Aurélien Dumont's rock culture: investigation!

Interviews 19.01.2022

Aurélien Dumont never stops trying to bring together artistic disciplines, in order to break away from the expected forms of concert music. This taste for weaving and dialogue is also reflected in the music that constitutes it, and which he tries to put in tension. His piece "Zero Syd Barrett and Two Girls Playing Saxophone", a real homage to the Pink Floyd singer and guitarist, shows us that the composer's rock culture is only too willing to resurface and blend with his own language.

Anne Montaron : Aurélien, your suite of pieces "Zero Syd Barrett and Two Girls Playing Saxophone" is a direct tribute to a great figure of progressive rock: Syd Barrett. It is a rather singular piece in your body of work, but not totally isolated. I think you've been interested in rock for a long time? You even played bass!
Aurélien Dumont: Indeed, I have an extremely deep love for Pink Floyd, and this has been the case for a long time, since my father introduced me to this music when I was 14. I also remember that when I was a teenager their very first record never really spoke to me; I thought it was a bit special, I had trouble getting into it. But the whole period after that, the records released from 1969 until today - with those long tracks, those beautiful effects and great sound production - those ones took me on a journey right away! But the first record, the one with Syd Barrett
A few years ago I wanted to understand why. So I listened a lot to that first Pink Floyd record, as well as to Syd Barrett's solo records, and I entered a world that I now find much more interesting than the one that followed. I needed that time, that distance, no doubt.

I have a really emotional relationship with this music, and also with the character of Syd Barrett and his story, extremely tragic! The creator of Pink Floyd, it was Syd Barrett who imagined the band's first record released in 1967: "The Piper of the Gates of Dawn": a completely crazy and funny poetic universe (if you compare it with the Beatles' music at the same time, it's much crazier!); a psychedelic side taken to a level unknown until then. Syd Barrett's lyrics were incredibly rich, full of polysemy. One could sense the mixed influences of the French symbolists and English fantasy poetry, with a side that sometimes touched on the absurd.
As we know, Syd Barrett was a great LSD user; he overdosed. At one point he became completely unmanageable on stage: he was able to play the same chord for two hours. This was no longer possible for the other members of Pink Floyd.
In 1968 he was dropped from the band. You can read this anecdote - and many others, just as shocking - in the fascinating biography devoted to him by a poet friend, Jean-Michel Espitallier: "Syd Barrett - Le rock et autres trucs " (published by Le Mot et le Reste): this book made a deep impression on me!

Syd Barrett, is he a character who really touches you?
Yes, because he is out of the box, out of the norm, unclassifiable. Jean-Michel Espitallier explains well how Syd Barrett could not give in to the sirens of the commercial industry. In fact, he remained faithful to his crazy universe, made of poetry and grace. When he was young, he had such grace, he was very handsome. Later on, he had serious health problems. His body changed a lot. We remember this anecdote: in their 1975 album, Pink Floyd wanted to pay tribute to Syd Barrett. At one point during the recording, he came into the studio, unannounced. He appeared as he was then, fat and bald. The others broke down in tears. It's a very touching story!

When you wrote "Zero Syd Barrett, and Two Girls Playing Saxophone" for theLinea ensemble and the Créations mondiales de France Musique, the starting point of the composition was a precise anecdote told by Jean-Michel Espitallier...
Yes, the title of this suite of miniatures refers to a sentence pronounced by Syd Barrett, after his eviction from the group. He was hanging on, he wanted to stay in the band. The others must have told him something like: "OK, you keep writing songs for the band, but you don't come on stage anymore". At that moment, he made this rather strange proposal - a kind of desperate attempt: to replace him with two girls who play the saxophone.
This is the origin of my piece and its arrangement for two saxophones, electric and acoustic guitars, accordion, percussion, double bass.

With my friend the guitarist Giani Caserotto, we did a whole analysis of Syd Barrett's playing. As the last part of the piece concludes with a metaphor of Syd Barrett's death, I wanted the guitar to work on a spectral delay loop, in reference to the playing of Syd Barrett's successor in the band, David Gilmour. I wanted sounds close to Pink Floyd, to the "Dark Side on the Moon" period... I wanted this wink, this transition, a kind of disappearance of Syd Barrett's madness. We enter into something much more "spacey"!

In this suite of pieces, you take up elements of Syd Barrett's language and spirit. You use them as found objects, as you often do in your work, and they become what you call "aesthetically modified objects"?
Completely! If I take Syd Barrett's materials, it's obviously to rework them, so that, emptied of their original substance, they acquire a new meaning.

Is this a constant in your writing?
Yes. It allows me to make the link with who I am, the influences, the big names in music (not necessarily the "big ones" by the way), the things that touch me, and those that don't!

What is the place of this Syd Barrett tribute in your work?
This is the first time I have approached this music so directly, without any filter other than anecdote. However, these rock-related preoccupations were present in some of my earlier works, notably in my opera Chantier Woyzeck, where the electric guitar is present. I even wrote a song!
We imagined this opera as a metaphor for the transcription of Büchner's Woyzeck. In our re-reading of the libretto, Woyzeck dreamed of becoming a rock star! There is the scene where, just after he kills Marie, he starts singing with his shirt off (big electric guitar solo). At that time, for the electronic part of Chantier Woyzeck, I used samples elaborated by Steven Wilson, the founder of the group Porcupine Tree, for whom I also have great admiration.

Steven Wilson is really in the Pink Floyd tradition for me. He is a sound engineer, he has remixed the music of many bands. The first albums of Porcupine Tree are a mixture of electronic music, with a very rock side, but of soaring rock. It so happens that Steven Wilson had put a hard disk with all the sounds, all the samples he used (mellotron simulations, old keyboards...) into a software program. It was these samples that I used to compose part of the electronics for Chantier Woyzeck.
That said, the piece is not a direct homage to rock. That was not the point.

In spite of everything, you still listen to this music, it still accompanies you?
Yes, probably because there's a reassuring side to it. It's a world I know well, even if I can still be surprised, especially by this band Porcupine Tree.

You are currently thinking about a new work called "Whatspop" (working title), inspired by your reading of Pacôme Thiellement 's "L'Enquête infinie". You told me that this project was in a way an extension of your tribute to Syd Barrett? In what sense?
I devoured this book! In it, the author thinks of life as an investigation: "the problem with this world is that we entered it as if it were a story, one that we picked up along the way, one that we missed the beginning of. And we spend our lives rowing like crazy, to catch up with even the synopsis of the previous episodes...". In "The Infinite Investigation", there is this idea of thinking of life as both an investigation and a quest for meaning. And I think that speaks to everyone!
Like in a police investigation, the author deals with different subjects, different personalities and artists, which he puts in tension with each other. He evokes great painters, writers (Edgar Poe, Baudelaire...), various events, and musicians (Otis Redding and David Bowie)...

After reading it, I had two major questions.
Firstly, I was very frustrated with the music, because I found no reference to composers of written music (neither Debussy, nor Wagner...). I wanted to discuss this with him.
Furthermore, "The Infinite Investigation" gives a great deal of space to the figure of Philippe K. Dick and his thoughts, his relationship with the world of literature, and his work. Dick and his thought, his relationship to Gnostic thought. Thiellement and K. Dick supports the idea that the true divinity, the truth, is to be found in what is called popular culture. In the book, there is this sentence taken from K. Dick's "Exegesis": "Junk (rock, comics, movies, SF) is gold, and gold is junk", which is a form of value reversal!

Pacôme Thiellement draws a line from Elizabethan theatre - a form of theatre that spoke to all social classes - through the fantasy of the Romantic era, the emergence of jazz, pop culture, comic books, SF novels and TV series.
This line is not ours at all! I want to question this in "Whatspop"!
I would also like to question musically what could be an investigation.
The starting point would be the songs of John Dowland (used as Aesthetically Modified Objects), and their links to pop culture, since Sting recently covered them, and to see what shift - chronological or not - we can draw.

Another example: the first recorded trace of Debussy's piece inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" - an orchestral page for an unfinished opera, which never saw the light of day - can be found on a progressive rock album by The Alan Parsons Project in 1976. At one point you hear ten minutes of orchestral music and you don't know where it comes from.
So there are links, and that's part of the investigation: how is it that Debussy's music ends up in a progressive rock band?

I would also like to question what popular music is.
I even want a debate to be included in the piece at some point, with the idea that at each performance, we invite an intellectual who would answer the questions of the singer-android. The music would adapt to the guest's answers.
All of this stems from my growing desire to move away from pre-established musical forms and move towards a debate of ideas. But it's still in the making! I've only been thinking about it for two or three months. It will be an opera suite of about thirty minutes for one voice and ensemble, which should be premiered in March 2023 by theensemble Cairn.
The idea will evolve, of course, I still have a little time ahead of me!

Interview by Anne Montaron

Photos © Jérémie Souyterat


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