Michel Pascal Interview

Michel Pascal. Photography © Luc Henri Fage

Christian Morris talks to French composer Michel Pascal, whose ‘Requins’ and ‘Never Die’ are premiering at the 2015 MANCA festival.

What was your earliest success as a composer?

The first piece that received a good audience outside the conservatoire area was an acousmatic music composed for a painter named J.M.Sorgue. A series of very large ink drawings called “Falaises et Emergences”, on view at the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence in 1980. The funny thing is that the same piece was played in Albi the year after and Jean Etienne Marie heard it there without meeting me. Because he liked it he contacted me and offered me to be his assistant at CIRM in 1982. This is why I’m now in Nice. 

Who or what has influenced your style? I’d be very interested to hear about your experiences being taught by and/or working with Amy, Berio, Lutoslawski, Dutilleux, Xenakis and others.

Many people and experiences influence one’s style. Some on very large scales, some other only with a few words given at the very right moment. I met the composers that you talk about and many others in very different situations, some in workshops, others in close professional situations, some very briefly, others around classes along a year or more. Even people that have nothing to do with music can influence your style. For example, during a concert with Jean Etienne Marie in Valberg under snow, I was remembering a childhood memory coming from another mountain, waiting that my father will stop speaking with his cousin in a mountain farm stuck under snow. The farm clock was ticking and the conversation was so incredibly slow, very few words, very much silence thinking between them, and time almost cruelly measured with this beautiful ticking… Jean Etienne Marie smiled to me and told: “so you had good composition teacher”.

As a student in music, I’ve been bewitched by the ability to design, transform and precisely set the inner matter of sounds with electroacoustic techniques, even more today with the computer power. So most of the great French electroacoustic composers have influenced me. With a special thought for Bernard Parmegiani who died 2 years ago, and he was a delightful human being. I was also amazed with the Ligeti’s pieces of the seventies decade, with the freedom thinking of several composers (including Berio and Dutilleux). It is impossible to tell in a few words about one’s influences and give names without forgetting some. More, you may be changed by one piece or even a part of the piece, and do not like the rest of the composer’s production forever. It does not matter, I like when contemporary musicians give us to hear things that raise questions. They are part of a movement of fertile human ideas, a picture in sound of their time. From the moment you accept to renew your usual way of listening, open your mind to different point of views, forget hearing (and thinking) on a pre-fabricated level, there will be so many beautiful and interesting things to discover: no end until life itself ends. 

How did you first start writing electroacoustic music? Has your approach changed as technology has developed? 

I think I answered a little above. I started to write music at the age of 13/14. A friend of mine had a very good tape recorder, 4 speeds, at home. We were playing with sound manipulations but we were not thinking that it could be “music”. The “music” I was writing was very common, melodic & tonal, due to my cultural background with classical music and progressive rock.

When I started real music studies in the University in Aix en Provence and in the Conservatoire de Marseille, I discovered that it was possible to work with both fields as parts of the same “Art”. I owe much to my first composition teacher, Marcel Frémiot, who had started there the first class of “experimental music” (the electroacoustic field was thought at the same level than the instrumental one) in France, even a few months before Pierre Schaeffer’s class at the Conservatoire National Supérieur in Paris.

If we push on a side the obvious regular increase in power with computers since the beginning, I think there are 3 big changes during the last 40 years. 

One is the ability to infinitely undo and copy things with the computer. A dramatic change compared to the tape editing and analogue techniques.

The other is the industrialization of the electroacoustic music tools. I have been trained in a time where doing electronic music was only possible in a few places around the world, with tools that cost so much. Today every teenager can play basically in his room and compose with the same techniques that are used in best centres of the world.

The third one is that I think that since the end of XXth century, no truly “new” sound is being used by composers or sound creators. Up to the eighties, it was frequent, and in a way a challenge for composers, to make new pieces with sounds that had never been heard before. Des sons “inouis”. I do not think that composers aim such a challenge today, and as far as I know, if so, it would not really be technically possible.

Of course one of the main changes happened before I started doing music. It is the ability to “record” sound, and work with and on the sound itself as you listen to the result in real time, like an object made of matter, not anymore as an abstraction like a pitch or a tablature written on a paper, which does not physically exist before the musician to play it. 

And do you have particular techniques – ones you come back to again and again? 

Not really. What I wrote above about “new” sounds is also related to “new” techniques. For many years today, we have not seen real “new” techniques with computer music.

Of course things are moving very fast as everything with computer world, but it is more the computing power that changes, the way to arrange techniques already known than the apparition of a never seen before technique. So the composer has a well-known toolbox, with times by times a new version of a tool that fits better for a peculiar use than the old one. 

For this specific piece, or for this specific part of this piece, I will use this or that technique because it fits better to this peculiar project. More, I use neither one single technique, nor one single software for this or that piece. Only the software called “sequencer”, because of its very large field of application, seems today the one that almost everybody will use at a moment in any case. 

Do you find the sense of control and almost limitless manipulation in acousmatic music attractive? 

Of course for the control, this is great interest for a composer. The ability to precise more than ever your musical ideas and design them to sound exactly as you want, almost out of the limitations of the physical world. The precision can become so accurate than every electroacoustic composer experiences some time in his work, during the composition work in studio, the move to another system of monitoring in another room as something able to destroy the musical sense of what he is doing. A sort of multiplication of the bad feeling of a piano player when one change his instrument for another, even slightly different. He needs to adapt.

About the manipulations themselves, I think more to them as opportunities to create several continuities between sound and musical parameters that would never be possible with acoustic instruments. For example, with Never Die that will be premiered next Saturday, I have worked on many interactions between the sound of the acoustic instruments and water. Sometimes it was physically possible: we plunged the clarinet inside a bucket of water to record the transformation on natural harmonics. Sometimes it was not possible without extended techniques of analysis and resynthesis, like the construction of wide streams, swirling harmonic complex masses in tune with instrument playing… 

You would never consider writing only electronic music?

Certainly not, music is my main interest as an artist. Electronic music gives me specific possibilities, instrument players others. I am writing also acoustic music.

A life is never enough for a man’s interest, curiosity, expressivity. What would have answered Chopin to the question “would you consider writing only piano music?” 

And what is your composing routine. When do you like to write?

When I’ve got time. 

What’s the worst thing about composing?

Facing a composition problem without hearing any solution. 

And the best?

Find the solution, hear the music that is born in the concert hall, see the audience enjoying it. 

What advice would you give to a young composer just starting out?

Open your ears. 

What are the technical specifications of the Nice Conservatory loudspeaker orchestra? 

Actually it is a 34.1 tracks system, which means 34 tracks full range, 1 track sub-bass. It can be set up on an acousmonium-based model, the one promoted by the composer François Bayle at the INA-GRM of Radio France during the 70s. That means thought as different stereo pairs organized as different audio “windows” in the specific venue space and depending on the music to be played. The pairs of speakers are in this case much different, some are tiny, some are big, some have a peculiar colour, some have more flat bandpass, some are very powerful, some are far on stage, some high some close to the audience, some inside the audience. Every fader of the board is connected to one speaker only. The board is set up inside the audience to give the advantage to the musician that does the “sound projection” to control the amplitude of each of the 34.1 faders instantly, he may also control the colour and the change it in real time. That gives him a very powerful control on the perception of the space in the room, and the movements of the sounds, due to the specificity of the sound response in this room. The music is mixed in 2 tracks, but the sound projection lets the audience hear many more movements and spaces than was written in the mix. Of course the musician has to take care to not doing things that would be in contradiction with the music itself. For example, like an acoustic performer, it would be a big mistake to play a diminuendo where a crescendo is written, but you have many different ways to play this crescendo at that time.

It can also be set to play multiphonic pieces. The standard today is 8 tracks. So we have the opportunity to use 8 equivalent channels around the audience or in irregular dispositions. We may also use the 5.1 movie standard. For the forum concert, we’ll play pieces in these three different setups.

What we cannot do is a “dome”, as the Karlsruhe ZKM Centre does, with several circles in elevation around the audience. It is not really a sound technical problem, but except the regular face system, the conservatoire auditorium has nothing to suspend the speakers yet. We use several brands of speakers: Genelec, Meyer Audio, Amadeus, APG, JBL, Bose, Rondson and different models of the same company. Some speakers can be thought as soloists, far power groups, local reduce situations, special effects, renforcing etc… 

Tell us a little about CIRM and Le Studio Instrumental.

CIRM is a “Centre National de Création Musicale”, a label that the French state has given to only 6 places devoted to new music production. The same label exist for choreography and theatre, but given to a bigger number of structures. The missions of such a centre are production, creation, diffusion, research and pedagogy with contemporary music. So the CIRM receive composers in residence to create new pieces, organize the MANCA festival not only to premiere them, but also to be a part of the network that play again pieces composed in other centres around the world, and play the different repertoires. CIRM also develops new software tools for music and also acts as a co-producer in several other fields like record production, fundamental research, music mediation, documentation etc.

I have been a member of CIRM from 1983 (as Jean Etienne Marie’s assistant) to 1996 when Michel Redolfi was its director. Then I left to devote myself to the electroacoustic music composition class that I had created in 1988 in the Conservatoire de Nice. So the link between CIRM and Conservatoire has always been strong and productive. This is the case with its actual director François Paris, with whom we share many projects. Not only the coordination of the 2 forum concerts inside the MANCA festival but also the common Licence graduation program with Conservatoire and Nice University, master classes, studios and special software for students…

Studio Instrumental is a group of musicians that is interested in live electronic music and linking their acoustic instrument to real time electroacoustic world control and has also promoted the diffusion and communication of acousmatic music. It was set in 1986 as the live electronic instrument potential of CIRM, but split when I left CIRM to become entirely independent. 

How does Le Studio Instrumental support your own compositional interests? 

Studio Instrumental has been the main producer for several of my projects during the past years. 

Tell us a little about your association with the MANCA Festival.

François Paris has offered to me the coordination of the forum concerts inside MANCA. That means this year 2 concerts, one of new pieces from students in composition played by students of the conservatoire, and one concert of repertoire pieces played as well by students. This year the focus is on the UK electroacoustic production. We have a partnership with an international competition, the Klang Prize, whose first prize is this year a composer teaching in Manchester. We’ll have also graduate and undergraduate pieces from Glasgow, Sheffield, Bath, Birmingham, Aberdeen Universities, and of course pieces from our own high level students, both undergraduates. As we have celebrated this year the 100th anniversary of the Conservatoire de Nice, we have also 2 pieces from composers that have been studying in my class a long time ago, and are today renowned composers, Jean Louis Agobet who is a former Villa Médicis winner, and Richard Dudas, a former member of Ircam, today teaching in Seoul. The students will play new technologic versions of their pieces, one even developed in Nice. 

And you have two pieces being premiered this year? 

Yes. One is an orchestration of a previous special electroacoustic piece, with adaptations, the instruments parts needed to make several changes in the electronics.

Why special? Because this piece has been composed to be played in loop in the sharks’ aquarium in National Sea Centre Nausicaa in Boulogne-sur-Mer. The audience was visiting the aquarium from the inside, in a transparent tank out of a little tunnel of entrance, surrounded everywhere around and above, by the sharks swimming. That means several unusual constraints for a contemporary composer. The music form had to be able to let the audience think that something is moving from any point you start and at any point you quit. That had to work for people spending several minutes inside the tank, as well as people coming in and out quickly. It had not to be a simple loop, too easy to understand, but true music. It had not to be aggressive, and hearable by a very wide audience, unfamiliar with contemporary languages (the music stayed for years and was heard by millions of visitors). It had to compose with the sound of the air conditioning and the almost all glassed surround. And it had to keep people in a good mood, despite the fact that they were surrounded everywhere by water and sharks, in a tiny space, and give them at the same time the thrill that the glass could break and the sharks attack. After 20 years, the sound design has been removed, so the piece Requins is the result of the adaptation to a true concert piece. Still very quiet and easy listening, still giving the second sense of a sly danger lurking around despite the deep blue horizon.

I already wrote a little about the other piece, Never Die, this one entirely new. Never Die is a project including several pieces all related to water. Many natural models from the water are used in a musical way. For example, the harmonic structures of the chords is copying the H2O molecular symmetry and many variations are thought like streams, crystallisation like in snow or ice, ebullition, evaporation, sublimation, swirling particles, waves, foam, surf etc… All the sound material used for the electronic parts (8 channels plus a live keyboard) are made from acoustic instruments recorded sounds in interaction with water (winds) or simulating a water interaction (strings), a way of composing with instrumental-based sounds listened as acousmatic material that I have named “acousmatique instrumentale”. Never Die is an English distortion of the name of a tree called “Néverdier” which has the capacity to organically de-pollute the water, clean it from the dangerous molecules at 90%. This was discovered in India when the leaves of one of these trees were falling inside a brown spoiled lake. Where the leaves had fallen, the water was becoming clear and transparent. Never Die is just music, it has to be listen to music and as Debussy said, “la musique doit humblement chercher à faire plaisir”, however I think that we live in a time where the dangers of our over-use of natural resources is so alarming that I feel everybody as well in his private and professional surround has to engage some action to do what he can to avoid to leave an impossible world to our children. Never Die talks also about that. 

What are your plans for the future? 

I will be in residence in January in University of Montreal for conferences and concerts. January 29th will be the next concert of my students in the conservatoire auditorium.

I’m also working on new pieces with 2 cellos and electronic, to be played in Callian then in Portugal, and making music for adventure documentaries with the explorer Luc Henri Fage.

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Originally posted at Composition:Today ©Red Balloon Technology