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Interview with Philippe Petit

img  Tobias Fischer

When you say, on your MySpace site, that you're „not a musician“, I suppose what you mean is that you are not trained in a classical sense ...
Exactly. I do not play an instrument well enough to dare introduce myself as a musician. Which is not to say that I'm not using some instruments to create my music. But to me, a musician is the one who has mastered his instrument and could instantly join a band and perform with them. Which is what I do live with my turntables in a way, but my playing is intuitive rather than trained.

Just like a trained instrumentalist, however, you must surely be turning more proficient in the use of your own „instruments“ ...

I’m definitely trying not to repeat and love to be surprised, which is why I always invite new friends to join me on stage. I like to bring a sense of movement to my live sets and enjoy feeling endangered, not being sure of what will occur next. Obviously I give directions, a sound-structure that could be compared to the walls of a house, but its furniture is constantly changing -  being created in the spur of the moment.

So this increased sense of intuition is a blessing to you?

Certainly. I pity some musicians I know who are classically trained and feel bothered when they hear musical dissonances or when a chord is off-key. I grew up favouriting The Cramps, Sonic Youth and tons of Punk and then HC or Industrial type of acts, thus those dissonances sound normal to me. Obviously it helps to know some musical rules and once you know them they can be controlled/abused more easily. But on the other hand, I know more musicians who follow than some who go against those rules, so in that sense I’m happy not to be disrupted by any.

I've often wondered, with the advent of experimental electronica from acts like autechre, whether art students and people with an interest in design and architecture are possibly the more interesting musicians.

Well, I’d rather avoid generalising. Indeed, „intellectual nerds/bedroom Djs“ proved very interesting at a time, but believe me – as someone who was receiving 10-15 demos a week from all around the world for a while: For every autechre came hundreds of copycats, which were of no interest at all. As far as I’m concerned, what people study or their background can provide a certain knowledge allowing to pedantically show off in society ... Which does not make them more or less interesting than others less knowledgeable - what sets some apart is what you’d call a sort of craziness, a desire to be different, a choice to follow their minds whatever people may think.

Are you thinking of someone in particular?

For instance a band like Faust who, after 40 years of surprising and constantly expressing freedom in inventivity, are far more interesting than Autechre who stick to a particular style and, without being able to exceed past masterpieces like „LP5“, „Chiastic Slide“ or „Tri-Repetae“, are serving us bullshit called random composition ... I believe that a composer should always bear in mind that music is made to be listened to, not a piece of art to be rotting on a shelf alongside hundreds of others that we forget in our record collections. I do respect those albums which I am constantly returning to.

So a careful balance between experimentation and beauty is essential for you?

Creating Noise is easy and I am past the age of willing to stay experimental at any cost, past the age of willing to be part of a musical tribe. I am interested in the visual emotions that music can provoke and not afraid of expressing my feelings.

When you're working on a project like „Silk-Screened“, how do you communicate with other musicians who may actually be trained musicians and thinking in terms of themes, scales and harmonies?

I’m collaborating with friends whose talents I have been listening to for quite some time, so when I approach some of them it is because I’m sure that they can be trusted. And thus I let them free to follow their inspiration. I learn a lot from their additions which then, in turn, provide me with some new ideas or new directions, opening new doors in the process. Take Andy Diagram (Spaceheads/Pere Ubu) and Graham Massey, whom I worked with on „Silk-Screened“, for example. First of all I am attracted by their endeavors to play their instrument in a non-conventional way. When we get to know each other we often realize that we have a lot in common and become friends, thus we stay in touch.

In which way did „Silk-Screened“ benefit from this non-conventionality?

The element of surprise is more present on stage when I have no idea of what they will play. When it comes to composing an album, I work on a basis and at a point I can hear some instruments and names of whom could play those come to mind. It can also work reciprocally. For instance „Blossoming Krokus“ originated from a cello part which Bela Emerson had played for Strings Of Consciousness. I totally reworked it, and added surroundings before sending it to Bela. She was surprised, but liked it a lot. Then she had some ideas to make it evolve and thus it worked in a real collaborative fashion. In the same way „ Do not follow your own shadow...“ originated from some electric harp that Rafaelle Rinaudo had sent to me which I processed, rearranged, saturated into guitar amps, etc...

What, to you, is your own role in this collaborative affair?

I can have many roles depending on my needs, but a constant is in the orchestrating, mixing, editing, choosing directions to follow. Obviously the diversity of my tastes creates some open-mindedness. Furthermore, listening to so many gifted musicians and composers make me realize how numerous my own limits really are - thus my friends can help me extend my limits. Though that can also vary and depend on which result I’m after since there are some paths which I can travel by myself whereas some other feel much better in good company.
Take the reworking of the two pieces by Oldman on „Silk-Screened“. It is absolutely less a cover-version-thing for me and more about taking a thought and continuing it with my own means. The band were after a collaboration and gave me a live recording of a song. I recomposed it and created two pieces of music out of it. Then, to escape its Post-rockish atmosphere, I invited aforementioned Andy Diagram to play trumpet and Graham Massey to play bass clarinet.

How does the process of developing and organising the material work?

Detail is of the utmost importance, I can spend days in choosing a sound and working on it, same thing for instance when processing some acoustics. Once those steps are fulfilled I try to stay coherent  in developing our narrative and indeed it needs be fluent, at least to me.

Has DJing, another more recent and non-traditional form of art, perhaps also been an influence on your current compositional process?

As far as I’m concerned, a DJ is not only an instrument for dancing but as a living musical library he should also take his audience to a new cultural trip / discovery. I want to entertain listeners and to open new "doors of perception", to create a virtual world to enable them to forget about their own existence for a short while. It is thus important to tell a story, with a beginning and an end and my approach in composition is very much the same, but going a step further as using my own sound allows to chose more personal directions.

Is pursuing these personal directions in your own oeuvre part of an effort of taking listeners to places they might otherwise never go on their own?

Hmm I’d be very pretentious if I dared say that I’m „taking listeners to places they might otherwise never go on their own“, I’m simply hoping to help them share a good time with me, entering part of my universe through my music. I’m open-minded and for the past 35 years have been listening to thousands of records in various styles of music. To me, diversity is essential and I could not spend the whole day listening to the same kind of music. However, not all that many listeners like so many changes and I’m afraid that many like to stick to certain genres and not mix them. That segregation may be the result from a sort of fear of the unknown, a dislike for being surprised. But mainly, it was introduced by the „market“ who needs to pinpoint genres, in order to easily sell their products. Mass-marketing allows a certain control on the listening habits of the audience: When huge amounts of money are invested in hyping some genres, then those who are not following are being considered has-been/squares. It is whether you are in or out and not so many dare stay out ...

There may be practical reasons as well ...

Yes, life in general tends to be alienating with most of the people being forced to work hours a week to survive so they do not have so much time to search and compare different kinds of music. To some, it is only a hobby and with so many records appearing every week, one can easily get lost in those jungles ... Thus it is easier to follow some guides, whether those are reliable or not isn’t my role to reply to, since everyone should be able to know what’s good for him/her... Hopefully ...

By Tobias Fischer

Philippe Petit Discography (LPs only):
Philippe Petit : Off To Titan (Karl Rds) August 2010
Philippe Petit & friends : A Scent Of Garmambrosia (Double CD - Aagoo Rds) June 2010
Philippe Petit & Pietro Riparbelli / K11: The Haunting Triptych (Boring Machines) April 2010
Philippe Petit & friends : Silk-screened (Trace Recordings) January 2010
Philippe Petit : Henry: The Iron Man (Beta Lactam Ring) October 2009
James Johnston & Philippe Petit : fiends with a face (Dirter) June 2009
[reciprocess : +/vs.] : documenting the process of musical reciprocality between Philippe Petit & friends (BiP_HOp/The Wire) March 2009
feat. collabs with Jean Hervé Peron (Faust), Justin Broadrick, Jason Forrest, Cosey Fanni Tutti (Throbbing Gristle), Eugene Robinson (Oxbow), Aidan Baker, Lydia Lunch, Simon Fisher Turner, Kumo, Si-cut.db, Sybarite...

Philippe Petit with Strings of Consciousness:
Kammerflimmer Kollektief / Strings Of Consciousness (Karlrecords) 2007
Sonic Glimpses (Central Control International) 2007
Fantomastique Acoustica (Off) 2008
Strings Of Consciousness & Angel (Important, Conspiracy) 2009

Philippe Petit

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