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Interview with Antoine Chessex 2

img  Tobias Fischer

Dust and Selected Chamber Music Works 2009-2013, two of the most recent albums by Antoine Chessex, are documenting the most exciting and, to some at least, most unexpected phase in the work of the Swiss composer and sound artist so far. The pieces contained on these releases show Chessex outwardly departing from his origins as an experimental saxophonist and headed towards the realm of composition, working with new music ensembles and classically trained instrumentalists. The move may come as a shock to those familiar with the Swiss artist's roots in radical sound art, his passion for metal and his powerful work at the border between industrial and free improvisation. And yet, underneath these perpetual changes, quite a lot has remained the same. On Dust, the instrumentalists join forces with electronics and tape recorders for an intense sonic workout  at the cusp between acoustic and electro-acoustic territory. And even the chambermusical pieces written for the Basel-based Phoenix Ensemble are marked by passages clearly bearing the trademarks of electronic sound manipulation and noise, recreating blasts of white noise with tactile means on fretboards. The most striking example of this approach is "Metakatharsis", an imposing half-hour long journey through disorienting piano clusters, crackling electronics and violent outbursts, culminating in a sustained, warm tonal chord. It is a piece that aligns all of the different directions from Chessex's oeuvre and may offer a bridge between worlds typically considered irreconcilable. This, perhaps, is the most remarkable feat about his latest works: As uncompromising and unexpected as this music may be, it may well be the most instantly accessible he's ever written.

For the past few years, you've gradually moved from noise and improv to the world of contemporary composition. I've always been curious about how one actually gets a foot in the door. What has this process been like for you? What are some of the main shifts – both practical and philosophical – this has entailed?
Back then, I was touring and performing quite a lot. During these long tours I sometimes had the feeling of playing the same stuff over and over again, like repeating myself and becoming not creative anymore. So going towards composition was a good way to gain a distance from my own instrumental playing. Reflecting, reading, writing and taking the time to slowly develop a score and so on. There was also a big variety of timbres and colors I had in my head that I couldn't achieve as a solo performer, therefore I started investing more and more time to develop my own path as a composer. I had enough academical knowledge and vocabulary to more or less notate my ideas on staves correctly and I then mostly learnt by doing spending a lot of time in the library learning from the books and from the scores by other composers. I then have been lucky enough to receive commissions from ensembles around Europe who trusted my musical aesthetic. So that helped getting a foot in the door and learning directly on the field.

In classical or contemporary music, the most accepted and normal way is to study composition academically and then working on developing a network only within the classical music idioms. All my experiences in those different scenes and fields as an artist and musician make me have an unconventional and mixed background which hopefully results in an original approach towards sound production. On a general level, the shift has been quite natural and progressive and allowed me to learn and develop further over the years.


As part of the aforementioned process, you also began writing an opera. Can you tell me a bit about what that historically loaded term means to you? What is the current state of the project?
What was supposed to be an opera is now an open air multi-channel installative performance for public spaces featuring some inputs from a lost satyrical drama by Sophocles (Ikneuthai) melted with today's interviews by selected specialists of nothing and further detourned (and edited) into abstract narratives. It's a collective work I do in collaboration with Swiss poet and writer Stéphane Montavon from Basel and Krakow based film director and visual artist Gilles Lepore. The project is starting this coming August and will be shown in different locations. Working with Montavon and Lepore is highly interesting as they both come from outside of the musical scene and approach an artistic project from the visual art, cinematographic and literature perspectives. I learn a lot from them and really enjoy working in that constellation.


You recently released a CD with some of your pieces of chamber music. Can you tell me a bit about the selection process and the recording of the music?
I actually just collected the pieces I had which were well recorded enough to be published. In this case, live concerts by Swiss and German radios who made professional recordings of the performances. I then worked on the mixes, Giuseppe Ielasi mastered the tracks and I sent them to the label Tochnit-Aleph who eventually accepted to release that material.


Almost all of the pieces play with our traditional expectations of acoustic sources, half of them deal with the juxtaposition of electronic and acoustic sources. How do you see the relationship between acoustic and electronic sources and what are the qualities you appreciate in each? In how far does your earlier work with the saxophone still inform these concepts?
You see I don't really treat the acoustic or electronic material differently. Both are sonic colors with their specific qualities. Sometimes I like mixing both acoustic and electronic sources, sometimes only electronic, sometimes voices or location recordings or just acoustic instruments. Those are all available colors when approaching composition.

In my solo saxophone works, I deal with two qualities: one being the sax blown with circular breathing through an analog electronic gear resulting in massive walls of frequencies produced by the saxophone but transformed by the analog filters. The other way results in untreated acoustic textures performed in real time along a back tape of multi tracked acoustic sax recorded and edited at home and play backed during performance. The juxtaposition of the prerecorded textures and the real time ones, as well as the acoustic of the space where the performance takes place, creates blurry clouds of microtonal textures. All these different approaches influence each other and are somehow connected.


Probably the most obvious stand-out track from the collection is "Metakatharsis". Judging by the title, it appears to be a tribute to Xenakis ...
I was looking for a word which would describe transcending catharsis. So no hidden hints towards "Metastasis" if that's what you were thinking about.


You have spoken about the influence of Xenakis on your work, though. What's your take on the idea of music as architecture and music as a scientific phenomenon?
Sound, architecture and science: quite a big topic. Those dimensions are closely connected and there are extremely interesting experiments to be made when it comes to the meeting of these disciplines. One of the dangers when dealing with those issues, though, is to become over analytical or too "dry" which often happens in the scientific domains sometimes even resulting in scientism. I think it is important to keep the open poetic dimension within the musical context. Alvin Lucier and Maryanne Amacher are probably excellent examples of artists who managed to keep that poetic dimension at the center of their work while being very concerned with some of the scientific parameters of sound projection and auditory perception like psycho-acoustics, otoacoustic emissions or the reaction of sounds to architecture like using the space as an instrument. And here again I could mention Xenakis as a key figure and an important researcher when it comes to the meeting of science, sound and architecture. But even if he used mathematical functions, kinetic theory of gases, the UPIC or his experiences as an architect with Le Corbusier to develop his stochastic compositions, I've read that he would always follow his ears to make adjustments and adapt the mathematical rule sets if he thought it made sense at the artistic level.
I think it is important to try to keep the spontaneous and abstract nature of sounds inherent to the creative process even when dealing with rigorous scientific or technological dimensions. More generally, it seems appropriate to keep an open and critical approach and not to become slaved by science or technology while keeping researching into these disciplines and trying to build bridges between them.


It is definitely a massive, physically imposing and epic composition. What was the writing process like? I am particularly intrigued by the finale and the long last chord, which awards a sense of closure …
"Metakatharsis" has been written specifically for the Phoenix Ensemble in Basel, whom I happen to know quite well. On top of being excellent musicians, they are one of the few ensembles in Europe open to perform both the classical repertoire, while also working with composers from outside the usual circles, as recent commissions from great sound artists like Alan Courtis, Jérôme Noetinger or John Duncan prove. Phoenix really contributes to an open attitude in contemporary musical circles which is unfortunately not always the case. When I compose a work for them, I actually have in mind some of the specific musicians and their own way of playing while writing the score.
In "Metakatharsis", I thought the final cluster was a good way to close the piece, but I discovered later that this has been used by Penderecki in "Polymorphy", like this tonal final chord after all the monolithic textural mayhem. So you see, nothing new from my side here. And now comes to my mind the absurdity of the tag "new music", or "Neue Musik" in German, which is quite an irrelevant way to describe organized sounds as most of that musical vocabulary peaked in the 60's and 70's, maybe a bit later for electronic music. Nowadays, there isn't any new music. And running the instruments through some Max/msp, Pure data or Super collider patches or working with granular synthesis, field recordings, brownian, pink noise or feedbacks doesn't make the music new neither. Music or sound is physical vibration and is therefore old as the earth itself and probably even older. Looking for innovation on a formal level doesn't seem to be a relevant and realistic goal to reach in today's music. Interrogating both our ways of listening to the world and the global role of art in cultural systems as well as reflecting, analyzing and transcribing the tensions and conflicts of the social, geopolitical, ecological and economical realities of our times seem to be more important aspects to deal with in artistic projects. And, of course, trying to address the complexity of those issues without being too normative or trapped in a binary theoretical system. But this is a little digression from your original question.



Especially with a piece like "Metakatharsis", it seems important to find compositional tools that hold a work together. What does form mean in your music and how does it establish itself, would you say?
Form seems just like a block of time. Time might probably be the most important parameter when it comes to composition. I tend to work quite instinctively with structure, so I wouldn't be able to describe my compositional tools as they are always changing according to the context. When I write for an ensemble it often involves a score. But if I work on electronic music or a sound installation, I compose with a recording and editing program working directly on the sonic matters without using notated technique.
Composition can have very different shapes and writing a score is just one of them. A score can also be a tiny crumpled piece of paper with some dirty stains on it. Or some verbal indications talking with the performer in a bar before the performance. Or different sound sources edited on a computer program. Or some complex traditional notations for an orchestra but in that case one shouldn't loose the purpose that a score is there to orientate the performers and leave room for imagination.
The very essence of composition is by nature extremely open and multi-dimensional.


I thought it very interesting that your first step of composition involves 'getting familiar with the ensemble', as you once put it. How do you see the distribution of roles and tasks between the composer and the performer?
Nowadays within professional classical performers, many musicians work like bureaucrats. They simply play what is asked of them without involving themselves and I think this is a very questionable attitude. It probably also is a reaction to the fact that composers very often act like divas. I think when it comes to making music together with a group of people, hierarchy should be avoided. The musicians, the composer, the sound engineer, the conductor (whom in French is called "chef d'orchestre", which strongly underlines the mechanisms of power at sake there) all have their own responsibility to make the best out of a work. When I said "Getting familiar with an ensemble", it can also mean to actually try to know the musicians better so that they eventually will feel more concerned to interpret a composition. I also try to deliver an aesthetic that is more concerned with the overall physical dimension of sound production like sound masses and energy rather than a conventional melodic or harmonic approach and this requires engagement from the performers. Performing music goes beyond the concert itself, it is also a social mechanism where people spend time together and exchange experiences.

It's then no mystery why good ensembles are also musicians who know each others well and are friends away from the stage. Classical music and by extension contemporary music but also jazz, experimental, all different kinds of rock and pop, sound art and all musics existing within a professional system of diffusion, are often either coined with old rules and mechanisms or only concerned with producing entertainment oriented spectacles, which makes it sometimes difficult to maneuver to get the only thing that counts: making creative work in good conditions over the long term. Having artistic autonomy and keeping it over the years is hard and is dependent on one's economical reality but also with the capacity of creating a network as an artist requires structures to present his works in public. There is a tendency in the art world (and even more brutally in the visual art world) to apply the same principles and strategies as within the financial markets: everything is a product, things have to be fast and effective, value, career and competition oriented and so on. I think this is a very destructive reality and artists have to deal with it in the more constructive way possible.


You once said that it is hard to imagine that any sounds made by instruments or electronic sources could ever compare to a volcano eruption or space shuttle launch. What, then, is music to you?
Music is the sounds that are heard. It is also a phenomenon which is socially constructed through cultural systems and neuro-biologically constructed on a perceptual and emotional level. Music is also a tool of power.
It is the vibration of the air and all the poetic, social, cultural and political dimensions that can result from the very act of listening.

Antoine Chessex Interview by Tobias Fischer
If you enjoyed this article, you can continue reading in our first interview with Antoine Chessex.

Homepage: Antoine Chessex