Gaspar Claus is experimental cellist based in Paris, France. He did various projects in different styles. From flamenco albums with his father Pedro Soler to the experimental projects with Japanese avant-garde musicians. This conversation concentrates on Japanese culture, understanding of orient and his collaborational album Jo Ha Kyu which was recorded in Tokyo in 2013. This interview took a place in Paris, September 2016.
© M Vosgian, photo of Gaspar Claus
G.D.: You are classical cello player, right?
G.C.: I am classically trained. I started when I was five. My father is a musician and I started to study in Conservatoire De Musique De Gatineau and I was studying there till I was seventeen and since I graduated I had just one classical cello lesson.
G.D.: So why did you decide to go into experimentation instead of just staying in classical music?
G.C.: In music school they were teaching me repertoire and everything was about rehearsal, one hour every day just playing scales and the sound had to be beautiful, and beautiful meant when it is in that classical music frame so when it was going on the edge that was not a good sound for my teachers. In there I learned a lot but at the same time in this conservatory I started a little bit improvising by myself after classes. Then, I was invited to the non-official school which was happening on Wednesday evening very late, when everything is closed and there was one dance teacher, one music teacher and one painting teacher and they did open class of generative improvisation which I know is still on but this was a very first year. The class was for one hour or two hours and there were many musicians with different instruments and we were starting from nothing and we had like half an hour to play one piece from nothing. There was no indication. And at the end of the year I realized that we made a progress in playing together from nothing and working on the element of freedom. There was no other support to listen what was happening around me and to challenge myself in experimental level. So I think that it was very important moment for me to get into that experimental class and also not having scores made me not want to play rhythms and melodies and harmonies but more like to explore quality of sound and to play music using quality of sound more than notes. However, experimental is a word I do not appreciate because this is my problem if I am experimenting with things to reach something else. And I do not want to share an experiment itself, I want to share music.
G.D.: And about you father Pedro Soler, you did quite a few projects with him, is he playing more classical music or does he also like to explore experimental approaches?
G.C.: My father plays flamenco guitar and he is not up for experimentation at all. He represents the old school of flamenco before Paco De Lucia. Which in my opinion is extremely modern, because for me modernity is more about the experimental music in America like John Cage, Henry Flynt and these guys they went to minimalism and from minimalism we build a modernity of contemporary sound. This minimalism is to take time to listen to one note and see what is happening inside that one note and that is a great beginning to paly music. And I think people like my father they don’t know but they play music that way as well, because they are not trying to show what they can do technically with instrument. They are more in the research of quality of the sound. For me, it is something extremely modern to be routed as my father is to the old school of flamenco. However, when we play together he has a frame and the frame has to be, and this is very important to him, it has to be extremely precise and strong and I like this. This is not only that Pedro Soler wants to be in this frame but there is a whole tradition that is based on it. But there is some strong things that my father creates from it. You know that concept of freedom from negative liberty of freedom? It is like one cannot be free without having a closed territory or frame. You go inside that frame and you have all that freedom to do whatever you want within that frame. I feel that was a case when I played with my father, because I was just playing inside the frame that he gave me and he explained to me how it works for each style and then sometimes I had opportunity to do completely non-traditional things within it.
G.D: You did quite a few projects with Japanese artists. How many times have you been to Japan overall?
G.C: I think eight times.
G.D: And every time you did different projects or you just traveled?
G.C: I was really digging a lot on music and going quite far and a lot of music that I could not listen anymore nowadays, which was really extreme. And then I discovered Kazuki Tomokawa on the blog called mute sound and he is a drunk, punk poet, really intense and so I’ve been listening of his few albums, and I was very touched by his voice. That was something extremely intance and I send it to my friend Mathieu Saura (Vincent Moon), because we were exchanging new discoveries a lot at that time, and he really liked it, though neither me neither him did not understood anything he was saying. And so time passed, I was still listening to it and Mathieu writes me: Hey, I am cleaning my mailbox and I found this letter from few months from this Japanese guy, he is a great fan of Tomokawa and he want me to come and make a movie about him, do you want to go? and I was like, yeah of course I want to. And the guy who wrote it was Naohito Koike, he was producer for almost all of my projects in Japan. Naohito was an accouner and he deceded to leave everything, put his life in danger and become a music producer, and he started with producing a movie about Tomokawa Kazuki directed by Vincent Moon. I was following Mathieu a lot at this time with microphones and recording a sound. We spend like a month following Tomokawa, meeting that amazing character and drinking loads with him, like from morning to morning and descovering what a great artist he was and remain that movie La Faute Des Fleurs and that was made in 2009. And I also brought my chello, because Naohito knew my music, and he made me play with Tomokawa for few solo shows and he also orgnised meetings with other musicians and at the and of La Faute Des Fleurs shooting Naohito told me that I have to come back and we will make an album together, and I liked this idea but I did not know what album I should do and at that moment I had no ideas. And at that time I was listening to Otomo Yoshihide, and he is like a god to me and Haino Keiji also. And Naihito was like, are there any musicians you want to work with? And I was like, Otomo Yoshihide? and he said, yeah yeah it is possible. I asked for Haino Keiji, and he said that it is possible as well. And I was also a big fan of Hiromashi Sakamoto who is like huge diva in Japan and Naohito said that he can manage to involve him as well. And originally he wanted me to play improvised duets with all of these artists. But when I came back to France I wrote him that I don’t want to do that , because I think that it would be extremely boring, just an album of me playing with that guy and them me playing that guy and then again me again playing with another guy, it is not a good idea. But then I was reading a book from this french author that I concider as one of my music teacher his name is Pascal Quignard and he wrote a book called La Haine de la Musique [The Hatred of Music ] and it is really good book about music and silence which is very important for me. And on one moment he says this example of Japanese form of music writing called Jo Ha Kyu and he translate this into, penetration, tearing apart and acceleration. And I went to the place about Japan in Paris which had a books about this Jo Ha Kyu and it came out to be not like a music style but more like a way of approaching life, philosophical proposition and it is three strong words and I thought that it would be possible to work on this. So I called Naohito and told him that I am coming and we will be making Jo Ha Kyu. So, that was a second time I came to Japan, and then after that Naohito Koike invited me many times to play in concerts with Tomokawa Kazuki, with Kakushin Nishihara and other people. And I haven’t been there for three years and I am going back there in January, which is very exciting.
G.D.: What Japanese experimental artists influenced you the most? Where have you gotten your main inspiration?
G.C.: These guys come to Europe quite often, they played in venues in Paris, Cafe Oto in London and I saw Keiji Haino in Berlin, and at that time I was seeking for violence in music. Violence has a lot of different forms, it is not only GG Allin puking and killing himself on the stage, and violence for me can be even stronger when it is extremely contained. In Japanese culture, I don’t remember exactly what it was but I saw someone playing shamisen in the concert with the orchestra and I watched this guy who took maybe fifteen/twenty minutes to raise his hand up from down of his knees to his head, to play one note in a whole concert but he prepared for that one note for twenty minutes and that was the only thing that he did for that one and a half hour length show but that note just opened extremely violently the whole space. By listening to them I decided that music was a moment when you break a silence and you can always hear struggle between sound and silence in Japanese music. So I started to listen to a lot of Japanese musicians like Sachiko M, I believe she is still Otomo’s wife, I saw her once in venue in Paris and it was a two hour long concert and it was in front of 600-700 people, maybe more. She was alone, facing a table and for the first minute nothing happens, and after super long minute of nothing happening she pushed a button and the sine wave appears, like in Jo Ha Kyu beginning, and that sound stayed like this and she is again just standing and it was like that for one minute, two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes and the beginning of this you can hear people in the crowd moving in their chairs, some of them laughing, some of them whispering, nothing happens. Just at the end of that show, after 45 minutes of same sound, she did just some minimum changes in that sound, but of course she did some, because compered to nothing happening even small changes are something big and surprisingly at the end everyone was hypnotized, no one was moving at all and everyone was just hypnotized which impressed me a lot. Talking about Otomo Yoshihide, he has piece called Red Consume that starts with a sample from LP of traditional Japanese music and when I listen to this piece it is so radical. Everyone around me at that time was listening to pop or classical music and in Japanese music I finally hear some real pieces that provokes very deep emotion and understanding of world through music if you take time to listen them. Also, Heino Keiji on stage, he just physically takes a sound out of the instrument that he is playing. So these three artists are extremely important for me. But also, I’ve seen concerts with taiko drums and I saw it from the movie called Steps Across the Border and in this movie they show drum factory in Japan and you can also see all that ritual of drumming and I was fascinated by it. This physical investment in drums and just the way they use this drum, one stich for very deep sound and other stick just slightly vibrating skin and making higher sound and the combination of it creates that tension that I love in Japanese music. So Leonard Eto, who plays in the third part on the record in Jo Ha Kyu appeared because I really wanted someone who could create that tension with taiko drum. And just after a while working with Leonard I realised that I heard him before playing with Siouxsie and the Banshees. So actually I did not feel like mixing traditional music with modern music, because I believe that Heino Keiji plays traditional Japanese music, for me it is what traditional music became and if you listen to Kakushin Nishihara and the way she plays with her biwa it is same energy and the same approach and same way of using an instrument like Heino Keiji. For me this is just time, like time goes and we change and music changes and if you want to listen to what most of the people call traditional music you go to the museum and see how boring it is. To see all those people who try to play exactly the same way like it was played ages ago. We don’t care about that. So I did not have a feeling of doing some sort of confrontation between modernity and tradition. You know musical genres fusion? Like jazz mixed with electronics or anything else. I don’t like this word, I think with the fusion you loose something, you loose two things that were at the beginning and you get something new. I like collision, it is like to cultures, two identities that are on their ways for so long and on one point we don’t know reasons what happened but they just confront each other and from that you get a third thing without distorting first two and they provoke each other. And if this does not happen that culture just gets repetitive and kills itself. I met a lot of musicians in Mongolia who want to play in Paris in The Théâtre de la Ville but the problem was that their arguments were: I am a master because I play exactly as my grandfather was playing. And that is not true because you want to play in The Théâtre de la Ville and his grandfather was playing for his goats because that singing was supposed to help goats produce milk, this was the reason why they was singing back then, they weren’t singing for critical audiences which is our culture, they were singing for just ordinary life purpose. So when a guy tells you I am singing exactly as my grandfather was, maybe he plays the same notes but he loose the reason of singing. And the reason why we play music is the definition of musical culture. Some people play music to get access to invisible world or to become a man (go from child to adult). But don’t say that you do things as it was long time ago if you end up on a western musical stage. I just don’t believe in this. But if collision happens, and it confronts something entirely different, then it becomes interesting.
G.D.: When I was in Japan I felt something. When you go in some sort of traditional place or even if you just listen to it, it is just does not feel real, with all of those costumes, it just brings a question, what this is? This is not tradition, it is a parody of it. Their grandparents used this music and dances as way of communicating and it was a part of society and now people made a theater out of it. As you said they are doing everything in the same way, but they loose the purpose of doing it and it is a main thing of that tradition in a first place.
G.C.: Yes, this is a very similar thing. It has something very fake in it. But for example Leonard Eto, taiko player, he came to record Jo Ha Kyu with the whole traditional Japanese outfit and at first I was a bit skeptic about it. But he is good; I mean he is really good, really excellent musician. But it is a whole game, and it works, it keeps him busy: he has a takeaway in America, Italia and he is a part of a huge band and people like seeing these things because it imitates a contact with some strong, close identity. Kakushin Nishihara, I asked her for biwa to Naohito and I had to pick her up in train station and I was expecting 60 years old woman with kimono and biwa, and she arrives with pink hair, tattoos on her face, long nails with many different colors and very free style outfit. For me it was very unexpected, and she carries this instrument that is 800 years old and she plays that repertoire from another time but all of her habits are from nowadays existence. Best thing is that she is not even conscious of this, she does not represent something, this is what she is, she learned those repertoires, she is an amazing musician and at the same time she wants to eat at McDonalds and she is an Instagram addict and she is a child of our time. Some people can’t decide how to bring traditional music into a modern place, but she does it without making decision of doing it, she is this. On stage on Kintsugi performance she has biwa and she has this score and she is extremely solid. Me and Serge Teyssot-Gay we just attacking her with guitar and cello sounds and we do some really hard stuff for her voice but she had not even slightest problem with it. Sometimes she would bring light sensors which would control a sound wave and make some really hardcore noise and after that she would just take her biwa and continuous singing. So she is a reincarnation of this modernity and tradition fusion process.
G.D.: This is great. Coming back to Jo Ha Kyu project. Was it completely improvised? Or did it have a score or some graphical notation?
G.C.: No, it actually has scores. Everything was about in which order I recorded each artist, they never played together for the album. So I started with Leonard Eto and drums, I asked him to make 10 minutes long acceleration with explosion. Then I went to studio and with my cello I recorded a lot of material and this not supposed to be on the record at the end but it was for giving it to the ears of the musicians in order to direct their improvisations. I invited them one by one to come to studio and to record and I was recording it at day and editing it at night. So I build that piece that way. But I had a plan and it looks like this [see pictures] and then we made a live show from that score. So, this is Jo, the yellow boxes are just translations to Japanese, the beginning I said to play like a very first sound of the universe, and when it comes to it everybody plays that. So I let everyone decide what is the first sound of universe is to him or her but we play it all together at the same time. Then after that supposed to be the resonance of that first sound, so just the echoes of the first sound. Moreover was solo part of Eiko Ishibashi, then I am joining them, after a while Eiko Ishibashi stops playing and Kakushin Nishihara joins instead of him so everyone has its own moment and that is the end of Jo part. And it was a little like this when we recorded it. I had a plan of recording a new session; I was going to ask this guy to record Kazuki Tomokawa. Tomokawa arrives totally drunk at 9am and he was really rude, he was like what do you want from me? Which song do you want me to sing? And I was like, what do you mean? Tomokawa: Just tell me a song, I will sing it and I will go. And I was like, no, I don’t need you to sing any song I want you to make something new. And then he started question me like what do you think you are and etcetera. I told him that I make a story through my music and it is full of Yōkai’s [Japanese supernatural monsters] and these demons are presented in this album in different moments and different ways. And Tomokawa he comes from Akita region in Japan and I was looking into all of the demons from Akita and one of their names was Namahage and I asked Tomokawa to sing a song that as little child about that monster. At the end, when all album was finished he listened to it and he really liked the idea. So basically I just told them what I wanted to be and left it for musicians imagination.
G.D.: So what were your exact intentions with this project? What did you tell the artists when you showed them that score?
G.C.: It depends on the artist. For instance to Eiko Ishibashi I told her that this is emptiness right after creation of universe and there is nothing but wind and little elements that are lost in the wind and you are the very first human, a little girl, and you are alone, scared and lost; nothing around you and you sing just to yourself a little song to reinsure yourself. So this is the only thing I told her. Nisihara Kakushin was at this very beginning of the universe where was a ghost of old samurais and they were still fighting but fighting emptiness. I don’t remember what I gave to Yoshihide Otomo, because he was playing though all the piece, and the piece was already done and I just gave him headphones and let him do whatever he felt like doing. I did not know how it works with turntable things.
G.D.: You said that at the beginning, Naohito suggested for you to make album with each of the musicians in duo, is bonus tracks are kind of like it?
G.C.: Bonus tracks weren’t really connected to the first idea. I did not know those guys before playing with them and Naohito just called them and invited them to come. So those bonus tracks are more like introducing ourselves to each other through improvisation just in order to meet. That is why it is called contact one, contact two.
G.D.: Ok, that makes sense. But generally when I watched a trailer for this album and was just really well improvised session which was quite noisy and had a lot of chaos in it and that was a reason why I expected something very tough and noise-like like from this album. And I was surprised, when I heard calm, organized and well thought through pieces.
G.C.: I would never do that again. But I am very happy that I did it. I am doing an exactly opposite now. I am starting with beautiful music and taking people with it and convincing that I am taking them into good/nice place. And then I slowly go into sounds that they never think they would be able to listen and I like working this way. Jo Ha Kyu was my very first album and those first five minutes made any bad listener leave I was 26 then and it looked like a good idea. And after, for few who stayed I give beautiful amplitudes.
G.D.: You said that now you do other way around, you start nicely and slowly go to chaos, but the Kinstugi project you do with Kakushin is it also other way around?
G.C.: With her, maybe not. But I think everything starts quite calm in Kintsugi. It actually starts very quietly. At the beginning it is even quite bluesy, and it goes in that harmonic way for quite some time. And then, after three minutes, there is some hard, experimental stuff happening. So it is also one of my new directions, I would not start with noisy part. Maybe I will change, maybe I will get back to radicalism. Lately I’ve seen some really radical shows that made me think that I might want to get back to it.
G.D.: So you did not mean to make this as a tradition and modernity crossover that just happened on its own?
G.C.: Yes, but after a while I involved myself into that. I wanted to make collisions and I liked this idea of having an actual thing and giving a vivid moment to the tradition. So it is not that I don’t care about that. Jo Ha Kyu for me was ‘give me three words and I will give you piece of music’, and we continued to do that. If we say green window and peace, I would just make a piece out of it that starts from green and goes to the window and for me it is enough to compose music. So coming back to the question, I never pretend that I was a specialist in any traditional music I try not to specialize myself. That project was not to about connecting tradition with modernity. For me it is supernatural. It is like when people talk about electronic music. I just don’t understand why people talk about it. For me it is music played by electronic instrument and it makes a big difference. Because of that epilation of electronic music two worlds are completely separated. It is not easy to find instrumental musicians plying with electronic musicians, because they do not speak the same language, because they don’t belong to the same field. So about tradition, so the Jo Ha Kyu musicians, they are instrumentalists. And I wasn’t putting Kakushin to the to the traditional box and Otomo Yoshide to the modern box. And for me, I had exactly the same relationship to the one and to the other. I did not felt a relationship with a tradition or modernity I just felt relationship with great musicians.