Pierre Jodlowski: I was just a rocker
In this interview, we get to know Pierre Jodlowski — famous French composer known for his electroacoustic works, and the director of Musica Electronica Nova festival in Wrocław (13-21 V 2023). In conversation with Igor Torbicki, he reflects on the future of music, creating links between various arts and many more vital topics of our time.
Igor Torbicki Mr Jodlowski, it’s a true pleasure to talk to you. I’d like to start with your upcoming project – Musica Electronica Nova in Wrocław. Which factors are the most important for you when it comes to inviting artists to this festival?
Pierre Jodlowski: Well, first of all, they have to be great artists! Apart from that, there are also other factors, like the pandemic. In 2021, unfortunately, I had to cancel some projects because of it. I promised to the artists that I was inviting in 2021 that I would do everything that I can to re-invite them later on. So it means that this year we have some projects that, let’s say, should have been done before.
Also, there are some keywords. The first of them is international dimension. As you know, there is another festival of contemporary music in Wrocław, which is Polonica Nova. It’s more focused on the Polish network. Second keyword is interdisciplinarity. I like to program projects including electronics, performance, video, any kind of other arts. I also try not to forget about the historical perspective. This is a serious topic. Contemporary music generally embraces music from the 50s to today. In reality, the music from the 50s, 60s, 70s is not performed by classic chamber or orchestral groups, or at least very rarely.
For me it means that we, as programmers of contemporary music festivals, have a responsibility to perform some pieces by older composers, or sometimes even ones who are long gone. For example, this year it will be Fausto Romitelli, a classic of contemporary music. His Trash TV Trance for solo guitar will be played on May 20th, in a concert called Audiodrome. The pieces that he wrote are more than 20 years old. As I said, I think it’s good to provide some historical perspective to our audience.
The last reason why I am selecting artists is the link with general ideas of our festival. Because there are many great artists, it’s always a matter of choice.
With regard to your thoughts about the music of 50s, 60s and so on, I’ve noticed that many performers, at least in the piano field, think that the music of 20th century ends with Shostakovich.
Yes, and it’s a disaster. We have so many other great pieces in the 50s, 60s and later on!
One of the main ideas behind Musica Electronica Nova, as you wrote in your introduction text, revolves around creating a community. Do you think that a musical performance can build a real community that extends beyond a certain time and space, in this case a concert?
When I’m thinking about community, I interpret it a bit differently.
I live in Wrocław for more than 10 years now. There are some festivals, like the film festival Nowe Horyzonty, or Survival festival. I will just quote those two as an example. When I’m going to those festivals, I see various types of audiences. Young people, seniors, groups who are generally interested in art, or those who are coming for something special. Big audience means great energy.
For many years contemporary music was rarely able to gather such kind of audience, such big groups of people. There are a lot of reasons of that. There is a disconnection between the listeners and contemporary music, which can be hard, mental, intellectual. On the other hand, sometimes I go to aforementioned movie festivals, and see people genuinely enjoying really hard films, or witnessing intellectual visual arts. And I’m just amazed by the fact that all these people just could come and enjoy such a demanding event.
I’m trying to connect different types of art through Musica Electronica Nova, to extend the strict field of music a little bit. For example, we will have screenings at kino Nowe Horyzonty on May 14th and 21st, or a partnership with WRO Biennale with some visual artists during the whole festival in the foyer of National Forum of Music… In this way we try to invite these wide audiences. We are basically asking them: just come, you might discover something connected to things that you already like! For me, this is the core of this idea of community.
Basically, I don’t know any composers who are just happy to write music, to just write a score and keep it in a drawer. They need to have an interaction with the music itself, when it’s performed by the musicians. And the musicians (along with the composer) need an audience to witness the art, to really give them everything that they are supposed to give.
So, this triangle: the author, the performer and audience is not something that you can break at any point, you need this to make live art. And again, it’s is what I call a community – as simple as this.
The notion of unbreakable triangle of relations reminds me of famous electronic music duo, The Future Sound of London. They went to incredible lengths trying to break this triangle, played concerts without them present on stage. But even in that case, the link between the audience and artist/composer remains, although a bit severed. I will now ask you a very popular, cliched question. Do you see any tendencies in contemporary music that, in your opinion, will prevail during the next, let’s say, 5 or 10 years?
Maybe I will answer it my own way.
You know, artists existed, exist and always will exist. They are needed. The big question is: what are the tools of an artist? We are used to this disconnection between painters, choreographers, musicians, filmmakers and so on. History of art is based on this segmentation despite the fact that it’s less and less clear over time. A lot of visual artists use sound. Many composers are making video content. Choreographers incorporate music into their work, sometimes by inviting some musicians to improvise, to build a specific language together. So, I would not say that it’s not possible to identify art as clearly as one hundred years ago.
A strong artist is always the one who believes in his work, no matter the context. And the context is: “okay, we live in 21st century, so we have to use this, this, this and this”. The pressure of the world that we are living in is a powerful force. For example, and maybe it’s a personal reflection… Very early in my career, I was very much interested in political, philosophical and ethical dimension of music. The fact that through the musical art I can say something real and meaningful is tremendously important. For me, music is never abstract.
When I was a young composer, I had a lot of critics, enemies, adversaries. Some people were saying things like: “why are you trying to do something more than the music itself? You are able to write beautiful music, why do you need to include those other elements?” And I answer: because it’s a need! I have so much anger inside of me that I need to find a way to bring it out. Maybe some of my pieces are a little bit naïve, but I am constantly working and trying to extract something very personal and real. Nowadays, I see more and more very young composers touching ecological problems, politics, history... So, maybe that is what will prevail, this non-abstract approach.
The most important thing is to believe in what’s inside of you, and work on it for years without resignation. History will say if you as an artist will cross the centuries. When I am programming, I do the same. I have a credo, some things that I said to you. And when people ask: “but why are you playing these pieces by Ligeti?”, I answer: because it creates a perspective. It proves that we are not focusing just on the present. It’s nice to think about tomorrow, but let’s not forget the past.
I agree with this approach. It reminds me of a festival which I attended a few weeks ago in Gdansk, Dni Muzyki Nowej. During one evening, I listened to a dubwave band – bass guitar, heavy drums and electronics. 20 minutes later, a completely classical string quartet just blew the stage up with Debussy and Ginastera. I’d say that they got even more attention from the listeners precisely because of historical perspective, of understanding how fabulously music has evolved during the last 100 years.
Since we’re discussing various manners of expression in music, I have another question. When I was listening to your music, I heard a broad range of different inspirations. What musical aesthetic is the most natural for you? My personal interpretation is that your solo projects, as well as those collaborative ones like with Adam Gołębiewski or Alexander Babel, are very syncretic. On one hand, they remind me of Darmstadt avant-garde or IRCAM electronics. At the same time, they can bear resemblance to rock music, or maybe even IDM. I’d like to ask you: in which of these areas do you feel the most free?
Well, I have to be free everywhere, in a way. If I am not feeling free, I’m stopping to compose, and perform.
We are tempted very often to confuse sound with music. Sound is just a tool. It could be whatever, you know. I hear a few sounds of something and for me it’s not music, at least not yet. For me, music is defined by time. Whatever I’m using in my compositions – bass guitar, drum set, string quartet, you name it – for me it does not matter so much. My culture comes from very classical roots. I started to play piano at the age of five. Then, I’ve had an adolescence crisis, let’s say. I started to play in a rock band, which had some success in France. We played a lot of concerts. At that point I lost that feeling of freedom. It happened because of the surroundings, the context, the stamp that I started to have. It was more important than the music itself. I was just… a rocker.
So, I came back to the Conservatoire and the University, and studied on quite a high level. After that, in IRCAM, I had the same feeling, that I started to bear another stamp: a stamp of “IRCAM composer”.
People are tempted to put things in boxes in order to feel safer. Let’s imagine you’re in a kitchen. Normally, you know where everything is: spices are here, plates are there and so on. But when I open a cupboard in my imaginary kitchen, I see salt shaker, a bottle of vodka and some plates just next to each other. It’s just an example. My general point is that I need complex, maybe a bit messy environments. And I try to use them, shape them through time. If you pay attention to some of my pieces, you will recognize this. For example, I am very interested in the question of dramaturgy. The fact that music can carry something more than just an abstract set of phenomena. It means that there is another layer of additional meaning which goes on during the performance of my music. That’s my general approach to your question about material, which in itself is not very important.
In this context, I’d like to ask you another question, this time about voice. It seems to me that in your music it plays a vital role. You work with artists like Joanna Freszel (in Alan Turing) or Thomas Hauser. What is more important to you: the sound of the voice itself (the material), or the person?
I would say both. Joanna Freszel is a wonderful, amazing artist. I think any composer would wish to work with her. Thomas Hauser is a really great actor, very open-minded about being a part of musical project.
This question about voice is really, really nice. It brings me to the fact that I definitely believe in Giles Deleuze’s idea about having a subconscious machine inside of us. It’s working not only for all the time, but also independently from us. Of course, we could analyze our own aesthetic and define it. Personally, I never did this. I had two reasons: 1. it’s too early, 2. I don’t believe that one aesthetic can be the anchor for all my life. So, if I would start to analyze my whole production and try to define an aesthetic, for me it would be a problem.
This is why I like some of the compositions of Steve Reich, but not his general trajectory – he started to do one thing and never stopped. He was never able to renew his aesthetic. I think it’s the reason why, at least for me, more than half of his productions is really not good. He’s basically repeating himself all the time.
The question of voice in this context is interesting, because I have a very strong attraction to voice, but at the same time I don’t like the classical opera form. That’s why I started to include voice in my music only in the electronic parts. I sampled voice lines from films. I like very much the off-voice in cinematography, just like in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. You just hear one of the characters telling a story. You are kind of inside of his head. So, I started to include the voice through this cinematic environment. And then, softly, I progressed towards the singing voice, but much later. If you pay attention, I never wrote a piece where there is no spoken voice, if it contains singing voice.
For me, it’s hard to comprehend, for example, lyrics of a singing soprano – you need subtitles all the time, just like in an opera. And on the contrary, the spoken voice is clear and can be combined with music for rhythmical or emotional reasons, but obviously it’s not tuned, or at least the tuning part is very special. So, I was attracted very early by the voice, but it took me years to find out how to include it in my pieces in, let’s say, more classical way – musical text for live singers.
I’d like to return for a second to the notion of stamps. Of course, we should not stamp ourselves. But do you think that avoiding being stamped is possible in the modern world? I’ve seen some composers that do not identify with any stamp, just like Paweł Mykietyn. But, nevertheless, they are categorized all the time as, for example, “postmodern” composers. Sometimes against their will.
I see two factors in your question. The first one is your inner feeling, and second is what other people think about you. These are very different things. Critics, musicologists, journalists and so on, they need, in a particular moment, some categories. They have to say that “this piece sounds like Jodlowski plus this and that”. For me, it’s not a problem. The most important thing is what you are actually doing, and the conscience that you have about it.
Personally, I favor freedom. If I start to consider that I’ve stumbled upon a great idea and from now on I shall do my work only on that basis, I’m in an extremely dangerous situation. What is even more dangerous is listening to the critics too much, and it happens very often. Let’s say that you meet a very nice critic from a fantastic journal, Le Monde or whatever. And he says to you: “oh, you are a leader of new post-internet musical movement”. Of course, instead of “post-internet”, the critic could use any other fancy word. And then, you are saying to yourself: “Oh God, fantastic. One of the big magazines said that I’m a leader of something, so I’m going to focus only on that”. In a way, this is ridiculous.
I was talking about the community earlier. Critics and journalists are a part of it. And what we have to do, is to fight together. So, if at one point a journalist or a critic would put you in a box – okay, why not? The most important for me is that information can reach the audience and be interesting in terms of reception. Journalists have their reasons for categorizing and can defend their points. They can write: this composer is post-internet, because if you listen to his work, you would find a certain set of expressions that mean very particular things. So, if a reader stumbles upon an article like that, he or she may discover something new.
Now, to the question about stamps: just like you said, it’s hard to avoid this. We are living in a world where you can get millions of followers on Instagram for doing one thing. Just because of that you have been stamped at a particular moment. I don’t think it’s good. Personally, it’s a disaster. For sure, there are some brilliant ideas that are worth exploring, but let’s not forget that you have ideas throughout all your life. This is what we are all facing.
And believe me, I know many young composers who have been stamped as new geniuses of 21st century, and then burned out quickly. They were not able to keep going with such a stamp. It’s hard to be an artist for 20, 30 or 50 years and constantly find the strength to wake up everyday and face a blank page. If you truly believe in stamps, then you should stamp yourself, but that’s it.
A stamp creates expectations that you are not always able to fulfill. Maybe it’s like with Steve Reich, and repeating yourself in one chosen aesthetic works out financially, but artistically? History will decide. I’d like to return to one of the topics that we discussed earlier. We were talking about places where contemporary music is performed. What’s your take on playing it in non-traditional places like clubs or art galleries?
It’s very simple. You know, in Wrocław we have a great Philharmonic – NFM. It has four fantastic halls. If you go to the new building of the Paris Philharmonic, there is one main hall and one rehearsing room. I made a concert in once the latter. And I can tell you that I’d much more prefer the Wroclaw Philharmony as a building – the working conditions are great.
But, it’s also good to be outside, and to bring the audience from the Philharmonic to some other place. I strongly believe that each place has a certain type of vibration. I am not inventing new anything here. Why visiting squats was so popular in Berlin in the 90s? Because of unique vibes and special people. They were going to abandoned buildings and spent many nights there. I did it too. It was an great experience. Each place carries its own history and audience.
And for the artist, the fact that you are able to “desacralize” the concert venue, is often something completely new. In a club, the audience will sit just 2 meters away from you, without any separation. This set of circumstances can be very moving for performers. They can have more intimate artistic relations with listeners. Of course, I’d like to do more such concerts, but my festival is not that big. I am working right now on an European project with other festivals – the idea is to spread the venues as much as possible. I’d love to make concerts in schools, for very young audiences. I’d play in restaurants, anywhere. And it’s obvious that some of these place would require specific repertoire made just for them. But I’m sure that many composers would take some interest in creating it.
It seems to me that such venues as schools or clubs bring the points of aforementioned triangle a lot closer to each other.
Yes, of course!
Now I’d like to ask you a few theoretical questions regarding your experiences as a composer. Do you think that the traditional performing apparatus, the symphonic orchestra, is still relevant nowadays?
It’s a difficult question for me…
If you would ask me this a year ago, I think I would answer: less and less. In Poland, there is still some will from orchestras and conductors to fight for contemporary orchestral music from time to time. From the practical standpoint it means that the performance could be of good quality, and the composer would not be very disappointed.
But generally, my experience with orchestras is not very good. There is always a problem with time, and it’s only the first one of many. We, as composers, cannot truly enter the very hierarchical structure of this, as you said, apparatus. I think we need more connection, to try to be closer to performers and audiences. Many composers are also performers nowadays. They really want to be close, to be inside of this community that I was talking about.
Your question is relevant for me, because right now I have a commission from Musica Festival in Strasbourg to work with a stage director, who has been asked to stage the orchestra. She is working on the following case: how can we stage a piece by Mozart? My role in this project is a bit of “archeological” nature. I’ll be the guy opening the Mozart piece and extracting something: maybe one chord, some other material in a different place… Maybe, at one point I’ll ask performers to play without making sounds and so on. In a way, it’s very interesting. We’ll need to talk about this after September, when I’m done with this project. I’m very curious about reaction of the orchestra and whether or not they are ready for this.
I remember that I attended a concert on Warsaw Autumn. I was listening to an orchestra of young musicians from Kraków. For me, it was fantastic. The composers had the possibility to shape the orchestra, to ask the violins to play in a corner of the hall, to move the percussion instruments… The thing is that these orchestra players were very young, so they didn’t mind such experiments.
The problem with orchestras is that playing became a routine for many of their members. The concept of orchestra itself reminds me of a monster with many tentacles. It’s very difficult to cut out just one of these tentacles, if I may use this metaphor. Working with it can be fruitful, if the performers are willing to break traditional rules a little bit.
It’s a very interesting project to stage a Mozart piece with an orchestra. And since you’ve mentioned receiving a commission – I was wondering about a related topic. Is there a commission that you would decline? Let’s say that someone wants you to compose a piece for solo piano. No electronics. Only traditional use of the keyboard. Would you do that?
I had to do it during the COVID pandemic. It was a competition who issued the commission. I regret that I didn’t decline, because the result was not good. I tried to put electronics in, but the competition disagreed. I decline many commissions, most of the time it’s because I don’t believe that I’ll be able to establish a proper relation with the musicians. I am more than fifty years old and I don’t have any more time to lose.
In some situations, I had to bow my head so much that my back started to hurt. It’s a metaphor, of course. I had to face such terrible situations, in which the guys that I had to work with did not have the same definition of the stage as me. Stage is the most precious place on the planet. This is where I can be free, this is where I can speak, think, convey messages. I can do anything and everything that I want. And we have to preserve this, we cannot play with this, we cannot just be lazy – it’s not working. I remember that I was saddened to see musicians entering the stage as if they were going to the factory to have just another, ordinary working day in the last 40 years, with their faces blank and muscles destroyed. I don’t accept this anymore. So, in this case I would decline. Gently, of course.
A few years ago, I had a conversation with Heiner Goebbels, who said something similar: “you know, when I’m working with ensembles and I don’t know them, I’m simply going there, trying to establish a connection. And if I don’t see them understanding the stage, I just don’t do the project”. Of course, you can do this when you have enough experience and commissions. When you are young, you are, in a way, obliged to accept everything – it’s impossible to do it differently. But over time, you can progressively construct your needs too, your needs as a composer.
Regarding the needs of a composer: there was one thing that you mentioned earlier about the possible naivety in thinking that music can be a commentator of social life. Personally, I believe that true naivety lies in considering music to be eternally just about beautiful melodies and flying butterflies. I strongly agree with you on that view.
[in Polish] Thank you very much!
My two last questions may be a bit of pedagogical nature. If you would have to give one advice to a person that is starting to study composition, what would it be?
Well, this is funny, because last year I was asked the same by Ensemble intercontemporain. They contacted me and wanted three advices for young composers. If you are asking me for one, I would say: my advice is never to listen to any advice. That’s it.
You know, I’m teaching right now at IRCAM. I have some very advanced composers there, all have master’s degrees, coming from all around the world. And I see that some of them wish to get advice in the manner of “you should do this” or “you should not do that”. I do it differently. We can talk and discuss. But I will never, or at least I am trying never to say to a young artist that he definitely should not do something. Who am I to say such things? The world is so complicated!
The only thing I can say for sure is to trust yourself. It’s hard to have self-confidence nowadays. So trust yourself, work every day with the conviction that what you’re doing is good. And even if nobody understands it, if nobody trusts you, even if you face the worst criticism from Glissando or somewhere else, it does not matter. Trust yourself! Push, go, and years of work will bring that trust back. That’s it.
With regard to not listening to other advice… I was performing a jazzy piece for piano and trumpet once. Everything in the composition was really nice, it was generally quite a light-hearted approach to composition. It was thought out really well, and the premiere was a success. After that, I heard a conversation between the composer and a professor from the Academy of Music. Basically what he said was: “yeah, the piece was nice, but you should atonalize the material”. And if that composer listened to advice given to him by the professor, the piece would be ruined. Because its original message was very clear and simple, and means of conveying it were absolutely fitting.
Yes, that’s what I mean.
My last question will be about performers of contemporary music. There’s a lot of calls, grants, commissions, competitions for composers. But if a performer would want to compete in the field of contemporary music, basically there is only one place in the world where it’s possible to do it – Orleans Piano Competition. Of course, not everybody can participate in it. So, I wanted to ask you: what performers of contemporary music should do to try to make a living off this specific field?
One more time, my answer is: they should create a community!
First of all, they should work together and create ensembles, include composers, dancers and other artistic professionals in order to have the biggest amount of chances to reach and meet the audience. And then, it is also a question of institutions. We know that since humankind started to organize in societies, pyramids of power started to emerge. The higher you are in the pyramid, the more you are able to make decisions. Nowadays, the translation of this is money – the more you have it, the more you can do.
For me, the problem in the field of music lies within educational system. In France they made statistical surveys in conservatories in Paris and Lyon. The conclusion was that less and less graduates of these institutions are able to get a job in an orchestra. 20 years ago it was maybe 60% of them, and now it’s around 20% My question is: what about the others? It’s obvious that we need to provide an answer to this issue, to give responsibility to these young people. For me, it would be great to give some opportunities in institutions for young people, to let them program and perform a concert or a festival during a normal concert year. And let’s see what happens, maybe that is what will empower them, let them climb on this pyramid and be active in the field of music.
It's also a matter of renewing the generations. When I’m talking with you, I’m saying to myself: come on. You are fantastic, you have been preparing this interview, your questions are relevant… Let’s give you some responsibilities, because you deserve to have them. I’m not saying this just to flatter you. It’s not about this. I see my students in Paris and I’m worried about them. You said that composers have a lot of opportunities, calls and so on. Maybe that’s true, but it’s still not enough to make a living. Believe me, it’s extremely hard to live as a composer. So, I look at them and think that we should give them the chance to be operators, not just people with a stamp “composer” on their heads.
I agree with you with regard to your point about giving responsibility to young people. But at the same time I think that providing such opportunities means that somebody would have to, at least partially, give up his position of power.
Remember that it can be a political decision. Operas and philharmonics are given millions. The Paris Opera gets 100 million euro per year by the Ministry of Culture, and some of it is spent on working with young singers. This example shows that it’s possible to make this strategy real, but for this we need very strong political institutions, which is, of course, another topic.
Let’s hope that this problem will be resolved the way you described.
I hope so too!
Mr Jodlowski, thank you very much for this conversation!
[in Polish] Thank you very much!