Christophe Desjardins (Caen, 1962) is a French violist with an impressive curriculum. He’s soloist in one of the most prestigious ensembles dedicated to Contemporary Music – the Ensemble Intercontemporain (EIC) -, makes numerous premières, and there are several pieces dedicated to him by the composers he meets on his relentless mission as a New Music interpreter and promoter. Arte no Tempo (AnT) had the opportunity to talk with him on his last visit to Portugal (in November 2005).
On occasion of his return to Lisbon, for the 19th of January recital at Gulbenkian Foundation, AnT publishes this interview, initiating a cycle of discussions that we intend to publish on this site on a quarterly bases.
Interview conducted by Diana Ferreira in November 2005; translated by Catarina Martins.
photo: Philippe Gontier.
[AnT] Why did you choose viola, when you started to study music?
[CD] Actually, I started studying piano when I was 6. My parents sent me, along with my brother and my sisters, to piano lessons. There was a teacher living nearby and it was really convenient. We could walk to the lessons, even when we were small. When I was 10 I felt the need to change instrument and I went to the conservatory to study solfeggio. I wanted to play a string instrument. That I knew for sure. But I don’t know why I’ve chosen viola. I knew that it would have to be a high instrument – my brother played the double bass – and I was sure it couldn’t be the violin.
Because it’s too high?
Too high and to common, precisely.
I’ve chosen the viola not having ever heard one. My parents asked me “why is viola so important? You can have your grandpa violin…”, but I was determined to play viola… We ended up putting viola strings on the violin.
Because you were still very small…
Yes, I was only 10. I didn’t have a small viola and I started like that…. Because of a whim.
You felt the need for something different…
Well, and a little bit later… How did you become an interpreter for Contemporary Music? You were in Brussels and then you became an EIC musician. Why? Because the EIC was closer to home?
[Laughing] That was also important, but the truth is I was fortunate to have Serge Collot as a teacher. He was a violist from the Pierre Boulez’s generation and taught at the Paris Conservatoire. He made the world premières of Le Marteau Sans Maître [Boulez] and Sequenza VI [Berio]. He was really close to Berio.
I didn’t exactly study Contemporary Music with him, but I grew up without sensing the differences between Contemporary and Classic. That was, from a very young age, a very important lesson. Not having any prejudice against Contemporary Music, thanks to Serge Collot teaching, I always regarded it very naturally.
During the years I was Solo Viola at the Brussels Opera, I had a very interesting experience with the composer Philippe Boesmans. Gérad Mortier [then at the Thêathre La Monnaie, now at the Paris Opera] had asked him an orchestration for the L’Incoronazione di Pompeia by Monteverdi (since there aren’t any authentic versions, everything was lost a part from some pieces of manuscript and versions more or less known). For that contemporary version, Boesmans included several viola solos, one harmony phrase doubled by the celesta (and other fine complexities of this kind), a small viola solo phrase that accompanied the voice, but with a very original continuo accompaniment: first the accordion, then the pianoforte, then the harpsichord, then the guitar. I liked Boesmans (and he seemed to enjoy working with me, since afterwards he proposed to write me a piece for viola and ensemble, which he called Surfing). During the writing process (we premièred at the Ars Musica Festival) I worked close to the composer. He needed very precise effects, we worked over ricochet and harmonics, very technical stuff. So, for the first time, I was working close to the writing of a contemporary piece, solo, virtuoso, and I really enjoyed it…. It was very appealing that close relationship with the composer. It’s a creative and fertile relation. The interpreter changes in contact with the composer, and the composer modifies his work in contact with the interpreter.
Then, there was that position at the EIC, which was in fact near home, and I won the contest. And things took their course naturally.
Nowadays it’s common to see ensembles and musicians specialized in a certain musical era (just Old Music or just Contemporary Music). Why do you think this happens? It’s mandatory…?
The group needs to have an identity. If we are creating an orchestra we can’t say we’ll play everything. It’s not possible… But that doesn’t mean that ensembles dedicated to a certain era do not include musicians that play other things. In this sense, I believe all ensembles dedicated to a certain type of music – like Contemporary Music, for instance – can gain from having musicians that play other things, according to their likeness – Romantic Music, Baroque Music… I believe it can enrich the group, but as an identity it’s fundamental to have a delimited objective.
But do you think a musician necessarily gains something by playing music from different eras or can he also loose something?
… I don’t know if we can make a rule out of it…
You play mainly Contemporary Music, but you also play Bach…
Well, in my case, you mustn’t forget that there isn’t much Classic repertoire for Solo Viola. Actually, apart from some pieces by Mozart, Berlioz, Schumann and Brahms, the repertoire for Solo Viola only exists in the XXth century. It starts with Hindemith (and also Reger) and it continues on the second half of the century.
There is an immense viola repertoire in Chamber and Orchestra Music. There’s also the entire string quartet repertoire, with over 200 years, that is very important. But the solo repertoire it’s not significant in the Classic Music. Not even in the Baroque. It isn’t interesting to play concerts from unknown composers contemporary of Manheim. It isn’t at all significant.
You also make concerts with artists from different artistic fields. Do you believe the audience will listen better to the music or is it a way to easily attract bigger audiences?
Some concerts are didactic, like Il était une fois l’alto, where I tried to present all viola repertoire in a continuum perspective: from Baroque to Romantic, from early XXth century and Contemporary Music to Berio and Feldman, which was the most contemporary point of that programme.
I’ve conceived one film to each work, not to explain music through films, but to get that continuum throughout the eras.
… But is it abstract films or…?
We use all kind of graphic techniques, animation, video…
It’s not films about the viola?
No! I’ve worked with a video artist and I told him what I imagine and what I want to express when I play. How the music is build, how it evolves, what it expresses…. A very simple example of this is the Sonata for flute, viola and harp by Debussy: on the first movement, the Pastorale, I believe that Debussy created precisely a pastoral scene! It’s a scene by the water, we see the nature, the water flowing, the wind blowing, very simple things…
So the films are a way of translating what you imagine about the music.
Precisely. It’s a way to highlight what I want to express through music. And, for the people that are not used to listen to music, these films are a friendly help to understand a given musical expression….
I believe I’ve heard you for the first time at the Botanique, in Brussels, and you played Einspielung III by Emmanuel Nunes. It isn’t exactly an easy piece, but I can’t imagine it accompanied by a film.
No… He, himself, attended the concert and told me “to me this isn’t the least interesting”. Well, the truth is if the audience is used to listen to music, they don’t need any help.
I don’t think Einspielung III is an easy piece to listen to, even to someone used to listen to Contemporary Music. I do think it’s difficult. Personally, I had to listen to it several times before I could actually start to listen to it. It’s a very complex piece.
That’s right! Even for the interpreter. It’s not a walk in the park. We can imagine several ways to grasp it, but you need to listen to it several times. And it’s not only for its complexity. Not all complex pieces are interesting. It’s not complexity that makes them interesting. I believe a piece like Einspielung III is difficult to listen to but has an impressive writing. There’s a massive gesture pointing in a direction that we can’t immediately apprehend. It’s true that it requires listening to several times. And that it doesn’t need other artistic forms to be listened to.
Is it possible to bring the audience closer to the piece before it listens to it for the first time? …Some explanation… Christophe, you write your own remarks on the programme, but do you think it’s enough? Or is it better to let the audience discover the music on their own?
I believe we must let the audience discover the music on their own. The only advice I should give to the audience is to be willing to listen and not seeking to understand. I noted several times that if you try to understand Emmanuel [Nunes]’s music you’re not in the right mood. You must give in to perception, to the senses, and accept to be lost in a labyrinth piece…. We are dealing with something other than understanding. It’s about inner experience. And I believe this is also what happens with Beethoven, Monteverdi…
With all the major composers?
Yes. Perhaps even with Felman, in a very different way. It has to do with abandoning yourself, with travelling and intellectually building your way inside the piece… Letting the piece come to you.
Why do you think that the interpreter’s remarks bring the audience closer to the piece than the composer or musicologist’s remarks?
I want to share what I experience when I work in a piece and when show it to the audience. Writing is a good way to do it… But it doesn’t replace… I know that my point of view, as an interpreter is very different from the musicologist or composer’s point of view. The truth is I’ve noticed that the non-professional listener prefers the interpreter’s perspective, because the musicologist makes an excessive use of professional slang.
But the interpreter already expresses what he feels by playing. Why does the audience have the need to listen to him in a different language?
Because words have nothing to do with music. What we can express through words is very different from what we can express through music. Every person feels it in a different way. With words one can be more objective.
… Why are you making this interview? It’s more or less the same. You could listen to me in concerts, buy records… [laughs]
Why do you say that in our society it’s imperative to defend the Contemporary Music? Is that also true in Paris?
It’s true all around the world.
…But in Paris there’s lots of Contemporary Music….
Yes, there is a lot of Contemporary Music. But you can’t give it for granted. If you notice the general tendency of society, you see that we are walking towards an uniformity of cultural practice, television centred, where everything is free… you don’t buy the newspaper any more, you can get it for free in the internet… The natural tendency is to put culture on the easy pleasure level and not involving any transformation. You don’t make the effort to go to a concert hall any more… But I believe this is wrong. Going to a concert hall to listen to live music has nothing to do with staying at home listening to it on the telly.
But that isn’t specific to Contemporary Music. It’s true regarding all erudite music.
For me it’s not easy to understand your statement, simply because you live in Paris, where there’s a lot more music, there are several premières…
… Sure, but I’m not speaking about Paris, I have a general concern. The truth is we have an absolute privileged situation in France. There are supports to create and to disseminate, there are concerts circuits, but, even there, we must struggle.
One of the problems we have in France is that audiences are getting older. This means that the audience is always the same. And you can look at this in two different ways: maybe this will be solved naturally and music will go on like always, or maybe we need to change our approach. When we discuss the problem with concert organizers, and in general with the cultural circle, everyone speaks about the revitalization issue… people lost the habit of attending concerts, of buying annual subscriptions. Choices are made in a more immediate way. That works for events. For instance, things like the Folles Journées in Nantes or theme weekends are a success. It works, but unfortunately the idea of buying a five concerts’ subscription didn’t reach the twenty or thirty-year-old. That is a real problem. It’s true that in France we have support for dissemination, but we see that even big cultural institutions make short-term contracts. Two years ago one could say: “we’re going to do this project, we’re certain, it’s all set”. Now, six months before it starts, a project can be cancelled. And that is something new. Therefore there are bigger constraints.
Maybe the audience doesn’t want to commit two or more months in advance and prefers to decide what to do at each moment.
Yes, and that is saying: “I want to control all my pleasure, it’s me who is going to decide everything”. People don’t trust institutions that propose a five concerts’ subscription and the access to a variety of things.
You are having a concert at Grame Institute (“White letter to C. Desjardins”), in Lyon.
For that project I wanted pieces with electronics, pieces with viola and ensemble and pieces with viola and instruments from different musical instruments families. I also wanted to play both renowned composers and young composers. And that was agreed with the Grame Institute. I’ve chosen the renowned composers Philippe Manoury (but his première was postponed to next year  for technical reasons) and Robert Pascal, who teaches composition at the Lyon Conservatoire. The young composers are Franck Bedrossian, which follows Lachenmann’s line of work and has an approach that isn’t much developed in France (and I’m interested in his electronics’ work), and Pedro Amaral. I asked him a piece without electroacoustics (therefore acoustic), but with a small group of instruments from different instruments families (strings, woodwind, brass and piano) [Luminescences, 2006], that would relate among them and with the viola. What I asked Pedro was to develop the idea (that is specific of the Contemporary Music) of original instruments’ associations to create a world of sound, a world of relations that is new.
Do you often play pieces by composers that the audience doesn’t know?
It’s true that nowadays I have a stable musical relationship with composers well known by the audiences, like Emmanuel Nunes, Philippe Manoury, Michael Jarrell, Jonathan Harvey. But I’m also interested in discovering young composers, and working with them. Sometimes I work with them even closely because they have less experience with solo instruments, or less experience with the viola, or quite simply, less experience in writing. My experience helps them and allows them to make the piece closer to their musical project of composition.
And it also helps, because for a young composer it’s great to have his piece played by someone known by the audience and that can help him launching his work.
I certainly hope so! [laughs]
How do you get to know young composers?
It varies. They can come to me, or I can meet them in different activities at the Conservatory or in workshops at the Paris Conservatoire or other institutions. For instance, I like to give a kind of master class with violists just to talk about the Solo Viola repertoire. And usually there are some composers that drop by to find out how I play the Prologue by Grisey, or the Sequenza by Berio, or the Sonata by Zimmermann, or the two pieces by Emmanuel Nunes, Einspielung III and Improvisation II – Portrait, … that are already five major pieces from the Music History…
You’ve already performed in Portugal a few times. What do you think about the Portuguese musical scene?
I know four musical institutions in Portugal. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is an absolutely mythic institution. It has a remarkable space, its own orchestra, a special relation with certain composers and an extraordinary programme. That was the first institution I got to know. On my first tour with the EIC – I still didn’t had a permanent position, I was doing a replacement (it must have been in 1984) – we came to Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and it’s a wonderful recollection.
The second institution I got to know was Centro Cultural de Belém, also in Lisbon, when that big Portrait by Emmanuel Nunes took place in…
Then there was the Opera, Teatro de S. Carlos, where I played the Portrait Feldman, in 2004. And the festival in Aveiro [Jornadas Nova Música]!
… Very small [laughs]
And now, of course, the new Casa da Música, that is magnificent.
But what do you think about music in Portugal?
Each time I played, solo or with the EIC, I had a very warm reception. The EIC, the French musicians, have a very favourable reception. We feel that there is a great respect to all we can bring. And I also have experienced working with Portuguese musicians from the Teatro de S. Carlos, including the choir, and the musicians from the Remix Ensemble. The Portuguese make contact with foreigners very easily, and I really like that. There’s no arrogance. And I can sincerely say that I truly admire the organization of a festival like the one in Aveiro [Jornadas Nova Música], where a small group of composers puts an enormous amount of energy with so little means and such conviction.
[timid] Thank you.
… Those are striking experiences.
From times to times you give master classes. Do you find true viola schools throughout the world? How is the viola circle?
The teaching of viola is not different from the music teaching in general. The real differences are in the musical culture. For instance, the Americans have no idea of style, don’t distinguish eras, and everything must sound brilliant… [laughs] and with lots of vibrato. I would say that some of the best schools are in France, Germany… In England there’s agility in the lecture, I mean, the English are more comfortable at start with very different musical types, real fast. They don’t get block by style. In the eastern countries, for example, it lacks listening to Contemporary Music.
But is there any difference between Germany and… is the technique the same?
Nowadays techniques are much alike.
You studied in France and in Germany.
Yes. But in Germany my teacher was Italian.
Don’t you ever feel the need to write your own music? You like so much Contemporary Music, you know so well such different languages…
That is a very difficult question and I don’t have an answer. Yes, in some way I feel the need and I totally respect the path of creating music, something I haven’t learned, of composing.
… But you know…
Yes, I do know….
… And you are a critic…
I believe – and this is not a direct answer – that there’s a lot of creativeness in the work of an interpreter, in the broad sense. I mean, it’s not simply a work of playing the music that is written. To interpret means to pass the music to the audience and to use every resource to do it, like, for instance, words – in a presentation, in an interview, or even organizing a workshop, conducting a master class with young interpreters, a place to talk about musical issues. Or conceiving concerts where the musical pieces are connected by a theme, a poetic relation, a visual relation, or by dance. All of this is part of my idea of an interpreter, in the sense of real creation. Yes, we create the connection between the music that is written down in paper and the perception of the listener, creating an event that strikes, in a way or another.
So, you don’t feel the need to have a score written by you…
Maybe that will happen, but I still haven’t felt it.
You spoke about conceiving concerts. How do you come up with a programme? Imagine I invite you to make a concert and that you are free to choose the programme. How do you do it?
Let’s imagine the simplest solution: if there are big constraints and we can’t invite any other interpreter, then we have a solo recital. In the repertoire there are some major pieces that must be played and made known, and that I enjoy playing, such as Sonata by Zimmermann, the Sequenza VI by Berio, Prologue by Grisey, Einspielung III by Emmanuel Nunes…
…some leaves…? […some leaves II…, a piece by Michael Jarrell]
Yes, but that one is by a younger composer, from a generation under fifty, so he isn’t yet in the pantheon of paternal figures. And there’s also Ligeti that I don’t usually play.
Because I feel that his writing is too systematic. It has a rhetoric quality that is already heard too often…
But it’s completely different to think in a programme for an experienced audience or a…
In Contemporary Music? Well, yes. The pieces have a spectacular quality and a strength that doesn’t require a specialized audience. The Sonata by Zimmermann is maybe different, but the Prologue and the Sequenza are already so spectacular that it works very well. And then you must adapt to the audience, to the place. See if it’s necessary to introduce young composers, or if I prefer to share my knowledge of composers that I stand by, like Michael Jarrell, Ivan Fedele, etc.. And it’s also possible to combine a “classic” piece, as a Bach’s Suite, a Sonata by Hindemith…
But how do you define the programme? Is it more important to introduce the audience to certain pieces or the overall composition of the programme?
We have to conceive the programme as a composition, when we choose what to play. We must build it as a puzzle: I start here, I end the first part with this, and the concert ends in this way. What is the propose of the concert… For instance, the Prologue by Grisey is great to open a concert. We know it’s called prologue, it opens with that very slow develop, that actually correspond to our idea of a start and of a rising force. Then you can play Einspielung III that is like a labyrinth, and it will work very well. And you have the first part.
For instance, I try to avoid things that are very close to each other. If I’m going to play Sequenza VI by Berio and …some leaves… by Jarrell, I can’t play one after the other. Because although they have different writings you can feel that quality that Jarrel took from Berio, that virtuosity as the pleasure of sonority. He explores all the fields, all the styles, all the different ways of playing, in a very pleasant editing of the discourse. That is very close, and between the two we need to have a more distant piece, like the Sonata by Zimmermann or, for instance, the Sciarrino’s pieces, that are a sort of miniature full of activity but without much sonority.
That means you decide first what you want the audience to listen to, and then you build the programme.
What is the most exciting aspect of a world première? Is there something magic about it?
There are different aspects and it’s not easy to say what comes first… but I believe that first of all there’s the pleasure of giving birth to something. To take part in the discloser. Then there’s the transformation of the piece itself. When we embrace a new piece there’s a period of getting to now it, where we try to accomplish new things, maybe talk about some changes with the composer so that things are easier to accomplish, closer to the composer’s project. And then there’s the period of the musical accomplishment itself, which is related with the musical project that is being introduced by the piece. And it’s a true adventure each time we start a new piece, because it’s something we can’t experience when we discuss the project. Even if the composer knows me and says “I’m going to write a piece for you”, even if we discuss several aspects of the piece, it won’t tell us anything about the music we are going to encounter. That’s why there’s always a discovery and it is truly passionate. Each time I believe, in a tremendous naive way, that I’m going to do the best world première ever done. [laughs]
Many times only quite a lot of time after the première, I can listen objectively to the recording and try to detach myself of it and measure if the piece is really accomplished. I have a great faith in the world première. I always expect something more beautiful.
If you have met Morton Feldman, what would you have liked to ask him, or tell him? Speaking to him would change anything on your way of playing…?
Yes, absolutely, because I have so many questions about his music. I know, for instance, that his Americans’ compatriots play his music with much expressivity, lots of vibrato… it’s very exteriorized. And I don’t listen to it like that at all. I listen to it as an inner search, with the least expressivity, where every gesture is calculated so that intentions aren’t expressed but only perceptible. And I’m under the impression that he was a great mystic, concerned with the transcendence problem.
I am curious: on your repertoire what is the percentage of pieces by composers you don’t know personally? You know almost all the composers you play, don’t you?
That’s an interesting question! Maybe one percent. I don’t know if I can remember even one [alive composer that I don’t know and whose work I play].
You play mainly Contemporary Music. Do you think you could feel fulfilled being part of an orchestra and playing classical repertoire?
Well, I’ve done it.
Yes, but now you have come a long way…
Well, no. Now that wouldn’t be enough for me. An ensemble, a soloist group like the EIC, works on a very different way because of how the programmes are organized. We always play in different positions, next to different instruments. Sometimes we play Solo, others we’re ripieno…
Orchestras (and I’m speaking of what I know, in France) have a problem: they work the same way they did in the XIXth century. They didn’t evolved. Because of the fast changes in society, and the evolution of the work market, people have a lot of different activities during their lives. And I realize that orchestras are completely frozen.
It’s not normal that a violinist enters an orchestra when he’s 24 and he’s asked to do exactly the same 35 or 40 years latter. And nothing has changed in that triangular relation between organizers, the audience and himself. The violinist is someone that has changed immensely! …And I think this is the real issue. Orchestras are too frozen.
You wrote: “being an interpreter is having the pleasure of encounter”. What does this mean?
Interpreter… “inter” is a part of the word, it means to be between. And so, he is between himself and the audience, between the music and the audience. And it’s an encounter… with young people, students, composers, violists, or any others with whom I can share what I know. With the audience that can be touched by the concert – the classic concert or the ones I like to do, combining different art forms – and by the CD…
I was very impressed by a thought of a great cellist that said that one must be irresponsible to enter the stage. Presenting yourself in a concert hall and playing the Dvorak’s Concert for 2000 or 3000 people…
About the CD… Why to record music? If music happens essentially on concert – it’s completely different listening to music in concert or listening to a CD at home – why were you compelled to record?
There is no contradiction. We listen differently at home, with the radio. We can listen to music while doing other things or we can just listen to the CD. There are lots of ways to listen and the important thing is that music is transmitted. That is the overall dissemination. But it’s also important that the composers make themselves known.
Do you think the CD can work as a kind of preparation to the concert? We listen at home, we understand some parts and its importance, and then, in concert, we’re finally ready to really listen…
Yes, it’s a good way…. When it’s possible it’s great.
Even if you don’t make much attention when you listen at home, music is there and makes its course…
If a young Portuguese violist, or someone who wants to become a professional violist, would ask for your advice, what would you tell him?
I would tell him to work both the Classical repertoire – studies, concerts, solo pieces, and the Contemporary Music. So that he would enlarge his musical expression since the beginning. With gestures, way of playing, different approaches to the instrument. That would allow him more freedom in how to play and how to look at the gestures he will use to make instrument sounds.
Do you think it’s possible to study the viola anywhere or is it impossible to become a good violist if you’re studying in Portugal or…?
There are famous examples of excellent Portuguese violists! Becoming a good violist is to have enough musical skills, to have an adequate technical/physical skill and finding a good teacher. It can be only one teacher, but usually you’ll find two or three teachers to structure you. It’s more a question of finding out a compatible personality to instruct you.
For your future projects, do you have the ambition of conducting an ensemble or an orchestra? Would that be a challenge?
If it happens, it happens. But I’ve the feeling that it’s not in my nature. I like to conduct, but I don’t know…
And what are your projects for the immediate future?
There’s a project about Harold en Italie [it premièred at 15th October 2006], divided in two parts. The first part is a Contemporary mirror of that Berlioz’s piece, and the second part is a new version of the piece by Gérard Pesson, for a small ensemble.
And the “mirror” composers?
They’re four (one for each part of the piece): Pedro Amaral, Morton Feldman, Ivan Fedele and Michael Jarrell.
It’s almost all finished.
[Apart from Feldman…] It’s all premières, then. Was it you, Christophe, who invite them?
Yes. I had this project for quite some time, now.
Apart from those, there’s also a Concert by Philippe Boesmans and one piece for viola and electronics by Philippe Manoury, which has a system developed at the IRCAM about gesture capture. There will be a device in the bow that allows reading its movement, so that it’s possible to make electronics closer to the instrument and the interpreter.
Nowadays, even with “real time” technology, there isn’t exactly interaction between the instrument and the electronics. A different interpretation doesn’t really changes the electronics. ¬
Interview conducted by Diana Ferreira in November 2005; translated by Catarina Martins.
photo: Philippe Gontier.
 The concert already took place. ^