Post-face to Alain Savouret’s “solfège de l’audible”

In 2012, Symétrie Editions published Alain Savouret’s book Introduction à un solfège de l’audible, the result of his experience as a teacher in the Generative Improvisation class at the Paris Conservatory. Here is the text I wrote at Alain’s request, published as a complementary article, among other testimonies from former members of the class.

I owe Savouret these few lines. A look back at his class with its barbaric name, the testimony of an elder, as they say. I had thought of a short paper, like an acknowledgement of debt… “I, the undersigned, Benjamin Dupé, declare that I was passionate about the generative improvisation class, and that today I continue to invent music thanks to what I learned there. But, to official acts, Savouret prefers the oral tradition, for sure. For the facts move away in the past, get tangled up, and the legend takes shape.

It goes back to 1995, I think. I had entered the Conservatory a year earlier in guitar class. In the list of “optional disciplines” offered, there was what was then called “free ensemble improvisation”. It is disturbing to search afterwards for the reasons of a switch that was to prove crucial for my musical life. In my desire to enroll, there was the memory of my first public improvisation, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Nantes, where I had discovered that space could be a score. I was finishing an adventure with a theater company, which had lasted long enough for me to feel the need to be able to bring music into the time of the staging, as close to the moment as possible. There was the repertoire of my instrument that I wanted to explode. And these words: free, together, which inevitably spoke to the guitarist destined for a career as a solo performer.

To improvise, one had to go down to the second basement of the Conservatory, stage three to be precise. I am convinced that the location of the class contributed to its artistic direction. I’m not being miserable: there is nothing gloomy about this basement signed by Portzamparc, which is rather spacious and overlooks an interior courtyard. It is true that it is a place without windows, but it was here that the Conservatory’s activities, which were undoubtedly the most open to the outside world, took place. One could have felt crushed by the floors of learned music piled above our heads, but the opposite was true: the survival of the popular. Were we not neighbors of the jazz class? But it is above all the imaginary geography that is worth noting: the basement is the place where the laboratory is set up.

Totally disregarding the elementary rules of musical hygiene, this laboratory was regularly contaminated by external germs: Baltic music, Auvergne music, body exercises, even articles from the Parisien. Its brief equipment (instruments, chairs, a large blackboard and markers, a few microphones, a recorder – desks excluded, except for typing on them) revealed its functioning: we were both the scientists and the guinea pigs. Because with hindsight, I can define the object of study. Not the sound, nor the music, but the musician: how does he sound? What does he say when he plays, and to whom?

So on Thursdays we went down to take classes. And it wasn’t that Savouret or Boesch were teaching, as the expression goes, it was much more Heraclitean: we were immersed in the collective flow that they had created.

This community was certainly the first richness of the class. For improvising in a non-idiomatic way consists essentially in developing a virtuosity in listening to the other, and in working on the relevance of the inscription of one’s presence in a group. This group was rich, complex and moving.
By the specialties, first of all. Between the instrumentalists, with their sharp technique and musicality, the composers, well versed in the handling of concepts, the singers, affirmed in space, and some free electrons (sound professionals, musicologists), an artistic and intellectual emulsion was produced, all the more powerful as each one put himself in front of the others in the vertiginous danger of the direct enunciation of his music, that of the “I, here, now”.

By cultures, too. Let’s assume, and even be happy about the international prestige of the Conservatory, this elite structure that attracts musicians of all nationalities. If we were already gathered in the other classes to play music (one hundred percent Western, by the way), here we are inventing music together: that is worth all the embassies. I remember the heroes of this experimental blockbuster in a jumble… The Japanese Hirano, who was as calm in discussions as he was crazy when he was playing, the German Armbruster, with his minimalist and over-precise playing, the Macedonian Pavlovska, a real musical bomb, the Bulgarian Lutzkanov, whose enigmatic provocateur never knew if he was smiling at us or laughing at the music…

I think back to what Dupin said, as a good director welcoming the new students of the Conservatoire: “in this house, you will meet many people, some of whom will remain your friends for life”. It is impossible not to mention De La Fuente and Sighicelli, who are among them. For ten years we have been travelling the roads to play the music of our company Sphota, where Fèvre and Ogura worked for a while…

Savouret also became a friend. It must be said that it was not difficult to fall under his spell. As an imperial pedagogue, he was not above, nor before, but with us, in the subject, at work. His humor defused many situations, for let there be no mistake: there can be great violence in the delivery of music, and a great reluctance to reconsider one’s classical music knowledge, already dearly paid for by years of demanding studies, in favor of a broader perspective. By dint of encouraging and accompanying experimental practice, Savouret opened up spaces, which we map through analysis and reflection. This is where his dimension of intellectual, powerful, wild and recuperative came in. For many students, the heterogeneous character of the many notions summoned in the first months was soon transformed into a coherent system of thought. In other words, a way for the musician to hear the world, quite unassailable (apart from a few gaps on the question of musical representation) and all the more unifying because the generosity of his vision, unlike that of certain popes of improvisation, excluded nothing and nobody.

Savouret was not alone, forming a duo with Boesch that was as complementary as it was out of sync – it was rare that they intervened at the same time. An excellent Swiss double, pretending to pontificate, Boesch was a deadpan who inevitably began his sessions with an indication that was at least destabilizing, if not incomprehensible. Able to talk about Beethoven, Keith Jarrett, the behavior of birds in flight, and Lisp music programming in the same session, he added perspective to perspective.

The end of the century was approaching, and the solidity (relevance) of a construction was being affirmed …. In the meantime, the class had become a “generative improvisation” class, a change of term characteristic of a project that was regularly redefined, constantly at work, even in its name. However, rituals had been established, and we recognized each other as those who had been initiated did. There was something sacred in the ceremonial of listening: twelve pairs of ears stretched towards the most improbable manifestation of sound, in the empty space delimited by the circle of chairs. Brook was not so much quoted, because he was unknown to many, but we rediscovered in the music, as I was to realize later in contact with choreographers and stage directors, some fundamental principles of the living arts.

In this setting of attention, the plays multiplied, from the free improvisation of the beginning of the morning to the improvisations with instructions, the list of which was invented on the field. Proposals of energies, speeds, roles, durations, forms, spaces, memory, numbers: ways of getting along, not ways of doing. Because whoever played the game thoroughly did as much as possible in his own way. The temporary framing of perceptions served to reveal what was most singular in each person.

I have never considered technology to be essentially indispensable to a renewal of the musical word. But I must admit that the tape recorder that regularly recorded us, for listening and analysis afterwards, was an important tool. This back-and-forth between what was played and what was listened to allowed us to point out together the forces at play in an improvisation. We knew that this objectified witness was only a part of what had really happened, but it gave an account of the complex tangle of parameters. It allowed for parallels between what we had already learned elsewhere and what we were discovering there: between orchestration and the materiality of sound, between forms and (radio) dramaturgy, between the polyphony of notes and intervallicity, between the soloist dimension and the orality of a character.

Thanks to a skilful balance that I must again attribute to Savouret, the rigor of our analytical preoccupations never killed the pleasure of making sound, primitive and sacred. We were delighted with the resonance of the open strings (rediscovering in passing that the simplest technique is not necessarily the least interesting), we rejoiced in the collective synchronizations (primary and vital pulsations), and we worked on the attack transients like children on the legs of an ant (as true scientists of the squeak).

The ear was trained to a poetics of strangeness, while we spoke an unheard-of dialect, sufficiently revitalized by the newcomers not to be locked into a pseudo aesthetic of modernity.

It is thus a matter in movement which crystallized in a punctual way, a few evenings in the year, in the space Fleuret, in contact with the public. By investing the time and the space of the representation with these musics “never heard and never to be heard again”, we passed from the protected listening of the laboratory to a listening demultiplied to the space, the tension and the resonance. Above all, we experienced the perception by the layman. Highly comical: this fireman on duty and these three grannies “subscribed” to all the concerts of the Conservatory, who were not the least enthusiastic. It must be said, without any hierarchy of values, that what was being played at the time was nothing less than a colossal explosion in the Conservatory’s programming.

It was not so much the style of the music taken one by one that was original. We were open-minded, some of us aware that we were naturally under influence. Grisey for the spectral dimension, Ligeti, Lachenmann and Sciarrino for the objects and materials, Vivier and Ohana for the ritual, the GRM school for the time-matter, Cage for the permeability… It was then up to each of them to explore their own color or to attempt a synthesis. The most striking thing was the articulation or transformation of these slices of music, determined by the personality of the player, at what moment, in what corner of the stage. A feeling of immense freedom shared by the spectator and the musician, all the more so because, far from letting off steam, it was listening that was at work, and given to be seen. On those evenings, anything could happen, because we were trying to hear everything.

Stochl, with his scales from theater and dance, had been there. We became a little more conscious of the stage, we unlocked the instrumental gesture – partly, precisely, thanks to technical mastery (working on one’s instrument is very useful), our bodies became carriers of artistic meaning. A new stage art was born: musical theater without words.

The concerts given at the Conservatory (or in the more professional context of festivals that invited the class) were also an opportunity to learn, on the job, about “project management. On a modest scale, how to organize time, people and energies throughout the day of preparation preceding the meeting with the public? Whether it was a question of crossing with another art form (image, dance) or the use of technological tools (sound processing, sound devices), we would unroll the question: what to do? The elements of answer took shape when we caressed the present potentialities, as one tames an instrument, when we felt the artistic team as the material itself. To think, to organize: not to regulate, but to favor the possible.

I would later read, with the pleasure of recognition, Brook’s lines about the moment of the performance. It’s like a take-off, something of a different nature than the preparation and adjustment phase of rehearsals. We who were so used to a finished piece, polished, to be given as is, to be performed (!), we experienced for once another way of doing things: loading a field, upstream, and living the spurt, the surge of life.

One day we left the class with another prize in our pockets, an absurd but not without sentimental value. We would have to give a voice to each of the students who had passed through to know what we were leaving with. Individual experience is not soluble in pedagogical assessments. But let’s bet: at least a better trained ear and a more assertive personal sound. Although there were some nice encounters with recognized improvisers (Léandre, Achiary, Matthews), I never had the feeling that the subject was there, in a factory of improvisers. It was only one of the possible paths, for those who would blossom in a milieu that was paradoxically rather exclusive philosophically and aesthetically.

For my part, I kept a fundamental principle, beyond the improvised game: the reinvention of my profession, and the tools of this reinvention. This is what changed my professional life.

The quality of the numerous teachings I received at the Conservatory allowed me to meet many people, artists or simply human beings. But only one teaching, that of the class of generative improvisation, served me in the meeting, once the setting in relation. This is the homage I pay to a class that has also formed me humanly. A few years as playful lessons of a precious life skill, always to be cultivated: to know how to hear, the people, the worlds.

Benjamin Dupé · Septembre 08th, 2010