Interview with Pascal Le Boeuf

Following the performances of Murray Hidary’s MindTravel, Kaleidoscope will continue with the 2018 portion of its fourth season pairing two classical chamber standards and four new works. On January 27th & 28th, head down to the Los Angeles Theater Center and the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica to hear the West Coast Premieres of Head to Toe by Molly Joyce, Scallops and Bollocks for Tea by Melissa Dunphy, and Obliquely Wrecked and Alpha by one of this year’s Grammy Award Nominees, Pascal Le Boeuf. Generously donating his time, I spoke with Mr. Le Boeuf regarding his Kaleidoscope debut. We discussed a variety of topics, but it quickly became apparent to me that in his quest to find common ground between seemingly different interests and identities, he found that identifying as a composer and marrying different musical styles gave him the freedom to be anything.

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started in music?
Pascal Le Boeuf: I started playing music on the streets of Santa Cruz, CA for tips with my twin brother (Remy) when we were around twelve or thirteen. We played piano (keyboard) and saxophone respectively, mostly jazz standards. The community was very supportive. It's an interesting place culturally, with a healthy mix of scientists, vegans, silicon valley tech people, old-school hippies, surfers, nature enthusiasts, and liberal minded artists. This seemed to amount to a shared/communal value of difference, of weirdness... people interested in waving their freak flag. It was a great place to be a kid playing music because you could play jazz standards in the street and the community felt inclined to support it. I was privileged in this way, to grow up in a community that was ready to encourage difference and unconventional interests. I became interested in jazz because it made more sense to me as a beginner. For some reason, I had an intuitive understanding of tertiary harmony and could play by ear, but I was terrible at reading music, in part, because I couldn’t avoid analyzing the harmony as I read it. This combined with the challenges of learning notation as a kid, slowed me down. Imagine performing a monologue without understanding it. I couldn’t do this with music. Jazz was much more intuitive, the simultaneity of theory and performance were a given. This perspective eventually helped me to develop a framework for understanding composition and music in general.

CR: Interesting. So when you hear music, do you hear chords and phrases?
PLB: It feels more like a language to me. I think we learn to play music the same way we learn how to speak. There are so many subtleties and inflections we have to learn to hear in order to communicate. It’s an aural process that we relate to when we are moved by a piece of music.

CR: Very true. As a professional, you still perform with your brother, is that correct?
PLB: I do, yes! We co-lead an ensemble called Le Boeuf Brothers that focuses on modern improvised music with odd meters based on themes such as literature/poetry, remix culture, and genre boundaries. Our latest album “imaginist” is collaboration with JACK Quartet based on the early 20th century imaginist Russian poetry movement - characterized by sequences of arresting images and long chains of metaphors. Although we consider this ensemble to be rooted in the jazz tradition, it is quite different from traditional jazz. As many say with regard to the traditions of classical music, we have tremendous respect for the jazz tradition, but we try to focus on the present-day extensions of the artform because we feel we can make a greater contribution to the jazz-identifying-community by stretching the music rather than preserving it.

CR: So what does that mean in terms of your compositional voice? How does focusing on the present jazz voice differ from the past jazz voice as both a performer and composer?
PLB: When I moved to New York, I wanted to compose music, I wanted to play jazz piano, I wanted to join rock bands as a keyboardist, I wanted to produce electronic music... I wanted to do all these things, so I developed divergent musical identities that fractured out like tree branches. This was partially out of necessity in order to make a living, but eventually this became problematic artistically, and I realized I had to find a way to braid these strands together -- to combine the things I love into a unified expression -- into something novel through their synthesis. I’ve found a lot of freedom in identifying as a composer because it's such a big creative box--it doesn't pigeonhole you into any specific identity. For example, sometimes if I tell people I'm a jazz piano player they will make assumptions about what I can contribute artistically to a collaboration--it pigeonholes me by projecting that person’s imagined version of what “jazz piano player” means on to me. So, I’ve found that by identifying as a composer, I can be more flexible artistically. I can write music with lyrics, I can write jazz, I can write music for classically trained musicians, I can play analog synthesizers, I can be a producer, I can work with other artistic disciplines, etc. It’s still a projection, but a less restrictive one. Identifying as a composer, gives me the freedom to unify all these disparate paths into one central identity.

CR: I like that reasoning a lot. Typically orchestras don’t delve into jazz techniques like improvisation, so what motivated you to submit your pieces to Kaleidoscope's Call for Scores
PLB: My primary artistic focus these last few years has been much more inclusive of classical music and musicians. When I began trying to amalgamate divergent artistic paths into one unified sound, I realized that classically trained musicians provide a specific type of freedom for the composer. Jazz musicians like the freedom to express their individual ideas in the music, which is very important, but can be very limiting compositionally since you don't want to write so much you restrict their freedom. So, I found a solution in composing for hybridized ensembles that combine musicians from different artistic backgrounds into the same ensemble. For example, imaginist involves musicians from contemporary classical backgrounds in the same ensemble as musicians with improvisation-oriented backgrounds. Ensembles like this give me a chance to highlight each of the voices in the ensemble while still being able to specify highly detailed notated material as a composer. Additionally, this gives the performers the opportunity to learn from each other and even switch roles to explore other idioms. I find this process to be extremely rewarding as a means of community development across musical communities, and the pieces I submitted come from that foundation.

CR: What exact instrumentation are you working with that combines these two idioms together in Obliquely Wrecked and Alpha?
PLB: Obliquely Wrecked is written for piano trio (violin, cello and piano) and is based on combining extended techniques in contemporary music and 90s acid house music. There is an artist I particularly like named Luke Vibert, who also releases music under the names “Wagon Christ” and “Amen Andrews”. (The latter specifically references remixes using the famous “Amen” break beat, pulled from “Amen, Brother” by The Winstons). When I hear something that I like, I try and understand why it works and what makes it effective compositionally; I want to determine what the link is between our emotions and technical elements that we hear when we listen or write something. What’s fun about acid house music is that the hardware used to make it limits the compositional techniques. There are only so many things you can do with these instruments. (Drum machines, the Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer-sequencer, a samplers, etc). The result is that compositional devices are beautifully and efficiently formulaic. So, in Obliquely Wrecked it was fun to pick apart those techniques and try to push them onto classical instruments.

CR: That sounds really interesting! So what techniques can the audience expect to hear?
PLB: The material is derived from synthesizer techniques. For example, you can tune multiple oscillators to a note and play single melodies with chords; you can use a few tricks to create circular chord progressions based on wave forms; or you can generate an upward arpeggio in which the pitches get closer together as they approach unity (that technique in particular translates well to string instruments). But, it all came from an idea that I got from David Lang: Someone commissioned him to write a piece of a specific nature and David, not wanting to be creatively restricted, responded by asking to instead compose an hour long piece for amplified orchestra using only one chord. As an admirer of David’s work, I have always been drawn to his mischievous contrary approach to composition, so much so, that on a subsequent occasion when David offered a kind suggestion about a piece I had written, my first instinct was to respond in a similar contrary fashion. I harbor a deep appreciation for the aggressive energy that results from fast syncopated rhythms, and this energy tends to inadvertently come out in my work. The problem is it is difficult to maintain high-energy material for more than 2-3 minutes. So, when David politely explained this, it was immediately clear that I should write an hour-long work of continuous high-energy material with no breaks, hence the conception of “Obliquely Wrecked”. Ultimately I only lasted around 10 minutes, so I’ll have to keep working on it.

CR: In terms of your piece Alpha, what instrumentation does that combine and what techniques do you use in this piece?
PLB: Alpha is for cello and drum set, and we might have a little extra surprise at the concert with some additional strings supporting the duo. Alpha is a critique of alphaism, the idea that one is in control of many, and many of today's social problems are a result of this arguably instinctual phenomenon in which one person tries to dominate or exert control over others. It’s a phenomenon that is clearly prevalent throughout our culture, so my way of dealing with it was to compose a satirical battle piece that pits the cellist against the drummer. There is even a dramatic moment in the middle where the drummer and the cellist get to look mean and have a showdown. In terms of idioms and disparate ideas coming together, the drum part is written with a jazz aesthetic in mind and incorporates a great deal of interpretive freedom for the performer including an extended improvised solo in the middle. It's always interesting to see it performed because the drum part in particular can be so different depending on who is playing. Jeff Stern and Clement Chow will be performing Alpha with Kaleidoscope. I expect it will be a great rendition since they are both notably adventurous and skilled musicians in additional to being wonderful people.

CR: What about this particular instrumentation portrays Alphaism? Why choose the drum set and the cello over other instruments?
PLB: It was just the instrumentation that presented itself to me at the time when I had the idea. I was primarily interested in the people over the instruments. I simply saw the piece as an opportunity to write for some inspiring humans and have some fun. Originally I workshopped it with Jeff Ziegler and Jason Treuting, and developed it to completion for Nick Photinos and Doug Perkins (with help from my friend, cellist, Dave Eggar). I didn’t realize until after writing the piece, but I consider all of these individual to be positive representatives of people (specifically men) in powerful positions, and I think some part of me imagined they might have fun critiquing the topic of Alphaism.

CR: Are you going to be able to come to LA and see the musicians work on your pieces? This year you’re nominated for a Grammy which takes place in New York on the same weekend as this concert series.
PLB: Yes! I'm flying into LA for rehearsals, but I do unfortunately have to leave on the 25th in order to make it to the Grammys. Still, I’m glad I’ll get a chance to work with the incredible musicians and be a part of the community that Kaleidoscope represents. It’s always inspiring to hear new ideas and personalized interpretations of the music.

CR: Speaking to Kaleidoscope’s mission, Kaleidoscope is invested in the Los Angeles community, putting on performances in different kinds of venues, eliminating ticket sales, and giving donation based concerts. This is because a core value of the ensemble is that music can and should be provided to all people regardless of social and economic status. If any, what are some of your own personal goals to try and connect to the community through your music?
PLB: First I should say that I really appreciate Kaleidoscope’s Pay-What-You-Can model. I think it's great for an organization to not just say they value community, but actually try to break down barriers of economic access. When we talk about community as a word, it implies certain boundaries and needs more words to classify it. Is it culturally oriented? Is it geographic? Economic? Artistic?--it demands further qualifiers. When I talk about community, I'm usually talking about artists or musicians who rally around creative traditions and who self-identify with these traditions. One thing that's made me fortunate as a musician is that I've had many opportunities to identify with a diversity of communities through music and find value and purpose in the lines that interconnect them. There is so much to gain from a diversity of perspectives, especially when it is possible to combine elements (musical and otherwise) to engender a result that emphasizes complimentary attributes of these various perspectives. I look forward to engaging with the individuals that form Kaleidoscope and the larger community surrounding it. I am sure I will learn much from these forward-thinking trailblazers and hopefully I can contribute in some way through my music and ongoing interest in connecting disparate ideas.

CR: Excellent! Specifically, what communities do you identify with?
PLB: Limiting my response to music-oriented communities, I certainly identify with the jazz communities based around New York and the California Bay Area where I am originally from. There’s also a sort of internet culture that I identify with oriented around trip-hop and electronica in the 90s and early 2000s. I’m not sure it’s real, but it’s a feeling. I also identify with the musical communities surrounding Bang on a Can, a wonderful organization that is particularly inclusive of non-classical artistic influences in contemporary music. Finally, I feel a strong connection to the small composer community at Princeton University; I relate to the broad musical aesthetic that seems to emanate from these generous creative humans.

CR: Speaking more to you as a person, what kind of hobbies outside of music do you have?
PLB: I like collaborative painting parties. I'm walking around my room right now am looking at paintings made with various friends and creative people. It makes me feel happy to be able to document a moment with another person or group of people in a painting. Kind of like a jam session. I also like cooking, making original cocktails, and I regularly practice hot yoga!

CR: Do you have a personal mantra or favorite quote?
PLB: Aaron Copland once said something like we compose because we want to document our most basic feelings about being alive, so that future generations will be able to get some sense of what it felt like to be alive now, today. I like this idea because it releases us from having to question everything that's happened--instead, we can just get it out and move on. I also think a lot about the link between what we enjoy listening to and the music we make, especially when they don’t line up.

CR: Interesting. Is there anything you’d like to leave with the readers as a final statement?
PLB: I think what Kaleidoscope is doing is wonderful for Los Angeles and I am honored to be involved. Also, I am a big fan of both Molly Joyce and Melissa Dunphy and am honored to be on the bill with such creative artists and wonderful people.

CR: Well, we’re all rooting for you to win a Grammy! Thank you for speaking with me today!
PLB: Thank you!

Carrie Rexroat