Tuesday, 10 December 2013


                                             Jeannot Gillis (1951)

Musical Biography

My father was an institutor, amateur musician, ready for any kind of adventures – he played violin in the cinemas during the 30’ties, he tried naturism, he was 4 years long in a Nazi concentration camp, and he ascended Cervin Mountain, he took part in the communist party, he made some enjoyable paintings, he wrote an unfinished symphony and some mushy songs….After the war, he sold leather in order to survive.
As I was 7 years old I had the “permission” to learn to play violin, I had been waiting that moment since long!
My childhood was diligent and rather wise, few passion but a lot of interest. I became construction engineer , work that I’m carrying out at present, after a life divided among music and teaching , in a school for engineers. I don’t have any musical academic degree, but I had ten years of private learning with a professor of classical music- he was “ Concert Meister” of The National Belgian Orchestra. He taught me classical violin without stress , including some intrusions in the “ musique de salon” (dance music of beginning of 1900) – I still keep some traces of it. After my studies- without any problem but felt as a nightmare- I started to do music professionally, following the meeting with Pierre Coulon. My work as an engineer was temporarily  put aside but I didn’t know it yet! Not having a classical degree I infiltrated myself in the varietè (pop?) & underground ambient  of Brussels. It was the period of the renaissance of European folk music, so I started to play folk from the Wallon Region that I totally was unaware of. We organized a common stay in a big building which we called Villa Hortense .It’s name became the name of an organization of progressive music called “Les Lundis de Villa Hortense”.

                                    Jeannot Gillis & Céline Azizieh


In the seventies I regularly visited a rehearsal studio, that’s were I met 2 members of Univers Zero Daniel Denis & Guy Seghers. The group was doldrums and Roger Trigaux had just left.The experience playing with them was enriching , I first met a form of intellectual rock ( even if they didn’t see it like that), including odd rhythms, a composition form generating from complex riffs, ambitious tracks longer than usual, an aggressiveness , which I didn’t support, and a completely new way of playing drums. I discovered Magma that I didn’t know before and I found a new world of harmonies and colours which keep influencing me indirectly also nowadays.
My experience in UZ lasted less than one year, I didn’t participate to the radicalism  pursued by the group – obsession about black, gothic letters  and fantasies, absence of « distance » and humour, refuse to take some distance from a dark ambiance and a closed  aesthetic view.
But I always appreciated the originality of their path and the quality and involvement of the musicians.
I’m still in contact with Daniel Denis, at a musical level, but I’m a very good friend of Michel Berckmans, the bassoon player of the group, I’ve been playing with him in many groups.


Earn my life

In order to earn my life I accompanied the singer Jofroi, who just started his profession, playing with him I learned to stay on a stage, to make arrangements and to play in a group. I didn’t share the aesthetic point of view, but the collaboration was positive for everyone involved. The group accompanying this singer became Julverne after having been Coulonneux with reference to Pierre Coulon and to Waloon folk (collonneux=pigeon fancier, people who participates to the competitions for carrier pigeons).
Touring with the singer, we frequently were together, this gave us the opportunity to build up our repertory. Folk music wasn’t very important for me, I just considered it a basis to compose on, following the way of classical composers.

The musicians were receptive so we were sure our pieces would be played and this is normally  very difficult for unknown beginners.

Julverne and the other groups

So in this way Julverne created its own aesthetic and tone thanks to   3 composers who “competed” Pierre, Jean-Paul Laurent and myself. Every piece was looking for its own answer, nobody wanted to lag behind, the tastes were compatible but anyhow different, without the need of being commercial because we were earning our life playing with the singer. The life during that period in Belgium was quite easy: much public money, an intense cultural dynamic (following 1968) , a curious and numerous alternative audience, thirsty of new adventures and experiences, the real estate at low prices, a lot of  squats around….
We didn’t dedicate much time to our survival, so it was possible to participate and create many groups without bothering if they would be successful.
Apart from Julverne, I created « Nuit Câline à la Villa Mon Rêve » creative folk rock, I participated to Univers Zéro, Aksaq, Abraxis of Charles Loos, Placebo of Marc Moulin, Karo of Daniel Schell, André Bialek (an engaged singer ),Métarythmes de l’Air with Christian Leroy, I had some jams with all these musicians and I started to play in a classical string quartet .All this happened thanks to the “ Lundis d’Hortense” that was responsible for  promos and secretarial work.


Then the world changed. Jazz rock dramatically disappeared and also the poetic singers (chansonniers). Margaret Tatcher spread her bad influence over Europe. Punks and electronics invaded the market, I was confused!
I tried to pursue an aesthetic of transgression, among written and composed seriuos music and rock that was more popular but open to research, reflection and re-readings. I simply couldn’t play garage rock or bustle with synths.I didn’t even get my bearings in the true contemporary music (Boulez,Stockhausen….). Jofroi fired us, correctly at a professional level, but this stood in the way of our professional perspectives.
At that point I returned engineer and teacher saving some free space for my musical activities and renouncing to enjoy my life.
The “Lundis d’Hortense” became an association for the promotion of Belgian jazz , with an aesthetic totally dedicated to jazz, and all the founders were discarded.

Belgium and marginal music

It’s a very small country, divided into two cultures not appreciating one another. The linguistic border is invisible but more evident than the state border! Brussels is a small town considering itself like an European capital, with a little bit of empathy towards the provinces. Local music market is ridiculous. Furthermore life is quite easy, so people stay here instead of leaving for Paris,London or NY.
Anyhow the possibilities to earn life from a local musical commercial product are very low and so musicians are used to work in their corner doing other jobs in order  to earn something.
If you don’t earn anything with your music,  you can do what you really like trying new paths – We had a lot of unknown creative musicians with their experiences of great quality. Somewhere else, considering their professional qualities,  they could have been absorbed  from a more commercial scene. I think this is an explication of the big number of Belgian alternative experiences. I always said that with a potential public of 500 people (Brussels) you can’t live of your music. With 10000 people (New York) this becomes possible- so you can try even if often you are swallowed by commerce. Many Belgian Musicians tried to find their way in Paris and they passed their lives doing modest musical works ( I think about Denis van Heke rocker cello player of Brussels who was exceptionally talented and who died prematurely without leaving musical traces of his greatness )

Nuit Câline à la Villa Mon Rêve 


During the seventies in Belgium was set up a system of subventions for non conventional music. Commercial music had no problems ,as usual, classical music,as everywhere, was supported by a net of musical academies( very dense in Belgium) and subventions for orchestras .Public power discovered this niche of alternative creators and gave life to a net helping the organizers of concerts ( net Art et Vie) which indirectly helped the musicians because their fees were partially paid.
Thanks to this system life of alternative musicians was possible and even comfortable. This net is not the same today because the request for alternative music is poorer (thank you liberalism!) and the places to play (sites for alternative shows) have all closed down. Recently (2013) we had some wake-up signals but there are no big financial resources. Only  Theatre companies organized themselves to resist to de-culturalization. In theatres you can’t survive with light-hearted songs, you only survive with live shows, that’s why companies always had to organize themselves . This has permitted to the subvention system to survive (Art et vie and others). Now the non classical musicians are following the example of theatre creating FACIR collective of independent musicians which will not necessarily be a syndicate.


Halvenalf Quartet (1983)

When I worked as  a teacher, i tried paths and time slots were I could express what my partial availability permitted me. For a violinist the string quartet was a natural path. Claudine Steenackers was my partner at the time,  she was a very classical oriented musician, and I  involved her in my musical adventures, following the meetings of alternative musician I made in my life .
This Quartet lasted for about 17 years (just to 2000) with weekly rehearsals,  it was our musical health.We accompanied also French singer William Sheller, who  taught me a new style. The group was in fact  the driving force for new compositions: we couldn’t afford to compete with  important string quartets,but we mixed classical music with our compositions, in order to occupy an interesting position in the small Belgian local scene.
This gave us the opportunity to play with John Lurie,Hector Zazou, Daniel Schell and to be involved in many Belgian productions.
My style developed following this aspiration, as a self taught man, and the result was the CD “Paysages de Carton”.
The difficulties of its diffusion denied the possibility of a 2nd project. 

                                                  Halvenalf Quartet

Present activities

Libertango is an experience  I was involved in  by Claudine Steenackers. My violinist style is compatible with Piazzolla's tango.The group  still exists even its performances are quite rare.
Philippe Tasquin is an unusual  talented singer,pianist arranger and composer who is looking for phaths out of standard like myself. We met professionally and became friends. He found many difficulties to impose his art , even if his style is near to chanson and rock – between Queen, Sparks, Ennio Morricone and the known or unknown classical French poets.
The base  formula is a sextet : string quartet, contrabass and piano.
Style  is sometimes very rhythmic, sometimes overloaded harmonic, never conventional, full of contrasts and curiously, difficult to be sold.
He also writes music for films, but at the moment only for small productions, so this doesn’t give him the possibility to live of it.
I also wrote some music for shorts, but I don’t think it fits too much  : my music is too autonomous to be adapted to a film.
My present partner (Céline Azizieh) is a remarkable pianist, with her I play a composite repertory (duo Gaze).
Another pretext  for composing, following my classical schema– are my compositions for a group  of musicians – friends, acquaintances – with them it is possible to work without any commercial need doing from time to time some private concerts.
The possibilities  to record « at home » are so interesting that we record ourselves our Cds even if the CD is disappearing.
New projects : some mini string quartets, a quintet with clarinet , some unedited works for a studio Julverne, some pieces for piano violin…
Also a CD « Tapas » of duos alto/violin et bassoon/violin (domestic production).

with Philippe Tasquin

My Tastes

Growing older, I better can define my tastes.
I like music that  narrates something. I call it narration because what you are hearing now anticipates what will follow.
This normally happens in all written serious music, but the elements of the narration can come from all sources.
 Recently, we have again in Belgian scene a series of interesting composers who use folk, classical and rock as raw materials of structured pieces.
This is what interested me in Univers Zero and that I found in Piazzola or Louise Avenue.
I am a music listener : beyond live concerts, I can spend my time listening to a CD or  radio without doing anything else (maybe drinking a glass of something).
Always looking for the paths permitting the evocation, the understanding and the emotion, which give a trace to follow and an intim relation with the musician – the artist which is behind.
Anyhow  I am tied to classical music among 2 wars around 1920  (Prokofiev, Szymanowski, Janacek, Stravinski, Ravel, Poulenc, Martinu, Tansman, Schulhof, … ) excepting the current « hard contempo » dominating – without being an exclusive choice.
I try anyhow to propose programs qui integrating my compositions with them of these composers.
I dream of finding an uncommon place for improvisation, which could integrate in a framework written with a different deepness than the one of jazz or of “variété”.
About jazz, the theme is a pretext , the harmonic grid is the guide and improvisation the main purpose.
About variété, improvisation is simply a small decoration.
« Free improvisation » often brings to commonplaces and having done it, I find it difficult to maintain the interest of the audience.
So here there’s a new path to look into.
Julverne exists only theoretically, the attempts to restart concerts were so complicated and difficult that we would need a miracle to succeed.
I normally don’t believe in miracles.
I wrote some texts analyzing my perception and my musical wishes, concerning my musical path, it will be ready soon.

Jeannot Gillis

and now in french:

Bio musicale

Mon père était un instituteur, musicien amateur, prêt à beaucoup d’aventures – il a joué du violon dans les cinémas dans les années 30, essayé le naturisme, passé 4 ans dans un camp de concentration nazi, fait l’ascension du Mont Cervin, milité au parti communiste, peint des toiles sympathiques, écrit une symphonie inachevée et des chansons guimauve…
Après guerre, il vendait du cuir pour vivre.
Quand j’ai atteint 7 ans, j’ai eu la « permission » d’apprendre le violon, j’attendais depuis longtemps !
Mon enfance a été studieuse et plutôt sage, peu de passion mais beaucoup d’intérêt.
Je suis devenu ingénieur civil des constructions, métier que j’exerce toujours après une vie partagée entre la musique et l’enseignement dans une école d’ingénieurs.
Je n’ai aucun diplôme de musicien, mais j’ai suivi 10 ans de cours privés avec un professeur classique – il était « Concert Meister » de l’orchestre national de Belgique.
Il m’a appris le violon classique sans stress mais aussi quelques dérapages vers la musique de salon – j’en garde des traces.
Après mes études – sans problème mais vécues comme un cauchemar, je me suis lancé dans la musique en professionnel, grâce à la rencontre avec Pierre Coulon.
La page ingénieur était tournée, provisoirement mais je ne le savais pas encore.
Comme je n’avais pas de diplôme classique je me suis naturellement infiltré dans les milieux variété (pop ?) et l’underground bruxellois.
C’était l’époque du folk européen renaissant, j’ai mis le pied dans la porte du folk wallon auquel je ne connaissais rien.
Nous avons organisé une habitation communautaire dans une grosse maison qu’on appelait la Villa Hortense et qui a donné son nom à une organisation de musique progressive « les Lundis d’Hortense ».

Les rencontres

Il y avait un studio de répétition et d’enregistrement, c’est là que j’ai rencontré les musiciens d’Univers Zéro Daniel Denis et Guy Seghers.
Le groupe était déjà en crise et Roger Trigaux venait de le quitter.
Pour moi, c’était une expérience enrichissante, je découvrais une forme de rock plutôt intellectuel (même s’ils s’en défendaient !), des rythmiques impaires, une forme de composition à partir de riffs complexes, des pièces ambitieuses et plus longues que l’ordinaire, un mélange électrique acoustique, une agressivité que je n’assumais pas vraiment et un jeu de batterie complètement nouveau.
J’ai écouté Magma que je ne connaissais pas et découvert un monde d’harmonies et de couleurs qui m’influence indirectement encore actuellement.
Mon expérience UZ a duré moins d’un an, je ne participais pas au radicalisme affiché par le groupe – obsession du noir, lettrages et imagerie gothiques, absence de « distance » et d’humour, refus de s’éloigner d’une ambiance sombre et d’une esthétique fermée.Mais j’ai toujours apprécié l’originalité de la démarche et la qualité et l’engagement des musiciens.J’ai gardé des contacts avec Daniel Denis, au gré des rencontres musicales, mais je suis devenu un ami très proche de Michel Berckmans, le bassoniste du groupe, avec lequel j’ai continué à jouer dans de nombreuses formations.Mes collaborations avec des groupes éloignés de mon esthétique étaient naturelles : on rencontre les gens, on sympathise, on découvre et on échange – tout le monde y trouve son compte.
On apprend à comprendre des intérêts et des motivations différents – un violoniste est habitué à jouer et à donner du sens à un texte musical, dans le rock on est dans la couleur pure, on doit surtout trouver le ton juste et  plonger dans un univers différent en apportant ses propres références.De toute façon je n’aurais pas construit ma carrière sur une esthétique qui m’aurait été étrangère.

Gagner sa vie

Pour gagner ma vie, j’accompagnais le chanteur Jofroi, qui débutait dans le métier, avec lequel j’ai appris à faire de la scène, des arrangements et de la musique en groupe.Cette esthétique n’était pas non plus la mienne, mais la collaboration a été fructueuse pour tout le monde.Le groupe qui accompagnait ce chanteur est devenu Julverne après s’être appelé les Coulonneux – référence à Pierre Coulon et au folklore wallon (coulonneux =colombophile, les gens qui font des concours de pigeons voyageurs).
Comme on tournait bien avec le chanteur, on se voyait souvent, ce qui nous a permis de construire notre propre répertoire.
Le folk ne représentait pas grand-chose pour moi, si ce n’est une base pour composer, à la manière des compositeurs classiques.
Les musiciens étaient disponibles et on était sûr d’être joué – ce qui est rare pour un compositeur débutant et inconnu.

Julverne et les autres groupes

Julverne s’est ainsi créé une esthétique, un ton propre grâce aux 3 compositeurs qui « rivalisaient » - Pierre, Jean-Paul Laurent et moi.
Chaque pièce appelait sa réponse, personne ne voulait être à la traîne, avec des goûts et des styles compatibles mais différents, sans besoin d’être commercial puisque nous gagnions notre vie avec le chanteur. 
La vie des années 75 en Belgique était facile : beaucoup d’argent public, une dynamique culturelle intense (d’après 1968), un public alternatif nombreux et curieux, assoiffé d’aventures et d’expériences, un immobilier ridiculement bon marché, pleins de squats possibles… 
On ne perdait pas beaucoup de temps à survivre,  il était donc possible de participer et de créer de nombreux groupes sans se soucier de savoir si ça allait « marcher ».
Outre Julverne, j’ai fait « Nuit Câline à la Villa Mon Rêve » folk rock assez créatif, univers Zéro, des participations dans Aksaq, dans Abraxis de Charles Loos, Placebo de Marc Moulin, Karo de Daniel Schell, des remplacements chez André Bialek (un chanteur engagé ), Métarythmes de l’Air avec Christian Leroy, des jams avec tous ces musiciens et des débuts en quatuor à cordes classique.
Tout ça tournait aussi grâce aux Lundis d’Hortense qui faisaient la promo et le secrétariat.


Puis le monde a changé.
Le jazz rock a brutalement disparu, la chanson poétique aussi.
Margaret Thatcher a dicté sa voie à l’Europe entière.
Les Punks et l’électronique ont envahi le marché, je n’y comprenais rien !
J’essayais d’avancer dans une esthétique de transgression, entre musique « savante », écrite ou composée et un monde plus populaire – le rock – mais qui était ouvert à des recherches, des réflexions, des relectures.
Je ne pouvais absolument pas faire du rock de garage ou chipoter des synthétiseurs.
Quant à la musique contemporaine pure et dure (Boulez, Stockhausen…) je ne m’y retrouvais pas plus.
Jofroi nous a virés – très correctement sur le plan professionnel – mais les perspectives musicales étaient sombres.
Je suis donc redevenu ingénieur et enseignant pour garder un espace libre pour la musique en renonçant à en vivre.
Les Lundis d’Hortense sont devenus une association de promotion du jazz belge, avec une esthétique strictement ciblée jazz, dont les fondateurs ont presque tous été écartés. 

La Belgique et la musique marginale

C’est un très petit pays, divisé entre 2 cultures qui ne s’apprécient pas beaucoup.
La frontière linguistique est invisible mais plus présente qu’une frontière d’Etat !
Bruxelles est une petite ville qui se donne des allures de capitale, avec un peu de condescendance vis-à-vis de la « Province », bref le marché local est minuscule.
En plus, la vie est plutôt facile, donc les gens restent souvent sur place au lieu de s’enfuir à Paris, Londres ou New-York.
Du coup, les perspectives de vivre d’un produit commercial local sont faibles et les musiciens se sont habitués à travailler dans leur coin en essayant de gagner leur vie autrement.
Si c’est pour ne rien gagner, autant faire ce qu’on aime et donc explorer des pistes peu courues – les musiciens créatifs peu connus étaient nombreux et leurs expériences souvent de grande qualité.
Ailleurs, avec les qualités professionnelles qu’ils avaient, ils auraient plus vite été absorbés par un milieu plus commercial, je crois que c’est l’explication du nombre d’expériences alternatives belges.
Je me suis toujours dit qu’avec un public potentiel de 500 personnes (Bruxelles) on ne peut pas vivre.
Avec 10000 personnes (New-York) ça devient possible – on tente donc sa chance mais on est souvent englouti dans le commerce.
Beaucoup de musiciens belges se sont « noyés » à Paris et ont passé leur temps à gagner leur vie dans des boulots musicaux médiocres (je pense à Denis Van Hecke, violoncelliste rocker bruxellois au talent exceptionnel, mort prématurément sans laisser de traces musicales à la hauteur de ses dons.)


Dans les années 70 s’est mis en place un système de subventions pour la musique non conventionnelle.
La musique commerciale se débrouillait bien toute seule, le classique comme partout bénéficiait d’un réseau d’enseignement (particulièrement dense en Belgique) et d’orchestres subventionnés.
Les pouvoirs publics ont remarqué cette niche des créateurs alternatifs et ont créé un réseau d’aide aux organisateurs (circuit « Art et Vie ») qui profitait bien sûr aussi aux musiciens puisque leurs cachets étaient partiellement payés.
C’est grâce à ce système que la vie des alternatifs était possible et même confortable.
Ce réseau a perdu beaucoup de son sens aujourd’hui, parce que la demande s’est affaiblie (merci le libéralisme) et que les lieux (salles de spectacle alternatives) ont fermé leurs portes.
On constate aujourd’hui (2013) une certaine renaissance du courant, mais la prospérité économique de l’occident européen n’est plus là.
Seuls les milieux du théâtre se sont organisés pour résister à la déculturation.
En théâtre pas de fortune possible avec une chansonnette, on doit vivre du spectacle live, donc les compagnies ont toujours dû s’organiser pour survivre – elles ont permis que le système de subvention continue (Art et Vie ou similaire).

Les musiciens hors classique sont en train de suivre l’exemple du théâtre en créant le FACIR – collectif de professionnels indépendants qui ne se veut pas nécessairement syndicat.

Julverne " Le Pavillion Des Passions Humaines"

Le quatuor Halvenalf (1983)
Installé dans ma nouvelle vie d’enseignant, j’ai cherché des pistes et des créneaux où exprimer ce que ma relative disponibilité me permettait.
Pour un violoniste, le quatuor à cordes était une voie naturelle.
Claudine Steenackers était ma compagne dans la vie, musicienne très classique, je l’ai entraînée dans mes aventures, en suivant les rencontres que j’avais faites dans ma vie de musicien alternatif.
Ce quatuor a duré 17ans (jusqu’en 2000), avec des répétitions hebdomadaires – c’était notre hygiène musicale.
Nous avons accompagné le chanteur français William Sheller, chez qui j’ai aussi appris un certain style.
A nouveau, le groupe a été un moteur de composition : nous ne pouvions prétendre rivaliser avec les grands quatuors, mais nous mélangions du classique et des compositions, de manière à occuper une place intéressante sur la petite scène locale.
Ça nous a permis de jouer avec John Lurie, Hector Zazou, Daniel Schell et d’accompagner de nombreuses productions belges.
Mon style s’est donc développé sur le tas, en pur autodidacte, ce qui a donné « Paysages de Carton ».
La difficulté de diffusion était telle qu’il n’y a pas eu de 2ème tentative.


Activités actuelles

Libertango est une expérience dans laquelle Claudine Steenackers m’a embarqué.
Mon style de violoniste colle assez bien avec le tango de Piazzolla et ce groupe existe toujours, même si ses prestations sont rares.

Philippe Tasquin est un chanteur insolite, pianiste, arrangeur compositeur talentueux qui cherche comme moi des pistes hors normes.
Nous nous sommes rencontrés professionnellement puis sommes devenus amis.
Il a vécu les mêmes difficultés à faire passer ses élans, même s’il est beaucoup plus proche du milieu chanson et rock – entre Queen, Sparks, Ennio Morricone et les poètes français classiques plus ou moins connus.
La formule de base est un sextet : quatuor à cordes, contrebasse et piano.
Style parfois très rythmique, parfois harmonique très chargé, jamais conventionnel, rempli de contrastes et curieusement, difficilement commercialisable.

Il écrit pas mal de musiques de films, mais jusqu’à présent cela reste de petites productions qui ne permettent pas d’en vivre.
J’ai moi-même écrit quelques musiques de courts métrages, mais je ne pense pas que ce soit un emploi bien adapté : ma musique est trop autonome pour se marier avec un film.

Ma compagne actuelle (Céline Azizieh) est une remarquable pianiste, avec laquelle je travaille un répertoire composite (duo Gaze).
Nouveau prétexte à écriture, selon mon schéma désormais classique – j’écris pour un groupe de musiciens – amis, copains, connaissances – avec qui il est possible de travailler sans exigences commerciales directes avec à la clef quelques concerts privés.
Les possibilités d’enregistrement « at home » sont telles que nous enregistrons des CD en autoproduction, même si ce support est en voie de disparition.
En projet : quelques mini quatuors à cordes, un quintet avec clarinette, quelques œuvres inédites pour un Julverne de studio, des pièces pour piano violon…
Il y a un CD « Tapas » de duos alto/violon et basson/violon (en production domestique).


Mes goûts

Avec l’âge, je peux mieux cerner mes propres goûts.
J’aime les musiques qui racontent quelque chose, j’appelle ça du « discours ».
Ça signifie que ce qu’on vient d’entendre appelle ce qui suit.
C’est évidemment le cas de toutes les musiques « savantes » écrites, mais les éléments du discours peuvent provenir de toutes les sources.
En particulier, il y a à nouveau sur la scène belge une série de compositeurs intéressants qui utilisent le folk, le classique, le rock comme matière première de pièces structurées.
C’est d’ailleurs cette démarche qui m’intéressait chez UZ et que j’ai retrouvée chez Piazzolla ou Louise Avenue.
Je suis un « écouteur » de musique : outre les concerts live, je peux passer du temps à écouter un CD ou la radio sans rien faire d’autre (que boire un verre).
Toujours à la recherche des voies qui permettent l’évocation, la compréhension et l’émotion, qui offrent un fil à suivre et une relation intime avec le musicien – l’artiste qui est derrière.
Je reste par ailleurs fidèle à mon penchant pour la musique classique de l’entre 2 guerres autour de 1920  (Prokofiev, Szymanowski, Janacek, Stravinski, Ravel, Poulenc, Martinu, Tansman, Schulhof, … ) à l’exception du courant « hard contempo » dominant - sans que ce choix soit exclusif.
J’essaie d’ailleurs de proposer des programmes qui intègrent mes compositions avec celles de ces compositeurs.
Je rêve de trouver une place originale à l’improvisation, qui s’intègrerait dans un canevas écrit avec un poids différent de celui du jazz ou de la variété.
En jazz, le thème est un prétexte, la grille harmonique est le guide et l’improvisation le propos essentiel.
En variété, l’impro est un tout petit élément du décor.
En « improvisation libre » on est souvent ramené à des lieux communs, et pour l’avoir pratiquée, il me semble difficile de soutenir l’intérêt.
Il y a donc là une voie originale à creuser.
Julverne n’existe plus que théoriquement, les tentatives de remonter des concerts sont tellement lourdes et difficiles qu’il faudrait un miracle pour y réussir.
Je ne crois pas trop aux miracles.
J’ai écrit quelques textes qui analysent ma perception et mes désirs musicaux, en relation avec ma propre histoire, ça sera bientôt prêt.

Jeannot Gillis

a video:

Thursday, 5 December 2013



Is the spirit of Motor Totemist Guild still alive and well in your nowadays musical evolution?

When we released the first album, “Infra Dig” in 1984, I was interested in combining opposites: high and low-brow musical styles, electronic and acoustic instruments, improvisation and composition, old and new ideas, and so on. This attitude has continued. I’ll never be a “pure” musician.

                                MTG 1983
                                L-R: James Grigsby, Christine Clements, Thomas Dodge

What about the other original members of the group do you still have contacts with them?

I exchange Facebook messages with some of the alumni of Motor Totemist Guild (MTG).  I had lunch recently with Roger Whitridge, who painted the first two album covers.  He is a musician and writer too and has recently published a fantastic novel about the origins of Theosophy.  I’d love to see some others who seem to have disappeared to me; maybe they will notice this interview and contact me!


Could you speak to us about the realization of City of Mirrors?

U Totem performed across Europe in 1993 and during the time we were in the Netherlands I was able to meet the master composer Louis Andriessen.  I was asking about composers who might have been influential to him and he gave me a remarkable answer, “The music of Stan Kenton is more important to me than the music of Gustav Mahler.”  This impressed me and when I returned home I began to study Kenton–especially the works arranged by Ruggolo and Graettinger–they were attempting a hybrid of the most recent advances in jazz and classical concert music. I was fascinated by the high standards and relentless creativity of this music, which led me back to Ellington and the other great bandleaders of the Swing Era. Naturally I wanted to try to express this in the context of MTG, so I needed to expand the group.  I added several players associated with Vinny Golia’s Nine Winds records–a modern jazz label based on the West Coast–as well as some local players from classical and rock traditions. We rehearsed regularly for a few months, performed one concert, and spent a very long day in the recording studio.  Later, I added some overdubs, mixed, and edited to create the album sequence. The title is partly a reference to Kenton’s City of Glass album, but also the first in a series of “City” albums for me. It was a great experience working with everyone and I wish it could have continued for longer. It gives me great respect for large ensembles, like the Willem Breuker Kollecktief, that are able to remain together over many years.

                               MTG 1985
                               L-R: Becky Heninger, James Grigsby, Lynn Johnston

Is the last published effort of Motor Totemist Guild “All America City” a kind of forgotten soundtrack?

It’s a theoretical soundtrack for a film that was never made.

Could you speak us about the related film "Parachute Kids" aka "Yu Gakusei" you have written?

I wrote the screenplay and made an attempt to find a literary agent.  However the story doesn’t adhere to certain standards of storytelling that might interest a film maker in investing in its production. The story is about a young teacher in California who meets a Japanese exchange student.  The student works in a “hostess bar” with another girl who commits suicide – or was it murder?  The teacher and student try to understand why her friend died and along the way they meet gangsters and a ghost who communicates through dreams.

Could you explain us how you worked to realize this project?

Half of the music was composed on the computer, so there were no limitations. One section could be a string quartet with percussion, another section a jazz combo, and so on.  The music was composed using the Finale music notation software, so every note and rhythm was specified. On the other hand, half of the music was recorded live with musicians reacting to a graphic score.  The graphics suggest but don’t dictate the outcome of the music. Using graphic notation made it possible to create moods related to the screenplay, without specific melodies or rhythms that might detract from the ambience of the scene.

                                MTG 1986
                                L-R: Becky Heninger, Ken Ando, Lynn Johnston, James Grigsby

Which is the importance of cinema in your life? Which are your favourite directors?

I think film is the dominant art form of our time.  It has eclipsed painting, ballet, theatre, music, and literature.  This isn’t a desirable outcome, but here we are.  There are many film directors whom I consider to be fine artists: Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, and Jean-Luc Godard, to name a few.

                                               MTG 1987
                              L-R: James Grigsby, Lynn Johnston, Eric Strauss, Becky Heninger, Emily Hay

                                MTG 1988
    L-R: Eric Strauss, Lynn Johnston, James Grigsby, Emily Hay, David Kerman, Becky Heninger

What about your activity of novelist, scenarist, (film director?) do you hide other artistic secrets?
Essentially I am a writer, whether it is music or words. I am definitely not a film director, though I do enjoy making abstract videos of natural events like leaves being blown by wind. These modest little film clips of mine are inspired by the great film artist Stan Brakhage, who achieved a high level of beauty working with film as a pure medium not tethered to a narrative sequence.

                               U Totem  1989
                     L-R: Sanjay Kumar, Emily Hay, David Kerman, James Grigsby, Eric Johnson-Tamai

Is U Totem the result of a musical mix between your musical world and the one of Dave Kerman?

Yes, we started collaborating during sessions for “Elements” by 5 UU’s and “Shapuno Zoo” by Motor Totemist Guild.  They were both recorded during the same time at a recording studio named Telstar and we shared ideas and musicians throughout the sessions. Kerman and I wanted to continue working together, but we didn’t get the idea to combine our groups until I got a request from Recommended Records in Germany to bring a group to the Art Rock Festival in Frankfurt in 1988.  We thought we could achieve something special by mixing our different approaches to music. The first album was a balanced mix of these two worlds.  Our second album, “Strange Attractors” was closer to my musical world. At this time, Kerman had already reformed 5 UU’s with Bob Drake of Thinking Plague and was busy composing for their “Hungers Teeth” project.

                               U Totem 1990
                      L-R: Emily Hay, James Grigsby, Eric Johnson-Tamai, David Kerman, Sanjay Kumar

What about your experience with Nimby?

After the MTG “All America City” CD, which contained some of my most abstract recordings and was difficult to sell, I moved away from performing and recording for a few years and concentrated on writing music. I developed a system using complementary polytonal scales mapped to symbols on tarot playing cards.  I became so involved in theory that I stopped playing any musical instruments.  Then one day I just picked up my guitar and started writing songs. What a relief it was!  I made a song-cycle with different forms such as ballad, bossa nova, tango, hard rock, and so on.  I taught the songs to Jerry Wheeler, who I had known before as a trombone player, and now found him to be a fine singer.  We travelled to France to work with the amazing Bob Drake and of course Kerman on drums.  In a week we had recorded an album.  Later Drake spent much more time mixing and adding his magic.  It was the first time I hadn’t been involved in mixing my music.  I was anxious at first, but ultimately very happy with all of Drake’s efforts.

                                NIMBY 2004
                               L-R: Bob Drake, James Grigsby, Jerry Wheeler, David Kerman

Are U Totem & Nimby still working projects?

If the situation is right, any of these projects could be reborn. A second album of “More Songs for Adults” has been written for NIMBY as well as the third album of the MTG “City” series. I have numerous live recordings of U Totem that have never been released and I would like to compile the best into a set for commercial release.  I’d also love to remix the U Totem albums. I still have the multitrack analog masters and I know they would sound amazing with the aid of modern digital techniques. Of course I am still in contact with Kerman, so if the opportunity arises for a new U Totem project, we would welcome it.

Do you prefer to work alone or you like the confrontation with other composers in the group?

I love to collaborate with other composers and musicians.  It provides a great impetus to achieve much more that you can alone.  The first U Totem album is still my most successful, and I believe that is because it was the most collaborative project.

How did your music philosophy evolve during last 25 years?

I grew up in a transitional time when acoustic sound was being replaced by electronic sound in the human environment.  At the time I saw this as an addition rather than a replacement. Now I feel a bit sad that today’s music is almost always transmitted to people’s ears from the cones of speakers or headphones.  To hear a musical instrument or voice unaided by amplification is becoming rare. This hasn’t changed the way I write music yet, but I am more aware of the beauty of acoustic sound and less interested in the latest technological advances. Everything is so easy now with computers, compared to the days of splicing tape and mixing tracks in real-time. Perhaps some of the joy in musique concrete was found in the arduous process of discovering new sounds.

Is the label Rotary Totem still active?

I think of Rotary Totem as a music production company.  Other than the “All America City” CD, Rotary Totem hasn’t functioned as a label since we started working with labels such as ADN, No Man’s Land, and Cuneiform.  RotaryTotem.com is still available for direct purchase of our projects.


Which were/are your contacts with LAFMS and other musicians of the area?

I knew about the LAFMS, first through their LPs. They were one of the earliest independent labels that I heard, and the idea of Do It Yourself was very attractive to me.  I attended a concert by Chip Chapman at Cal Arts during my student years; it was a score for household appliances like electric can openers.  Later, when I formed my own independent label, I received lots of cassette tapes from Brad Laner showcasing a new group called Steaming Coils. I decided to release their first album on Rotary Totem, and I discovered that Rick Potts from LAFMS was part of the group. During this time I also met Tom Recchion who collaborated on a track from MTG’s Shapuno Zoo and participated in a musical happening I curated called “Intersection for Four Groups and a Traffic Cop.”  From the mid-1980s through the 1990s there was a close community of alternative musicians in the Los Angeles area and there was much collaboration and cross-pollination.

Which music are you listening at the moment? Is there something that caught your attention lately?

2013 is the 100th anniversary of the debut of The Rite of Spring, so I have been listening to a lot of music by Stravinsky as well as reading his musical scores and books about his life and music.  There is a lot to learn just from The Rite of Spring, though I find his skill and personality in everything he wrote. I am also interested in today’s music, if and when it is interesting!  Paolo Angeli–who plays the prepared Sardinian guitar but is much more than just an instrumentalist–is a fine example of a musician who is doing fascinating things today.                     

What are you doing at the moment? Are you still playing live?

I formed a new version of MTG in 2010 but due to scheduling conflicts, we were not able to perform.  I would love to play live if I could get enough rehearsal time with a group.  I have been learning some piano pieces by Erik Satie and I think it would be fun to transform his music into the context of a modern ensemble. That would be a project well suited to cabaret performance.

                                       MTG 1998
L-R: Jeremy Keller, Bridget Convey, Eric Johnson-Tamai, Brad Dutz, Rod Poole, Jeff Kaiser, James Grigsby, Emily Hay, Jerry Wheeler, Hannes Giger, Vinny Golia, Joseph Berardi

Which are your records about which you are more satisfied at present?

It’s a good question, but I really haven’t listened to any of my albums for a long time.  I can tell you that the first U Totem album is the most popular among listeners. 

Which is the situation of your kind of music in nowadays US? Is it worse than 25 years ago?

To me everything seems to be the opposite of what it was.  It was expensive and difficult to create recorded music; now it is simple and inexpensive. It was relatively easy to find an audience for recorded music; now it is much harder to sell recorded music. It was possible to find musicians willing to devote long hours to rehearsing for a concert; now it seems impossible.


Did internet have a positive or negative influence on your artistic activity?

People have gotten used to hearing music for free on the Internet, so it has negatively affected music commerce.  But I don’t think the Internet per se has had any effect on music creation.  Software and digital sound have actually made the creation of music easier… sometimes it seems like it’s too easy!

Can you speak us about your blog concerning Charli Vandal?

This is a piece of historical fiction about an American artist who takes the name of Charli Vandal and lives to create art based on her version of the ideas of the Dada and Situationist movements, though she is removed from their European roots.  She goes from Los Angeles in the 1960s to San Francisco in the 1970s to New York in the 1980s, finally visiting Europe as the Berlin Wall is falling. The narrative begins as the memories of a childhood friend, continues with excerpts from the artist’s journal, and ends with an interview with the artist’s son.  The story is infused with many quotations from key thinkers of the times–primarily Guy Debord, John Cage, and Marshall McLuhan–to provide a counterpoint to the narrative. There are also many references to music from those three decades to establish the mood and attitude of the times.

Which are your future projects?

I am still looking for a group to perform the music to “City of Angles” the last part of MTG’s “City” trilogy. I am also working on another historical fiction, this time based on the years that J.S. Bach spent at the Köthen court from 1717-1723, when he met his second wife Anna Magdelena and composed the Brandenburg Concertos. We often think of Bach as a stoic father-figure, a “Papa Bach.” But as a young man there was much drama in his life and I think it’s high time to remake his image.

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