Sylvain Chauveau

0 is a collective based around a core of three French musicians, though it expands and shrinks to accommodate different projects. Representing the band at the Ambientfestival Zivilisation der Liebe was Sylvain Chauveau, whose solo performance was one of the most innovative and absorbing of the whole festival. We sat him down after the concert to talk about openness, the seduction of melody, and Justin Bieber.

Can you tell us a little about how the Collective was formed?

Sure. I was invited in 2003 to play solo in a festival in the south-west of France, in the region where I was born, near Bayonne, near Spain. The guys who had invited me at this time were almost the same age as me and from the same school, and we got along very well. And they were musicians also. We talked a lot, and I felt, “wow, those guys will become friends”. Immediately we decided to play together, and so we started this band. We found the name maybe one year after we started rehearsing together, although we were not living in the same city: I was living in Paris, those guys in Bayonne.

We were four people in the beginning: there was Stéphane Garin, who plays percussion, there was Joël Merah, who’s mainly a guitar player, and there was the cello player, a girl, whose name is Maitane Sebastian, she’s from Spain. And so that was the four of us. We wanted to do something together, but we didn’t know what – there was no real musical direction in the beginning. Some stuff was very melodic, some was very abstract. It was mostly [original] compositions but we also wanted to play compositions by other people. And finally the band went on like this – there is still no musical direction, and we still haven’t… we have decided not to decide. Maitane decided to leave the band a few years ago, but we are still, the three of us, playing together and we have decided to open the band, not to work like a traditional band with the same people in the same city rehearsing every two days or every week. It was impossible to do that and we didn’t want to play just over the internet or something. So one of the solutions was to decide that the band could live with just one of us, or it could be much more than the three of us.

Since then your activities expanded to cover many different bases, including a percussion ensemble, chamber orchestra, radio show and even a print zine. Is there any kind of overarching project or aim that brings all these different things together, something that is always recognisably 0? Or is it very much a case of being free to act on opportunities as and when they appear?

I don’t think you could recognise 0 across all the projects. It can be so different. So it’s just the guys who play, I think. Because it can be a whole concert of, I don’t know, John Cage music, or it can be what you saw tonight, just me alone, or it can be an acoustic trio with two acoustic guitars and percussion. So actually that really is a question, even with the name, because we have this idea to expand the name with the projects that we do. If it’s just a percussion ensemble, then it’s called 0 (for percussion), if it’s chamber music it can be 0 (for large ensemble), or even 0 (for radio), if it’s a radio playlist. So what is the common point? Just that we want to do it. It’s just our will, and our culture, what we like. That’s all there is. And sometimes things that are done by the band are not something that all the members of the band like. For example if the percussion ensemble plays some George Crumb music – I don’t really like this guy, you know! But they play it, and I’m ok with it. And that’s also something we have decided to agree on. We agree, even if we don’t like everything.

You’ve invited a wide range of musicians to take part in 0 projects, and had works created specifically for you by people such as Steven Hess, Niko Veliotis, and Florencia Di Concilio. Can you give us some examples of how working with these people has brought the collective forward, or perhaps changed your approach?

It’s a special experience. Honestly I would say that I would like that the band has a musical direction, a very simple way of living. But it’s not the case. So we have to deal with it. So for example at one point we had this idea to ask some musicians for some scores that we would play. And we especially wanted to ask people who are never asked this – improvisers, electronic musicians, not contemporary composers. So we just said, “these are the instruments we can play, and three of us can read music, one of us cannot (that’s me!)”, and instructions like this. But it was very free. And the results that we received were so varied. We then performed those pieces – some were just graphic scores, some had verbal instructions. So that was one thing. And the other is when we invite people to perform with us. In this case I would say that we are like the Soviet Union – it’s like there is the Politburo, you know, a group of people who make the laws, and we are those people. But we are democratic people, we are really open. We take good care of who we invite, and we take good care of what they want to play. If they really don’t want something we won’t do it. We are not dictators at all. And inside the Politburo, let’s say, it’s a total democracy.

It seems like if there was any one thing at all that would define 0 or that would tie everything together, it’s the idea that everything the Collective does is a way of working through this problem of dealing with having no direction, and with this openness.

The group is self-inventing. The group is always inventing itself. After four years maybe we could have said “ok, now I could say that 0 is this, and the music could be defined like this”. But two years after, I could not say the same. It’s always changing. So it’s a bit disturbing, and at the same time, I got used to it! And we got used to it. And we kind of like it now.

I want to talk a little bit about tonight’s performance. We’re used to thinking of music as something that evokes or expresses, but it seemed to me that the music tonight wasn’t going for that at all – that each sound was just there for itself, it wasn’t trying to express some kind of grand idea. I was wondering, if not to express or evoke, then what might the role of this music be? And how does that then affect the role of the listener?

I think it’s a very good remark. I didn’t think of it in this way but I think it’s very true. It’s not a music of expression, there’s almost no emotion in it… maybe a little. But I’ve been listening a lot to very emotional music, very Romantic you could say, I’m very attracted to that, but it’s something I want to escape from. And that’s why I arrived at the point that you heard tonight, where I’m trying to avoid melody. I never liked rhythms but melodies were always my thing. I came to a point where I wanted to avoid this, because – there is one reason that I can explain – it’s because the most powerful music that I’ve heard in the last ten years was music where there was absolutely no melody or what I call emotion or romanticism in the traditional way. It was music that was very dry, very abstract, and despite that it was extremely powerful to me. And I still don’t understand exactly why. For example, today John Tillbury, the pianist, was playing on this piano here, and he has a band called AMM, a trio of English musicians. Those guys are masters of improvisation, they started in the mid-Sixties. I saw them three times, and it kind of blew my mind. It was incredible – how could this music be so powerful? Because there is no vocal, there is no melody, there is no beat, there is nothing to make people get easily into the music. And still it’s so powerful. I felt that with these kind of bands. I felt that with some paintings – sometimes you see a yellow monochrome, and you don’t know why, but you feel something very powerful in this painting, you don’t know what it is, but you know that you know what’s inside. And what happened when I saw that… I still don’t know. What happens when I see a Japanese Zen garden with just white gravel and lines in the gravel and rocks? Why do I feel something? That’s a mystery that I want to go towards. That’s why I’m searching in this musical direction. I don’t know if that answers your question but it’s all I can say.

I think that also says something about why this music has often provoked quite a lot of, quite a negative reaction from a lot of people. Because it challenge sus to question our own responses – we’re put in a position where we don’t understand our own reactions any more. And I think that can be quite disconcerting for a lot of people sometimes.

I don’t know, but the reason why this music makes some people stay out of it is simple. It’s because the most attractive things in music are voice and melodies and beats. And we bet that we can do something without those things. That’s the reason. And I think we don’t have to worry about whether they will get into it or not. When people leave during some of my shows, like tonight – it happens to me almost all the time now when I play this kind of music – I’m not really worried any more. I think you have the right to try to get into it or not, to leave or do whatever you want. There’s no explanation to this music. I don’t think you need to hear someone explaining to you for thirty minutes, “this is where this music comes from”. I could say it comes from the Fifties in the USA, and the New York School of John Cage and Morton Feldman, and those people come from another background, blah blah blah. We could have talked about this, but the sounds are just the sounds – “you like the sounds?” That’s the only question. “Do you like this sound?” If you don’t like it, it’s no problem; if you like it, then listen.

You’ve  covered a wide range of repertoire from people like Philip Glass, John Cage, Steve Reich, Morton Feldman. Is there anyone whose work you haven’t covered yet that you’d really like to take on?

With 0 we’ve covered quite a lot of musicians. But a lot of American musicians, I notice. Not only, but we also wanted to ask some living composers and some unknown composers and musicians to write pieces that we would perform. What would we like to do? It’s a democracy, so I cannot speak for the others. Personally I would be very excited to perform some Morton Feldman music. The other guys have done some, well we have done some together, but he’s maybe one of my favourite composers of all time, and Joël from the band is also a huge, huge fan. But I don’t think it’s very interesting to do. There are two things – there are our tastes, and there is the question, is it interesting to do it? Because Feldman is quite well played all around the world. There are recordings of all his music. Same for John Cage – I’m very very interested in John Cage, and so is Stéphane and Joël, but there are some pieces by Cage that – you don’t need to do them. Because even if it changes all the time –

Like “4”33”, for example…

Actually the first recording of 0 was dedicated to this piece. It was several recordings of this piece. Even just this piece, we could talk about it for hours – it was the hardest thing to play for us when we played it in concert. It was the longest time in rehearsals, because we had to document and talk about how do we perform it. And it was so interesting. I could drop you names, but… I’m not the only one to decide, so it is hard to answer this question. In the future we’ll see.

One more question, regarding your solo work. You mention on your website that you’re working on quite a long piece…

Oh yes! Actually it’s a good time to talk about it, because I think the piece is finished right now. And it took me eight years to know how to finish it. I had the idea in 2004, and I just finished it, I would say, a few days ago. So the concept of the piece was to make something extremely long – seven years – something you cannot listen to in one go, you cannot listen to the whole thing. And it’s mainly silence. There is almost no sound for almost seven years, but there are a few moments where there are sounds. I had this idea, a moment of my life when I was obsessed by silence in music, and with pushing the boundaries of the structures of music. So that’s why seven years, that’s why it’s almost silent. But to make no sound for seven years would be too easy, so I wanted to have some moments of sound. There are eighteen moments of sound. The first sound arrives after three months or something. So there were a lot of questions about how to do that. Can you perform that somewhere? Can we have a room somewhere in the world for seven years? Can musicians come this day, February 17th, and play for one hour and then leave? How would the instruments be tuned, where would they be tuned? The final decision I made was to make a recorded piece. It’s not performed by musicians live, it’s a recording. And one of the answers for the diffusion of it was to make it through the Internet. So maybe within a few weeks I’ll be able to put this piece online, so you will be able to listen to it, if you find the website, it’s streaming, and you can see where you are in the piece. And the eighteen moments of sounds are sometimes very slowly coming, so you will have to listen very carefully to check, is there some sound or is there not? That will be the main question during seven years!

It reminds me a little of a piece by an artist called Katie Paterson, who modified a record player to play Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” at the speed of the Earth’s rotation. Then there’s a John Cage piece somewhere, being played on a modified organ…

Yes, it’s in Germany. It’s a piece called “As Slow As Possible”, and the version that they started to do a few years ago is to last for 639 years. That’s quite a long composition! I just recently heard a time-stretched version of a song by Justin Bieber, like a three-hour version, and it’s… really ambient! Very beautiful, and the voice sounds like a choir…

0’s latest album “La Musique en mouvement contraire” is available for listening and purchase on their Bandcamp site

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