Tell us about the Insub Meta Orchestra. It's remarkable and unusual to have such a large group dedicated to experimental music. How and when did it come about, whose initiative was it, how often does it meet and has it changed direction?
I would like to try to answer these questions by focusing on the two main aspects that you have to deal with when you are crazy enough to start an orchestra of 50 musicians: the social and the artistic.
Since I started being involved in musical projects, I was always impressed and excited by the notion of a 'collective'. The idea of the Insub Meta Orchestra came at the right moment in my personal musical development (you can read it as “our” development because it was and it still is the fruit of a strong collaboration with d'incise). We started with the desire to invite as many musicians as possible to experiment with pieces and a very different approach with a large ensemble. After a few years and many concerts, we asked people to choose if they would like to be part of the orchestra as regular musicians. For me this was a really important thing in the structure of the IMO, that we never made a choice about the participants. This orchestra is a collective of musicians from different parts of Switzerland, France, Belgium and Germany, who have decided to be part of this process by themselves. And from this moment onwards, we had to deal with its potential and its limits.
The social and artistic aspects of the IMO are obviously very linked. In seven years we have gone through different recognisable moments. We started with pieces composed by members of the IMO. The idea was mainly that we have a large ensemble of musicians; let's experiment with this! It was completely influenced by the London Improvisers Orchestra (with whom we played a couple of times during our UK tour with diatribes in 2008-09). Then we decided to work only on improvisation. But it wasn't as easy as expected; we had to built a common vocabulary, language on top of which we could improvise. It was a long process, but maybe the most important one, because it gave us the core identity of the IMO.
After that, and it's a process of creation we still keep, we composed pieces with d'incise; compositions linked with the limits that we reached with the improvisation. Now, when we feel that the orchestra needs to explore new fields, we use improvisation again as a way to define new challenges.
What about the two pieces on the CD? How are '13 unissons' and '27 times' structured, and how were they developed?
We organised a recording session at the Studio Ernest Ansermet in Geneva during the summer of 2016. The pieces were composed by d'incise and myself. Before the recording session, we had rehearsals with small groups (12-15 musicians) to try the new pieces and explore the best way to share our ideas.
For the '13 unissons', we split the orchestra in 13 subgroups (2-3 musicians) playing just one note as a unison. Every group can play as much as they want but never have more than 3-4 groups playing together. The silence is used as a moment of breath, giving a certain articulation between the musical moments. The main idea is to create different structures and associations between the groups.
'27 times' was a difficult piece to record because the structure is quite complex even if the result seems quiet and peaceful. For years our main goal with the orchestra was to convince everybody to feel the ensemble as a whole and not as a collection of individuals. For this piece we ask them exactly the opposite. We started with the idea that each musician had to choose his or her 'most unique, personal sound'. But obviously, as this is so subjective, we had to find a way to have some coherence.
During this 30 minute piece, each musician has to play 27 times. The orchestra is divided into 4 groups (percussions, strings, winds and electronics), playing at 3 moments. In each moment, the musicians has to play 3 times a sequence of 3 times. Which is at the end 3x3x3, so 27 times, but always the same sound.
On the cover you and d'incise are credited in a low-key way as joint composers of both pieces. How did that work?
As I said, the compositions d'incise and I proposed were and are completely linked with the structure and the limits of the orchestra. So, for us, it was natural to propose pieces to help the orchestra to explore new fields. But in a way every composition comes from the orchestra. We always compose with and for the singularity of the IMO.
You and d'incise have a long history of collaboration in several projects over the years, and the music that you make together has shifted to some extent over this period. How would you describe that history?
It's not easy to give a resume of such a prolific collaboration over the years. We come from the same neighbourhood in Geneva. We grew up in almost the same block of flats, but due to the difference of age, we weren't very close during our childhood. We needed a common friend (Gaël Riondel, saxophonist and third member of diatribes for the first years of the band) to propose our first rehearsal in 2004. It was the beginning of diatribes, our main project and, I would say, the basis of all of our projects.
We had two very important moments in our collaboration. The first one was when we decided to continue diatribes as a duo inviting new musicians to improvise with us for each concert. We played with more than 200 musicians from all over the world and created some strong links with a lot of people. Even if we don't improvise so much anymore, I still feel that we need to play and work all the time with different musicians : Ryoko Akama, Cristian Alvear, Stefan Thut, Jacques Demierre, amongst others.
The second moment was when I started to be involved in Insub. D'incise started it as a netlabel in 2006 and I joined him in 2010 to initiate the Insub Meta Orchestra and the Insubordinations Microfestival (more than 100 concerts in small spaces in one week in 20 cities in Switzerland). Then we used Insub as a platform to create new projects: concerts, a label, a studio and an other festival focused on orchestras.
We also have a trio called La Tène, with Alexis Degrenier (hurdy gurdy), a powerful and repetitive project, a clash between traditional and experimental music.
And to finish, to draw a complete picture of this 'long history', we are now working on a series of compositions this year for other musicians: Magnus Granberg, Christoph Schiller, Anna Lindal, Anna-Kaisa Meklin, Bertrand Denzler, The Pitch and so on.
You are both based in Geneva. How is the experimental music scene there, and how is it changing?
Geneva is quite a small city but we're lucky to have really good institutions, venues and festivals to promote experimental and improv music like: Cave12, AMR or Akouphène festival. The strange thing is that we never were satisfied by what we had around us and that was maybe what pushed us to be hyper-active, organizing concerts and big festivals. It's a kind of paradox, but because we had access to a lot of concerts and spaces to work, we felt that we need to extend these opportunities by creating more projects, more space.