Pierre Jodlowski – An Angry Composer

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Interview with Pierre Jodlowski

During this interview, we meet Pierre Jodlowski, undoubtedly one of today's most politically engaged composers, both in his work as a composer and in the way it is expressed in society.

When we look through your portfolio, we notice that many of your pieces have, at the very least, a political subtext, if is not the subject of the work: why?

The composer's societal positioning has always been, or almost always has been, the starting point for me in terms of composition. I developed my work by building a collective, by developing a studio for creative endeavors and a festival. And I always tried to question the place of the artist in society. As soon as you start asking yourself this question, the question of our personal commitment arises: we are forced to ask ourselves, not why we compose, but why we are here - which is not quite the same thing.

Another answer to your question could be found in the anger that has been with me for a very long time. I like to look at the world, I like to research, I like geopolitics, and I know what we have done in the course of history, and still do, in the face of situations that are simply unbearable. In the face of the unbearable, one either abandons all artistic activity to commit oneself body and soul to a humanitarian organization - this is not my choice - or one feeds one's creativity with this anger. The anger then acts consciously and unconsciously like a motor which runs by itself and from which various elements can eventually surface in one way or another.

Do you choose the subject of your performances, such as Alan T., but also instrumental works such as Time and Money or the Piano Series, which often have a sociological or political subtext, because you sense a potential for some form of engagement, or do you only explore this aspect once you have chosen the subject?

This is also a form of revolt. In the case of Alan T., it's very clear: I was on the plane, reading Le Monde, and I learned from an article that the Queen Elizabeth II was finally issuing a royal pardon for Turing, 70 years after his death. I knew the character, I knew a little of his history, and I had no idea that he had still not been pardoned! It made me angry. The same thing happened with San Clemente : it was in Libération, this time, that I discovered that this former psychiatric institution in Venice had been bought by a large luxury hotel group. This made me angry and a form of artistic excitement was triggered.

But it's just a starting point: when you get into the thick of the work, you have to be subtle to make these subjects exist.

Alan T. - Creation concert - Automn Festival in Varsovie, 2021 © Grzesizk Mart

How do you view the concept of the socially committed artist? Is it still meaningful today?

I don't have a definitive answer. But objectively, we can see that the scope of what is possible is narrowing: the Internet, by constantly overproducing, reduces the public's openness by controlling its access to artistic forms: the number of views, for example, determines the validity of a proposal...
But the artists have their say and they have a range of means to do so: notably through educational programs. I know many composers who don't consider themselves politically engaged, and who don't want to deal with politics, but who want to teach and educate.

They want to engage in mediation: to go towards the public to explain, to decipher, to show that a work of art can be something else than a 3-minute song broadcasted on the networks - and I am voluntarily choosing this very simple example.

As far as I am concerned, I have been developing a relationship with politics for a long time. Rather than going into teaching, I very early on wanted to tackle the "making of music" in the field: producing a festival, a studio, a collective, doing concerts, inviting artists. And this inevitably led me into the political arena. I was obliged to meet with politicians, to whom I had to give a political speech, giving key elements that also concerned the composer's societal role.

The composer in the life of the community, that is to say the primary meaning of "politics".

Absolutely. Some artists have the luxury of being able to break away from this agora to innovate. Being socially engaged also means making your work accessible.

Your political approach is nevertheless a form of education, both for the public and for elected officials.

Of course. Elected officials do not necessarily have the same culture and do not have the same vision of all the different artistic disciplines. In addition to the educational effort, there is also an offensive to be carried out: to alert the elected officials that a music whose vocation is essentially commercial ends up being a simple consumer product, far from any artistic approach. The use of public money must be fair in this respect. On the other hand, all forms of art are entitled to a piece of the pie, so we have to be quite offensive... which I am because I have been able to measure in 25 years of activity the enormous damage of certain political practices that do not advance anything, beginning with handouts. This is a real fight.

When I asked him about the real power of a politically engaged work, Steve Reich once said to me, "Look at Picasso! Guernica is undoubtedly one of the most powerful masterpieces ever, yet it did not change the course of history one iota." Can art have an impact on the course of the world?

I certainly think so. For me, at least. Guernica probably didn't prevent the Second World War, but it did raise awareness. And above all, it is a work that has stood the test of time: confronting Guernica still provokes all sorts of reactions today, overemphasized by the fact that Guernica is a testimonial.

One might say that political engagement is pointless, but I don't think so. At the end of a performance or a concert, I've talked with spectators who had experienced an awareness through the work they watched. Emotion is a very complex phenomenon and the vectors of an emotional phenomenon can lead to intellectual processes of understanding or curiosity. The worst enemy of man is non-knowledge. Knowledge is a weapon. To want to share it does not seem stupid to me.

What are the best tools to get a message across? How do you avoid losing momentum by constantly hammering away at the message? How do you strike the right balance?

You are right: one can get lost in the message. For me, the key word is "implicit". I don't think that art is there to bring answers. I have never considered myself to be a politician, capable of delivering a clear message on precise issues. I prefer suggesting through sensations. I really like the concept of "active music" to which I have been referring for years and which implies that music can "activate" processes (intellectual, political, etc.) beyond the musical subject itself.

As for tools: the first one I can think of, which is remarkable, is humor. Distorting the problematic in a funny or grating situation puts distance and gives relief, without pretension.

In Alan T., a sequence tinged with humor evokes the meeting in Cambridge of the mathematician Alan Turing and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. I dealt with it with a touch of exaggeration, in a sort of acceleration of the discourse, which gives the feeling of being overwhelmed by this extremely learned, elevated dialogue. A great void follows, where only two avatars of musicians remain, seemingly giggling together. It's as if the machine, fruit of these combined intelligences, ended up laughing at the intelligence itself. But Alan T. is not my performance in which humor is the most present weapon, because I based it on a text that was not very funny, and that I did not write.

One can also play on what I call multi-emotional phenomena; that is to say, on a depth of emotion which, unfortunately, is increasingly reduced in most mass productions. I find it very interesting, for example, to generate, through energy or even through the writing of time, phenomena of breathlessness or emptiness, which will ultimately proceed from the dramaturgy itself. To tell, to claim, not simply by saying it explicitly, but by creating shocks…

One of my mentors is Antonin Artaud, and in particular Le Corps sans organe. I believe in this idea of theater as a ritualistic place. Many of my instrumental pieces are thought of as modern rituals, which may or may not become cathartic depending on the people and their will to dig into certain semantic elements that appear in subtext.

Interview by Jérémie Szpirglas

Listen to: Pierre Jodlowski

  1. Jour 54 by Pierre Jodlowski (recorded at Ircam, 2010)
  2. De Front by Pierre Jodlowski (recorded at Ircam, 2008)
  3. Mixtion by Pierre Jodlowski (recorded at Ircam, 2004)
  4. Dialog/No Dialog by Pierre Jodlowski (recorded at Ircam, 2004)

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