Erwan KeravecTo sound is to send far

Interviews 02.05.2021

With Erwan Keravec, we set off on a great journey, full of promise. When we write "bagpipe", "piper" and "Morbihan", we know that this expedition will lead us to the heart of Breton musical traditions, which make this region vibrate so powerfully. Like any tradition that wants to live, these musics invite a renewed desire for creation, the only condition to continue to exist without becoming a dusty museum. These values are precisely the DNA of Erwan Keravec.

Interview conducted on December 15, 2020

You are a Scottish bagpipe player, we say "piper". This instrument was integrated into the Breton instrumentarium a century ago. Can you tell us more about it?
The Scottish bagpipes were played everywhere the British Empire was established. In some cases, musicians imported it into their traditions, as in Brittany, little by little at the end of the 19th century, then it became more massive in the middle of the 20th century. The Scottish bagpipes came mainly to create desks in a large ensemble, which became the bagad after the Second World War. It allowed to diversify the timbres and especially to create a different relation to the bombard, traditionally associated with the biniou, which is the Breton bagpipe. The biniou is tuned one octave above and has only one drone against three on the Scottish bagpipe.

Why do we say "ringer"?
This word is used for all blowers. The Breton tradition of ringing is that of the binious and the bombard, instruments that play loudly. To "sound" is to send far away. It is not a word shared by other traditions where the bagpipe is found, like in Centre-France, it is specifically Breton.

You used it in one of your presentation texts, almost like a manifesto: " Erwan Keravec is a piper... Erwan sounds his compositions... Erwan sounds in contemporary music... Erwan sounds for contemporary dance... Erwan sounds for improvisations... Erwan sounds for traditional music...".
Yes, because the fact that I move around and play in other situations than those of traditional music does not prevent me from being an heir, with roots. What remains with me in all my experiences is that I am a ringer. I am part of this community of the sounded tradition, I was taught in a bagad, and I still consider myself as a ringer whatever the music I play, even experimental or contemporary.

In your practice of the bagad, you were confronted with improvisation in 1995-1996 thanks to an encounter with the Marmite infernale, the big band of Arfi (Association in search of an imaginary folklore), a collective of artists from Lyon, during which you met for the first time Jean-Luc Capozzo with whom you still play. Then you joined Arfi and worked with the choreographer Gabrielle Bourges, who opened the world of dance to you. Your aesthetic mutation seems largely due to the chance of these meetings.
It turned my desires upside down, I explored places I really didn't know. And then you have to go for it! If you don't transform your instrumental playing, it won't fit these new tracks. You have to be able to go somewhere else. I had the opportunity to be "moved" thanks to improvising musicians and choreographers. And in 2007, I launched into Urban Pipes, my first record and solo programme. Bagpipes are very rooted. If you ask someone what image comes to mind when they think of a Scottish bagpipe, nine times out of ten they will imagine a piper on a hill, which corresponds to this Highland instrument. But can't we envisage that this instrument can be a vector of something else, that it can be moved into a different imaginary? That's what interested me, placing the bagpipes in an improvisational situation, at the heart of choreographies and later in the context of music commissions. I had to move as much as my bagpipes. Our ability to imagine music goes hand in hand with our heritage: it's what we've received that we transform, that we knead and that we manage to send elsewhere. I find it hard to believe that things can emerge from nowhere.

Do you still play traditional music?
Unfortunately, less and less. When I do, it is systematically in couple music with my brother Guénolé, who plays the bombard.

It is in parallel to an experience of "imagined traditional music" with the four musicians of the group Niou Bardophones, including your brother (bagpipes, bombard, baritone saxophone and drums), that you launch your solo projects, materialized at first by the record Urban Pipes (2007).
Just after the recording ofAir de rien in 2005 with the Niou Bardophones, I had to get away from the notion of a group to carry out my choice to get away from my place of origin. I had to go through with this idea, which I didn't want to give up, and which couldn't be shared. In a group, decisions require collective approval. Besides, the Scottish bagpipes are historically a solo instrument. I wrote at the time that it was a utopia: to imagine that my instrument could be universal, to take it out of its original cultural zone. So this record was a cornerstone, allowing me to formulate my abilities and my inabilities. Today, when I am in discussion with composers, it is still the reference record that I take as an example.

Then there is a new stage in your career, which is that of contemporary creation, far from your native land: you encourage composers to create works by commissioning them to write scores. The music of the ringers is originally based mainly on the oral tradition. With these compositions, you have to appropriate someone else's thoughts, to inhabit this work that is his, that he wrote and thought for you. In doing so, you create a repertoire of original creations for your instrument. You began these commissions in 2013 and today you have about thirty scores, with a little more than twenty composers, including, not least, internationally renowned artists of contemporary music such as Eliane Radigue, Bernard Cavanna, Benjamin de la Fuente, Samuel Sighicelli, Philippe Leroux, Zad Moultaka, Heiner Goebbels, José Manuel López López, Oscar Bianchi, Dror Feiler and Wolfgang Mitterer. How do you choose the composers you commission?
You mentioned orality. In fact, I grew up in a double culture. Even though I never went to conservatory, all Scottish music is written. So I read the music and I know how to set up and conduct, which is a big advantage of playing the bagad. When you play with twelve bagpipes, you have to be very precise. This has allowed me to be relatively at ease in the practice with composers. The first works were commissioned in 2010. Having leftUrban Pipes, I was looking for ways and means to achieve this new music for my instrument, totally disconnected from tradition. I did not come to contemporary music through aesthetics, but through this quest. I had already been meeting jazz musicians for eight years, I could have gone to them. But they would have written me global forms and asked me to improvise within them, knowing my practice. I wasn't interested in that. I wanted to be sent somewhere else. So I wanted everything to be written down for me, without leaving me any choice. It was while listening to Georges Aperghis' Deux cent quatre-vingt mesures pour clarinette (1979) that I decided I had to go in that direction. My first encounter was with the composer Susumu Yoshida, who was in residence at the Théâtre de Cornouaille in Quimper. After that, I listened a lot, and each time a work moved me, I went to meet the composer. I knew almost nothing about it, except Steve Reich or Philip Glass. I didn't even know anything about the music. On the other hand, I didn't want to be educated, I wanted to keep an intuitive relationship with it. This manifested itself through encounters in the field, like with improvised music. And I didn't want to be only an interpreter of French composers either. With improvised music, I had met a lot of foreign musicians, and I realised that the practice is extremely vast. I wanted to find this diversity in contemporary music, which is based on very different ways of exchanging depending on the country.

Evening at the Mucem, organized by the Gmem in Marseille in January 2021 - Dror Feiler "Disobedience in B - D - eF

Since 2010, you have been working on creating a repertoire of contemporary scores written for the bagpipes, which other pipers can use. To your knowledge, have some of them already appropriated these works?
Unfortunately still very few. L'Accord ne m'wear pas la nuit, by Bernard Cavanna, was played by another piper, who belongs to my quartet. But the idea of a repertoire only came to me later. I was thinking first of all of my own displacement. This idea is only now coming to me, faced with this massive collection of thirty works. On the other hand, I think that the bagpipes have not yet been appropriated by contemporary music composers. The example of Matthew Welch comes to mind , for whom mostly American composers, Alvin Lucier, Anthony Braxton or Julia Wolfe have written. The works I play only exist because I create them. Only Bernard Cavanna has written systematically for the bagpipes in his orchestral pieces.

I would like to talk about your work with the voice, accompanied as your projects often are by a record release, Vox (2015). You have brought together three remarkable voices: Beñat Achiary, a traditional Basque singer open to all kinds of experiences, whom you met in 2010 and with whom you have been improvising ever since; the baritone Vincent Bouchot and the soprano Donatienne Michel-Dansac, with whom you play works by four composers in a trio. Among them, José-Manuel López López, who composed a magnificent, dramatic and disturbing work, a cry facing death, "No Time". Can you tell us about this work?
José-Manuel López López started from a very short poem by Dionisio Cañas, "No Time", which evokes the urgency and distress of the people trapped in the World Trade Center fire, throwing themselves into the void without being able to say goodbye to their families. I followed the development of José-Manuel's composition for two years. Its architecture is formidable: on the one hand, there are all the harmonics generated by a drone in C, linked to the poem; and on the other hand, rhythmic variations generated by the differentials between two drones (the beats), which can be quantified, and which I generate throughout the piece. It's clockwork, extremely rigorous in its construction. But what José-Manuel is looking for above all, well beyond his very solid structure, is the power of dramatic expression. I saw him every two months and he regularly insisted on this effect, which he so ardently desired.

In the project that follows, "Sonneurs" (2017), you form a quartet with four instruments of the bagad tradition in Brittany: the biniou, the Scottish bagpipe, the bombard and the trélombarde.
I wanted to extend what I was doing with my own instrument to the three other historical instruments of the bagad tradition, which I gathered in this formation. Anecdotally, there is also a reference to the symbol of the classical quartet.

I really liked the work of the Austrian composer Wolgang Mitterer, Run, in this project. In this piece, you become a conductor, you trigger the electronic sounds of each new sequence with your foot. Can you tell us a little more about it?
I met Wolfgang's music with his opera Massacre, with vocals, orchestra and electronics. I was blown away by the relationship he managed to establish between the voice and the electronics. He is an organist and has often flirted with improvised music, so we find ourselves in these aspects. He is not afraid to use the instrument as it is. He has respected the primary characteristics of the bagpipe, while integrating it into his sound universe: continuous breath, drone in C, diatonic scale.

I would like to talk with you about a last work, which was highly anticipated: a commission to Eliane Radigue "Occam Ocean XXVII", recorded on your disc Goebbels Glass Radigue (2020). One could legitimately wonder what the work would sound like, because we know that, for the twenty years that she has been writing for acoustic instruments, Eliane Radigue has been working on an extreme finesse of treatment and especially on pianissimo or mezzo forte sounds. With the bagpipes so sonorous, she was faced with a considerable challenge.
I was more or less the same apprehensive as Eliane. I didn't really believe in it. A friend, Cyril Jollard, director of the Soufflerie, kept talking to me about it. I finally went to meet her. You don't really place an order with Eliane Radigue. She doesn't want a deadline, no premiere date; she wants to be able to stop the process at any time. It's a very specific job. She describes what it should be. She goes through the process, she sets up a playing situation, and the musician she's working with has to feed it. If you're not there, nothing happens. She says it herself: she is not there to give the notes to be played, she does not even know them, she is not interested. The Occam Ocean cycle always starts with an element referring to water. I described a place to her, in the Gulf of Morbihan. It's a landscape without cliffs, without any prominent relief, the environment seems very calm, while we know that navigation is paradoxically very difficult there, because of the many currents. This was the basis of our work. She interpreted it in words and descriptions. She doesn't write a musical note but gives extremely precise indications. You can't do whatever you want with Eliane Radigue! A fundamental is played throughout the piece, but she wants us to forget it completely in favour of everything that is generated around it by the beats and fluctuations of sound. We then waver, we lose our sense of temporality. I'm almost a little drunk when I finish the piece. The biggest difficulty is that it wants no accidents. The drones have two tones, because they have ligatured reeds. The first tone goes up to a certain level of air, which then switches to a second tone. I had to look for ways to mask it. The greatest complexity is that his music requires a particular state. It's not virtuosic, but it's all very controlled. Nothing must escape.

"The Sound Universe in its integrity, the one in which each one, the one who listens can hear, find, find again, create, his own inner music, let himself be rocked and travel without end. "Eliane Radigue

Interview by Guillaume Kosmicki

Listen to Par monts et par sons on RBG (Radio Bro Gwened), sound portraits Part 1 and Part 2 with Erwan Keravec and Guillaume Kosmicki.

Photo article © Atelier Chevara


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