Brice Pauset

Interview with Dan Warburton
January 8th 1997


One of the most noteworthy events of the Festival d'Automne in 1996 was a concert of music by Brice Pauset at the Amphithéâtre de La Bastille last December; a program which included his first and second string quartets and M for three voices and six instruments. At 31, Pauset belongs to the younger generation of French composers, but in terms of education (Conservatoire, studies with Grisey, Ferneyhough, IRCAM) and esthetic preference (classical and medieval philosophy, a fondness for Ars Subtilior polyphony), he is a representative example of a particular way of thinking and talking about music. Intellectually serious (and seriously intellectual: how many of you out there have read the complete works of Epicurus?) but charming and talkative, Pauset invited me on a cold January afternoon up to his IRCAM studio, where he was hard at work on a mixed-media collaboration for the autumn.

I have to admit I went along to your concert expecting a certain kind of sound, and I was pleasantly surprised. But is there such a thing as an "IRCAM sound", something on a purely sound level which you feel you have in common with IRCAM composers?

I don't think so. There's this legend of the IRCAM sound which comes, no doubt, from Boulez's Répons, and after that IRCAM became branded with a particular sound. But I think it's hardly possible, given the variety of tools that there are here, computers which produce sounds which, by definition, are open to interpretation. Moreover, these machines are created to become obsolete, and quickly.

If you come across a piece by chance on the radio, can you say: "That's French", or "that's Italian.."?

Up until about fifty years ago I think you could say that such and such a piece had a kind of "Italian", or "French" or "German" stamp on it. Maybe that's still the case, but not so much as all that. Several years ago I suppose you could say Boulez sounded French, while Nono's work was something very Italian. For myself, I don't feel very French at all. I feel closer to something coming from somewhere in the North.. Flanders, somewhere like that.. Germany, too, I feel close to that. I have the impression that these claims to musical national identity don't mean much anymore.

And yet you are participating in a round-table on French and Italian music at the Cité de la Musique at the end of the month..

Historically, there have been many cultural exchanges in the musical domain. There was a migration of musical thought from France (the North) towards Italy at the end of the fourteenth century. In return, the Italians developed the technique of printing music. One feels there is maybe a similar exchange taking place today.

Did you start music early?

Yes. I had a standard education, studying violin, piano, and later harpsichord (I don't play the piano anymore). I'm very interested in early music, studying its techniques and playing it.

What was the déclic for you, the piece which turned you on to new music?

I don't know if there was such a moment. (Pause.) Yes, I do remember once, listening to the radio quite by chance, coming across Stockhausen's Gruppen..

You started with that? Surely you'd come across other things before.. Messiaen, for instance?

Yes, I was aware of that.. But Gruppen had a great impact on me. I'd never heard anything like that before.

You studied with Gérard Grisey, yet so-called "spectral" elements don't seem to be so important to you.

When I started at the Conservatoire I studied with Michel Philippot (who is dead now): I spent two years with him before he retired. We got on very well.. he was an extremely brilliant teacher. I had decided I wanted to go to a teacher who in principle wrote music diametrically opposed to what I wanted to write--because I thought it would lead to a meaningful confrontation, which it did. I think the function of composition teaching is to extract from the student the essential signification of his work, force him to question his actions. In a three-hour class with Grisey I would arrive with work which we looked at together, and then he would bring music to look at, which could be anything from Stockhausen to Ockeghem, even Rossini! We never had a serious argument.. However, he of course attracted a certain number of disciples (several of them quite brilliant); it was rather with some of his students that I had some, shall we say, heated exchanges. I would say that, in the spectral approach to composition, there is a theoretical given concerning a certain nature of sound, from which one constructs an architecture which is perhaps too concrete to reflect the richness of the abstract process.. one senses there is a zone of turbulence which exists between the imagination of the abstract system and the reality of the music one is listening to. What I hold against spectral music (I think with the exception of certain composers, including Grisey, who has a sense of.. musical instinct which saves the situation, which mediates between the theoretical aspects and their realisation) is precisely this zone of turbulence; it can be at times very beautiful, seductive, but very quickly leaves me somewhat cold at second listening.

I understand you also studied with Ferneyhough. What attracted you to him?

Many things, of course. Firstly the expressivity of his music (I am thinking more of the Ferneyhough of the last fifteen years), the mastery of technique, and above all the desire to search for the signification of his work. I should say I never studied with Ferneyhough formally; we met on numerous occasions, at Darmstadt, or when he passed through Paris, and also at Royaumont. As part of the Troisième Cycle at the Conservatoire, we had the opportunity to work with several visiting composers.. Boulez and Stockhausen came, and I've also met Donatoni several times.

In terms of notation, when we consider contemporary European composers, we have certain ideas in advance of what a score looks like: lots of black notes, very complex metrical configurations. Is that part and parcel of what Robin Holloway has called the "lingua franca of the avant-garde", or is it dictated by the nature of the music?

It's true to say that my scores can tend to look like Ferneyhough's. That is because on the metrical level there is a great degree of..intricacy. I don't care for the word "complexity".. I prefer "subtlety". I think notation should be a means of enabling one to communicate to the musicians a sense of something which lies behind the score.

Like Ferneyhough, you have a great admiration for renaissance and baroque music.. What do you feel about nineteenth-century music--Wagner, for example?

It may seem almost insulting to say so, but I don't know Wagner's work very well. Of course, I've heard the music, read the necessary texts, but I've invested my energy so much in other domains that this music seems very distant to me, in a way. That being said, early Romantic music, the beginnings of Romanticism, I think, is regarded as somewhat repugnant by people who feel closer to baroque or modern music, and I believe that is due to bad performances. The instruments used do not correspond to what is at stake musically. A priori, a composer writes for those instruments that exist, that are of his/her time (I know nobody who writes for instruments which do not exist.). The Beethoven case is typical--all right, so he broke one or two hammers (that's happened to me too), but the myth induces a certain tension, a confrontation between a given instrument and music written for it. Providing a solid Steinway, capable of surviving any assault on the part of the pianist, in a certain way breaks this tension between instrument and music.

I can see the logic of writing for today's instruments, be they Steinways or synthesizers. But in M you write for theorbe and viola d'amore, instruments which exist, granted, but which are hardly modern or in common use.

In M I wanted to distinguish between an ensemble which is somehow permanent, ahistoric--the bass flute, tuba and contrabass clarinet (it is the second time I have used this combination of instruments, and I intend to do so again), instruments with a very strong identity but not a historical identity, and on the other side of the stage, a trio anchored in a tradition, in history, with cultural signification.

How do you apply techniques with historical identity such as discant or isorhythm in your composition?

I'm very careful not to adapt a technique--be it a purely musical technique, or something extra-musical, like an application of certain mathematical ideas which demand great care in their adaptation. No, when I say that I refer back to some processes, I don't know, like writing a canon for instance, it's more a question of trying to extract what is permanent in history (writing a canon in the way that Ockeghem wrote a canon means nothing), extracting the meaning of a technique: that's more interesting. In my case that means that there canonic phenomena of a less direct nature, but also an integration of the forms of a technique, in different parameters, different levels of organisation. The essential is to think about what the technique means.

Does it matter to you that the listener may not be able to hear these canons?

I don't really see why the listener should be able to understand everything. (Pause.) That's not just my opinion--many people I know think that way. On the other hand, I work in a way such that a process--which may be merely symbolic--is made more evident at the level of musical material, so that the resulting figures are moving in the same direction as the process. In other words the musical surface, if one can use that word, gives that idea of tension.

Laurent Feneyrou's notes to the concert program referred often to pessimism in your work. Is that the case? Do you consider yourself a pessimist? In what way?

I am radically pessimist. It's a sort of.. furious pessimism; jovial at times, but more often than not furious, because I am furious to live in a period where philosophers commit suicide. In France there have been two recent cases--Guy Debord and Gilles Deleuze. I believe that an epoch which leads thinking men to such extremes should cause us to think seriously about our lives.

Do you feel pessimistic in the act of composition? You may be pessimistic, but are your pieces?

I don't know. One is always tempted to retain a certain objectivity in regard to one's work. While one is working, there is always a moment when a certain number of.. coruscations, expressive forces, break free, in spite of oneself. I think one could find the material a little pessimistic in certain works. In the vocal works the situation is quite clear, where there is text involved. I think in these pieces there is very little optimism.

But there is beauty.. or is that a word you try not to use?

No, not at all.. I'm quite sensitive to the beautiful. (Pause.) What interests me ultimately is the fluctuation of these categories, this leakage of beauty in spite of itself.

Are you aware that about ten or so people walked out during M? Does that upset you in any way?

No.. if people don't wish to stay, then they should be allowed to leave. I have walked out of concerts on several occasions. (Pause.) Why? Because I asked myself if it would be better for me to be here listening to this music or at home working.

Birtwistle says that he never knows upon starting a piece how long it will last.. maybe three minutes, maybe thirty. Do you find that to be the case? Do certain materials or techniques cause you to redefine the architecture of the work, take it in a direction you had hitherto not imagined?

I would say I am quite the opposite of that position. The architecture comes first. With M I knew that it would be a question of a fairly vast piece, given the volume of textual material I had to work with.

What impressed me in M was the vocal writing--there was a simplicity, a sense of melody, which is something we find quite rarely in contemporary music! Was that deliberate?

I used to sing a little, as an amateur, and spent several years sight-singing early music. I've accompanied singers very often, at the piano, but especially at the harpsichord. I am sensitive to vocality.. my model is baroque music. For that reason I have great difficulty integrating vocal noise into my vocal writing, working with plosives, for example, à la Berio. It's just a sound which doesn't suit me. I waited a long time before writing for voice, because.. because I wasn't ready. I think what interests me about the voice is this tension between music and text, which, a priori, has no need of music to exist. Setting a text to music is an act of violence towards the text. Unless I specifically ask for a text to be written. In the piece I realised at IRCAM a year ago, there was an evolving relationship between the sung voice, singing a text by the Marquis de Sade, but treated in organum in such a way as the text was no longer present as meaningful text, the phonemes being so widely spaced in time. There was this relationship between a singer, visible on stage, and a spoken voice (which was pre-recorded), and an instrumental ensemble to resonate the spoken voice which itself was made resonant by the structure of the singing voice, et cetera. There is a sort of rhetorical rotation in my work which owes a lot to my study of Bach.

Alexander Goehr, Professor of Music at Cambridge, was once asked why students should study fugues and other polyphonic techniques of the pre-classical composers. He answered: "Because they knew something that we have forgotten." (Pauset nods energetically in agreement.) What do you think he meant by that?

One learns a set of rules for writing fugues, but.. when one studies the Bach fugues, one finds there is never an example of "a perfect fugue" according to those criteria. (Pause.) It is assumed sometimes that Bach's work represents the beginning of certain developments in music, but I feel he represents rather the end of something. I studied the Bach fugues, and I am very interested in the Cantatas at the present time. There have recently been discovered fourteen canons that Bach wrote, presumably at the end of his life; it's clear that already at that time this way of writing was.. no longer practiced. Maybe that's what the person you mention meant by what he said.

Why an interest in Bach cantatas?

Because there one finds, in more than a hundred cantatas, examples of perfectly realised solutions to complex problems: the relation between text and musical form is quite strict, there is the complete arsenal of fugal and contrapuntal techniques, and there is above all a relation of reciprocity between these different elements which always goes in the direction of something active and lasting.

Are there any plans to bring out a record of your music? Are records important to you?

I believe there is a pirate CD in circulation. I'm sure a recording won't be long coming. In the meantime there is the IRCAM Médiathèque. I don't have a large record collection.. I prefer playing music. So personally, it's not something I consider to be of fundamental importance. That said, it could be interesting in terms of, the return, the feedback from the listening experience, coming from the identity of the unknown listener, whosoever that person may be. Not to divert one's trajectory, but rather better to analyse the identity of one's own music.

So if we kidnap you and force you, probably at gunpoint, to spend 1000 francs on compact discs, what will you buy?

(Long pause.) Can I take blank compact discs to record what I'm working on at the moment? Or just several hours of sinewaves.. (Pause.) No, I think I'd buy Nono's Prometheus, which I've been meaning to do for some time. I heard several Nono pieces at Darmstadt which I found quite extraordinary.

Not content with kidnapping you at gunpoint, we also intend to send you back through time to live in the century of your choice. Choose.

I think, of course, the fourteenth century. The Ars Subtilior. In the medieval epoch, there was no music as such--it was a part of a larger discipline including mathematics, philosophy, astronomy.. If you look around this room, we have mathematics--there are three computers (one of which doesn't work), and there is a philosophical dimension to this work.. (Pause.) Yes, I would go back to the fourteenth century. When music didn't exist.

See other interviews of related interest with Pierre Boulez, Harrison Birtwistle, Luc Ferrari and Betsy Jolas