Improvisation, instrumental music, and the political function of art.
French bassist, composer, and improviser Joëlle Léandre talks like she plays: with full-on intensity, using the whole range of her voice, offering idea after idea, drawing unusual connections, demanding your attention. She’s a nomad, she’ll tell you, and she’ll take her music where she likes. She’s a bee, she’ll say, gathering inspiration from any appealing blossom. She pays no mind to musical boundaries. Liberty is her hallmark.
When you listen to one of Léandre’s 150-some recordings, you’re struck by the variety of sounds she achieves from the double bass and the number of methods she uses to play not only the strings, but the instrument’s whole body. You don’t like it? That’s OK. As she says in her book Solo, “the object of art is to subvert, to overwhelm, to move to reflection. It’s a celebration of life. The artist is subversive, disturbing.”
This conversation took place over Skype during Léandre’s busy summer touring schedule.
Whitney Curry Wimbish You began your studies as a classical bassist. What drew you to free improvisation?
Joëlle Léandre The term “free improvisation,” to me, means nothing. When we play, we are not free. It is impossible to be free. Because the moment you start a sound, a musical gesture, a movement, the memory starts and I try to give a sense of organization, texture, form, repetition, variation. Even if it’s just noise, you have to organize. I am an improviser who composes. That’s why, for me, improvisation is a chamber music.
Even if it’s just two sounds repeated with a partner, or microtonal, the music has to be organized. That’s why I don’t like the term “free improvisation.” Who can give me the solution to be free in this society? We are not free. So this is the first point. It’s true what Anthony Braxton says. He gave it exactly the right name: “creative music.”
When I was eighteen years old, I went to the United States. It was the only place where everything was happening—dance, poetry, music. At the same time, I was in the classical conservatory in Paris. So I was like a child, listening to Anthony Braxton, Alan Silva, and it was a shock to me. It was tribulation and freedom. It was freedom to listen, to hear these musicians. Then I had to go back to my conservatory and finish my studies. I had to play—I don’t know—a concerto in D-flat or D-major.
Life is a selection. You need to select. You cannot play every music, you cannot do everything. You have to slowly, with patience, decide. We have to decide. I’m sixty-three years old, and all my life, I decide to de-rule—déréguler— the rules of society and gender and music. In music, we have a lot of rules.
WCW Some listeners, even other musicians, say they avoid improvised music because it makes them uncomfortable. Why do you think this “creative music” causes discomfort?
JL It’s the organization of the culture. It’s totally societal. The people who have the power, the money, don’t help us in all this creative music or dance or art or poetry—this culture. They don’t help us because we have no TV with us. No broadcasts. We fight to play and open our mouths and say, “Hey, it’s me, I am like this. You’re different, but I’m like this. I want to give you some feeling, some question, even if it’s bizarre, different, provocative.”
But people are totally intelligent and sensitive, they are waiting for that. They’re totally open to listening. Why don’t they? It’s because society discourages it. The decision to go and see and listen and read is a political decision. That’s all.
Creative musicians try with such deep honesty and reflection to do what we do, and know and understand why we do it. I know exactly why and how I play. For forty years, slowly, very slowly, I select, and I decide to stay—until I die—in this creative life. But nobody gives you the key. Even at the conservatory, or the university in America, they don’t give you the key to say, “Hey, invent. Be you.” Nobody gives you that. You have to build everything by yourself.
It’s my character. I am a political person. You know the bee? I’m a bee. I’m a big bee, with my bass. Buzz. And I look over here. Buzz. Buzz. And I look over there. And I go home, in silence, and try to think and organize my thoughts.
WCW In your book Solo you say that everything is political. What are the politics of your music?
JL Music is not political. It’s just the attitude in society that makes it so. I don’t compose political music, that’s absurd. That’s totally stupid. I don’t have any message. Some artists and people in society, they have a message, a goal. I have no goal. My vibration is like a bee’s. I’m a pure nomad.
Playing and composing, for me, are very close. They are twins. The composers who are just composers, do you know what I call them? "Square heads." They forget dancing. They forget life and human beings. We have intellect, memory, a pulse and we also have the heart—le coeur—the soul, the sex, the body. Music is also the body, gesture, happiness. All human beings have complexity and fragility. It’s not political.
My question, my reflection, my concept of life is that it is freedom, to try to be simply—with integrity—you. Even if it’s hard, long, difficult, it’s you. That’s why I call you to invent yourself. It needs time. It needs all your life.
Take a discussion with John Cage about improvisation, for example. Cage was so permissive and laughed all the time. He was laughing, like, “Go, do it. Be you.” Everything was possible but there was deep responsibility in what you proposed. Cage gave me a lot of the freedom, which I love, but also a lot of work. You have to work. Work doesn’t mean I practice my bass. Work is to have the attitude—and I call this political—to have this consciousness as artists about why we go on stage. Why do we go on stage? It’s not just “Oh, he or she plays well, oh, she’s a fantastic trumpet player,” or “He’s wonderful! Great! I never heard such a wonderful pianist!” You have thousands and thousands of pianists and bass players who play very well. But why do we go on stage? Why do you decide on this attitude, this sound, this technique, this gesture? Because it’s a reflection and mirror of the society.
It’s impossible for me to go into the very clean and large and beautiful bourgeois room and just play. Oh my god! When what’s happening in the street with this injustice, what’s happened with the organization of money? Distribution of money is so stupid now, with millionaires, people just on the side, and no middle whatsoever. It’s terrible what’s happened. So, you cannot just arrive on stage and say, “Hey, I win my money, I play well, my name is good.” No. Because as artists, we are sponges.
But, when you compose, you don’t compose politically. Sounds are not political. Music is sounds, no? It depends on how you organize the sounds. That’s all.
Art is, for me, subversive, because if not, you go into the institution. You receive two commissions a year, and you become an institutional artist, and you receive all this recognition and money. Art is subversive and has to keep a utopian ideal. This is its political function: to change the world.
WCW How does music change the world?
JL I can play in front of two people or 5,000 people. I know I touch people. I have energy. I am a strong musician and I have this responsibility, when I arrive on stage, to touch people or to provoke. It’s good if you don’t like it. Then at least you go home to think, to say, “Why didn’t I like that musician last week?”
If you enter a museum or a gallery, you have to come back home and think, “Why did this painter just make two lines like this and two or three red dashes? Why? I don’t understand. What did he or she want to express?” Maybe to arrive and make two lines and three red dashes, maybe he worked forty years to select, select, select, and select, his two lines and three dashes, to talk about and express the world, the space, the blood, and the human war around us. Maybe one line expresses the difficulty of the human being, of not being free. The other, in front, is in resonance. It’s not by chance. It’s not a fantasy. It’s a work. It’s a long work.
There’s a belief that this art is only for the elite—for a certain category of human being with a certain intellect. But I don’t think so. My music is not elitist music, my music is for everybody. My work, my discourse, my dialogue, is not elitist. But, this music needs a little more time, a little more silence, a little more reflection. You have so many different artists and organizations that are a lot of shit and are repetitious—people doing the same things. People are afraid. Nobody helps them. They are indoctrinated.
Today I bought a book of the letters of Samuel Beckett. We just know Beckett as Beckett. He was very rigid, ascetic, and it will take time to read, because it’s a big book, but I’m so happy to get into this intimate world. It’s his correspondence with friends, family, theater directors, colleagues. It will be another picture for me in my knowledge about Beckett. But this correspondence and daily living is also his work. In Paris, when there is a play of his, I go and I read almost everything about it. You might say, “Yes, Joëlle, it’s because you’re cultured.” But this culture needs to be developed, and everybody is ready. I don’t feel it’s just for the elite. I’m sure that my music, my work, can touch any gender, any people, no matter if you are rich or not, artist or not.
WCW Does studying at conservatory help or hurt the creative musician?
JL When we study we become really strong specialists. I’m really a bass player. I know every corner of sound. We have very good way of teaching the instrument.
But to make creative music you must go outside this building and finish your studies. Now you can start living the life of a musician. You have to be open to this adventure of music. If somebody comes to you, a poet, a dancer, and says, “I listened to your CDs, I saw you on stage, I would like to work with you,” you have to say yes. You have to say yes, all the time. Yes, yes, yes. Like you’re a teenager, like you’re new. When we improvise, we’re new, we’re like a baby. We’re empty. We smile, we’re so happy, because we play, we give, we exchange.
Society is totally built on a hierarchy, a pyramidal organization. With improvisation, there is no gender, no hierarchy, you can have every musician dialoguing together: you can have a rock musician, an African percussionist, another from new music, another from be-bop. Ah! OK! Now we can play. And we play, we care, we’re exchanging. It’s life. It’s real life.
In past centuries, each composer, before he decided to become a composer, was an instrumentalist. Mozart played the viola, Bach, Beethoven, and Ravel played the piano. Stravinsky played the piano. But under a monarchy of kings and queens, there is a hierarchy. There’s a castle, power, money, and you have in the corner some farmers, some poor people on the street. And in art you have just one or two musicians. A king or queen gives some money to Mr. Haydn, Mr. Handel, or Mr. Bach, and says, “I need a concerto in the next six months.” Oh my god. Poor Haydn. Poor Mozart. Panique totale! “I have to compose a string quartet for the King.” So, he needs to find his colleagues and friends—instrumentalists—and say, “I have to compose for seven musicians: violin, bassoon, harp, cello, trumpet, trombone and percussion.” And these musicians say, “Hey, Mozart, I love you. You need us, OK. But we need money, too.” And this hierarchy totally cuts off the creativity of each musician. They just receive money to read the music and shut up. I’m sure about that, because all musicians—and I could add, every human being—is totally creative.
But society—and this is political—doesn’t want creative people. Not too much creativity, just a little bit. Do you know why? If the people could say, “No! I don’t want to do this or that,” there would be pure anarchy. All societies are built like this, because they don’t want the people to be too free.
They fear this kind of ... not originality ... but freedom, to say, “I don’t like the apple, I prefer the banana.” It’s exactly the same in music now, how classical music exists for certain people in this society. Who decides that Mozart and Beethoven cannot be listened to by the butcher on the corner? Who decides, and why? I’m sure the butcher on the corner or the guy at the shoe store can decide for themselves and would be open to listen. Why not? It’s because of the organization of the culture. The monarchy continues.
Again and again and again, the conservatory is conservative. The name is conservative. A conservatory is a box. Stay in the box! They teach exactly the same concerto, the same decisions, the same organization, the same compositions, the same way of studying. The student has to compose a string quartet, and they all compose exactly the same string quartet. It’s totally stupid. We are in the 21st century, but the composer has to compose exactly like in the 15th century. The same string quartet: two violins, viola and cello. And if you put one violin, one viola, a bass and electric guitar, is that not a string quartet? It’s a string quartet. Or, a bass, a violin, an electric guitar, and an oud, is that not a string quartet? It’s a string quartet. But nobody can compose like that there. So again and again, and again and again—and again—we are in the 21st century, yet we compose for two violins, viola and cello. This, for me, is stupid. This has to change. The conservatory needs to become the “improvisatory.” That would be great. Change all the teachers who teach the same shit again and again.
It’s funny—the Conservatory of Paris called me to give a workshop and master class around improvisation. In France and Europe, they know the practice and this combat I have around this creative music. It’s funny, because they invited me as a teacher. But I never teach. I’m not a teacher. I pass, I push musicians.
Invent something slowly, something personal that you believe in, and you will see what happens. Maybe not right now, but life is repetition, and it will develop into something. Nobody will give you the key. Shit, life is work. But, of course, my own definition is: I’m a musician and my tool is the bass.
For more on Joëlle Léandre, visit her website.
Whitney Curry Wimbish is a journalist and creative writer who lives in Brooklyn. She has written for The Financial Times, The Herald News, Bergen Record, and The Cambodia Daily.