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Interview with Noël Akchoté

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or ripp-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

In this interview, Noël Akchoté stresses that originality is a complex phenomenon - and yet, sometimes, it simply means showing who you are in the act of performance.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Well, first of all I would really like to thank you for asking directly such questions that really helps us going straight (no turnaround(s) ), into many other points. I'm also really glad you ask about "originality", because it's a point I always wondered about. Prior to start with any further talks and in order to maybe set a frame here, I'd like to say that to me, what I do and how I work is nothing else than most common “normality” in fact – My Own Development … hum that would take us back to the mid-late 70's when I started, for one part, and for the other part, to some sort of forever keep-going-try-harder-again-and-again process that I can openly say will never end. I'm trying to figure out how to answer you while doing so in fact. I guess it took me about 20 to 25 years of daily practice and many other experiences (playing a lot in general, playing a lot with strong individuals, playing a lot in not exactly natural contexts for my own approach and instrument, etc), until I felt I had reached some sort of 00:00 Point. Meaning the moment when you're sort of done with basic techniques that allows you to play directly what you hear without thinking how to get there (technique & music).

I started guitar at the age of 8, fascinated like most kids by the aura of the instrument (pop-rock, Rolling Stones, Angus Young, etc.) with a permanent backdoor opened in my brain to Jazz (and by Jazz I mean Jazz = blues, funk, disco, swing, free, any and all Jazz(s) ). Maybe the particular transition you're asking about is a very complex process that, if it passes that point of “originality”, starts to be the most simple approach. It's probably much more about acceptance of your own self than about any kind of mathematics or technical studies. It's probably this moment when you understand no one will ever play instead of you, and you will never be anyone else than yourself. Including the maybe positive aspects (that you're usually not too aware of while working at it), and the hard ones (who you will never be, usually your forever heroes, always the same 3-4 people you go back to your whole lifetime). I guess after a long period of clearing all the inherent technical problems of your instrument, context, styles of predilection, etc. you start to develop by letting things happen for real, without borders. Being able to sustain the music to take you as far as it needs to go, being able to accept it and follow it. Today, I sort of reached a level where I kind of stopped to think at all about what's next, what I want, but let the music happen in me and take me daily to next.

Is that exactly what you'd call “development”? I guess I was never too sensitive to files and styles but to extensions and ways (journeys, roads, trips), so that developing, for me, is closer to expanding the same in as many as possible contexts or situations (moments). Meaning Horizontally vs. Vertically. But more than any of this above, I am a permanent student. The same one as I was when I started with 8, 12 years, and so on. That's my favorite occupation and place to live: to keep studying forever.

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
The originality you're talking about seems to me to be present since the very first moments of each person's life. I don't remember listening to any music ever that I wasn't reactive to its originality. Meaning a sound that totally attracts you, a beat that possesses you, anything in it that stops you from doing what you were doing and calls you to listen to it, again: to let the music take you. Or let the music talk to something inside of you that is more you than most other social games around (and this whatever age and period of your life, from birth to death I guess). Music is its own language that none other language could have equaled for what it is. This is why humanity kept music as a unique form of communication, maybe precisely because it's a non symbolic but intimate and sensual one. It says a lot without words or verbs... - 

I may try to be more concrete here. For example I remember so well, like it was now, the first time (and I don't remember how it came, maybe airplay or maybe album cover?) I heard Johnny Guitar Watson. I really had never experienced anything so touching moving emotional and funky as this, his music and his guitar playing also as equal. This track is maybe for me the very first moment it exploded my brain that the guitar speaks, the guitars talks, it makes sentences, phrases, tells incredible stories and without any words you know so well which story. But I could name many many more, for example Ray Brown's bass playing that sounds like no one else's. B.B. King. Bob Marley, George Benson etc. whatever it didn't matter to me if it was cool, or socially cool, or anything, but what each of these incredible artists were creating and sending and thereby changing me totally. I remember seeing Suicide (Vega/Rev) when I was very young, like maybe 13 years old or so on TV and getting totally hypnotized and haunted. I wasn't listening to rock much at that time, it didn't matter at all something in them was taking me so deep. The same way they showed on french TV Lou Reed live in NYC (the video with Warhol sitting first row) and Robert Quine was playing those insane riffs and sometime solos and this totally changed my ears. Even it took me another 15 years to actually look for Quine sessions and works, this one sound was a strong reference cause I knew before and after in me. It's effects....

See, originality is a complex word because things can be mass produced and be deeply original while others could be self-crafted and fall totally out of your attention, or even be just very average and somewhere non-original. It's the case today very much with certain areas that were originally supposed to be very particular and that became just empty shelves and genre-cocoons … say more and more whatever calls itself “experimental” or “free” is in it's contents often just cheap mainstream (you're always the mainstreamer of another person, no?).

What's your own definition of originality?
Maybe a "negative" one, but in the sense you use the word negative as in "negative theology"? Negative meaning rotating the object to see its back.... Someone who makes you forget about any other possibilities while doing what she or he does (Jaco Pastorius?) (Also because somewhere that's where truth is, but Truth is a dangerous word, people usually kill for it). See, to put things in order: if you decide to play music, after long years of practice, it will always be the same you playing and taking decisions. Meaning it will never be someone else (I know it sounds dull but), so in that respect originality is the acceptance of this fact. It enabs; you play show and share with us who you are.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
Quality is a moral judgement indeed. It's usually cultural, social and political and holds very little interest for me. But one should never forget that maybe 98% of people do not listen to music but live in music. More than anything, music is one social color amongst others (films, sports, movies, clothes etc. all the human accessories options). Since my childhood, I've spent time in other countries where music is first of all a sound to a group (like Balkan, or often in the South). The soundtrack of an ethnical group, a sign of recognition. And although it seems a bit different, people at various ages listening to One Direction, ECM or Beyoncé do exactly and strictly the same. I'm going to say something I could argue a lot with but isn't the biggest value here emotions it creates in you? Who am I to judge someone else's emotions? I can let myself judge music as an artisan or someone in the business finding this incredible and this rather miserable. That's just like bakers talking bread, but when it comes to what effects music has on each individual that's really hard to categorize if you're being sincere and honest.

It's (again the “negative” approach here) to me also a strong question when I see very defined groups of people so so into this or that sound, tendencies or genres, that i'm totally frozen by or even irritated. For example, I don't know about Jazz since 30 years at least, though its still an active area with many many people releasing many albums under “Jazz”.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
Ok, so two things to start with (probably more). I don't know so much about other musicians, but yes, I know about way more people doing music all over the planet, and I love it. Generally I find our time (now the 2011-2014 etc.) incredibly exciting. It's certainly shaky and tense, too, but precisely because again so much happened, the world map has already changed (meaning that in simple words the last 300 years of western occidental european etc. supremacy have gone and things are turning now without a clear new leader but so many new perspectives – for example 1950-70's avant-gardes in contemporary music or visual arts were a clear funeral ceremony for the past 300 years to me).

What I like about this new world we both talk about and which is indeed still hard to define, is that I can communicate with works. Someone sends me his works or a link to it and if I like it I can immediately ask him if he wants to create a new one with me (I just did that right now with a Japanese person who sent me yesterday his own works and I want he produced one for me to play one for example). Where I may differ from the usual trends and highways is that I don't see such a difference between creative commons or a project like UBU web and other commercial sites. I mean,Amazon allows me to get a lot of things I couldn't obtain so easily before, the same maybe as Wiki Choral provides a lot of scores. But both are a sort of torrent that carries a lot of rubbish, too, in the same amount and maybe Amazon being commercial reacts faster.

You maybe wanted to talk about the fact that since 2011 I totally switched to downloads - mostly if not only - and stopped working with a main label (or main labels) as I did before for about 20 years. I can't be more happy about that, I can work the way I really want to release an album a day if that's what I need to do, issue archives the way I hear it etc. etc. and the audience for this is incredible. I really sell MP3 downloads and not in small quantities. Today people can write you and share more, whereas before I felt so often stuck in a box with labels (not with Blue Chopsticks that was always an incredible different experience, but with all jazz labels I always felt like the wrong guy on the wrong label). Most people who buy my albums that way report to me afterwards and I see this incredible galaxy of listeners who do not read the main musical press anymore and wander between everything that they like and from any place where they can find it. No one would have expected this would be possible 30 years ago, I guess.

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
Well, basically culture in Europe has always been a political thing and for the last 20 years especially it has grown as a sort of nonsense monster dealing with politics and short terms elections mostly, producing students, agents, critics, specialists in nothing etc. “hobbyists” mostly, but a huge park of people ready to follow any political line on demand. So that it has becaome very difficult for me to be able to work as I am for what I do in such circuits. And I've stepped out totally from the usual circles where you play this festival and release an album on that label to get a review in those magazines that will in return make you play more at those festivals – I am totally done with that. Today I happen to pass such places maybe 2 to 3 times a year and almost by misunderstanding.

Maybe my own “originality” (if you call it that) has developed to a point that I have a clearer than ever desire to do what I do, and because by doing so I learn and discover the next step always. But maybe also the whole art history has never worked differently. At some stage, when you feel you found yourself and want to make the machine and engine roll 24/7 you can't deal with social frames anymore because this particular work that we do requires your total full life on it and for that you need to keep a lot of distances with social burdens and disturbances. So that's what I do today.

Maybe best is to detail you a typical day of mine? I wake up around 4AM, and by then my brain is fast and clear (the world is silent still), while my body is at a perfect slower tempo, outside inputs are close to none. And I open and continue frames that I'm working on at this moment, sometime previous frames made me wake up with a totally new idea in which case I open that new frame. Until, say, 6AM I set all the details of that project (often starting with its artwork or visuals or titles or just the format), then I get a real taste of what it will be and by 7AM latest I go upstairs and only have to record this music. Usually, I'm finished with sessions before 9AM and start to do home duties to wash, clean and go to shop and come back at 10 AM where I start to mix the album and upload it to my distributor ( By 12, I have all the elements, and listen to it one last time (often the first and last time for a  long time, before re-opening it a lot later). If it's okay, I press the OK button for release. Then I do all the promotional work around it, meaning all the usual sites from Youtube to Soundcloud and Twitter etc. until 13, when I go for lunch and before 13h30, I go to take a nap for as long as I didn't sleep enough that night. By 18h, I re-open that work to clear and it somewhere print it in my brain for good and then open a good wine and let my brain wander until dinner. At 21h I go to bed and watch TV and clear my brain then listen to sports on radio (not that I really am into sports at all but since sometime in found in sports commons my closest colleagues because these people talk exactly the same way about what we all do as crafters with all our goals and exercises and repetitions and wishes to get better one day). By 22h30 I sleep and start they next day 4AM or 3AM or when my brain waked me up because another projects has to happen and come to the world. This is my life today and I love it so so so much. And every so many weeks I stop all and we go for holiday watching whatever incredible city and tasting its food and growing the next series when we'll come back.

I don't think this constitutes a strategy. It constitutes life.

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
Such terms as "creative process" I guess have been invented by people who where always out of it. I just described above my daily process. Today I feel like an artisan of the guitar and rather like a small label producing hand made cheeses or so. But I claim (probably pompously) that yes it's art, I guess. Today as I said I passed most of the technical problems so that I can just do and I know how to for what I do (humble). The creative process I guess always starts as soon as you've eradicated all such approaches that could have been great tutors doing your studies but came to no effect or wrong questions since because you now acquired your own language and the questions are plenty but they are questions from the work on the table or from the question itself. My process is that I return a lot to where I come from and started with (the Wo es War Soll ich etc. but absolutely non pathological now but only fertile). So that on one side I cook things for incredibly long (5, 20, 30 years … more as time passes I guess), but I act extremely fast. It takes me about 3-4 hours to produce an album. But I may have turned around or let it gestate in me more than a decade.

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
As awful as it may sound to many of our friends, but I think I'm really a Liberal and call it 18th century or else but I don't see any better (not total for sure) system.

Copyright has not been made for artists but for art markets. An incredible example of this is that your own author's right only last a lifetime (50, 60, 80 years maximum). This means that for example any bourgeois family can pass onto themselves through generations all kinds of properties endlessly BUT an artist cannot pass to his grand children his works (or grand-grand-children). There was never any economy of creation, and it's the same today. The cconomy of the arts is the art market which loves dead artists only and throughout the entire history, the first buyer of an original piece of art always paid a price which is I guess normal but very low. Once the value is out of the hands of the artist, the market growth can begin. And this is where a piece goes x 2000 its original price. Art is not payable. No one can pay that work cause it's not useful to anything at first, it needs to go through many social recognition processes and stamped so that it makes sense for buyers or states to buy it. That's why they invented culture to regulate and control arts. Today's curators are just like Kapos of Arts to me, but it's their functions - I understand that, even though I disagree with it. I don't really know of a better system as you ask, all I know is that past a certain point you cannot cope with all this cultural world and so you need to isolate yourself to only work. It feels a bit like being a parasite in my case but … something has to pay the rent, no? All I need is a roof, some wine and cigarettes, sometime gear, nothing else.

I always have to think of the last Zarathustra Volumes from Nietzsche (not any comparison), where he had some sort of publisher until then but that made real disaster with printing – and he decided to pay himself for his own printing exactly as he wanted of the end of the book. He printed only 40 copies, sent maybe 35 of them to close people BUT the book remained proper since. Its very pragmatic but that's what we need.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
I'm not sure which tools you mean here exactly. I'm a guitarist, I play guitar which is a very rudimentary instrument in fact (tensed strings on a neck with frets and a resonance box). Other tools I use are the same ones as most people today inside and outside of arts: computers. And overall it's fantastic how easily you can use them to go straight to the point, and it's even coming to way deeper turning point now with so many incredible applications that I guess soon we will be able to use them as instruments fully (many do already but I mean from a traditional instrumental point of view, for a guitarist use a total computerized instrument to express as much as you can with an old guitar, I'm actually so excited by plug-in moves lately that I can't wait to play a mute neck and use all those when they'll be close to what we have which is extremely soon and in some cases already happening).

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
I know it may sound a bit odd but I'm a mainstream artist. Meaning everything I do is for all people, not for specialized niches or clubs or groups but really absolutely everyone. I'm saying this because I use mainstream technology, so that we're more or less all equal on that level. It's why I said I'm not sure there are more musicians today but a lot more individuals making sounds. One negative point we didn't mention that can go along with originality is the fact that it could create competition, too. In a perfect world of originality there can be no competition because everyone can only beat his own creations. The multiplicity of works doesn't raise the level, but each real individual is probably more free by numbers to grow his own originality. I feel that way. Generally technology is like technics it's here so you forget about it and go straight to where you wanted to. Technology has been, in my eyes, the same concept for 3000 years. You can hope in new applications the same they did in printing books with Luther. Some of it is regressive though and some progressive (which often leads to commercial disasters until people get used to it some generations later).

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
To me, humans haven't changed at all also because we're so new here on this planet that from Augustin to Justin Timberlake it's just a micro slice of time, when we compare it to the earth's timing and schedules I mean. I believe that musical gesture have always been exactly the same since the very first considerations from individuals to create a language based on sounds. You see, for me a sound is this: someone using a noise as a word and sending it to others (whereas a noise can be a sound that has no destination and no one to articulate any speech with it). I don't discriminate sounds from noise on any moral level or quality, but merely in terms of their ability to create messages.

Culture today has become something totally different than art, it's deeply engrained in creation but has cut all roots to this creation by the way it's applied and its need for power. I really don't want to go into a parallel between art and purity or integrity, but art is inherently something that someone cannot stop producing and this whatever happens around him, at any price or danger. Because art is always universal (otherwise we have many many very close productions that can be filed under many other categories based on their reason to be produced, culture being one amongst many).

When I read (which I did a lot lately) original music scores from say 13th, 12th or 15th century I recognize all the music in it, but I can also see history and in particular political history. How power has came to separate the musician from the composer, the player from the conductor etc. etc. But in those days they tendws reservelet music to musicians and their way of notating music was made for other musicians to perform. Meaning a large part is let to the appreciation of someone who is a practitioner of music. I am for myself a baker. I work the same hours, I deal with my guitar and music every day like they do, with a day off in the week. None of my baguettes are really different. Each is unique though.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
No clearly never. I always transposed. I don't need cash to create, I only need cash to live and creation takes the whole of your time and life. What I sometimes regret is that if I had access to serious production budgets, I could spread much more I guess and also get more precise sometime. But that's a very minor aspect over all. The point of creation is that no one can or will never be able to buy it. It's why art is still extremely dangerous to power and why they created empty and safe images through culture. I mean how much did it cost Thomas Bernhard to write a book over say couple years? And how much it ruined Austrian states effort to present themselves as what they were never? It's a 1 to 1 million relation.

Noël Akchoté Interview by Tobias Fischer
Image by Magdalena Blaszczuk / Noël Akchoté Downloads

Homepage: Noël Akchoté