REACH, episode 1: Joëlle Léandre, a Distinguished Guest

For once, this follow-up series to an artistic research residency doesn't open with the artist-researcher in charge of the project (in this case Gérard Assayag, with Mikhail Malt and Marco Fiorini), but with one of his guests: Joëlle Léandre. For REACH's subject is improvisation - specifically, man/machine improvisation, which presupposes modeling improvisation before making the machine capable of it. And when it comes to improvisation, Joëlle Léandre is a pro.

One of the greatest, no doubt, by all accounts

If I had to choose one word to describe her, it would probably be "improviser". But even that might be reductive. So, rather than try to fit her portrait into a few lines, let's let her have her tell us, using a few of the well-intentioned phrases she may coin in the course of a conversation.

First, by way of warning: "I'm very direct. It upsets some people." Then, "I'm not an intellectual. "It clears the head to talk nonsense, especially in the world we live in." "I'm a rebel, all the way out of the big academies, awards and all that junk I've received. I don't like hierarchies. So my domain is not 'the work', which is totally hierarchical." "We're constantly vibrating, like bees. I'm a big bee. I forage."

"I'm the woman on her feet! With this instrument, this double bass, this empty piece of wood, like a raft, or a barrel - without wine." "I'm a storyteller. Before I die, I may just break out into a fit of laughter that no one will understand."

And, last but not least, her motto: Savoir ne pas savoir (lit. knowing not to know).

Joëlle Léandre knows the basements of IRCAM, and the world of musical research is dear to her heart. In the 1980s, she was invited there by American trombonist George Lewis to work on improvisation. She was also a freelance double bassist with the Ensemble intercontemporain, under the baton of Pierre Boulez and Michel Tabachnik. This time, it was Gérard Assayag who came looking for her feeling that the tools he and his team were developing were powerful enough to provide the answer to this great lady of improvisation.

For Joëlle Léandre, improvisation has become "a model of life, a model of existence". "There's no time to think in improvisation," she says. You just have time to organize. For me, it's a craft. You'd have to put sensors on an improviser's head to know what's going on there: that speed, that anticipation of listening, while at the same time recording everything that goes by. A thousandth of a second, resonance, echo, error too. It takes a very long time to set up the process, and here too, it's a personal quest. It's such a muddle, I even wonder if the subject of improvisation isn't molecular in nature!"

As it happens, during her residency at IRCAM, she will be improvising with a machine controlled by Gérard Assayag, Mikhaïl Malt, and a few others. But for her, it makes no difference, "They have their tools, I have mine. The more you know about your tool, the freer you are, the better you can talk and play together. That's where an encounter is born, which gives rise to a philosophical and existential search. I don't know anything about their machine, and they didn't know anything about my tool when we started working together. It's a question of putting our tools in resonance, of establishing a state of signs, of sound matter and above all an intimate trust, a state of love - or just like it - to go towards the other. After which, we invent, have fun, adjust or disturb. It's not the work, it's even the anti-work. It's a total adventure. A risk. I've always liked risks: maybe I'm a kamikaze? But as Beckett wrote: Try again, fail again, fail better."

"Vivent les ratages!" (lit. "Long live failures!") she concludes, and what better definition of research, and a fortiori, of artistic research?

More info about the REACH project