Kevin Gironnay is a French composer and musician active in the fields of contemporary written and improvised music. Since 2010, he has been part of the Unmapped collective, releasing for Elli the Fulgurite EP in 2015. Since 2016 he lives in Montreal, where he obtained a Master’s degree, while being very busy as a composer and musician. In this interview for Elli, Kevin talks about his musical experience in Quebec, the role of improvisation and of the computer in his music, and presents the interactive installation “Dans l’air”, open to the public until October 26th.
Kevin, you left France in 2015 to start a Master’s degree at the University of Montréal. Would you tell us about your personal experience in Québec, and the way this new environment influenced your music and research?
My experience in Quebec, after living in France, feels like I went through a funnel in reverse. I remember, from the first weeks here, I felt entitled and encouraged to go in every directions I wanted: writing scores, doing experimental performances, creating sound installations, etc.
At the University of Montreal, my research director was Nicolas Bernier, an experimented and renowned sound artist and composer. Having him going around my project ideas and research was a gift as he was really sensitive about my artistic concerns while having an outside look and efficient feedbacks to offer me. He made me aware of the local scene, the aesthetics going on, the labels, the artists and ensembles I could get interested in. It pretty quickly felt like a good fit between Montreal and my practice.
Somehow, I also got more into the staging of the music, developing a concern on lightings, space, and all the aspects that are gravitating around music and that have as much as an impact on the audience as the music itself.
In the end, I would say that my new environment, the city and the university, pushed me to develop and shape this multi-faceted production I started to dream about in France.
France and Québec do seem to represent very distant cultural worlds…
I can’t really talk in general and for everyone, but I can talk about my own reality as for now – I might still be in the honeymoon phase with Montreal.
Quebec is North America, so it has this atmosphere of entrepreneurship where people like when other people are working their ass off, trying to build something, having their ideas becoming concrete projects. I feel like, in France, people were comforted by specialization in a field, that being dedicated totally to one aspect of your production is the only way you can get something interesting out of it. Also, being dedicated to it from a really young age is, somehow, a proof that what you do must be good; and if you can make it feel like it’s a gift and that you don’t even have to work that hard because you’re just a talented artist, it’s going to make people fantasize.
For example, I know a lot of french pianists here that came to Montreal because they were told they were too old for some music schools or conservatories — they are just 25 and they are fantastic musicians that just had other things in their mind for a couple of years, and they just didn’t fit into this prodigy ideal of someone totally dedicated to its art and that stuck to it since the age of 4.
Among the important differences, there is also the vibrating experimental music scene of Montreal that is putting up shows every day. Really, there is at least one show of experimental / contemporary music every day : you pretty often have to choose between shows. I don’t think it ever happened to me in France, where experimental shows are more sporadic. Beside the cool side of this, there is a huge impact on artists: a show is not the end of the world, you know there are others coming so you are less stressed about what you’re going to present. Back in France, it felt to me that having a piece played somewhere, or having the opportunity of performing somewhere, was such an event that I was not putting that much risks in the process. Since I didn’t know if it would be played again, I wanted to be sure of what could be the only performance. It’s also making artists going on more quickly : wether it’s passing on to a next project or to improve the one they just did, thanks to feedbacks given by a performance.
Thanks to some series of concerts and festivals (like Mutek, Akousma or Elektra just to name the biggest), experimental and contemporary music are not seen as “circus acts” and are not put on the side. It is included alongside with other acts in the field of digital art and “techno music”.
In France, to find that big array of musical aesthetics (from hardcore contemporary music, almost challenging for most audience, to dansable electronic music) in a festival, I can only think of GRM’s Présences Électroniques. Still, I can’t recall how many times I heard people in France judging this festival as being a sellout, wanting to lure the audience with “less serious music”.
This diversity in the audience and in everyone’s interests is, as an artist, a refreshing thing.
Your research has been focused on the concept of “free improvisation”, and above all on the way musicians creatively interact while playing together. What is your approach to music improvisation ?
I first started free improvisation with Lorenzo Bianchi’s improvisation workshop at the Conservatoire de Montbéliard. Lorenzo is some inspiring artist and teacher, to say the less, and I naturally fell right into it. Around the same time, I joined the Unmapped collective and this was a groundbreaking experience as we were exploring ways to make more than free improvised music. There is this central idea of having laptop players transforming other instrumentalists’ sound, building a network of augmented instruments; and Unmapped is also where we started to create softwares to shape performances.
Arrived in Montreal, I missed Unmapped so much that I decided to bring some new friends here together and jam. That’s how the Ensemble ILÉA was created. I was then really into my research for my master’s degree about improvisation. So I took the softwares we were developing in Unmapped back out and started to develop, expand, improve them, and elaborate on what they were all about. In Unmapped, it’s almost like a punk attitude but with ILÉA I was more in a research context: every new tool or piece of software was discussed and theorized, then tried as in an experiment. I was notating the effects on the music and our ways of playing. We developed a sound of our own and became really prolific, and had an album out on the Montreal-based label Mikroclimat and one on Paris-based Tsuku Boshi records. Others are coming out really soon.
I now completed my master’s degree and wrote a research paper on this experience with Ensemble ILÉA so I feel like I’ve said already too much about my approach on music improvisation. I would just say that improvisation is a way of instinctively create unthought / unplanned music. It’s like a powerful magically-powered music engine – but because it’s almost magical, you can be satisfied with the result when you’re improvising, and because it’s really powerful it can quickly become out of control, even more when you are improvising with lots of other improvisers. One’s musical will can just bump into each other’s and it can all collapse in a chaotic performance. That can be really good, but improvisers sometimes need an outside view, a listener’s ear, to shape the performance. Some ensembles, artists or pieces, like the Ensemble SuperMusique or John Zorn’s Cobra, require a conductor for this. With the Ensemble ILÉA, I decided not to bias the audience’s experience by putting someone giving cues, visually in between them and the improvisers – instead we are using an interactive and sometimes generative software, not visible to the audience so they can focus on the music only.
For me, improvisation should not be an aesthetic, but it should stay this powerful magically-driven engine. While mastering their instrument, improvisers have to also master this engine (always by listening to each other, and maybe with either a conductor or a software) in order to, in the end, create a music made for the listeners, not just for the musicians.
How does creating improvised structures influences your activity as a composer (i.e. the writing of fixed music scores)?
I would naturally say that it is more my activity as a composer that influenced this will of structuring improvisation. As a composer, I’m really interested in the evolution of the listener’s experience from the beginning of the piece until the end, and I’m trying to create an interesting and/or enjoyable path to follow. As an improviser, however, I really tend to think about the performer’s experience and, at some different levels, use improvisation as the engine I was talking earlier. Early on in my production, I let the performer some range of freedom inside a score. It started by just having them activating electronic events when they felt it was the right time (meaning I had to always prepare extra electronic music in the case they want to delay the following events), and I currently often incorporate a guided improvisation section inside the score (so it is fixed music, but not so fixed !).
In my opinion, it makes the performer more involved in the music, since s.he’s no longer the robot playing what s.he’s asked to. The energy that a performer puts in an improvised context is, for me, a precious thing.
So I guess I’m just taking the best of both worlds.
What place has the computer in the creative process of composing and improvising ?
Computer is a tool: it made and is still making new things possible.
I have to say that I still write most of my scores on paper. It works that way for me. However, the computer is sometimes the only way to do some things: generative processes (most of the time according to human programming), pure random choices, complexe operations like interpretation flows of datas coming from sensors, camera, etc. The list is very long. For example, I just finished a sound installation in which the music is generated by the weather data. So, this whole process of collecting data in real-time and the transformation of this data into musical parameters are examples of things computer made possible.
As for my music, I would not say it “sounds” like computer music: heavy transformations of sound are possible since musique concrète and electronic music were invented, before it turned to digital. Effect pedals for guitars are a good example. Computers made it easier to have access to the technologies of sound transformation.
FFT (Fast Fourier Transform, a commonly used algorithm in audio) is not a digital technology: some people started to work on that during the 19th century. Computers, with their speed of calculation, took this technology further, so we can now analyze a sound stream in real-time, apply different other algorithms on it, all that in the glimpse of an eye.
All of this to say that all the computers of the world won’t replace someone’s imagination: we shouldn’t forget that the computer was born in human minds. Like every tool, its possibilities give ideas by extending the possibilities of what can be done.
It just happened that some of the things I want to do require a computer to be done.
What are your current projects and main goals ?
My master’s degree is now completed and I’m taking a little step back from improvisation. It will obviously still be there but it’s not my main focus right now.
I am currently presenting this installation called Dans l’air, where music is generated by the weather data. It is taking place right now, lasting until October 26, in the outside of Sporobole, a gallery in Sherbrooke, QC, and local passerby will hear the music evolve as the weather change, as time is passing by, etc. I think this project has the potential and the simplicity to grow its roots in a lot of places!
I am currently composing a piece for cornet and electronics, another piece for piano, violon, bass clarinet and electronics and a “game-piece” for the ensemble Whim (piano and drums). At the same time, my piece “Le deuil de l’empreinte” for harp and electronics was recently the subject of an episode of the webserie “Session” by Codes D’accès, and I’m working on finding places to play it in a program with other harp and electronics improvisations.
I’m also looking for a residency to improve my performance “Akatastasia”, which is for a suspended electric guitar. Maybe a studio version of it could be a good idea for an album… I’m trying out stuff.
I recently joined the electroacoustic quartet QUADr and we are working on a new performance.
The Ensemble ILÉA will continue its life of rehearsing, performing and recording some out of space improvised music. We are putting up a series of thematic concerts for the next few months: ILÉA + Video, ILÉA + Poetry, ILÉA + Danse, ILÉA + Voice. And Unmapped, scattered around the world, is silently preparing the future (a recording session took place in Paris this summer… this may be the prelude to a new album, we will see).
So I guess that my main goals are to keep having fun doing all of this and to unleash the full potential of these projects!
Kevin Gironnay website – Cover picture by Nicolas Bernier.