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Louis Sclavis: Maps of the Mind

Ian Patterson By

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I am more interested in the people than in the instruments.
"My music? I know what it is, and I don't know what it is. It's a paradox." Now entering his fifth decade as a recording artist, multi-reedist/composer Louis Sclavis may not have a clear handle on the music he makes, but he has absorbed the lessons of all the music he has turned his hand to, from free jazz to film scores, from African music to neoclassical composition. Listening to Sources (2012), Sclavis' ninth release on the ECM label—and his first with his exciting new Atlas Trio—what is most striking is how, after all these years, Sclavis refuses to revisit past glories. Instead, the search goes on for new sounds and textures. "Like everybody, I have some influences," Sclavis says, "but the influences are not direct. I have been composing for 40 years, so when I do my own projects it's only my music. It's not pop, not jazz, not ethnic music. The music I play is Louis Sclavis music."

Few artists succeed in creating new sounds with each new recording, but this creative restlessness is something that has marked Sclavis' tenure in Manfred Eicher's ECM stable. It's probably no accident that—with the exception of a few long-standing, ongoing collaborators—Sclavis habitually uses different musicians for each project, forcing himself into personally uncharted territory in the process. Whether writing the soundtrack for Charles Vanel's 1932 silent movie on Dans La Nuit (ECM, 2000) or combining brass, string and reed instruments with guitar and electronics to sonically represent the street art of Ernest Pignon-Ernest, on Napoli's Walls (ECM, 2002), Sclavis remains uncategorizable yet instantly recognizable. Just don't try hanging a name on the music.

Sclavis is no stylist, but he has his own style, preferring to create music in the twilight between the fringes of jazz and contemporary classical composition. "I don't like to put influences that are too clear in my music," he explains. "I want to exist at the border of many different kinds of music. Sometimes the influence could be from classical music, like Olivier Messiaen, and sometimes from Indian music, but sometimes it's just a game between me and my instrument, and between me and my memory."

This seemingly simplistic, organic approach to composition is well exemplified by the opening track of Sources, the hypnotically minimalist "Pres d'Hagondange." "This piece is only a simple game with the clarinet," Sclavis says. "You have 'boo dab a dap, be dab a dop'—these two things. It's like a kid with a very simple game. What can I do with this?" The music on Sources was conceived for this group, and this particular setting of clarinet, piano/keyboards and electric guitar was something completely new for Sclavis: "It's very new. I've never had a trio with just piano and guitar. I chose the musicians first because I had already played with them a little, and I was sure with them that it would work.

Louis Sclavis Atlas Trio"It wasn't that I needed a guitar and a piano," continues Sclavis. "It's just that I wanted to work with these two guys. It was interesting for me to have this combination of instruments, because I was obliged to compose in a new way. You cannot compose for guitar and piano as you do for saxophone. I just proposed some very simple material and then waited to see what would happen with the musicians. I am more interested in the people than in the instruments."

Though Sclavis' music on Sources may be simple musical sketches in essence, the inner pathways of the compositions reveal an almost paradoxical complexity. Certainly, the tunes weren't just hammered out in a three-hour studio blitz but instead were nurtured and grown with care and discipline. It's a compositional process, which Sclavis explains in simple terms. "For me, it's a little bit like a theatre piece," Sclavis expands. "I like to have a kind of dramaturgy. Even if the musicians are very free, I like to have strict direction, but not in the beginning. I begin with small things, and we rehearse. Then I come back to the composition, and I try to find a good way for each musician. We rehearse again, and then I come back again to the composition. It's a long process."

Sources has been in the incubator for a year, the time that Sclavis, pianist/keyboardist Benjamin Moussay and electric guitarist Gilles Coronado have been performing the music live, developing the compositions all the time. "After one year of concerts, we play more freely," relates Sclavis. "But the structure of each tune stays the same. When we perform live, we try to push to the maximum the form of the piece. Each tune has its own personality, and in concert we really push very far the personality of each piece.

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