Frédéric LagnauA little-known French minimalist

Spotlights 07.04.2022

On May 23, 2020, a day of homage to the musician Frédéric Lagnau, who died 10 years earlier, was to be held at the Conservatoire à Rayonnement Régional de Boulogne-Billancourt. The occasion to remember a musician representing a certain French minimalism mixed with Satie, Reich and progressive rock. This homage never took place, like everything else that was supposed to take place that year.
Here is a portrait of him, in the form of an improvisation as he would have liked.

Frédéric Lagnau , who died of cancer in April 2010 at the age of 43, is a French composer who has unfortunately not yet won the hearts of music lovers (and musicians); concert halls - which are by their very nature cautious - have not yet made the acquaintance of his abundant, plural and touching work. A pupil of Louis Andriessen and (for a short time) of Frederic Rzewski (with whom it was stormy), admired by the composer Tom Johnson, a pianist repetiteur at the Garnier Opera, Frédéric was a composer curious about the music resulting from the so-called minimalist experiments (Reich in the lead, Adams and Pärt). Entering Lagnau's universe requires a musical openness and a stylistic leap forward that is specific to 2022. Frédéric Lagnau, who wanted to be post-modern, has become an ultra-contemporary.

There is always that little anecdote linked to a composer's musical childhood that it is fashionable to tell in order to illustrate a precocious talent. In Frédéric's case, he was not a trained monkey, but rather a knowing chameleon: at the age of five in 1972, he tapped Beethoven's Ode to Joy on the keyboard of his old family's Érard and constantly asked for this instrument, which he could not name. The music-loving siblings owned a vinyl of Keith Jarrett 's Köln Concert , which excited Frédéric but did not lead him to jazz, quite the contrary, for it was Jarrett's experimental-minimalist side that he retained. From an early age, Frédéric was attracted to the adventurous musicians: Steve Reich, Björk, Henryk Górecki and all those unclassifiable artists who are so often grouped together under the minimalist label (during his early youth, he even exchanged letters with Roger Hodgson - guitarist and keyboardist of Supertramp - to whom he sent cassettes of his music).

The Norman exile

Two chaotic years at the CNSM in Paris quickly landed him at the CRR in Boulogne-Billancourt, where he forged a number of lifelong friendships, notably with pianist Denis Chouillet. It was there that he forged his aesthetic tastes and musical affinities once and for all. According to his brothers (Thierry and François), Frédéric's first really composed pieces (and written down on paper) date from the age of 15, and he never stopped composing until the end. Bruno Letort, a composer and friend of Frédéric's, says: "He was always composing. He wrote down his ideas on every possible medium. I hosted his archives for a few months, and I could see that before arriving at a final version, he worked on many intermediate versions, until his idea was completed. I hope that his music will be played and recorded as much as possible and that his work, which is so important to me, will be "rehabilitated". She opened my mind to sound regions that I did not know.

At the age of 18, he went to live in isolation in a Normandy farmhouse surrounded by friends and wrote his first masterpieces such as Journey to Inti (for two pianos and a pianist) and the oratorio B-Attitude. Journey to Inti , according to Bruno Letort , "takes its argument from Inca mythology, a mythology that asserted the existence of a spiritual double or brother, a kind of guardian angel represented in the form of a falcon, and named Inti. Frédéric, thanks to two pianos played by a single pianist (cover photo), will create this famous double, this time with sound. One can hear what Lagnau owes to Reich, but also, immediately, a personal "touch", unique and less systematic than his elder. His writing, freer and as if improvised, is full of ideas and effects. It is worth noting that Frédéric Lagnau's pianistic ease on two pianos is quite astounding, placing him among the composers capable of playing their most virtuosic music - a rarity in the 20th century.

It was also during his stay in Normandy that he composed his great oratorio B-attitude for soprano, vocal quartet, choir and percussion (commissioned by the Ars Viva choir and the DRAC Haute-Normandie), which was premiered in Évreux - his home town - on 31 January 1993.
"B-attitude is a search for the right way to sing the Beatitudes of the Bible. A sort of itinerant ritual within the same text. First visited by words, just words, languages, interpretations, almost empty of meaning, simple pretexts, leading to an inevitable saturation, before the birth of an intelligence that lets the words breathe. [For the Beatitudes do not "philosophise"; the one who receives these words lives them, directly, on a level with all the atmospheres that make up and surround him, that he composes and that he surrounds. Incipit of B-attitude by Frédéric Lagnau.

A short home movie follows Frédéric in his Normandy home as he reflects on this work. We hear him questioning himself and planning this piece, which today deserves proper recognition and above all a good recording. (The music in the first few minutes of the film is one of his major piano pieces: Ça va son dire).

The curious cross-sectional

His many friends remember him as a music bulimic, eager to discover the composers of his time and happy to discover all their hybrid aesthetic research that was not to be found in the Conservatoires. The essayist Lambert Dousson, his friend with whom he had a long correspondence, remembers his " very charismatic side, laughing and speaking loudly, hyper-cultured, funny and crazy. He ordered a lot of scores from the Netherlands and Canada and loved the music of Louis Andriessen, with whom he had studied. In 1996/1997 we went together to listen to the music of Reich, Górecki and Pärt at Musica in Strasbourg before finishing up with a Leffe. It was thanks to the "Autumn in Warsaw" festival that he also discovered the music of the Pole Paweł Szymański, which he plays on his second record "Jardins Cycliques" from 1998."

Jardins Cycliques is indeed a record that brings together Frédéric's beautiful musical discoveries (more complicated discoveries at a time when the internet was in its infancy) mixed with his own works. We come across music by his friend Tom Johnson(Les Harmonies d'Euler), the Canadian composer Ann Southam, two pieces by the subtle Howard Skempton, Chick Corea alternating with Federico Mompou, Paweł Szymański, Helmut Lachenmann but also Gurdjieff and John Cage. The whole gives a concept disc well in the air of the time, plural but coherent. The pieces follow one another with great logic, even though they are sometimes separated by several centuries. In addition to the fascinating talents of the pianist, we discover some of his most beautiful pieces for piano: Solar Loops, Les charmes de la marche, Ça va son dire, À mesure et au fur . These are conceptual, delicate pieces with an implacable structure that paradoxically bring him closer to a Satie or an Alkan than to a Reich.

Frédéric's composition was not limited to purely instrumental music. Curious, he went into song with Nicole Renaud, Élise Caron or Mona Soyoc and composed a lot of stage music for the Théâtre National d'Évreux in collaboration with the director Jacques Falguières. Since 2000 he has even been experimenting with film and television music. An example of his versatility is the very successful soundtrack (worthy of François de Roubaix) of a series on France 5, Les Martin.

Le compagnon de route: an interview with Denis Chouillet

In the Lagnau galaxy, there is the friend, the musician, the performer and composer Denis Chouillet with whom he shared a roof, so many evenings and so much music for a number of years.
From 9 to 13 May, he will record the first monograph devoted to Frédéric's piano works at the Centre National de Creation Musicale d'Albi (GMEA). A long-awaited premiere which we hope will give new impetus to this music, so intelligent and engaging.

What is your personal relationship with Frédéric?
A friendship, post-adolescent. Of those friendships that experiment and form - if they don't all do it! But age matters.

What did you like about him?
His inexhaustible energy, his drive. His insatiable curiosity, his sensitivity, his humour. The musician, of course.

... and what did you not like?
His devouring energy.

What music connected you?
A lot, various. The most important thing he introduced me to was: Reich and the so-called "repetitive music", the "ECM jazz".
What we had in common when we met: Ligeti, Stockhausen, Xenakis - in addition to Bach, Ravel, Stravinsky... We discovered together Arvo Pärt (the Passion, especially), John Adams(Shaker Loops, especially), Björk, or again - important - the music of Tom Johnson. He introduced me to Jerry Goldsmith and a whole area of film music. GRM, better than I knew it. Supertramp. And Feldman's Three Voices, by Joan La Barbara, which marked his world, influenced, even intimidated his music

How would you define his music?
Intense, speculative, poetic, pop. Minimalist and funky, dreamy and cyclical.

How did Frédéric compose?
I don't really know, by definition it's intimate. You can describe a context or manifestations, which I knew at least when we lived together: coffee, cigarettes, a lot of shared gambling, discussions before starting, and "showing off" to friends and family, at different stages of the work, even early on. He tested a lot. In parallel: a constant bath of improvisations, often recorded. For all that, the work of composition itself: lucid, demanding, as evidenced by the number of sketches, paintings and reflections.

Which works do you like the most?
In his music in general I like the energy; the 'well-sounding' (his piano sounds 'large', even with few notes); its 'shamanic', healing, playful, influential quality. I like that his speculative and poetic vision is often set in a time frame between song and 17th century harpsichord piece. I also like the fact that he alternated between 'themes' and 'pieces', sometimes managing to merge the 'virtues' of both.
To name a few, for the piano: Wind mosaics, A mesure et au fur, Journey to Inti, Les Charmes de la Marche, La gamme qui teinte, Senza vibrato... For the themes: Morning song, Inner drum, Carrément rondement...
For other formations I like Continuum, Nulle part avant, D'autres yeux sur la même chose, Entre quoi et quoi. I think, reading it, that I would also like Le couloir-puzzle (for two pianos and two percussion instruments), if one day it was finally put together.

What did you play with him?
At home: a lot of improvisation and deciphering.
In public: a very varied programme of pieces by Chiel Meijering or Louis Andriessen, Mendelsohnn or Antheil, etc., for the only four-handed concert we gave; Simeon Ten Holt's Canto ostinato, which is a very good example of the kind of music that we play. In public: a very varied programme of pieces by Chiel Meijering or Louis Andriessen, Mendelsohnn or Antheil, etc., for the only four-handed concert we gave; Simeon Ten Holt's Canto ostinato, for two pianos, in a night-time performance at the Théâtre d'Evreux; David Lang's incidental music for Edouard Lock's AndréAuria at the Opéra ballet, again for two pianos; and the programmes of the Dedalus ensemble, which we shared. We worked for quite a long time - and reflected - on Tom Johnson's Symmetries in preparation for a show that never came to fruition.

Did his music influence yours?
Yes, knowing that I am less of a composer than he is (I would define myself as a musician who composes, improvises, deciphers or interprets, in equal measure) and much less precocious. Now that time has passed, I seem to be getting closer to him again, differently

What will you play on the disc you are dedicating to him?
Some choice pieces (mentioned before) and others, arranged in the chronological order of composition. I would like to make a double or triple album, to be, if not exhaustive, at least more complete. I would have tried to play Inti but the score has disappeared, as strangely as unfortunately. 

What do you think are the reasons for the general public's lack of knowledge about it?
In the end, we never know why a work meets its public or not. However, at this stage the reason is clear! Lack of distribution and publicity, in the broadest sense. Even though his two albums, including the singular and successful Inti, can be found on the Net. It would take one or more influential people to do this, a sudden visibility in media places or circumstances. That the snobs suddenly find that there is nothing more urgent than to know this little-known composer, for good or bad reasons. But also that it circulates more in jazz, indie rock, pop circles because I'm sure it can speak to people with different musical cultures. It has that synthesizing quality, an eloquent and collected side as well as the trippy, hypnotic character of the longer pieces. And the pulsation, as well as the repetition, the modality or the tonality, as well as the disconcerting play with the known or the common, is another of its communicative virtues. I insist on this aspect: the desire to communicate, the readability. It was a loose and demanding mind, tempted by abstraction, but, once again, of playful, dancing, pop essence and taste.
Let's hope that the records to come will touch people!

Can we go further?
The Flag-issimo association, created and run by members of his family " aims to keep his music alive, to help make it known by encouraging all those who appreciate it and are devoted to it. The association is struggling to maintain itself, but the number of memberships remains relatively stable," confides François Lagnau, Frédéric's older brother. The site contains a large number of scores, media, photos and texts. A mine for any Frédéricolâtre.

Thanks to Denis Chouillet, François and Thierry Lagnau, Bruno Letort and Lambert Dousson for their help.

François Mardirossian


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