Benoît Delbecq, the choice of pulse

Interviews 05.07.2023

At the very beginning of July, pianist Benoît Delbecq welcomes me to his garden in Bondy. The previous days had been very busy: playing sessions, mixing albums, writing... Benoît Delbecq is hyperactive! This informal chat is like a truce, as his work as a sound engineer can be between two moments of composition and piano work. Benoît Delbecq may love concert fever, but he also knows that these escapes are salutary.

BenoîtThese last few months have been very busy. In March, you gave two concerts at Berlin's Boulez-Saal. You were able to present two new groups: a trio with Taylor Ho Bynum and Sarah Murciaand a quartet with two Swedish musicians and young Belgian drummer Samuel Ber. What was the starting point for these two creations?
The Berlin program manager asked me to do something completely new. I got together with him to brainstorm. In the combinations I was able to propose, there were musicians with whom I had already worked, but who had never played my music, with the possible exception of Taylor the cornetist.
Sarah had never played with Taylor and had never played my music.
I also proposed a quartet with the Swedish double-bass player from Berlin, Petter Eldh, the Swedish saxophonist Otis Sandsjö, also active in Berlin, and the drummer Samuel Ber, who already plays in Kartet. Peter and Otis are very close, and playing my music changed their habits. I like to color the world of improvisers by writing something that gives them a starting sound.
As for Samuel Ber, I did sessions with him even before he joined Kartet. He was my student at the CNSMdP, where I was invited by Riccardo Del Fra to teach composition in 2016-17. The students also included bassist Etienne Renard , with whom I now play in several groups, and Samuel Ber: a fine bunch of young people, some of whom, like Etienne, were first trained by Olivier Py in Chalon sur Saône, and who have incredible know-how, a beautiful fever, and incredible precision in their playing. So I received a commission for two repertoires, the trio and the quartet, and I've just mixed the music. It was quite an adventure, a long-term process!

Did the person in charge of programming at the Boulez-Saal make any suggestions?
Yes, we had a few things in common.
In addition, during the writing process, I had in mind the particular acoustics of this hall.
I favored acoustic playing, so I chose Samuel, whose playing could match the prepared piano in these acoustics, and whose encounter with the brilliant Petter Eldh I wanted to provoke.
For the trio, Taylor was an obvious choice. Taylor is an improviser I adore! He has a very strong relationship with timbre, with space too, and I love his mute playing.
Having Taylor in this room was a dream come true for me. As for Sarah, she'd been wanting to play my compositions for years, so this was the perfect opportunity! She also liked the idea of not playing amplified.

What was the process like?
When you write for two teams like this, there's a kind of temporal arch that's created between the thought and the moment when you can send out the scores. I spent months taking notes, writing down what I wanted to hear, hearing them perform together, imagining the "living sound", to borrow a phrase from Messiaen, and imagining the living behaviors.
That's what I'm all about: putting enough elements into the writing to typify the altitude of the ear. Then there was the work of mental projection.
That's when the choices are made, and the rehearsals keep things moving. When I compose, I always start from scratch.
I ask myself: "What is music? Pulsation? The sound? "
I get this from my composer brother-in-law David Lacroix, who was once a copyist too. He used to say, "My vision of modernity is to question the tools at every job", and that stuck with me. I try to do that, even if my music remains my music. 

Do you always use graphics, circles and calligrams to write your music?
Yes, circles, calligrams, compasses, and excel files with small squares: I make fabrics, in fact, in 2D!
And here I'm thinking of the Lithuanian composer Egedija Medekšaitė with whom I've just collaborated with my group Manasonics as part of an Ensemble l'Itinéraire project. I think I discovered her music while researching fabrics: everything that's mesh, grouping, rhythmicity, organized yet seemingly very free matter, like the Kuba fabrics of Zaire. I did a lot of reading on the subject, and in my research I came across her music. As it happens, she's also a fabric design engineer: she studies the different dimensions involved in making a fabric, and transposes this into music. I found a correspondence with a way I have of perceiving music, and of making it in polymetric phenomena. I was able to name things.
In the excel file, there are arrangements of micro-rhythms.
I copy and paste, like a cut-up in poetry (collage of words). I superimpose, print - sometimes twice on the same paper - and observe. I'm not at all a theorist: I don't try to establish infallible systems.
I'm more interested in systems that have a problem (laughs). There's always a primitive, artisanal aspect to me. I observe sequences of numbers, architecture, anything with proportions!

But you still bring the musicians sheet music, with musical notes?
Of course I do! They always have notes, although with Sarah and Taylor (who worked with Anthony Braxton for years), we've also done some graphic scores. In general, the drawing work I mentioned just now is just an activity starter. After a while, I pick up some music paper and come up with some material. But it's never big stuff. A piece is often one or two pages, no more. That's my jazz side!

To make room for improvisation?
That's what interests me most, of course, even though I sometimes compose pieces in their entirety. In fact, I'm getting more and more used to it. It's more restrictive in terms of scheduling, but I like it.
When I'm composing, I can no longer travel for concerts, but I like to find myself in a highly concentrated state of writing, here in this garden or in my kitchen. At the moment, I'm working on a short 2-minute quartet for a BBC concert. It was commissioned by the Ligeti Quartet to mark the centenary of György Ligeti's birth. I will be one of twelve composers involved in the story, in addition to Lukas Ligeti, his son, who has written a longer piece. I'm composing this page from a study by Ligeti. It's a dressing room for a few days. I've got the synopsis, now it's time to write...
I've done a lot of writing this year. I really like this state! It's a different speed of thought to live performance. In fact, I've moved around less since the covid. I'm now thinking more in terms of composition. And at the same time, my main activity is still being on stage and playing, inventing with friends!

Has covid had a long-term impact on your touring?
We've paid a high price! We've had some support, but the network has suffered: small venues in particular. In the United States it's been disastrous, and in Great Britain too, not to mention Brexit! The British scene is almost destroyed. I haven't played there since Brexit, and that's changed everything.
We still have a network, but it's saturated: there's a crazy crowd out there, and at a very high level. We're actually in a situation of overproduction!
We didn't really see it coming, even if the idea did cross my mind, just as all the jazz classes were opening up! And I'm only talking about jazz here; in contemporary music, it's even more difficult!
In jazz, a spirit of competition and a relationship to show business have appeared, which I find very disappointing, if I compare it to what I experienced in the past.
For musicians of my generation, for 25 or 30 years, we had this feeling of community, of a big family, the family of improvisation and jazz, with of course communicating vessels: as far as I'm concerned, there were overhangs towards contemporary music, and a bit of pop.
Today, I find that we're much more into communication, into the envelope of things, the "faire savoir et le savoir-faire" to use Godard's expression!
As a result, it's become more difficult, if not almost impossible, to tour in France. Everything gets more complicated!
Fortunately, at the time of confinement, we did a lot of sessions at Bureau de Son, because we have our own studio. We were able to develop the repertoire of the trio Triple Fever, and that of my new sextet The Multiplexers with Alain Vankenhove, Samuel Blaser, and three young musicians Etienne Renard, Charley Rose, Samuel Ber: this enabled me to build a bridge with younger generations. In my youth, I too was taken under the wings of more experienced musicians: it's a form of continuity that appeals to me! The sextet played once at Le Triton in January (a one-off concert), but I've got a fantastic recording (below is an exclusive extract, ed. note)!
In this group, there's a specific kind of listening, a greed for self-discovery. Behaviors are not the same from one generation to the next.
The problem is, I'm not sure we can keep on playing: we're six guys, it's hard to sell these days! 

How do you feel about the need for parity in jazz? If we look at your career and your collaborations, we don't come across many female musicians apart from Sarah Murcia, Claudia Solal and Elise Caron?
That's true, even though I owe a lot to certain female musicians.
With actress Marie Dompnier and director Jan Peters, we're preparing a show about women artists who have been prevented from creating. The main character is a woman who existed, who was prevented from practicing theater and writing, and who ended up in an asylum. We've already started working together. It's a co-writing project. We'll be in residence at the Aquarium at La Cartoucherie in November.
But it's a fact; if you look at my instrumental groups, they're predominantly male, apart from Claudia Solal, Sarah Murcia, Elise Caron... and now also keyboardist Maïlys Maronne, who plays in the Quartet Orytmy with Toma Gouband and Magic Malik.
You know, when I taught at the CNSMdP for a year, there was only one female student in the class out of 51 students! Having said that, I find that there's a kind of brutality in the parity provisions, and that we don't start out with equal skills...
It's a complicated story, because in the end, good female improvisers in France play all the time, they're not free in fact! We could name several.
To be honest, when I chose the musicians for the sextet, it's true that I didn't think about that. I spontaneously called up musicians with whom I felt like playing, for reasons of obviousness and complicity.
But it has to be said that in Scandinavia, where they began this work of parity forty years ago, the situation has evolved a lot and there are many more women, including on the jazz scene, which is far from being the case in France. We receive injunctions from funding bodies such as the DRAC, so things are gradually coming into balance.
I'm thinking of Ingrid Laubrock, the German saxophonist now living in New York, one of the leading figures on the international jazz scene, who writes her own music: she's someone who's bound to create vocations, as Joëlle Léandre did before her.
I owe my vocation in large part to Mal Waldron, but he was a man!
That said, my composition teacher at the Versailles Conservatoire, Solange Ancona, who died two years ago, was a very important presence in my life as a composer. The fact that she was one of the only female composers in the Darmstadt era was anything but trivial. Sometimes she would bring up little stories... It wasn't an easy situation to be in. She had to make her own way. With her know-how and knowledge, she was a very strong female figure in my life as a musician. But in jazz, there are fewer of them, that's a fact!

Can we talk about a recent episode in your musical activity: the collaboration with l'Itinéraire. Was this your first collaboration with a contemporary music ensemble?
Yes! I met the ensemble's violist, Lucia Peralta, through a childhood friend. She introduced me to Grégoire Lorieux. I gave them a few records, and they listened to my music. Together, we came up with the idea of associating the musicians of l'Itinéraire and the Manasonics trio with Steve Argüelles and Nicolas Becker.
At that point, I discovered the music of Egedija Medekšaitė, and suggested we commission a piece from her. I also suggested writing a piece myself. The itinerary came up with the idea of adding a work by Scelsi. The program is completed by a piece for two pianos by Egedija Medekšaitė that I play myself, with a disklavier that plays itself!

Can you tell us more about Egedija Medekšaitė??
We've never met, except on zoom!
She's in her forties. She lives in the north of England, where she teaches. She moved there after completing her doctorate. Her music is quite sparse, but develops according to weaving principles. According to the way she increments her writing, this is reflected in the color of the timbres; it's timbre melody, to which are added fabrics that develop in verticality. We recorded the rehearsal, and she was delighted with the collaboration! It's surprising music: sometimes repetitive, with micro-shifts that can destabilize performers. For my part, I've written two pieces: one for l'Itinéraire, one for Manasonics, and then we're going to improvise! It will premiere in the autumn, on November 30, at theAtelier du Plateau in Paris. For the moment, we have no other dates in France. We'll also be playing in Belfast and Belgium.
I love working with musicians like those at l'Itinéraire, especially violist Lucia Peralta, who plays all kinds of music, and for whom instrumental practice is not a theoretical end in itself. I often say when I teach: "The first job of the pianist is to make others sound!"

For a long time now, in parallel with prepared piano, you have developed a taste for electronics, which can be heard in the music of your duets with Steve Argüelles and Jozef Dumoulin Ambitronix and Plug and Pray? How did this fascination with electronics come about?
It's been there since I was a teenager!
I stopped playing classical piano when I was 11, then started again when I was 12 or 13 with some friends from the neighborhood, one of whom was a drummer: we used to play pop music - covers of The Police (laughs...). I still have the K7s! As a teenager, I had a fascination for keyboards and synthesizers!
One day, I happened to drop in on film composer Maurice Lecoeur in Ville d'Avray. He had the latest Prophet 5, the 808: all those things you'd see in the shop windows in Pigalle because they were so expensive!
So I bought myself first a Fender Rhodes - which I paid off in baby sitting - then a dx7. As I'd done a science degree, I was interested in algorithms! I ended up programming this synth. I knew a student of Jean Schwarz, and I was going to make loops with the microphone stands. I was between 15 and 17.
After that, I went on to study sound engineering - which is my only diploma, by the way, as I don't have one in music - and I've always had an ear for microphones!
Then I met Thierry Balasse and Etienne Bultingaire, trained by Daniel Zalay. The sound of France Musique also shaped my ear, especially chamber music. I'd always listened to the radio: it was like being at home! Discovering the tools to produce this effect of sound geography appealed to me, and brought me closer to this profession, even if I don't want to practice it.
I love mixing records. More and more, I'm offering my ears to musicians, and I'm asked to mix albums. I studied sound engineering. I started mixing on my own when Etienne Bultingaire died. There was such empathy between us, we learned so much from each other! In the last days of his illness, he would come in for three hours, then have to rest and often leave before the end. I would finish the work myself, and I had his approval to do so. I'd seen him do so much! Nowadays, if I have any doubts about a mix, I listen again to something he did with me or on his own: it's like a reminder.
In fact, I love the geography of sound. It's fascinating, because it also influences the sound you make afterwards. When you train your listening acuity, you find it in your sound production, and that opens up your palette when you play.
I'm getting more and more requests for my ears! I also have to say that I love being in my studio (Bureau de son) in Paris to do this. It gives me a chance to see my children. What's more, I've got my old Steinway in the studio: I'm always happy to have it back! Mixing a record gives me a break from the piano. When you play a lot, you can become saturated. This year, for example, I've been playing and preparing my piano a lot. There's the pain in my hands, the deadlines... Mixing is a parenthesis: it gives me a breather.

PLUG AND PRAY (Benoît Delbecq & Jozef Dumoulin) - EVERGREENS from Igor Juget on Vimeo.

Is the piano work and the preparations physically very demanding?
Yes, especially as I'm a bit of a dabbler on the piano. As I'm a latecomer to technique, I always need to check that it's working! I study for hours every day. If only for the new pieces I prepare, with particular polymetrics. I don't play them cold, I practice for hours, so that they become fabrics I can master, so that I can choose the color of the thread and change stitch along the way. That's why solo work means total freedom, but it always takes a lot of preparation to make it easy!
And then I'm always working on the phrase, often in bop contexts; the placement of the phrase, what I call general rhythmicity. I work on cadences over long periods of time (two hours). It's an infinite source of work!
It's all about modelling clay and arm leverage. I'm still working on it: I took classes just ten years ago with New York pedagogue Sophia Rosoff. When she said the word "arm leverage" to me, it changed my life as a pianist. I felt like I was starting from scratch! I'd never been shown it, and as I'd taken few lessons in my life as a pianist, there are lots of things I don't know how to do... So sometimes I understand them in others, and wonder "how do they do it "?
I went to see the pianist Jay Gottlieb, and Sophia Rosoff a few years later. It's a pleasure to be able to make progress with a sound; it means that the search goes on! Because what I do is research! There's something about my enthusiasm for research, something about being a laboratory technician...
I mentioned solo playing just now, but playing with others is vital!
The duo with Claudia Solal is very important to me. When we play together, Claudia improvises on her texts. We're working on a forthcoming album that will mix her texts with mine.
The duet with Elise Caron is different; it's much more theatrical, with Elise improvising the texts!
And we've just recorded a new repertoire with clarinettist François Houle. What a pleasure to have him back! He has a new, custom-made clarinet, and what he does with it is incredible. We're playing in the same room, but you get the impression - as with diphonic singers - that the sound is coming out of the walls: unheard of for me!
As long as we can go and find sensations for which we haven't yet got the name, I'll go for it! This season, there have been some extremely happy moments of sharing, such as the concerts in Berlin in March, with all the musicians arriving for rehearsals: a real family joy. Especially as, from the very first notes, they played terribly! So I was delighted to listen to this concert again. I think I'm going to publish it, because it's so well recorded!

We're talking about the activities of the dStream of the cooperative Le Bureau de Son ?
We don't release many new albums with Le Bureau de Son.
The next album will be the Bumper trio, with Sarah Murcia, Steve Argüelles and myself, where Sarah only plays bass synthesizer: I'm very happy with this group too!
With Triple fever, there's an album ready, and another with François Houle.
I'm going to release everything digitally - and maybe the Multiplexers or Triple fever on vinyl - even though it's a lot of work to release records, because I do everything, from mixing to mastering!
In fact, I work all the time, and I've got three kids, so working is an economic necessity. I never have any money in front of me, but I work all the time, it's unimaginable!
Sometimes you play for very little money, but when you do it's for good reasons. I'm thinking of the solo I played in the Gaël Mevel, La Maison-en-bois and Compagnie Rives concert series: a marvellous piano, a dream welcome, and a real listening ear from the audience. You never regret having accepted such moments, because of the fever of playing! It seems to me that you don't feel the fever so much at a concert.

What do you attribute it to? Economic difficulties alone?
I think it's due to the multiplication of sources. Young people have too many things to listen to (playlists), without necessarily being guided in listening. You have to talk to people with experience, listen to radio programs, go to concerts... music is out there!
I often think of the kind of fever we had - or maybe it's because I was at a feverish age! I remember, for example, Ornette Coleman concerts at Banlieues Bleues, or the premiere of György Ligeti's pieces for two pianos at the Foyer du Châtelet: you could feel a kind of impatience!
I feel less impatience in the younger generation, because they see a lot of things in pictures, and that's all the difference, who knows! At my age, I'm one of the last people who didn't "learn" with images. When the Internet arrived, I was already 28! Those of us who were born 5 years later have already had this image culture: close-ups of Bill Evans' hands, for example!
The first time I saw Monk play was on the day he died. French television had done a little feature at the end of the news, and there I see "Monsieur Monk" - that's what we called him at home, my father had records by him. I remember, I must have been 15-16 years old: these images lasted barely twenty seconds. I saw him folding his hands, doing weird things, and I thought to myself: "We're allowed to do that!"
The generations that followed immediately saw this. Seeing Monk, Ahmad Jamal, Fred Van Hove doing that, it's normal for them! Seeing Cecil Taylor solo, it's normal: it's on TV! Of course, it's helped a lot of people, but others have never made it.
When you copy and mimic too much, it's a big problem! Today, it seems to me that the fever is no longer about inventing your own path, it's about being "up to date" and fashionable. This notion of appearances has become very present on the scene, and it's very disempowering!

After all, it's possible to be a jazz musician and be nourished by many things other than jazz - reading Boulez and Messiaen, for example, and taking an interest in their work.
All the terms I use in my music (rhythmicity, for example) come from Solange Ancona, who was a pupil of Messiaen. As for the idea of searching for an imaginary folklore, I owe that to Bartok, of course, but also to a certain extent to ARFI in Lyon: everyone invents their own jazz!
When I was 17-18, this notion of imaginary folklore was very fundamental. As a white kid from the Paris region, I wondered about my origins, about the folklore of my family from Nord-Pas-de-Calais: a few elements of Catholic education, but apart from that, what folklore? I had to invent it. I had to create an insularity out of my fairly classic background (Bowie, Pinkfloyd, The Clash...). Finally, what is an imaginary folklore? What is an imaginary language and what is fiction in music?
These are not questions so widespread in the jazz world. I'm still a bit of an outsider!
I love the pulse: I love manipulating it, manipulating it, playing with sound illusion, and letting it bounce around... Other musicians don't hear that, and I respect it! In fact, I'm interested in a lot of music that doesn't have a pulse.
When I was 18 and playing in Alan Silva's Celestrial Communication Orchestra, when a bass line would appear at a certain moment and spin around, it was bliss! But after that, we also did completely free stuff, material...
I'm influenced by both. I love the pulsating side of Ornette's concerts, or even the early days of Steve Coleman, where no two people stomp their feet in the same way! That's why I write music like that. Everyone chooses their own pulse, after all! 

Is there also a fragility in the pulse? With Monk, for example? His famous hesitations?
Of course, and fragility can be manufactured! When you're a young musician and you listen to the key figures, when you follow the evolution of a musician like Monk, you can see, for example, that silence takes on more and more importance in his music over time. It's general rhythmicity!
It's like observing the rhythm of Proust's language, or that of Cadiot, with whom I've worked, or Roubaud. For me, that's where it's at! Ultimately, it's the detail in the bounce, whether time is measured or not. The bar is not my great friend. In my music, there's a kind of abolition of the bar line, a bit like listening to a fugue: you'll never hear the same thing twice, depending on whether you focus on this or that element. It's like doors that open and close!
It's a kind of playful rhetoric, full of things for the ears, because in the end, that's what we want: to feed our ears!

Benoît Delbecq - The Loop of Chicago from Igor Juget on Vimeo.

Interview by Anne Montaron

Credits © John Rogers
Credits © Valérie Acheno
Credits © Laurent Poiget
Credits © Jacop Tillmann


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