january 5, 2012, Jazzkantine Luzern
“My own experimentation on rhythm is just a tool to share with people. What I like in the first place in music is human beings sharing their own world together.”
“I am not interested in having the downbeat played like 'hey - this is the downbeat'. It's more part of a current going through me.”
“[Ligeti's] music allowed me to think of Twentieth Century music as important as Jazz music.”
Benoît Delbecq was here for several days in the first days of January 2012 for a master class and workshop at the Hochschule Luzern Musik Jazz. Though we share many common friends in music, this trip to Luzern also afforded us the first opportunity we have had to play together which happened at Mullbau the evening before this talk occurred
Several months after this Music Talk we met again, this time to perform a special project co-created by Benoît and pianist Fred Hersch. It was in a double piano trio format, with both Mark Helias and Jean-Jacques Avenel on basses, and myself and Steve Arguelles on drums. The project was recorded and will be released in 2013 on Songlines Records
Die Gespräche werden geführt von Gerry Hemingway, Dozent für Schlagzeug, Ensemble und Kompostion
Benoît grew up in the western suburbs of Paris in a musical family, the third of four siblings. The musical thread began with his Catholic parents who met originally in a church choir, a community Benoît would later interact with playing both drums and a little organ under the auspices of a progressive priest who encouraged a wider array of musical expression then traditional church music. Music study was also encouraged due in part to the family having a good piano in the house inherited from a previous generation. Benoît started lessons at seven years old from a neighbor who lived in the same building, Nicolle Mollard, who herself was mentored by the esteemed Alfred Cortot. Benoît's older sister Marie also became a professional pianist, flautist and conductor, now directing a music school in the North of Paris.
The church Benoît grew up with also provided another interesting root influence to Benoît's musical unfolding with a program where various African priests from former French colonies were regular guests in the church's offerings. To this day he can remember some of the chants they sang which he later identified as from the Lingala (Bantu/Congo) language. Additionally his musical curiosity was also nourished by his father's modest collection of jazz and gospel records, often chosen on the basis of the occasional articles on this music written about in the International Herald Tribune by Michael Zwerin.
After four years of piano lessons, and feeling lesser than his quite talented older sister, Benoît turned his attention to other interests to do with sports. However by 1978 music returned into his view and curiosity by way of pop music where he found a new home for his piano interests, jamming with friends on covers from the Police among other pop music of the day. He was curious by now about jazz, but could not unravel its mysteries on his own until around age 15, when he met a dentist who was also a saxophonist and a friend (due to his dentistry) to many professional jazz musicians including, in earlier times, John Coltrane. This serendipity eventually connected him to harmony lessons, which then opened the door to his understanding of the music fundamentals for jazz and improvisation.
Attending a concert not far from his home of the Paris-based Steve Lacy sextet really made a huge impression, particularly seeing how much fun the pianist Bobby Few was having. Soon after he began to attend classes at IACP (the Institute for Artistic and Cultural Perception); the school bassist Alan Silva had started around this time. From these classes, which he often played hooky from normal school to attend, many connections to the music world would be made, particularly with hearing music live in various Parisian clubs. He had the opportunity to witness many different American players including Sam Rivers, Frank Wright, Clifford Jarvis, and in particular Mal Waldron who so impressed Benoît that he asked him for lessons. Mr. Waldron didn't teach but did offer to get together with Benoît and simply play, which started a series of encounters that over the next years began to include his encouraging Benoît to write his own music.
In listening to Benoît's story I was trying to figure out how he was managing to improvise with so little specific technical guidance on his instrument. He remarked that he found a model in the recordings of Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), particularly in the way that Ibrahim elasticized his linear ideas over rhythmic vamps. This combined with his growing musicality provided the impetus and direction, let alone courage to invent spontaneously.
The encouragement of Benoit's compositional interests was also fostered by Alan Silva's regular requests for Benoit to bring in sketches on “how I could notate the music I want to play”. This lead to him experimenting with graphic notation; a compositional methodology he was unaware already existed in the graphic approaches of composers such as Anthony Braxton or Barry Guy. However an encounter at IACP with Sun Ra's emissary in Paris during the 1980's, Afa, opened his awareness of numerology, symbols, proportions, and Egyptology. This became an area Benoît would continue to revisit along with Mathematics. In particular his older sister had perked his interest in the Golden Section which had been an influence on many composers. Moreover, his brother-in-law David Lacroix's professional work as a music copyist for Durand Publishing exposed Benoît to the scores of composer's such as Berio and Xenakis which continue to remain influential is his musical thinking.
Soon after this Alan Silva invited Benoit to join the Celestial Communication Orchestra which mostly involved playing free with some of Silva's themes and personal form of conduction as an organizing principle. This created occasions for Benoît to interact directly with players like Bobby Few among many others at what was still only age 17. Meanwhile parental support for this deepening interest was beginning to hedge; his parents felt Benoît needed a second arrow in his quiver to better face his forthcoming independence. So his studies expanded to include parallel interests of sound engineering, acoustics and electronics. This lead to various work related to these new skills but the desire to perform was to be only strengthened by these ancillary interests.
Our discussion then turned to a more specific investigation of Benoit's musical inspirations and this began with a look at the piano work of the enigmatic composer Giancinto Scelsi. We heard Marianne Schroeder's performance of Suite # 9 composed in 1954. Benoît commented, after we listened to this piece, about what he perceived to be a different form of tonal thinking, what he would later understand to be part of Spectral music, of which Scelsi is considered to be one of it's earliest proponents. One way in which Benoît utilized what he heard in Scelsi's music was by developing musical invention around one central pitch, what he refers to as an “ear altitude”, where the music keeps returning to and restating the central pitch, but always in a different way. This forms a kind of layered way of thinking about linear development and with this Benoît would improvise as a kind of a game with this central pitch in mind for 5-10 minutes before arriving at a new “altitude”. Along the way there could be what composer György Ligeti referred to as a trompe l'oeil effect where one's ear would get attracted to a false center. It was clear how Benoît's relationship to this music translated from its quite formal intellectual processes into a natural intuitive practice.
We followed this listening of Scelsi's piano music with a piano etude of György Ligeti, “Automne a Varsovie”. Benoît happen to hear one of the first performance's of this work in Paris where Ligeti himself was present and speaking about many of his musical influences. This was a period in Ligeti's musical investigations where he spent much time with the ethnomusicologist Simha Arom. In Ligeti's talk he mentioned Aka Pygmy music from Central Africa and also Ballaphone music and his fascination with how 6 players played one instrument often hitting the same note together at the same time. This interesting detail Benoît later adapted when playing repetitive patterns on the piano where he strikes keys that are already depressed to more manageably maintain the rhythmic contour of repeated patterns. Encountering Ligeti's music first hand would propel Benoît to dig more deeply into studying and practicing these compositions, not with an intention to perform them, but more to absorb it's nature and detail. He continually could hear a relationship to improvised music in the way ideas were developed, what he referred to as a sound fabric, composed of “layered musical threads”.
Our listening moved next to the music of Anthony Braxton, whose quartet Benoît heard performing in Paris in the 1980s. The night before our Music Talk, Benoît had visited me for dinner and the discussion of this piece (Composition 114) came up. As I was a member of the Braxton quartet in this period, I could show the original music to Benoît and additionally was able to find the actual performance that Benoît heard in 1984 from the New Morning in Paris amongst my tape archive. What he appreciated about the piece was how time and pulse shifted continuously opening up a more fluid potentiality between the rhythm section, Braxton and pianist Marilyn Crispell. “It felt like time was elastic” commented Benoît.
He also remarked about the importance of experiencing the physical presence and thrust of acoustic music when it is performed (the intensity of which can never truly compare to hearing a recording). In this respect he had the good fortune during this period of time in Paris to witness and hear many masters including Ornette Coleman. Also around this point at about age 20 he heard about the Banff Center for the Arts workshop in Canada which he would subsequently attend two different times. At Banff he would meet many like-minded participants with whom he would later continue to work with as well as benefitting from the tutelage of directors Dave Holland and Steve Coleman whom Benoît was already familiar with from having heard their bands and their music performed in Paris.
We then turned to Benoît's special form of piano preparation, which is interrelated to his polyrhythmic thinking. His practice and methods are partially aimed to expand past John Cage's seminal prepared piano works which he feels concentrate primarily on melodic invention. Using an array of natural woods collected from many geographies, in addition to other rubber and reactive resonant objects, Benoît is able to create a multilayered environment of independent sound and rhythmic modules. The independence, in part, has a basis in his aforementioned mathematical leanings, working for instance with sets of real numbers (such as 2, 3 & 5 in various multiples and groupings) and imaginary numbers. I encourage you to listen to this part of the interview where we hear some of his solo piano work along with his commentary on how the music is organized.
Then in 1989 when he was 23 he found out that Steve Lacy had recorded his own readings of Beat poets and experimented with improvising on his saxophone to these readings, playing off of the shapes of the spoken phrases. This lead to Benoît's own experimentation with melodic improvisation using books of English and French authors (both novels and poetry). In some cases he would do this while maintaining harmonic forms, such as rhythm changes. Later when he met Lacy just before he passed away he asked him about this method of practicing to which Steve remarked that he never actually did this; evidently this story was myth.
We closed the interview with discussing his present projects, some of which have long histories. For this I encourage you to look at his web site linked below to become aware of the rich body of work Benoît has and continues to produce. Benoît's musical discoveries and passions continue to weave some outstanding and compelling tapestries for our delight.
Gerry Hemingway (October 2012)