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Yann Gourdon is a French hurdy-gurdy player, composer and sound artist. One third of the France drone trio and part of the La Nòvia collective, his practice focuses on acoustic phenomena and dynamic relationships with the environment. Having learned to play traditional music from Auvergne by listening to field recordings, Yann recontextualises tradition via minimalism, homing in on a location’s unique vibratory fields, volumes and surfaces.

How have you been in the past half-year? A period that has been difficult for many musicians.

A difficult period for me indeed. Many cancelled concerts, or even all concerts between March and August, with the exception of three concerts organised in support of artists because of the situation. And since September, new cancellations and especially very few new gigs to come. I’m pretty worried about the year ahead. I find it hard to see what the prospects are. The current context and health constraints make cultural activities difficult. I can’t wait for it to be over. In the meantime, I am focusing on new projects…

Your main instrument is the hurdy-gurdy, a stringed instrument with a long history. Can you describe your journey towards it?

I started with the hurdy-gurdy when I was 12, after 7 years of piano. I lived in an environment that favoured an encounter with the instrument. My father is a musician, a fiddler, and I loitered a lot at traditional and folk music festivals. So, I started playing at folk balls, most notably with my father. And then I was quickly attracted by the drone and the richness of timbre offered by the hurdy-gurdy, and that led me to develop a more experimental approach to the instrument. Around this time, I was also discovering John Cage’s writings, La Monte Young’s music and Alvin Lucier’s work on the relation between sound and space… It chimed with the experience I was having with the hurdy-gurdy and then oriented my work towards vibratory phenomena and the altered states of perception induced by them.

At the same time, I encountered the traditional music of the Massif Central (the highland region which occupies the centre of the southern half of France) through recordings of fiddlers in particular, collected in the 70s. I was immediately struck by the similarity of the sound of these fiddlers and the sound of Tony Conrad, with an additional particularity: dance. I rushed into this music, approaching it through the sound aspect (the timbre) and in particular the aesthetic similarities to experimental music that I found there: drone, repetition, microtonality… It’s what drives the work that I carry out today within the collective La Nòvia.

How do you work with the vibration and acoustic phenomena that the instrument and its interaction with the physical space produces?

The hurdy-gurdy is one of the rare acoustic instruments – along with bagpipes – that produce a continuous sound: the sound is generated by a wooden wheel rubbing the strings, an infinite circular bow. It is the sound continuum, the drone stretched over long durations, that makes it possible to stimulate the physical space, which acts as a sound box. The frequencies produced tune with the resonance frequencies specific to the space, amplifying them and bringing out new harmonics, acoustic beats and all kinds of phenomena that are beyond control. What interests me is focusing the listening on what happens between the production of sound and the moment when it is perceived: every cranny, every element, up to our own brain, altering the perception of the acoustic space.

I like to generate processes, generally simple, which favour the appearance of these acoustic phenomena. My role as the performer of the process, is to maintain the sound balance rather than to act on the musical form as such.

You also explore the traditional music of the Auvergne by listening to field recordings. Can you talk about your research as well as how you apply it in practice? What can contemporary sound artists learn from traditional music techniques?

One of the things that particularly attracts me in traditional music, beyond the sound aspect, is the relationship to dance. This dance in particular, specific to the Auvergne and Massif Central: la bourrée. It interests me as much for its social and popular aspect as for what it implies in terms of circulation and movement. There is a constant oscillation between the point of equilibrium and the loss of equilibrium without there ever being a collapse. Between individuals, but also through the experience of listening, each body present participates in disturbing the perception of spaces. I see a strong analogy in it with the movement of sound in physical space.

In La Nòvia, the collective of which I am part and which brings together a dozen musicians, it is an omnipresent element: through more traditional forms, which seems obvious, like the Duo PuechGourdon, and apparently more experimental forms, like the band Toad, the trio Puech Gourdon Brémaud or the project Maintes Fois, which I wrote for an ensemble of eight musicians.

There are also aesthetic and acoustic similarities inherent in traditional and experimental music that I briefly mentioned above. The drone, the repetition, the microtonality, but also the acoustic distortion and saturation, are all elements developed by the avant-garde in contemporary music but which routine musicians (traditional musicians in rural areas who played until the middle of the last century) used in a non-theorised way to give presence to the sound.

Your concerts are hypnotic, almost trance-like in terms of the atmosphere and the build-up they create. The continuous flow of sound. Is there a spiritual/transcendental aspect to your performances? (almost in a kraut/kosmische/minimalist way)

I’m not too comfortable with using the word trance. I think we tend to talk overly about trance to describe a state of exaltation or an intellectual excitement. I prefer to talk about ‘intoxication’ (“ivresse” in French: a euphoric state of excitement, with perceptual disturbance). I like to look for the point of balance, just before the fall, the place of vertigo, where the sound escapes us, the place where perception is disturbed, altered.

Rather than being spiritual, my concerts have more to do with a form of catharsis. I am thinking about France (a hurdy-gurdy/bass/drum trio) in particular. At a concert of France there is something of the order of purgation through the exhaustion of the regular and invariant rhythmic patterns entangled in the sonic and spectral continuum of the hurdy-gurdy. I remember a comment after a gig: someone in the audience told us that a France concert is like an afternoon at the swimming-pool.

What are your current projects?

My news for the weeks and months to come will be punctuated by the release of three new records: at the beginning of October, Jéricho’s second album (La Nòvia) will appear; in November or December, a duet album with Portuguese guitarist Filipe Felizardo (Tras-os-Montes Records) and a solo album (La Nòvia / Three: Four Records).

Otherwise, I am currently working on an experimental documentary film project: La Trêve. A hallucinatory journey to the heart of the volcanic plateau of Velay, dominated by Mont Mézenc and inhabited by many legends. The movie is being written; I asked three friends to accompany me on this project: Gwendal Le Goff (historian and documentary maker), Grégoire Orio (videographer and filmmaker) and Jacques Puech (musician member of La Nòvia). The shooting will take place in two phases during 2021: a walk of ten days on the territory concerned and work collecting stories around two topics: la trêve (an alarming manifestation, the cause of optical illusions, movement of objects, falling rocks and mysterious noises) and la burle (a violent wind that blows in winter on the Velay plateau). The finalised version of the film will take the form of a live projection on four screens.

Interview: Lucia Udvardyova
Photo: Mattias Launois

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