No tongues, art and matter

Interviews 02.05.2023

Since its beginnings in 2015, the Nantes-based group No Tongues has relied on a singular instrumental configuration: a quartet with two blowers and two double basses, without drums, with an important use of samples, and now, since the latest project Ici en 2022, with the reinforcement of electronics. His bewitching music evokes many domains without ever being reduced to any of them: learned music, jazz, free improvisation, electroacoustic music... The pieces take on a ritual character and lead the listeners into real journeys, between meditative, ecstatic listening and trance.

No Tongues was initially inspired by traditional music, since the first repertoire, Les Voies du monde (disc in 2018), built from the mythical box set Les Voix du Monde - an anthology of vocal expressions (CNRS/Le Chant du monde, 1996). This research continues during a stay in Guyana, at the origin of the new program The Ways of the Oyapock (disc in 2020), this border river between Brazil and Guyana, theater of their meeting with the Teko and Wayãpi people (villages of Camopi and Trois-Sauts), among whom No Tongues made two stays and carried out a vast work of collecting. On the contrary, their third record, Ici (2022), was born out of a "clear need to confront what is right there, right HERE", the sounds of their daily lives, of their sonic environments: "the sound of drizzle on the skylight, a spring fire in La Caillère, the chimes of the Bono cemetery garden, the beeping of the paw patrol phone, a jogger, a faucet, Patrick's bees, the oven before pizza, a high-speed train, children's voices, a belt sander, the polyrhythmic drips of a sweater dripping... "
Meeting with Matthieu Prual (bass clarinet, saxophones) and Ronan Courty (double bass).

The No Tongues adventure began in 2015. How was the group formed, humanly speaking?
Matthieu Prual: The origin of the group comes from a proposal I made, based on a personal desire to confront myself with materials from the music of oral tradition. With Les Voies du monde, there was an ethnomusicological aspect, it was a work on musics which come from far away, but which for me have an extremely modern character. I called upon friends, and even a member of my family [Editor's note: the double bass player Ronan Prual is Matthieu's brother], knowing that these people were as sensitive to an experimental, improvised and contemporary approach as they were motivated by a real desire for traditional music. Ronan Courty and I have known each other since the conservatory. We have always made music together with my brother. With Alan, we met about twenty years ago during the boiling moments around musical studies. No Tongues is an adventure with close people. The instrumentarium was constituted above all with human desires: Ronan Courty or my brother could have played another instrument, and the quartet would then have been based on another instrumentarium.

Did you all go to the same conservatory?
Ronan Courty : No. I met Matthieu at the jazz department of the Nantes Conservatory. I met Matthieu at the jazz department of the Conservatoire de Nantes. Alan (Regardin) studied in Pontchâteau, Ronan (Prual) was also at the Conservatoire de Nantes. As for me, I studied at the CNSM, it's when I came back to Nantes that No Tongues was created.

The sample is an important element, sometimes structuring the construction of a song (or at least of an episode), other times offering just a first sound impulse, like the spark that sparks the inspiration of the journey that will follow, or finally adding additional textures, ambiances. Can you tell us more about this use?
MP: The sample, in the DNA of No Tongues, was very clear from the start: the proposal I made was to work on the voices of the record Les Voix du Monde, a sound and musical material outside of us, with the same method as in the oral tradition, i.e. listening and copying. In the listening process, we would, for example, loop a small musical fragment of twenty seconds, sometimes less. Each of us would try to find out how we could take over a part of the sound spectrum of this fragment, which would give us a first sample of orchestration. We then asked ourselves what we could do with it, to extract a musical principle from this small initial piece. On the Inuit music, we extracted the idea of ping-pong. Elsewhere, we also experimented with the principle of copying, or extending, we decided to stop certain sounds, to "freeze", in reference to Freeze's pedal, etc.
RC: At the beginning, what is quite funny is that the excerpts from Les Voix du Monde brought by Matthieu had neither title nor origin. The selections were made according to the resonance they produced on the band's playing modes, on the desires of improvisation and composition they aroused. This decentering by the sample is really done by the musical, not by the origin, by what it tells. When we don't have our own sound engineer in a room, we explain to those who replace him that the sample is our fifth musician, that we have to treat it like someone who would be with us on stage. The first record was based on vocal material. During our adventure in Guyana, we also started to record the scenery: a pirogue engine, kitchen noises, a soccer game on the other side of the river, children saying words in Wayampi... When we came back, our ears were wide open. We started to listen a lot to what was going on around us, which gave us the record Ici

You talk about sampled sound materials. It is constantly question of materials also in your instrumental games, those of the instruments themselves (wood, metal, string...) or drawn from the use of additional objects (sticks, brushes, clothespins...). There is a constant oscillation between the archaic, sometimes almost fragile gesture (breath, crackling, shock, rubbing...) and the use of advanced electronic technologies, effects, loops, samples, synthesizer... Do you voluntarily cultivate this contrast or is the relationship thought of as fusional?
RC: We had already found a lot of these materials and instrumental techniques individually before No Tongues. But working on the voice and having to copy its timbre, and having to work in fours to sound as much like the original as possible, meant that we had to find other ways of playing with the firm intention of staying acoustic at the beginning. It's a good way to abolish the hierarchy between the instruments within a group, by making us change roles: that everyone can emit low sounds, high sounds, it's a way to increase the instruments. In Cabaret contemporain, I did the same thing by imitating electronic instruments with acoustic instruments. In a second time, we said to ourselves that what counts in No Tongues, more than the world music and the acoustic playing, is the process of composition and the material kneaded collectively. So we played around with redefining our DNA on the last album by adding technology.
MP: I myself rarely have the feeling of electronics, but rather of electric. It's more of an analog path, except for Ronan's little synthesizer, which is the only truly electronic side. Personally, in my set, the only electric element is a distortion that I activate on a moment where I work with a feedback device. It stays in the tangible, I put a mic in the bell of the clarinet, turn up the volume of the feedback with a pedal and play without the mouthpiece on the instrument, which just becomes a resonator, creating feedback that I can pretty much control. Alan does the same thing on the trumpet at that point. It's acoustic and electric mixed together. He does have some extra pedals in his set, but it's still light. The presence of the iPads on stage also gives a technological side, but the only difference from our two previous programs is that we can trigger the samples ourselves, in any order we want. This was previously done by the sound engineer. This digital device is designed to give us more possibilities to play.

With rare exceptions (there are some), the blowers (alto saxophone, soprano and bass clarinet of Matthieu Prual, trumpet of Alan Regardin) do not play melodic themes as such, as one would expect in a traditional way, but they participate in the play of sound textures, or in the rhythmic framework. Is it something you thought about beforehand ?
MP: It's related to our backgrounds. Alan and I went through quite radical phases of improvised music, with a very marked distance from melody. The path we took for Les Voies du Monde was almost a return to melody for us. We got back in touch with the notes, with harmonic notions, even very simple ones. These were things we had left behind for a long time, which came back through the voice: to find certain obviousnesses, to enunciate a melody, as in the bonze piece, "La voix de la mort rugissante". It is a double bass-saxophone duet with my brother. We often try to set up game springs to mark out our improvisations, which force us to use the sounds within a precise framework. Ronan [Prual] makes an improvised melodic path that I copy as instantly as possible. I never know what is going to happen, which forces me to be in a hyper breathless attention to join him as soon as possible, with a very small delay.

In the same way, with Alan, on the track "Inuit Suit", we pass the sounds to each other like the Inuits. In this case, I choose the notes and he follows me without knowing where I am going. It creates a connection of play, which sets a precise framework, like a jazz grid. For me, this is perhaps what maintains a notion of jazz in what we do. Melodically, we come back to very basic things, the work of the unison, often, framed by a game.

RC: We allow ourselves melodies sometimes in contrast to more violent materials. There is a play of activities: with four people, we manage to create a polyphony of activities. From the beginning of the group, we wanted to favor the timbre and the pulsation in order to avoid a too obvious filiation with jazz, because our instruments, sax, trumpet and double bass, convey this aesthetic in the imagination. We wanted to create a different path, without injunction to develop harmony or melody in the chromatic and complex sense of jazz.

What is the interplay between the two double basses and their complementarity (Ronan Courty and Ronan Prual)? From what I've seen, you often do the pulse, in a quartet without drums, and Ronan Prual does the material.
RC: Ronan also has a lot of pulsed stuff. We are more on a distribution of frequencies. I myself have explored a lot with the prepared double bass, whereas Ronan manages to obtain a whole range of materials with a bow on the string, by varying the pressure. Except in the first repertoire, where I was focused on the radicalness of the prepared instrument, we don't have a predefined role. For Ici, Ronan has the most acoustic setup of all of us, he only has a boost pedal. So he brings a lot of air to the songs, with all the liveliness allowed by the purely acoustic playing.
MP: Ronan Prual goes more often in the melodic field, contrary to you. In some tracks, we do counterchants with my brother, while you often stay very rhythmic.

How do you compose? Is it collective? Does it come from improvisation alone? How much of it is written?
MP: The most common process is always to listen and copy. Once copied, we let it drift with improvisation around the material. Regularly, we record fragments to be able to objectively realize our progress. Then, we arrange by ideas, with more precise themes or sound intuitions. It's very collective. On Ici, we reversed our process, which was to first compose a program for live performance before fixing it on record. This time, we recorded an album, which we put back into play in the live show. The concerts are much more open, you can change the structures and the order of the samples. It's more modular: we composed a lot of modules whose arrangements can be modified on stage.
RC: The iPads put our listening back at the center of the process, they allow everyone to experience a different path. With the record Ici, we felt like the Beatles, since we spent four weeks in the studio. This is quite rare in our aesthetics, because the studio is expensive. We usually concentrate on five days, necessarily compromising on the method and the result. On the contrary, we wanted to spend hours looking for sounds and finding architectures from them. We wanted to build more horizontally than vertically. In general, we talk a lot about orchestrations, roles, where we want to go, we also talk in terms of aesthetics. Some things are described as "pop", more or less "jazz"... There is a real technical language, a grammar, like the "ping-pong" or the "freeze" that we mentioned earlier...
MP: A word has been with us since the beginning, which we take as a scarecrow: "aestheticizing". As soon as we have this impression in our music, we say to ourselves that it's not good, but we noticed that we don't have the same definition at all![
RC: There are things that we say to each other, but also many others that are tacit, elements that each of us has eliminated from his personal discourse, certain melodic forms, harmonies that are too sweet, rhythms that are too referenced, aesthetics that are too identified... We don't go through scores very much, even a long piece like "La Voie des esprit" is built on the oral. The part of the writing remains very minimal, just for what is a little difficult to memorize, we have anti-sèches.

MP: For example, in Ici, there is a small two-voice chorale on "Cœur de la montagne", clarinet-trumpet, a small composition realized in studio in a few minutes. And on Les Voies de l'Oyapock, these are the impacts that we make in the low register on " Moyutule ". They are very small things, writing appointments, anecdotal, one per album at most.

No Tongues is truly unclassifiable. What are your influences, your sources of inspiration?
MP: We can't answer for Alan and Ronan. For me, it's very broad, with a big jazz background, a lot of Coltrane, Dolphy, Parker, Monk. Then the discovery of contemporary music with Giacinto Scelsi, Morton Feldman, Charlemagne Palestine, Terry Riley. A lot of classical music composers too.
RC: It's a bit complicated for me. My relationship to listening has changed a lot. Nowadays, I don't listen to jazz, nor to classical music, except Ravel and Debussy. I don't listen to contemporary music at all, but I do listen to a lot of pop music, 60% James Blake. In this field, I listen to a vast panel, which also passes by American hip-hop. I like to listen to something that sounds "modern", or new compared to what I've heard before. Progress and modernity question me. I want to be part of today's world and not apart from it. I also buy traditional music vinyls with my eyes closed, because I know that I will always find sincerity in it, and also because I am a little tired of the creative posture. I find it hypocritical. This limit, this way of dividing "experimental music" and "popular music" is rather impoverishing for both. With No Tongues, we were surprised, because the band took off quite quickly, from the first research in my living room to the adhesion of the public. A lot of people who listen to us don't come from contemporary music or jazz. Some people only listen to electro. It's a bit like the well-known compilations: "I don't like experimental music, but I like this". We also played in front of children, particularly challenged by our commitment. They do not have the aesthetic shackles of adults and have a freer mind. Our music defuses the aesthetic projections on what it should be or not be.

We find recorded voices in the last project, those of children, but also those of singers and a singer, Linda Oláh, Isabel Sörling, Elsa Corre, Loup Uberto, always sampled, not present in concert. Why this "distanced" use and not a featuring on stage?
RC: We had already invited Linda on a piece in Les Voies du Monde. She is an incredible musician who does with her voice what we do with our instruments. She hadn't rehearsed, it went very well. I asked Isabel and Linda what music they would propose to the group if they were part of it, with our ritual color and our way of "inventing" a traditional music. They made these proposals. We invited them a short time ago to improvise on stage with us at the Dynamo, in Paris, for half the concert. We would like to be able to invite them every time, to decentralize ourselves and because we are improvisers above all. Unfortunately, this is not always possible.

In concert, Matthieu Prual is never stingy with explanations for the public, which he does with simplicity and generosity. Some musicians categorically refuse to put words to their work. How do you explain this thirst to share, to let people know?
MP: On Les Voies du Monde and Les Voies de l'Oyapock, it seemed obvious to us. First of all, we wanted to give thanks to those who had created these sources of inspiration, not to appropriate their music without making it known to the public. We tried the room sheets, which did not convince us: oral is better! It was important to tell certain aspects of our trip to Guyana, and to name the people. On Ici, we almost didn't say anything, but we kept a word at the beginning to keep the link with the public, a link that relaxes immediately when we take the time to say hello, instead of presenting on a pedestal a work of art that doesn't want to come towards the person who receives it. We want to introduce a human moment of music to share, in a simple way. We also explain the rules of the technical device so that the public understands what we are doing.
RC: For the first two repertoires, it was important enough for Matthieu to translate his speech into four or five languages during our European concerts, especially the humorous parts. We propose something creative and immersive, and the fact that Matthieu presents it with lightness defuses any blockage in front of things that the public could judge too complicated at first sight. 

Your music is not "colonial", it is not exotic. You don't artificially sprinkle your compositions with otherness. You integrate models in an organic way, creating something truly new. What is your process for not falling into these pitfalls?
MP: The starting point of this adventure, my desire to work on oral music, is linked to Édouard Glissant, a Martinican poet, who thought of the world as a complete sum of differences with the concept of creolization: "I can change by exchanging, without losing myself or denaturing myself." This means really daring to meet other cultures, other ways of being in music, without forgetting who we are. I wanted our oral method to pass through the body, to be more than just a representation of the mind. This is what we did, for example, on "Inuit Suit": without going through the written word, we first committed ourselves to a long period of practice to understand what happens on a metabolic level. Whether we are from here or there, we are always humans facing sounds, in a cultural ensemble. And we have always wanted to keep our own identity as musicians, to avoid trying to be someone else. It is the meeting with the other that allows us to be someone else.

RC: There is a desire to decentralize, but not to refocus on another practice. We want to keep it all open. The sources are no less sacred to us. But we want to devote ourselves to them freely, without asking ourselves questions of legitimacy or appropriation. We carried out collections in Guyana for Les Voies de l'Oyapock. We each have our own position. For Ici, the problem no longer arises, but we have kept the ritual aspect of our compositions, which fascinates us in traditional music, whatever its origins.
MP: We talked a lot about Guyana, because of the ethical issues that arose from our trip and our collections. One day, during an appointment at the DRAC, an expert told us that traditional music did not need us. We agreed: we are the ones who need traditional music. I had things to find in these musics, less present in the experimental and contemporary practices. A relationship that is part of the time of the human species, cultural.

Ronan used the terms "sacred", "ritual". This is something that is evident in your work. Your pieces have a ritual character, they take the listeners far away, beyond everyday reality, on real journeys, maybe not to the sacred, but to a meditative, even ecstatic listening, related to trance. Can you say more about this?
MP: It makes me think of our relationship to sound, very strong, even before our relationship to music. I think of Giacinto Scelsi, who strips the sound to find the vibration. Ritual Tones, Alan Regardin's latest creation, also plunges into a work of microtonality and stripping.

We are artists who evolve in a society that has lost much of its access to free living matter. The sound remains an access to a wild, raw matter, which inevitably gives us openings towards things we need, beyond us.
RC : There is an amalgam with this sacred, spiritual and ritual side, linked to roots, quite far from us, even if we are close to a very alive traditional music in Brittany. All our works, including outside the group, show this quest for spirituality.

RC: Yes, not to mention the divine. A desire to make something that is more than music, that calls upon the powers of music. We have worked quite a bit on these aspects over the three albums: starting with a unison material, then varying in microtonality to create harmonic voices, like the Sardinian chant that creates a fifth voice from a male quartet, "the voice of the Virgin". With the samples, the four of us create another layer, a vibration.
MP: I come back to this access to an open matter: we are not looking for spirituality as such, but a true freedom in poetry. Any way to enter in relation with spirituality passes by poetry. Not necessarily through words, but also through images, sensations and impressions that open up when we create a path for them. People who receive the latest album Ici, depending on their relationship with the raw side of the world, take it either as something dark or something bright, in a rather clear-cut way. When one refuses the violence of the world, it can be difficult to enter into the beauty of Ici.
RC: The way we treat the violent sound of the sander on "Makam Fantôme", mixed like an instrument, evokes this paradox between the violence of this world and the poetry that everyone has, this challenge to see beauty even in tragic things.
MP: The sample of the sander is also a cleaning sound. We eliminate matter. It goes through a certain violence, but then you find light. I currently have my feet on the parquet floor treated by this same sander. It is very beautiful today, after this violent treatment, it is full of poetry. [laughs]

Interview by Guillaume Kosmicki

Photo © Thomas Langouet


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