Interview with Noël Akchoté for SKUG magazine, June 2004

What are your first musical memories?

Oooh, childhood memories.. I wrote an Epiphany page in the Wire a few years back about this, actually. I had a strange childhood, getting into weird shit like Ligeti and Xenakis when I was 12 and 13 (punk rock came later!). Jazz - Eric Dolphy in particular - at 15, mainstream minimalism (Reich, Riley - Glass came later) at 16. At university I got interested in everything else, starting with Robert Fripp and via him Bowie, Velvets, John Peel shows, reggae.. In the States it was US hardcore (Flipper, Black Flag, Mission of Burma..) and Zorn (whose work I discovered in 1986 with Big Gundown). When I came to France in 1988 it was Radio Nova, which led to hip hop, Madchester, P-Funk, rare groove, soul, techno and finally improvised music, which I had listened to since I was about 15 but never paid much attention to. Concerts? Roger Woodward playing Xenakis' "Eonta", Nexus playing Reich's "Music for Pieces of Wood", King Crimson live in Dunstable in 1981, George Adams & Don Pullen at Ronnie Scotts (same year), Gil Evans Monday Night Orchestra at Sweet Basil's in 1986, Zorn and Jim Staley in Rochester also in 1986. Five people in the audience.

And what do you do now?

I edit an online music magazine, write on music for The Wire (UK), Signal To Noise (US) and other online zines (All Music Guide, Bagatellen, Squids Ear..), play violin, piano and keyboards, teach and translate English (new music doesn't pay) and play chess with my five-year-old son. You can guess which is the most exciting.

But how do you manage to isolate things? I mean, when you need to write an article on a musician you'd like to work with or, the other way round, when you need to be critical with someone who may simply avoid you as a musician later?

Three points there: I don't write about a musician specifically with a view to starting an ultimate collaboration with that musician, though it often turns out that way. (Examples being numerous: John Butcher, Arthur Doyle, Radu Malfatti, Reynols..). With regard to your second point, well, one has to be diplomatic, especially in a highly sensitive and sectarian scene like France (as you know well); writing gratuitously negative reviews serves no purpose as far as I'm concerned, unless I really feel a musician has overstepped his bounds - usually in terms of pretentiousness rather than the quality of the music itself. If it's something I just don't like I pass it on to other PT writers to review. Sometimes a mildly negative review leads to a positive collaboration and friendship though: I remember not being totally blown away by Greg Kelley's Trumpet (Meniscus) first time I heard it, but that didn't stop me meeting up and playing with Greg. I think I was wrong about the album too - but as I've said on numerous occasions, I wish I could listen to each album I get ten times before reviewing instead of three or four.

Don't you think critics should play more and musicians write more?

Didn't Frank Zappa describe rock journalism as "people who can't write talking about people who can't play for people who can't read"? Do what you want, mate! Some musicians write well, others don't. If you feel like it, do it, if not, stay away. With regard to your second point, yes, I think the best critics I know of are people who, even if they don't play themselves, have a basic idea of what musical history and notation and performance practice is. I've read a lot of tosh about Ornette Coleman's harmolodics written by people who are so in awe of the man they think it's a question of music theory instead of one of attitude. I have a rather serious (maybe too serious) grounding in music theory and analysis and am rather sensitive to the correct use of terminology.

How do you see the present music scene?

I wish people would send me more mainstream new rock and hiphop (not to mention contemporary classical and jazz), as I'm sure there are plenty of things going on that I don't know much about. Being an improviser I seem to have acquired a reputation as an improv specialist. At the risk of seeming one-sided I'll ignore what excites me and concentrate on what I don't particularly like, namely a sense of stagnation, "rules" that cannot be broken, sectarian cliques and dogmas. That applies to mainstream pop as much as it does to free improv.

Why, when so much previous experimental and improvised music is available these days, is AMM so much of a reference?

Musicians, especially jazz musicians, seem to be very fond of inventing theoretical systems after the fact to explain what they're doing (we mentioned Coleman, but we can also talk about George Russell, Alan Silva and a whole host of others). Real freedom is pretty fucking scary - listen to Alterations, man! - and an unruly beast to boot. I think AMM is in vogue in part thanks to Jon Abbey's sterling work on Erstwhile with Keith Rowe (and a strange fascination on the part of the public for Feldman, hence Tilbury). I wish more people would talk about Eddie Prevost's percussion work.

But again why AMM rather than Derek Bailey, John Stevens, Alterations or Tristan Honsinger for example?

AMM because, as I said above, there's Keith - table guitar - and Tilbury - revolutionary legitimacy (didn't Klopotek describe him as the "Dean" of British new music). Also because it's "mythic" (late 60s, lightshows, Pink Floyd, struggling artists..) and "mysterious" (who cares what the letters AMM mean anyway?). Why not Bailey? Because he can actually play the guitar, and worse, he actually plays notes! It's like why is Feldman hip and not Elliott Carter. Stevens' time is yet to come. Alterations and Honsinger are too insane and disturbing to build a school on. It's like that Marx Brothers film Horsefeathers where Groucho becomes the dean of a university!

Is that a reason for these scenes to be so strict, rigid and tedious ? It seems humour and fun aren't around much anymore, while older generations would just make me literally pee in my pants.

Oh God yes - the sense of humour's gone right out of the fucking window! You're right: even grumpy bears like Brötzmann has (or had) a sense of humour: check out the FMP trio with Bennink and Van Hove, or his work with Misha and the ICP. I can't agree more with Luc Ferrari about the importance of a sense of humour (see his remarks on the subject in the liners to Interrupteur on Blue Chopsticks). Laptoppery is especially dour live; actually, it's rather funny watching these lads and lasses huddled over their machines with that deadly worried look, as if they were researching germ warfare or the latest inflation statistics. No wonder most laptop shows need visuals to accompany them. The only reason I go to see a band like Efzeg (whose music I love by the way) is Billy Roisz's graphics. For the others, I prefer to stay at home and listen to the discs. More generally, I think musicians tend to take themselves far too seriously (myself probably included): look at the earnest polemics on a site like Bagatellen. I do find though that the improvised music I return to again and again is made by people like Bailey, Mengelberg, Beresford, Chadbourne, and I suspect a sense of humour has a lot to do with it.

How do you see the question of using public money to support the Arts in Europe ? It seems like some countries have state artists in these fields and others just ignore it..

I've steadfastly avoided getting drawn into the polemic about the Intermittents de Spectacle here in France. I recognise that a degree of subsidy is important, but from a musical point of view the lack of any centralised funding never stopped anybody in London. Have guitar, find pub, rent upstairs room, invite two men and a dog, do gig. Voilà. If you want to play, you play.

But then how do you see it when people backed by all sorts of public funds claims political disobedience and things though their concrete realitiy is to be like state artists?

There does appear to be an inherent contradiction between taking public money to produce your work and then biting the hand that feeds you. Maybe you could consider it a victory of sorts - haha the dumb asses gave me the bread and now I'm gonna spit it back in their FACE. You often find that the most politically "engaged" artists are the ones who are quickest off the mark when it comes to getting subsidy (I can name names, but you know who I mean). In this sense Tilbury's boycott of the USA at least makes sense as a coherent political gesture, though God knows what effect cancelling a concert at Tonic for 25 people will have on the foreign policy objectives of George Bush. Alan Licht wrote a nice piece on this subject in Jigsaw; did you see that?

What's the next hype in improv then? - Swing-swing, New Orleans Revival, JohnStevensForever, Unplugged Laptop Music, Unbearable Music series, etc....?

Wonderful! Did you see my spoof Erstwhile record caricature on Bagatellen? Seriously, I think people will soon get fed up of laptop music that sounds like laptops.. the SuperCollider glitches and crunches will one day sound as dated as a DX7 does today (or a mellotron.. but I love mellotrons..). I imagine a greater use of field recordings - Günter Müller and Matt Davis are moving in this direction - and unconventional recording situations: sound engineers on the move in the performance space - P-O Boulant's recording of Doneda, Rainey and Bosetti, for example, or his recording of Doneda for Fringes. And more "environmental improv" - interaction between improvisers and the outside world, either rural (Ouie Dire..) or urban (I like to think the album I recorded in the Métro in Paris with J-L Guionnet and Eric La Casa is an interesting direction).

And what s next for you?

An album with Reynols due out soon on Absurd (Greece); trio with Fred Blondy and Martine Altenburger on Meniscus (before summer? With Jon Morgan who knows..), trio with Fred Blondy and Jean-Sébastien Mariage - ex-student of yours, I think - on Creative Sources later this year, and a third Return Of The New Thing album on the Polish label Not Two, hopefully before the end of the year. That's enough for one year. Articles? Millions.. have to interview Jac Berrocal for The Wire, maybe Tod Dockstader too. Compositions: there's a free download on, and a collaborative postal venture underway with Tomas Korber in Switzerland (did you hear Mistakes? fabulous!). That's more than enough!

5 great records from this year?

My record of the year last year for Wire was the Basil Kirchin Quantum on Trunk because it was so totally off the wall. So far this year my favourites would include.. mm, let's see.. the Arthur Russell compilation on Soul Jazz, Tomas Korber's Mistakes (see above), Tetuzi Akiyama and Jozef van Wissem's Proletarian Drift on BV Haast (see above too), the hitherto unreleased Brotherhood of Breath Bremen to Bridgewater on Cuneiform and the AMM At The Roundhouse on Anomalous. Voilà five (but it'll change before this article appears)..


The Strange History of the Doctor's Violin

The Strange History of Dan Warburton

The Strange History of CHO

On the Road with Aki Onda and Jac Berrocal

Interview with Philippe Robert, Revue & Corrigée, June 2000 (French)

Interview with Jon Mueller, Crouton Music, 2002

Interview with Noël Akchoté, Skug, June 2004 (German)

Invisible Emergencies RA Clip

Metro Pre St. Gervais RA Clip