Born in 1935 in Bayonne, France, reedman Michel Portal has the unique position of being one of the architects of modern European jazz and having a hand in some of the most significant shifts in modern classical music. Portal, along with pianist Francois Tusques, trumpeter Bernard Vitet, drummer Charles Saudrais and tenor man Barney Wilen, embraced and expanded upon the innovations of Ornette, Cecil, Coltrane and Shepp as part of the nascent French free jazz movement. In addition to leading and co-leading groups with Leon Francioli, Pierre Favre, Joachim Kuhn and Barre Phillips throughout the '70s, Portal was a central figure in post-Cageian open-form classical music. With trombonist-composer Vinko Globokar, pianist-composer Carlos Roque Alsina and percussionist Jean-Pierre Drouet, Portal and New Phonic Art worked with Stockhausen, Maruicio Kagel and Luciano Berio among others - figuring importantly in Stockhausen's From the Seven Days
Since the 1980s, Portal has composed music for films in addition to working as one of France's and Europe's leading improvisers. In October 2004, while Portal was visiting Minneapolis as part of the Minnesota Sur Seine jazz festival, AAJ writer Clifford Allen had the rare opportunity to speak with the artist.
AAJ: I wanted to start with how you got involved in music. You began on clarinet, right?
MP: My family were musicians and they all tried to play something. My father played trumpet, my grandfather played bassoon and when I was very young I saw many instruments around me, and I picked up the trumpet, then the clarinet, then the horn and the violin, and I tried to make sounds. I wasn't really looking for music; it was always there. I played flute at seven, then clarinet and my father wanted me to stop for a bit to concentrate on my studies. I was ten when I picked up the clarinet again.
AAJ: What music first moved you when you were young?
MP: I played the standard classical repertoire for clarinet; I think I was twelve when I played Bartok and Debussy - Mozart as well.
AAJ: And you won some prizes for clarinet when you were studying it, right?
MP: Yes. In the province of Bayonne, I entered a contest in Bordeaux to play the Bartok trio for clarinet, violin and piano, and my professor encouraged me to go to Paris. I was in high school and my father did not want me to do music as a vocation, though I could not see anything else to do. It wasn't a violent conflict, though [laughs]... my father wanted me to support myself and this [for him] was a hobby.
AAJ: How did you get interested in jazz and improvising?
MP: When you see the repertoire for all of eternity of an instrument, you see the major pieces. Very young, I played Mozart, Brahms, one piece of the Rhapsodies of Debussy and, after a while of playing all these pieces, they became very uninteresting, blah, blah, up-and-down, up-and-down, and I thought "What can I do with a piece after this?" It was after the war, and we had American music on the transistor radio, and I heard these new, incredible sounds - the trumpeter, the saxophonist, it was incredible for me. What is this? This is jazz music? There was a beginning of the music in France, and we would make transcriptions from the radio, and every day we would tune in to hear Jimmy Lunceford and his orchestra, all the time.
At the same time, I remembered a chorus of Charlie Parker, and it was terrible because I didn't have a record [to learn from] and practice, so I thought "oh my, this is too hard." After school, with the ragtime orchestra, we were overjoyed because we could improvise like Jimmy Noone, and we'd imitate him and New Orleans jazz, King Oliver, and sometimes we'd play modern music like Duke Ellington. I was happy because, unlike in the orchestras, I had an opportunity to play as a soloist. When the musicians would hit those high notes, their way of playing the C major scale was unbelievable! During my childhood I was very influenced by the American musicians and I had an opportunity to play with the Chicago Orchestra, but I was so afraid of flying that I could not go and, not only that, it was such an incredible opportunity that I got scared off. I also did not know at that time (and I still do not) whether I wanted to be a classical musician or a jazz musician, so it was a very difficult position to be in. Of course, playing jazz in America was a big step because I would have to learn how to wash cars and drive a taxi during the day, and there were already so many great jazzmen in America that it would be harder for me to make it in the first place.
To do something in the United States was very exceptional at the time; besides Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, there were not so many big French names in jazz music that had reached the United States. I'd have had to change my name to Michael Kennedy or something! I was afraid of having to not only learn to play the music the American way, but to have to build for myself a mythology. I would rather just play. Jazz is a difficult music to make your way in; there are fewer big stars now than there were then, and I see the jazz musician as someone who one evening could have 200 people in a room and the next evening play in a hall for thousands.
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.