Born in 1952, Philippe Fénelon is not just a composer. He is that rarest of beings: a multidisciplinary artist. True, he has studied music at the École nationale de musique in Orléans and at the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse in Paris (where he was a composition student in Olivier Messiaen’s class and where he received his premier prix in 1977). But as he is a staunch defender of the use of memory as creative inspiration, both individually (autobiography plays a major role) as well as historically (thus the collective memory), his creativity has found an outlet in writing books, as well as for the screen.
His work on individual memory has taken literary form with autobiography playing a predominant role (he has kept a personal diary for forty years). The major part of this work is as yet unreleased but is destined for publication. An avid reader, Philippe Fénelon prefers novels to poetry, with a special preference for the literature of the 19th century (his fascination for Flaubert has not kept him from enjoying Sand or Du Camp). His choices for inspiration in his operatic and concert works are an example of this marked tendency (Cervantès, Cortázar, Flaubert, Goethe, Hebbel, Kafka, Lenau, Rilke, Segalen, Tagore, Chekhov). His literary inclination is furthered by his passion for languages, especially the Slavic, as attested by his study of Bulgarian and his academic work at the Ecole des langues orientales. Multiple other languages are a part of his impressive linguistic repertoire: German, English, Spanish, French, Latin and Russian.
His work on collective memory involves the screen. Philippe Fénelon has directed several films, including portraits of alter egos in the process of creating: the Sri-Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, mixed media artist Anne-Marie Pécheur, the Germano-Chilean composer Leni Alexander and the Argentinean author Julio Cortázar. These films have all been screened at major international film festivals.
Both personal and collective memories are embodied in his music in two manners, and together they form the backbone of his catalogue. For the voice, whether sung or destined to be played by an instrument, his writing has a certain element of abstraction where, combined with his vivid imagination, the meaning of the words is not immediately furthered. Then in terms of the performer’s physicality (a realm that Philippe Fénelon knows well since he has himself accompanied a great many vocalists and musicians), vocal gestures are added. This brings a crucial theatricality to his work, used to explain an abundantly lyric repertoire that is both sung and choreographed. Institutions and renowned performers have premiered his works. The Opéra national de Paris, the Bolshoï Theatre, the Théâtre du Châtelet, the Opéra national de Bordeaux and the Opéra national de Toulouse and for the performers (in addition to the orchestras of the above prestigious houses) let us mention Michel Arrignon, Florent Boffard, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, Florent Jodelet, Joëlle Léandre, the Arditti quartet and the Belcea quartet.
Resident at the Casa Vélasquez in Spain before being invited to Berlin by the Deutscher Akademischer Austauchdienst, Philippe Fénelon has been the recipient of numerous prizes: the Stockhausen Prize, the Georges Wildenstein Prize, the Prix Hervé Dugardin/SACEM, a grant from the Fondation Beaumarchais, the Villa Médicis hors les murs Prize, and the Prix Musique/SACD and the Grand Prix de la Musique Symphonique/SACEM.
To sum it up, Philippe Fénelon has a wide vision of the world and of his place in that world…
Translation Alyssa Landry