François Sarhan, a professor in chainsThe chronicle of listening

Reviews 20.04.2021

The Berlin-based ensemble Mosaik has just launched a website dedicated to François Sarhan's Encyclopédie du professeur Glaçon . This colossal and polymorphic, surrealist and Kafkaesque sum, which he has been working on since 2007 and which irrigates many of his musical works, is also for its author a way of "desesthetizing" and "disinhibiting" his practice as a "contemporary composer".

"Specialization is more of a disease than a solution. " We have never forgotten these words of the composer François Sarhan, in the course of an interview conducted in 2018 for the issue that the magazine Alternatives théâtrales devoted to the relationship between theatre and music (1). The career of this musician, born in 1972 and now living in Berlin after a few years spent in Prague, has focused on putting this credo into practice since his graduation from the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, shaking up the habits and customs of the "contemporary music" milieu. Writing, drawing, collage, film, directing and performance are all mediums that he has undertaken to practice and explore - among others, we keep a vivid memory of his very beautiful short film Corps aveugle/Blind Body, shot in 2013 at the Olšany cemetery in Prague (2) :

Mediums of which Professor Icicle's Encyclopedia is, since 2007, the matrix and the receptacle. It was while working with the South African artist William Kentridge that the desire was born, he says today, to "launch himself", even though he has no legitimacy as a writer or artist. Through this demiurgic and derisory project, promethean and propaedeutic, François Sarhan and his avatar (Professor Henry Jacques Glaçon) take pleasure, with poetry and humour - reminiscent of a Luc Ferrari hijacking the codes of biographies and programme notes of "contemporary music" - in "perverting a little the conventions of knowledge transmission: historicism, verifiability..."
A project that combines many registers of image and text - between micro-fictions, imaginary lives and descriptions of chimerical composers and other perfectly non-existent objects, and that the artist presented in these terms, ten years ago: 

Francois Sarhan: "What you need to know about the Encyclopedia of Prof. Ice" from CM Culture on Vimeo.

A project that has given rise to numerous performances or outgrowths (exhibitions, "artist's" books), and which has above all since irrigated many of his musical works - one thinks, for example, of the happening Ephémère glacé, a "working stage" of his project Ephémère enchaîné, presented in October 2015 at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris with the ensemble L'Instant Donné and the Muse en circuit.

If we are talking about it today, it is because the Berlin-based ensemble Mosaik - with which François Sarhan maintains a partnership that has given rise to pieces for ensemble, four short films and, soon, a stage project - has just launched an online version that includes part of this sum in hypertext mode. This "encyclopaedia of imaginary music" is both Kafkaesque and surreal, based on the premise that "true knowledge, especially musical knowledge, exists only in the imagination of each individual, and that it is up to each individual to build it", and it is a real pleasure to get lost in it:

Of the sum in question, the site presents only a small part (3), involving more particularly the musicians of the ensemble. Most of the videos on the site are fragments of a forthcoming medium (or feature) film entitled Aberwasistabermusik, which, according to its author, should "interweave these sequences into a plot ". To the question "What is music? "-a question that ultimately underlies his entire encyclopedic project-François Sarhan intends to answer it "by showing what musicians are, what happens before they play and after they play. We can discover the existence of Mario Bossi, "the composer who wrote contemporary music before anyone else" (a sort of musical transposition of Georges Perec's wonderful Voyage d'hiver ); we can see a pianist "thwarting" Schumann's Kinderszenen with shoes hanging around his neck; to see a musician making strange sounds from the inert body of her partner before she in turn loses consciousness, as if she had transmitted (and given up) life to him through music; or to attend this very spectral piece of music:

If we are talking about it today, it is also because the questions raised by this encyclopaedia project, both aesthetically and ethically, seem to us to be both sound and eminently topical. Referring to the Czech surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer (to whom he has devoted several films) and his idea of "self-therapy," François Sarhan speaks today of this project as a form of"spiritual exercises," of the order of " automatic writing, collage, automatic musicology, automatic composition (and therefore improvisation). Exercises in the sense that "it's not given: it's extremely difficult to find this fibre, this type of concentration, this way of writing that is detached from any literary ambition or any concern for quality, to concentrate solely on sensations, emotions, snatches of dreams... I think that in early surrealism, and in automatic writing in general, there is an asceticism - and I think this is a great misunderstanding of surrealism: when Breton and the Surrealists talked about freedom, it wasn't about doing anything, but rather about where to find that inner freedom. »

He continues: "It takes work to free yourself from literary complexes and reflexes. These exercises, which I do all the time, do me a lot of good because it's always something to start over - because you're never free of a literary ambition. Above all, it has made my way of thinking about composition evolve a lot, because in music, the weight of tradition, of the institution, of technique, the need to tick a certain number of boxes in relation to the environment in which you are (to be playable, to be stylistically within the bounds) are even heavier than in literature. »

The verb "to unlearn" is thrown around. He approves, and still speaks of "desesthetizing", of "disinhibiting". What does knowledge matter, as long as you have wisdom?

David Sanson

1.interview to be read in Theatrical Alternatives No. 136, 'Theatre. Musique - Variations contemporaines", Brussels, November 2018
2. The composer's website, as well as his Youtube channel, is rich in "content"
3. One can usefully complete one's browsing by visiting Wikiglaçon devoted by François Sarhan to theEncyclopédie
See also, the France culture vignette devoted to him.


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