Interview on occasion of the release of Album 01 and Album 02, Spring 2017
How did you start creating your music?
By chance, following an amusing sequence of events.
In Kyoto, houses are not isolated: you hear what your neighbors do, and they hear you.
Every day for four years now, I have been playing the shakuhachi, as a self-taught amateur. I dare not play too loudly, or for too long, so as not to disturb my neighbors. Last november my neighbor’s wife took to the piano and played the same ten measures, every day, for several weeks, for hours on end. In Japan, the expression of conflict is avoided, so I was thinking on a diplomatic solution, at first by looking for a way to practice shakuhachi silently. I was also thinking of acquiring an electronic piano, which can be played with headphones, so that I could welcome pianist friends to my house and to demonstrate this silent function to my neighbors, adapted to the repetitive practice of a beginner.
I then stumbled upon by chance a kind of electronic clarinet: the Akai EWI. This silent instrument led me to obtain other electronic tools and to explore the world of music creation software. I watched video tutorials on the Internet, tested different products, and quickly chose my main music creation software: Apple’s Logic Pro X.
I started making photography ten years ago only because I found software with which I was comfortable, and which enabled me to develop my photos as I wished: Adobe Lightroom. I was not intimidated by the interface of Logic – which can look terribly complex to a beginner – because I had this previous digital creation experience with Lightroom.
I composed the first song in less than an hour.
The others came very quickly.
And of course I work with headphones, without disturbing the neighbors…
What is the relationship between your music and your photography?
The most important step in my work as a photographer is not the fleeting moment when I press the shutter button, but the later one of development, without a temporal limit. It is in the development that I extract, from the captured raw material, the intensity not of what I saw, but of what I felt. Not perception, but emotion.
The photographer, when he does not document or simply duplicate reality, is – I am speaking here of myself – a person with a kind of complex, someone who would love to be a painter but does not know how to draw. Contemporary computer tools let me, by applying various filters to the light captured by the lens, to transform, to reveal, and to extract the emotion of which my eye has had the brief intuition.
My music comes under the same disposition. If I do not know how to draw, I know even less how to compose: I am in front of the piano like a person who cannot read or write, in front of a typewriter. Technology allows me to use existing compositions (notes in the form of midi files, not sounds) and to apply different filters to them. If I did not indicate the sources, essentially, they would probably not be recognized.
The transformations I make are very simple: conversion of the score into a five-note Japanese scale, tonal and octave transposition, tempo and velocity modification. These can be carried out with a few clicks. I cannot help feeling a little ashamed by the simplicity of this process, which nevertheless gives the homogeneity, the specific sound, to the whole of what I produce.
The next step is to choose which colors, which sound textures to apply to each line of music using amazing contemporary digital libraries. I have always loved the sound of the piano, and I began by exploring, in particular, its sound register.
As a photographer, I have an acute awareness of the lower value of my images compared to those of a painter or draftsman.
This applies even more to my music pieces: I do not really feel like a musician but more like an arranger, a Sunday cook. I understand the basic nature of these early pieces. But as the process of creation is joyful and fluid, and as I re-listen with pleasure to what emerges from this process, I have allowed myself to share them.
What relationship between your music and Japanese aesthetics?
From where I live in Kyoto since 2008, my project has been to share the extraordinary opportunity I have of being able to come into contact with the intense, profound beauty that I am amazed to discover here.
But in the last few years, I have found myself confronting a frustrating limit: for those who do not experience Japan directly, regardless of the number of words used or of the number of photos proposed, what you seek to transmit is not conveyed.
Those who come to Kyoto will then tell you: « Ah yes, that’s exactly it. » But those who do not have this chance – even with the best of intentions, even with passion – remain outside the real patterns that you try to point to in your writing and photos.
Over time, I have become convinced that the fundamental key to all Japanese aesthetics is found in calligraphy. And in particular, in four of its structures:
- the asymmetry, subtle, systematic
- the ma-間, the inter-space, which can only be appreciated via a frame
- the intensity, or a non-linguistic presence inside the instant-今 of each stroke
- the flow, the tao-道
I have written dozens of pages on this subject, but how to convey these elements to all those who will never trace an ideogram with a brush in their lives, who will never experience it in their wrist, in their body? Rather than explaining them in a commentary, wouldn’t presenting them in accessible works be more effective?
These elementary structures are identical in all the Japanese arts. The tea ceremony, noh theater, the gardens, the poetry, and of course, the music. My intuition is that their strength comes from their resonance with the forms found in nature (a mountain forest), but also with the forms of our flow of consciousness.
It was my everyday experience of shakuhachi and calligraphy that allowed me to identify them.
In a sense, one might note in my story a kind of loop: my first Japanese emotion came from listening to two vinyl records of “zen” music, played in shakuhachi, which I bought with my pocket money when I was 13 years old. This music, which I listened to continuously, gave me access to asymmetry, to ma, to the frame, the trance, the flow – all without my being able to give names to these elements.
In calligraphy, we often use Chinese proverbs of several characters, which are taken from Zen Buddhism. In the history of shakuhachi, one of these proverbs (禅語-zengo) is particularly important: 一音成仏-Ichi On Jô Butsu – (one – sound – become – Buddha). Becoming Buddha in one sound. To explore spiritually, in the moment of one note, the world and oneself, in order to attain enlightenment on the nature of things and move on to a higher state.
At a micro-scale, without being grandiose or disproportionate to the project, 一音成仏 inspires my music.
The photo above is of a calligraphy work I created in the fall of 2016 by inscribing the four characters of 一音成仏 in the form of the ideogram for “mountain” – 山.
Why not create shakuhachi albums?
I am regularly asked this question: why not record shakuhachi albums instead of creating songs with my computer? The answer is simple: playing as an amateur does not allow for the mastery of technical virtuosity and expressiveness that can only come from years of intensive practice, and which are imperative to propose quality instrumental recordings.
The computer liberates the requisite technical virtuosity, which until now has been a sine qua non condition of producing music. It allows for the creation of what one could never accomplish as an instrumentalist.
It is undoubtedly a trick, a laziness, that prohibits access to a range of expression and richness of sound that only the trance of a virtuoso liberates. But this tool opens up possibilities that are otherwise inaccessible. There is no reason to beat oneself up for a lack of competence and to refrain from creating, lightly, joyfully. These two first albums are a testimony to these possibilities, and I hope that they will inspire others to embark with curiosity and happiness in producing an unpretentious music that would not otherwise exist. Should we refrain from photography if we do not know how to draw?
What are your non-Japanese influences?
Bach played by Gould remains one of the fundamental architectures of my relationship to the world. The variation on a framework both formal and thematic as in the Well-Tempered Clavier, the stratified echoes, intellectually complicit, playful joy mingled with the depth of all ranges of emotion in short pieces, constitutes a model that fascinates me.
I was amazed to discover all of these elements present in Asian calligraphy. This is why, besides for its specific qualities, it moves me so much.
Ella Fitzgerald is the great love of my life. The triple album where she sings Duke Ellington was, at 18, one of my biggest aesthetic “shocks.” This perfect, transcendent virtuosity belongs to the register of the gods. I have no sense of lightness and swing, which is close to the Japanese asymmetry mentioned above. But this light illuminates my days.
It was completely by chance that I discovered on YouTube a few years ago “Master Class” videos by Kenny Werner, a New York pianist, and his book, « Effortless Mastery« , where he evokes the trust to give into the trance. Everything that Kenny Werner explains, especially about Thelonius Monk, Watazumido, one of the most important shakuhachi players of the last century, could formulate identically.
Indeed, it was in hearing Kenny Werner that I came to understand 一音成仏 – Ichi On Jô Butsu …
3) Minimalist music
The minimalist music of Satie, Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt moves me. It at once mirrors a melancholic mood that comes from solitude, but at the same time, in its cyclic, predictable aspect, a welcoming comfort: a solitude where one does not feel alone.
Minimalist music also makes it possible to enter into a kind of light meditative state that fits perfectly with certain tasks. Editing photos, for example. Or driving on long trips.
In Western painting, which has been worked by the subject-background question, a form emerges on a background. Art in general produces shapes, arouses a kind of activation of consciousness centered on the shape. In minimalist music, you accept that there is only a background, an atmosphere rather than an emotional crest: it does not impose or impress, but accompanies. This diffuse aspect, which may sound bland to some, may lead us to place this music in some kind of subcategory. Music that does not aim at the sublime or to fascination: is it art, or a simple entertainment, a comfort? Is the value judgment or classification of a work into a category (for example, inspiration vs. comfort) really important, if it feels good?
4) Film music
The exploration of digital sound libraries available today is breathtaking. You can play with dimensions of music that were inaccessible to previous generations. Textures of sound that do not have the linear vibration of earlier synthesizers, but are based on the recording of authentic instruments. I take a lot of pleasure with this aspect. A little like a pastry cook who could use all imaginable ingredients, without limits.
Contemporary film music composers create, with assistance from these resources, soundscapes of a vibrant beauty. Einaudi and Hans Zimmer are in this way sources of unconscious inspiration for me.
I have the sense that my pieces could constitute a soundtrack for movies. Anyone who can help me get in touch with this world would make me very happy.
How would you describe your first two albums?
In my first album, This album is a « winter » album, in monochrome. It was composed largely in Manigod, in the French Alps. I tried to capture the sounds of snow. One may have the feeling of freshness, a kind of virginity, from the fact that they are really first works, first candid discoveries.
Listening to it, the album forms a whole and I am surprised to enjoy it in loop on long journeys by car.
The second piece, « Gödel, » is perhaps the most characteristic. I started from a shakuhachi recording of a play entitled 虚空鈴慕-Kokureibo (« the bell in the empty sky« ), a major piece of the classical Japanese repertoire associated with Zen. I transformed the original sound file into a midi score, then played this score with a piano with a crystalline sound. I loved highlighting the absence of a melodic line, the sensation of organized randomness, such as when one looks at big snowflakes falling, the ma-間, the space between the notes, the confident, nostalgic slowness like a sound that happily escapes, like a puppy playing. A long time ago, I called my first dog (a very simple-minded Dalmatian) Gödel, in reference to Hofstadter’s « Gödel, Escher, Bach« . I miss this dog terribly. Every snowflake of sound in this piece reminds me of a memory, of his smile.
This first album also has an amusing anecdote. Bruno Monsaingeon and Ivan Moshchuk came to spend a weekend in Manigod in January 2017, while I was creating this album. The photograph that illustrates track 10, « Le Rire de Bruno, » (Bruno in shorts, in January, at the Col des Aravis) captures this incredibly privileged, happy moment.
In his first album, Ivan interprets Bach’s prelude in E Minor BWV 855a. Without telling him anything, I asked him to play this piece on the Clavinova connected to my laptop, and I recorded his interpretation in midi format. Less than an hour later, I came back and had him listen to this piece, « Le Rire de Bruno, » which is simply a transformation of what he had played. Ivan did not recognize the piece. I still see his incredulous pupils grow larger when I revealed what it was.
Often people who are with me when I take pictures have the same reaction. The final image does not resemble reality, what was before them at the time of the shot. They sometimes blame me as if I were betraying someone or something. But I would betray my feelings if I did not try to extract them.
In Western culture, the artist, like the biblical god, is bound to create ex-nihilo. If he only proceeds to modifications, to variations, to interpretations on existing forms, then he is not a « real » artist. This a priori is so strong that it can go so far as to stifle the joy one can take in variation. I am just beginning to allow myself this joy by finally accepting myself to be a « variator. » I prefer to interpret from what exists rather than remain frozen without creating anything in the anguish of an ex-nihilo that will never come. The variation on a standard is the heart of jazz…as well as calligraphy…
I would like to thank Ivan very, very warmly for allowing me to use this recording as well as the one for the following track 11, « Le Chagrin de la Shite« , which is a variation on Bach’s chorale BWV 599 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.
And your second album?
In the second album, the pieces are all extracted from classical Western music (Bach, Beethoven, Satie, Paganini, Chopin, Corelli, Tchaikovsky). The pieces, which are more complex, are therefore centered more on the « shape » than on the « background. » They may need to be listened to separately, and not as a sequence: too many « shapes » chained together without enough breathing in between them can produce a saturation effect. I also explore new ranges of sound. It creates a more experimental feeling. A “spring” look, like fern buds that do not have an idea of their final shape.
I liked taking the Concerto n°8 of Corelli to adapt it into a concerto for ten pianos. Each voice is associated with the specific tone of a different piano. The universes, the possible sound textures of this instrument are spectacular and without limits.
All of my songs are designed with headphones and I often play with nuances that are not conveyed if they are played on poor quality speakers or on mono. So I’d recommend at least once experiencing the music with good headphones.
What are your current projects?
I’m currently making the third album, where the theme is jazz (an “autumn” album?).
I intend to explore more deeply the tracks of my first two albums (variations on Japanese and Western classical music) as well as – if I can find the format that suits it – the integration of voice, whether sung (a « summer » album?), or spoken.
What tools do you use?
- Hardware : a 2012 Macbook Pro with 16GB RAM and an external drive, Sony MDR-CD900ST headphones, Zoom Tac-2.
- Audio software : Logic Pro X, Native Instrument Komplete Ultimate, Omnisphere and Keyscape de Spectrasonics, Izotope Music Instrument Bundle 2, Band in a Box, Adobe Audition
- Other softwares : Creative Cloud Suite for all visual material.
- Distribution platform : cdbaby.com
How can we stay informed of your new work?
- The easiest way is to follow my Twitter account: www.twitter.com/stephanebarbery
- To explore the « music » page of my site: www.barbery.net/musique
- To follow my SoundCloud page: www.soundcloud.com/sbarbery
- To follow my Spotify page: https://open.spotify.com/artist/1OKAJv4IVzyTJoxWr06s6j
Do you really offer original calligraphy to those who support your music?
Yes. Anyone who would help me to make my music known, for example, by posting a comment on any of the music diffusion sites (iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, etc.), can send me a message with their postal address, and it would be a pleasure for me to send them an original work of calligraphy.
Kyoto, May 2017
This interview can be freely used by the media, blogs, or specialized sites which would like to make this music more widely known.