Purple Magazine
— The Future Issue #37 S/S 2022

gaspar claus


interview and photography by ALEPH MOLINARI

virtuoso musician gaspar claus pushes the musical boundaries of the cello, mixing it with electroacoustic compositions, field recordings, and stereophonic textures to create enigmatic soundscapes. his first solo album, tancade, is a masterpiece.

ALEPH MOLINARI — How did you come to choose the cello as your means of expression?
GASPAR CLAUS — In my family, music is a profession. My father’s a musician and plays a rather exuberant type of flamenco. He’s 83 years old and comes from a cross-cultural school of flamenco that was born in India, crossed the Arab world, headed up into Andalusia, and from there began radiating out through the Western world. In my parents’ house, there has always been this crisscrossing of music from all over the world. I was steeped in it. I could read music before I could read French. One day, in the little village next to ours, I saw a concert in a church by the Claret brothers, a famous quartet from Catalonia. The cello is made to be played in a church, like the organ — it resonates. I was fascinated by it. I went home, picked up my little wooden guitar, turned it vertically, and I have never wanted to turn it back the other way. It was love at first sight. It is a very difficult instrument to play, not generous at all when you begin. You spend hours a day playing scales — little tortures.

ALEPH MOLINARI — For the hands?
GASPAR CLAUS — No. For the ears. And for yourself — because you listen to recordings by people who play very well. The first thing you learn when you begin with an instrument like this is to hold it, to get into position. You learn the postures. The first cello teacher I had, at the music school in Banyuls, told me, “Hold it like a woman!” That stayed with me. You embrace the instrument; you set it between your legs and take it in your arms. The body of the cello has the same proportions as the human body, and they say that the compass — the range from the lowest to the highest note — is the same as that of the human voice.

ALEPH MOLINARI — In its long history, the cello has traversed an impressive range of different eras and aesthetics. How do you get away from the sounds of the suites of Bach, for example, and the music historically associated with the cello? How do you start from there and produce something modern, contemporary?
GASPAR CLAUS — The cello didn’t have its own repertoire until Pablo Casals discovered the suites written by Johann Sebastian Bach, which were studies for the cello. There wasn’t a repertoire of classical music with bravura pieces for a solo musician to play in public. It wasn’t long ago that the cello attained respectability and a measure of sanctity. It was an instrument for accompaniment. It really gained power in art and academic music in the last century. When playing with musicians who make electronic music, there’s a sense of devotion to and respect for this instrument, especially if they’re young. They feel the instrument is sacred. At the conservatory, I began to seek out the sounds that my cello teacher would call “not beautiful.” The limits of sound. There is pure sound, and there is the edge of sound, where things start to fall apart. At the time, that’s where I thought the richness of sound was. When you play a full, lovely note with a nice vibrato, it’s straight and sounds full. But if you play the note in other zones, it starts to tremble — it becomes fragile, and you can enter into the note through its fragility and put it under a microscope. You can stroll around in a single note, through the moment when it appears, disappears, loses its volume, frays, spills over. That’s what led me to believe I had discovered something. Since I didn’t know of any repertoire for this type of music, I improvised by myself. Then I began playing on the wood, on the endpin, on all the parts of the cello, and I realized that everything on the cello produces a sound.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Was it about finding music in the fragility, in the accident, in going against the culture of your education?
GASPAR CLAUS — It wasn’t so much a matter of playing techniques, because those I could find in scores and the repertoires. It was about considering the instrument as a vibrating body, not just a cello, and using that body to venture musically into undefined areas. Just now you called the cello a wooden box. I sometimes joke that it’s a piece of furniture. And it’s true because it’s not so fragile. My cello dates to 1810 and comes from Mirecourt. It has a history; it has survived. People think it’s extremely fragile, but in fact it’s not. It’s solid and well put together, but it’s also been thoroughly broken in. There must have been six owners before me, so about 40 years per owner.

ALEPH MOLINARI — And the vibration changes the instrument in its own way…
GASPAR CLAUS — Yes. My cello isn’t the same as when I started playing it. This cello is full of stories, and it’s inhabited by ghosts, in the sense of beings who are no longer there but have left traces. Just as there are surely ghosts in this apartment, if only because people have passed through and left their traces. Some people perceive them more easily and powerfully than others. There’s a responsibility incumbent upon me because it’s my turn to leave a mark, and if all goes well, the cello should survive me. It’s always difficult to answer questions about the cello because it brings people to tears very easily. Too easily, and it quickly gets annoying. It’s a vibrating body and a tool for entering a state of trance. People always say, “I play the cello,” but I often feel that the cello is playing me.

ALEPH MOLINARI — The tool shapes the hand.
GASPAR CLAUS — There’s a bit of that. My instrument has shaped me, for sure. The cello has many functions, and it often operates beyond me. After I play, especially solo improvisations, people will often come up to me and talk about having undergone transcendental and out-of-body experiences, even molecular reorganization. Having received that kind of feedback, I’ve started to think that maybe I serve a purpose. That perhaps as a musician playing this instrument, I become a kind of shaman. I reach a state similar to what other rituals try to induce.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you think that musical education, which is still rather traditional, should be radically renewed?
GASPAR CLAUS — No, because no matter how obtuse, closed, or incurious your education is, it’s the thing you define yourself against. You decide whether you want to stay in the shackles, in the academy, in the milieu, and play by the rules. Such are the basic principles of negative liberty. Once you’ve built your frame and mastered it, you can start asking what you’re going to do with the frame. Do I step outside of it? Or into it? Do I deconstruct it?

ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you think that after postmodernism, after atonal and dodecaphonic music, we are going to return to more traditional or classical music?
GASPAR CLAUS — It’s complicated because there’s no one music to speak of. There are many manifestations of music, and they don’t all advance at the same tempo. Lately, it seems to me that some of the barriers between different types of music have started to come down. Since Karlheinz Stockhausen and Holger Czukay from the group Can, there’s been a lot of back and forth between pop, in the broadest sense of the term, and art music. It took us a long time to take part in it, but it’s starting to happen now. My sense is that this ends up impoverishing music for some people because the schemas of pop have such a powerful effect on the human brain, on the brains of the masses. Take a piece of Syrian music, 12-tone music or textural music, add a kick at 120 bpm [beats per minute], and you’ll have 5,000 people loving the tune. They’ll find it amazing and start headbanging to it, and everyone will say, “Yes!” Or take a simple structure of four repeating chords, then four other chords for the chorus, and then back to the four chords from before, add a little bridge, and… Top 40 pop, right? Well, you’ll find that in neoclassical music, in Max Richter. My sense is that we’re seeing a simplification of musical writing in the schools. There remain a few pockets of resistance, but even most of the people in those pockets believe that it’s all over, that nobody’s listening anymore. All that is left are little bubbles that keep on shrinking. What I find interesting now is the increasing focus on sound and texture. Texture is where it’s all happening. For me, the great advances in music today are to be found in artists like Eartheater and Tirzah. They have virtually unlimited means of production at their disposal, and they produce great works with just one or two notes, or four chords.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Your music often evokes landscapes and produces a cinematic effect. Should there be a narrative thread in music?
GASPAR CLAUS — No, not every time. In fact, I think more in terms of landscape than narration. Narration is a bit complicated for me. I’ve already had complicated experiences — a love affair, for example — and thought to myself, “I’m going to write a piece to tell that story.” I don’t like titling things because I feel I’m forcing the piece to tell one story rather than another. Titles always occur to me after the fact. For me, there are operas that are completely narrative, and symphonies that contain stories. My pieces are a narrative envelope into which listeners can insert their own story. In any case, my music doesn’t contain predetermined stories. What I expect from a piece of music is that it produces an aural landscape — a planet I’m invited to. When I listened to my record Tancade again, the pieces turned out to be very bizarre because not one of them fulfills its promise. They start in one spot and end up someplace else, and when you get to the end, you think: “What happened? How did we get here? It’s not the same world.”

ALEPH MOLINARI — Who are the great masters you admire, your biggest influences? I can sense Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Debussy in your music.
GASPAR CLAUS — I recorded Tancade with David Chalmin, and the album took us five years. What I wanted to make was an album like Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden or the albums of Scott Walker, who was part of The Walker Brothers. He made three or four really beautiful albums and then vanished for a long time. He returned with three albums — like Orpheus, out of the underworld. All the percussion was recorded in a butcher shop using animal carcasses … dead cows. And it’s sublime. There’s also Richard Hawley’s Truelove’s Gutter, and I find the production to be just splendid. I was pretty much going after those sounds. Those three musical approaches were my reference points in terms of albums and production.

ALEPH MOLINARI — There’s an aspect to your instrument and your kind of music that resists technological obsolescence. Do you think the important changes and renewals in music are related to technological changes?
GASPAR CLAUS — For me, technology means the development of new instruments that are added onto what already exists. There is no electronic music, but there are electronic instruments that make various kinds of music. And, yes, technological developments necessarily create new sounds and therefore new music and new approaches. This tends to happen more on the production side, in the studio. Technology has become so powerful and precise in how we create music — producing albums and preparing live shows — that we run the risk of structuring everything in the same way. Technology is so powerful today that danger, risk-taking, and the fragility you mentioned a moment ago are all next to nil. Everything is based on the available tools, and humans have set everything up perfectly in advance so that they and the machines can deliver a perfect shiny product, with no rough edges.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you think that artificial intelligence can produce interesting or innovative music?
GASPAR CLAUS — Yes. It’s already doing it in real life. Artificial intelligence is going to get better and better at imitating poetry and art with ever greater precision. Just as forgers can perfectly reproduce a Rembrandt, artificial intelligence is going to be able to produce an imitation that will be very hard to spot in poetry and art, which are the two challenges in making good music. With our fallibility, though, because we are less precise beings than machines are. I believe, however, that we will always be able to distinguish between something made by one born of the miracle of life and one born of the miracle of the mind.

ALEPH MOLINARI — What do you think music will be like in the future?
GASPAR CLAUS — When someone tells me what the future’s going to look like, I feel like denouncing that person. If we look at where music seems to be going, I believe we are headed for sensational stuff, meaning things that tap into our other senses. Similar to what the musician Carsten Nicolai and the sound artist Ryoji Ikeda have been doing for a long time. People have been trying to open the way for three-dimensional music for a long time. To draw from there and make the bodily organs vibrate, rather than the eardrums, and listen with purely auditory hearing. It’s starting to happen now, and it’s technologically much more interesting than 3D cinema, which obscures the image and, for me, destroys a film. Now, with the advent of proper headphones, binaural music is going to become increasingly prevalent and accessible to everyone. In terms of aesthetics, I think we are heading toward music that’s getting simpler in its harmonic sophistication, although maybe not in its rhythm. We’re heading into texture, frequency manipulation and relief. I also like that sampling has returned to evoking important eras. It’s overwhelming: the quantity of sounds, words, and images that we have access to at any time. If we ever find ourselves on the far side of this era, I think we might take this mass of sounds as the raw material to make music. We’ll just summon ghosts.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Are you optimistic about the future?
GASPAR CLAUS — I like the idea that music is going to become more like streams that we can connect to and enter. Or planets, in fact. We come back full circle to landscapes and planets. I dream of entering a zone of peace after this era of nonstop crises: a calm, well-lit zone that will leave the current era behind, with lessons learned, and look at things squarely. A zone that comes to grips with the past and doesn’t forget — because we forget much and quickly.



[Table of contents]

The Future Issue #37 S/S 2022

Table of contents

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