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Michel Portal: Meanings, Feelings and Rivers

By Published: July 1, 2005

AAJ: Was there a feeling at that time that French jazz was picking up in the '50s and early '60s with people like Jef Gilson and Barney Wilen, and that it might have led you to stay, to perhaps try and build something?

MP: Well, there was a growing political situation in France that led to that music and the American black musicians were also coming to France to live. I did not want to play dance music and it was also very difficult to play the clubs at that time because there were only a few people who got top billing - everybody else was on their own. It was a very violent time politically - anarchy and resistance - and there were also as many different ways of playing jazz as there were jazz musicians in France. So we became very restrained by the term "jazz" and we wanted to go beyond the standard tunes to find something that would fight for social values as well as musical ones. We were starting to write our own music and it was very different from the American styles; we gained confidence, and started to group together and form our own bands.

AAJ: So along these lines, how did [free improvisation ensemble] New Phonic Art come together?

MP: New Phonic Art was something else altogether; improvisation became a fashion and a formula, and it seemed like composers and musicians were afraid of losing control over what was played. So this was a test. Of course, there is the fact that we wanted to improvise, and improvisation has a quality of bringing together very good things and very bad things, but the will to improvisation is nevertheless very strong. For me, it was a conflict between the written tradition and what was "spoken," if you will. New Phonic Art was a tool of two composers who were trying to go in this direction [Stockhausen and Kagel], and also of performance.

I have a funny story for you. I was in Portland with [group-mates Vinko] Globokar, [Carlos] Alsina and Jean-Pierre Drouet, and we went from there to Mexico. We had a huge variety of instruments from Afghanistan, Morocco and other places, and had to have them shipped. When we got to Mexico, we had to tell the customs officers who we were and what we were doing. So I was to tell them that we were the New Phonic Art Ensemble, and we play music - we had to fake the documents to make it easier. The officer asked us what kind of music we played and so I told him that we played classical music. And he said "You have a lot of instruments. What kind of music is it?" "Contemporary." "What is the name of your group?" "New Phonic Art." "Como?" "New Phonic Art." "Hmm." So then he said to his comrade, "No Fornicar [No fucking]. Open the cases!" [laughing] Nobody had a clue what was going to happen, and we had to open up all the cases and try to explain what was in them.

But eventually we had to stop the group, because we had reached the limits of what could happen with the personalities of the players and with the ensemble. As it was pure improvisation, one could tell what the others were going to do before they did it. One of the musicians was a sad guy, and he'd always start his improvisations with a lament: "oooh, oooh, mmm... and I always thought "I know who's doing that!" No matter what he was doing or what anybody else did, that's always how it went. So, it was done. Also, it had become common to incorporate freedom into some sort of written form, as a tool, and that made more sense to us.

AAJ: In playing with New Phonic Art and with Mauricio Kagel (specifically, the piece "Exotica ), you played a lot of non-Western instruments, many of which you had not played before. How did that scenario affect your approach to improvisation afterwards?

MP: Well, there was a group of composers who were involved with musical theatre and they brought these instruments into their pieces as a sort of self-joke. Kagel was someone who liked to make fun of people and he had me act as an old blues player, as an old tired jazzman, and he would incorporate noise elements into this as well. He would direct me to say something odd while making some sounds - "no more water, no more water [Michel crinkles a bag]" - a lot of pandering. There was a lot of involvement with the Living Theatre, where we would go onstage just speaking nonsense [Michel provides an example]. We defied a lot of the rules, and even Xenakis told me just not to care and not to worry if what came of it was good or not. I'd be asked to play a phrase or make a noise and not to think about the context or what others were doing. The proposal was to free myself and the other musicians from questions of "why do you play that way" or "what are you doing?" Musicians like Eric Dolphy were attacked with those same questions, but there were those on the other side [especially in Europe] who said "just play that way, do what you want." It helped us to learn that one just has to play what one wants, without concern for what's going on outside of making the music.

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