On stage, there is something of a Monsieur Hulot-esque quality to Joëlle Léandre. She hunches over her big double bass, leaning forward with furrowed brow, huffing and puffing as she plays, sometimes letting those huffs and puffs emerge as full-throated vocalizations, each one a triumphant bof! of simultaneous exultation and exasperation. Watching her solo set at this year’s London Contemporary Music Festival at Woolwich Fireworks Factory, I was struck by the way her extempore playing emerges: not as a more-or-less systematic development and variation of spontaneously generated motifs, nor as kind of pure cry of unconstrained expression, some cathartic emptying out of the soul. Rather, it emerges as something like the careful opening out of a seed contained within the initial gesture. In the course of this germination, Léandre seems to try on different characters, different modes of playing and embodiment, in the course of which a myriad new sonic life forms blossom and flower.
Born to a working-class family in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France in 1951, Léandre initially played the recorder before switching to double bass. She attended the prestigious Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique in Paris before embarking on a freelance career that would see her perform with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim, and Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble intercontemporain. John Cage dedicated his “Ryoanji” to her; Giacinto Scelsi his “C’est bien la nuit” and “Le réveil profond.” Meanwhile, a chance encounter with free jazz while she was still a student led to a lifelong engagement with improvised music. Léandre has collaborated with Anthony Braxton, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, George Lewis, and countless others. With over 200 recordings to her name and a seemingly ceaseless schedule of live shows, today Léandre is one of Europe’s most sought after and most remarkable performers.
In conversation, Léandre can be as profuse and unconstrained as she is onstage, frequently breaking off into onomatopoeia or to do the voice of whichever musical luminary she’s sharing an anecdote about. We spoke in her hotel, the morning after the concert, about drinking with the AACM in New York, dining at John Cage’s apartment, and why a Brian Ferneyhough score can feel like a prison.
VAN: Let’s start by talking about the concert last night. You’ve checked your tuning, put some rosin on your bow, you’re just about to start playing. What thoughts are going through your head?
Joëlle Léandre: Nothing. The more you are empty, the more will come—especially when you improvise. If you start to think, this is schizophrenia. It’s just you and your preparation. If you think about what you’re supposed to play, you’re not into the music. To be into the music, you must become sound. So from the first gesture, you’re on the train and then you follow the music. Of course, to arrive at this state, you have to know your tool very, very well. There are improvisers who just play [random sounds]. I call this diarrhea. They make music, but we can also organize how to make music, how to build, how to listen. Yesterday, I started with a kind of in-between noise. And this was already the piece. The character of the piece, the feeling, the motion, the body is already there in the first ingredient of the piece. I think this music is molecular. What you eat, what you read, how you dress, everything—even the smallest thing—goes into the music.
How old were you when you first started playing?
I was eight. Recorder first, then I started the piano. I come from quite a poor family. No money at home. This follows you all your life. They made a big sacrifice for me, to put me in a conservatory in Aix-en-Provence. Because the teacher called my parents and said, ”She is so fast, she recalls, she understands. She is so happy to play this recorder—this little plastic flute!” I remember hearing someone playing the piano. Bach, I think. I don’t know. I was listening by the door. And I told my mother, “I would like to play the piano.” Do you know what she said? There was a long silence. And she said, “It’s not for us. Art and culture is not for [the proletariat], it’s for the bourgeois, for people who have money.” And when I arrived in Paris for classes at the Conservatoire National Superieur, there were 1,400 students and only 45 [working class students] in the school. So my family made a big sacrifice for me, and probably that pushed me to practice, to understand. And I did a lot of things to earn money, to pay my rent and buy my socks, working freelance for different orchestras. But it was not my thing. It was not in my character to just be there and receive a payslip at the end of the month. Music is not [like being a] fonctionnaire, as we say in French. I went quickly towards new music.
Do you remember what was the first piece that felt like your music?
I remember this piece by Jacob Druckman called “Valentine.” Such a difficult piece. It took seven months to learn. A fantastic piece. Also, “Theraps” by Xenakis. That was later. But the other thing that changed my life was hearing Black musicians. The same time that I was busy with these classical studies, I went with my bicycle to go to the American Center to listen to African-American free jazz. To hear Roscoe [Mitchell], [Anthony] Braxton, Bill Dixon, Alan Silva on the bass, Art Ensemble of Chicago, of course. And I was shocked! What are they doing? This kind of live ceremony. They play. They are alive. It was beautiful. I went regularly to the American Center to listen. There was also sound poetry, which I loved. I learned a lot more about African-American music. It had a freedom—a kind of freedom. But in the end, I’m like a sandwich from McDonald’s with three layers. I had this classical background; I had this curiosity about my own century; and at the same time, this sense of freedom and spontaneity from free jazz. I’ve kept these three layers, in a way. When I play the bass, you can tell I have this classical background—because it’s true, to play the bass like that, you have to practice and know the instrument and all these things—but there’s also this sense of freedom which doesn’t come from white occidental imperial culture.
Is that why you went to the United States in the mid-70s, in order to find the source of this music you’d been hearing at the American Center in Paris?
Yes. I received a grant. I left for Buffalo, New York, to work with Morton Feldman. But Cage was there also and Lukas Foss was there. There were six or seven of usfrom different countries. I remember Robert Dick on flute, Frances-Marie Uitti on cello, John Tilbury on piano. It was my first time in America. I had money, I could do what I wanted. I remember taking a Greyhound bus into New York to meet Leroy Jenkins [improvising violinist and AACM member] and Fred Hopkins [double bassist and AACM member] invited me for a drink uptown. I was so young! But I learned a lot from them.
How did you first meet John Cage?
It started in Paris. I was the bass player in this ensemble, 2E2M, and when we played Cage’s music, he often came to rehearsals. Then I met him again in Buffalo and New York and we became friends. I came over and he remembered my voice. He had a really nice voice. “Hi Joelle, what are you doing?” “Well, I’m playing at the Roulette in town with Fred Frith.” “I will come.” And he came! And he cooked for me. He invited me to his loft with plenty of plants. Huge plants everywhere. A fantastic personality, and so open, not only in terms of freedom or space or silence or indeterminacy. He gives you this responsibility. This is Cage. That’s what I understood.
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What did responsibility mean for Cage?
Well, responsibility to the score, firstly. But the score becomes the mirror of you, of humanity, of who you are as a person. You’re totally responsible for this sound. And you need to love the sounds without hierarchy. No hierarchy with Cage! But first of all, you become sound. So he gives you this freedom to be you. He gave a lot, Cage.
And I guess the other composer who was especially important for you at this time was Giacinto Scelsi…
Yes. I played his music with Ensemble Itinéraire in Paris, this trio with gong, harp and bass. Such a difficult piece! So unique! It was shocking—in a good way! I met him when I returned from Buffalo. We had played some of his music, with the group of musicians around Feldman, and this piano player at the apartment where I was staying said, “Oh you don’t know the count? You have to meet him.” So when I arrived back in Paris, a month later I called Scelsi. I was a little bit [nervous]. But he was so lovely. He loved to speak French, he preferred to speak French than Italian. “What do you play?” he asked. I said, “I’m a bass player.” He said, “When will you come to meet me in Rome?” And a month later, I took the Palatino Express from Paris to Rome. I arrived at this old house. He was living on the third floor. I stayed on the first floor. I practiced with him. Special hours. Not the morning. He was quite severe, but funny also, in a way. An intense guy with these blue eyes.
How would you compare their personalities, Cage and Scelsi?
I think with both of them, they were composers more of sound than of pitch. You have these “pitches” composers, intellectuals like Brian Ferneyhough. They say, ”Take this score,” and then they leave. [Ferneyhough] gave me six months to work on just this one thing. It’s almost impossible to play this score. I gave my life to Ferneyhough. For what? You are in jail. It’s a total prison. I don’t like this kind of hierarchy which says, I am the composer and you are the performer. It’s all about power. I hate that. But for Scelsi and Cage, it was more about sound. Plus Cage had a lot of humor and Scelsi touched you so deep. I still play a little Scelsi sometimes. ¶
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