Yann GourdonThe dynamics of the impalpable

Interviews 02.05.2021

Starting out in traditional music and the folk ball, the hurdy-gurdy player Yann Gourdon put his drones at the service of experimental music, founding the group France in 2005. Performing solo or in all sorts of ensemble configurations, he has helped demonstrate, alongside the twelve musicians of the La Nòvia collective, how tradition can be reinvented today by opening up immersive and hypnotic fields of sound exploration.

Interview conducted on February 12, 2021

Let's start with your background, your training. What made you choose this instrument, the hurdy-gurdy? When did it happen?
It goes back to my childhood: my father was a musician, a fiddler and practiced traditional Irish music. The hurdy-gurdy was one of the instruments I came across and I suddenly felt like playing it, after having played classical piano. I started at the age of twelve. I took lessons in Grenoble with Isabelle Pignol and Valentin Clastrier.

They are two great names of the hurdy-gurdy. What did they bring to you?
They gave me a way of approaching and conceiving the instrument that tended to be open to other musical fields. My father was a friend of the violin maker Denis Soriat, who developed the first prototype of an electroacoustic hurdy-gurdy, notably for Valentin Clastrier. So my first instrument was not a traditional one, it was a flat hurdy-gurdy, which was already an upheaval for me. 

What is the difference between a flat and a traditional hurdy-gurdy?
There are traditional flat hurdy-gurdies in the shape of a guitar, and others in the round shape of a lute. In the 18th century, the nobility and the bourgeoisie became very fond of this instrument, and many luthiers began to transform lutes and guitars into hurdy-gurdies. Denis Soriat's flat hurdy-gurdies, however, have a contemporary form that has nothing to do with the guitar. He designed them to be electrified with piezo pickups (contact pickups). The four distinct parts of the hurdy-gurdy are the melodies (chanterelles), the drone, the dog (drone strings) and the sympathetic strings.

Between 1993 and 2003, you played with the group Djal ("Du Jour Au Lendemain"). Is this a traditional music group?
Djal is a particular story, which is linked to my father. We used to play in the street while begging, and in the Grenoble association where he gave violin lessons. There was an open stage in a ball every week, where we played in duet. Some of my father's friends joined in. The group Djal emerged from these meetings. This group still exists. They practice the folk ball without regional specificity, drawing from all kinds of repertory and dances throughout France.

So traditional music is a real breeding ground for you?
It's what propelled me. I really started in that environment. I was in a professional environment from the age of 13, and I think that's what determined the fact that I continue with music.

In 1999, you turned to experimental music. You studied at the National School of Music in Villeurbanne until 2003. What pushed you towards this musical field, after having played so much traditional music?
It was the result of a total chance and an encounter. Someone made me listen to the paradoxical sounds of Jean-Claude Risset, which really appealed to me. At the same time, I had discovered on the radio the music of Stockhausen and Varèse, which tickled my ears. I called Bernard Fort and took his electroacoustic courses, but also courses in composition, free improvisation and analogical synthesis.

You then enrolled at the Beaux-Arts de Valence, where your interest is still focused on sound experiments. What are your projects about?
I wanted to find a context of research and experimentation. I entered the Beaux-Arts to find a visual dimension. I wanted to do video and to confront myself with installation: to think about works in space. I met Jérémie (Sauvage) on bass and Mathieu (Tilly) on drums, with whom we founded the group France.

This French group was born at that time, in 2005?
We used to meet with Jérémie every Tuesday in the amphitheatre to prepare performances, with very different devices. One day, Jérémie suggested that we do a cover of Faust and Tony Conrad's album. So we went looking for a drummer and found Mathieu. The band was created.

What is the reason for the choice of the band's name?
It's only a reference to the name France, there's no nationalist idea, no rejection or provocation.

Are your performances based on pure improvisation or are there planned moments, are the performances mapped out beforehand?
We've been playing the same thing for over ten years now, and we never get tired of it. The bass and drums provide the rhythmic foundation. The hurdy-gurdy fills the space on this fixed base, in a more improvised gesture, but which remains constrained to a process. It is inscribed in a development that is always quite similar, which only varies according to the contexts of play, the spaces and the interactions of the public. Jérémie and I play in the pit, in the audience. We are in the same flow as the listeners, to hear what they hear, to create a feedback between them and our music.

Your music is based on continuous sounds, drones, notably implied by your instrument itself, and on a very particular management of time, based on its elasticity, which leads to an immersive notion, the loss of reference points and the plunging into the heart of the sound. What are your influences in this field?
The first influence is the hurdy-gurdy and its drones. As soon as I started tinkering with my instrument, I realised that I was abandoning myself in this continuous sound. I was comforted by meeting musicians such as Tony Conrad, La Monte Young and Phill Niblock. I was also greatly influenced by the works ofAlvin Lucier, another American composer who had a real interest in the spatial and acoustic dimension of sound. I wanted to bathe in a drone and try to keep myself there. At the time, it was in its infancy. Now I can go much further. I listen to everything that can develop in a drone: there are a multitude of things to listen to inside, it opens up new worlds, new directions, little nooks and crannies to go and find.

You used a very strong word: the verb "to surrender". This is also what we feel when we listen to your music in concert. You have to let yourself go completely. If there's a block, the experience doesn't work. But as soon as you accept to be overwhelmed and to let yourself be totally taken by this sound continuum, something happens. So you're talking about the same phenomenon on the musician's side?
It requires an effort, in fact, to get past a point where you let go and abandon your fears, your cultural references, your habits. I really like this notion of losing one's bearings. Working on rather long times leads to not knowing in which temporality you are; just as working on acoustic spaces, playing on the reflections of sound, leads to a loss of reference points in space, not knowing where the sound comes from exactly. This is for me the place of vertigo, the limit before falling.

You are indeed looking for a dynamic relationship with the places where you perform. You worked on this subject at the Beaux-Arts de Valence, and it's something you've been experimenting with throughout your career. How does it work in practice: when you arrive in a place, you study the room?
It's very instinctive and it's mainly in the game that it happens. Not all spaces lend themselves to it. There are places where the resonances and the loss of reference points are difficult to implement. You have to look for processes in the music itself. 

I think there is a protest dimension in your attitude to time, in your refusal of frameworks and of a commensurable vision proper to our societies. Can you confirm this?
I don't know about protesting, but what is certain is that I don't like frames or labels. I don't like to be confined, I prefer to look for the border zones, the more blurred, more impalpable places. That's what I'm looking for in my sound, but it's also probably an attitude to everyday life. Today, we are obliged to put labels on everything. I myself use them: "traditional music" and "experimental music" are labels. I give a very particular meaning to "traditional", which is not necessarily the same as yours,Erwan (Keravec) or Lise (Barkas). For example, in my work on rhythmic dephasing, it is not so much the effect of the dephasing that interests me as what takes place in the interval of the shift, which suddenly opens up a new field. I am interested in all these microphenomena, these blurred limits, which we do not pay attention to a priori. 

Your hurdy-gurdy, besides the fact that you make it sound, does it have its own particularities that distinguish it from traditional versions (playing modes, extra strings...)?
In terms of violin making, a lot of things have been experimented over the last fifty years. As for me, I recently changed my hurdy-gurdy to find a simpler, smaller, more efficient instrument. I switched from alto to soprano, with fewer strings. It was made by Joël Traunecker with a motor on the wheel, on the principle of Léo Maurel's drone boxes. I still have the possibility to use it with the crank. Even when the motor is running, I can have my hand on the crank for sound transformations.

Do you add any effects on your hurdy-gurdy, like distortion?
I use very few effects. When I was young, I tried every possible effect. I abandoned them all except one: the delay. I use it to generate repetitive patterns.

Do you still play traditional music today?
Yes, of course I do. It is one of the central elements that brings together the collective La Nòvia, of which I am a member. We are a dozen musicians, most of us coming from traditional music. Alongside very diverse, more experimental proposals, there are specific groups of traditional dance music, played for the ball. We are brought together by a common sensitivity, deeply linked to traditional music, both by the instrumentation (hurdy-gurdies, bagpipes, fiddles...) and because we have been touched by certain aspects of this music, which we have eventually developed in more contemporary and experimental practices.

La Nòvia gathers many artists from the Haute-Loire, Auvergne, Rhône-Alpes, Béarn, Cévennes, Hautes-Alpes and Alsace. How was this collective formed?
The collective was initiated by our bagpipe, guitar and hurdy-gurdy trio, Toad, which started at the same time as France, in 2005 (with Pierre-Vincent Fortunier and Guilhem Lacroux). It's a very electric trio, with which we did a ball on traditional music from Auvergne. The association became Nòvia, which allowed us to hire Elodie, my partner and production manager. The meeting of Basile Brémaud and Jacques Puech brought other personalities around Toad, new projects, new groups. The collective gradually became what it is today with its twelve musicians.

Where does the name La Nòvia come from?
If I remember correctly, it's a tribute from Acid Mothers Temple's eponymous album, on which there was a cover of a traditional Occitan song of the same title, which means "the young bride".

You were talking about dance groups in la Nòvia. I've heard you talk about the bourrée, this traditional dance from Auvergne, about which you talk about constant imbalances and rebalancing of the body. Is it something that influences you in your music?
There are indeed the basic steps, the cadence steps, which allow to recognize the bourrée, but constantly readapted according to the environment. That's what I really liked about this dance, the management of the space which requires you to be attentive but not only to the sound. You have to feel the other dancers so as not to collide. This generates a very particular form of attention to which is added, according to me, a game of seesaw, a movement just before the fall, before starting again in another step. That's what I'm looking for. 

You have had many collaborations, many bands. You have also recorded a lot of records (I counted thirty-eight of them, solo or with various bands). How do you explain this thirst for creation, recording and encounters?
Records are not an end in itself for me. It took me a long time to decide to record albums. At first, I wasn't interested at all. I started making records with Toad and La Nòvia, simply because it allowed us to spread our music, to make it known, to have concert dates. It was purely functional, and it still is to some extent. I consider what you find there as a particular moment of the music, but which could be completely different in concert, or if you had recorded it a few days later. I don't completely ignore the artistic dimension: when we make a record, I think about how to adapt the music so that it can be perceived as well as possible, and tend towards what I would like to be heard. And then it must be said that on this number of records, there are elements that I don't control. That's the case with records from France. We never go into the studio with this band, they're all live recordings, and sometimes they're quite random. I think some of them were just made with a little recorder held by someone in the audience. In fact, for France, I don't have any control at all, Jeremie does it with his label. I made the choice to let it happen, it's my will. In my opinion, there's no point in having a band like France exist on record. These albums exist and I don't deny them either, but I consider records as archives, they don't have any more value than that for me. If they were to disappear, I wouldn't be unhappy about it. What I need is to be confronted with live music, in a situation of proximity with the listener.

Interview by Guillaume Kosmicki


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