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Interview with Florent Ghys
This week, we’ll be counting down the days to our spring concert with a series of interview with our composers. Florent Ghys is a composer and multi-instrumentalist living in New York City and originally from Bordeaux, France. His new work for Wild Rumpus is called Homage to Baligh Hamdi.
Where are you from, and how did you get involved in music?
I’m from France, from Bordeaux. I played classical guitar for about seven years, then I switched to electric guitar in high school, and I began writing rock songs and stuff. I switched to the electric bass when I was sixteen or something and I still was writing music, but it was more weird things—we had this band with some friends and each piece was a different style—like, one jazz piece, one funk piece, one rock piece, one experimental piece. That’s why I say it was weird music, because I didn’t have a style. I was trying things out. I switched to the double bass around eighteen and I’ve been seriously into composition since I was twenty-something.
After high school I went to the music university. I studied musicology and classical bass and I have a masters in ethnomusicology in Arabic music, Egyptian music. Then I stopped the musicology side and went to the conservatory and studied ear training, harmony, counterpoint and all the boring stuff. (laughs)
When did you start composing actively?
When I was in Paris. We had a really great teacher who was organizing open composition evenings so you just needed to find musicians to play your music and there was a concert. I did a few of those and I was very lucky to have my friends and my family be very supportive; they really liked the music and [said things like] “It was great!” and “You should carry on, you really have something!” I think that’s very important at the beginning, to have supporting friends because otherwise you’re never happy at the beginning! I spent several years in Paris studying, then I went back to Bordeaux.
When I met you at [the] Bang On A Can [Summer Festival], you were still living in Bordeaux, right?
I was just trying to figure out what was next and Bang On A Can was very inspiring for me, very encouraging, so I decided to go back to the country and spend most of my time working on my stuff. I had a one year hermitage in the country, working in Bordeaux but mostly working on my stuff.
Were there other composers or bands or pieces or songs that were important to you at the time, that you felt like were influential?
At the time, I was listening to a lot of Arvo Pärt and I remember discovering Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich. I was like, I want to compose this piece! The same!
When you went home and you had your one-year hermitage, it sounds like a really intense period of time and a really potentially productive period of time. Were there certain issues you were trying to investigate musically, or were there ideas that you really wanted to think through [during] that period? Did you feel like the music at the end was different from the music in the beginning?
There were two things for me. The first is all the pieces I wrote before were very simple and largely using canons—one musical idea and canons and canons and canons to create a mass. It was great but I needed to find other ways to deal with counterpoint, try to find different techniques. The second thing was to try to find a way to play my music live with my bass. At first, it was a technical issue with the computer and which software to use, and then [it was deciding] what to do and how to do it.
I remember the music I heard at Bang On A Can and some of the music that I have on your CD—a lot of it deals with multiple layers of your own voice. Not only is it really personal—since it is your voice—but, contrapuntally, I thought that that’s a very interesting texture, a very interesting challenge, since you’re dealing with multiple equal instruments all in the same register. How do you differentiate textures, when are voices independent and how to establish that independence. It’s a really interesting treatment of texture. Was that something that was on your mind while you were working with those pieces? Or was it more a byproduct of using what is available to you? Or do the two feed off each other in some way?
At the beginning, I was writing pieces with different parts, and I was just like, “Okay, so ho can I record these multiple parts? I have the double bass, I have an electric bass, I have a guitar, I have a voice, okay, let’s do it with multitracked guitar, bass, and voice.” Then at some point, I realized the different kind of textures I could get with fifteen basses, in pizz, in arco, twenty voices, and thirty guitars. ”Maybe I can have ten guitars on the high [end] and the bass here”…and then I was working with textures.
Also I’ve been influenced by music from the Renaissance. At this time people were writing music with different parts where you could sing the music, you could play it on the violin, and transpose it if you can’t play it in this octave. I like this idea of having a piece which is mobile in terms of which instruments play what. I like working with orchestration, with instruments and the way they sound, but it’s almost the opposite of orchestration. It’s like the absence of orchestration. I like it too.
It’s really interesting, the idea of counterpoint or harmony divorced from orchestration; these pieces are flexible in a different way. So, Flo, after the year-long hermitage, what happened to you? Where did you go?
I went back to New York at some point and from then I tried to come to the US almost once a year. I had the chance to be a part of the Bang On A Can Marathon. I’m also very thankful to Bang On A Can because they were very supportive of my music. That was something very strong for me because in Bordeaux the music scene is very conservative. My music is not that contemporary or inaccessible, I even feel it’s very accessible, but still, in Bordeaux, it’s weird because it’s neither like rock or classical or contemporary. In France, music is really in boxes.
I came back to the US several times and then I had the opportunity to release a CD on Cantaloupe—I think it was 2010, we did the first EP at the end of 2010. I’m kind of confused in years… [Note: Flo’s first EP with Cantaloupe, Baroque Tardif: Soli, was releated in 2009.]
I remember bumping into you at the Marathon in 2010 and you told me the story of how the CD came to happen. It’s a good story; can you tell it again?
In Bordeaux, I was working, but I had most of my time to compose and play, so I was very productive. In four years I did five albums or something, so every time I’d go to the US, I was bringing a new CD and giving my CDs to everybody I could meet in New York. One morning in September I had this message from Michael Gordon who was like, “Do you want to have your CD on our label?” And I was like, “Yeah!”
And the rest is history! Now sometime quite recently you were commissioned for a piece from the [Bang On A Can] All-Stars, right?
I was commissioned to write a piece for the Bang On A Can All-Stars, by Bang On A Can because it was their twenty-fifth anniversary. The project was called “Field Recordings”. The idea was to write a piece using something already existing; it could be anything you wanted. At the beginning of the year, I was working on some excerpts from John Cage—especially his diary; at the end of his life, he was reading a lot of lectures about his life. I was working on this and that’s what I did for the Bang On A Can All-Stars, using also the ”speech melody technique”, where the melody is following the intonation of the voice. I wrote this very simple piece where the musicians are playing along with John Cage.
I felt very happy for you when I heard the announcement, but also proud that we commissioned you first! And I was like, “Yeah, we’re early adopters!” Now, Flo, can you give me a general overview of the piece you wrote for us? Any things you were thinking about when you wrote it?
One of the main things I was thinking about while writing the piece was the voices and where the voices would be, what to do with the voices. I like when the voices are considered more as an instrument, with a different timbre.
It’s a combination of different things. I was eyeing a few Max/MSP patches; I made some note generative patches I was working on. I was thinking of this use of my voice in my own pieces and the fact that I like when the voice is equal to the instruments. At the same time, I was also looking at some old videos by Egyptian composers from the 70’s—[in some ways], it’s not a good example, because the voice is really in the foreground [in this music], everyone is waiting for the singer, and it’s really one singer with an orchestra. But what I like in those pieces generally [is that] there are very long introductions where the singers are just sitting in front of the orchestra—it creates an expectation, waiting for the singer to sing! I like this thing. The piece is called Homage to Baligh Hamdi. He’s one of my favorite Egyptian compsers of this era; he wrote a lot of very beautiful music. I like to write an homage to the people I respect.
There’s this great theatrical expectation established by having you wait and wait for the singers to enter. And yet, when the singers enter, it’s not this big aria, it’s a very sheer, very instrumental moment. I was curious what your thoughts were on that, because to me it was an interesting juxtaposition. You expect the supremacy of the singer, it’s established by making you wait, but then when Maria and Kali do begin to sing, it’s not what you’d expect. There’s this element of surprise to what you get instead. Were you thinking about a tension between those two?
I was definitely thinking about this. It’s the combination of what I was talking about at the beginning, playing with expectation, and then what you’re expecting doesn’t come, something else comes, more instruments, like they were playing instruments—the surprise of waiting, waiting, and then what comes is not what you were expecting.
Now you’re at Steinhardt, at NYU. How long have you been there?
It’s the end of the first year. I decided to go back to school to really study composition, because actually I never studied composition in school. I’ve been accepted to NYU, that was also a good reason to come to New York. I did the first year and it’s a two-year program, so one more year.
Are there any pieces or composers that have been really influential to you? Or that have influenced your musical language?
That’s a tough question. I have a lot. I could give you composers like Bang On A Can composers or I bet you can guess when you listen to my music. The funny thing is when you look at my iTunes library, I think most of the music I listen to is not classical or contemporary. It’s more on the pop scene.
What are you listening to right now?
Right now, I’m listening to Hauschka, a German pianist doing a lot of multitracking; I’m listening to a lot of electronic music by Taylor Deupree, it’s very beautiful, ambient electronic music; and also I’m listening to Pandit Ram Narayan, an Indian sarangi player, the Indian violin, I really like his music. That’s not really contemporary…
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I’m very excited right now because tomorrow we have the premiere of my new band [Bonjour], I’m putting together a quartet with James Moore on guitar, Eleanor Oppenheim on bass, and Ashley Bathgate on cello—two double bass, cello, guitar quartet. The first concert is tomorrow.
You can learn more about Flo at his website, and hear more samples of his music on his Bandcamp and Youtube pages.
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