Ezz-thetics

a column by
Stuart Broomer


Joëlle Léandre Tentet, Ulrichsberg Kaleidophon 2010                                                        ©Francois Lagarde

Few concert organizers work on the visionary scale of Alois Fischer of the Jazzatelier in Ulrichsberg, Austria, who frequently finds the opportunity to mount large-scale works that combine elements of composition and improvisation. Since 1986, the Jazzatelier has been presenting Kaleidophon, an annual festival for jazz, improvised music and contemporary composed music during the first weekend of May. The second festival, Phonomanie, takes place in December every two or three years and focuses on a single artist or theme. Among the artists so featured are Evan Parker, Anthony Braxton, Radu Malfatti and Paul Lovens. The documentation of these festivals that has appeared on CD testifies to their ambition and accomplishment. Parker’s Synergetics - Phonomanie III from 1993 presents various assemblies of musicians fusing free improvisation, electronics and world music traditions and instruments from Korea, Tuva and Sardinia. Braxton’s 4 Compositions (Ulrichsberg) 2005 chronicled Phonomanie VIII with works that included multiple conductors and fusions of composition, improvisation and electronics.   

The most recent of these expansive explorations to be released is a two CD set of bassist/composer Joëlle Léandre’s performances from the 2009 Kaleidophon, recently released on Leo Records. While the Léandre performances come from the Jazzatelier’s more diffuse festival, there’s a concentration of resources and invention that make it a major presentation of a single artist.

Each CD presents a single piece. One, entitled simply Trio, is a 47 minute, first-meeting improvisation with Léandre, John Tilbury on piano and Kevin Norton on vibes and percussion. It’s a beautiful work, beginning in a stillness that can only be associated with Morton Feldman and recent incarnations of the group AMM, which Tilbury has defined as much as anyone. It is music so embedded in the time of its making and the unfolding sonic relationships of the partners that it may lead inevitably to certain descriptive generalities. The other piece, the focus of attention here, is a Léandre composition for tentet that lasts 53 minutes and is called, insistently, Can You Hear Me?  It’s a commanding title and a commanding work. I’ll confess that before I heard it I hadn’t thought of Léandre as a composer, though I’d heard her perform often in concerts of improvised music and had heard many CDs of her work. After hearing Can You Hear Me? it would be hard not to think of her as a composer as much as a bassist.

As Léandre says, “I’ve been composing since 1974, mostly for dancers, theatre, and documentary films. I’ve also received different commissions for a long time, but this is the first time I recorded one and put it out on CD. I was never looking to write music to be played again as the composer. I don’t mind, I don’t have time for that. I am more a performer making music in real time, here and now. This is my life.”

Kevin Norton mentions his surprise when first encountering Léandre’s compositions: “When I heard Satiemental Journeys [composed in 1998 and performed in New York in 2007] in Manhattan a few years ago, I had never heard a composed ensemble piece by Joëlle. I was stunned by its originality and also shocked by the fact it wasn’t recorded. I think now people will see another side to Joëlle’s music, a side that is strikingly personal and almost explosive in its originality.”

Alois Fischer says, “I think with the ensemble-piece Joëlle did a very unusual, very personal thing. It had a lot to do with her sadness about her father’s death. But even above that, I felt that she really did something else on this occasion, taking a lot of risk. And I think we have all been rewarded for that.”

When you listen to Can You Hear Me? you hear a work that’s genuinely striking in the force of its musical personality and the way in which it struggles to deal with notions of time and experience and the processes of composition and improvisation as very different yet potentially complementary things. No matter how someone does it, that combination always presents itself in the present as a new and specific challenge.

The experiential density of the composition is tied to the extended period of its composition: “It took me four months to compose,” recalls Joëlle. “It was a sad time, with the death of my father, and at the same time another Israeli/Hamas war with different bomb attacks.

“I was deeply touched by my father’s passing. My adventure ‘on the road’ has come from his spiritual way, his creative and poetic being. His family comes from a kind of gypsy life, while my mother’s side is a farm family. He was so funny and poetic! All my artistic side comes from him. The discipline, precision and intense work come from the farmer side, my mother’s side. These farmers and workers are my roots. Can You Hear Me? is dedicated in a way to my southern family, from Provence in the south of France. This composition is a kind of picture, a narration, a credo to my family.”

For Joëlle, Can You Hear Me? is also tied to the innately political nature of her work. “In my personal choice of life, there are no roles and no rules. As a bass player, all my life I’ve tried to make this a lead instrument, not a ‘following’ instrument but the opposite, a rich and superb solo instrument. I have a thousand questions about its role in music, in an orchestra, in a small ensemble, in jazz...Where is the bass? What is its position? I always believed that the musician is creative...always! Why should the only creative musician be the composer?

“I also had to find my music in a world where the arts exist more or less for men who dominate the language. So I had to invent myself. You can in a way ask these different questions about society, about power, about cultural decisions... in a way, Can You Hear Me? contains all that!”

As you listen to Can You Hear Me? you’re continually engaged with a symbolic vocabulary that insists on the presence of the human condition, everything alive with symbolic significance. The piece begins and ends with the voice. As Joëlle describes it, “the musicians arrive on stage murmuring and go to their seats. Later you can hear the same again. It’s in different steps, after the deep chorale and the explosion with the low percussion that for me gives us this metaphysical vibration, what we are as human beings, making a passage in this world between life and death. It’s a really deep moment, really deep, because everybody has and will pass. The piece is built on a D pedal tone. You can hear it with the guitar player at the beginning, and it’s the last sound too, the piece finishing on the D.”

Can You Hear Me? is music in which different methods of composition and improvisation are very closely integrated. The work seems like a panopticon, a constructed site from which you can see everything, different moods and experiences and musical languages coming into the ear’s range. It is a work with a very strong sense of the composer’s personality but which is also very open to the individual musicians. While Léandre’s score contains a notated trumpet solo, in the actual performance, for example, Lorenz Raab has used the score as the basis for an improvisation of fresh complexity and subtle invention that fits beautifully with the surrounding parts.

Stylistically, it touches upon many of Léandre’s own musical experiences. While she is strongly associated with the composers Giacinto Scelsi and John Cage, the string glissandos near the beginning may suggest Olivier Messiaen, the later “Ritmico” ensemble passages Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître. The piece even commemorates the French love of traditional jazz, with a jazz segment in which Joëlle plays a four-to-the-bar walking bass.

It is also a piece alive with different tonal systems, from a “Trio” segment that’s chromatic to the point of atonality to the very beautiful and somber minor string chords of the “Choral” section (around the 26 minute mark). Effects arise that can only happen in the wedding of composition and improvisation, as in a passage in which guitarist Burkhard Stangl improvises against the composed string section in very different tonal languages creating a music that’s absolutely fresh. Léandre’s own vocal passage near the conclusion is very powerful and seems close to folk sources, with an improvised melody. As this song gradually turns to very quiet speech at the end, the piece becomes more and more intimate as it recedes in volume and disappears. 

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And then the piece still asks, “Can You Hear Me?”

That title is reminiscent of the question repeatedly posed at the outset of Roberto Calasso’s reconfiguration of classical myths, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony: “But how did it all begin?” If Calasso asks the central question of culture, Léandre poses the central question not only of music but of the individual and it seems to me to be an insistence on disclosure, of composer, performers and listeners alike.

So “Can You Hear Me,” the repeated question, the key to self and communication—do you get it? Where are we? Who am I? Is there a connection? “Can you hear me?” speaks to the fullness of one’s experience—everything there is to get from the inside out. It speaks of the temporal totality, the assemblage of the personality as reflected in the other’s acknowledgement. “Can you hear me?”

It also speaks of the personality as an insistent now, a personality that will be different at the end of the work than it was in the beginning, in part because of the very being heard of the performance. How much of Joëlle’s personality is in here? It speaks in part to the duality of the formal and the improvised—those things that can still be constructed as largely separate worlds and which Joëlle has inhabited both individually and in every shade of intersection.

Can you hear someone in the contrast between the tonal languages of the composed portions and some of the folk-like scalar elements that emerge in the improvisation? Much of the heard (Can you hear me in what I’ve heard? what I’ve heard in me?) is clearly here, thus my imagined references (unconfirmed) of the glissandi that might hearken back to Messiaen and passages of clipped rhythmic insistence that can suggest Boulez.

There is even a passage of “jazz” in here, more idiomatic perhaps to some of Joelle’s associates (certainly Kevin Norton and one thinks in the past of Steve Lacy and Derek Bailey) than to Joelle herself—can you hear me as the bearer of what has been heard by those to whom I am close? So it’s a piece that talks defiantly and insistently about the parameters of me – where are the boundaries of the self and is the border open?

And, too, there is the sense in which this music is insistently collective, in Léandre’s willingness to give its materials to collaborators, e.g., the passage in which Norton leads a conduction.

There is also the untapped language of autobiography, the sense of a point of view and an assembling body of experience and a unique way of looking at the world that has so much to do with looking at the empathy of others—“Can you hear ME?” And what then is that special hearing that will embrace a history, a personality, an embodiment of all that has been and can be heard within the framework of the self and its experience?

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Both Léandre and Norton speak of some of the trials of rehearsal and realization. Norton says, “As we went, I think we got in three full days of rehearsal. The ensemble wasn’t unified, but one of the things that I love about Joëlle is that she totally committed to letting the voice of the music come out and not have it interrupted by accoutrements or pretense or artifice, So if the idea was it should be written in her own hand because that would be the most “honest” way, that’s the way it had to be done. In the end, I think we – all of us – did a great job of coming together for the music. I don’t think I will ever forget the musicians’ faces and voices and to Joëlle’s credit, it was her music and rehearsing style that brought us together. I love the very ending, Joëlle’s speaking and whispering. It was absolutely riveting in the room … dead silence … the audience, the members of the ensemble holding our breath.”

Throughout the process, Norton, has been singularly impressed by Léandre as a composer: “Maybe more than any other improviser I’m familiar with, Joëlle truly lives for brand new music, so I was very happy to play a supporting role in this ensemble piece. I think it’s a great composition, very unique within the community of improviser/composers that I’m familiar with. More than any musician I’ve worked with, Joëlle’s music goes directly from her personal experiences, ideas and feelings into sound and she’s now accomplished that with a composition for a 10-musician ensemble.”

Joëlle’s starting to plan to perform the piece again next year, with Kevin Norton again on percussion and a group of French associates. For her, “The piece is a kind of mirror, a utopia of musicians’ desires, where different creative possibilities come together.”

Stuart Broomer©2011

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