The Book Cooks
Excerpt from

As Within So Without & other writings
Daniel Barbiero
(Arteidolia Press; New York)

Joelle Leandre: Being with Sound

For over forty years – since playing a solo set in Buffalo, New York in 1976 – French double bassist Joelle Leandre has been bringing a uniquely forceful and personal kind of improvised music to life. Whether alone or with others, she plays with a polymorphously full engagement, inhabiting the performance as a good actor would inhabit a character. But it isn’t a kind of musical method acting; rather, it’s her way – a perfectly natural way, and one arising of its own accord – of directing the full force of her personality into the substance of her craft. As she does as well with interviews and in her autobiography.

Training and Chance, Freedom and Discipline

Several years ago there appeared through the Kadima Collective, a group dedicated to improvised and free musics, a small book. The book, issued as part of a triple package including a CD and DVD, is Leandre’s autobiography, as written in conversation with Franck Medioni. Originally published in French as A voix basse, it was translated into English as Solo. An artist’s account of his or her own work, and the life events that surrounded and formed it can, by definition, provide a revelatory insight into how a particular art is the way it is; in the case of an artist given to self-awareness, such an account can, in addition to illuminating the creative process, bring to light as well creative motivation and with it the rare insight into the why as well as the how behind the art. Leandre is nothing if not a self-aware artist, as Solo shows throughout.

The first thing that comes through in the book is the grain of the voice, as a living presence. This is very much an oral autobiography, which crackles with all the immediacy and spontaneity of having the subject herself in the room, speaking directly to the reader. Like her definition of jazz, the conversation recorded is a ceaselessly creative effusion stamped with her personality: Outspokenly passionate, impulsive, and often blunt in expression. The book is structured topically, allowing her to situate events of her life story in the context of her thoughts on her background and education, influences, instrument, and approach to improvisation.

Leandre comes from a working class family in the south of France. Indeed, a recurring motif of the book is her conception, clearly drawn from her own self-conception, of the musician as a worker or an artisan as much as an artist – or, to use one of her images, as a farmer who gets up early every morning and gets to work with his tractor. A strong work ethic figures prominently in the stories she tells – of studies with Pierre Delescluse and following that at the Paris Conservatoire, and of her own early practice regimen. Although it can be said that her subsequent career in improvisation involved the renunciation of some aspects of her grounding in European art music, she does credit her rigorous training with giving her a solid foundation in technique and reading ability that allowed her access not only to some of the most advanced literature for her instrument, but to a deep grasp of its possibilities and limits. This foundation is still evident in Leandre’s characteristic blend of the structures and sound palette of contemporary art music with the energy and spontaneity of jazz.

As important as her formal training was, of equal importance was a set of chance encounters and of more deliberate meetings with remarkable men and women. One such encounter was with a recording – a Slam Stewart LP Leandre picked up in 1971, because she liked its cover. The music, which she describes as a “shock to the system,” introduced her to jazz and broadened her relationship to the bass. Of the significant people she met – among them Giacinto Scelsi, Derek Bailey, Cecil Taylor, George Lewis, Anthony Braxton and Irene Schweizer – several were to exert influence over her music as well as her more general outlook on life. One of the most important of these people was John Cage, whom she first met during her initial trip to the United States in 1976. Cage opened her up to sound as such; his advice to her to let sounds be themselves had a profound philosophical as well as musical impact on her, and contributed to her decision to be more than just an orchestral or ensemble bassist. From Cage, whom she describes as her “spiritual father,” she got a sense of freedom and the permission to follow it. It’s easy to see how Cage’s philosophy of freedom conjoined to discipline would be congenial to her, appealing as it does to both sides of her character – her work ethic and her impulsiveness. Leandre’s relationship to Cage was such that she suggested he write a score for double bass; his response was Ryoanji, which as she tells it was conceived in Marcel Duchamp’s apartment in Neuilly, where Cage frequently stayed when visiting France.

“A Big Empty Box”

The double bass is a singular instrument. Just considered as a brute physical object, it is imposing in sheer scale and mass. Its size can vary, ranging from the relatively small 1/4 size through the common 3/4 size to the six-foot tall full size, but with its broad shoulders and hips, it always manages to give an impression of bulk. It’s also something of a shape-shifter, coming as it does in different body types – gamba, violin-cornered, busetto – reflecting its obscure origins as a descendent of the viols that, somewhere along the way, determined to become a hybrid and consequently acquired some of its features from the violin family as well. Its range grounds it in the musical fundamentum, giving it a sonic weight reinforced by an overtone structure that favors the lower harmonics and renders its tones in darker colors. To those who don’t know it well, the instrument can take on the guise of a lumbering creature, a Minotaur wandering a labyrinth spun of its own sound. But that’s just one of its personae – a chosen mask rather than an inherent trait resistant to change. It can also speak with delicacy in a modulated voice not rising above a stage whisper.

Despite its physical ungainliness and a compass biased toward the low end of the pitch spectrum, the double bass has an expressive range both exceptional and exceptionally agile. The depth of its natural voice under the bow or when plucked is familiar to virtually anyone who’s heard any kind of Western music, but it also has an extended voice, or rather, voices, encompassing thin, flute-like harmonics; complex multiphonics; the brittle staccato of strings plucked behind the stop; the hollow, wind-like sounds of the bridge being bowed; the quiet rumble of the bowed tailpiece; and more. Its range of sounds is seemingly limited only by the imagination, tempered by skill, of the player.

Leandre’s relationship to this versatile, if occasionally intransigent, instrument reflects a long-standing and deep engagement with it in light of its potential as both vehicle and obstacle for those who play it. What seems to attract her is the intense physicality associated with playing the bass as well as the sonorous quality of its voice. Solo’s chapter “Base/Bass” may well be the finest description, from the first-person point of view, of the bass-bassist symbiosis – of what it’s like to live with and through one of these large wooden monsters. The bass for Leandre is a second body, “a big empty box” supported in every sense by the musician who must play it in spite of the difficulties inherent in its large size and limited portability. (Any double bassist will nod in agreement when she describes the bass as a “whopping great thing that puts us through hell. But we love it.”) One gets the impression that more so than many, if not most, instrumentalists, Leandre’s connection to her instrument resembles the connection one has to one’s own body – a self-presence prior to reflection and the consequent making of oneself into an object separate from, and standing outside of, one’s awareness. Such a self-presence can be a source of pleasure, frustration, exhilaration, fatigue, want and satiety. To that extent the bass does seem to be like an extension of the body for her – an apparently transparent presence in which the instrument as mediator of the player’s impulse is virtually subsumed by, and made a part of, the impulse. As with the relationship to oneself, it is a relationship that leaves no room for neutrality. One is engaged – one must be engaged – passionately, in a visceral way.

We can see and hear this passionate engagement, and it all it means in terms of improvisational dynamics, in Leandre’s live performances. Take, for example, a 28 November 2016 solo performance at the Eglise Saint-Eustache, an event held to mark the fortieth anniversary of Leandre’s career in creative music. Its seven-and-a-half minutes unfold as an ongoing argument between the instrumentalist and the instrument – an uninhibited exchange where each side knows precisely what to say and where to go in order to provoke the other to the greatest extent, which is exactly what would happen during any argument between longtime intimate partners. Leandre puts her entire body into it, sliding her fingers up and down the fingerboard, striking open strings against stopped strings, strumming chords, tapping the table and ribs, hammering and pulling with her left hand while the right bows with a rapid pulse. She extracts as many shadings of tone as the instrument is willing to let her have; as with so many of her performances, this one is driven by timbral change and rhythmic forward motion, a differential system of sound colors that develops through a sequence of contrasts. And throughout, she keeps up a vocal counter-argument – full-throated one minute, sotto voce the next, and all played with and against the line emerging from the bass.

Sound Over Virtuosity

One of the most revealing moments in Solo comes when Leandre asserts that she’s chosen to pursue sound over virtuosity. It is an important decision that informs her playing and one that also represents a choice based on a recognition of the concrete possibilities open to her. It is an important choice in that in choosing it, Leandre chooses herself as an artist; such a choice seems to embody the understanding that we define ourselves as much by our possibilities as by the choices that those possibilities make possible, since possibility is just the future choice that has yet to be made. In choosing sound over virtuosity, Leandre has made it her own basic project as an artist to cultivate the distinct features of her instrument in its entirety; not only that, but to cultivate a certain standpoint in relation to the instrument – a co-partnership based on a recognition of the instrument’s unique features and capabilities, an acknowledgment of its physical presence as a complex object made of wood and strung with metal, reacting in appropriately complex ways to the artist’s hand.

Leandre’s choice of sound over virtuosity has ramifications beyond her own playing, though. It serves as an example to other bassists, and to improvisers generally, opening up to them the possibility of establishing a deliberately fundamental relationship to their instruments and to improvisation itself. This is because sound is the fulcrum on which every musician balances. Our engagement with our instrument begins with sound and in the end returns to sound; whatever else we bring – our musical vocabulary and syntax, our expressive goals and renunciations – is built on a foundation of the sound we are able to draw. The more solid the foundation the more that can be built on top of it – and paradoxically, the less that needs to be built. Sound by itself can speak with a unique eloquence; this seems to be what Leandre is driving at. Beyond this, sound is the material trace of the uniqueness of the voice, the signature by which we as musicians recognize each other and ultimately, ourselves. Our sound conveys us, carries our meaning at the same time that it colors our meaning, making color an inextricable part of our meaning. Sound is to our playing as prosody is to our speaking: the how of what is said rather than the what. To understand this is to understand that it is as much through the how that we grasp the what. Under the best circumstances, sound is our temperament made audible.

Sound is also a direct indicator of our interface with the instrument. Sound – whether refined or coarse, rounded or sharp-edged, sensual or austere, full-bodied or meager – is that quality of what we play as it is brought out specifically by our touch. To that extent, sound is in the hands. When someone is fighting against the instrument we can hear it; when the player and instrument have made their peace with each other and have even come to a more than grudging understanding of each other, we can hear that too. (Our hands remind us that the instrument is the object as matter, an inert plenitude at once facilitating and rubbing up against our efforts to convey or construct something with it.) Leandre seems to know this instinctively, and it may be that, given the physical challenges involved in playing the bass, it would take a bassist to put sound at the center of her music.

In sum, to focus on one’s sound is to foreground an awareness of the relationship one has with one’s instrument, to recognize the role of touch not only in expressing one’s meaning, but ultimately in developing an idiom that effectively reflects one’s musical sensibility. There again, it’s temperament made audible, through the mediation of the hand.

Response and Receptivity

In addition to their musicality, Leandre’s performances are notable for the element of theatricality she often brings to them. As with the Eglise Saint-Eustache performance, it isn’t unusual for her to integrate voice and movement into the music, creating a multi-modal experience of particular richness. Seemingly more than most, she incorporates a gesturality in her work that goes beyond the effort needed for the mere production of sound. In this regard it is interesting to read that she comes from a family of circus clowns – and it’s easy to see the connection between the clown, relying on the eloquence of gesture and an expressive motility, and the bassist herself, who draws on these same resources in performance.

Leandre’s theatricality may be unusual, but it can’t be written off as an eccentricity of hers, or as a distracting side effect of what she needs to do in order to make music. On the contrary, it would seem instead to be close to the main point of the music, a point consisting in the determined projecting out of herself through the material – the material of the instrument, the musical material as it is improvised, and ultimately the material presence of the body engaging with its surroundings: responding to the resistance of the instrument, the flux of the music, the active presence of others both performing and witnessing the performance. Her theatricality rounds out the performance, inserts her more fully into it and shows it to be the “complete opening” out that she has said she takes improvisation, ideally, to entail. Her theatricality represents a form of receptivity as well as a way of projecting herself by enacting a role onstage.

Ideally improvisation, and especially improvisation in the absence of predetermined or premeditated structures, is built on receptivity. Over the course of the improvisation structures will form, but the improviser has to listen for them and be guided as much by what their logic seems to entail and what their momentum seems to predict as by what direction he or she wishes to give them. The implications are musical, but they go beyond music narrowly defined and open out toward the existential dimension of improvisation – the dimension through which we become aware of being in a situation presenting us with certain possibilities, some of which we have created in the moment, some of which are embedded in the background we bring to the situation, and on the basis of all of which we must act.

Through a receptivity attuned to that awareness, the improviser integrates sequential points of experience, makes sense of them not only as emergent musical structures but as moments carrying meaning for, and reflecting the engagements of, oneself, one’s fellow performers, and one’s audience. Receptivity grasps the accumulation of these moments as a situation in formation, as something of concern eliciting a response. How one chooses to respond goes to the heart of improvisation. For Leandre, the response is one to which she bring all of herself. She’s described improvisation as something that “wakes and reveals” (“révèle et reveille,” in the more mellifluous French); but by itself, revelation isn’t enough – at the very least, it must be recognized as such if it is to have any effect. Revelation succeeds or fails by virtue of the degree of receptivity of the person to whom it is made – the degree of “wakefulness.”

Receptivity, though, is one moment within a larger dialectic whose complementary moment is projection. For Leandre, an important element of improvisation is a projection of what she is as well as what she knows how to play or what she actually does play – these latter ultimately being at the service of the former. Like all of us, she’s a rounded human being; more so than many improvisers, she makes this fact a substantial part of what she conveys through her performance. Over the course of one of her sets she’s apt to project herself in many ways: as playful, serious, passionate, engaging, self-conscious, bothered--as being in any of a number of different kinds of state of mind. But above all, she projects herself as someone with a sense of humor. Humor for her is a mode of action as well as a quality of the act: to follow one of her improvisations over its course is to witness the arc of humor at play – the set-up, the build, the deliberate sense of timing that delays release until the moment it’s most needed. None of this is an inevitable effect of improvisation – it must be chosen. In making this choice, Leandre has consciously situated herself within a tradition of what she calls the “desacralization of the serious,” a tradition that reaches backward to Dada and forward to the performance art of Joseph Beuys.

A Universe of Two

Although she often plays solo and has performed in ensembles of different sizes, Leandre plays quite frequently in duets. The format seems to suit her musically, as is brought out in her vast discography: she’s recorded duets with, among many others, Anthony Braxton; George Lewis; percussionist Mark Nauseef; pianists Masahiko Sato and Yuji Takahashi; vocalist Lauren Newton; violinist India Cook; saxophonist Phillip Greenlief – an eclectic group of partners reflecting her willingness to meet others on a spontaneously-created common ground. In any given duet, one can hear this ground in the process of its formation: the dynamic between Leandre and her partner is always palpable, a pulling-at and pushing-against, a playing with and through the resistance of the other voice, the moments of concord and discord that reproduces, within the semi-artificial setting of stage and studio, the fraught interactions between two different human beings – metaphorically it could be any two human beings, not just these particular performers – encountering each other as confluent and competing projects sharing a situation, as sheer presences amplifying, subsuming and refracting each other under the pressure of a common set of circumstances in pursuit of congruent ends. The improvised duet is, in effect, a universe of two held together by the tensions of centripetal and centrifugal forces.

Because it only involves two partners, the improvised duet tends to lay bare the mechanics of interaction through which an improvisation is accomplished. To an attuned witness, the improvised duet heightens the perceptibility of a certain creative tension inherent in improvisation as an activity. As an artistic creation, the improvisation is an object other than and standing over against the improvisers who create it. Yet each improviser internalizes it by apprehending it in his or her own way, as a phenomenon or appearance that he or she then engages as something to be shaped, extended, modified, and finally truncated and completed in real time. This object-phenomenon relationship holds in any improvisation whether solo or for large ensemble, but when two improvisers are involved, the improvisation as an unfolding system of similarities and differences based on similar and contrasting choices that themselves are the product of responses to similar and contrasting appearances, is thrown into stark relief. The corollary is that in the relatively simple setting of the duet, the personalities of the improvisers are more dramatically revealed through their reception of the improvisation and their consequent responses to it.

Leandre is particularly suited to the duet because her outlook is essentially humanist, and one feels, in hearing her duet recordings or watching them on video, that it is the confrontation at the level of the human that interests her as much as the prospect of creating a satisfying musical experience. She’s said in interviews that she prefers the duet for its intimacy and for the possibilities it opens up for a substantive relationship – for an authentic exchange of perspectives no matter how temporary or no matter how ostensibly mismatched the partnership. It is an exchange not only between performers, but between people, each of whom is shaped by a history, by desires and beliefs, possibilities and limitations.

Beyond any fellow performers, though, for Leandre there would always seem to be another partner in this music: the listener. She has said that she feels it’s her responsibility as an artist to communicate with the listener, to touch him or her and ultimately to convey something of the freedom she feels is at the heart of life, if only we can find it. And in the end it would seem to be this faith in the listener – in the listener’s capacity to hear and through hearing to be transformed, to realize a certain freedom he or she may not be aware of already possessing or being possessed by, and through that realization to accept an invitation to reinvent him or herself – that grounds her music. Against the common perception that fully improvised music is difficult or in some way esoteric, Leandre asserts that it’s really for everybody. And ideally it is: for anybody who can open to up to someone wishing to speak directly to them.

© 2022 Daniel Barbiero


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