Ghédalia Tazartès, 2016. Photo courtesy of Samantha Gore.
Developing his own idiosyncratic approach to voice and tape, Ghédalia Tazartès has remained relatively unknown outside of Paris, where he has worked in dance, theater, and film for many years—and only occasionally released recordings on smaller labels, like Cobalt and Ayaa. While Tazartès’ methodical approach to making music could be considered an ad hoc bedroom version of some of the more well known avant-garde practices developed by François Bayle, Pierre Henri, and Michel Chion at Groupe de Recherches Musicales, it also radically diverges from these traditions, leaning more toward the impressionistic and expressive. Tazartès records hours of material, keeping only the best moments—a working method he calls impromuz, wherein rough tape collages are looped and layered with the sounds with his own voice, synthesizers, and various other instruments. In 2004, after a career of relatively few public appearances, Tazartès’ returned to the stage as a solo performer and has since toured Europe, collaborating with a number of musicians in live settings.
I immediately became a fan after hearing Tazartès music in 2011 by way of re-issues on PAN, Alga Marghen, and VOD. I first invited him to perform in 2013 as part of a festival I organized with Bill Kouligas, but he turned us down, citing a hesitance to travel to the US. Undeterred, I kept the conversation going sporadically for the three years until we finally met in Oslo in the spring of 2016 at Ilan Volkov’s Tectonics festival. Ghédalia finally agreed to come to New York. This interview was conducted in his hotel room the morning before his first and only US performance, presented by Blank Forms.
Lawrence Kumpf I heard a rumor you kept pigeons.
Ghédalia Tazartès Keeping pigeons was the king’s privilege alone because they could be used to communicate. After the revolution, it became the privilege of First Republic. Now there is a law against it in Paris. But I did have pigeons, and all the neighbors complained about them coming and going—and shitting on the windowsills. They called the police, who came and told me it was forbidden. I ended up giving the birds to a friend way out in the country. This was twenty years ago, but I still like them. There’s always something happening with them—fighting, loving, making mistakes. I had two very much in love, and after a year they separated. I realized they were both female. Always stories and theater.
LK You were born in Paris, grew up there, and have somewhat famously lived in the same apartment since 1968. What kinds of music did you hear growing up with your parents, and what were you interested in as a teenager?
GT As a teenager, it was jazz, and particularly the blues, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, and such things. But earlier, with my parents, there was Beethoven. I was more classical, darker, back then. I came to rock’n’roll much later. Elvis was a big star, but he didn’t touch me then. I actually like him very much now—particularly for his movements. He was the first white man I saw moving that way, and I like that spirit. But way back, it just wasn’t considered sensible to enjoy rock’n’roll.
LK Were you playing music at that time or just singing?
GT I was known among my friends as a guy who could sing with ease. That’s why they called up, when I was around twenty, saying, “We’re doing a rock group. Don’t you want to be the singer?” I agreed, but it was a short experience because the bassist had to be the chief, the leader, and he wanted me to sing in English. He also wanted to play at dance halls, which I fought. We didn’t agree, and I left. I’d actually begun without any microphone, and after two days singing over drums and amplified guitars, I had no voice anymore. I’d finally bought a microphone, but when I separated from that group, I thought, What am I doing with this thing? So I got a cassette recorder and realized that with two cassettes I could do more things—play one and re-record on the other. I made some things this way, and my friends thought they weren’t so bad, which lead me to buy a used stereo recorder, and that’s how I started.
LK So you were doing all of this recording at home basically?
GT Yes, with that old machine, then with better microphones, and little by little better material. Then a dancer came to my door saying, “I’ve heard of you. You’re singing and recording things, and I’m looking for a musician. I’m working on a dance.” I said, “I’m not touched by dance, not even the contemporary stuff. It’s just not for me.” But he insisted I come see what they were doing. So, later, I saw two guys in strange costumes rolling around on the floor, something very different from what I’d imagined. I said, “Oh, this is quite funny what you’re doing.” So, I did the music, then we went to a competition and won a prize. I worked with that choreographer for fifteen years and begun to make a little money.
LK What year was this first dance project?
GT 1974, something like that.
LK That’s just a bit before your first album, Diasporas, was released on Cobalt. How did that album come about? It was recorded in 1977 and released in 1979. Were you actively thinking about making your work as records, or was it more about performance?
GT I accumulate recordings, collect them, but back then this guy from the newspaper, Libération, a friend of mine, said, “I’m creating a label. Do you want to do your first album with me?” So, we did Diasporas, and I was glad to have the opportunity.
LK That label had only put out a few records by then— jazz, some African musicians…
GT Many African musicians, actually.
LK Well, then it’s rather interesting that he reached out to you, since you were working with field recordings and there’s this sort of multicultural feel to what you made. How was he, or maybe even you, imagining this work as situated within a pointedly multicultural record label in France?
GT That’s why this journalist proposed we do the record. But I wasn’t really in the ambiance of Cobalt. I didn’t even know what they were publishing, since it was only a small circle of friends.
LK What languages do you sing in, how many different ones?
GT Oh, it’s really just my own language. There is no sense to the words, only their sounds. I don’t like singing in French—though I do it rarely, always with humor, like a joke. And in English, with my dirty accent? No way. But there’s also something more to it—my parents would often talk together in Ladino [Judeo-Spanish], and so we children were unable to understand what they were saying. Thus, if they could have their own language, I could have mine too. So I invented words. My mother said I had my words even very young. She told me that, crawling on the floor, I announced, “I want to be Atatut!” I’ve always done that, invent words. Now I’ve found a justification. I think it’s just something that happened to me—the voice. It came without effort. If you sing in the opera, you have to work a great deal to get the voice coming through, and you have to learn many things. But I’m born with mine. It’s only chance, or something given to me. Either way, I haven’t been grateful enough.
LK You’ve mentioned before an interest in dada and sound poetry. How did you come into contact with that type of work? What poets were you interested in? Were you aware of the text-sound-composition work being made at EMS in Stockholm, people like Åke Hodell, Sten Hanson, and that tradition?
GT I discovered that stuff much later. My interest in poetry came in the south of France. I was on holiday and met this guy, some kind of beatnik, who was always reading Rimbaud and René Daumal. He introduced me to the major French poets, and I fell in love with their world, their thought. Then I discovered the Surrealists, then dada. But The Wire magazine, that kind of contemporary music, was a late discovery. For me, I wasn’t doing music at all. I was doing something with sound, painting maybe. You close your eyes and see abstractions, colors, maybe images, your own images. My idea was to do some immaterial art, not music in particular. I wasn’t thinking, I am a musician, because I didn’t play any instrument and never studied. It was pretentious to claim that. A pianist friend later introduced me to Michel Chion, and he came up to me saying, “You are a musician, man!” And I said, “Wow… That’s great!” He introduced me to new music, and it was indeed all so very new to me.
LK When I hear about your method of making sound collage, it does feel like it’s coming from a completely different tradition than, say, Groupe de Recherches Musicales. Your approach has more resonance with practices in the visual arts or experimental film; the handling of collage has to do with juxtaposition and appropriation. But I want to ask about Michel Chion in particular, your collaboration with him.
GT A very short collaboration.
LK Quasimodo Tango.
GT Chion had composed a tango, and this music was in my mind while I was on my motorcycle in Paris, going around Notre-Dame when the words came to me. But again, it was a really short collaboration of a very particular kind. We lost touch but have since met up in London. Some friends told me, “You know, Michel wrote an article about your music.” I found that article and was really surprised—it was a wonderful thing. So, I met him later at Café OTO, and we had a cordial and moving conversion. It touched me, because he is a very sensitive person, maybe even too much so.
LK Were there other people you met through him, other composers working with magnetic tape or musique concrète composers of the time?
GT He told me about their work, and then I listened to Mauricio Kagel, Henri Chopin, and Stockhausen. Michel introduced me to Pierre Henri, but I was also, somehow, fighting with the Groupe de Recherches Musicales. François Bayle decided not to like me—he really, really disliked my work. He went to one of my first concerts, and I was just a young guy barely beginning, but he was in the audience, saying, “How can you all listen to this shit?” He got the opposite effect though, with everybody remarking, “Why be so mean to this new guy? Nobody even knows him, and you, the director of GRM, want to destroy him?”
LK Did you stop making music at any point?
LK In the ’90s, there wasn’t so much published output, but you continued to work?
GT I was working on music, yes, but out by day trying to make money. It was, of course, difficult because I was tired in the afternoons, wanting to relax, and composing much less. After six months, maybe almost a year, I said, “No! I messed up working like this!” I was preoccupied by trying to earn money, and since the recordings, even today, made me very little, I worked with dancers, did live spectacles on stage singing with them, composing their music. At that time, it was so expensive to release a record. Now it’s really easy. For $2000 you can produce it yourself!
LK A lot of your recently released records are a mix of unreleased archival recordings and new material. Has your approach to making work shifted over the years?
GT I am exactly the same, but the material has progressed. Also the invention of the sampler changed, for me, so many things. Not in the way I work, but in the facility of doing so. It’s much easier to accomplish what I want with a sampler, which is bricolage. I discovered, for example, that I can loop tape. I was spooling it all around my room in a big loop, running it around and through things. At the time, I got the impression I had invented the loop. (laughter) But I discovered things rather empirically, just with the experience, not learning through or looking at others. I was just using chance. It’s very pretentious what I’m saying, but like Picasso, there are different periods but always the same painting.
LK Since you start your ideas privately, working at home, how do you translate this work to live performance? How does presenting your work to a large amount of people, versus creating at home, change things?
GT No, it’s exactly the same! I was tired of dance because there’s no material, and the choreographer has, generally, no ideas! I got the impression of bringing it all myself, and after fifteen years I wanted to do Molière or Shakespeare. I wanted to pursue theater because there is actual material, and a challenge. Maybe even a director to converse with: What can we do for Shakespeare? What can we do for Molière? This instead of total abstraction, empty things.
Because I’m lucky, a man came along asking about composing music for Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” We had a big success with that and worked together for years. Then still later, I was almost ready to retire, tired of both dance and theatre. But I wanted to keep doing something and be out there, always closed up in my home doing my own music, but also with the aspiration of putting it out, having people listen.
I remember the ambiguity in my first projects, because I used a recorded voice with my live voice. People didn’t know what was there, in life, and what was simulated. It was too difficult to ascertain. But when I started again, after thirty-five years, I decided my voice should only be live. I started to perform in this way and it worked.
LK You recently released Coda Lunga, which is packaged with a video that I think functions as a visual analogue to your approach to music—or maybe it’s a nice counterpoint, too. This is perhaps also one of your strangest albums and has the least amount of singing. The video feels like a new approach to working through these same ideas about collage and field recording.
GT The link is India, and only that! With Coda Lunga, it was Nico Vascellari—an artist and musician—who asked me for both a record and a movie. I had material recorded in India, which I’d used for a ballet. I was working then with Annette Leday, who studied Kathakali dancing in India for twenty years. Together we decided to go to India and record its street noise. I brought my video camera as well. The possibility of producing a movie, like producing music, was extraordinary for me—a technological miracle. To produce a movie you needed millions, right? (laughter)
Later, when Nico asked for a record, I found out he ran an artist space called Codalunga—the name means “long tail,” which seemed a good title to me. But I thought my own movie could be done exactly like the music I did at the beginning of my career, because all the montage was done in-camera. I had no computer. I just canceled out parts I didn’t like, then filmed something else—not really montage but a kind of rerecording. I kept thinking, This is a little bit pretentious, my own film! But I had something worthwhile: in India I recorded a man, eighty years old, a master of Kathakali [Kumaran Ashan] playing for the last time. It was free there in India. They never pay for tickets. I was the only cameraperson documenting this old dancer, this grand professor. I thought it was really something rare, because this man is dead now. It was difficult to capture because there were so many people there, and they didn’t care about my efforts, plus it was five hours long. Before the performance began, there were, under cover of night, elephants. These elephants were costumed with gold and other metals and paraded with certain music—so loud! The elephants are said to listen and enjoy this music. And it seemed true! They seemed to sway back and forth. After that, there’s a simple dinner to anyone who wants it. Then, five hours of dance and performance. I filmed as long as I could.
Carp’s Head (Monotype Records, 2016) is the most recent release by Ghédalia Tazartès. He performs at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris this spring, then in Malmö and Athens later this year.