Christian Zanesi is a French composer and the person responsible for the production of radio programs for France Musique and French Culture at the GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales) in Paris, an institution that last year celebrated the 50th anniversary and that is throughly integrated in the much bigger INA ( Institut National de l’Audiovisuel).

Follower of Pierre Schaeffer, Zanesi has been recently awarded the Special Quartz at the 5th Quartz Electronic Music Awards edition. We interviewed him during the Présences Electronique 09, of which he is the artistic director, an event that explores the link between the Musique Concrète by Schaeffer and the new sound experiments (a co-production with Radio France)

GMR was and still is a unique place for the production and research in the field of electroacoustic music. The theorization of his founder Pierre Schaeffer is included in the reference book “Treaty of Musical Object – Traité des Objects Musicaux”, published in 1966, in which Schaeffer develops his personal and innovative musical thought on the Sound Object and on the concrete music ( a volume of 7 hundred pages n.d.r.). I also recommend to read the essay by Michel Chion “Guide To Sound Objects (now in English as well) a valid introduction to this voluminous work.

In the Scaefferian theory, the reduced hearing is the attitude which consists in listening a sound detaching oneself completely from its origin and from any preconceptions, so that it is possible to become aware of the musical material, referring only to what one can hear.

During the listening experience, each sound must have a shape, and each shape must have a sound content. Let’s now discover together with Zanesi the musical potential of sounds.

Photo by Serge Lido – Pierre Schaffer

Matteo Milani: You often mention that sound is the prime matter. How can we “orient” and recognize sounds we’ve already heard, without the cause-effect relationship?

Christian Zanési: The sound has to be considered in a musical context, it is not about recognizing the sound, it is an expressive matter, and every composer, every musician has some kind of personal sound, a signature sound, so when he transcribes it into his work, into an artistic project, the idea is not to try and play a guessing game, this is this sound, or this is that sound, there is a higher level that belongs to it, and this level is that of the musical relations, expressive relations. When you listen to a concert, for example for cello and orchestra, you are not pointing out each instant “this is a cello sound”, you listen to music. And it is the same with sound. So, there is a second level which is a little more complex, it is true that some sounds reveal an image, from time to time there could be ambiguity, and this is also part of a rethoric, or of an ancient model, and it is possible that this provokes a kind of curiosity, and at the same time gets mixed into the expression. Composers are very strange

Matteo Milani: In the first 50 years of electronic music, has the absence of visual elements during performances limited or enhanced the listening experience?

Christian Zanési: Well, naturally us, at our festival Presences Electroniques, prefer to bring attention on the sound, sometimes there are some audiovisual experiences, but the nature, the physiology of it, makes the image a priority on the sound. So we, since we developed a projection system very very sophisticated, prefer that kind of listening experience, it is more complete, we don’t need anything else, it is an orientation, it is one of the strengths of our festival; that is, to offer artists the best possible sound projection system, the best definition, and we think that is complete. We are very music-oriented, and I’ve often been there and I’ve seen musicians doing an audio-video performance, and I’ve been rarely convinced, sometimes yes, but it becomes something else, we go down to another level, and we want to explore the purely musical universe, sound and its programming.

Courtesy by Wikipedia – Christian Zanesi

Matteo Milani: Can you give us a more in-depth definition of the concept of “l’ecoute reduit” (reduced listening) by Pierre Shaeffer?

Christian Zanési: The first time that… well in a few words it is difficult… when we recorded on vinyls, there were no tape recorders in the 1950s, when we reached the end of a disk, the last groove was repeated indefinitely, and it was a full modulation. In all vinyls today, there is a closed groove with a silence, to avoid that the stylus exits the turntable. All the disks at that time – all that were recorded in the 1950 – the disc, equivalent of today’s vinyls, ended on a closed groove, and Schaeffer listened to this phenomenon, everybody could hear it, there was not a silence. The fact that the sound repeats itself, made him understand that finally we were listening to the sound itself, we wouldn’t say “this sound is close or not, it starts this way, it is more or less acute, it is more or less brilliant, it is more or less thick, and in that moment he imagined that we could listen inside the recorded sound, which means we could verify, validate, objectivize the phenomenon by hearing the peculiar characteristics of the sound, how it starts and how it ends, in which tessitura it is, if it is light or if it is dark, it is loud, it is close or far. This is to objectivize the listen, this is “L’ecoute reduit”.

Matteo Milani: Can you discuss your vision of the sound organization principles? Definition of the sound object, objective and subjective aspects, articulation, iteration, quality of the information, musical language.

Christian Zanési: In classical music, the constituent elements of an opera function organically, that is there are consequences; when you put a sound together with another, this creates an harmony, for example a chord, and if you add another sound the chord completely changes in timbre, this is an organic principle. We can do the same with the sound the composer chooses, so to imagine music sometimes as a vertical relation, or as an horizontal relation; this is an organic system, and the organic system is a biological system, in some way copied from the living, and since we function following the living principles, we are particularly able and specialized to recognize an organic system, and in that moment something starts in our brains and there is some kind of a communion; this is what happens, how to organize the sound, why put this with that, and why after this, add that, they are organic relations.

Matteo Milani: What do you think of hidden causality (between what the audience sees and hears)?

Christian Zanési: The ability to listen is a very complex phenomenon, so when a composer works, it is difficult to be conscious about everything, an artist works very much in an intuitive manner, intuition is a super-computer which gives us the answer immediately. But if we talk about the genesis, about why we made some choices, it takes an eternity. So, the relations, the sound is not inside a single “ear”, there is a very ancient ear, for example, that is the ear we use to cross the street, it is the hearing of danger. Hearing is a prolongation of the sense of touch, imagine to be in the forest, when a predator hunts, if it touches you it is too late, you are dead. So hearing is a prolongation of touch, it allows you to foresee the arrival of a predator.

There are various hearings – one which detects aesthetic information, one that detects information on the behavior of others, so when you work with sound you alternatively activate many “ears”. When you begin a piece of music by having a sound turn around you, you awaken the ancient, the primitive “ear”, the danger hearing, since in nature, something that turns around you it is something that tries to catch you, and a composer in some way is conscious of this mechanism and plays with it. It is very difficult to answer this question because the ear is very complex, and the reality around us is very complex. But we are all naturally gifted at hearing, since without it we could not cross the street, we could not hear something behind us, we could not see around us through sound.

Matteo Milani: Did mass-culture and consumerism create a lack of “listening attention”?

Christian Zanési: I think the ear is intact, it is the demand that has to be discovered and awaken. Even if there is a mass culture, to establish there is a dominant thought in hearing. But the border is very narrow, between the dominant thought and the adventure, we can cross this border very quickly, we only have to open ourselves and to create bridges. Also here there are very serious issues, for example the dominant idea of rock – let’s take this example – has built a peculiar “ear” and we can recuperate this ear by using experimental musics. So the world is not made of cases separated by inviolable borders, on the contrary, there is no interruption of continuity between sounds; I am very attentive about popular music, because I know that there are cases of recycling, of experimentation, and also a genre which can be experimented. We have to be attentive, we have above all to avoid being dogmatic, fundamentalist or categorical. On the contrary, we have to observe what happens, try to detect in every practice, in every thing something different from the variable design of music, the variable design of humans and see how this can be transcended.

Matteo Milani: What has been the role of physical space in the sound projection practice in GRM history?

Christian Zanési: In the 1950s, when Schaeffer invents this music, musique concrète with his collaborators, they suddenly asked themselves how to let everybody listen to this music in a public space, in a concert hall. Schaeffer said, if we have to go to the Carnegie Hall, how do we do, we cannot use a single loudspeaker on the scene, this was a little ridiculous, and finally the dimension of the concert, the dimension of how to present this music to the public was created, little by little; there is also the cinema industry which plays an extremely important role, since in the 1960s the Dolby firm had already imagined the surround, due to the invention of the Cinemascope, and were forced to position many loudspeakers to occupy the screen, and many more surround loudspeakers all around. So, we have at the same time the desire of people to experience sound in a bigger dimension, and the technology which built that ear. Today, we follow this process, and people is happy to come to a concert, because we think that a concert is going to be a particular and privileged moment, maybe a show, and that there is a difference between experiencing music in a concert hall and at home, that there is something really spectacular in that moment which justifies the concert. So there are many ways to face the problem, we chose one, but there are others.

Matteo Milani: Can you describe your compositional process? How do you go from the idea to the sound, to the elaboration, to the structure, to the shape?

Christian Zanési: This is a personal question, if you ask this same question to another composer, the answers are different. Me, I don’t go from idea to sound, but the opposite, I go from sound to idea; that is I need to find the sound that touches me for different reasons – if I had the time I would explain these reasons and give examples, but I don’t – and inside this sound there is a potential, and the idea born from the sound is not a sound subjected to an idea, it is the opposite. We can consider the sound like some kind of fugue, which means that there is potential for development, and to work I need to find a sound which will be at the base because there is an emotive shock, there is really something imposing, which will be the source of my work, and at that moment we can listen to the sound in depth, not for what it is, but for what it can become; we hear the sound as a promising element of a musical structure. But this is a personal answer.

Matteo Milani: Do you work with stereophonic material and perform live spazialization or do you prefer to design spatial trajectories/position in the studio?

Christian Zanési: I mainly work in stereo, because my studio is not multiphonic, but I have a lot of experience with sound projection in the auditoriums, with a stereo source you can give the illusion of a multiphonic work; I both do live concerts and acousmatic works. Finally you don’t know what system we have, where it is, the space, and also the kind of concert we have been requested, but what we experience nowadays is that live practices and acousmatic practices are coexisting pacifically, and they enhance each other depending on the place, time, and project. The concrete music was born in 1950s, and it is about, after all these years, to create a new branch which will be the performance version, and the live version of this music. This evolution started in the year 2000, since today’s systems (computers) are much faster than 20 years ago, and the tools for sound processing allow it. But these have developed because there was a strong desire to develop them. There are no technologies which arrive spontaneously, we look back into history, we observe, and what happens sometimes with dreams, there are dreams and conjunctions which make things possible. That’s what it is going to happen in about 10 years.

Photo by Guy Vivien – GRM 1959

Matteo Milani: What are your working tools for non-linear editing and sound signal processing?

Christian Zanési: At the GRM there are more or less all programs – Pro Tools, Digital Performer – but there is a kind of consent on the tools to use, very quickly we can comment that today’s programs are actually a direct-line consequence of the techniques from the 1950s, because with a tape or a disk we could go from a sound to another, create discontinuity, being able to superpose sounds, and create a verticality, and harmony; we have the mastery of time, thus on counterpoint and polyphonie, we could increase or decrease the volume; we need to check that there are the minimal conditions for the program to be exploitable, and finally, checking on today’s programs; we have continuity. With the program, whatever that is, we can do anything – montage, superposition, regulate the volume, regulate the space and finally you do the same as it were a tape recorder. These are fundamental operations for the music’s world. concrète Présences électronique