Sauf - conduit N°2 - Dossiers Dirigés par Gérard Conio - Editions L' AGE D'HOMME - 1990. (Texte : Vers le suprématisme musical )
CF: We don’t see you very often in the art world or just playing live. You are somewhat invisible, although your work is more than remarkable…
Thank you. But it’s very difficult…if you knock on doors and they don’t open, after a while you give up…
If you’re not approved by the Ministry of Culture, you can’t come in! It’s that simple…
France’s cultural policy is subject to the decisions of the inspectors of artistic creation. We are the only country in the world that operates like the former USSR in this respect. There’s an art police! You have to remember that… The general public isn’t aware of this but all professionals know about it…
So of course, you have to try not to worry and carry on doing your thing, but it’s very difficult and of course you’re less visible than some other artists.
Abroad, everyone knows about the state of art in France and its decline…in fact that’s why our art and music are no longer being exported…
Besides, to be invisible is to live on the margins of society and especially on the sidelines of official art circles. It's a better way to be though!
At the same time, it takes a lot of energy to make yourself known. And the more time you spend on deploying this energy, the less time you have for creative work.
For 40 years I have slept for 4 to 5 hours a night on average, at the very most, and like many other artists I also have to do another job to earn my living!
If I need €1000 to finish a project, I have to get it myself...sell CDs, paintings etc. Or I have to rely on an independent journalist to promote me a little etc.
I am not a product of the Ministry of Culture!
To be allowed to have a career in this field, you have to be part of the art networks, and have exhibited in prestigious places, be supported by the right gallery, play concerts at prestigious venues and above all fit in with a dominant way of thinking - that’s how the artist exists.
What counts is not the quality of the work but its reputation.
I’m also not the kind of person who wants to be employed by my own artistic work, by which I mean I’m not going to turn salesman and pitch it to people! So I’m unlikely to fit in with a cultural marketing network, which in turn would integrate me into an economic society where I would just be a cog in the machine like other workers, government employees etc.
I do not follow this social model, as my artistic creation does not fit in with that world or that economic model. It fights it!
It fights it out of concern for authenticity and truthfulness.
Faced with the kind of system which emerged in the early 80’s, I had to withdraw, exclude myself and go into exile, to stay true to myself and avoid betraying art and life.
This standardisation is under strict control, from Paris to New York via London, Berlin and Tokyo.
As for me, I am free and do not conform to any standard.
I am a composer and a painter, that’s it!!!
CF: So why are you starting to paint again now? With exhibitions ?
I don’t know…it’s just how it is… It’s a contradiction…yet another one, perhaps… Maybe it’s a way of seeing everything I’ve done. Reporting back to myself…
CF: How were your music and painting received in the 70’s?
Not well, especially in the classical music world, as I said earlier.
While my friends in Fine Arts recognised a cross-disciplinary artistic truth in my approach, the same could not be said of my musician mates, who couldn’t understand what I was doing any more…
My musical research did not focus on the field of tonality or Serialism, but on the perception of space and time.
At the time, getting musicians to accept this type of discourse was an uphill struggle!
CF: Where did you exhibit your pictorial works and music?
Always at group art shows or sometimes in galleries, during the period from 1975 to 1984.
Putting on a concert with just my music was not possible. Everyone told me it was not music.
I became jaded... but hey, I carried on. In the end, only John Cage, whom I met in 84 at Lille Opera House, appreciated my approach and my music, my Wagner Express, and in fact he later spoke of it.
A special mention goes to the Flemish Belgians, Lucien Goethals and José Berghmans. They were Serialist composers but they took my music very seriously and admitted me to the Institute of Psychoacoustics and Electronic Music in Ghent, where Lucien was the Director. In fact it was at this institute that I composed “L’Orphéon de Jade” and “Le Gai Savoir” for 4 marimbas.
CF: Today minimalist music is defined as tonal music with a steady beat. If I’ve understood you correctly, you weren’t looking for tonality or a steady beat? Or did you also use tonality and a steady beat in the 70’s?
As I've told you, my research was not concerned with tonality or beat but with cross-disciplinarity, with sound as a plastic component of minimal art, space and time.
Besides, was the music of La Monte Young tonal? No. Was it made up of crotchets played at 120 beats per minute? No. Did he employ micro-tonality? Yes.
Yet La Monte Young is considered to be the inventor of minimalist music. And his music is totally contrary to the received definition of musical minimalism!
CF: Did you use repetition?
Yes of course, but I contradicted these repetitions with shifts and variations, as I did in my painting. I repeated geometric shapes while varying their shape, colour etc. I used to fold over my canvas to create repetitions of figures, and I do a similar thing with my tapes. I have transposed!
The most important thing for me was to situate my music conceptually and theoretically, and with regard to compositional processes, I kept to the principles that I had set out for my painting.
Take “L’Orphéon de Jade” for example, a piece which I created with my tape recorders in the 70’s. I later revisited it, in 79 or 80 I think, using better equipment, and I finally finished it in its current form in 1984, at the IPEM in Ghent.
And in 2009, I revisited it to create a version for 4 pianos which Veronique performs, this time opening up the form and introducing a prepared piano part.
This is an experimental piece which can be performed by all kinds of ensembles and instruments.
It’s also an example of a kind of music that has often been criticised: “That’s not music,” people used to say to me in the 70’s, and it was the same in the 80’s.
With music, I was making music. I was sure about what I was doing.
The difficulty lay in explaining that my music was a consequence of my artistic approach.
A year later, I came second in the International Electroacoustic Music Awards in Bourges. There were 242 composers from 36 countries, I think. That was where the reality of my music truly lay.
Then Gérard Conio, Collection Manager at the publishing house Éditions l’âge d’homme, asked me to write an essay about Suprematism in music* which was published and led to me meeting Marc Khidekel, the son of Lazar Khidekel, who had worked with Malevich.
I had actually developed and experimented with Malevich’s discourse to Matiushin. I had arrived at “the end of white”, at sound! Sound had replaced the pictorial object for me.
CF: So it was in fact a radical decision, but didn’t you miss painting?
Yes, of course, since the problem with that decision was that I gave up who I was, and some part of me missed the act of painting, of course…
The only way I could continue painting in some way, in order to stay true to myself, was to compose with time and musical colours.
I saw artistic meaning in this, and at the same time, it seemed easier to me to compose with sound materials, with electronic sound, since it did not have all those centuries of history behind it. I felt more at ease.
CF: Yet you carried on painting pictures?
Yes but not very often and although I carried on painting, it was just for me. My painting was a mundane event. It still is. Everything I do is a mundane event!
In a world where all hard drives are saturated with images, my painting is just another mundane event!
A sort of “rough draft” for my music.
A draft is a pre-composition diagram. A kind of sketch for a musical score.
It was only in this sense that my painting still had a degree of authenticity.
Pictorial composition helped me to find my musical composition.
I mean that issues of structure, background, contours, colours, materials, shapes, figures, materiality, non-materiality, light etc. — basically everything to do with painting, really helped me and still help me write music.
I still look to painting to find my next musical composition. It is in this pictorial activity that I find solutions for my music.
CF: What happened at the exhibition in Faches-Thusmesnil to make you decide to stop everything?
Music was becoming my pictorial object, I was at the end of my artistic process, that’s all. But I still exhibited my work...
I displayed a set of objects, test tubes filled with a coloured liquid, but I was not very happy with myself. It was not very successful. I did not have much to say but the people who came to visit the exhibition always had a thousand things to say.
So I found myself in a position where I had exhibited something that did not seem very successful and yet, people talked about it.
They talked so much that I was able to define a satisfactory approach after the fact, based on their words, or rather I could hold a discourse that fitted in with the field of contemporary art as we know it.
It was a rather comical situation: having exhibited something I wasn’t happy with, people still spoke as if they had understood everything I had done, while I myself didn’t really know where I was going with my test tubes.
It was as if they felt involved in an aesthetic discourse...it was they who were writing my discourse...
That’s when I realised that I was reaching the very negation of art. But maybe that’s a prerequisite for art to exist…I don’t know! So other people were making my art!! Can you imagine that? I was frightened!
Frightened by people and by myself! Because I was the one triggering the silly things they were saying to me!
Naturally all this led me to withdraw from the art world. I stopped everything and refused to be a fake in the contemporary art world.
CF: How did you make this music? With musicians, with machines?
Certainly not with musicians, otherwise I would have been going back to a conventional approach. However, I had to find new harmonies, new rhythms and new sound colours using the machines of the time, which were analogue.
I created sound materials that would become my new painting materials.
By using these machines for purely artistic and non-musical purposes, I also pushed the boundaries of art and a whole new area of artistic research opened up to me, raising new questions that were purely artistic, philosophical or phenomenological etc.
C.F So you became a composer as a result of your artistic research!
Yes, but I had studied music for over 10 years... I was not without a basic knowledge of music.
However, it was at the Fine Arts institute, not the conservatoire, that I became a composer, partly due to circumstances, but also ultimately by choice, almost by necessity.
At first I introduced sound as a new artistic object, and ultimately, by constantly pushing the limits of my artistic work, I ended up replacing it with a new form of experimental music, and I became a composer because I had come to the end of my pictorial research.
CF: You created a new kind of music?
Creating is a big word because it was a time when many musicians sought new ways to make music. I said that I was making sound paintings, temporal paintings that were recorded on magnetic tape. In fact that was the subject of my National Diploma essay.
Let's say I had laid new foundations for contemporary music that posed questions which were unusual in the world of music, through the use of repetitive structures or continuous sounds. These questions focused on instrumental playing, the use of synthesizers, the new machines of the time, a new musical reality, time and the occupation of space by sound using speakers.
I drew on the theoretical foundations of my artistic process and thus gradually created this music you know today.
Through this music, I sought to achieve what I could not achieve through painting.
But before reaching that point, I first explored and experimented with painting extensively.
I started by creating environments, making installations, and then I introduced sound.
These were sensory places where I gradually discarded the artistic object.
And after ten years, in 1985, I totally abandoned the pictorial object to devote myself entirely to written music.
CF: You say that you discarded the pictorial object. How did this change happen?
It wasn’t really a change. My point was the same except I changed the medium.
From the 80’s onwards, I realised that I was beginning to go round in circles and I was repeating myself in what I did. I had reached the end of the process and I realised that painting, my painting and my installations, had no meaning any more.
The medium of the visual arts did not suit me anymore.
I could see absolutely no point in displaying my paintings or installations in any exhibition.
I really felt like I had entered a new kind of academicism... And as I was in a phase of artistic radicalism, I rejected any idea of exhibiting or even painting. I did not even reply to exhibition invitations any more...
I stopped painting for years and marked this act with my performance “Dérive contre piano”. I deliberately took a musical instrument and painted it with diagonal stripes.
I then destroyed this piano with a circular saw, and wrote a quote by Malevich on it: “Painting has long been overcome, and the painter himself is a prejudice of the past”.
For me, this was a way of marking my withdrawal from the art world. When you no longer have anything to say, you must know how to say it and how to withdraw.
I became a painter of silence… Yet this silence would in fact become the subject of my music, to an extent. (It was in 1985).
CF: I believe you have an anecdote about when you were a student and were working under the supervision of your art professor Jean-Claude Chevalier.
Yes, I can laugh about it now but I didn’t think it was funny at the time!
One day, it must have been in 73, Jean-Claude came to see me, observed my work and said to me:
“Malevich created a white square on a white background, John Cage produced 4’33 of silence… there are German bands who do repetitive music. Since you’re following this path, you can take a look at minimal art and conceptual art! But don’t forget to listen to Jefferson Airplane too!!!” Then he walked away, chuckling…
I may as well tell you that I wasn’t pleased with this advice, and although I laugh about it now, that wasn’t the case at the time! It took me three months to get over it… (laughs)
On the one hand, the white square on a white background and on the other, John Cage’s silence…and I had very little in the way of reference materials! A book by Seuphor, one or two articles about minimal art in Opus International or L’art vivant, and that was all! It was 73 after all! Back then, there were no real studies or theories on Suprematism or minimal art; at least not in France.
CF: Were those art forms emerging at the time?
Yes indeed, there were some American painters, but they were spoken of confidentially, as with the French minimalists, the BMPT Group: Buren, Mossier, Parmentier and Toroni or Viallat from Supports/Surfaces! Some painters revisited the theories of Suprematism and Constructivism, others were developing Marxist theories etc.
The art world was moving! And in fact all these painters laid the theoretical foundations for a new painting style called “minimal art” or conceptual art, avant-garde art etc.
As I ultimately felt quite close to these movements, I decided to continue with my reflections on the subject, taking account of a number of theories that were being discussed at the time.
I tried to extend what I was doing to other media, sound in particular.
If we could use light and video, for example, why not sound!
My idea was to create art that was freed of the artistic object and its materiality.
In fact it was the Malevichean approach that I was really interested in.
And when Jean-Claude spoke to me of Malevich’s white square and John Cage’s silence, I began to study these artists, to question my painting, and I explored new directions in the field of minimal art, conceptual art and a certain kind of repetitive music.
Interview by Christophe Feray, artistic director of Atypeek music.