Denis Levaillant


To invent the music of today, it is not enough to renew its sonorities and forms; at the same time, it is necessary to transform its function and usefulness. It is by this double movement that a new music will be able to rise up and develop.

In aesthetic or intellectual coteries there is much discussion concerning the "crisis of language" we are going through. With its tabula rasa decision, the previous generation passed on to us great rigour in research at the same time as a great delay in training an audience - if not, at times, a total break with it. Let us smooth a new network, let us once again make the relationship with the audience necessary, beginning with the origin of the work; then the aesthetic problems will be posed much more naturally and thus, creatively. If there is a crisis, it is more a crisis of usefulness than identity.

Contemporary music often gives rise to boredom, for no real audience can identify either with its discourse or with its wagers or structures. It is time that new music looked towards the future, addressing itself to the great majority. It is time that the composer stopped considering his audience like the mimetic projection of himself. It is time that the movement set in motion by a Jean Vilar in theatre finally reached musical shores.

The era of military metaphors ("the avant-garde") being a thing of the past, it is time to set sail for the open sea. Let new music escape from its laboratories, studios and ghettos! Let it mix with the hum of the city, with the other performing arts and with the real supports of the real world! Let it compare the results of its research with the narration of its time! Let it drink from popular currents! Let it invade the airwaves and images if it believes in its power! The period is no longer one of the prophet-artist but the entrepreneur-artist, serenely occupying a new place in the city.

So-called contemporary music views so-called modern music with disdain; the latter sends back its fear and envy. Yet they are working with the same tools. The era seems to be getting used to this total separation of genres: "commercial" (for the people) and the "cultural" (for the elite).

Creators do not have to confirm this break in today's musical art, on pain of turning into functionaries of art. Is not the worst defect of this system to designate a work as "classical" before it has found its community usefulness? It is time that these worlds merged.

Music is not a supplement of culture for a tired élite. It is the profound movement, the surge of the soul, pure dramatic imagination. It binds body and spirit, linking Man to his condition. It is time that it rediscovered its true usefulness: language of the soul and passions, formative of taste and revealing expression.

In this movement, musicians (called "interpreters") again find the primordial place as practical researchers that they had magnificently occupied during the Baroque era. It is time that that economy and that circuit, so suitable to musical art, freed itself from the hypertrophy of the composer's role. It is time that other authors appeared for music, mutants, practical and theoretical, players and scribes, poets and acrobats/performers.

For a new music, it is time to inaugurate new practices.

Denis Levaillant 15.06.92


If I am asked about the "relationship" of music to the image, my first impulse is only to throw back what I don't like to do: the typical illustration, the filling of a hazardous montage, the hint of feeling in short, everything that "film music" has unfortunately accustomed us to hearing at the cinema and on television. In the vernacular production, it indeed seems that sound has driven out music, and that, in the soundtrack itself, dialogue has supplanted the other elements of narration. In that set-up, music has a colouring function: it no longer enters into either the narrative construction or the camera's movement.

Yet, basing myself on a few - rare - films where music took its place naturally, the scenes where it became indissociable from the image (those are almost always moments of wonder, suspense or tragedy), I can also imagine a score of great lyricism fitting into a modern epic (which would take the place of this old, totally worn-out verismo opera); a succession of metamorphoses using studio techniques (few instruments and a wide variety of colours and treatments), integrating itself into a powerful drama (relayed by the new digital image techniques). In short, I refuse to feel defeated by the conformity of current production.

I have no theory to put forward on the subject, just some experiences to think about. Eight years of collaboration in the theatre with Alain Françon (as well as Christian Colin and Michel Dydim) and at least 15 film shorts have confirmed a certain number of my intuitions. It is a mistake to wish to separate so-called "pure" or abstract music from so-called "descriptive" or programme music. Music is always pure, since it is totally abstract. But its flesh makes it living abstraction: it is the most abstract art and the most sensual, and these two qualities are indissociable. It combines with the image, as on the stage, by metaphor: taking possession of the content of situations, the composer must make himself a playwright. Basically nurturing itself on the intervening period between words and gestures, music lights up what is dark and darkens brightness; it condenses and magnifies. With abstraction, it speaks to the imagination, the affective and interiority. In this sense, it can spread out only if, in the show (or the film), the spoken text is not the sole narrative support, if the director also constructs with what is left unsaid, the relationship of bodies, light, space, movement. It then plays an instinctual, almost energising role of metaphor.

In terms of the composing profession, working with the image is first a school of precision, particularly of orchestration. The choice of timbres and their place in narrative space have a great influence on the success of the music's integration in the drama - in this sense, I think of the poetic and symbolic weight of each musical instrument, and that faculty is further increased by union with the image. A school of the imagination, too, since the composer will be obliged to write "on the table" and not "in the hall" (or "on the image") for accomplishing his own metamorphoses. And finally, a school of concision of form, of condensation. In this sphere, new forms of musical development will doubtless not be able to be used until the day an ambitious filmmaker has the desire, like a choreographer in the 1920s, to take hold of a score, bar by bar. That's to give an idea of how optimistic I am (and patient)!

Tackling Fritz Lang's Woman in the Moon, I therefore forced myself to find the right metaphor. I know that music (played live) gives life to these silent characters, through a sort of alchemy of energy between the movement captured on their faces and our instantaneity. I also know that the rhythm of narration is no longer ours and that I must compose more than might be expected (while obstinately refusing not to leave any silence). I feel like a companion and therefore I accompany, in the literal sense ("and always some fear accompanies love", Britannicus, Racine, v. 3). The great constructivist fiction, the myth of the source of gold as much as the romance. The hymn to modernity, and relational archaism. This mixture troubles me and resonates today (isn't it that of modern adventure films?). Yes, this work is an important step in my career as a musician in search of other practices.


1 - Rhythm and metre

Jazz is not allegorical. It literally translates for us a few musical terms weighted down by European use, such as a tempo. If we must come back to this, it is because we have got away from it. Jazz comes back to beat, tempo and scansion.

Jazz, and the experience of improvisation that arose from it, especially gave its true meaning back to the word "rhythm": a quality of discourse. Indeed, according to the dictionary, rhythm is produced above all by a succession of accented and unaccented syllables, i.e., in musical parlance, a succession of fortes and pianos at certain intervals of time. Whether these are regular or not is, when all is said and done, a secondary question. However, common usage in European music would have us speak of a "triple-time rhythm" to evoke the metre of the waltz, and thus we will think more in terms of number (of beats, or syllables in the discourse) than the figures formed. Therefore, jazz teaches us again that rhythm is indeed a certain art of accentuation - Bud.

Let us transcribe some sophisticated chorus and have it played by an instrumentalist not trained in jazz. Regardless of however perfect the rhythmic and melodic placement might be, there's a good chance that the sense of what is called "swing" will be lacking. By analysing pitches, it can be proved that this feeling exists when the sonority itself is affected, i.e., the timbre varies from one note to the next, irregularly. Here, jazz informs us about the inextricable relationships of what are called the "parameters" of sound. Pitch, timbre and dynamics are indissociable in musical listening that is drawn more to figures than to the structures of the discourse.

What is radical in jazz lies in going from one beat to another, this balance that is created as much by economy, gaps in the beat (Monk) as by abundance or submersion (Coltrane). Here we find the oratorical idea of the number associated with the more or less broad rhythm of the phrase. We are fairly far from the European vision of "jazzed-up" music, this hopping Vivaldi, this curious way of scanning jazz in recent schools here, where you learn to pronounce a standard rhythm on no matter what phrasing, in whatever metre, at whatever tempo. In this deformation, I see a contrario proof of the reduction of rhythm to metre in European music.

2 - Gesture and word

In the consecrated places, the temple-clubs, prophetess-blowers go out on stage, prophet-fans surround them, gathering the phrases that slip out, interpreting them, and we have oracles. Thus is born the myth of jazz, an oracular art.

Reason would want to drive the oracle out of the temple and make its own miracles. Write jazz? But write what about jazz? Its colours, its breaks, its impurities, or its gimmicks, its facility, its successes? Wanting to write jazz is wanting to give it a share of the universal of which it would be, by birth, deprived, as if born in a wasteland. But jazz is anything but vague: it is articulate, accented, precise. It is rhythm. It is urban and lives in a cultivated area.

Of course, the question of form is essential, and one often stumbles over that. Some prepare themselves to such a degree that you have the impression of listening to a recited text. Others wait for the full effect of surprise and, from concert to concert, exhaust a small pool of quotations. Very few master the sense of the variation held out towards a unique goal (Parker). For jazz is an art in a class of its own, demanding both the sense of rigorous development and that of sudden appearance, the explosion of the instant.

At this level of playing, improvising is writing. Jazz is a pragmatic art, in which the way form is handled is organised at the time. This technique can be worked on like any other writing technique. I have often been struck by the similarity of the terms used in certain improvisation treatises (of which there are hundreds in the United States) to those used by Arnold Schoenberg in his California period. The method used is parallel, particularly for everything relating to the notion of motif (motivic form, outline, melodic pattern), given by jazz teachers and basic composition teachers as the constitutive foundation of all development. A good motif will thus be one that best concentrates in itself an ensemble of characters that are at once rhythmic, melodic and dynamic, allowing the form to spread.

Improvising in this mobility assuredly constitutes an excellent composition exercise. Simply, jazz reminds us that the first gesture is often diabolically appropriate and that this rapid appropriateness of speech contrasts irremediably with the slowness of writing. But does one expect a conversation to be as structured as a speech? (Ornette)

3 - Hybrid modernity
Jazz is questioning. Its masters leave a question- Duke, Bird -whereas European art, in large part, answers the questions it asks (Bach).

In Europe, jazz asks the essential question of the invention of writing, the deadly cult of the past. It offers to reread its History live, here and now: who knows whether, someday, a musical system won't feed on the minuscule differences detectable between two interpretations of a chorus by Parker, as today with Chopin Mazurkas? And who can say if Chopin were alive today he wouldn't be playing in a club?

Conversely, in America jazz poses the ongoing question of modernity, the preference for the copy over the original, and the adaptation of aesthetic forms to the market (Miles).

For jazz is, by its make up, ambivalent. It profoundly influenced all the "serious" music of the 20th century—beyond borrowings and quotations, one might detect this influence in instrumental writing (those traits of energy), in the timbre of the orchestra (those brass and percussion), in the refreshed sense given to accentuation and colour (those brainwaves) - not to mention its direct influence on a whole generation of interpreters and composers. Moreover, and in the same constitutive movement, jazz disappears into the commonplace, the facile, the déjà-entendu (the drawing room). If you wish to caricature the "jazz style", you know full well that it suffices to sketch a walking-bass line, bedoum-doum-doum. This is indeed a signature that is too direct (literal) for many minds more inclined to the formal.

Jazz does not have this same post-mortem relationship with itself that European music still nurtures. It assimilates its past as it grows older and invokes yesterday to stimulate today. A hybrid, ambivalent, post-modern Janus before its time, jazz feeds on time and all times.

For these three motifs and a few other secrets, at present I would no longer be able to put this sophisticated dance of the century out of my mind.


(Preface to the second edition of the book L'improvisation musicale)

This book came into being in the 1970s, from this "post-68" ferment when a generation gave itself the means for practising, thinking and living otherwise (music and all the rest). Obviously, the tone, colour and touch were ours and now sound delightfully dated. But the subject remains amazingly present, and musical improvisation, freed 15 years later of its sociological and biographical origin, is to be read as if it had been born yesterday: touching invariants, it speaks of musicality.

Of course, everything has changed! Since the first edition, improvisation has won over the teaching profession. The destructive madness of "contemporary" music has been rejected. Composers have returned to the instrument, to the ancient practice, modest sons of Bach. Performers have lifted their head; musicians of the world are no longer considered subhuman by professors of analysis, and everyone moves shamelessly - the body exults.

Of course, nothing has changed! Improvisation is established, in an extremely marginal way, in higher musical education. It is tolerated only when indispensable, for example, in teaching through bass on the harpsichord - and this, thanks to the commercial success of Baroque music. The creators of "improvised music" remain in low esteem. Rhythmic culture remains atrophied. Exchanges with the supporters of hyper-writing remain worthless.

The debate is far from being over. We are doubtless just in the process of leaving the Iron Age of formalism, that new ars nova which destroyed the desire of the majority to approach creation. We became used to category, I suspect - this book, even though some may have laid hold of it in a militant manner, never pretended to define an aesthetic born of improvisation. That improvisers are now anxious to introduce themselves as composers is another sign of the times. I myself have suffered enough on account of my dual career - pianist and composer - to cast the stone at them, but I never thought that that writing, that of instrumental playing, could suffice in constructing a vision of form. We can see it: categories still have trouble becoming clear, and this book was sometimes read too quickly.

We are at the very beginning of a profound movement of change, and so many things were erased from our habits! But how enjoyable it is, the march that leads us from the body to the spirit, from improvisation to composition, from the instrument to writing! How full it is of the unexpected, of brainwaves and clarity! To think freely, the musician improvises, just as the philosopher strolls. Improvisation is practised in solitude, where it takes root and becomes fortified. It is practised in the group, which it feeds - but don't be mistaken: even well surrounded, Miles smiles alone. The musician improvises and thereby encounters the past of his culture and all the music in the world. Who would dare say we don't need these passages?

I would also like this book to be read as a study of recent composition resources (born of improvisation), like a proposition of a new reading of the history of music (crossed by improvisation) or, as a last resort, as a reflection on musicality (summoned by improvisation). It could be subtitled "For a new Baroque age". Don't you feel this renaissance that is coming to overturn the old formalist, combinatory, structuralist practices (made to feel guilty, ugly and boring)? This new equilibrium between pleasure and rigour, the body and the mind, sensation and narrative, the scholarly and the popular? Through the filter of improvisation, it is to this renaissance movement that this book commits itself: let us make other uses.

    Enki Bilal as a set designer

    The most powerful moment of my collaboration with Enki Bilal for O.P.A Mia will certainlycontinue to be the day when, the set finally completely assembled (at the Théâtre de Gennevilliers) and the sound system roughly arranged, we heard the first effect, the first mixing of sung voices in the spatial volume.

    Then we saw we had not been mistaken—that there was a profound connection between his universe and mine. The music had found its image, this transformed, anticipatory reality that I was seeking.

    When I broadcast Speakers* at Radio-France, one of my colleagues told me that it made him think of comic books. "Careful, now, that's not a criticism! let's be quite clear on that: good comic books!" The way intellectuals approach comic books today is a bit the way 17th-century letters greeted the nascent novel - a slightly disdainful respect for "something" not yet a listed art form. It's true that comics range from insipid fanzines to admirable graphic work by artists like Bilal. But doesn't today's music also range from the thin home-made soup concocted on the all-purpose synthesiser to the introspective craftsman's art still necessary for composing? And, with those same intellectuals, don't we find the same suspicion of authenticity vis-à-vis musical genres currently considered "minor"? Here, I'm primarily thinking of music associated with the image, a new art of today corrupted by merchants under the term "film music".

    Not so long ago, what Enki creates was still being designated as "illustration". The example of our work on O.P.A Mia strongly refutes that category. My characters existed; the roles were written, the music copied out - Yet there lacked a dramatic characterisation. I can say that Sunny Cash, god of money, and Sphinx, goddess of truth, did not come into being until the day Enki agreed to make the "image" of my opera - his vision of gods lost in the urban underground from La Femme Piège precipitated mine. In this case, who is illustrating what? Enki is not a stage designer either. You don't work with him endlessly discussing dramaturgy, you don't constantly keep going back and touching things up. He gets closer, through sensibility. He's a Cat who doesn't make a lot of ruffs. Through O.P.A Mia, he continued his work. Like a painter.

    For fifteen years now, I've been putting on shows with my music and I've carried out a number of works in collaboration. The most efficient practicality has always been the fruit of encounters where everyone remained master of his or her universe. However, habit would have it that art, putting itself at the service of a common purpose, goes astray.

    I am betting that the distance I spoke of above, and which touches on the idea of the function of art, will fall one day, all by itself.

    I will go so far as to bet that, in the 21st century, the idea of an art that serves no other purpose than itself will give our grandchildren a good laugh - design, image-music, narrative graphics (rather than comic book?) will dominate the market. In the meantime, I am firmly determined to continue exploring my polyvalence (music as performance art), which allows me to meet all-rounders like Enki (who has more of a tendency to carry out his work on numerous supports). I thank him for having travelled a bit with me- here these images, which provide the framework for an encounter, come back: Enki's feeling drawn by my orchestral scores ("I'm jealous of this format"), his constant attention to the entire production crew of the show, his preciseness on the hues during the lighting adjustment, his solid presence facing the media in Avignon - and having accepted to put his graphics into three-dimensional form for the first time, on a theatre stage, for singing my music there.

    DL 20.09.1991

    *A radio poem from which O.P.A Mia was born