A Conversation between José Luis Campana and Marie-Bernadette Charrier

Marie-Bernadette Charrier is a saxophone player, contemporary chamber music teacher at the Bordeaux Regional Conservatory and artistic director of the Proxima Centauri Ensemble.


You often refer to the interest taken by European composers in the way pitch is structured, something that has modified your manner of composing.

I had a very classical training, much influenced by the Russian school. I studied in Buenos Aires with a teacher who had been at the Rimsky-Korsakov School for composition and the Auer School for the violin, and so I wrote, under his guidance, chamber music, vocal and symphonic works, in which pitch was part of my heritage.

I was acquainted with contemporary composers but had never experimented with other ways of organising pitch. Coming to Paris later on enabled me to get to know spectral music, post-serialism, electroacoustic music, microtonalism and so on. I felt the need to experiment with different musical forms, even if these modest pieces were more in the way of stylistic exercises than anything else. They allowed me to use a different kind of orchestration, other ways of organising pitch, together with forms of rhythmic and tone-colour organisation that were quite new to me then.

IRCAM and the GRM in Paris, as well as the near-permanent experience with instrumentalists, opened up new horizons for me.

Much later I became interested more particularly in rhythm and, principally, in the music of various oral traditions, so that I was able to experiment with other sources of inspiration as well as other techniques that I could then apply to my own compositions.

In fact, in considering your works as a whole, we can say that there is a close relationship between the music of your country of origin and European musical styles. Has Argentinian music influenced your music in any profound way?

Ever since I started composing, around the mid-sixties, and up until the 90s, I had never used any elements of the music of my country, in fact I rejected it, my sole contact with Argentinian music being through the records of Astor Piazzolla and the recitals he gave with his quintet.

In the early 80s I got to know Piazzolla in Paris quite by chance. From that moment, and until he died, we were very close, we saw a lot of each other, and we used to talk about all kinds of music. One day, for no apparent reason, he said to me, “You should write for the bandoneon and carry on the development of my research into Argentinian music – compose for the orchestra for example”.

The suggestion touched me deeply coming from him, and I felt very proud… but I had absolutely no desire to get into what would have been a new domain for me, I preferred to stay a listener and admirer. I felt absolutely incapable of making interesting music with a little-known technique and one I had not tried out myself. I knew many composers who made pastiches of Piazzolla’s music, and I in no way wanted to be on that list.

It was probably the death of Piazzolla that authorised me to use, in the 90s and for ten or so years, rhythmic cells taken from his music, that enabled me to create ‘ rhythmic models’ I could subject to transformation through the use of techniques of rhythmic development in use more or less during the last thirty years of the century. With the help of the computer, I even produced some mixed pieces in this domain, and in particular I developed these latter techniques in some works I prepared at the GRM in Paris and at IRCAM.

As I said, I used these techniques in several formations, almost solely in chamber music with or without electronics. Later I began to take an interest in other kinds of ‘world music’ that have served as sources of inspiration for me not just as regards rhythm, but also pitch, articulation, instrumental modes of play, tone-colour, and so on.

So you are saying that in some of your works electroacoustics has been integrated with the instrumental group. How do you conceive a composition for this type of mixed formation?

Electroacoustic techniques have become, with time, more and more indispensable for my music.

For me, they are a part of current day techniques, intimately bound up in acoustic formations, even if I don’t use them in all my scores. Very often I compose scores for instruments and live electronics or pre-recorded electronics on CD. These techniques lead me to discover new horizons in sound, to novel ways of exploring the treatment of the parameters of sound. Often, so that listeners can better appreciate certain kinds of resonance, certain colours and instrumental modes of play, I even feel the need to amplify acoustic instruments. I became aware of this new perspective from Stockhausen, whom I got to know at the Paris Conservatory at one of his masterclasses.

From what you are telling me, we may deduce that, as far as you are concerned, the ‘sound’ itself very often forms the basis of any kind of musical research applied to your music?

I think that ‘sound’ lies at the origin of all human expression, whether it be used to communicate by producing echoes between one tribe and another, in religious ceremonies, music in oral or written traditions.

So for me the primary approach is: ‘the sound first’ – listen to it, get to know it, analyse it, examine it thoroughly, test it, transform it, decompose it, recompose it, study its evolution in musical time and space.

The second approach is to give it ‘meaning’, to order it, make it become the ‘carrier’ of musical ideas and structures, give it a direction, send it on significant trajectories in the musical discourse through the use of known forms of parametric organisation (harmonic or inharmonic spectra, momentum, dynamics and densities, polyphony/mixing, coloration and so on.

You see our partner in this compositional process is the sound itself. It guides us, presents itself and opens out to us, delivers up its secrets, tells us about the best options it can provide concerning the techniques by which we should approach it, be they acoustic, electroacoustic or a purely digital medium (CD).

It strikes me that, solely and uniquely, if these conditions are entirely fulfilled in any compositional process, the success of that work will be assured.

How do you see the musical landscape at this threshold of the twenty-first century?

I think that, present-day music, that which is written, is evolving and fusing more and more with other types of music, as well as with other artistic disciplines.

Today we are able to listen to all kinds of music, through recordings or the recitals of groups playing music of the oral tradition. Similarly, the various types of so-called light music (‘techno’ or others), have already, and for a long time, incorporated the new technologies. Electroacoustic music has a bigger and bigger role to play in the teaching and in the æsthetics of young creative artistes, who exchange ideas with students from other European or American cities. I think there will be fewer and fewer barriers between music in the so-called ‘contemporary style’ and ‘light music’ and ‘world music’, not forgetting the various multimedia productions.

In particular I very often am surprised to note this gradual yet rapid transformation in our contemporary musical landscape.