The Book Cooks
Joëlle Léandre + John Cage Courtesy of Joëlle Léandre©2011
Chapter 2: Influences/ Confluences
Live music, dance, theater, Afro–American jazz, the clubs, my first solo recital, discovering contemporary repertoire for double–bass, all that, was thanks to my going to the United States. I went to Buffalo, to the State University of New York. I belonged at the time to a chamber ensemble, of six musicians, that Morton Feldman directed with John Tilbury, Robert Dick, Frances Marie Uitti. We worked on pieces of contemporary music, particularly Morton Feldman, Earl Brown, Christian Wolff and others, but also, and especially, John Cage. We performed in different American states and in New York. We even played once at Carnegie Recital Hall. When I think back, America gave me a really good kick in the pants: “Be yourself! Go for it, do it!” What a lesson!
The decisive meeting for me was the one with John Cage. I went to see him in New York, in his Bank Street loft. I remember it like yesterday, that winter’s day in 1976. It was snowing. He had plants all over his place, a proper garden! He had this real communion with nature. He’d been a disciple of Suzuki, the Japanese philosopher, who strongly influenced him. At the end of 1980, Cage even did a concert with plants, where he put microphones under each leaf. He claimed that in each second of a plant’s life, in its nervous system, there was sound. John made me listen to the world around me. “Let sounds be what they are”, he said to me. When you get that, it’s your bible, your bedside book. But if you accept it, if you comprehend it, you have to get your tractor out every day! I like the word “tractor”, like farmers who get up early and work. You have to work, to learn slowly, to understand, and that takes a whole lifetime! The impact of Cage also came from reading For the birds and Silence. As you turn the pages, it’s graphic art, Lettrism: one word written in enormous letters with another below in very tiny characters. There’s space, graphic layout, a sort of painting. Cage has a profound philosophical basis, his thought is stimulating. I remember him speaking over tea about French philosophy, about Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault. My recording of Cage in 1995, on which I perform The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, Ryoanji, A Flower, 59 and Homage to J... was my homage to him. Meeting Cage was as important for me as listening to the music of Slam Stewart. Plus, more especially, it was part of a major choice I made: no longer would I ever just be a bass–player in an orchestra or an ensemble.
I met with Cage fairly often, each time I went to New York. He’d invite me over, cook dinner. Sometimes he even came downtown to Roulette or Columbia University when I was playing concerts of free jazz with John Zorn, Fred Frith and Derek Bailey. One day in Paris, I asked Cage: “How come you’ve never composed anything for double bass? You must write something...”. His answer was: “OK”. That’s how, in 1985, Ryoanji came about, a piece he dedicated to me. Ryoanji is the name of the most ascetic temple in Kyoto, Japan, built about six hundred years ago. There’s nothing there, no trees, no plants, only these fifteen stones. And sand. It’s an extraordinary site, quite unique. It’s fascinating because, no matter where you stand in the temple, you can only ever see fourteen stones, never fifteen. That’s the mystery of the place. Ryoanji can be performed by double–bass and percussion or by double–bass and orchestra. Inspired by these stones, Cage wrote graphic music of great simplicity and beauty. The principles of this piece were formulated in Paris, in the apartment of Marcel Duchamp in Neuilly. When he came to Paris, Cage would always stay with Tiny Duchamp, Duchamp’s wife. I’d read Duchamp’s work long before knowing about Cage. Sometimes I even ask myself if I’m not a child of that time, the surrealist epoch: the Dada movement, Tzara, Picabia...Right up to Beuys. It was all about exploding forms, breaking rules, changing roles...
Cage is a music, a personage, a philosophy I identify with, I resonate to. Not only that, he is an example, a mirror. He put me on board a train for which I had already laid the tracks. Cage authorizes the musician in every way, inciting him to be totally creative and responsible. The score is there but you have to redefine it. Thanks to Cage, I learned to love every sound, all musics, black, brown, yellow, Asian, Indian, Arab... there was no hierarchy anymore, just a love of the now in music, the musician’s next move. This was oxygen to the brain, sincerity, and for me, a way to speak, to play, to interpret, to lose myself, amuse myself, it was demystifying, it was purifying! Yes, Cage authorizes the musician. Performing his scores, you are supposed to be free, except that on the left–hand page is an index of a very complex and highly precise nature, an index which tells you what you must or must not do. At the same time, the music is rather simple, not simplistic, but simple, colors, timbres, playing attacks, other sounds, etc... It’s not strict, more an open form. Much later, in Paris, working on a score for Merce Cunningham, Cage said to me with a smile: “You know, sometimes, I improvise too.” Cage loved sound, every sound, it can never be said enough. And yes, there is no hierarchy, he used to say: “I have never listened to a sound without loving it. The only trouble with sounds is the music.” He used to also say: “the mistake is the music”, funny to say that, no? The error is what music–making has become: a kind of obligatory listening, simulated pleasure, a business, a conventional, academic rut. Who can presume to say, who can dare to presume, that one sound is more ugly, more beautiful than another? Of course there are fashions, schools, dictating what you should be listening to, consumer culture exists... But sounds? Let sounds be what they are, e basta! Cage makes you love the entire universe, nature, mankind. Any sound is acceptable, almost in the yogi sense of the word. Which calls for a mammoth task: emptying, down to almost nothing, in order to find the state you absolutely need for improvisation. When you begin to comprehend this, you open out, onto a free range, you become one human voice resonating with another, responding to him, catching him, urging him on his way. You make of your life an adventure from one day to the next.
The music of Cage was not always well received. He was often taken for a practical joker, provocative and insincere. Shortly before his death, Cage said to me: “I have no idea if my music will ever be played well.” His music is very hard to perform, because it’s very open, open to every possibility. Faced with Cage’s music, you are totally on your own. You must absolutely believe in what you’re proposing. Anyone who ever met Cage can never forget his sun–trapped face, craving to communicate, here and now. When I think of him, I always see that photo of Cage and Sun Ra, two masters of sound, two utterly free spirits. Cage was very funny. He could throw the brightest of smiles like a promise of happiness. He taught me how to learn. To me, he opened an infinity of possibilities that I continue to explore to this day. The big lesson of Cage was: “Be yourself.” In some respects, this allows you to dare to make your own music, brings you closer to freedom. Turns music into the art of sound, a way of life, an outlook, a state of mind, poetics. Cage remains my spiritual father. I met him in 1976, but had performed his music from 1972–1973 with L’Itinéraire. For quite some time I had grown fed up with too many paralyzing scores. His came like a breath of fresh air, they also gave me authority. Later, in 1984, I worked again with him in London, at Guilford University. He made me love the nature of sound. Sound is the whole life process, the individual’s outer rim, and bears the trace of everything he goes through, has to go through, his accidents and doubts, his triumphs, all those little rooms where he waits, alone and passionately in love, before going onto the stage, before uttering. My most precious memory of Cage, was the way he turned life itself into a form of poetry: his openness, his acceptance of others, of each human being with his desires, his folly. This philosophy is embedded in me forever.
My meeting with Giacinto Scelsi, just as conclusive, came a little later. It took place in Rome in 1978. I had already played Scelsi with L’Itinéraire. In Buffalo thanks to the grant, I was living in the apartment of pianist Yvar Mikhashoff, a specialist of contemporary music. He said to me: “What, you’ve never met Scelsi, the Count Scelsi, you have to go to Rome.” So I did when I came back to Paris after my grant. I telephoned Scelsi, he spoke fluent French with a very broad Italian accent. “You are who?!”, he asked me. “You play what?” “I’m a double bass player”, I replied. “When are you coming?”, he replied. A week later, I left for Rome. We would continue to see each other for a decade. There was an almost feminine intimacy between us. In fact he always turned to women to play his music, there were many of us: Carol Robinson, Marianne Schroeder, Frances–Marie Uitti, Michiko Hirayama, myself. His music moved me incredibly; it is one of the truest I know; it speaks of our consciousness, our condition. A music both simple and complex at the same time. I lived it in my body, in my heart. Scelsi worked on sound matter directly, and playing his music, I became sound myself. Scelsi was not an intellectual, he worked with great simplicity, but with great concentration and power. That’s why his music is so deeply moving, without any affectation, spiritually uplifting. Scelsi composed a lot for the low register. His music is grounded. A music where the relationship with the performer is pure osmosis. For Scelsi, the composer is a messenger, a delivery man. The performer, who receives the music, has to make it his own, become implicitly involved. And that’s extremely rare. Very few classical or contemporary composers have written what are called open forms. Scelsi was an improviser, with a fine awareness of the nature of improvisation, true music. You can’t pretend when you improvise. Scelsi used to improvise all the time at the piano. All his piano works are improvisations subsequently re–transcribed. He had a Revox, the famous Revox A 77, over his piano. Often he would record his music and then write it out or have it copied.
For me, meeting Scelsi was fundamental. Like with Cage, it was determinant. Scelsi develops musical material that scarcely moves, with a riveting, transcendent sound. I met Giacinto on my return from the States. Ringing his doorbell, 8 via san Tedoro in Rome, was so exciting, I was eager to meet him... I had already played in Paris, and Buffalo, his unique, extremely difficult trio Okanagon, for harp, gong and amplified double bass, from 1968. In Maknongan, for bass instrument with non obligato voice, a 1976 piece dedicated to me, Scelsi asked me to use my own voice, to look for some kind of otherworldly sound, as he said. Wow, did I search for those sounds... one came out by pushing on my stomach, another by practically strangling myself. One from nowhere, a raucous sound, deep, mordant, excessive, incisive and vertiginous, almost unbearable for the listener. One day, during rehearsal, I finally found the sound. Scelsi hugged me, latched onto my arm, so much that it almost hurt, and said from the depths of his dark blue eyes: “That’s it, that’s the one!”
Scelsi was small, a little fellow, sprightly and straight, like Picasso, short and stern, but always very warm and humane, often funny. He was never to be seen in the morning, only in the afternoon: he would come down from his third floor and we would get to work. I stayed with him several times. He had a housekeeper who was totally nuts, la Bruna. “She’s mad,” he used to say to me, “don’t worry. Completely mad, but a very good cook!” Scelsi met few people, but by being attentive, he knew what was going on. He was an aristocrat who lived in his own world, a marginal. A man with a rich inner life, he practiced yoga regularly. I remember him holding my hand in the back of his chauffeur–driven Bentley. He used to hold his guests’ hands all the time, he needed to. I could feel the current passing. How many times did he tell me about his palm– tree...above the Forum, you could see a centennial palm from his house which he presented as his tree for meditating on. I imagine him staring at it in utter silence. Scelsi was also a man of immense freedom. His aesthetic, his language is quite unique. No–one has ever been able to put him into a fixed, rigid aesthetic. I don’t know that he wasn’t a kind of shaman, he was certainly inhabited with the power of a vocation. I went regularly to Rome, to work with him, and our friendship grew. Later, he dedicated to me a piece in the form of a diptych, Le Réveil profond and C’est bien la nuit, for solo double bass, in 1972. There’s another Scelsi piece for solo double bass that I like a lot called Mantram. His music is so revealing and transformational, so profound, it touches our consciousness, the essence of what it is to be human. The writing is traditional in appearance without being that strict. It’s paradoxically simple and complex. Whenever you perform it, you go into the sound, into the heart of the sound, from the vibration of a sound you become sound: it’s highly spiritual, uplifting music. Some music is so strict, so regimented, that the individual performer is effaced, leaving only the composer. With Scelsi, the composer and the performer become one, something extremely rare. His music is incarnate and shatteringly profound.
Scelsi was such an improviser. In improvised music, interaction with other artists is capital. Chance also plays a part and in my life I’ve been lucky in that respect. I don’t know if I have a guardian angel... Maybe I do, an angel with me...For example: I was giving a quartet concert in London in 1982 with Lindsay Cooper, Irène Schweizer and Maggie Nicols. George Lewis was in the hall. He loved what I did, and came to see me, he advised me to go to New York to see Derek Bailey. The same year, I was awarded the Villa Medicis Hors les murs grant. It was for India, Japan or America and I choose America again, and went to New York in 1982 for a year. In between, I have forgotten Derek Bailey… When I get to New York, what do I see in the Village Voice: the Derek Bailey Company. So I go to the concert. And after, he invites me over to play with him one day at home. Which leads to an offer to participate in a Company concert with John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Cyro Baptista, Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann. And several years later, in 1985, Anthony Braxton calls me up to play in his quintet. All those contacts are so constructive, so decisive. Meeting Derek in New York affects me almost as much as meeting Cage. His approach is just as radical. He is into free improvisation. It’s an adventure, a risk. Each individual musician bringing everything he knows, his interrogations, patrimony, culture. Improvisation calls all that information into play: origins, family background, whatever you read, even what you eat... It’s molecular, almost like letting out the secret blueprint of your DNA.
All those encounters, some chance, some not. Every encounter calls for receptivity and resonance, for blending and complementing, for things falling into place, which sooner or later they do. Another encounter, perhaps not all that accidental, was meeting double bass– player Peter Kowald, in 1978. I was doing a solo in London in a festival directed by Richard Cook, who also directed the English magazine The Wire. I’m told that Peter Kowald wants to play with me. So we play as a duo. We become friends, and he invites me to Wuppertal in Germany. Later, the duo I had with him, became a trio with Anne Martin, a dancer of Pina Bausch. I have another duo with accordionist and clarinettist Rüdiger Carl, which becomes a trio with Carlos Zingaro, the Canvas Trio. At that time, I met musicians from the free scene in East Germany, Günter Baby Sommer, Ernst Petrowski, Gunter Hampel, Conrad and Johannes Bauer, and then from the Berlin scene, the nebulous FMP (Free Music Production), with Alexander von Schlippenbach. I played a lot in Germany in the 1980s, much more than in France where I practically only ever played at the Dunois and in the occasional festival. I always feel at home at the Dunois, a club in the 13th arrondissement in Paris where all the European scene, and others from farther afield, would come to perform. That place was a laboratory, the only place where you could play innovative music. But of course we were paid peanuts. Not far away, you see, near the Pompidou Center, there was, and still is, another, highly subsidized, laboratory, much larger...you get what I mean. At the Dunois, in the 1980s, I organized a festival called “Les Moines sans voile” (Monks without an order). Why that name? This festival was a melting–pot of resistant musicians who were utopian, fervent and militant. Han Bennink, Misha Mengelberg, Maarten Altena, Hans Reichel, Carlos Zingaro, Barre Phillips, John Stevens, Daunik Lazro, Annick Nozati, Derek Bailey, Ernst Reijseger, Paul Lovens, Günter Baby Sommer, Maggie Nicols. Irène Schweizer, and others, performed there. The whole European scene. There was the Dunois and, not to be forgotten, the Festival Chantenay–Villedieu, organized by Jean Rochard…a really off–beat festival in the open air. In the 1980s, I worked with lots of dancers and poets, Jean–Jacques Lebel, Julien Blaine, Joël Hubaut, Franco Beltrametti, Nanni Balestrini, Jacqueline Cahen, John Giorno. There were lots of concerts and a proliferation of recordings. Yes, many encounters, especially in Germany and Austria. In France too: I particularly remember George Lewis who gets an Ircam grant and settles in Paris in 1984. He calls Derek Bailey, Steve Lacy and me to play his music. Ever since, we have been very close friends, very comfortable together. Like me, George Lewis is committed to the music of his time, creative music, written and/or improvised. All these relationships, all these shared moments, are the very life of music. My life anyway, being on the move, on stage, on the road, with my tractor…