Attahir - Et nous tournions...

Attahir - Et nous tournions...

Et nous tournions autour de ces fontaines hallucinées (2016) by Benjamin Attahir

Where does the title of your new opus come from? What is your relationship with the Stravinsky Fountain, next to the Centre Pompidou and IRCAM [Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music)]?

That’s the exact question I wanted the audience to ask themselves. At first glance, the title appears to be a quotation or a phrase taken from a literary work, but in reality it’s a manifesto of the piece’s formal plan. Like Mussorgsky in his Tableaux d'une exposition [Pictures from an Exhibition], I suggest a kind of stroll encircling the Stravinsky Fountain installation by Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely. Each of the sculptures features musically: their motoric, unyielding aspect; their signature sound, the ripples and streams of water; their lines and colours… Everything is seen through the filter of muffled, reverberating, self-contained perception, as if the author of this personal fiction, under the influence of certain multi-coloured pills (that are “good” for you), was tirelessly roaming these hallucinated fountains without ever finding a way to escape from his “chemical” revolution.

Is La Mort [Death] the most Stravinskian of these evocations?

Actually, it’s the part that gives the biggest notion of this score’s Stravinskian substrate. I was overwhelmed by a strong sense of the carnivalesque, in all senses of the word, when I saw this sculpture. The music that has crystallised around this image also has a puppetlike side, laughable and ridiculous, or caricatured; it’s something that brings me closer to Stravinsky’s Petrushka, or more precisely L’histoire du Soldat [The Soldier’s Story], with its brilliantly haphazard music. In general, aside from feeling connected to French music, strongly influenced by the East and my origins, the shadow of the Russian giant hovers irrepressibly over my music.

Your writing, with its great rhythmic rigour, is very lively and meticulous. Dynamics are used very sparingly, usually with the volume limited, with the exception of the explosive conclusion which consists of three bars marked “furioso”. How can your writing be characterised?

This score is distinctive in my production because in some ways it is programme music, which for me is extremely rare, and which was, in the present case, a real artistic risk. By virtue of its construction and its bias, this piece is somewhat “borderline”, extreme in a sense, because it goes to the edge of a principle, until it flirts with the limits of repetitive saturation. As for the very limited dynamics, there are several responses to that question. As the project is a representation of the sound and visual sensations produced by the Stravinsky Fountain, I tried to recreate the distinct water streams of the machines through the faint and near-pointillist swishing of the ensemble. Furthermore, the compelling aspects of this score are not carved out by the moderation of musical dynamics but rather by the variations within the instrumental configurations. Thus the orchestration, the texture, the material takes charge of the direction of what could trivially be called the “general sound volume”.

What is the meaning of the initial rhythmic ostinato that recurs regularly during the different episodes?

The ostinato to which you rightly make reference, and which literally floods the score, symbolises the constant disturbance on the surface of our fountain, which is never really smooth but always shimmering from the water dropping against it. Presented around the note G in the first part “The Key of G” and ever-present thereafter, this steadfast swaying is built on the odd measures that were so dear to Stravinsky.

What does it mean to write for the Ensemble InterContemporain? What do you think about this youthful forty-something?

Even though the relationship that I enjoy with the EIC is fairly recent – this is the second piece I’ve written for them – I’ve had the pleasure of forging both artistic and human connections with several musicians from this circle, in particular with the violinist Hae-Sun Kang with whom I have been fortunate to play music for several years now. It is a constant source of wonder to work with such bright, nimble musicians, with their sophisticated and cultured intelligence. Apart from that, we must pay tribute to the man without whom all of this would not exist. I had the privilege of sharing several moments with Pierre Boulez during his last few years thanks to the Lucerne Festival. Meeting him was an encounter that was overwhelming, invigorating and one that will stay with me throughout my entire career as a musician. His passing last year left a great hole in the art world, and in the hearts and minds of the people who were able to get close to this secret and furiously radical figure… but above all he was profoundly human and a great listener.

Do the two violins required in your instrumentation, which are separated (at each end of the stage) according to your instructions and seem to share a dialogue, symbolise your dual activity as a musician and composer?

In a somewhat tacit way, this score is a double violin concerto. The two instruments guide the listener step by step through this musical crossing. They are the two faces of one single entity, diffracted, as seen through the prism of a droplet of water. For me it was also a way of recognising the Ensemble violinists, who always inspire and influence me with their talent, vitality and friendship.

How does your residency with Villa Medici work?

Living inside these walls in Rome is like an electric shock. It is not possible to recover. But it is simply extraordinary to be in contact with such a high concentration of history and art. You only have to lift your eyes or look out of the window over the city, which extends as far as the eye can see, to get struck by Stendhal syndrome. Then we learn to live with beauty, we are infused by it, and it begins to live in us. And we work. We have time. We take our time. That is what springs to mind.

What are your future plans?

I’m currently starting a chamber opera, a double monologue that is sung and spoken, based on a text by one of my fellow residents, Lancelot Hamelin. It’s a piece that will bring into play my contemporary rereading of the musical continuo that is at the root of opera as a genre. The challenge is to develop an object capable of following the inflections of a voice as closely as possible, whether lyrical or theatrical. I will be happy to see many of my musical friendships surrounding this project: soprano Raquel Camarinha, comedian Jennifer Decker, serpent player Patrick Wibart and theorbo player Romain Falik, to name but a few… I’m also going to write a piece, at the invitation of Daniel Barenboim, for the opening of the Boulez Saal in Berlin, which will be conducted by the maestro next September. After a string quartet for the young and brilliant Arod, I will have the pleasure of returning to my own instrument with a concerto carried on the bow of Renaud Capuçon.

Interview by François Dru (December 2016)

Link to the concert

Have a look at the composer's scores