Archives du mot-clé musical practice

Gunkanjima (English version)

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Ghost Island

Noémi Lefebvre

(from her blog médiapart)

Gunkanjima is a place, a ghost island, a warship, an accumulation of buildings, an urban system, concrete composition, a mining town, an energy era, a geological hole, some pure coal called diamond. It is a switched-off function, a cemetery of objects, beds, tables, TVs, radios, calculating machines, sewing machines, typewriters, toys, curtains, fans, shoes, papers, bowls, sinks, fallen roofs, broken window panes, bird calls, rubble, a telluric city in the middle of the sea, outpost of chaos, nature after man, a silent place from where music begins.

Gunkanjima is a musical place of research and creation, an open construct, a sound fabric, an ensemble associating timbres, some broken up language, ancient poetry, bruitism, onomatopoeia, animal-human song and screaming, organism and machine, a territory of invention situated in this post-industrial time and in this globalized space where we have to live. This ensemble of six musicians demonstrates that research and creation are not two separated domains, but that they are as indispensable one to another as are work and play, memory and forgetfulness, knowledge and uncertainty, intention and invention.

This music of the present, in the making, obliges us to break with habits and classifications in trends, aesthetics, genres, cultural influences, to refuse decidedly any identification to already known consensual frameworks, which tend to place the artists in front of a paradox: one should invent in continuity, look for ideas without crossing the prescribed limits, create something new following the line, without getting out of the context organized by designations, as if these designations were here to stay for ever, whereas they appeared themselves at a given moment in order to burst other paradigms apart, define something that the old classifications were unable to grasp.

We may try to situate Gunjanjima in a trend: rock without a doubt, free evidently, electroacoustic indisputably, contemporary music absolutely!

At the same time no; it would be equally inappropriate to say that this creation is under European or Japanese influence, from somewhere or from nowhere, best not to look for a provenance or an affiliation, we have even to renounce discovering a multicultural origin in hearing it, or an expression of “world music”. The origin of Gunkanjima is not somewhere, here, elsewhere or everywhere: its origin is a project, and the origin of the project a desire for a shared project by musicians who bring to it their personality, their energy and their imaginary.

The habits of classifying, in which overlap the modes of acknowledgement of socio-musical spaces, the organizations of distribution networks, the formalizations of musical criticism, the commercial rationales, tend to be prolonged in listening criteria and to prescribe a sort of attention displacement on to categories. Do they necessarily discard the possibility to hear what is being played? It does not matter if our listening is informed by a history of representations, by an acculturation or by education, because even if we have evidently some sound references, there is a moment in which experience cannot rely on experience, a moment in which what we hear is awaking clear audible understanding, is disconnecting knowledge from erudition, awareness from boredom, listening from memory, perception from prejudgments, acculturation from cultural history. This moment is what Gunkanjima realizes.

But how?

Hashima was a black rock island off Nagasaki, where the first big concrete apartment complexes in Japan were built for a population that came to work at the exploitation of coal. This island, progressively enlarged to reach 480 meters long by 160 wide, overcrowded, transformed into “Gunkanjima”, “warship” in Japanese, for the intensive coal exploitation by Mitsubishi, was never conceived according to a general plan of urban development. The buildings were gradually added, as the mining activity intensified, until it was decided, in 1974, to close the mine and that all the inhabitants should leave the island within a few weeks. Nevertheless, all these buildings, impressive by their height and imbrication, are linked to each other through several levels and form a mega-structure and some circulations, which integrate some public spaces, aisles, terraces, a main square “Ginza Hashima”, as if there could have been an initial urban design.

Of course, this mode of urban construction is not specific to the Hashima island. Most towns, described a posteriori as extremely complex and coherent organisms, can display ingenuity of general structure and of circulation nevertheless invisible to those who built it. But the ghost-towns reveal it better than others: it seems that the cessation of all activities and the disappearance of any human presence render possible an organic analysis coldly after the fact. Sometimes the dead bodies have to be observed in order to understand the living ones.

To observe coldly after the fact the music of Gunkanjima is not possible: even if it is burned on a CD, it is not fixed! For the concert is not the public restitution of the recorded work; instead, through the gathering of musicians in rehearsals and on stage, at each performance, Gunkanjima is created and recreated. Therefore the musicological analysis of a “musical text” defined once and for all would most probably not be able to seize the creative energy, which determines its strength and its form, in the first place because there is no text, and then because this non existent text is constantly modified. The graphic scores created for Gunkanjima have a musical function inscribed in play. In this passage, for example, called the space, in which the musical idea of a “living space but with almost nothing” is developed, the graphic score is used foremost as a reminder of what, in improvisation and in the proposed ideas, will serve as benchmark or as thread, from which is developed a freedom of play. Everything is constructed, nothing is determined in advance.

No way to relate the realization to a prior idea, no certainty, no prediction, and nevertheless there is a circulation, an ensemble of networks. The musical elaborations of Gunkanjima are elaborated little by little, in a common research, with some materials, chosen constraints and a lot of imagination. These music pieces have their specific form and their own matter, and little by little, these pieces connect in a pathway. As the musician guitarist Gilles Laval says concerning the initial creation of the group: “we arrive somewhere, we come out again, then it continues, we don’t know where it leads, I like this idea of some cooking that is grasped at a given moment, it opens and it closes, and in fact, the cooking continues, it still leaves some traces”. As in the case of the island, of which the human history, linked to the intensive coal exploitation, does not constitute a whole as such outside history, in Gunkanjima there is no beginning nor ending, but a living, poetic and violent moment, fugitive with regard to the thousand years of necessary sedimentations to transform the vegetal and organic debris into coal, a human time in a long history without humans, which as such lets itself be grasped, immediately, as soon as it begins, this is why, in concert as in CD form, the pieces are not pieces.

It is possible to listen to an isolated track of the CD, but in reality the music is made up by a single continuous piece; “I cannot imagine that the piece could be stopped at some moment, and then to start again; for me it is a single piece from beginning to end, there are things happening, and then in the same way I started off from this story, from this island, and then I could not see how to divide this town into fragments of town”, explains Gilles Laval.

The vitality of this ensemble lies in the rapprochement of personalities whose musical worlds are already present. “When I gathered together this group, I knew that they were individualities. Each person is able to develop her/his projects alone”. The equilibrium is found in co-construction, in which whoever pretends to be the leader [chef] is nothing more than a liar [menteur]: “each person is at his/her place and the detail is discussed more and more. These are musical discussions in the course of elaborating propositions, each one speaks and may intervene. The decisions are always based on common choices”.

Gunkanjima, the island, is not a distant theme, exotic pretext to make music, it is constitutive of its architecture. It is not a stylistic subject, an allegory, a theme from the past, this is why there is no point in looking for Japanizing references or anything that is overplaying Japanese music. If there is something of Japan in this music, it is because three out of the six musicians are Japanese. The time is creation or is nothing at all.

Translation by Jean-Charles and Nancy François

See also the blog chronicle of June 20, 2015.

Music to be made

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For an


There are two musics (at least so I have always thought): the music one listens to, the music one plays. These two musics are two totally different arts, each with its own history, its own sociology, its own aesthetics, its own erotic; the same composer can be minor if you listen to him, tremendous if you play him (even badly). (Barthes, 1992, p.231)

The dichotomy presented by Barthes is interesting for PaaLabRes because it places music in an activity to be done whereas it is often only presented as a product to listen to. We will try to understand how important this distinction is for the diversity of music practices.

The music to be listened to is not very difficult to define: it is what we generally call « Music ». This is the implicit definition found in the (many) aphorisms on music:

« Music drives out hate in those who are without love. » Pablo Casals

« Without music, life would be a mistake. » Friedrich Nietzsche

Music is here no more than a pure sound product with which we are confronted, which could only exist for the ear. As a product, music is adorned with extra-ordinary virtues, even with magical powers that can go as far as saving man (it works even better with « the poor fellows » generally considered as cultural sinners). Even in the attempted distinction proposed by Duke Ellington – « There are only two kinds of music: the good and the bad » – music is still conjugated in the singular, because reduced to the one function: to be listened to.

But the consequence of this is that to be listened to, the music must be well played. Music to be listened to – and I do not speak here only of classical music – has to be made by specialists, played by specialists who have learned to do it with specialists, thereby excluding, without realizing it, a common practice of music.

Even if one thinks of the multiplicity of music in as many different musics as there are styles (rock, jazz, classical, variety, experimental, etc.), these musics always have in common the fact of being well played.

Yet, in Barthes’ quote, the most important point lies in the parenthesis “(even badly)”! The difference between music to be played and music to be listened to is contained entirely in this parenthesis. Barthes defines it as « the music that you or I can play, alone or with friends, with no other audience than its’ participants (that is to say, safely removed from any risk of theatricality, any hysterical temptation) ».

For us, we prefer to use the term « music to be made » instead of « music to play », it retains the sense that Barthes attributes to it in the last sentence of his article: “What is the point of composing, if it means confining the product to the concert hall or the loneliness of radio reception? To compose, at least by propensity, is to give to be made, not to give to hear but to give to write.” “To make” seems to us less symbolically weighty than “to play” (obviously, music is always played!) and than “to write”. Although it points to the idea of a fabrication, the verb “to make” implies above all the idea of an ordinary, banal, or common act.

In order to exist, the music to be listened to, however, must be produced in extra-ordinary and spectacular conditions: the concert. The systematization and sacralization of concert practice in the nineteenth century made us conceive all music as a music to be listened to, by putting the communication relationship between a producer and a receiver at the center of the device. The room and the moment of the concert were exclusively turned towards the activity of listening. The advent of recording has further amplified – in both senses of the word – this relationship to music. The only difference between the concert and the recording lies in the temporal and spatial separation of the places of production (concert hall, recording studio, etc.) and reception (living room, car, etc.). Recording, thought of as fixing the playing and affording a possibility of infinite re-listening, has made the ear even more demanding of a product well played, even « perfect » which eliminates possible imperfections of the playing (just notice the time spent and efforts made in re-recording, editing and mixing a recording to polish the sound product). But what one gains in musical « purity » or « quality », one could well lose in the diversity of practices…

In the media, music is currently often presented as a recorded/listened to music. For example, a widely published article, ‘French people ready to sacrifice their TV rather than music’, resuming a recent survey, presents music as a product whose consumption, that is to say by listening, is essential to the proper functioning of a home. d’un foyer. However, it’s not just about « music to listen to » in this article. The last sentence quotes with astonishment, practices that can fall into our category of « music to do »:

More fun, 10% of respondents admit to being surprised by their loved ones dancing naked, 23% indulging in » air guitar « , or 30% training in front of a mirror.

But the way of presenting these practices marks them directly with the stigma of a certain inadmissibility…

If music to listen to is above all a product, whose focus on the quality to be achieved hides the social, ecological and political conditions of its production, music to be made is primarily a social activity whose end can not justify the means. Mistaking one for the other, to assume they are the same, means the musical death of the latter.

Singing in the shower, playing in your room, singing loudly over a radio, scratching a guitar by the fire with friends, playing a piece of Bach badly, playing a quartet with only three instruments, and so on, are all invisible practices because « unspeakable » – we can not call them « music » – especially where musicians who produce music to listen to are taught: the conservatory. We should therefore be able at least to specify the circumstances of the production of « music », even more so in the places where it is taught, in order to avoid any « misunderstanding »,[1] so as not to take one practice for another. It is certainly this that gives rise to the misunderstanding of what « making music » means: the use of the substantive « music » without explicitly attaching the circumstances of its production.

To illustrate explicitly the circumstances of production of the object « music », let us try to finish by clarifying what is generally implied in the expression « to learn music » in the conservatory:

Learning music,
Is to learn classical music

that is to say, learning classical music in a classical way
that is to say, learning with others to read a score written in the Western language stabilized in the nineteenth century with a music theory teacher and learning to play alone a modern musical instrument of equal temperament with a teacher of the same instrument of modern music of equal temperament to be able to then rehearse with other musicians who received the same training, but on another modern musical instrument of equal temperament with a teacher of this modern instrument of equal temperament, to form the set that corresponds to the nomenclature of the piece of Western art music composed by a genius between 1685 and 1937 in order to interpret this under the direction of a conductor as correctly as possible on the raised stage of a concert hall adapted to receive a public also adapted.

If this definition has at least the merit of being clear, perhaps allowing one to avoid some misunderstanding, it could nevertheless in the long run prevent any practice of classical music by displaying too crudely its conditions of production, today implicit but nevertheless very real, as a director of one Conservatory says: “A musician who comes here to simply play in his room, ultimately has no place here.” So we may be interested in maintaining the misunderstanding and in being not too explicit about what is expected so as not to discourage those who play in their room … and who do not particularly want out. However, and without going as far as an impossible description of the specific conditions of each practice, one could nevertheless wonder a little more about the different models of practice that exist and thus not limit oneself to using only the categories of practice provided by the institutions and their actors. By developing practices centered as much on the music « to be made » as on the musical product « to listen to », or to put it differently on music as a social activity, as much as on an artistic practice separated from everyday life, one could give the possibility of a legitimate existence to practices other than those aimed at an endless perfection induced by the practice of performance on stage, even if these other practices remain in their room.

Samuel Chagnard – 2016
Translation Samuel Chagnard, Jean-Charles and Nancy François

For further reading:

Barthes, R., « Musica practica », L’obvie et l’obtus, Essais critiques, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1992, p. 231-235.

Bourdieu, P. & Passeron, J.-C. (1965). Language and relationship to language in pedagigical situations, in Rapport pédagogique et communication, Bourdieu, P., Passeron, J.-C., & Saint Martin, M. de., Paris La Haye Mouton.

Bozon, M., Vie quotidienne et rapports sociaux dans une petite ville de province : la mise en scène des différences, Lyon, Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1984.

Chagnard, S., (2012) Modèle de pratique et pratique du modèle en conservatoire – Un musicien, c’est fait pour jouer. Master’s research essay under the direction of G. Combaz – Institut des Sciences et des Pratiques de l’Education et de la Formation – Université Lumière Lyon 2.

Lahire, B., « Logiques pratiques : le “faire” et le “dire sur le faire” », in L’esprit sociologique, Textes à l’appui, Paris, Éditions La Découverte, 2005, p.141-160.

Levine, L. W. (2010). Culture d’en haut, culture d’en bas : l’émergence des hiérarchies culturelles aux États-Unis. Paris: Éditions la Découverte.


[1]. ”The gravity of the linguistic misunderstanding in the pedagogical report stems from the fact that it has to do with the code. (…..) Learning means acquiring knowledge and inextricably, acquiring a knowledge of the code by which this knowledge is likely to be acquired. In other words, the code can only be learned here through the less and less clumsy décryption of the messages. No doubt this is the logic of all real learning either in the case of diffuse socialization or acculturation, but is not pedagogical communication entrusted precisely to technicians of learning whose specific function is to work continually and methodically at minimizing misunderstanding about the code? » [Bourdieu & Passeron, 1965, p. 15]


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