or another ingredient, and the result, the taste, is different. The essential thing is that there's this pleasure in giving, loving, expressing oneself. Self-knowledge is a long process, isn't it, if one gets involved in the creative process? I could also talk about culture - European, American. Looking at Cézanne or a Klee is not the same as looking at Pop Art or a Pollock. Gypsy music is as far from Puccini's lyricism, etc., etc. . . . Yes, when I improvise, from the moment I emit the first sound, beautiful or not, I compose - there is body and thought.

Of course, the term 'free music' is meaningless. Improvisation, yes, without a given style - jazz or whatever. But if there's anyone who is not free, it's the musician. How can you be free with an instrument in your hands? There are motions, rhythms, colours, the diversity of the musicians one meets, the instrumentation, the energy, etc. . . .

Do you visualise every sound a split second before you articulate it?

No, I'm empty. I'm 'receiving', nothing more - forceful and fragile.

You move effortlessly between composition and improvisation, and the very different worlds these musics inhabit. Other musicians seem to find this transition difficult to cope with. Are you conscious of the difference between playing a piece by, for example, John Cage, and a free improvisation with Derek Bailey?

They're not so very different. When I play Cage, I am at the service of his thought, I play Cage's music. When I play with Derek, I play my music in a duet with Derek who has his own music. It's simple, one can enrich the other, don't you think? There's no comparison to make.

It's true that jazzmen [in English] were the ones to renovate this natural language [improvisation], but they don't hold exclusive rights to it. The language was known in the 17th, 18th centuries when numerous musicians practiced it, It's an art. We're surrounded by 70% oral music and its richness, its complexities, its differences, but only the learned, occidental music conducts our knowledge and our emotions. How the institutions who think they hold the power, the knowledge, could change. I rebel against that! Well, anyway, I resist.

These two languages should encounter each other more often - interpenetrate each other, and dialogue together.

Cage's antipathy to improvisation is well-known, but some of his compositions require spontaneous actions from the performers, and these actions are, in some cases, only conceptually different from improvisation. He allows the performer a considerable degree of latitude, but with responsibilities. Is improvisation principally an ethical concern?

John Cage doesn't deal with improvisation. His music is always thought out, structured, composed, but open so that musicians can bring something to it, re-think the form, even - always under Cage's direction, of course - but "be creative", responsible, always responsible. It's freedom with a certain direction. At any rate, we play Cage's music, there's the music stand, paper and a score, thus it's published, able to be replayed, with numerous rehearsals, etc., etc.

But Cage was never opposed to improvisation. He was rarely opposed to anything, as a matter of fact. He said to me that the musician who improvises without a style, or a set of semantics, more or less repeats the same things because he is codified by his instrument. A violinist, for example, has a set of codes: fingering, phrasing. Even the fact of our daily practice during our apprenticeship, and the simple pleasure of rephrasing, of a certain set of gestures also, pleasing positions. . . . I'll say, for my part, that when one improvises, his score is himself, the other, moving like the clouds. I'm not in total agreement with Cage. It's long, difficult, a lot of training the ear, but, yes, it can be a question of semantics, giving form and sense in the instant itself. Whether that's improvisation - or life, for that matter - is the least of it. Take a look; we never stop improvising! Look at your gestures, your days. Even when everything seems chaotic, you notice that, at the end of the day, there's organisation, decisions, forms. Why try to analyse all that. Let it be what it is.

Why are there so few women working in improvised music?

That's false, it's a misconception. What's true, it's a question of statistics, is that there are fewer women in any given profession. It's unquestionably the men who decide to let us integrate or not. That's changed a little over the last 30 years. It's a subject that, in itself, is worth a book, isn't it?

I'd rather pose the question differently, and ask the men what they think about the situation. I think men are quick to be sure about themselves; society is constructed in that way. But there will be more and more creative women who improvise, compose, take their lives in hand. I don't see why men should always be the ones who "blaze the trail". As for me, I don't believe in complaining, I believe in work!

When you sing and play double bass simultaneously, are you duetting with yourself?

Yes! and for the public . . . happily! It seems to me that one sings internally while one plays, that's natural. I recall my professor, who always told me, "Sing, go ahead and sing, hear the phrase before you play it."

Giacinto Scelsi's explorations of the inner life of the note seem to have profoundly influenced your playing – or perhaps they just tied in with your own particular interests and inclinations. What is it about Scelsi's way of making music that appeals to you?

It would take far too much time to talk about Scelsi. As early as 1978 I went to Rome to meet him, to talk, to play his music. His music is most moving, a unique music, I think, with its simplicity of sound, how you hear the sound. In itself, a sound is only a sound; it has its intrinsic beauty, its life, its voyage. Scelsi's music is profound, simple, and complex at the same time, at least as to playing it, understanding it, listening to it . . . Certain pieces are more violent, tense - it's a music that disturbs.

It isn't intellectual, but truly universal. One can listen to it, receive it easily, for it's highly spiritual. It speaks to us of man, of nature itself, and of our passage. That's how I hear it. It's a ventral music, a 'feminine' music. When I say feminine, I mean it contains life and death. There's not a woman who's conceived without knowing she's given death when she gives life.

It's that profoundness, and responsibility. It's well known also that Scelsi surrounded himself with female performers. He held the expression, the responsibility, and no doubt the interior nature of women in high esteem, which must have suited his works.

You should also know that he was a great improviser on piano. At his home he had a tape recorder on the piano, and he played, improvised . . .

Few men see, recognise, understand these two elements we all possess - feminine/masculine, force and fragility. That's how I see and imagine it was with Scelsi, but it's only my version.

When I play Scelsi's pieces, I become 'sound' inside, and I'm detached; I feel implicated in the same way as when I play my own music. Each portion of sound, silence, respiration, motifs - melody or not - is life, a total engagement. What blows me away in Scelsi's music is the profoundness, the truth and simplicity of the results.

Classical musicians tend to play with exaggerated control, which hampers their expressive potential. For example, few classically-trained musicians other than yourself could have so full-bloodedly taken on the vocal component of Scelsi's 'Maknongan'. Is there anything you'd like to say about interpretation and, in particular, expressivity?

Being open, hearing and listening, are the potting soil of expressivity. What are we? We're like sponges, saturated with joy and sorrow all our lives.

A receptive musician has the task - with time and patience, and work, of course (not only with his instrument or his music, but to go outside, look around, read, etc.) - to shake us up, to challenge us. That's what expressivity is - it's life! It's about life, the dramaturgy of life. To see the beauty, but also the fragility, the seriousness, that thread, each day. You know, I believe in work, I'll say it again and again. All those moments, those mishaps . . . and the patience to decode it all. Today's society no longer has any patience, that sharp, pointed consciousness to say, "Now then, what did I do yesterday?" etc., etc. Living is a job!

Apparently, the Balinese have a saying: "We have no art. We just try to do everything as well as possible." If music had no greater cultural significance than, say, cooking or repairing a bicycle, would we enjoy it more?

I agree. Nothing is banal or exceptional. There's action and love. To effectively do one's best, whether that's love, bicycling or brushing one's cat, it must be done with love. As soon as there's conviction, perception, there's creation, thus movement and life, thus responsibility. Quite simply, it's necessary to "do one's job" with love, if I can put it that way.

Improvisation is a much-misunderstood way of making music. What would you say to someone who told you that improvisation had no merit?

I'd say, "Okay", if that's the way he sees it. If he likes bananas I'm not going to force him to like apples. I've already said a lot about improvisation. Improvising is a work in progress [in English], I use it, it's a language, a vision of the world too, an art in itself, part of every day.

What function does your music serve, and what value does it have?

I'm not in a good position to answer that question. It has value for me, my voyage. Is a person useful? Artists, and creation in general, are subversive and thus troubling. Artists who depend on government funds, well, that's another matter! A doctor is useful (I don't, however, like that word). But art . . . music . . . ? What I hope for is that when I give a concert, when people listen to my records, they come away touched and, quite simply, filled with life.

Would you like to say something about yourself, your instrument or your music that hasn't been touched on?

No, thank you . . . oh, yes! Think things over, okay, but with a lot of distance, too, to find the balance. Laugh, as well - laughter is so good!

Interviewed by Brian Marley.