Bastien David On thelookout for a new sensation

Interviews 27.07.2021

When Bastien David, a composer who has just turned thirty, is asked where he draws his inspiration from, he mentions nature, a dense, lively and rich nature, as magnificent as it is hostile, such as that of Reunion Island, where he likes to compose. But he immediately adds that ideas can spring from anywhere, from daily relationships with things and exchanges with people: life is inspiring for the composer on the lookout...

The year 2022, on 8 May to be exact, the date of the event programmed in theAuditorium of the Maison de la Radio, will be for him the culmination of a project that has been maturing for some eight years: a concert-show around the "Métallophone", an instrument that he has dreamed up and created with his own hands and that six percussionists will put into resonance. He tells us about the genesis of this beautiful and fabulous adventure, which is part of the singular approach of our composer-researcher. 

I would like you to go back to the source of the "Métallophone" project. What was your first desire?
It is difficult to speak of a first desire because the desires were multiple: first of all, perhaps, that of living an unheard-of sound experience which has been driving me for a long time and which goes beyond the instrument itself; insofar as it implies a relationship of sharing, with the musicians who are going to play this acoustic instrument and appropriate its resonant qualities; with the public who are going to discover the instrument and live this immersive experience in renewed listening conditions where the eyes as well as the ears will be solicited. I would like to point out that the "Métallophone" project is associated with the creation of the company " Les insectes ", six percussionists united around the instrument: Adelaïde Ferrière, Aurélien Gignoux, Elisa Humanes, Maxime Echardour, Morgane Laplace-Mermoud and Ya-Hui Liang.   

The construction of this instrument took several years. When did it begin?
It is linked to my first trip to Burma in 2012 and the encounter with the steel blades that constitute the basic material of this microtonal percussion instrument. I quickly wondered about the tuning of these blades, fantasising about the 1/12th tone scale, which is interesting because it intersects with the quarter and third tone scale. I went back to Burma several times, thinking about the size to give to the instrument, the number of blades and the playability of the metallophone. The overall shape (116 bars and 12 metres long) was the result of all these considerations. The tuning of the metal bars was done in a traditional way, during two months of intense work with a traditional vibraphone maker who did not speak English. I lived in the same place as the workshop, a former monastery which had the quality of offering a flat floor to lay the blades on, twelve metres long.

This was the first stage of the development that would continue and be completed in other lands...
Indeed; the lacquered wooden box of the metallophone was the work of a French craftsman while the easels were made in Italy during my stay at the Villa Medicis. At that time I thought I could start writing but it took longer than expected to complete. I was proud, however, that the finished instrument would be presented as a physical and plastic object in the exhibition dedicated to the plastic residents of the Villa Medici.

Depending on the context in which it is installed, the instrument has the capacity to metamorphose...
Placed in the centre of the space, in the large gallery of the "Villa", it takes the form of a spinal column or even a sound wave. The idea is to distribute the keyboards according to the geometry of the place and to make them interact with the space. Photographed in the gardens of the "Villa", the Metallophone adopts a circular shape, while it forms an arch in the room of the Beaubourg Museum where it is next to a Calder sculpture. I would like the object thus exposed to the public eye to take on a physical imagination and lead the spectator on a mental journey. The instrument changes according to the places that host it, places that are not only intended for music, that can associate other forms of art or be part of a natural setting like a forest, a cave or a garden. The more the instrument travels, the more different audiences it will meet. This is the challenge of this nomadic project: to bring together different people around the same object. The Métallophone is currently installed at Royaumont where we will be in residence during the month of February 2022 to work on the piece that was commissioned from me by Radio France; it is a place that lends itself to the instrument just as the instrument responds to the place, through the resonance it offers, its relationship to the garden, to history and to creation. I would obviously like the music stands to disappear, for the musicians to play by heart to create a cohesion between their respective gestures and the physiognomy of the instrument. 

This is not the first instrument you have built? Can you tell us about your other achievements?
As part of my studies at the Conservatoire Supérieur de Paris, I made a mechanical action instrument with Tibetan bowls that I called "my little machines"; I don't know if I'm going to continue in this direction, but the fact of building things by associating various elements is a practice that is constant for me. I am once again animated by it in the CD project I am carrying out with the accordionist Vincent Gailly, where I introduce microphones into the resonant body of the instruments to modify their sound. It is possible that this new research, in which microphones become instruments in their own right, could be expanded thanks to the resources of Ircam, which contacted me.   

Helmut Lachenmann said that "to compose is to build your instrument". What does "building an instrument" mean to you?
For me, it means invoking an imagination, an immediate relationship with sound that comes into contact with ourselves to provoke a new sensation. It's also everything upstream of the construction, the human exchanges that this will provoke, the playability, the relationship to the body, to the gaze, to listening, to space, the relationship to notation, to composition. Building an instrument means asking a host of questions and trying to answer them in the simplest way possible by questioning the instrument itself. The aim is not aesthetic, it's a feeling I have. I would also mention the relationship to the solo that it induces.
I am thinking of Riff, my first solo for cello that I wrote for Marie Ythier and which made me realise that the simpler the relationship to the instrument, the more complex it will be. It's a question of trying to understand what the instrument is telling us, of listening to it and to the instrumentalist in order to write what you most want to offer it. I renewed the experience with my accordion solo for Vincent Gailly, my piano solo for Dimitri Vassilakis and I am finishing a violin solo for Renaud Capuçon. My next solo will be for the Metallophone!

You have indeed been commissioned by Radio France for May 2022. The Metallophone will be held in the auditorium in its circular form, in line with the conformity of the hall. More than a concert, it's an event that's coming!
This will undoubtedly be a very emotional moment for me; I started the project when I was 22 and I will be 31! The piece will be about forty minutes long and I hope that the listening will be fuelled by a discussion about the project and that a link will be established between our ears and our eyes: through the movement of the stick on the blade and the movements of the percussionists who become almost dancers; with the photos and the plastic rendering of the instrument on the panels that will border the stage; as for the music, which I imagine to be as delicate as possible, with aquatic sounds that are sometimes a little electronic, I would like it to make us experience a particular moment of immersion, sustained by the hypnotic resonance of the steel blades.

You started writing on score. I suppose the question of notation was an important step for you.
The fact of having fixed the notation gives me wings. Having the instrument without the notation is like having ideas without the words to express them. I am very satisfied with the result concerning the writing of the microtonality and the legibility of the signs, which is essential for me and for the musicians; even if this notation can still evolve. For the moment I have only three minutes of music and already twenty-seven pages of writing. The manuscript is likely to be impressive! I would also like to present it to the public on 8 May, as a graphic object that I would like to include in this concert-exhibition.  

The work already has a title, which you have already revealed on your website...
Yes, Les Métamorphoses is the title of this musical moment! The title came to me because of the subject matter of the piece. It refers to the different mutations that insects undergo, the name of the Métallophone company.

Doesn't the scale of the event and the size of the Métallophone risk slowing down the momentum of the programmers?
First of all, I would like to remind you that the instrument has the capacity to take on different forms, to adapt itself to the space that hosts it. I'm fairly confident that programmers are willing to change the concept of the concert. We are living in a period where it is interesting to rethink its modalities in a way that is consistent with the world we live in today; my desire through the "Métallophone project" is to change the paradigm of creation, to write a piece that allows us to meet different audiences, that is carried and even reworked according to the places where it will be performed, that lives and adapts to the spaces where it sounds. It was important to create a company of musicians who know each other, can rehearse together and acquire an in-depth knowledge of the instrument. The association is going to expand from six to twelve percussionists, so as to establish a rotation within the group according to the availability of each one.

Is the Metallophone an all-terrain instrument?
It can be heard indoors as well as outdoors; but it remains a musical instrument with its sensitivity and fragility to heat and humidity... even if it has already withstood the heat of the Roman sun! 

The Métallophone and its six percussionists will be revealed to the public next autumn...
The instrument will be performed in the church of the Musée des Arts et Métiers during the Nuit blanche on 2 October and will enter into dialogue with the famous Pendule de Foucault. The acoustics of the place are magnificent and will allow us to hear an extract of the score in progress, best adapted to the context of the pendulum which will swing in the middle of the instrument. 

Interview by Michèle Tosi

Photos © Raphael Creton


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