It’s at 8 pm and after a long subway ride that I finally arrive at La Dynamo, Porte de Pantin. The arrival in this getthoised neighbourhood of Paris sets the tone for the unusual evening to come. As I walk in the room, a small concert hall with no more than a 100 seats, as if I was about to witness a classical concert of some kind. Indeed, after having a look at the public present in the room, I notice that there are mainly people over 50 all looking quite well-off, a contrast with the neighbourhood of the Club. But this is no classical concert that’s about to begin. A purple light sets onto the scene as the three musicians enter the stage. Christophe Rocher, a clarinettist, Elise Caron, singer and flautist, and Nicole Mitchell, an american flautist.
And here we go for two hours in unknown territory.
I will start by telling the story that I thought of while listening to the trio play that evening. If anything, and from a purely listening and watching point of view, this experience marks me as an experience for the imagination, above all.
I imagine a meeting of wild animals in a forest. We can hear a crow’s song in the background, bringing the birds together, to join its song, for each of them to confront their universe. One of whom is a solitary bird, a bird who is willing to play, but unwilling to be tamed. It wanders off out of the forest to seek it’s own experiences, and wonders at the new sounds of life buzzing around it. Eventually, it comes back to the forest, where the crow is still calling. On the other side of the forest, they can hear a voice, slowly coming closer to them. Getting louder and louder, they can now hear this strange voice in its full intensity. They look at the creature that is before them : a Man. A Man, posessed by the will to create a link with the above. To do so, the Man comes back to his roots, deep in the forest, and looks up at the sky while joining the chorus of estranged animals, to create this strange solidarity of the night. But suddenly the crow falls silent. A storm is coming. The leaves start swaying and the rain begins to fall. Slowly at first, but then the storm hits the forest right above its head. The birds join this chorus of concern with what are now shrieks and strident sounds. The godly call of the Man turns into an incantation, an omen of a soothsayer. Just when the forest sounds become to unbearable, the storm stops. Now, there is only silence.
I imagined this story while listening to Nicole Mitchell, Christophe Rocher and Elise Caron during their third piece. The music that they created during this session, was above all, music that fed your imagination. It is a universe where at first, everything is black and then the sounds that are being created (and that will never be created again)bring colors to the darkness, and build a world of their own. The musicians have their eyes closed all the time, I feel like they too are building a very fragile universe, which is based on the sounds produced around them, that they then enrich with their contribution. One would think that being one of the best flautists of the world alive today, it would be enough for Nicole Mitchell to simply play the flute. But ‘playing’ is too small a word to describe what she does with her instrument. She uses it so as to exploit and bring out every single set of possibilites her instrument can offer. Her flute during the concert, was actually several instruments. Christophe Rocher uses his bass clarinet to make a percussion sound with its rim, or even makes sounds by gently swaying his instrument around the microphone so as to create a slight wind ! Indeed, the most fascinating thing about this music is that each and every sound is a precious material to build upon, each and every movement (of the instrument AND of the body) is part of the musical dynamics. A striking example was during the conference with the Bridge at the Chicago University. Mike Reed, the american drummer pointed to a cheap wooden bowl and said : « I bought this today at a dollar store. Its working really well ! ». ANY sound is a good sound, a legitimate sound.
This brought me to realise that the interaction between these musicians lies in the isolation of the individual within the group, in order to reunite with this group through a new paradigm : the making of sounds. Reed continued by saying : « I like making odd sounds, I’ve found people to make them with so that’s what I do ». Other social interactions are transcended by the making of this music. Language, and cultural barriers fade away. When Nicole Mitchell played with two french musicians, and they stopped for a minute to give a little information to the public (while at the same time making jokes and mocking one another), Mitchell was obvisouly not understanding what was being said, she simply smiled and waited for the music to start again. That is how this langage problem, which is at first a serious communication problem, is overcome : as soon as they start playing, there is no difference between any of them. Mike Reed helped me confirm this feeling by later saying that for him, music is his way of socializing, because it involves listening and speaking at the same time. « It gets rid of all the hassle of having to introduce yourself over and over again, by saying banalities. » Communication is transcended, as well as origins. I thought that Elise Caron’s way of singing sounded almost arabic at times. This is what I tried to explain in my critical book review : this music is orginially from a particular community, its roots and origins are important in its definition, but somehow in the process of making this music, personal identity disappears. And that is why seeing jazz as a set of infinite possibilities is particularly appealing for this musical approach : you can be whatever you want to be at that precise moment. If Elise Caron felt like singing in an arabic way, even though she is a caucasian women who followed a classical training at the National Conservatory in Paris, why should she refrain from doing so ?
« Oh, now we need to talk right ? », said Mike Reed after the Bridge’s demo in the Chicago University in Paris. This felt to me like he was saying that explaining the music would defeat the very object of the music.
Nevertheless, the interview with the musicians from the Bridge ; two american musicians, Fred Lonberg-Holm, a cellist and Mike Reed a drummer, and two french musicians, Sylvaine Hélary, a flautist and Eve Risser, pianist ; was fascinating, and to people who are not familiar with this type of musical approach, this explanation was more than welcome. On the Friday night, I had found the experience a little unsettling, and I wondered why the musicians so obviously tried to stay out of the musical conventions. After all, even if there are limitations, some usual music ‘riffs’ can also be the best solution ! Why try so distinctively to stay out of this comfort zone ? I felt it as a sort of provocative challenge for the listeners, as if they were saying : « Your ears are not enjoying this ? Too bad, cause we’re having a lot of fun !! » But in the debate I understood that their approach and their construction of this music was not as random as it seemed. Most of the musicians from the Bridge like Sylvie Hélary or Eve Risser, received a very institutional music education, with discipline and strict practice regimes. After doing some research, I saw that Risser was a flautist with classical training, and a trained pianist at the CNSM. She mentions in the conference that for her, music « was about deconstruction, more than construction ».
Above all, this music makes you doubt. She then explains that the heavy classical training she went through started weighing her down, and didn’t particularly make her feel like an accomplished musician or a free artist.
I was lucky enough to be a part of a musical workshop animated by Hervé Sellin, professor in the Jazz and improvised music departement of the CNSM. He also played with Dizzie Gillespie, Chet Baker, Art Farmer and was Johnny Griffin’s pianist for over 15 years. During a conversation with him I learned that he was Eve Risser’s teacher at the CNSM while she was studing there. He laughed when I mentioned her and said : « Ah Eve ! Ah oui évidemment que je me souviens d’Eve. Elle était dans son monde elle ! ». He described her as being very rebellious and never wanting to fit in with what her teachers were trying to convey. Sellin continued by saying that most of the musicians who go into that branch of music all carry a sort of rage, a sort of anger in them that is impossible to ignore and repress, and it has to come out in some way. This was their only way to survive.
I drew from that, that this « creative music » (even though Reed said and I quote : « creative music ?? Music IS creative, full stop !! ») is first and foremost built on an opposition, a rejection to fit into categories that they feel limits music and its possibilities. Must you have lived in these norms in order to reject them ? Even though I agree with this rejection of restraints, I still feel that it is paradoxical : if this music is built on the rejection of categorization, doesn’t that imply that they still take into account these barriers and therefore make them present (through the attempt to make them non-present) in their music ? Moreover, as Mike Reed put it, they use improvisation in order to be cut loose from these codes and definitions, thus making their music totally free. Here, we come back to the infinite set of possibilities that lie ahead. Indeed, as I listened to the concerts on Friday and Saturday, the thought that came into my mind was the notion of obscurity, some kind of black universe. A sense that there has been total destruction and that this music is building something new out of the rubble. I associate this with the fact that nearly all the musicians, especially the trio featuring Nicole Mitchell, close there eyes while they play. Sylvie Hélary mentioned that when she closed her eyes, she tried to see a spectrum of possibilities for her to place herself in. There is no undisputed leader while they play. Instinctively, I associated this thought to the notion of anarchy, but a democratic anarchy based on cooperation and mutual listening.
To me, free improvisation like the one we witnessed, is the emergence of a new model of creation, based on the collapse of an old model, in order to assert freedom. But then again, as Mike Reed said, to what extent and for how long can improvisation be associated to freedom ? By the simple fact that there is a word for improvisation and that it is an established technique, how free is it really ? This notion of anarchy brings me to something else that I noticed while I was sitting there, and from which the same conclusions can be drawn. Throughout this journey in this black universe (black in the obscure sense of the term, though the other meaning also stands !), I felt like I was loosing the sense of time. This I have often noticed while being in concerts. Music (and art in general) transcends the linear aspect of time and takes us into a type of meta-space where we are floating with no awareness of time whatsoever. I found this to be particularly true during the Friday night concert. Why ? This musical approach ignores usual musical considerations, such as a fixed tempo, a stable beat, a structured musical form. I think this alteration of rythm creates a loss of the tracking of time. And even in the organisation and structure of the concert, I noticed that time and the respect of time were not the main issue.
While bearing witness to this fascinating but also unsettling musical approach, I also felt an irony, while I was sitting there, and this irony was reinforced by two elements : the way Mike Reed and Fred Longberg-Holm talked about their music during the debate the next day, and the interaction I witnessed between Mike Reed and Nicole Mitchell when they saw each other during the interval on Friday. I’m referring to the difference between the audience and the musicians. From the way Mike Reed and Fred Longberg-Holm talked about the music they make, it sounded like something very natural, very simple, from which you didn’t need to extract deep philosophical and metaphysical conclusions about music and art. Mike Reed kept saying : « I like making odd sounds, so that’s what I do ». Longberg-Holm often made jokes about what he did, and came across as a simple guy, who didn’t make a big deal out of what he did. Moreover, I witnessed an exchange that occurred during the intermission on Friday night, after Nicole Mitchell had finished playing, and before Mike Reed went on stage. Just as Mitchell was sitting down amongst the public two seats from me, Mike Reed saw her and came to talk to her. They hugged for a very long moment, and briefly exchanged banalities like when they had arrived, what were their plans,etc. Then they started talking about the jazz festival they were at in Chicago a few weeks before. What struck me was their very informal way of talking to each other, the constant jokes they kept making, but mostly how simply they talked about what they did. Nicole Mitchell said at one point : « Oh Mike did you know I went to New Orleans to play, it was so much fun ! » They repeated just how much FUN they had here and there. After another exchange of hugs, Mike Reed went off to play. During the Bridge’s performance, Nicole Michell kept talking with the gentleman she was with, sometimes exchanging a few laughs. These anecdotes made me realize what a difference there is between the musicians and the audience present that night, how differently they perceived the music. The audience was of average more than 50 years old, and during the concert, most of the people I set my eyes on where very serious, taking very stern positions and with a frown on their face. During the interval I heard parts of conversations like : « non mais ça renvoie à quelque chose de plus profond… ». This made me realize that there is a huge gap between jazz players and jazz listeners, and this is true of other types of jazz also. I understood why jazz can today be perceived as « musique savante », art music, which is in total contradiction with the approach the musicians have of their own work.
Finally, I would like to conclude with the analogy developped by Mike Reed during the conference with the Bridge. He compared their approach to music with life itself. Life is always full of suprises, divided between planned and anticipated structures, and also unexpected and unsuspectable elements, and these represent the biggest part of life. We have to constantly invent ourselves according to what happens to us, most of what occurs being out of our control. Their ‘creative music’ process is all about dealing with unsuspected elements, that the musicians have to adapt to and build their contribution around. Mike Reed said a particularly striking sentence that I will never forget : « We are all improvising life, because it has never happened to us before. » As soon as I got home, I wrote in on piece of cardboard and hung it up on my bedroom wall.