Composer Thierry Pecou reflects on how he decided to explore the tragedy of the slave trade in music
In 2003, Alexandre Tharaud introduced me to his friend Jean-François Boclé, a visual artist. He wanted to create an exchange, hoping we would combine our forces. Well, we were an artistic match indeed. Moreover, we had one more thing in common: our Martinican roots. Alexandre immediately gave me the ultimate challenge he could think of: to shed a contemporary light on the tragic subject of the slave trade.
Nothing new for Jean-François, because his entire work is dedicated to the slave trade. But I realized my background never played an important part in my life. And I never really looked into the subject. Quite astonishing because I consider myself to be a traveller-composer. I am intrigued by oral traditions and rituals from all over the world, strive to give them a contemporary voice in my music. And I became curious. Where do I come from? How does this period still affect our world? I was going to travel again. Only this time into my own past. And the ‘tribe’ was much bigger: the descendants of those slaves now live everywhere on the globe, their distant memories, traditions and stories, merged with local habits in a different way.
So, I did what I always do to prepare a journey: I started reading. The essays and novels of the great Martinican writers Edouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau were a major source of inspiration. They developed a profound vision of the heritage of slavery, in which our society needs to look frankly at its past without dividing the world between victims and criminals, but rather by creating a common positive movement forward. Moving beyond any tragedy, human genius creates new forms. Which are what we need to go forward, even if they do not repair the crimes.
According to Glissant, in the case of the Atlantic slave trade, the most fascinating creations have been the Creole language and music, especially jazz.
The essays of anthropologist Martin Lienhard were my second source of ideas and inspirations. He studied the point of view of the slaves and the Africans at the time of the slave trade, by looking at historical elements such as the words of the chants in Afro-Brazilian rituals, or for instance court rulings.
It is always a challenge for a musician to compose a piece which is supposed to have a specific meaning, especially when the music is written for an instrumental ensemble with no voice to sing or speak a text. Here the music must speak on its own.
I immediately knew I wanted to avoid pathos or romanticism at all costs. It should not become a complaint, nor an angry accusation. I also wanted to avoid being seen as that black composer writing about his past. Which is a rather complicated one: like most people from Martinique, I don’t just have ancestors who were slaves – I also descend from their masters.
But what did I want? It seemed impossible to avoid strong emotions like anger and grief when so many people have been treated like goods. But underneath the tragic, historical facts, we find some recurrent themes which have shaped our individual and collective consciousness about the slave trade, and these elements are what I wanted to work with. I wanted to evoke these subconscious archetypes. To somehow shock the listener.
I started my work by creating a night in the rain forest, with the rustling sounds of insects, musically transposed by chimes; the chimes, it turns out, represent the little bell attached to the captive’s ankle.
In a way, I wanted to create a form of ritual where the audience would be surrounded by a strong, powerful sound, using a special placement of the musicians, with the piano leading the whole piece. Experience the story of the slave trade, every single aspect of it. Live. The piece starts with the instruments set in a square formation, and each instrument starts with a solo to mark its position.
The idea of being surrounded by sound is not only inspired by nature, it is also a reference to African Bantou rites, in which the space for the ritual needs to be defined from the beginning. The ‘white’ man is supposed to be bound to four corners, which are also the four cardinal points in the space, to free it from his presence.
I focused on archetypal figures, musical images. The sea and the forest are running through the whole piece, both having the water element in common. The ocean symbolizes the separation between the African and American continents, a space of forgetting as well as a space of death, where so many people were thrown from the boats after inhuman treatments. The rain forest is the other landscape that represents today’s West Indies cultures. It is the refuge of the escaping slaves, which some of them were able to reach successfully after having a sort of extreme anger crisis, a psychological reaction which affected all of them at one point in their existence.
And of course, I used musical references to all those beautiful melting pots that were created because of the slave trade.
But the main goal of Outre-mémoire is probably to make one feel the ‘démesure’, or the enormous, industrial size of the slave trade, and the feeling of erasure which can be seen on different levels: the erasure of the humanity in the person who is forced into slavery, the erasure of his past and his African roots, the erasure of history by institutions which until recent times have been trying to hide or minimize the reality of the facts.
These historical facts are precisely part of a never-ending story that still speaks to us today. Although the Atlantic Slave Trade is related to the past, new forms of dehumanization of individuals are still going on in the global market today, with new types of violence. Outre-mémoire is my attempt to connect the past to the present, inviting the audience into a kind of meditation during one large intense moment of music.
Outre-mémoire will be premiered by Ensemble Variances on 22 Febraury at St John's Smith Square. Click here for more details.
- Article Type: | Blog |