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Michel Lebreton – English

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Walls and Edges Crossing
the Time and Space of the Conservatory

Michel Lebreton


1. Closed spaces… still time / Open spaces… time of possibilities
2. Suspended Spoken Words, Retrieved Spoken Words
3. Edges, Fringes, Margins
4. You Just Have to Cross the Bridge
6. A Speaking Human Being, a Social Human Being
7. A House of Music(s)
8. One Step Sideways

1. Closed spaces… still time / Open spaces… time of possibilities

The Wall. It imposes itself by its mass, its capacity to delimit a border. It induces a permanence in space, a fixity, an impression of timelessness that contributes to make us oblivious to its presence. We practice, we think in the shadow of walls. But if we always go through the same plans, the same volumes, they soon appear to us, in an illusory evidence, adorned with timelessness. They compel us to pronounce aphorisms such as: “We’ve always done it this way!”, “From time immemorial…”, “It’s obvious that…”, which are all expressions that cement them even more. And discourage debate, since… that’s the way it’s always been done.

The walls along the US-Mexican border are trying to lock Mexicans in their country. In a parallel movement, they lock the Americans in an enclave that some wish to be protective. There is a desire for walls that goes hand in hand with a fear of otherness that is unfortunately linked to a need for security.

A wall is made to defend. It means that an attack is feared. Hadrian’s wall stands against the threat of barbarian invasion. But as time goes by, it is neglected, soldiers abandoning their posts to settle as peasants in the surrounding area. It became a reservoir providing stones to build houses, churches… The wall here becomes the material for other practices. These open up new spaces.

How to open spaces and temporalities, which practices to develop that allow to perceive the wall and to dare to come out of its shadow, to leave this illusory security, to put fears in suspension? And to bring to light the evidences asserted by the powers that be?


2.Suspended Spoken Words, Retrieved Spoken Words

I had the opportunity to take charge of a writing workshop for ESMD (Ecole Supérieure Musique et Danse Hauts de France) students with the aim of helping them write their master’s dissertations. The very first session revealed dismay among some of these students, all adults with teaching positions and experience. Their first reactions were: “I have nothing to report”, “I am just teaching”, “Nothing extraordinary is happening in my courses”… They provided closed answers that cut short any prospect of questioning. What’s more, they were saying in an underlying way that there was nothing to observe, thus trivializing their teaching practices, practices whose many areas of interest we were to discover later on.

In order to overcome this state of affairs, I have called upon experiments taking place outside the framework of conservatories. Some experiences putting into play their capacities to accompany, help, educate but in a context where they are not evaluated through the prism of music.

For one student, it was a series of replacements in a hospital environment that led her to practice teamwork, listening to patients, conflict resolution… approaches that she was later able to translate into her teaching practice. For another one it was to help her sister who had difficulties with a baccalaureate exam. This sister was in demand and it went smoothly. The brother had the same difficulties but was reluctant to do school work, especially under the supervision of his older sister! The student did not find any operational situations but later realized, when her brother successfully reoriented himself in a different branch which he liked, that motivation cannot be taught but (I quote an extract from her dissertation) “that the role of a teacher is to develop situations open to the pleasure of learning (manipulating, exploring, building…) so that motivation can happen, can increase”. Finally, for a third student, it was an experience as a school life assistant for autistic children with the aim of integrating them into the standard school curriculum. She indicates in one of her writings: “This one year experience is certainly the most memorable and one of the most beautiful in my life, I understood the importance of being accepted without expecting anything in return, I have a different vision of this illness and above all I was able to acquire a certain number of skills…” (She then mentions competences such as patience, curiosity, ability to adapt, listening to others…).

These stories that they put down on paper and that they exchanged and discussed, played the role of the photographic developer. They saw themselves in situations of accompanying the learners, sometimes of teaching them. Speaking became easier, the desire to listen became more assertive. And with them, the conviction that “something was happening”. And that it deserves to be told, observed and analyzed. This ethnographic perspective has taken over their professional sphere. It became the source of other narratives, which were also exchanged, discussed and analyzed. Each of them had begun to circumvent the wall of foregone conclusions in order to begin to assemble the stones of the possible. And to reappropriate the time and space of their experiences by evoking the human deep layers and movements. On what grounds do we then commit ourselves to make these illuminations happen?


3. Edges, Fringes, Margins

The edge is a band, a list, a margin (not a list) between two milieus of a different nature, which participates in both without being confused with them. The edge has its own life, its autonomy, its specificity, its fauna, its flora, etc. The edge of a forest, the fringe between sea and land (estrant), a hedge, etc. While the border and boundary are fences, the edge separates and unites at the same time. A strait is an exemplary figure of an edge: the Strait of Gibraltar separates two continents (Africa and Europe) at the same time as it connects two seas (the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean).
Emmanuel Hocquard, Le cours de PISE, POL, Paris 2018, page 61.

The edges are the places of the possible. Their boundaries are only defined by the environments bordering them. They are shifting, subject to erosion and sedimentation: there is nothing obvious about them. Teachers and learners, both of whom inhabited by musical experiences nourished by their respective backgrounds, find themselves in the first place evolving in the soft soils of the edges. They don’t know each other but they gather around an object “music” that should be written in the “singular – plural”: the Music – my musics / the musics  – my Music. Over time, the teacher has built up a landscape where social and therefore musical representations have been constructed and edified more or less solidly, more or less consciously (for example, “what constitutes ‘music’”, “what does it mean to be a ‘musician’”, “what is ‘teaching’”, “what is the student’s place in this process?”…). The learners also come with a variety of social and musical representations.  But when they enter this place called “Conservatory” for the first time, the first term remind them that they are entering “a high place of expertise” and the second one reminds them that the music taught there is predominantly “great music”. The learners are available, motivated and on the reserve, possibly impressed. They are in the edges, unknown but attractive territories in order to concretize their own desires (at least we hope so). In this case, most often, the practice of an instrument. The question then is: will the teacher join the student in these moving edges, the only ground available capable of bringing them together during this initial moment? And will the teacher try to clear a common space and time for providing mutual learning? Or will she/he take the learners to the shadow of their wall to run a predefined and solidly built program? Will he/she leave the barriers open to vagrancy and tinkering[1], even encouraging them? Or will she/he confine all practices to the enclosure he/she has built over time?

The only real journey, the only bath of Jouvence, would not be to go to new landscapes, but to have other views, to see the universe with the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is.
(Marcel Proust, La Prisonnière, page 762)

In a very reductive rewording on my part (sorry to the Marcels), at the very least update “sous les pavés, la plage!”[2] For what’s the point of being in the presence of other soundscapes if we bend them endlessly to our habitus? Instead, let us create situations open to our imaginations, edges conducive to passing strange objects in the midst of improbable exchanges. Let’s leave a part of improvisation in the “making of music”, and also the “collectively building sound scaffolding”, as well as the “keeping open workshop”. Open the other eyes that are in us and all this through the power of confrontation and exchange with the other.


4. You Just Have to Cross the Bridge

The meeting of musicians around open practices (e.g. “in the group, everyone will speak in reaction to what they perceive of other propositions: as a complement – to go towards – or in opposition – to move away –”) and little known or unknown objects (e.g. “let’s accumulate layers of sound texture through increasingly granular timbres”) brings into play relations to objects and subjects that differ from those developed in a training that is still often centered on the interpretation of aesthetically identified repertoires. The usual behaviors and skills are no longer sufficient to participate in the sound narratives that one is called upon to construct, alone or in a group. There are then two possible ways: jump into the departing train without knowing the itinerary and make a new narrative come along or let the train pass (some may even be tempted to dynamite it!).

Such a situation was revealed during a project with a string ensemble (eight violinists and three cellists). Initially, the aim was to create a repertoire of traditional dance music from Berry and also to compose in that style. These repertoires, unknown to the musicians, were approached through singing and dancing, followed by oral transposition on instruments and in small groups. The musicians were invited to search collectively for this transposition, then to confront their findings in a large group. Improvisation games on the fifth structure and the bourdons of certain melodies completed this workshop. It should be noted that the technical skills required for the interpretation were acquired by all the participants.

One of the musicians, aged 16, was on the reserve, both on dancing and on improvising on the proposed rules (she had already practiced improvisation on harmonic grids but in another setting). She had come to enroll in a string ensemble class and expected to work on the « classical » repertoire, although information had been provided defining the particular project of this workshop. But where she had expected, despite the presentation of the project, to work in an ensemble on written works with the aim of interpreting them collectively under the direction of the string teacher, she found herself in a workshop situation in which everyone was called upon to tinker. Add to this the apparent lack of “prestige” of the proposed materials: the apparent simplicity of the melodies, improvisation on five notes, accompaniments based on rhythmic bourdons, popular dance with repetitive steps at first impression… as well as the proposed working methods: collective work and research, confrontations and debates on the findings, search for a final collective construction… which she was put off by. These were all elements that displace the more usual issues such as confronting difficult and prestigious repertoires and blending in with orchestral playing and sound, with many professional recordings as references. I did not succeed in helping her to question this state of affairs, she was unwilling to exchange with me.


5. Co-construction

At stake here is the very status of the musician learner/teacher.

Are these learning musicians able to put on different skins (performer, improviser, orchestrator…), different scenarios (orchestra, chamber music, contemporary music group, soloist…) and different aesthetics as they would freely rummage through their trunk of old clothes in their grandparents’ attic to play at being someone else?

Is this teaching musician willing and able to accompany these learners so that these hats become one, flexible and adaptable to the choices and necessities of the moment; so that these scenarios are as many varied human and musical relationships; so that these aesthetics are opportunities to breathe in cultural diversity?

Are these learners able to accept that a course identified as a string ensemble is the place for these different pathways?

Is this teacher able to create the conditions for this to happen?

Here it is important to take into account several aspects that shape the tradition of conservatories. They will enable us to better define the building and its architecture at a time when it is trying to redeploy itself in relation to the evolution of French society. The few remarks below are to be taken into account for those who want to cross the walls.

These walls…

… are partly within the institution which more or less partitions different territories into “courses”, “orchestra”, “chamber music”, “collective practices” … and allows / prevents, more or less, teachers and learners to advance, depending on the projects, by porosity between the different categories of the occidental musical world.

They are also to some degree present in the segmentation of the teaching that takes place from the junior high school onwards, and which refers to a conception of education constructed as a succession of fields of knowledge that the pupil goes through from hour to hour: a gigantic open-space strewn with half-high dividers that isolate while allowing an institutional hubbub to filter through that barely makes sense.

They are present in the dominant conception of conservatory teaching, which focuses the learning process on the instrument and its teacher and conceives collective group practices as an implementation of what is learned in the instrumental course. Some sort of supplement.

They are also included in the division of labor that has developed since the nineteenth century and the hyper-specialization that followed to the present day: to each person his or her place and task.

They are finally present in the teacher-learner relationship which is impregnated by this way of structuring society.

Partitioning, segmenting, dividing… the organization and practices in places of education, including conservatories, are still permeated by these more or less closed constructions. The creation of departments[3], to take one example, has only shifted this reality into a slightly larger circle, but between partners of the same family, they are structured on the same foundations. Many departmental meetings are moreover focused on the choice of repertoires to be played in the coming year and these choices are not the consequence of a more global project centered on learning musicians, territories to be explored and filled with music.


6. A Speaking Human Being, a Social Human Being

Walls delimit a territory and allow for its development in a protective setting. They also contain rules that govern individual and collective life on this territory. The edges are these gaps in the wasteland, these moors open to experiments not provided for by the regulations of walled games. They can be confusing, but they can also become rich grounds for various collectively cultivated plantations. And this is one of the keys to reconsidering the aims and organization of teaching: the spoken word, expressed and shared collectively, placed at the service of experimentation and the realization of individual and group projects. A spoken word that accepts to deliver to the eyes of others what makes sense in the practices for each person. A spoken word that is welcomed with respect for each person’s convictions and with a aim of building an institution that is neither the addition of personal projects nor the piling up of departmental projects. A spoken word that suggests that the teacher does not know everything and that cooperation is necessary in order to build something.

Florence Aubenas, journalist, collected often inaudible words. Here is an extract of an article from the newspaper Le Monde dated 12. 15. 2018 under the title “Gilets jaunes : la révolte des ronds-points” [Yellow Jackets: The Revolt of the Roundsabout]

For months, her husband had been telling Coralie, “Get out of the house, go see friends, go shopping.” It was the “gilets jaunes” at the Satar roundabout, in the smallest of the three shacks around Marmande, planted between a piece of countryside, a motorway off-ramp and a large loading platform where trucks take shifts day and night…

…The activity of the “gilets” here consists in setting up filtering checkpoints. Here come the others, here they are, Christelle, who has children of the same age as Coralie’s, Laurent, a blacksmith, André, a retired man attired like a prince, 300 shirts and three Mercedes, Sylvie, the chicken breeder. And everything comes back at once, the warmth of the hut, the company of the humans, the “Bonjour” slamming loudly. Will the “gilets jaunes” succeed in changing life? A nurse pensively wonders: “In any case, they changed my life.”

When Coralie comes home at night, it’s all she wants to talk about. Her husband thinks she loves him less. He told her that. One evening, they invited the faithful of the roundabout to dinner. They’d never had anyone in the house before, except the family of course. “You’ve got it, your new beginning. You’re strong,” the husband slipped in. Coralie handed out leaflets to the drivers. “You won’t get anything, miss, you’d better go home,” suggested a man in a sedan. “I’m not expecting anything special. Here, we do things for ourselves: I’ve already won.”


7. A House of Music(s)

“We do things…” This is a prosaic, complex but promising starting situation: a group of musicians (learners and teachers) who act (come together for elaborating a common project). A terrain of expression (roundabout or conservatory). The starting of the project through a co-construction process that redraws the pathways. A situation fraught with pitfalls but nevertheless stimulating.

Sensoricity, interpretation, variability and improvisation invite to create a teaching by workshops supported by variable-geometry teaching groups. They can rely on vocal and corporal expression through collective rules insisting on shared intention in sound production. The learning of the written code can be integrated into the sequence “imitation, impregnation, transfer, invention” as a complementary tool opening up, in particular, to composition. That of the instrument is traversed by one-to-one and group work…

8. One Step Sideways

This is the second year (2018 and 2019) that I offer a two and a half day workshop to CEPI [Cycle d’Enseignement Professionnel Initial][4] students from the Hauts de France. This year, eight musicians came together, some of whom had already been present the previous year. Coming from practices of amplified popular music, classical music and jazz, they listened to collections of traditional songs from Berry and Limousin recorded between the 1960s and 80s. Simple monodies sung in a kitchen, at home by local people, farmers. No harmonies or accompaniments. Only voices sculpting in their own way melodies with temperaments and inflections unknown to these young musicians.

Between the ear picking up, the singing by imitation, the transfer to the instrument and the rules of improvisations suggested by me, a constant energy was deployed. The most beautiful example in my eyes is the intensity with which they invested themselves in the realization of “living bourdons”. From notes held mechanically on the 1st and 5th degrees, they have gradually evolved into an ecosystem welcoming variations in timbre, the passage from continuous to iterative, entries and exits by variations in intensity… and all this in a wonderful collective listening. These bourdons carry the improvisations and one would be tempted to take them for a negligible quantity. This was not the case, an emerging collective consciousness having offered them a territory to inhabit. They all came out of it with the feeling of having lived an individual experience thanks to the grace of the group and a collective experience thanks to the active presence of each one of them.

I will leave you with a few excerpts from their improvisations: it was obviously not a question of training in the interpretation of the traditional music of Berry or Limousin, but rather of grasping the characteristics of these and other music in order to explore other improvisational voices.

A soundscape, inserted in a longer tale, ends the video. It is brought into play by the musicians of a string ensemble led by a classical violin teacher, Florence Nivalle. In addition to other parts of the tale, we proposed to look at the musicality of a forest:

    • Listening to a recording in the forest and exchanging impressions.
    • Directed listening. Locate if there is:
        – a permanent pattern in the landscape;
        – repeated events with varying degrees of spacing;

        – significant events, in rupture.

    • Assimilate these elements through vocal imitation. Define sound characteristics .
    • Transpose this to your instrument by retaining only the envelopes and textures of the sound and leaving out the imitation.

    The weft (grasshoppers) is played/sung tutti. Repeated events (mosquitoes and animal noises in the thickets) are handled by several duets (one mosquito and one thicket). A few birds appear, solitary. Displacement approaches are invented by each duet to induce the sound production. The two productions are either tiled, juxtaposed or with interspersed respiration.

    It should be noted that a violinist, Clémence Clipet, being both in classical and traditional music violin training, was solicited by Florence and myself to transmit the final bourrée with the bowing indications. At the moment of this first restitution, we had completed 13 sessions. And the first assessment was very positive: all the participants had the feeling of building a vehicle for a journey to be invented.

    Finally, an ensemble of bagpipes from cycle 1 (2 to 4 years of practice, it depends) proposed an improvisation game based on a relay between the first two incises of a bourrée: G a b C and D e F [SOL la si DO and RE mi FA]. The passing is done in tiling by overlapping successive entries. A simple game, but one that mobilized in everyone an energy and concentration sometimes unsuspected. An “engaging” discovery for most of them.

    Michel Lebreton, March 2019

    Return to the French text


    1. “The tinkerer is the one who uses diverted, oblique means, as opposed to the man of art, to the specialist. The work of the tinkerer, unlike that of the engineer, unfolds in a closed universe, even if it is diversified. The rule is to work with the means at hand. The result is contingent, there is no precise project, but ideas-force: it can always be useful, it can work ». The elements used do not have a fixed, let alone predetermined, function: they are what they are, at that moment, as they are perceived, desired, in relation to other elements that are the operator of a particular operation. For the tinkerer, a wooden cube can be a wedge, a support, a base, a closure, a corner to be driven in, etc. It can be a simple material or an instrument, its usefulness depends on an ensemble. The appropriateness of a tinkering can evoke the objective randomness of the surrealists.” (Ruse et bricolage, Liliane Fendler-Bussi)

    2. Note of the translator. This is a well-known political slogan from the May 1968 Paris demonstrations, literally “under the pavement, the beach!”.

    3. Note of the translator. In France, since about the late 1980s, departments have been created in conservatories, most of the time along the following groupings: strings, woodwinds, brass, keyboards and percussion, basic musicianship, jazz, traditional music, etc.

    4. Note of the translator. The CEPI or in English the “ Initial Cycle of Professional Teaching” is offered in Regional Conservatories as preparation to enter musical higher education institutions.