The Desiring Machine by Claudine Simon

Interviews 20.06.2021

Always on the lookout for new experimental projects to express her talents as an instrumentalist while questioning her practice, Claudine Simon this time sets out to meet her own piano, which she literally dissects and enriches with multiple machines, while transforming herself into an augmented performer. A story of mechanical hybridisation.

You present yourself as a "pianist, interpreter, improviser and performer". You don't add "composer" to this - already - beautiful list, even though you sign the music for several of your shows. Why not? Do you see a separation between the world of composition and that of performance?
I'm not really comfortable with the label of "composer", which doesn't correspond to me in the sense of the word as it was used until the 20th century. I have not yet really found the right term to describe my work, I would say "polysemic musician". Of course, I am a pianist, I do create sound, but it is not within the framework of music that can be reproduced identically, that can be fixed on a score.
In my projects, the music is free, it is built in an improvised gesture, it will sound in a certain way that will depend on the context in which I find myself, it will reveal its contours in a kind of "vibratile sound" that is constructed with the musicians.
This doesn't mean that I do whatever I want or whatever I want: there are playing constraints that make me evolve in a certain direction, a sort of complex solfeggio. Afterwards, in a stage project, there is also a whole dramaturgical framework, in which the music fits in by placing itself in certain places.
Finally, I play with sound energy that evolves and is shaped in the immediacy and with the people present, it's a way for me to embrace the vibratory and temporal flow, to melt into it smoothly.

What led you to take the winding road of creative music from the very beginning, as soon as you left the Conservatoire? Why didn't you become a more "simple" - if I may say so - concert performer, an interpreter of a repertoire? What attracted you to these more adventurous paths?
The piano has been with me since childhood and it has never stopped working on me. And then, at the end of my piano studies at the CNSMD in Paris, I felt a kind of asphyxiation, a kind of overflow, with regard to the solo repertoire, to my role as a performer. In the end, I reacted to a whole environment, to a way of thinking.
I think that there is a narcissistic flaw in musicians, no doubt linked to their musical education. There is a reflexivity that is difficult, almost an impediment to thinking. I found it extremely difficult to detach myself from a practical performance, to move from a form to be executed to a form to be reflected upon. But this switch was necessary for me, because I could no longer feel the music I was defending on stage. I needed to deconstruct this relationship to reappropriate it. Creative music was a way out of this impasse: working with composers, like Samuel Sighicelli, who writes almost "tailor-made" music for his performers; going towards the musical theatre repertoire; and above all towards improvisation.
Alain Savouret (professor of generative improvisation at the CNSMD in Paris) had a big impact on me. He opened my ears to the field of "sound", he cracked my beliefs as a classical musician. This being the case, I now take great pleasure in being a performer, in working with composers, but also in playing the repertoire. I don't really have aesthetic barriers, but I do have time limits.

Among your many facets, there is also that of a show designer. Your shows often take an interdisciplinary turn, with other musicians, but also with choreographers, dancers, directors and video artists. How did you learn in this field, first of all with regard to the conception and organisation of shows?
I have a taste for writing on the borders of music, dance and theatre, sometimes with images too. I like to nurture a porosity between these disciplines, to find equivalences, to open myself up to other artistic territories. There is a lot to share with a dancer, for example: the relationship to the body, to space, to gesture, to time. So working with a dancer inevitably leads to changes in my way of doing things. It forces me to assimilate the differences in practices, perceptions and sensations. These experiences with dance have allowed me to broaden my artistic horizons, they have shaken up my reference points. Confronting this also means becoming tolerant of the other's differences and grasping their richness. I'm moving more and more towards a hybridisation of artistic practices, not with the aim of leaving the musical territory, but rather to refresh it. 

Has the presence of a dancer and choreographer sister, Pauline Simon, with whom you have worked on several shows (Au fil de Petrouchka in 2010, SOLI.DES in 2017 and currently your Pianomachine), played a role in this opening?
I have a strong relationship with my sister, a fascination too. Her childhood was rocked by the pieces I used to repeat, she entered music from the most laborious, repetitive angle! It was through her, of course, that I discovered the world of contemporary dance. She sees me evolve today, our sisterhood evolves too. It's precious to have her close to me on creative projects, it really makes sense.

Is this openness still the subject of this latest project, Pianomachine: like an augmented piano, and also an augmented pianist?
But exactly!

One can see something disturbing in all these robotic mechanisms, or fascinating, one not preventing the other. You speak of a personalisation, even a sensualisation of the machine. What is your relationship to technology?
Technology interests me insofar as it gives me the possibility of working on perception, the different aspects of the sensible. By grafting machines onto the piano, I come closer to the notion of the "desiring machine", also envisaged as a "body without organs", as reflected in the work of Deleuze and Artaud. Here, these forces contribute to undoing the hierarchy of the instrument's original organs. The usual zones of listening are thus displaced, even disinvested. A space opens up, made up of sensuality as a liberated power, which offers the possibility of new mechanisms, arrangements and circulation. 

In many of your performances, we see you underneath your piano and inside it, appropriating its geography by exploring and playing with all its nooks and crannies. This is also the case in the short film you made during the first confinement(Confinement/Crisis), where we wonder whether you are fighting against your own instrument or showing it love, condemned to remain stuck with it.
This new project, Pianomachine, is also situated between constraint and liberation. It sounds as if it is entirely addressed to your instrument, like a milestone, an important step in your relationship. Is this the case? What is the nature of this relationship you have with the piano?

That's exactly it, I'm trying to question this relationship with my instrument, with the idea of getting out of the classical schema, of a situation that is sometimes very fixed, of the musician enslaved to his tool of expression. I also feel the need to deconstruct the representations and ideologies, cultural or otherwise, that are associated with it.
Finally, this is the subject that I always come back to: talking about desire (this object of desire), with all that this includes as fascination, a stake in the domination of the instrument, of a score; and this instrument that sometimes resists, in addition to this permanent inner struggle.
I am really fascinated by this machinery, by this enormity, this completely unbalanced power relationship with the musician, the tons of tension inside, the symbolic power too, which goes from phallic to reassuring. My way of questioning this relationship is to divert, unbalance and shake up the whole thing in order to reinterrogate everything.
Why is music like that? What about the relationship with the instrument, what we create as automatisms, as much in the piano gestures as in our thoughts, conscious or not? And so on.
In the stage version of Pianomachine, the texts speak exactly of this, of the primary forces (according to Freud) that work on this relationship, but with the difference that the piano expresses itself verbally here (via a loudspeaker placed inside), it is given a voice! In particular, there is a crisis scene, where the two "subjects" hurl insults at each other, a verbal violence that precedes a physical fight. All this forces me to take a lot of risks.

With the Pianomachine stage design, the piano is laid bare, as if dissected, its entrails revealed to the audience. This is the case in the Labo pianomachine concert version, but even more so in the stage version. He has lost all modesty. This is something we also saw in Heiner Goebbels' Stifters Dinge, where the pianos were also played by mechanical devices. Do you know it?
Yes, Goebbels' piece is beautiful. I haven't had the chance to see it live, but the scenographic universe with the pianos played by machines is amazing.
The idea of dissection is first of all linked to the idea of proposing a sort of internal sound tour of the piano. But I also wanted the audience to see its entrails, its viscera, to enjoy all the anatomical beauty of the instrument. And then there is the whole game of machines that act and that I show in the stage version thanks to mirrors that zoom in and even diffract this scene, a way for me to create a mise en abyme, another point of view. In the concert version, the audience around the piano also has the possibility of seeing a little of the interior. One day I would like to extend this scenographic and even plastic work on the piano in the next stage of my work. 

How were these devices designed? Where did the idea come from? How was the prototype phase organised with the engineering students of the Insa in Lyon? How did you meet Sonopopée (and who are they)?
After having carried out a lot of research into the timbres of the prepared piano, I wanted to extend and deepen it with an instrument that I had finally imagined on demand. I carried out an initial six-month research phase with about thirty students from the Insa in Lyon, two professors and the composer Raphaèle Biston. The students built prototypes that allowed me to carry out the first experiments with machines in the piano, which I was able to play with the composer Marco Suarez.
Then I met Christian Sebille, composer and director of the GMEM in Marseille, who was working on a sound installation with a glass orchestra played by automatons, Propagation landscape. Both our projects use the same technology, so he was keen to develop mine alongside his, and to produce it. He helped my research considerably. He put me in touch with the Sonopopée collective composed of Vivien Trelcat, Max Lance and Nicolas Canot. They are a collective specialising in computer, electronic and hybrid instruments, which totally rethought my device. In the end, all the piano's machines were remade.

Tell us about it. You work with a computer machine performer, Vivien Trelcat: what is his role? Is he also a musician in his own right? Is there any automation? Any randomness?
Vivien's contribution is very important. He developed the whole instrument-software, he operates the machines, he interacts with me as an improvising musician. We form a sort of split four-handed team. He transforms the sound in real time and broadcasts it in multiphonic form. Together we develop a whole musical grammar, a search for timbres, spaces for playing and listening between what is improvised and the play with randomness, algorithms... We also work on the ambiguities, the false pretenses between acoustic sounds and electronic sounds, so that we don't always know who is playing! 

Pianomachine - Claudine Simon from GMEM on Vimeo.

How did you set up and narrate the show in its stage version?
The idea was to prepare beforehand all the textual material written by the philosopher Franck Lemonde, the intention, the sound grammar, the body's arrangement, in order to confront them with a kind of stage truth. I didn't want to freeze the imagined scenes, I wanted to experience them on stage, even if it meant tearing some of them apart. This was the objective of the last two weeks of residency at the Muse en Circuit in February and at the GMEM in March. The premiere took place on 10 March at the Théâtre d'Orléans and will be performed again at the Musique Action festival on 30 September.

Interview by Guillaume Kosmicki

Photos © Romu Ducros