Interview with Antoine Chessex
Listening to the history of music past and present is vital for Swiss composer Antoine Chessex
Not even forty years young, saxophonist and composer Antoine Chessex has gathered enough musical experience to last at least four lifetimes. In 1999, he founded experimental noise band Monno for a sonic assault on the peaceful facade of Lausanne. Later, he developed a passion for free jazz, eloped for the States and performed in the bars and clubs of New York. It wasn't until his move to Berlin in the first years of the new Millenium, however, that Chessex started to truly develop his own voice. At the time, the German capital was under the influence of the Echtzeit scene and the Reductionist movement, which offered a fresh take on the relationships between sound and silence, improvisation and composition, intellect and intuition. His own interests, however, soon started to develop in an entirely different direction. Equipped with feedback pedals and effect devices, Chessex's brutal walls of saxophone noise would constitute the perfect antidote to the quiet, measured and ultra-subtle approach of most of his colleagues, an ear-deafening protest against complacency and formalism. And yet, by the time he left Berlin for the uneventful town of Oldenburg, Chessex had already changed course once again. Increasingly, he had developed a passion for working with classical ensembles and received his first commissions for chambermusic compositions. The serenity and quiet of his new home is allowing him to focus on what seems to be the most promising and long-lasting phase in his career so far. Until the next change of heart, that is.
What is living in a city with practically no cultural life to speak of like?
I think retrospectively the move has been positive for me. After ten years in Berlin, I was starting to get more and more trapped in a repetitive mechanism. I was going out way too much to enjoy the many cultural activities that the city offered and I started loosing focus on my own work. Leaving for the countryside has been great in terms of taking a distance from my artistic outputs, redeveloping a working routine when I'm not traveling like going to the library to study books and scores, working in my home studio and also living more healthy - like getting quality food from local farmers and so on. It's been like that in the last two to three years. But I might move again soon to some other city.
You've moved quite a bit over the past years. One of the earliest stations was a brief stint in New York. How do you look back on that time?
Well, I was a young sax player who wanted to play jazz. I have to say I was quite a terrible jazz musician: I always had troubles to improvise on a form, had a sketchy sense of time and was totally lacking discipline. But I had an okay sound and a good energy for playing free jazz. To my ears, there was nothing wrong with improvising with the chromatic scale over a form with total disregard towards the tonal centers. But that's not quite the way you are expected to play at the music universities. As far as I can remember, I always loved dissonances. By chance and although I wasn't aware of it back then, well-tempered music is clearly just a small part of the sonic possibilities. There are way more systems which you can work with that include noise, textural, atonal and microtonal qualities. It reminds me there is some interesting writing by Ferruccio Busoni in 1907 already about the illusion and limitation of well-tempered harmony.
After a couple of short stays in New York it became pretty clear that my way wasn't along the jazz cats. Since modern jazz became marketed and institutionalized, just like classical music, it often tends to develop a very limited stylistic perception of music and a fetishism towards the virtuosic gesture leading to concerts by well-trained musicians but without the vision, personality and originality that some of the earlier generations of musicians had. They are by chance still a few exceptions today of course but generally the marketisation of music, whatever the genre and not unlike what Hollywood became for the film industry nowadays, results in an obscene and alienating spectacle.
So after these early New York days, I moved to Berlin and went looking for all the varieties of textures that the broad spectrum of so called experimental musics had to offer.
By the time you arrived there, someone like Jason Kahn had already departed, because the music scene he had loved so much in the early 1990s had, according to him, ended. How did you experience the city yourself?
Maybe for some musicians Berlin was already finished in the late 90's. For me it seems finished now: most of the center is over-gentrified which resulted in a lot of unofficial venues closing down and therefore significantly changed what made Berlin so special in the last decades - all the hidden locations in the backyards. Back then, the city's artistic scenes had a “hidden laboratory” dimension that seems to have got lost today. But that's my subjective perception after living ten years in that town and I'm quite sure other people might still find a lot of creativity there nowadays. At the beginning of the 2000's, I was in my early twenties and Berlin had a lot to offer: many bizarre musics, challenging arts, those hidden venues in backyards, cheap rents, lots of interesting people to hang out with and to learn from and so on. Also I had access to a whole spectrum of sonic practices: I remember weeks where I would go listen to some metal/hardcore shows in a cave, a sound art installation the next day, a Lachenmann piece at the Philharmony (they had cheap tickets on Mondays back then) the next evening and some obscure electronic music by some weirdos in a tiny underground venue a day later, all in the same week.
I also organized experimental music gigs in different venues for musicians who were on tour and seeking for a concert in town and also worked and performed with many inspiring artists when I was not touring myself. Those were creative times indeed. Some of the influential inputs have been working with Valerio Tricoli, Zbigniew Karkowski and my colleagues of Monno to name a few.
This particular period from 1990 onwards in the history of Berlin will foremost be remembered for the Echtzeit scene and the move towards quiet expressions. You're featured on the Mikroton compilation from 2012, so I'd be curious about what your personal perspective on that was – and in which way some of these concepts are still valid for you today …
There are of course a couple of interesting musicians in that so called Echtzeit constellation, but I personally never really belonged to that scene. In the first half of the 2000's, I heard quite a lot of concerts from this "quiet" or "reduced" approach to improvisation and many of them were actually quite dull. I think that this austere way of improvising is often lacking tension and intensity and I do like tensed and intense music. When I arrived in Berlin, I remember trying to adapt to that surrounding and played in that way like blowing only air through the saxophone to produce quiet noises. But I quickly realized that I was reproducing the same mechanism like when I was within the jazz idiom trying to imitate the legendary sax icons. So I felt like a pale copy of the originals which didn't make sense at all. It eventually encouraged me to go in the opposite direction looking for very dense and loud textures and therefore I got more and more involved with noise and extreme electronics, experimenting with amps and analog gears. I like so called improvised music, although improvisation in music doesn't exist per se as each musician has it's own pre-established colors and patterns, but aesthetically I have the feeling that this Echtzeit scene back in the days wasn't really allowing total freedom, especially in terms of dynamics. Things have changed nowadays anyway. Everything is more mixed together.
Taking into consideration all of the places you've lived at, how do you see the relationship between location and the music being written there?
I used to think that the location and the surrounding influence the music one creates, but I don't think so anymore. More important for me is to find a balance between working, composing, doing research at home as well as taking the time to reflect, learn and digest new information on the one hand and one the other hand traveling for performances and projects, experimenting on the field and performing on stage. That's the balance between those two sides which keeps my artistic life somehow constructive. Where I live doesn't seem to make any difference anymore, since I have the chance to travel quite a bit with my works.
You mentioned 'the shock of hearing Xenakis for the first time'. What was it that made it stand out and seem so relevant to you?
It seems to me that Xenakis has been an example of honesty and creativity during all his life. Plus he did some of the most mind-blowing music ever written or recorded, at least to my ears. Some of his massive pieces for ensembles have very wild qualities which remind me of extreme natural phenomenons. Also if you put that music back in its context, it was very radical and so much more sensual and alive than all the dry serialist rigor like all that school around Boulez for instance. Most of his electronic music pieces are essential works, not to mention the Polytopes stuff and so on.
Although I'm a bit too young for having met him in person, I've heard from some colleagues who worked with him that he was a warm and gentle human being which are very important qualities.
But at the end Xenakis is a bit like Lemmy from Motörhead or Pierro Della Francesca, he is one of those essential figures like there are many in the history of arts.
Another interesting piece of information from that interview was your interest in non-musical inspirations. How does that inspiration process work in practice – how will films, books or sculptures lead to sounds and compositional structures?
I think it is essential to be curious and to try to look for inspiration and information from outside the field one works in. It is not only valid for music but for any other disciplines, too. Nowadays, and partly because of how the educational system is organized in occidental societies, people tend to become specialized in their very own discipline and often disregard what happens in other fields or simply don't have time, interest and curiosity to look for challenging inputs outside of their own defined area. It seems to me that it is essential to make connections between different disciplines in order to get a global picture. For instance, if you take the year 1965 alone: Coltrane recorded his amazing Live in Seattle, Stockhausen presented "Momente", the Beatles played at the Shea Stadium in New York (the first stadium gig for pop music if I'm not mistaken), Francis Bacon painted "Crucifixion", Jean-Luc Godard shot Alphaville, the Soviet Union launched the Venera 3 space probe, scientist Lotfi A.Zadeh introduced fuzzy logic in his fuzzy set theory, Philip K. Dick published The 3 Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch while the U.S government was starting slaughtering people in Vietnam. Making connections between media, historical events and disciplines helps to put things in perspective.
Works from outside of my field can often trigger inspiration and ideas towards my own practice. Take, for instance, a Bélà Tarr movie like Satantango, which is over seven hours long. It is a very demanding work but if you keep focused on watching it, there's something very special resulting from the very slow pace of the movie and the stupendous quality of the shots resulting in a mesmerizing experience. But you need to give it time and concentration. Bélà Tarr's work has also something deeply human and he is concerned with the dignity of people. I can easily connect how he makes a movie with the way some musicians would think about sound for instance. Similar mechanisms occur with many other great film directors of course (like Bresson, Kurosawa, or Visconti but also all the actual creative unknown directors working at the margins) or with any good pieces of art or theory be it a book by Roberto Bolagno, Foucault or Debord, a or a painting by Bruegel, Caravaggio or Courbet: you need to give it time and concentration to truly experience the work and then it can eventually trigger your imagination for your own creative outputs.
A fast and superficial watch, read or listen won't lead you to the core of a quality work of art. The mechanisms at stake between the elaboration of the structure of a book, a movie, a painting or a piece of music are often comparable and lead to interesting correlations.
Your musical background is diverse and reflects the eclecticism of many current listeners. In an age where the past and the present are more closely intertwined than ever, what's your take on the relevance of influences and inspiration? How has the multitude of potential stimuli changed your own way of working and how do you keep focused?
Unconsciously, I guess I'm influenced by all the social and cultural inputs I've experienced. Listening to the history of music past and present and trying to get familiar with a broad spectrum of sounds is a good way to learn and to get inspired. Over the years I got influenced by such a huge variety of things impossible to list here. Darkthrone, Ligeti, Pain Jerk, Whitehouse, Etant Donnés, Ornette Coleman, Bernard Parmegiani, Jani Christou, Maryanne Amacher, the early works of Penderecki or the great soundtracks by John Carpenter are just a couple of musical examples. I should also mention all the works of the dedicated artists whom I've met while being on the road and who most of the time don't get a broader exposure but are often inspiring personalities doing challenging works.
And of course all the soundscapes surrounding us in the cities or in the nature of this broken planet. All sounds and noises are music and can be inspiring and influential if listened to carefully and contribute to constantly transform my perception of sound production.
I think today, stylistic questions about musical genres probably became obsolete since information is made easier than ever with the Internet, making it possible if so desired, to access to a huge variety of musics from the past and the present. But in these big amounts of information, it seems important to look for the hidden qualities, especially since mainstream and mass media mostly propose rubbish in terms of cultural stimulus. It is the responsibility of self education which is made possible by digital technologies but implies a lot of discipline, filtering and limitation to reach for relevant inputs.
Nowadays, through an over-stimulation of images and information as well a generalization of fast-food type cultural objects, the capacity to really focus on something for more than twenty minutes seems harder than ever.
A short look at your most recent projects reveals activities with installations, open air projects, composition, noise, improvisation and rock, among others. What's your take on the notion of an artistic focus and personality?
I very much feel at home within this artistic diversity and I do enjoy experimenting in different directions which might explain the variety of contexts within which I work. That said I do hope that besides this multiplicity of forms, there is a sort of a clear aesthetic statement in my works and a specific approach that might crystallize over the years and somehow might connect and keep all my activities together.
Artistic focus and personality are very varied parameters and change a lot from people to people. Some artists focus on one single aspect or direction over a whole life and achieve amazing results within a very limited range while some others need to search and investigate different directions. I guess the goal might be to eventually find your own way of doing things which takes time and might imply a multiplicity of approaches or a very defined direction. There is luckily rarely only one way to achieve things and there are multiple ways to be in the world.
Antoine Chessex Interview by Tobias Fischer