Name: Bertrand Gauguet
Occupation: Saxophonist, composer, improviser, electronic musician
Current release: Bertrand Gauguet and Cyprien Busolini's Miroir is out via Akousis.
If you enjoyed this interview with Bertrand Gauguet, visit his official homepage for more music and information. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
For an interview with one of his collaborators, read our John Tilbury interview.
When did you first start getting interested in musical improvisation?
By listening to my father’s record collection when I was a child. He owned some New Orleans and Dixieland recordings. At the time, I was learning music theory in school in order to read music and I was fascinated to listen to musicians who could do without sheet music.
Later on I learned to play jazz, but it was my encounters with Michel Doneda and Barre Phillips that led me to a different kind of improvisation.
Which artists, approaches, albums or performances involving prominent use of improvisation captured your imagination in the beginning?
After Jazz music, I became increasingly interested in what is called "free improvisation".
Among the concerts that made the greatest impression on me at the crossroads of the 1990s and 2000s I vividly remember the Evan Parker and Paul Rogers duo at the Royal Abbey of Epau in Le Mans, the Barre Phillips, Urs Leimgruber and Jacques Demierre trio, the Michel Doneda and Lê Quan Ninh duo, the Otomo Yoshihide and Martin Tétreault duo. Discovering the AMM records was also a very important revelation.
[Read our Eddie Prevost of AMM interview]
Similarly for dance, I remember being very impressed by Steve Paxton, Lisa Nelson and Vera Mantero at the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris.
Focusing on improvisation can be an incisive transition. Aside from musical considerations, there can also be personal motivations for looking for alternatives. Was this the case for you, and if so, in which way?
From an early age, I was interested in sound materials and in producing new sounds, even if only through my interest in synthesizers and sampling in the 1980s.
Since I was a teenager, listening to unknown sounds had been stimulating my curiosity and a feeling of awakening. Moving into unfamiliar materials and listening spaces has been capturing my attention and producing sensations that stimulate me physically and mentally. These sounds and music open up in me a free and abstract imagination. They activate pleasure and send me into state similar to meditation or daydream.
Playing these sounds and music has given my life a direction, helping me to develop certain values and to prioritise certain aspects of life over others.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to improvisation? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage?
Faced with the logic of consumption and the colonisation of the brain, improvisation, and more generally experimental music, seeks to develop another function for music by making it an alternative tool of perception.
Among the ideas that run through improvisation, listening holds a pivotal position. The ideas most important to me come from John Cage and the AMM group: on the one hand, anarchist thinking accompanied by an ontology of sound and, on the other, the need to invent music to counter any phenomenon of cultural appropriation.
What is your own learning curve / creative development like when it comes to improvisation - what were challenges and breakthroughs?
At first it happened intuitively. During my daily instrumental practice sessions, I would always take time to explore other material or try things outside the 'musical box'. It was a research without being one, a playful moment without knowing that it would later be connected to an existing musical practice.
The relationship with dance has always been an important point of departure and I quickly became interested in the different currents of improvised dance, contact dance and contemporary dance. This helped me better understand the issues of the body in making improvisation. It was at this time that I began to organise sessions inviting musicians, dancers and visual artists to practice together and come face to face with other disciplines.
A little later, I took part in a working group solely made up of blowers called The Aerophone. A dozen of us would occasionally meet in different places in France (on the Dune du Pilat, on a beach in Brittany, in the cellar of a large house in the Dordogne, in a theatre in Lyon, etc.) to explore together very precise axes on the relationship with the environment and our placement in the collective sound material.
Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?
The saxophone was invented in the middle of the industrial revolution. It is an instrument that is very much associated with the history of jazz, although it has also had a significant presence in the classical register.
What interests me most is that it belongs to the organological family of aerophones, meaning the breath is the raw material with which we work. The mastery of the air column constitutes an apprenticeship that could be related to other ancestral techniques linked to the breath.
It is also a monophonic instrument with which it is possible to produce multiple sounds called multiphonics. I am very interested in exploring these sounds, and in certain contexts, multiphonics produce acoustic phenomena that are of particular interest to me.
Can you talk about a work, event or performance in your career that's particularly dear to you? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
The CHANTIER project with Éric La Casa and Pascal Battus. We started improvised sessions on building sites around 2010. These sessions were not intended to be performed in front of an audience, they were rather moments of intuitive research with the environment in which we found ourselves at the time.
Playing with the rumour of the spaces, the multiple sounds of the machines that were turning, the gestures produced by the workers and the words heard, we followed an indefinite line that could lean to one side or the other of acoustics, psycho-acoustics, soundscapes, music or even (but more rarely) anthropology. We hoped to design this way an attentional device from which to intervene.
In 2013, we explored the site of the Philharmonie - Cité de la musique in Paris. By opening up interactions with an architecture in the making, listening and improvisation were able to offer other perspectives of the site. During this project, we produced three records, a text and a movie.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your collaborations? Do you feel as though you are able to express yourself more fully in solo mode or, conversely, through the interaction with other musicians? Are you “gaining” or “sacrificing” something in a collaboration?
Collaborations are fundamental in improvisation because they presuppose an instrumentarium but also personalities with whom it will be possible to explore material, open spaces and unravel unique temporal sequences. Playing solo implies a precise relationship with the immediate environment, either with the acoustics of a room if one is playing indoors, or those of a natural or urban space if one is playing outdoors.
In this case, the spirit of the place becomes de facto a partner with which to improvise: the resonances, the reverberations, the architecture, the environment is made up of an ecosystem, be it a forest or a public square in the suburbs.
So to answer the question, I would say there is no gain and no sacrifice. I adapt to different experiences and contexts of play, listening and offering different levels of interaction.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned out to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
I would say breath.
When you're improvising, does it actually feel like you're inventing something on the spot – or are you inventively re-arranging patterns from preparations, practise or previous performances?
Sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes a combination of both.
To you, are there rules in improvisation? If so, what kind of rules are these?
Of course improvisation has rules. And these rules vary according to the period, the aesthetic and the community.
There are two English currents represented on the one hand by Derek Bailey and on the other by AMM. They have determined specific ways of playing, and therefore rules.
If we consider the British scene, the Berlin scene, the Japanese scene, the French scene or the American scene, it is possible to hear different 'rules'. This may concern questions of reactivity, verticality or horizontality of playing modes, recourse or not to amplification, mastery or non-mastery of the materials played, the importance left to silence ... All these aesthetic choices therefore induce rules.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? In which way is it different between your solo work and collaborations?
Achieving a state of listening and availability. In that respect I don't make a difference between playing solo or in an ensemble.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
The relationship between sound, space and performance is probably what we call time: that unique time that allows a flow to open up and a listener to synchronise with.
Once again, I would say that it's a question of paying attention and focus.
In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music and improvisation express and reveal about life and death?
Firstly, improvisation can refer to the Mujô of Japanese Zen Buddhist philosophy, that is to say the « impermanence of things ». This is true, but at the same time, improvisation also intrinsically has an organic dimension which embodies the living.
Between these two aspects, improvisation is also - paradoxically - an art of memory. Each musician or performer memorises a set of materials beforehand from which he or she can draw at the moment of improvisation (because as Jean- Luc Godard said about Breathless: « To improvise, you have to work a lot »). I like to imagine that each improviser is a living memory, a memory that works, a memory that works itself.
To conclude, if I consider that improvisation expresses and reveals something about life and death, I would say that in this world of great crises, it produces the immaterial and the ephemeral, the inexpensive and the relatively non- polluting.
In other words, the political and the spiritual.