Interview with Joëlle Léandre


(lecturer in psychology/contemporary music)

In November of 1996, Joëlle LÉANDRE, the contrabassist active throughout the world in all areas of music: performance, composition, improvisation, performed at Xebec. This interview, conducted on the following day, ranged from talk about her friendships with Giacinto SCELSI and John CAGE to fascinating topics such as improvisation and composition. In this excerpt, Fujishima Yutaka focuses on Léandre's thoughts on Cage and improvisation.

Fujishima: Last evening you had the last of your concerts in Japan at Xebec Hall in Kobe, so I'd like to start by asking your impressions of the tour.

Léandre: Sure. This is my first visit to Japan, and the concert tour was very impressive and exciting for me.

Fujishima: You started your performance with the piece, "Homage for John Cage," and ended with "Flower" by John Cage. Is there some reason for this?

Léandre: Yes. I have a lot of homage to John Cage.

 Léandre image 1

Léandre image 2

Fujishima: Could you tell me about your experiences with him and your philosophy about him ?

Léandre: I think he stays totally with all my work and thinking. Because he gave me to some possibilities to understand music with passion, with the passions of what I am, not as the profession called "musician." What I am means being open to the happenings what are called sounds. In my life, it is a deep experience to be in the versions all the time.

Fujishima : When did you meet John Cage ?

Léandre : It was in 1971 or '72 and it was in 1974 when I first played his piece, Concert for Piano and Orchestra. However, I knew him first along his books. First,Pour les oiseaux(For the Birds),and one year later, Silence. I became very absorbed in Pour les oiseaux. In those days, I was quite young and a totally classical player. So when I read it, I was shocked. It was a beautiful shock, a sound phenomenon. I was so impressed with the naturality in the book.

Fujishima : Did you study in the U.S. after that ?

Léandre : In 1977, I was given a grant to study with Morton FELDMAN in Buffalo, New York. I was there for eight months. Then I had a recital at the Carnegie Recital Hall, where I played new pieces by John Cage, Scelsi, and so on. I remember Cage was in the audience. We started to be close. He invited me to his apartment. Then, I sometimes passed to New York to play at the Roulette or at the Kitchen, and passed quickly to work for free musicians. Before coming to America, I had played contrabass in the contemporary music ensembles, L'itineraire and 2e2m for eight years.

Fujishima : You mean you had gotten fed up with contemporary music?

Léandre : In America, I played free music and improvisations with a trio or a smaller ensemble. I don't like big bands and big ensembles. Oh, and I also did a recital at Columbia University. Cage came to it, and I played "Taxi," which I also played yesterday. Do you remember my laugh "Wa, ha, ha"? That was Cage's laugh.

Fujishima : Yes, I do.

Léandre : Cage was there. He was fantastic. Even though he was not open to free music, he was not against it. John ZORN whispered to me, "Joëlle, John Cage is over there." "Sure, I called him." (laughing) We stayed close like that. And also, I met him by chance in '81 or '82. He was with Merce CUNNINGHAM. In the street, I met John. Can you imagine? Paris is quite big, in a big place, Les Halles, that John, with a basket, suddenly called, "Joëlle, Joëlle!" I see. "What are you doing?" "And you ?" "I play tomorrow with a dancer." "Where ?" "Here." "What time ?" "At eight." He came also. We were friends. But he had a lot of friends.

I didn't want to take his time. He was very friendly.

Léandre : Can I talk about the piece, "Homage for John Cage" ?

Fujishima : Yes, please.

Léandre : The piece was composed when I received a small grant for three weeks to study with John Cage at Guilford University in England.

Fujishima : What kind of program was it?

Léandre : There were eight choreographers and eight composers. I was chosen as the French composer and musician. Day after day I had to compose. In the morning there was a lesson by John Cage, in the afternoon silent for composing, and in the evening, a performance with dancers for the audience. My ego was away. I could only accept what I was. Because Cage said, "More language, more difference, more conversation, more talking together." It was a pure and deep lesson in my life. And the result was totally intense. Every day disciplined! And playing in the evening. On Sundays, there were lessons in the forest with John about mushrooms. And cook. It was too hard. Three or four persons had left because it was so rude to finish the music, and to see good or bad for yourself. It was a microcosm of what we are.

Coming to yesterday's performance, the piece for Cage was composed during my stay at Guilford. You know Cage was a Satian, so I wanted to express something about the universe of Satie. You have "S," "A," "T," "I," and I didn't bother with "E." And in a very different way, in the composed parts I put, "sususususu," "ah!," "tuk-tuk-tuk," and "hihihihihi" in the tape, and then Satie was in the tape. Now real objects, small objects. It was Satie's mini life: a piano, a pipe, a hat, and a bicycle, and at the end, "dindondan ...." (singing), and "rururururu" a clock. It was for Cage.

Fujishima : The melody is a kind of mode ?

Léandre : Yes. It was from Gymnopédies.

I like the process. I like the chance of having the audience be totally focused on one thing. When the lights go down, I just stop and there is darkness all around. They have to focus on the small table, the small objects. I like this kind of proportion, this microcosm of sound. That is say, sound is also a space. People look at the small objects with big sounds. I like the contrast.

Fujishima : And at the end you use a clock.

Léandre : Oh! It is a memory of John Cage. Oh! Stopwatch!

Fujishima : Well, I would like to ask you about free improvisation. What does it mean to you?

Léandre : I could say improvisation is natural music. It is one way to find out why you took up an instrument for the first time. Because you have an emotion when you take an instrument, and you express it naturally.

Contrabass is an instrument that follows in the ensemble. And solo pieces for contrabass are basta! If a composer comes to me with a score, I am very curious, and I try to discover new sounds and they are found a little bit by him and a little bit by me.

Fujishima : Have you been influenced by America?

Léandre : Yes, lots. Everybody says, "Do it" and "Go for it." This is pure freedom. "Be you." This is America.

And I listened to jazz, free music, and black music. A lot of sounds. I saw performances, body performances, sound events, happenings....Everyone, every composer or musician says, "Do a recital." They forced me to have recitals. In Europe, composers are certain stuffs. They make the very strong hierarchy. I am against it, and I hope to continue this kind of life.

Fujishima : After you came back to France, what did you do ?

Léandre : I continued to play in L'itineraire for a few years, but I stopped. I continue to be a musician. I am still a performer. I am open to composers.

If a composer is alive and gives me a score, I can play and collaborate with him, if he is open.

Fujishima : Could you tell me more about your idea of improvisation ?

Léandre : Improvisation is "cook," "walk," "esquisse (sketch)," and "take time." It's time différé The result is open to variations. Improvisation is in real time. We are in life.

Fujishima : What does "time différé mean ?

Léandre : Well, it means prolonged time. What I like is time of pass, of now, of nature and of outside. Time continues without us. Deep improvisation is an exploration about sounds and us, our egos. You could be in a kind of humidity. Because when you improvise, you accept results, good or not, no faults. When you compose, you won't be bad. You just have to be good because you are working with certain results, what you are. It's a final production. It takes time to be sure. But I like the production, like working in progress, like what we are. I like this process. Radical improvisation is totally spontaneous.

Fujishima : What people are you thinking of playing with ?

Léandre : I like to play with my friends and creative musicians, who can compose and play. To all the composers who are only composing, I say "Pu!," and to all the musicians only playing, I say "Pu!" I prefer to be looking for what I am. I am closer to people without hierarchy in a spiritual way.

Fujishima : Thank you.

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