Joelle Leandre: On Freedom and Responsibility
"I come from a very poor family in Aix-en-Provence, south of France. Not much money at home. I started to play very young, when I was seven years old, by chance. The music teacher proposed a classical hour once a week and I started on the recorder, a plastic one, and was very fast. I told my parents the same year that I want to make music. They looked at me in a bizarre way; 'music is not for us, we don't have money.' But they put me in a conservatory in Aix-en-Provence and I started all the theoretically difficult training. There, one day, I listened to a pianist at the piano class, my ear at the door, and I was so touched and that's how I started the piano. I practiced the piano in our kitchen with a paper keyboard, two octaves, just by hammering the notes. I did that for five months.
"The same year the contrabass teacher opened a class and was looking for some students. My brother Richard started the bass and eight months later, when I was nine years old, I started playing the bass too, standing on a small chair. I was fascinated by the bizarre, tender body, and the sound. I was a silent girl, most of the time by myself, and the instrument became something to embrace, a friend to me.
"I cried for almost two years, it was so hard. The finger positions are so rude, and my teacher, Pierre Delescluse, was so severe, impatient but also funny. For six years I was playing the two instrumentspiano and bass. Than Delescluse said to me, "You know, the music is fantastic, but it's better that you play the bass. There are thousands of piano players, but with the bass you can travel and be free.'
"Barre Phillips was the trigger for who I am. I listened to him in a concert while I still in school, so young, and he was playing solo bass. It was a first meeting with another kind of energy, another bass energy. I was fascinated. He joked, talked with the audience, and played so well. He has a lot of music. I still can recognize his sound anytime.
"I passed the very difficult examination for the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris. I worked a lot, I practiced eight hours a day, and than I arrived to Paris very young, alone, eight hundred kilometers from home, in a very chaotic time. The studies were very competitive, very high level, practicing all the times. And the more you knew your tool deeply, the more you could express yourself. I finished first, won First Prize for the bass, all the jurors, all men, picked me unanimously as the best.
"I was 19 years old and was interested in the new music. The scores of such composers as John Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff and Morton Feldman were so bizarre and complex; the roles for the bass offered more than the usual classical repertoire, and I was very happy to discover the new positions, new roles and new sounds for the bass. But I have to tell you that the new music was quite often boring; there are masterpieces, but I played a lot of shit-written compositions. I was interested in the political sense, what is the position of the bass? Why does the bass have that position in the orchestra? Why only the low sounds? Why only as an accompanying instrument? I was bored with the hierarchy of the bass in the classical music. I did not want this position. It is the same in the commercial, classical jazz. I cut that radically. I don't want that position.
"At that time I listened to jazz, bought a lot albums, and went to listen to a lot of jazz, even though I was starving. It was unusual then, 1969, to see a lonely woman, nineteen years-old, listening to jazz at clubs. Only couples and mennot womenwent to listen to jazz. Women were considered groupies. The jazz bass players were playing the bass with their fingers. Jean-François Jenny-Clark, and the free jazz peopleAlan Silva, Bill Dixon, Frank Wrightwonderful, creative musicians, playing their own music. I told Silva last summer during the Vision Festival how much I was fascinated by his bass playing at that time and he was so happy."
After finishing her studies, Leandre continued to be involved with new music, as a freelance member for such ensembles as I'Itinéraire, 2E2M and l'Ensemble Intercontemporain, but decide not to take a full position in any of them. She composed music for a theater production of William Shakespeare's Trolius and Cressida. "I met a wonderful, beautiful American woman," Leandre says, "Olga Bernard, pure intellectual; she survived Auschwitz and was a friend of Michel Foucault and Samuel Becket, a teacher in Harvard. She listened to my compositions for dance, and asked me to compose music to a Shakespeare play.
"In 1975 I had a terrible car accident. I almost died, it was very tragic. But it gave me a lot of strength to be me. It was like a wakeup call about the urgency and the need to be deeply conscious, to be myself. And a year later I got a one-year scholarship to study at the Center for Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo. Cage, Feldman and Brown were there. I went to downtown New York to listen to free jazzLeroy Jenkins, Butch Morris Cecil Taylor, Cooper-Mooresee dance and performance arts. I played in New York with Derek Bailey, Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker.
Joelle Leandre at HaTeiva, Jaffa, performing John Cage's composition for a closed piano and vocal, "The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs," rearranged by Leandre for bass and vocal, with the blessing of Cage
"I met John Cage before in Paris in the new music ensemble l'Itinneraire. I read his books Silence: Lectures and Writings (Weselyan, 1961) and For the Birds (Marion Boyars, 1981) when I was twenty years old. It was a shock to read his writingsfantastic books, the painting, the poetry, all the long graphic scores that were not easy. It was a shock, like listening to jazz for the first time. I played his music and I hope that I understood a bit of his music.
"Cage was a sage, he hated jazz music, for him it was stupid music, and he did not like improvisation, but he was not rude like the European composers, who all looked at jazz as popular music. He laughed all the time. He never could say that anything is bad, he was laughing about life, all the time happy. 'Isn't that great, Joelle?' he was saying all the time.
"Cage is very important to me, he is my spiritual father. I worked with him face-to-face, we talked a lot, and we were very close for fifteen years. He gave me the chance to be myselflike Derek Bailey, in a way. It was like a box that he gave me [that] can be opened any time, a field of possibilities. His philosophy is very important. He gives you the sense of freedom, but freedom doesn't really exist. He gives you the confidence and the responsibility to be you, to act, in sounds, to recompose in a way. He was in love with sounds, all were natural for him. 'Let sound be what it is,' he said. He always asked why this or [that] kind of sound is considered a bad sound? Who decided this hierarchy? Who has the power?
"And I'm against that shit hierarchy. Why the bass is after the first violin, second violin, first, second and third trumpet, the flutesand only the end is the bass? In jazz it is exactly the same, you have the composer, the instrumentation, and the exact roles. In free jazz and free improvisation I play sounds, I play timpani, I play trumpet, I don't play bass, but than you have to clean a lot shit, and again, no body gives you the key.
Merce Cunningham. We were eight composers and eight choreographers. Every day you had to compose, from four minute compositions up to fifteen minutes, you had to invent all the time. And in the nights Cunningham was sitting in one corner with his dancers, and in the other corner Cage with the musicians, and nobody knew what was going [on] between the two of them. [At] eight o'clock we began a performance that was open to the public. Cage was drinking whiskeya little bit drunkand was picking from a little basket the name of the musician and the name of the dancer, and Cunningham was shouting, 'Are you ready? Go.' Nobody was ready, but you learned how to free your ego. It was difficult for your ego. You had to be open to what is happening, in music and in life. And after each performance Cage smiled and said, 'Isn't that great?'"
In Buffalo, New York, Leandre discovered the compositions of reclusive Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi , and studied with him for two years in Rome, becoming one of his closest friends until his death in 1988. "Scelci is another important influence," explains Leandre. "He was a very spiritual persona Buddhistand talked about the one sound, just one sound that has a life, death, and soul; sounds and vibrations that give love, and he touched me most deeply. You play sounds. He provided me with a complete sound world.
" Derek Bailey is as important as Cage to me. George Lewis, the trombone player, saw me playing in London, and came to me afterwards and said, 'Joelle, you play like you're mad. You must play with Derek,' and a year later I played with Derek. When you play with Derek it is very intensive, but we never talked about music, before or after. He hated to talk abut music, and I love to talk and talk about music, the organization, the duration or the decisions. He just said, 'Play.'
"Derek hated to give workshops. I asked him what he did in workshops, and he said that he sat and said, 'Play.' That's all. For him everything is accepted, the window is open. Everything has a sense, and it works together; even in a pure anarchy, pure chaos, something will happen. The music determines who you are, and the process is your life, all your life, it determines the vocabulary, the decisions, your identity, your energy. You'd always know when Derek is playing, even if he was playing with another twenty guitarists. I'm interested to be [as] honest as that, that it will be definitely Joelle that is playing, playing her shit, with her passions, passions and patience. This is the most important thing. The music is who you are."