Currently on the bill at the Bastille Opera, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker'work Drumming Live makes the dancers of the company move to the heady rythms of the Ictus Ensemble's percussions. An hour-performance, raging and uninterrupted, during which dancers and musicians stand united around the same impetus: the pure pleasure of playing.
Interview with Georges-Elie Octors
Musical Director and percussionist of the Ictus Ensemble
What is your first memory of Drumming ?
Georges-Elie Octors : I discovered the piece soon after its creation in 1971. At the time, the composition of contemporary music had reached a degree of hyper-sophistication and the air of change coming from the United States seemed new and totally refreshing to me. Drumming is a total success. It is a piece perfectly suited to percussion, impossible to transpose to other instruments. I place it among Steve Reich’s absolute masterpieces along with Music for 18 musicians and Tehillim.
Why did you decide to do Drumming Live in 2001 after creating Drumming in 1998 ?
The idea came from Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. For a dance performance with live music there’s nothing better because it's a truly physical piece. The physical energy comes from the percussionists themselves and sometimes draws the audience.'s gaze Our performance is in symbiosis with the dancers. Each change is synchronised to the second in order not to destabilise the choreography or the lighting.
What are the advantages of live music?
With taped music, conditions are not always optimal on stage. So, when the musicians are on stage, the dancers benefit directly from their physical presence and all those little interpretive nuances that characterise each performance. There’s an indisputable energy transfer. From the back of the stage, we have the impression that we are "making the dancers dance". The fourth part, a bona fide trance, illustrates that sentiment exactly: the more energy we convey the further we carry them. It’s rare to find music in the contemporary repertoire with a beat that can provoke such a desire to move.
Is the piece as tiring as it is for the dancers?
It would be a lie to say that it’s always an ordeal. However, performing the piece has its dangers because it demands a high level of collective concentration. One moment of inattention can have disastrous consequences and bring the whole structure down. With time, performance difficulties have practically disappeared. Today, we’re basically left with the pure pleasure of playing which is genuine, powerful and boundless.
How much has the choreography influenced your perspective of the music?
We have always focused on what is more advantageous for the dancing. For example, in the first part we play at a faster tempo than in the second to create a contrast that allows the dancers to rebound better. Even so, in the score, the two parts were written with the same tempo. Those modifications were the result of a genuine evolution that developed progressively after each performance in a way that was only possible over time. The real privilege for us is to have played the piece so often in front of an audience, primarily thanks to the Rosas company’s production.
You are responsible for the musical direction of the piece but you are also one of the players. How do you reconcile those two roles?
Officially, as musical director, I’m responsible for the Ictus Ensemble, but in this particular case it’s all about a collective effort. From the moment I start to play, I rely on the other musicians and it is more difficult for me to have an overall view of our performance. Each musician can express their opinion and many choices are made collaboratively. In some ways, Drumming is a reflection of the Ensemble: a balanced collaborative effort where responsibilities are shared. To a certain degree it’s the secret of our alchemy and the reason for which Ictus is still comprised of the same musicians as when it was created in 1993.
Interview with Tom De Cock
Artistic Advisor and percussionist of the Ictus Ensemble
In your opinion, what are the main differences between the piece performed with recorded music and Drumming Live?
Tom De Cock : In terms of timing, nothing changes because we scrupulously respect the length of the recording. The major difference comes from the energy we transmit to the dancers. The pulse and vibrations generated by the percussions carry the dancers. Our place behind the scenes inside Jan Versweyveld’s stage design gives rise to the sound from afar and, like an avalanche of air, it envelops the dancers. The physical performance of the musicians also plays a part in making the entire show yet more animated and energetic.
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker calls the piece an “invitation to dance”. Why?
The nature of repetitive music, along with the rhythms directly inspired by African rhythms, make Drumming an ideal piece for dance. These rhythms are enhanced by a superimposition of instruments, polyrhythms and a "phasing" technique making the score all the more complex and adings psychoacoustic layers. The superimposed tones create an almost hallucinogenic effect. In the third movement, for example, you can hear a very low hum coming from the glockenspiels when they are played at high speed. Sometimes, you can even here instruments and voices that are not on stage. These more elaborate layers are conducive to the choreography and enable the material to constantly renew itself.
The phasing you mention is a technique invented by Steve Reich. It was popular among minimalist composers in the 1970s and 1980s and it is also at the very core of Drumming. What place does this piece occupy in the career of the composer?
By the radical nature of the musical material—Drumming is based on a single rhythmic-melodic motif—it occupies an important place in Steve Reich’s repertoire but also in the history of contemporary music. Particularly at the time it was created because there had never been anything quite so unusual.
Is your presence on stage also choreographed?
Our movements across the stage are highly codified. Our entrances and exits are organised with extreme precision. We always enter and exit in the same way. Anne Teresa De Keermaker wanted to make the musical structure and the way it develops visible. The fact we’re musicians doesn’t mean we're not conscious of our bodies. We’re always seeking to give meaning to our movements.
You have played this piece with Rosas since 2007. Have you noticed any changes over the years?
Today, when I perform the piece, it’s basically a reflex. It’s in my blood. Even so, it remains difficult because it requires total concentration. The piece has a life force of its own that seems to come from its tribal roots inspired by Balinese music to create a sound that is entirely unique. Thanks in part to Georges-Elie Octors who is always seeking to seize the musicians' original attention, we remain creative. Each time, the force of our performance is rooted in our ability to look on the score as a challenge.
Your reading: Music in the blood