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Postnuklea rekviemo's genesis

Back in august 2015, after two weeks of holidays and land art work aboard the small barge « Virgule » along the Midi canal with Delphine, Ninon and our cat Kasumi, I went to Vaour - Tarn, south of France - to perform photovoltaic and solo acts.

Between the two shows, I started to work on a new composition, with no particular aim. Here, in the south of France, the tonal soundscape is stridulations of cicadas. I’ve tried to synthesize this sound with one of my modular synths. I managed it. An extra VCO filter’s manipulation produced a familiar sound… the one produce by a Geiger counter ! The idea of my next composition was glaringly obvious : a photovoltaic cell on one side and a Geiger counter’s sound on the other side… it will be a piece about nuclear energy. The temporary title was at this time Postnuclear dream… Back to Mittlach, I started the laborious scores handwriting process. To me, it was also obvious that this work will be for symphonic orchestra, organ, synths (Arturia’s modular V2 and V3, ARP 2600 and SEM), minimoog synth and be produced thanks to the small solar plant unit I have to provide the electricity to the place I live. My artistic ideals have also to be in the quest of ecology and autonomous….

Slide guitars, though being my musical identity, were not obvious for this work. I have to confess that I wasn’t inspired to create strong slide riffs based on the orchestral and synths scores I had written.

My first attempt were at Mittlach’s church, using the 1929 Roethinger’s pipe organ. I really hoped I could use it. Alas, its bad shape proved it could not be used (the last maintenance was 30 years ago, a strong maintenance having been done during the summer of 2017 and the organ is sounding really good again). I’ve pursued my composition’s work using an Hammond organ lent by a friend. At this time, I had also started field-recording around the paths and forest surrounding the place I live. The idea was to bring to the piece a concrete touch, like a reminder of a natural and human inhabitation, which, in an area not far from Fessenheim’s nuclear plant, is still in a state of uncertainty…

A month after writing the first notes, I organized a public performance in my barn to present the first three movements as a work-in-progress show. It was the first time I opened my place to an audience. The barn, with its 50 seats, was full… Another work-in-progress gig was done for the 12 children of our small primary school.

The warm welcome encouraged me to continue the writing of the 13 movements of what I have now called Postnuclear requiem.

David Husser, with whom I collaborate since Karma - 2014 - was ready to renew with my music. After hearing the first demos I’d made, David suggested I should write slide guitar parts…

I wanted the scores to be played by a real symphonic orchestra. To produce Karma’s  « Dreams of concerted birth » piece, we used orchestral sound banks. Thought it sounded good, it was a bit limited. Playing with machines obliged us to pass hours on editing the organic instruments to fit with the rigorous and metronomic sounds of machines. After all, the question was : Which orchestra ? How to produce it ?

I contacted several orchestras from my area. None of them replied to my offer…. Then, I send an email to Bratislava Symphonic Orchestra (as an anecdote, truth is that Mittlach is exactly on the same latitude as Bratislava!); Its founding director, David Hernando Rico, replied favourably with enthusiasm… I still had to find financing to produce it. To reach it, I launched the first of several crowdfunding campaigns. After three months of doubts, joys, waiting, I was pleased to raise the money that was needed.

Bratislava Symphonic Orchestra’s recording became possible ! I just had to re-read my scores, correct the mistakes and go to the Slovakian radio to record the symphonic scores. The studio was rented fo 4 hours, 1 hour to prepare the recording setup, to explain to the director my artistic intentions and to present to the 49 musicians what I wanted them to express. What is good with this orchestra is that they are specialized in scores recording. They are really efficient in playing and recording the composer’s musical ideas.

I spent the 3 other hours in the sound control room with the two sound engineers, reading scores while the orchestra was playing it, looking for mistakes I hadn’t seen. Instead of an F sharp I’ve written for the flutes and the first violins that should be an  F, everything went well this 21st of July 2016 ! The only movement the orchestra had to rehearse several times to play it perfectly was the 9th movement. The rhythmic structure I wanted them to play is based on 8/4 North Indian beat with 16th and 8th notes upbeats, normally played on tabla… It needed a couple of takes to the violins and violas players to get it…

Back to Mittlach, I recorded my instruments, overdubbing the orchestra’s tapes. The minimoog was my main instrument for this album. I spend a couple of hours synthesizing the sounds I wanted. Minimoog is just an unlimited instrument. I really dig this keyboard. I am not a key player so I had to be tenacious to be able to play certain movements, especially those with triplets. In fact, it is above all a question of wrist, hand and fingers’ muscular training…

Once again, I had to find some funds to produce the recording (paying the musicians, the mixing…).

While recording my instrument in my barn, working on arrangements, collecting broadcasts about the nuclear situation and looking for musicians who would be able to bring their sensitivity to the composition, I launched a new crowdfunding campaign from october to december 2016. Once again, it worked… so the production could continue.

The first musician to be recorded was the vibraphonist Benoit Moerlen. I have known Benoit for more than 10 years, though we never collaborated. In the seventies, he was playing with prog-jazz rock band Gong and had played with Mike Oldfield on stage. It was during a duet-concert he did with a balafon’s player that I had the idea to rearrange the third movement and to add a vibraphone. Just because the vibraphone he was playing for this concert had an amazing sustain - not always the case with vibraphones - that fitted pretty well with the ARP synths I’ve played… Then, it was obvious that I needed vibraphone for this movement. I presented the project to Benoit and asked him if he wanted to be part of it. He agreed and I was so delighted he accepted my offer. Quickly, I rewrote the movement scores and we recorded together his instrument. Then, I’d also added vibraphone to the 11th movement, which was written for pipe organ, minimoog and soundscapes. Once again, Benoit played it right.

The practical issue for pipe organ was not resolved at this time. I was thinking about using the Bratislava’s one. The financial conditions were not possible to me. Thankfully !
Thanks to Mittlach’s mayor, a former pipe organist at the local parish for a couple of years, I got in touch with the 1st World War Emm’s memorial-church. It is located in Metzeral, 3 kilometers from Mittlach. The pipe organ was build in 2005 and the church with its nave made of white marble is big enough to sound good for the organ. I contacted the « Friends of Emm association » and I came into contact with Samuel Wernain, the Emm’s organist. I rearranged the scores I’ve originally written for the Hammond organ. During the spring of 2017, David came with a large amount of microphones and we recorded in the church during the whole afternoon. The only technical issue to solve was to heat  the church sufficiently to get the organ in tune to the orchestra’s and vibraphone’s pitch (442 Hz)…

In the meantime, we had recorded the drums played by Jérôme Spieldenner. After sending demos and musical direction to Jérôme, we organized in March a recording session at David’s studio. We had three drumsets and several cymbals to try in order to find the best setting for each movement. Drums were recorded in one day, it was quite exhausting, especially for Jérôme.

I had given to David the piano parts I’ve played with a virtual piano. The result was bad. I had to find a grand piano and a pianist. I didn’t want to play this instrument. I got in touch with Iris Bois, headmistress of Kaysersberg valley's music school to find out if we could use their piano and to contact the pianist. A couple of days later, I received a call from a woman who wanted to play the grand piano. It was Dominique Moerlen, Benoit’s sister ! What a surprise ! So, let’s go with Dominique….

As the recording went on, I had to write the slide guitar parts. I mainly used the weissenborn (movements 1 and 13). I wished to play the slide in a different way than I’ve ever played. Instead of improvising over the existing recording, I added a weissenborn line on the scores sheet and wrote the notes, without thinking whether it was possible to play it. Then I had to find how to tune the weissenborn… G minor open tuning was the best tuning to play along the scores. Then, it needed some imagination to play the slide’s score, finding tricks… This part of the work was really fun to do, just as if I were playing slide for the first time.

The electric lap steel parts were easier. You can hear them on the final part of the 1st movement, with two gandharvi playing along the violas. The first one is played through my old Fender wha-fuzz pedal (1970), the second one is played with an electronic bow through a FreqBox Moog pedal. The same settings were used for movement 12. On movement 5, I used the gandharvi I’ve prepared to create sounds between synthesis and concrete music. Once again, the FreqBox, with an echo pedal, played through my Fender amp plugged into the minimoog’s audio input, produced the intense and dramatic sound I wanted for this movement.

I was encouraged by David to add a chaturangui part to the scores. I recorded a improvisation based on raag yaman, a fundamental râga from North India classical music, as I’d learned with Pandit Shri Krishna Sharma when I was studying with him in New Delhi. I played for almost 10 minutes, along an electronic tampura drone. 4 minutes of this improvisation was included as it was recorded this early morning at my home to the requiem.

The electric bass was recorded during a session in May 2017 at David’studio. Foes created a solid basis to the music, putting the other instruments to their advantage.

Another crucial step remained : finding and recording a choir for the final. Since the beginning, I was thinking about this to close the requiem with a large choir singing along the whole orchestra, minimoog, slide guitars, electric guitar, bass, drums and piano… a musical tutti in other words.
I was asking to myself if the choir had to sing vowels, esperanto lyrics or both. I had written a quatrain poem. This - quite dark - poem, which could work with my first idea didn’t suit  me anymore. I really wished to bring an open-minded feeling to the final, no way to have an apocalyptic feeling or a feeling of impossibility. A word came to me « Ŝanĝiĝu ! ».

In esperanto, adding the suffix -iĝ- expresses something that will happen.. If you add it to ŝanĝi (to change), you have « become the change » or something approaching. I needed a three syllable word to suit the music. This simple word illustrated perfectly my purpose. Thanks to its imperative form, I had a word to offer to the choir… Looking for a teenaged choir seemed to me to be pertinent for my purpose, rekindling hope in the young generation, who will also and alas be in charge of nuclear wastes. However, the choir had to be good enough to play along with the music already recorded.

It took me a couple of days to find the right youth choir that could make it. I chose the Strasbourg opera youth choir advised by a woman I know who is part of the main opera choir as mezzo-soprano. I got in touch with its director, Luciano Biblioni. Once again, I had to look for money to make it possible. School holidays were approaching so I had only a month to collect funds, to organize rehearsing and recording… Thanks to generous funders who helped the project since its beginning, we could record the choir at the end of June.

I was working on this project for a year and half and I was approaching its finality : recording the electric guitar parts still missing to the whole thing. Except for an electric guitar I played for the end of movement 1, windmilled in the style of Pete Townshend, with loud overdrive, and the parts played with e-bow, I was not confident enough with my guitar skills to play the other guitar parts. Once again, David offered to collaborate with one of his fellow studio partners, Gino Monachello. During september 2017, for two afternoons, we recorded Gino. It was really a triptych collaboration. I indicated the chord changes, David was working on the sounds and effects and Gino improvised, created precise, melodic, inventive and pertinent themes.

During the whole process of recording, we had to think about how to mix it all. The amount of time for this work is just incredible. There are almost a hundred musicians, often with more than one microphone… It is like harmonizing something like 200 tracks… And above all, how to make coherent a 45 minute-long musical trip. A big thanks to David for his suggestion and spending all this time on the mixing.

Another point I had to resolve was the issue of public broadcasting. I can’t - for now - think about playing the piece live with the whole orchestra - thought I’m sure it will happen one day -. I was thinking to play the music on my own, overdubbing the orchestra tape with minimoog and slide guitars solo, as a solo, photovoltaic and quadriphonic performance. This issue, thought I’d already done it, wasn’t satisfying. It is really hard and stressful to play along a 45-minute tape. It needs to play with a click in the headphones, wrong notes are not allowed and it doesn’t make sense for the audience.  After talking with Delphine, we decided this music, powerful enough as a documentary without the moving image, is worthy of being played as it was recorded and to be presented as an installation artwork, a kind of exclusively designed music for loudspeakers. This way, we could think of going further into the aesthetic meaning of Postnuclear requiem., with a participatory act of the audience. We could take pictures of each listener’s eyes - only the eyes, faces should be hidden - in a polaroid shape, and hang all this "nuclear about" eyesights on the wall of the broadcasting’s structure. A kind of metaphor about each one’s idea on electric energy, the responsibility to be deaf, blind or dumb as a consequence of the atom, no matter the pros or cons… With this concept, I had to think about a big top allowing a quadriphonic broadcasting  and providing at the same time an introspective cocoon for listening to this musical piece. I came through a dodecagonal marquee that could be nomadic, aesthetic and self-build by a single person. After drawing plans, I was helped by Jimy, a woodworker friend to profile the framework, that stood up slowly in my barn. For the roof and wall, made of thick organic coton material, I couldn’t use my sewing machine… Either buy an industrial one, or find another solution… The solution, once again, was in the neighborhood: 6 kilometers from Mittlach lives an upholsterer, with whom I could sew the material… For audience conveniences, I designed and built a deckchair.

The marquee was finished in september 2017. Th mixing was done for the end of october 2017, almost 26 months after simulating cicadas’ stridulations with a synth !

Thanks to all of those who supported the creation of an ambitious musical piece,   I hope will touch your heart.


Mittlach, october 2017
Jim Petit