A Mix of Many Processes

Frédéric Blondy

OCCAM Ocean for orchestra

OCCAM XXV for organ

Of all the participants in this issue, Frédéric Blondy is the only musician I hadn’t yet met in person. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t aware of his music; I had heard many recordings and have always valued his balance of precision and experimentation. He and I almost had an opportunity to meet at a concert in Paris in which I was playing my solo piece and ONCEIM (Orchestre de Nouvelles Créations, Expérimentations et Improvisations Musicales), the orchestra that Frédéric organizes was playing Éliane’s OCCAM Ocean. But due to one of those strange twists of fate, too many tickets were sold, and we had to play each of our pieces twice, simultaneously in two different rooms, to accommodate the audience overflow. So, this Zoom call on December 11, 2020 was our first face-to-face meeting.

Frédéric enjoys the special precedent of working on an orchestral version of OCCAM, which stands alone within the OCCAM concept. He has also made a beautiful organ solo, an unreleased recording of which he shared with me. But, in the end, Frédéric represents a distillation of many of the traits that are found in all the participants of this issue: an interest in improvisation as one of many possible ways of making music, a desire to work together to express individuality, and a passion for sound.

NW How did you first experience Éliane’s music?

FB I came to North America with a band called Hubbub; we played the Victo festival in Victoriaville, Canada [in 2005] and then did some other concerts in the US. The last concert was in New York City, and I bought Trilogie de la Mort at a record store there; I don’t remember exactly which one. I listened to that recording for the first time during the flight from New York to Paris. And, I must say, to listen to this music on a flight was a very special experience, because it created a feeling of suspended time. You can’t completely get rid of the sound of the plane, of course, but [the frequencies were] a very nice match.

I then met Eliáne in 2010 in Paris. We were organizing a concert with Lionel Marchetti, and we wanted to perform a few different electroacoustic pieces. We proposed to Éliane that we perform her work from 1972, Ψ 847. She had a nice relationship with Lionel and trusted him as someone who could present her music. She brought the tapes for Ψ 847 to the church where I was presenting the series. At first, she was not happy with the sound system which was set up in more of an octaphonic configuration for a contemporary music ensemble. And at some point—I think two hours before the show—Éliane said to me, “I think I will go back home with the tapes.” I said, “well, wait, what’s happening?!” [laughs] It was not something I expected at all. But Lionel knows her very well, and he helped us to find good places to put the speakers so that they weren’t in a square facing in but placed more carefully to vibrate the air of the church. And, of course, it was beautiful. She was happy with this concert, and the next day, she invited us to have tea at her home, so that was our first meeting.

NW I knew your work as an improviser first. Is it my mistake, or do you approach improv from a more classical background? I’ve always thought that approach to be more ensemble-minded than the soloistic jazz approach. And, in looking at the work you’ve done with ONCEIM (Orchestre de Nouvelles Créations, Expérimentations et Improvisations Musicales), you seem to be engaged in questioning where composition ends, and improvisation begins.

FB Well, I am actually coming from a jazz background. My first instrument was a little electric organ, and [I had] some classical studies. But my first real contact with music was with jazz. Classical music was not a part of my life when I was young, and I probably wouldn’t be a musician now [if I had started by studying classical music]! Of course, later it was a real pleasure to learn that music.

I think the relation between improvisation and composition is a good subject right now, and it is a big question for ONCEIM, since it is mostly made up of improvisers. As you say, in jazz music being a soloist is very important, and that, of course, is a way to express your individuality. But, in classical music this individuality belongs first to the composer. And then the performer—yes—but their individuality comes from doing what the composer says or writes.

In improvisation, the relation with the present time—and the possibility to develop things as they come up—is very important. This makes it difficult for improvisers to follow a way or a path. To me, this is part of the contradiction between composition and improvisation. Right now, my heart is in improvisation, but I’m more into the question of what it is to make music today. Improvising and writing music are just two processes to produce music, and I think it is very interesting to experiment with a mix of many processes and not to focus on just one dogmatic point of view.

Also, it depends a lot on the context: small ensembles are a better place to express individuality and spontaneity while larger ensembles—and, of course, orchestras—need individuals to put themselves at the service of the overall project. Making the sound of the orchestra therefore requires each musician to pay particular attention to the overall result and to their relationship with others and with the whole. In order to constitute the raw material, they must put their spontaneity on hold a little and leave more room for their critical ear, like a composer.

Éliane will say that there is absolutely nothing improvised in her music but, at the same time, most of the performers making it are comfortable with improvisation. The relation between improvisation and composition is part of Éliane’s music. She asks you to build the material during the performance. I think this is because she is a composer that has dealt with the synthesizer, where the body is directly involved in manipulating the physical material. And there’s this idea that [the interplay between] machines and bodies can’t be pure or clean; you have a lot of imperfections. I have the feeling that dealing with the imperfections that come up in live performance is something that improvisers understand. And that’s nice because it shows that people who are supposed to be more into freedom are also capable of performing some special kinds of composition.

NW It seems like ONCEIM has a very specific goal. I was fascinated to see how many different composers you’re working with; people that I don’t think have worked with an orchestra, like (Sunn 0)))’s) Stephen O’Malley. How did the orchestra come about?

FB One of the great experiences in my musical life was being part of this band called Hubbub—we celebrated our 20th anniversary last year. It is made up of improvisers, but we approached the music with a real attention to orchestration. We spent a lot of time recording and listening and talking about what each musician was doing within the music. The five of us were trying to understand how to build music together by developing the composition in a way that the material was a result of the mix of all these timbres. It’s a very special music, similar to the French spectral movement, and was very exciting to me. And that’s the reason I wanted to make a bigger orchestra.

Sometimes freedom is very limited because of the tools we have to use. For example, if some people ask me to compose a piece—and if I want people to be able to play this music—I have to write it in a certain way, because there is a long tradition of how to transmit a musical idea. One of the ideas behind ONCEIM is to not build in that traditional way, but to take all these very special musicians—who are developing their own music, songs, techniques, instrumental approaches—and imagine how we can build music based on these specific skills. So, the idea was to propose [the orchestra as] a big tool of sorts, and to ask some people who are not used to composing for a large group to collaborate with us on how we can make the music they have in mind.

It’s a working process, and the method with each collaboration is very different. For example, up to now we have worked with text scores (Éliane’s piece was purely oral transmission). We have also had some composers come in with an electroacoustic piece, and we would try to imitate each little part and stitch music together into a whole. But we have also played strictly written scores. Sometimes composers fall back on this way of working, and that is not linked enough with the purpose of the orchestra, because if you want to have a written piece like a Boulez or Stravinsky’s music, you better ask a contemporary music ensemble to play. They will be better than us!

But, ultimately, the purpose of the orchestra is to try to realize big musical propositions based on unexpected material. And it is very interesting to experiment with different processes of transmitting a musical idea, the sounds that you dream about, to some musicians and see how this idea—this dream—can become real sound.

The musicians of the orchestra are there to help during that process. For example, when you commission music from experimental artists like Éliane or Stephen O’Malley or Martin Tétreault, you know, they don’t know how to write music in the traditional way, and you expect them to bring you to new territories. But if the composer wants a specific rhythm, it is easier to write it out, right? I have people in the orchestra who are comfortable writing music in the classical tradition, so the composers can say what they want, and we can make that happen. And, of course, that’s also true for many aspects of the sound which escape traditional writing. It is a question of finding an efficient way of transmission which makes sense for the piece, the composer, and the musicians. And that can be very different for each collaboration.

NW How did the oral transmission process work with Éliane’s piece, OCCAM Ocean for orchestra? Was her composition filtered through you, or was she able to transmit it to everybody individually?

FB To simplify the conception of the piece, she thought of it as a solo dedicated to me as if the orchestra were my instrument. However, [to teach the piece to the orchestra] she met with everybody alone. That was the deal from the beginning. It was very nice for Éliane, but also for the musicians, because they could spend some individual time with her. We started with everybody alone and then put small sections together, like all the strings, etc. Of course, she had to leave the apartment to meet with the percussion players, and I asked her to attend the full orchestra rehearsals so we could determine the order of all the groups playing together to structure the piece.

NW I’m thinking of the process of learning and playing some of the smaller groupings, like the Rivers (duos) and Deltas (trios): in those instances the performer changes aspects of their solo material based on listening and adjusting to what the other person or people are doing. How does that process work with a large group?

FB The orchestra is divided into smaller groups, so each musician’s attention is mainly on the people around them. On stage, each small group is in a tight half circle like one body: one group has three guitar players plus the accordion, another group is the percussion, then five clarinet players, all the medium and high strings, the brass, saxophones, and then the basses. Each group works together to create what you described in the smaller pieces—listening and adjusting to [each other’s sound in order to] work with these beats and harmonics. That’s the first level of the composition. These groups then have to listen to the other groups to make the right relation in terms of the dynamics—the waves.

At first, I wasn’t sure if I would conduct or not, but the musicians said the relations between what each group was doing was too delicate; they had to focus so much on their small groups to make the material, that it was difficult to listen to the other groups as well. Sometimes the group they have to listen to is far away, and it’s a big problem. So, they needed me to conduct just to make sure they were starting at the right moment and playing at the right dynamics. The conduction is quite simple. Each group has a leader, and I look to them when they should start and end. It was a long rehearsal process, though, because Éliane’s making long cross fades, which is very unusual for acoustic musicians. It’s an incredible exercise; you have to take care of each moment. For example, for the first brass to start with a nice pure sound at the beginning of the concert—you know this problem—you need a certain level of dynamics. They enter into the strings, and so you have to be sure that the strings are loud enough to make the brass very comfortable with the sound.

NW I do know that problem!

After the experience with ONCEIM, how different was it for you to work with her on the solo organ piece [OCCAM XXV]?

FB Well, long before the orchestra piece, I proposed that we work on a solo for piano because it’s my main instrument. But she felt that—to make the sound she wanted on piano—it would be too much like what Charlemagne Palestine was already doing. After the orchestra piece was complete, I had access to the organ in the church where we were presenting concerts, and the organ is like the first synthesizer ever, you know, a big machine! So, she was really excited with that idea. She came to the church and wanted to see how it works, so she asked to come with me on all the stairs to see the pipes, etc. I was so worried that she would fall down, but she just did it that once. After that, she listened in the church.

© Jean-Christian Rieu
© Jean-Christian Rieu

It was a quite different experience for me because, of course, to conduct is mainly to be a listener. It’s like listening to a recording in the perfect situation with the musicians playing in front of you; just dreaming and making little adjustments. When your body is involved, the tension is very different, and so it’s much more complex to be performing than to be conducting—at least for this piece. 

We had access to a modern organ. I mean, it’s from the 17th century [laughs] but it’s modern and electrified. So, you don’t have the responsiveness of a mechanical organ where you can move each stop slowly and have real control on the wind pressure. With electric organs the problem is in making fades in or fades out; the possibility to play with the volume pedal is very limited. It’s like a game of hide and seek. I start with a soft sound and then go with a little louder one, and then I have to find a little louder one, all depending on what register of the organ I’m playing. I have to find a way into the instrument to make the piece happen. Éliane said that she had the feeling it was much more complex than a synthesizer because the synthesizer at least has a volume knob! [laughs]

NW And then, you have to deal with rebuilding the piece on each different organ.

FB I have to start from zero each time. Of course, each time I know how the organ works a little better, and there are good surprises and bad surprises, but I already know which kind of sounds will work—you can’t use the organ trumpets, for example, because they are really noisy. But I have had some nice surprises, too. For example, in the Philharmonie of Paris, the new organ is electrical, so I cannot manage the wind pressure, but the keyboard is in the middle of the stage connected to the instrument via a kind of ethernet cable, so you are far from the instrument but can listen to how it is working in the room. And that’s an experience we never have as players because, playing piano or trumpet you never get to listen to yourself from the audience. 

The volume control is completely mechanical and is just wonderful: a piece of wood hides the tubes in the walls like old furniture with big doors. You can close the door, and you can open the door. Different pedals on the instrument can open and close different parts of the instrument. There was also one which can open the whole stage back wall (where the tubes of the instruments can be hidden) very slowly, so I had the possibilities of fade in and fade out. But, of course, the instrument in London was much more rich. You have the recording from London, but you can see on YouTube, the recording from the Philharmonie, and I prefer the London one because the material is much more beautiful.

A Mix of Many Processes