An Interview with Georges Aperghis

By · Title Image © Xavier Lambours · Date 11/09/2017

“What I find interesting in Georges Aperghis’ works is his way of juggling elements that are all in some way chaotic as a way of writing music, his way of searching for possible creative focuses that assumes an absolute risk,” wrote the philosopher Félix Guattari. Recently, I spoke with the prolific composer, whose work moves beyond musical composition into the fields of contemporary art, theater, and philosophy. (All of which he is extremely well-versed in.) Aperghis spoke in metaphors, boiling down the abstract workings of his mind into digestible, relatable concepts and, in the end, was able to help me understand why his working process is so strikingly original.

VAN: When you start a new composition, do you begin with a single concept, a specific tone, sound, or instrument, or does it depend on the project?

Georges Aperghis: I start with the material that is there; that can sometimes be an instrument or the voice. It happens a little bit like a game of construction that reveals itself little by little, like a Rubik’s cube. Ideas come and I try them out. That creates surprises a lot of the time, because you can try something and then it becomes interesting to try another idea or route. It always fluctuates until the end of the piece. It’s always a changing process.

Your work is often based on a theoretical or psychoanalytical text, for example Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss. How you are able to embody such a theoretical work in music, movement, and theater?

It’s been a long time since I produced work based on psychoanalysis or Tristes Tropiques, but it was always done with a wish to tell the important stories of the 20th century. Tropology and psychoanalysis play a large role in telling the story of our generation.

Tristes Tropiques is originally an anthropological text written by the structuralist Lévi-Strauss. It is a travelogue and one of the most prominent theoretical texts of its time. Aperghis wrote many operas in the 1970s dealing with texts that, like Triste Tropiques, are more abstract than narrative. He has also written operas based on works by Diderot and Freud.

So it was the themes that influenced you, and you made your compositions from there?

Yes, I chose to tell the story with music and images.

Georges Aperghis, “Rasch” (2001)

What does a typical work day look like for you?

I work every day from the morning until the night. When I’m tired I stop. I work without stopping. I don’t eat lunch, I just work through. I only eat at night after having finished. I cook and then I eat dinner with my wife.

You work a lot.

Yes, yes. I usually do a lot of administrative work with my assistant on the computer during the afternoon.

Photo Berkshire Community College Bioscience Image Library (Public Domain)
Photo Berkshire Community College Bioscience Image Library (Public Domain)

On your website you use a term invented from your last name, “aperghein.” What does that term mean today?

I didn’t invent that, it must have been the person who takes care of the website. I’m not sure what it is supposed to mean, but it must be a joke they made up. I do know that my last name means “the strike.”

Strike! But that’s the opposite of what you do.

It’s exactly the opposite! I guess it’s ironic.

Movement and space play a large role in your musical composition. Where does this come from?

A lot of it comes from contemporary art, because a large part of listening to music is also looking. I see a whole range of possible movements. I see the behaviors, the human body, the musicians, the singers. Everything works together for me. The visual is very important, since it’s built by the individual. We are always looking, even for concert pieces without a theatrical component. There is an element of hidden theater within music.

Your opera “Luna Park” includes a striking use of space. How did you create a piece that creates such a strong link between contemporary art and music?

A lot of that is derived from the content, as the piece is about control, cameras, and surveillance. The music isn’t completely structured when I start working with the actors. We have the space, we have the text, we have the video, we have parts of the music, but there isn’t continuity between all of them. The interaction between all the elements is created on set. This is done in order to find [overlapping elements] between the music and the visuals, which are really very closely linked. One could not exist without the other. It’s basically a question of function. The musical function has to be a function of the video, which is a function of the actors, and all of that functions together. Everything is done spontaneously, so the music isn’t created in a specific order from beginning to end. There are a lot of pieces of music, fragments of 30 seconds or two minutes, and I put all of that in place with everyone, with the lighting, with the video, and that’s when I decide the order of the music. The music isn’t fixed from the beginning.

GEORGES APERGHIS, “LUNA PARK”; EVA FURRER (OCTABASS AND VOICE), JOHANNE SAUNIER (VOICE AND DANCE), MIKE SCHMIDT (BASS FLUTE AND VOICE), AND RICHARD DUBELSKY (AIR PERCUSSION AND VOICE)

Was that a choice you made when you started writing the piece?

Yes, I created many musical fragments, but it’s not completely written. There is a score for the double bass, the bass flute, and the voice, but I didn’t know how I would layer them, or how they would function together. We did all of that on the spot. There were also electronic sounds, and quite a few ideas came from the video and the camera, but all of that was put together with everyone else.

How did you incorporate movement?

The movement is a part of the pieces of music. It’s a part of the electronics and their individual movements. It’s built a bit like a muscle.

Photo Berkshire Community College Bioscience Image Library (Public Domain)
Photo Berkshire Community College Bioscience Image Library (Public Domain)

You often incorporate technology into your works. How do you characterize the relationship between the human body and technology?

This is a very pertinent question, because right now I’m working on a piece with robots. The human body and the robotic body are completely different. I’m working on the relationship between technological and human bodies, and how little by little technology is entering the human body. For example, in the U.S. there are a lot of people who put a small electronic card directly onto their skin that can act as a surrogate eye. It allows people to be able to see as if they themselves were a camera. There are quite a few small operations like that, where people are beginning to use technology as an extension of the human body. That’s what I’m working on right now.

That reminds me a bit of the themes that the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari discuss. Are they among your theoretical influences, or do you have other writers who influence your work?

I always loved Deleuze and Guattari. I never met Deleuze personally, but I knew Guattari quite well. They wrote some things about my work that I thought were wonderful.

Félix Guattari was a French psychotherapist and philosopher who published many influential works during the late postmodern era. He is most well-known for his collaboration with Giles Deleuze on publications that were both influential within post-structuralism, and have become the foundations of more contemporary philosophical theories. On Aperghis’ website, there is a text written by Guattari based on a conversation he had with the composer. He discusses how Aperghis can transgress traditional musical boundaries found, for example, in polyphonic music, yet still appreciate the complexity of the formal and logical. Guattari believes that Aperghis toes the line between Bach and Duchamp by embracing the chaotic and affectual. In his music, the chaotic and the formal work in conjunction with one another seamlessly.

Do you have other writers or artists who influence you today?

No, right now I’m focusing on problems surrounding immigration. I’m reading the testimony of immigrants quite a bit, since that interests me a lot. It’s not really literature, it’s reality. I have a piece right now called “L’Immigrant” that will be playing in Berlin in March with the entire philharmonic orchestra. It’s just one piece, but I am continuing my work on the project. I think this piece is really important, since there isn’t much work about the enormous mass of displaced people, and I think it’s really relevant to our times. ¶