The Repository #6: Ghédalia Tazartès

A piece from 2008 that we published in conjunction with his appearance at Pauze Festival in Belgium.

It’s hard to grasp the titans we lost this week. Ghédalia Tazartès, Chick Corea, and Milford Graves in three successive days, basically, is a hard thing to get your head around. I’ve spent a lot of time this weekend listening to all three and trying to expose my daughter to their work (so far she loves Return to Forever). It’s helped me think about their importance and legacies, but it’s still so raw and new. Anyway, I found this piece a few weeks ago and while it’s not an interview, I enjoyed reading it then and thought it was a good time to publish it. This was written in 2008 in conjunction with Tazartès’ performance at the Pauze festival in Belgium.

French composer Ghédalia Tazartès makes fascinating, multi-layered cut and paste compositions. These are drawn from an eclectic vocabulary and focus especially on the human voice. Ever since 1977 he documents his own personal sound universe, his own particular outsider avant-garde. Tazartès plays as one third of Reines D’Angleterre at this years Pauze festival.

by Jan Opdebeeck

The human voice: speaking, singing. In hindsight, “Ronnie sings?” already had it all, the tone, the rhythm, and the typical phrasing; this very early Zappa song (1961, The Lost Epidodes), in which Ronnie produces something in between burping, scatting and blustering accompanied by the rhythmic sounds of thin guitar playing. Of course, this was intended to stir a laugh, just as Ghédalia Tazartès’ “premier mouvement” is not meant to be mannerly serious: a repetitive rocking stomper with a voice that does not produce words but just meaningless tones in a more or less similar cliché melody. The long-winded, repetitive and looped piece could be interpreted as a parody and criticism on boring, meaningless rock music, but when leaving the traditional feel and expression of rock behind, one may also become immersed in the specific tone, the rhythm, which come to the fore by the repetition of the elements. Repetition is a tried-and-tested method for pushing meaning and anecdote to the background and shift attention to, for instance, the tone itself. Just think of Tristan Tzara’s “hurle hurle hurle hurle” (an indefinite number of times, 1919), a repetition which brings the tone and word image expressively to the surface. In his compositions which often contain repetition and variation, Tazartès, among other things, explores the musicality of the human voice, and not in the least the human voice in ordinary speech. It is no coincidence that Tzara must have had a fascination for the originally incomprehensible sounds of African and Oceanic poetry so resounding to him. And Tazartès also frequently integrates non-Western phrasings, intonations, ways of blowing and sustaining, melodies, and tone clusters into his music. Here and there, one can discern intelligible (usually French) sentences and words but Tazartès usually sings in an imaginary language (The Wire #295) integrating influences from Asia, the Middle-East, Southern Europe, and other parts of the world.

Tazartès’ music draws elements from a wide diversity of traditions. On a record such as the theater soundtrack Jeanne (2007) one can often discern certain points of reference: preeminently expressive genres such as rock music (“premier mouvement”), opera, singer-songwriter, a traditional folk song, but also lounge-like drum ‘n’ bass, and atmospheric abstraction. Especially the voice is by no means restricted to one genre: it growls, vibrates, wavers, bellows, murmurs, shifts between speech and singing, continues to utter undefined tones and varies. At times, the words stay intact, at other times, the usual semantics disappear into tone. It is remarkable to notice how the production is in line with the respective genres, resulting in consciously made shrill/echoing/pseudo-radio friendly/straightforward sounds. Incidentally, the idea of the musicality of speech savors strongly of “The Letter” (1943) by Harry Partch, in which he reads a letter from a friend who has just been released from jail, with emphatic intonation accompanied by and alternated with music. Partch’s way of reading is a mix of speech and singing while making clear use of the tragicomic content of the letter.

In the well-constructed Voyage à l’Ombre (1997), Tazartès uses a more integrated approach. Throughout the major part of the piece, several voices are being juxtaposed, with one voice or a group of voices often repeating a melody or variations thereon, being looped, or with one of the voices being a speaking voice – or laughing extensively in a loud melodious manner. Sometimes Tazartès uses poetic texts, or variations on a word in ordinary intonations, but usually speech, singing, and music lose their identity as it were, only to become absorbed in the abstract, choral composition. This is accentuated by the music which is usually electronic, making it possible to echo even traditional rhythms in a repetitive synthesizer pattern by means of the multi-layered production and the (mild) electronic manipulation of the voices.

The cut-and-paste aestheticism, the combination of electronics with “found sounds”, either distorted or not, the fascination for the voice and speaking language, the sound manipulation, the use of repetition and loops – it has all been elaborated inventively in Tazartès’ early piece Transports (1980). Transports is an intense and dense montage of industrial sounds flowing over a tapestry of cut and manipulated voices into a spectrum of electronics. And although it is quite possible to approach Tazartès from a purely modernist perspective by way of style research, one can never escape the emotional value of his work. The first piece of Transports, which is very different in style from the rest, already sets the tone: a two-part piano piece in minor with an initial repetitive motif as the basis against which a second melody crawls up, wavering, stammering and tripping over itself as it were. Transports is a dark, jagged record which maybe even stages a social reality; a feeling which is evoked by the (trying, aggressive, shying…) way of speaking and singing, and the diversity of contexts (which are provided with a social charge) and manipulations. In addition, there are the distorted sounds (which often die away, are squeezed, and drowned out – at particular moments) and the surprising production often infringing brutally on everything happening earlier. Finally, Tazartès uses unusual and unexpected juxtapositions, for instance, ordinary voices and a rising, shrill electronic tone, looped church bells and cut up and manipulated takes of children singing, or an Arabic wind instrument with a mechanical industrial rhythm and the whistling of buzzing electronics.

Tazartès is a self-educated man, who claims he had never heard any avant-garde music when he recorded his debut record Diaspora (1977). In The Wire he stated: “My music is like human nature, which is paradoxical.” And: “if somebody falls over, you laugh. But he has to fall over for real. If he’s pretending to fall over, nobody laughs. When it’s completely serious, then it’s funny.” Indeed, one can view all compositions by Tazartès as paradoxical, open, and uprooted. To my taste, his strongest pieces are without a defined nucleus or style (composition, tone) rendering them all the more elusive and fascinating.