The composer Georges Aperghis, who was born 1945 in Athens and moved to Paris in 1963, was for a long time only perceived as a personality at the margins between music and theatre. That has changed in the last years : Aperghis’ scenic productions are important references for younger composers, his musical works have arrived in the centre of the contemporary music scene. His newest, not yet premiered work « Intermezzi » (2016) are tailor-made for the musicians of the Ensemble Musikfabrik. Florentin Ginot, the double bassist of the Ensemble, talked with Georges Aperghis about this new piece, about his audience and politics.
You have a strong sense of political engagement – do you think that contemporary music is in phase with the accelerated evolution of today?
That’s very complicated to answer. I think that everything artistic (and not only music) is very distant from what we call the ‘general audience’, as opposed to specialists or those who are interested because their parents or a teacher initiated them. Those who haven’t been that lucky have much less help nowadays than before. Big, noisy exhibitions, which become places of pilgrimage where people don’t even know what they’re going to see, aren’t the thing that’s going to replace an artistic education or genuine daily engagement ; neither is some kind of media barrage on such a scale that finally people end up going, like a seasonal sale at a big department store. That’s just a way for people to bypass what’s essential. Obviously a few people are going to get a painting by Matisse right in the face, and that’s great. But this mass culture… I think we need a much more intimate kind of education, right from early childhood, for poetry, for painting, for music, for everything. All the same, classical music is very much cut off from the world : take the example of the ‘grand concert’. I do have the impression that the relationship with music could be much simpler. The grand concert still has this monumental aspect – the music is up there on a pedestal. You have to go and find the audience. They’re not against our music, they just don’t know it exists. What we do is unknown to them.
Obviously we’ve moved a long way from many traditional musical cultures which are completely integrated into daily life.
We also don’t have any perspective on the cultures of Africa or Asia (I’m scratching the surface of course, those are large continents with multitudes of different cultures, music and arts). There’s no real work on material, on substance, so things have just become frozen. Life goes very quickly: biology and technologies advance; people are evolving as well, but in the wrong direction, they’re left out of consideration more and more, in every sense – cultural, physical, moral, mental.
How do you situate yourself in this context as a composer?
I think that our role is complicated. We need to find new forms to talk about these things. Singing someone’s life story while they’re suffering next to you is just indecent, a little bit like television cameras filming people who are crying, I really don’t understand how we have arrived at this point. But honestly, nothing much surprises me any more. How can music speak of such things ? We would need to find what shape this might take, since otherwise it would be a purely academic exercise, and how do we find something that corresponds ? How to touch people who have practically nothing, in fact almost no music, or just the most basic? Because it’s necessary to speak in their place, since they can’t speak themselves. Those who are in the camps, isolated, they don’t know themselves where they will go the next day, they are treated like animals. So to speak in the place of those who have nothing, we really need to find an equivalent. Four words, one string, hardly any bow, something like the wandering musician one sees in the street, playing completely basic instruments. How can we find the right language? It would almost be another way of imagining the function of music. For me that’s what we need to look for, I haven’t found it myself yet, but that’s where I’m looking.
Do you think that contemporary music and contemporary music theatre are still a means of reacting to current developments in world politics ? Is our means of expression still suitable for countering or critiquing a growing violence in social relationships?
I think so. Since there is a dialectic between image and sound, texts and their music, there is also some polyphony between those aspects. There is also the body of the actor who helps to take some distance, have some humour, even with the most serious subjects; one can create contradictions which mean that the audience isn’t being constantly confronted with some kind of tombstone. There is action, there is life; ultimately I feel that this is a good context for telling the story of our world.
Why do you compose?
Ultimately music is simply a way to get to know yourself, in your own life. For me, I know that when I write I am in situations where I don’t know myself, in which I’ve never seen myself before. I observe myself, and I ask myself what to do in this situation : do you dare to go where the unknown takes you or do you give up? The artists I like are those who have created situations with artistic problems and have fought to find solutions and to go even further. Those are the ones who move me.
Who do you address with your compositions?
I think we are always addressing someone. We, the composers, are the guinea pigs, the first ones to receive our own message. The new piece « Intermezzi » for Musikfabrik, for example, is addressed to you, you are the ones it’s written for. Of course I think of the audience, in the construction of the piece, but I’ve really written « Intermezzi » for you.
You started your research for Intermezzi by meeting directly with each member of Ensemble Musikfabrik, asking us what we would like to contribute to the creation of this piece – how did you ‘take possession’ of all this material?
It was a way of getting to know you all musically, getting to know each player’s interests. That saves me from writing a purely abstract piece where I take all the decisions on my own. That can happen too, but here I had the opportunity to meet you ! (laughs) Each musician brought something different: some wanted to sing, to speak, to push the instrument in a certain direction, sometimes with ‘extensions’ like the double-bell brass instruments – in short, it was a chance to get a feeling for everyone’s curiosity, and along the way…
… extend the musician?
That’s it – it’s really about musicians with extensions. My job is to re-invent you. First to forget you, then to re-invent you. It’s as if I had dreamt it all – what comes to me then are imaginary portraits, in all their different colours. In fact I have the feeling that the way you behave, not just with your instruments but also over coffee or at a restaurant, plays an enormous part, since I can see how one of you is a bit mischievous, another one is shy, there’s a lot to perceive. That’s also my style in staging my pieces: I watch a lot, I’m constantly taking note of things. Now that I have developed this great musical friendship for each one of you, that pushes me to make a piece which would not be the same had it not been for this process. I’m surprised myself by Intermezzi – its process surprises me. I’m always looking for coincidences – what is most interesting to me is where my artistical problems meet what the musicians are offereing me.
You mentioned a while ago that this piece is a turning point for you, a change in your working method?
Yes, in fact that’s the idea of « Intermezzi » – interludes. This means that there is an enormous amount of material that ultimately has no allegiance, no role, no function, and no succession. The material is just waiting. I decided not to ‘build’ anything, not to impose any visible construction onto these different heterogeneous materials which all head off in different directions, but, on the contrary, to try to give in to this idea of interludes : in other words, a parenthesis that opens, inside which another parenthesis opens, then closes, and so on… This means that I have no ‘idea’, except perhaps the form: ultimately I have nothing else to ‘say’ other than to let you play, let you deliver these elements according to the impression that I have of each one of you. These things reappear in different positions, like a roundabout in motion – the audience discovers them each time in a different syntax.
Are you ultimately directing the musicians’ bodies on stage?
Directing each musician’s music, and then of course their bodies, connected to the production of the music. As the different elements return in different directions and contexts, the listener has to put their memory to work. Finally I don’t have anything precise to say – I digress, I open parentheses, I close them again, these are only interludes. From this comes the difficulty of hanging onto an underlying construction : maintaining the authenticity and independence of each fragment, and at the same time the piece has to be organic, there has to be one single body, one big body that breathes. I wouldn’t have written a piece like this for an ensemble without energy (laughs). I’m not suicidal!
In the migration crisis, a practically unknown world has arisen, a situation which is submerging our politics and creating enormous tension. Shouldn’t a composer take into account these refugees (or at least try to)?
I think that above all we have to take into account the great civilisations that these migrants belong to! Working with the instruments and the musical conventions of these civilisations has always seemed self-evident to me. I’ve done a lot of research with the instruments and the playing styles of African and Iranian music ; that has always provided me with just as much inspiration as ‘our’ music that we’ve lived with since childhood. I would never have written the Récitations (1978) or many other pieces if I hadn’t been familiar with Ethiopian music. These civilisations are hardly known in our culture – we behave towards them as though they were refugees cut off from any other reality, we don’t know what culture they come from, and above all we’re not interested in knowing who they are. There are so many different nationalities, it simply can’t be that the only question we ask ourselves is whether they are a threat. I think we have to go further in getting to know these countries, not simply because these people are so miserable, but because these are great countries, great civilisations.
And how do you as a ‘Western’ composer derive inspiration from these cultures ? For example, I’m currently listening to a lot of music from Mali, but from there to thinking I might be able to play it, or even just that I might be able to incorporate it, with these rhythms, these melodies…
…these rhythms are absolutely extraordinary, and the rhythmic cycles as well, how they displace and then suddenly recombine. They’re wonderful things, just like the music of the Pygmies. We should really be teaching it at the conservatoire. For example the Iranian santour, it’s a miracle, insanely beautiful music, so refined, so sophisticated ! The same for the zarb : it’s a whole percussion orchestra in one instrument. We don’t teach it, we decide that it’s not for us. We take a tabla and instead of learning it and knowing how to play it, we hit it with a stick to get a ‘bizarre’ sound out of it (laughs). You can do that too, but at least you need to know how to play it, to understand the whole world hidden inside this instrument ! There’s a kind of disregard, a deliberate choice not to know about it.
Politics today are still informed by colonialism, by cultural imperialism… If we taught these cultures in our school we would be admitting their equal value, which in our civilisation is almost inadmissible, certainly for a large part of our political class.
Yes, and it’s a great shame. Take John Cage for example, who was genuinely influenced by Zen, by Taoism. What wonderful things came out of that ! He made us rethink music completely. It’s very close to the music of Bali in the prepared piano technique and so on… But it’s a completely different way of seeing music. Ultimately it’s a way of putting the musical result into perspective, increasing the chance of things which are ‘unimportant’, which don’t make noise : accidents, chance occurrences. In other words, taking away the mystical aspect of the creator to say that music is simply there, it’s enough to observe it : music exists.
It’s also about giving a voice to the poor, to social struggles, to the disadvantaged…
There you are. Working with these sounds which don’t have any kind of hierarchy or a predefined idea of beauty is one of Cage’s lessons. The question is : are we still learning these lessons today ? We don’t seem to be…
In many countries the gap between the state and religion is closing drastically, especially in the Maghreb region and Egypt…
Tunisia, which wanted to move towards democracy, is harassed by religious extremists, there are more and more terrorist attacks. Tourism falls away because people are afraid, the country becomes weaker and the threat to a democratic future grows.
For younger generations, witnessing these events and trying to find a position within them isn’t an easy task. It would be interesting to have your opinion on these questions, since you have devoted a large part of your work to the struggle against social inequality.
These are things which have a great effect on me but at the same time I don’t know how to answer. If I could answer it would be with very basic means – a vocal solo accompanied by zarb, for example, like Corps à corps, since I have the feeling that there’s nothing to add, it’s impossible to make poetry, impossible to make ‘beauty’. That would be indecent. On the contrary, you have to be modest, reject any complacency – add nothing. People say it’s hard to listen to contemporary music but it simply isn’t true ! (I remind you that all styles of music are our ‘contemporaries’.) If people confront an artwork, if the music and musicians are sincere, then people are moved, that’s always been the case. I’ve never had problems with the audience, it’s simply never happened. There are people who say ‘I don’t understand this music’, yes, obviously ! But that’s just because they’ve learnt somewhere that art is supposed to be ‘understood’. There’s nothing to understand. You take the slap in the face or you don’t ! (laughs)
Isn’t inaccessibility the main thing contemporary music suffers from?
That’s not true. It’s not true that listening to Bartók or Ligeti is inaccessible, I don’t believe it… But you don’t want an intermediary, you don’t want people explaining the music for you. You just need the audience to experience the event. Imagine someone alone for five minutes in front of a painting by Rembrandt. Something’s going to happen ! And if afterwards they can’t talk about it or explain it, if anything that’s a good sign ! (laughs) It’s always hard to talk, to find the right words after such a powerful encounter. But something always happens!
This interview was first published in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 06.2016.