Name: Gaspar Claus
Occupation: Cellist, composer
Current release: Gaspar Claus's Tancade is available via InFiné.
Recommendations: The documentary «Alive Inside» which I'll talk about more later in the interview.
And maybe a book I read recently »le singe égal du ciel» by Frédéric Tristan. I would translate the title by ‘The equal monkey of the sky». It is a book inspired by one of the founding myths of China, where a simple monkey, who is not supposed to get access to the highest level of wiseness and power, uses very chaotic paths that the gods and sages and kings cannot understand. It is a great book, that contradicts a lot with a very "Manichean“ vision of the world that feels mainly defended in our times.
If you enjoyed this interview with Gaspar Claus, visit his official homepage for more information. He is also on Facebook, twitter, bandcamp, and Soundcloud.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I was born in a musical environment. My father is a successful flamenco musician who has traveled around the world with his guitar all his life, and worked with many musicians from many different fields. Music is kind of like the air I breathe, it has nothing exotic to me.
That said, as a child, I started to play a tiny toy guitar when I was 2 years old, and one day my parents took along me to a classical concert. It was the Claret Brothers Quartet playing. I was fascinated by the cello player, and when I went back home I took my guitar vertically and played it with a piece of wood as if it was a cello. At the age of 5 I took my very first lesson of cello at the music school of my village (we were two students).
As a child I was listening classical radio all nights long, recording my favorite pieces on tape. My parents mostly listened to classical music, at coffee time, after lunch. I think I was around 13, maybe 12, when this girl, a bit older than me, came to my room and asked me to put «Skyrock» radio on. I did - but I was scared that my parents would hear it, it felt like a blaspheme, a sacrilège, to put pop music on in our house.
But this was the start of the most important part of my education. The very first album I bought was «Dead Cities» from «The future sound of London», which I still consider an excellent choice today. I explored so many fields, mainly fascinated by experimental music, improvised music. And one day I met the work of Tom Cora, and discovered my cello could be a tool to play pop music, jazz, experimental. Then there were Arthur Russel, Ernst Reijeger, Didier Petit, so many great musicians using the cello in another way to the one teacher at music school.
For most artists, originality is 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?
Hehe, I guess I am still working on it. It is really not easy to point a moment where I would have stopped learning and started to become an original artist.
I can just say that I started very early to explore the edges of the «beautiful» plain and vibrating sound of the cello that is taught at school. Those areas where the sound is trembling, where there is a lot of aspiration, where the sound becomes very complex, unstable, I began to secretly love them quite early. At one point I decided that if they sound beautiful to my ears there is no reason for others to not feel the same. I started to find ways to include them in improvisations or compositions to gently bring people to hear and enjoy these «uncomfortable» sounds. I guess this is how it started for me.
Of course I’ve been influenced by many many encounters, and records, and scores that I found over the years. Would not know where to start if I had to list them.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I don’t think that I have a strong identity in the sense that I cannot say I belong to a precise group or style in music. I feel like all the musical worlds (free improvisation, jazz, pop, flamenco, contemporary, music scores, electronic music …) that I have crossed have somehow infused my creativity and in the end the music that comes out of me is none of them, but could not be like it is without them.
Generally in my life I fear being given a too strong definition about what I am, what I do, what I represent.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Every time I’ve been asked to work on something, a concert, a composition, a music score, an album, a performance, I have engaged myself in it as if it was a totally new challenge. I try to understand the means that are given to me, the possibilities that occur from the mix of musicians, the type of venue, it’s shape, the audience etc … I love it when creativity is generated by a good understanding of the boundaries that surrounds a project. It doesn’t mean that crossing those boundaries is not an option. It simply means that when it happens, it is voluntary. The mission comes first, creativity after.
Of course with experience, you get some reflexes that help you to be more efficient, to loose less time. But that can also be a trap and sometimes I make an effort to break my habits, in order to renew my way of working.
The album I just finished, Tancade, was made in a very long process, everything was precisely composed, it took 5 years from the first recording to the last editing to finish it. That was very new for me, I have always preferred the beauty of gesture to the sophistication of compositions. But here I am, trying something new, nourished by all gestures I’ve enjoyed over the past 30 years …
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Oh there are many different ways to answer to this.
My very first tool is a cello that was built in 1810 by a luthier named «Chevrier» in Mirecourt, France. And a bow from the beginning of the last century. I have tried to «prepare» it when I started to discover the world of the experimental musicians. Putting papers and other clothespins between its strings. This didn’t last so much. I prefered to get my «special» sounds simply using the regular body of my cello.
Eventually a few years ago I was invited to play on a very electronic set, and I decided to try out some FX pedals. I have used them ever since, because the cello always feels very dry when naturally played in the middle of an electronic landscape. But to be honest, this was the day where my luggages started to weigh way too much, and I am happy these days to have limited the projects where I use pedals. It was hurting my back too much to carry them from train to planes.
There is one tool I love to use, it is a mechanical bow that was made by Leo Morel in Alsace. The mechanical bow is composed by two strings of leather, mounted on a rotor from which I control velocity through a foot pedal. It allows me to play continuous sound on the 4 strings at the same time. It sounds really loud, close to the sound of a hurdy-gurdy.
Regarding studio set up, yes, of course, I have my little home studio, in my room. A computer, a sound device, monitors and good microphones, just what is needed to record clean takes at home. But in the end I don’t spend so much time there. I love to go to studios and work with people who take care of the technical side so I can focus on the music.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Not especially. Mostly I get new tools because I am looking for a special sound, so I ask people who are more geeks than I am and they help me to find the right tool.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Collaborations have been the core of my development as a musician. It was not about learning to play the music the others were playing, but to find ways to play my music with them, sometimes in total symbiosis, other times in a pure provocation or collision patterns.
There is no special way or better way, each encounter has its own way, and to be honest it is less about skills or technics, it’s more related to quality of listening and something related to desire.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Music is my job, and I try to treat it that way. This is why when people say to me «how lucky» I am because I make my living out of my passion it feels wrong. I feel extremely lucky to have this life, because it is rich and challenging and never boring. But I don’t breathe for my music, I do my best to stay very curious about the rest of the world, to take time to experiment life in every other fields that occurs to me.
And yes, certainly lots of things that don’t belong to music end up expressed in my music in one way or the other, but in the moment, I try to just be present in the world, my friends, the books I read, landscapes, my family …
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? 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?
I would need to pick one of them quite randomly, because most of my musical experiences have been game changers to me, and very special. Maybe one of the most impressive is the «Long A» experience.
This was born with my string trio «VACΛRME». We used to end our sets with a unison of an «A» tune, for about 10 minutes, very close to each other. And at one point we thought it would be nice to invite other musicians to play this along with us. The Philharmonie of Paris contacted me a few years ago to imagine a performance for the «La nuit Blanche» event, which takes place every year in Paris in October. We invited 7 other musicians to join us and hold an «A» for 10 hours from 9pm to 7am.
This was like nothing else. I first thought it was going to be a sportive challenge, something about going beyond our physical capacities. It ended up being like a smooth wave. After hours of playing I checked the time and couldn’t believe we already played 3 hours. I had to force myself to take a break. I did 3 breaks of 15 minutes during the night. Time became something new. Music too. In the audience, who were free to come and go, most of the people stayed for hours, didn’t move.
When we finished, at 7am, there was a minute of silence (which is long) and then about 5 minutes of applauses. And, back home I had the same feeling that you feel when you get back from a very long journey, like a month on the other side of the world.