Wednesday, October 07, 2009

An interview with Christian Zanési, pt. 1

by Matteo Milani and Federico Placidi, U.S.O. Project
English translation: Valeria Grillo

Christian Zanési is a French composer and the head of the musical programming at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales. Zanési studied music at Université de Pau, then in Paris at the CNSMDP under Pierre Schaeffer and Guy Reibel. Since 1977, he is a member of GRM especially in charge of the production of radio programmes for France Musique and France Culture. He has been recently awarded the Special Qwartz at the Qwartz Electronic Music Awards (Edition 5).
We met Christian Zanési at 104 for the fifth Présences Électronique Festival, organized in co-production with Radio France, which explores the link between the concrete music of Schaeffer and new experiments in electronic music.
Since its founding in 1958, GRM has been a unique place for creation, research and conservation in the fields of electroacoustic music and recorded sound. The systematic analysis of the sound material Schaeffer proposed to his collaborators resulted in the publication of a seven hundred pages reference book, the "Treaty of Musical Objects" published in 1966.
Michel Chion’s Guide To Sound Objects (PDF, English translation) is a very useful introduction to this voluminous work (via
In this very complete essay, Pierre Schaeffer develops the main part of his new musical theory of the sound object. It is based on two principal ideas, making and listening, and explores the first two levels of this theory: typo-morphology and classification of sounds. He uses various disciplines such as acoustics, semiotics and cognitive science to demonstrate his explanation of sound and, in particular, the musical object within musique concrète.

U.S.O. Project: You often mention that sound is the prime matter. How can we “orient” and recognize sounds we’ve already heard, without the cause-effect relationship?

Christian Zanési: The sound has to be considered in a musical context, it is not about recognizing the sound, it is an expressive matter, and every composer, every musician has some kind of personal sound, a signature sound, so when he transcribes it into his work, into an artistic project, the idea is not to try and play a guessing game, this is this sound, or this is that sound, there is a higher level that belongs to it, and this level is that of the musical relations, expressive relations. When you listen to a concert, for example for cello and orchestra, you are not pointing out each instant "this is a cello sound", you listen to music. And it is the same with sound.
 So, there is a second level which is a little more complex, it is true that some sounds reveal an image, from time to time there could be ambiguity, and this is also part of a rethoric, or of an ancient model, and it is possible that this provokes a kind of curiosity, and at the same time gets mixed into the expression. Composers are very strange.

USO: In the first 50 years of electronic music, has the absence of visual elements during performances limited or enhanced the listening experience?

CZ: Well, naturally us, at our festival Presences Electroniques, prefer to bring attention on the sound, sometimes there are some audiovisual experiences, but the nature, the physiology of it, makes the image a priority on the sound. So we, since we developed a projection system very very sophisticated, prefer that kind of listening experience, it is more complete, we don't need anything else, it is an orientation, it is one of the strengths of our festival; that is, to offer artists the best possible sound projection system, the best definition, and we think that is complete. We are very music-oriented, and I've often been there and I've seen musicians doing an audio-video performance, and I've been rarely convinced, sometimes yes, but it becomes something else, we go down to another level, and we want to explore the purely musical universe, sound and its programming.

USO: Can you give us a more in-depth definition of the concept of “l’ecoute reduit” (reduced listening) by Pierre Shaeffer?

CZ: The first time that... well in a few words it is difficult... when we recorded on vinyls, there were no tape recorders in the 1950s, when we reached the end of a disk, the last groove was repeated indefinitely, and it was a full modulation. In all vinyls today, there is a closed groove with a silence, to avoid that the stylus exits the turntable. All the disks at that time - all that were recorded in the 1950 - the disc, equivalent of today's vinyls, ended on a closed groove, and Schaeffer listened to this phenomenon, everybody could hear it, there was not a silence. The fact that the sound repeats itself, made him understand that finally we were listening to the sound itself, we wouldn't say "this sound is close or not, it starts this way, it is more or less acute, it is more or less brilliant, it is more or less thick, and in that moment he imagined that we could listen inside the recorded sound, which means we could verify, validate, objectivize the phenomenon by hearing the peculiar characteristics of the sound, how it starts and how it ends, in which tessitura it is, if it is light or if it is dark, it is loud, it is close or far. This is to objectivize the listen, this is "L'ecoute reduit".

USO: Can you discuss your vision of the sound organization principles? Definition of the sound object, objective and subjective aspects, articulation, iteration, quality of the information, musical language.

CZ: In classical music, the constituent elements of an opera function organically, that is there are consequences; when you put a sound together with another, this creates an harmony, for example a chord, and if you add another sound the chord completely changes in timbre, this is an organic principle. We can do the same with the sound the composer chooses, so to imagine music sometimes as a vertical relation, or as an horizontal relation; this is an organic system, and the organic system is a biological system, in some way copied from the living, and since we function following the living principles, we are particularly able and specialized to recognize an organic system, and in that moment something starts in our brains and there is some kind of a communion; this is what happens, how to organize the sound, why put this with that, and why after this, add that, they are organic relations.

USO: What do you think of hidden causality (between what the audience sees and hears)?

CZ: The ability to listen is a very complex phenomenon, so when a composer works, it is difficult to be conscious about everything, an artist works very much in an intuitive manner, intuition is a super-computer which gives us the answer immediately. But if we talk about the genesis, about why we made some choices, it takes an eternity. So, the relations, the sound is not inside a single "ear", there is a very ancient ear, for example, that is the ear we use to cross the street, it is the hearing of danger. Hearing is a prolongation of the sense of touch, imagine to be in the forest, when a predator hunts, if it touches you it is too late, you are dead. So hearing is a prolongation of touch, it allows you to foresee the arrival of a predator. There are various hearings - one which detects aesthetic information, one that detects information on the behavior of others, so when you work with sound you alternatively activate many "ears". When you begin a piece of music by having a sound turn around you, you awaken the ancient, the primitive "ear", the danger hearing, since in nature, something that turns around you it is something that tries to catch you, and a composer in some way is conscious of this mechanism and plays with it. It is very difficult to answer this question because the ear is very complex, and the reality around us is very complex. But we are all naturally gifted at hearing, since without it we could not cross the street, we could not hear something behind us, we could not see around us through sound.

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