un projet est avant tout une rencontre…

Composer, performer and curator Alexandre Babel has been awarded one of the Swiss Music Prizes of the Federal Office of Culture 2021. The award ceremony took place in Lugano on September, 17 2021. In this interview, Babel explains his point of view on composition and curation and how he combines these two activities.

 

Portrait Alexandre Babel © Felix Brueggemann 2021

Gabrielle Weber
Alexandre Babel, percussionist, composer and curator, can be seen on avant-garde concert stages, at jazz festivals, in galleries and at art biennials. Based between Berlin and Geneva (his hometown), he combines classical avant-garde music, sound art, experimental improvisation and performance.  

There are as many ways of composing as there are composers, says Babel and he therefore prefers to define composition as “the organisation of sounds in time and space”. Curating is also close to this understanding of composition. “Same here, it’s all about setting existing sound objects in motion in a certain place at a certain time and then connecting these objects with other objects.  

Composing and curating are different aspects of the same activity. Babel creates, conceives, stages, networks and interprets.  

Alexandre Babel, born in Geneva in 1980, first found his way to jazz through drum lessons in Geneva. He then specialised in New York with jazz legends such as Joey Baron or Jeff Hirshfield and played in various formations. “What fascinated me about jazz was not just the aesthetics, but rather how musicians interacted to create music. Mixing repertoire and improvisation: that was the basis of making music for me.”  

Also being attracted by the classical avant-garde, Babel soon switched to classical percussion and, back in Europe, found his way to composition. John Cage, Morton Feldman, Alvin Lucier, Heiner Goebbels or Helmut Lachenmann were the ground-breaking figures and inspirators in Babel’s compositional path.

From his very first pieces already, such as music for small audiences for snare drum solo, the importance of the performer plays an important role.
Music for small audiences was the beginning a real love affair between me and the snare drum..”

 


In one of his first pieces, ‘music for small audiences‘ Babel explores new sounds for solo snare drum and brings the role of percussion in the music business into focus.

 

Performer – Improviser – Composer

As a drummer, Babel is a touring musician wearing many hats: a fine, quiet improviser, loud, experimental drummer, for example with the band “Sudden infant” in a duo with Joke Lanz, or an interpreter of contemporary drum repertoire in various formations.   

Additionally, he composes, curates and develops projects for his own formations, such as the Berlin collective Radial, together with video artist Mio Chareteau.  

“To make music includes several processes in my opinion. First of all ‘thinking’ the music, which means composing, then transmitting the music and finally perform it for an audience: I’m fascinated by all of them.”   

All of his activities are linked by a convergence of creation and interpretation, as well as an interest in the visual, spatial and performative aspects.

“What do I want to see and what do I want to hear…. ”

For Babel, composing always begins with or even boils down to an encounter. Thus, his compositions are mostly created for specific musicians.  

He always has the performers in mind when writing and is also inspired by their movements and gestures. In the piece The way down for Duo Orion, for example, Babel took the duo’s interplay as starting point and staged it acoustically and also performatively.

 

Alexandre Babel, The way down pour violoncelle et piano, Duo Orion (Gilles Grimaître, piano, Elas Dorbath, Cello) 2020

 

“At the beginning of a project I ask myself: ‘What do I want to see and what do I want to hear’: To me, the visual side is just as important as the sound. Duo Orion, for example, has a special physicality when performing. I developed a piece for them in which the gestures are almost athletic. It almost became dance or a choreography,”.

Curating as a permanent dialogue

Babel says that his three activities – composition, interpretation and curation – have ideally come together in the artistic direction of les amplitudes Festival (La-Chaux-de-Fonds, autumn 2020). “I had the chance to combine all aspects within one object -the festival and at the same time the city of La Chaux-de-Fonds: I thought of the festival as a giant composition in separate parts – an art exhibition, live performances, drum sets and spatial compositions blending together in one new unity”.  

Since 2013, Babel has led the percussion ensemble Eklekto Geneva Percussion Center, consisting of some 20 musicians in a loose line-up. “Eklekto offers me the opportunity to develop unusual percussive situations. All projects are created in close exchange and collaboration with the composers and the musicians. “Curating is a permanent dialogue with the musicians involved”.  

 

Attentive listening

Pauline Olivero’s piece Earth ears, a so-called ‘Sonic Ritual‘ from 1989 for free instrumentation, is characteristic of Babel’s understanding of curation: “The musicians play by ear and there is no written score. One has to listen to himself as well as to the whole ensemble and react to it. The piece is about sound, space and attentive listening: to me, those are the basics of making music”.

 


Pauline Oliveros’ piece ‘Earth ears’, a ‘sonic ritual’ and openly interpretable piece from 1989, is characteristic of Babel’s approach to curation.

 

Another important project is his large percussion ensemble with 15 percussionists from the Eklekto pool. “We have clear rules: we play by heart and there is no conducting: playing without a leader creates an enormous energy and presence and at the same time opens up new ways of communication, in an almost radical way”.

 

Choeur mixte reflects the classical setting of chamber music and at the same time puts the often underestimated classical instrument ‘snare drum’ in a new spot-light. Another declaration of love to the snare drum.

 

In the piece ‘choeur mixte’ for 15 snare drums, the percussionists play their instruments standing in the shape of a wedge, on a lit, empty stage. They act strongly in relation to one another and the piece radiates power as a group and at the same time individual responsibility of the performers.

 

Music without sound

 

Among other things, Babel is currently working on a composition commissioned by the Venice Art Biennale 2022, designing the Swiss pavilion together with Swiss-based Franco-Moroccan visual artist Latifa Echakhch. Babel faces a special challenge in this case, as Echakhch wants him to create a composition without real sound. “This is an important and special task for me: through the joint creation process, we are approaching solutions on how music can sound without sound,” says Babel. At the moment, short pieces of music are being created for this purpose, which will form the basis for the final Music of Silence. Gabrielle Weber

 

Portrait Alexandre Babel ©Felix Brueggemann (2021)

 

On Friday, September 17, 2021, the Swiss Music Price ceremony will take place at Lugano Arte e Cultura (LAC) in Lugano. During that weekend, some of the prize winners will perform as part of Lugano’s Longlake Festival.  

This year’s Grand Prix musique went to Stephan Eicher.
The other prize winners are:
Alexandre Babel, Chiara Banchini, Yilian Canizares, Viviane Chassot, Tom Gabriel Fischer, Jürg Frey, Lionel Friedli, Louis Jucker, Christine Lauterburg, Roland Moser, Roli Mosimann, Conrad Steinmann, Manuel Troller and Nils Wogram.

Concerts Alexandre Babel:
Sunday, 19.9.21, 10:30h at Studio Foce, Lugano:
Alexandre Babel e Niton +ROM visuals 

23.4.-27.11.2022 Biennale Arte Venezia: Alexandre Babel & Latifa Echakhch @Swiss Pavilion Venezia Biennale

 

Joke Lanz, Joey BaronJeff Hirshfield, Pauline Oliveros, Biennale Arte 2022, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Alvin Lucier, Heiner Goebbels, Helmut Lachenmann, Latifa EchakhchKollektiv Radial, Mio Chareteau, Elsa Dorbath

 

Sendungen SRF 2 Kultur:
in: Musikmagazin, 18./19.9.21: Alexandre Babel – Träger BAK-Musikpreis 2021 im Gespräch mit Gabrielle Weber, Redaktion Annelis Berger

Musik unserer Zeit, 16.6.21: Alexandre Babel – Perkussionist, Komponist, Kurator, Redaktion Gabrielle Weber

neoblog, 14.10.2020: La ville – une composition géante, Text Anya Leveillé

 

Neo-Profiles:
Alexandre Babel, Les amplitudes, Eklekto Geneva Percussion Center, Duo Orion, Gilles Grimaître

‘partage de l’écoute’ – shared listening

Archipel, Geneva’s Contemporary Music Festival, will take place live and stream online from 16 to 25 April. Archipel sous surveillance, the festival web TV, brings the performances live into the audience’s homes 

Benoît Renaudin, 1000 flûtes, installation sonore, maison communale de plainpalais ©zVg Festival Archipel

 

Gabrielle Weber
2020 was a special year and this in many ways for the legendary Geneva Festival. After many years of directorship by musicologist Marc Texier, a new duo of directors took over. Marie Jeanson who has a background in experimental and improvised music- and Denis Schuler – composer and artistic director of Geneva’s Ensemble Vide – want to turn the festival upside down.   

The new artistic director duo explained their vision of the ideal festival to me last spring, shortly before the planned launch. Their vision was to be implemented in an exemplary way through a one-day Carte Blanche.   

The festival was one of the first victims of the first lockdown.  
This year it takes place online.   

Marie Jeanson und Denis Schuler present themselves before the Carte blanche, planned for Archipel 2020. Video Geneva März 2020 ©neo.mx3

Jeanson and Schuler’s vision sounded like a five-point plan: what has become of it and what has been accomplished – despite the pandemic and streaming? I dug out our earlier conversation to compare their pre-pandemic vision with today’s reality 

The 2020 five-point plan <> the 2021 festival: a comparison

La musique c’est fait pour être vécue ensemble

2020: All is one – music and life belong together. The Carte Blanche should last an entire day and all take place in one place PlainpalaisMaison Communale -, focusing primarily on hospitality, with shared meals and as well as dialogue and interaction opportunities. Because: “The purpose of music is to share and experience it together,” says Schuler.     

2021: The unity of life and music will be achieved through Archipel sous surveillance. The experimental festival web TV covers the festival – backstage on site – and brings it into the audience’s living rooms, daily between noon and midnight. The audience gets the opportunity to live with the festival.  

  

Archipel sous surveillance ©zVg Festival Archipel

 

‘cohérence poétique’

2020: In the future, the festival wants to focus less on the music makers and more on the audience. “We wish to establish the right framework so that people are touched by a poetic coherence. We tell stories and want to create a desire to come back,” says Jeanson 

2021: Four sound installations occupy four rooms of Plainpalais’ Maison Communale and can be walked through online throughout the festival. The festival’s characteristic and historic headquarters are reborn online, creating a continuous poetic space between fiction and reality….
 

 

Benoît Renaudin, 1000 flûtes, installation sonore, maison communale de plainpalais ©zVg Festival Archipel

‘faire exister la création’

2020: Archipel does not want to be involved (any more) in the festival competition for the most and best world premieres. “Many people are only interested in being the first ones to do or show something,” says Schuler. But the artistic director duo is all about “keeping the creation alive”. “What we’re mainly interested in, is the combination of composition with what is created during the very moment.   

2021: Composition and improvisation meet at many concerts, the improviser Shuyue Zhao and the Basel ensemble neuverBand are only a few examples. In her performances, Zhao questions the interpreter’s role and works with live electronics, noise and improvisation. While works by Sofia Gubaidulina or Junghae Lee, among others, interpreted by the ensemble neuverBand, create a new kind of unity with Zhao’s improvisations.  

 


Shuyue Zhao: noise fragments, 2019

 

‘partage de l’écoute’

2020: Transdisciplinarity won’t be the future festival’s focus neither. It is rather about ‘pure listening’. “We want to create a special setting in which concentrated listening takes centre stage,” says Jeanson. Concentration creates a special presence that paradoxically comes close to silence. “At the Carte Blanche, for example, there are ‘salons d’écoute‘, rooms dedicated to pure listening, with a sound diffusion system (Acousmonium) and sound engineer. Those who want can bring their own CDs to listen and discuss them together”.    

2021: the “salons d’écoute” will take place in a slightly different way: You can’t bring your own CDs. But every noon there will be so-called ‘partages d’écoute’ where a composer will share his/her listening treasures. For example, you can discover composer’s Jürg Frey or composer-singer’s Cassandra Miller favourite records.  

 

Rencontres à l’improviste – unexpected encounters

2020: Musicians who did not know each other before are brought together by the curators. “We provoke make encounters happen and create the framework: the musicians can play what and where they want within a given time frame. They decide at short notice, so the audience is surprised,” says Schuler.     

2021: Insub.distances#1-8 links remote musicians. Cyril Bondy, Geneva’s Insub Meta Orchestra and d’Incise’s director, winner of a 2019 Swiss Music Prize, initiated the project for Archipel’21. During Geneva’s second lockdown, from September to December 2020, four Geneva-based and four international composers, composed each one piece for a duo. The works have proximity and distance as their theme and were rehearsed remotely, recorded and put online. Now they can all be enjoyed throughout the festival.
 

 


Insub Meta-Orchestra / Cyril Bondi & d’incise: 27times, 2016

It is astonishing how precisely Marie Jeanson’s and Denis Schuler’s festival vision, created on a small scale, is now reflected on a large scale, despite the pandemic’s and streaming restrictions 
Gabrielle Weber

Festival Archipel Teaser 2021

Archipel Festival, Geneva takes place from Friday, 16 to Sunday, 25 April. 
During ten days, international performers and ensembles such as Ensemble Ictus, Collegium Novum Zürich, ensemble Contrechamps and Eva Reiter will perform works by Clara Iannotta, Alvin Lucier, Jürg Frey, Helmuth Lachenmann, Eliane Radigue, Cassandra Miller, Morton Feldman, John Cage and Kanako Abe, among others. All concerts can be streamed free of charge.  

Archipel sous surveillance broadcasts daily between 12:00 and 24:00 from all venues, backstage and onstage, involving Geneva-based film crew Dav tv as well as the alternative television station neokinok.tv. 

Broadcasts:
RTS:
Le festival Archipel met à l’honneur les musiques experimentales
SRF 2 Kultur:

neoblog, 12.3.2020Ma rencontre avec le future – ANNULÉ, Gabrielle Weber talks with the new artistic directors Jeanson/Schuler.

Neo-Profiles: Festival Archipel, Shuyue Zhao, Jürg Frey, Insub Metha Orchestra, Ensemble Batida, Ensemble Contrechamps, Patricia Bosshard, d’Incise

the city – a gigantic composition

Anya Leveillé: Interview Alexandre Babel Les Amplitudes La Chaux-de Fonds 21.-25.10.20

The 9th edition Les Amplitudes, conceived by percussionist, curator and composer Alexandre Babel will be presented in La Chaux-de-Fonds from October 21 to October 25.

Geneva born Alexandre Babel, currently lives in Berlin, from where he travels the world as a soloist and with numerous ensembles, exploring contemporary, improvised and experimental music as performer, composer and curator.

Artistic director of Eklekto, percussionist-drummer with the KNM Berlin ensemble as well as the experimental trio Sudden Infant, performer with Mio Chareteau in the Radial collective, composer for various instrumental ensembles (including a snare drum choir and a cello-piano duo) or Delia Hess’ animated films, Alexandre Babel extends his sound research through multiple artistic practices which will be reflected in a series of events mixing concerts, performances, conferences, projections and sound walks at Les Amplitudes.

Alexandre Babel Portrait © Martin Baumgartner

During my phone call (or rather “Zoom” call) with Alexandre Babel in his Berlin rehearsal room, we discussed the atypical Les Amplitudes festival. Its monographic dimension makes the event unique within the galaxy of contemporary music festivals, allowing the public to discover the guest artist’s creative workshop, whose programming reveals La Chaux-de-Fonds’ urban spaces as well as architectural heritage.

How did you approach Les Amplitudes’ programming?

Les Amplitudes allows me to combine my three main activities – instrumentalist, composer and programmer – within a single event that fits into a precise framework, namely La Chaux-de-Fonds. The town becomes stage for a gigantic composition that begins on the first day of the festival and ends with the closing concert. This “composition” is made up of musical, social and urban parameters, which I perceive as one single entity formed by a constellation of concerts, events and encounters.


Alexandre Babel, the way down pour violoncelle et piano, Duo Orion 2020

You refer to the city being transformed into a huge composition. Was it to compose this urban score that you chose Alvin Lucier’s “Memory Space” for the opening of the Festival, given that the piece plays with the sound spaces of a particular place?

Alvin Lucier’s piece is programmed as part of the event entitled “I listen to the city”, developed by the artistic director of the KNM Berlin Ensemble, Thomas Bruns. This project, which creates a kind of live urban postcard, invites participants to be guided, blindfolded, through the streets of the city and discover it not through looking, but through hearing. In “Memory Space”, Lucier provides the interpreters with a text as score indicating the interpretation procedure. The musicians go to a place whose soundscape they will have to memorise by various means (recording, note-taking, drawings), but for the concert, they are asked to reproduce the sound imprint of the place from memory and with their instrument. In La Chaux-de-Fonds, these wanderings will disclose several listening layers, with participants walking around listening to the sounds of the streets and musicians musically reproducing what they have heard in the past.

the city is transformed into a gigantic composition

What do you consider to be La Chaux-de-Fonds’ specific sound characteristics?

After having participated in the production of the “I listen to the city” project in many cities, La Chaux-de-Fonds seemed extremely quiet to me. Sometimes, it is even difficult to find a noisy place, but when you walk through the streets, your hearing opens up and you start to perceive sounds that are more sustained, more distant. This project is very interesting because it allows to really express something regarding the city.

J’écoute la ville / Nicolas Masson

Besides from the sound walks, has La Chaux-de-Fonds inspired you for the other events programmed at Les Amplitudes?

Of course, because it’s a place that inspires a lot of images, starting with its urban plan, which is really very special. The “Pod”, this huge central avenue, and the town’s division into squares made me want to create one or more walking projects. Then there is all the heritage of music- and art- related buildings, which is remarkable for a city of this size. The Music Hall, the “Heure bleue” Theatre, the “Usine électrique”… These exceptional places led me to a lot of questions: what was the story this hall was telling me? What could I do here? How could this or that score combined with another piece “reveal” a specific place?

La Chaux-de-Fonds seemed extremely quiet to me.

You haven’t only scheduled concerts for this eighth edition of Les Amplitudes…

I am interested in sound vibration, in sound as a priority, but the question of this sound vibration can have different implicationsthat are not necessarily and always achievable in concert. At Les Amplitudes, I have, among other things, programmed a conference at Club 44 with visual artist, Latifa Echakhch, and composer and philosopher François Bonnet, director of the GRM.  With Echakhch, I just started a collaboration focusing on an exhibition where the question of sound vibration will not lead to a concert or another type of sound representation, but take on other forms through plastic and conceptual work.


Thomas Kessler, 5+5: Eklekto, 2017

This is actually where Les Amplitudes’ uniqueness lies! Focusing on an artist, but by exploring different aspects of his or her practice or thought. A process that allows to build a journey during which we discover many different angles that, put together, will create and shape an image of an artistic proposal that one can make his or her own.
Interview: Anya Leveillé

Delia Hess, Ensemble KNM BerlinSudden Infant, Mio Chareteau, RadialEklekto Geneva Percussion Center

Broadcasts RTS:
2.10.20.: L’écho des pavanes, éditorial Anya Leveillé: Alexandre Babel aus Amplitudes
21. et 24.10.20, 19:03h: L’écho des pavanes: Live sur place aux amplitudes
19.10.20: Musique d’avenir, éditorial Anne Gillot: Portrait Alexandre Babel
26.10.20.: Musique d’avenir, éditorial Anne Gillot: concert finale en live

Broadcast SRF 2 Kultur:
21.10.20., 20h: dans: Musik unserer Zeit, éditorial Florian Hauser / invitée Gabrielle Weber & neo.mx3

Neo-Profiles: Les amplitudes, Eklekto Geneva Percussion Center, Alexandre Babel

Ensemble Contrechamps Geneva – Experimentation and legacy

Interview with Serge Vuille, Artistic Director Ensemble Contrechamps Geneva

Serge Vuille

Gabrielle Weber
After
spending ten years in London, Serge Vuille, percussionist and former director of the contemporary music ensemble WeSpoke, is back in his native Romandie (French-speaking part of Switzerland), where he has taken over the artistic direction of the ensemble Contrechamps”. In this interview, he tells us about the ensemble’s positioning within the contemporary music scene and the first concert season under his direction (starting in September 2019)  

Serge Vuille, as a young musician-percussionist and programmer, your background is rather experimental. Now you’re leading the most important as well as steeped in tradition ensemble of this part of Switzerland. What is your position regarding the ensemble’s tradition and history?
Contrechamps40-years strong history is a legacy I consider to be very important.
The historical side of a contemporary ensemble consists in regularly playing and fostering important masterpieces of the repertoire, which is crucial. On the other hand, the ensemble’s take on creation, research and experimentation is a critical aspect too. I enjoy combining and linking these two angles in my programmes.

Contrechamps being an instrumental ensemble in the traditional sense, how do you position yourselves in relation to the interdisciplinary and multimedia trends?
This is a key point within the regular activity of an ensemble like Contrechamps: What place do acoustic instruments occupy within the scope of 21st century sound and music experimentation? I’ve noticed that there is still great fascination for such things as instrumental music, the concept of virtuosity and even simply acoustic sound.

“There is something that remains absolutely magical about sitting in a silent room and hearing the sound of an instrument.”

It is important to find a balance between the repertoire, which is part of the history and DNA of the ensemble and innovative solutions in order to create instrumental or hybrid music, in a musical landscape that went through major revolutions over the past ten years. For this upcoming season, we will not only invite classical composers, but also artists and dancers approaching the concept of composition.

Concert, Maryanne Amacher, Geneva, May 7, 2019, Ensemble Contrechamps

In this current season, you have scheduled two concerts that will be linked with two of the main aspects of your work during the past few years: the collaborative space between visual arts and instrumental music…
The first one is called Sculptures sonore (Sound Sculpture), for which I invited the sound sculptress Rebecca Glover. The musicians find different placements around the audience during the concert, while Rebecca interacts with her electronic instruments. The programme also included works by Rebecca Saunders, Alvin Lucier and Paula Matthusen.

Rebecca Saunders, Concert Sculptures sonores, Genève 1.11.2018 ©Contrechamps 

The second concert featured Marianne Ammacher, an American composer working with sound perception and the physiological awareness of listening, with a significant part of electronics, in a unique combination with the instruments.

“If I had to name the things I like best in a programme, those would be the kind of creations that are highly risk-taking and focused on experimentation, but still framed in  contemporary music’s  historical context and relating to its  canon.

One thing that is clearly noticeable when looking at your programmes, is your commitment towards gender balance. 

Gender balance is more of a general, societal issue, not specifically related to contemporary music. Arts must also act as role model in society. Finding balance, however, requires a target-oriented approach. Being convinced by my research’s findings, I believe that the quality of my programme is achieved through this balance.

You are particularly interested in the social aspect of the concert, the ritual that comes with it…
The social side of artistic approach is constantly neglected in the contemporary music world. We have to find formats that encourage daring contents while allowing spontaneous exchanges. My experience as curator of the Kammerklang series at the “Café Otto” in London has proved that it is possible to create a relaxed atmosphere, whilst keeping the necessary focus. But one must pay attention to it. 

Concert Sculptures sonores, Genève 1.11.2018 ©Samuel Rubio

What can we expect from the upcoming season?
The season is called résonance par sympathie (sympathetic resonance), a physical process through which instruments placed close to a sound source begin to resonate even if they are not being touched. In Geneva, I was able to meet with many partners and I could feel this kind of resonances taking place and starting to vibrate. A major part of the season is based on this concept.

There will be twelve concerts, many creations and a lot of experimentation, for example an opera by Mathieu Shlomowitz, in collaboration with the Grand Théâtre de Genève. 
As for the compositions, we invited Christine Sun Kim, a deaf-mute visual artist, the electronic musician Thomas Ankersmit, Geneva composer Jacques Demierre, Canadian Chiyoko Szlavnics, the Geneva-based Punk-Rock band Massicot and many more. For three concerts the ensemble Counterchamps has been invited to the “Gare du Nord” in Basel.  

The season will start with a pre-opening, on August 25th, at six in the morning at Les Bains des Pâquis with Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps; at sunrise, by the lake, outdoors, in a truly magical atmosphere….

Any wishes left for the Ensemble?
My wish is to present the scene in all its diversity and richness, paying attention to the balance between past, present and future, between genres and formats, as well as between the artists and the public. 

Interview Gabrielle Weber

Ensemble Contrechamps: concert ouverture saison: Messiaen, Quatuor pour la fin du temps, 25 août 2019, 6h, Bains des Pâquis

Emission SRF:
9.10.2019, 20h: “Musik unserer Zeit”

neo-profiles:
Contrechamps, WeSpoke