Collectively living another life: An encounter with Passepartout Duo
Drawing from a carefully selected palette of electro-acoustic textures and shapeshifting rhythms, Passepartout Duo’s work investigates the way in which we listen to and connect with sound. Continually reassessing the tools they use to create their music, the group is continually developing a specialised and evolving ecosystem of handmade musical instruments, which have ranged from analogue electronic circuits and conventional percussion to room-sized textile installations and found objects. We met the duo after their performance at the Sonica Festival in Ljubljana, at a cafe near the renowned autonomous cultural zone Metelkova.
How did you two meet?
Chris: We met at a music festival where we were both performing together, in the States in 2015. We have classical backgrounds. At that time, we were playing a lot of what you would call new music. We played there together in an ensemble for a month. That’s where we met, and we’ve been playing together since then.
How did you develop your musical language as a duo?
C: Because we came from a classical background, we’ve always been on a path away from that. The first step was writing music for ourselves, because in that world, writing one’s own music instead of working with a composer is somehow controversial for a performer. The language came from writing pieces for ourselves that were what we felt was exactly what we wanted to be doing on stage. The language comes from our different influences and then, further on from there, came making our own instruments, which then informed the kind of music we were writing. We make the instruments, and from those instruments the seeds are planted for some music that we can play.
Nicoletta: I think that nowadays, when we think about making music, it’s both a gut feeling and thought/ear feeling.
Currently, you basically live and work on the road. Has it been like this since the start?
C: I would say it was more or less always like that. Nico is from Italy, I’m from the States. There was always this distance. Just to make the project work involved a lot of artist residencies because that was where we could be in the same room and make something. We did those artist residencies from very early on. And we also understood how valuable they were for us, so we thought it would be great if we could be do it all the time. We worked very hard to make sure that would be possible. Eventually, we became busy enough with the residencies and with touring that it didn’t make sense to rent a place anymore.
Do you think that also influences the aesthetics of the project? You travel a lot, and probably have to think about what equipment you carry around.
N: Totally. Let’s say that choosing this lifestyle has become a way to choose the other parts of our lives and work. Moving all the time immediately pushed us to deal with questions of portability, first of all, and also to ask questions about making music that are relevant to different places. In general, it also became a social/political reflection because we’ve been thinking whether what we are doing is actually what we want to do in life. Everything that we decide comes from a conscious decision and is not taken for granted or acquired. That’s how we started taking into account the different phases of the process of creating music – developing our own instruments, writing our own music, booking the shows, and deciding how to release the music, making the album artwork, etc.
Is this self-reliance an important aspect of what you do?
C: Yes. We are fiercely independent, I would say. There is something about taking ownership of every aspect of the creative process that gives us a lot of fulfilment. Putting every aspect of it into question is where our process comes from, and that’s what enriches our music and our lives.
There is quite a complex infrastructure around the experimental scene – there are bookers, PR agents, managers. Is it hard for an independent artist to navigate that?
C: We wouldn’t know because we have very limited contact with any aspect of that industry. At a certain point, nobody is a better advocate for our work than us. When you are a musician, the music touches you first and nobody is going to change that. It would be quite challenging from the perspective of anybody who works with an artist to take the music as seriously as the artist themselves. I just cannot imagine that. But it’s something that we’re always considering, for instance, when it comes to booking. Because if we want to take on those roles ourselves, we do think it’s important to take them as seriously as somebody would do if it were their job.
N: If we had to work with somebody it would probably have to be a relationship that developed very organically. And the more we do it ourselves, the less likely it is that we would give up doing so, I think.
You also mentioned that you try to adjust your music to the environment that you play in. Can you talk about that?
C: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s an adjustment based on the place. It’s more that we endeavour to make music that can be enjoyed by a lot of different types of people, and we don’t want to do something that’s alienating.
N: There is a kind of feedback loop. In the beginning, if we wanted to bring the music to places other than classical concert halls, we had to play certain types of pieces. If we get feedback from the audience in a certain setting, we realise what works and what doesn’t work. If that can be called an adjustment, then yes. The adjustment comes from the experience of what works and what doesn’t work in performance. Often, people come up to us after a performance and they tell us we sound like somebody they have heard of before who we might not know.
C: It’s kind of funny to discover music that way.
N: There were two traditional instruments that influenced our whole production last year. One is the txalaparta from the Basque Country, and the other is the simantra from Eastern Europe. Our ideas started from the meeting point of a more classical writing technique like, for example, the hocket, and the way in which these are naturally employed in some folk instruments coming from local traditions.
C: Something that is very important to our work is this idea of the hocket, which splits one part between two people – something that would normally be played by one musician can be played by two. Because we are a duo, and because we share the stage, the way that we play music together is very important. We don’t want to appear as two soloists. We aim for a sum that is greater than the parts, and it’s not something that can be performed by one single person. For us, the hocket is a good way of accessing that. As a technique, it’s something of a global phenomenon that exists across many cultures. There is something very visceral and human about these kinds of techniques that come from all cultures.
N: And it tells you a lot about making music together.
C: It’s very common in certain music scenes to be a solo act, especially in the electronic music scene. But two or more people making music is still a very powerful thing.
N: We sometimes share not only the stage, but also the instruments.
C: Somebody once described our set as four hands, one instrument. I think that’s probably the best way of summing up our approach. We have an ecosystem of instruments that we play as one instrument together.
Is it pre-decided who is doing the music, the instrumentation and the performance?
C: A lot of it is pre-decided because a lot of things we do require a lot of rehearsing for their coordination. Another question in our work is the role of improvisation versus the role of composition, which connects strongly to our background. There are certain things that are not improvisable, like playing something in unison, because you need to know the future, and the only way to do that is to plan. There are a lot of powerful techniques that cannot be improvised, and of course, there are also a lot of things that can only happen through improvisation. Like a piece that changes every time you play it, and that’s important too. Generally, I would say that everything we do is pre-composed, but there are a lot of indeterminate elements to the music, which are going to be different every time we play it because of the way electronics work, etc.
And unpredictability is something that interests you?
C: We are very interested in systems and processes and how these can be made into music. Once a process gets complicated enough, it becomes something which is changing all the time, and that is something very interesting, too.
How would you describe your modus operandi in practice?
C: I can’t say it is a well regimented thing; every day needs something different and there is a list of things that need to happen, and we just try to get to them all as soon as we can. That list of things is booking shows, organising the logistics, applying for residencies, working on the project for those residencies. There are very urgent things that need to happen immediately, but there are also things that are not urgent at all but are very important to us, like designing new instruments, or rehearsing, which requires a long vision into the future and also a little bit of work every day. There are days when we rehearse for a few hours every day, and then there are periods when we are playing every day and there is no time for rehearsing.
But you also manage to do these things while on the road, like instrument making?
C: A lot of the instrument building also happens on the road because it’s often with some CAD software. So far, the instruments have been built for us, but we are currently developing one as a product that should be available in the next year, hopefully. This is very important to us because so much creative energy has gone into this instrument so that it can work for us, and we are very eager to see what other people could do with it, and what kind of community could grow around it.
Do you see any parallels between the classical world and the more electronic scene?
C: It’s really hard to say – they share a certain DNA in the form of influential composers, like Cage, or Alvin Lucier, figures that cross over. Or, for example, as a percussionist I am a huge lover of Xenakis, but then some electronic musicians are also fans of Xenakis, just coming at it from a different perspective.
In terms of the scene, I think they are quite different, there is a different audience atmosphere; the classical concert atmosphere is a bit like the quiet car on the train. Personally, I find it very anxiety-inducing, but I think every person that goes through music school has a certain amount of baggage related to that time in their life, and that is probably unavoidable.
And what’s coming up next for you?
N: For the rest of the year, we have a series of short residencies and a European tour. We are trying to cover a lot of European countries where we haven’t played before. We are also setting up a collaboration with two Berlin-based musicians, building an instrument / platform together that we are going to employ for a project in Morocco in the new year.
Do you have any dreams?
C: We really love what we do so much, and in a sense our dream is just to keep doing it. I am quite excited about our new instrument, and about exploring new places through music.
N: It could be either through music or through this instrument, or both, but we hope that we can contribute to the creation of a global community of musicians.
What have you learnt about the world during these six years?
N: I feel that for most of my life I have been very intrigued by the idea of living somebody else’s life, and what it would be like. I have been wondering recently if, when we are performing, we are either inviting the audience to live our life, or if we are all collectively living another life. Of course, when we are travelling, we are always strangers, we are always guests – then we are living different lives as well, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it increases our wisdom, but I think it does help our empathy and maybe that’s a good thing.
C: It has also stretched our comfort zones tremendously – what you think you are uncomfortable with grows as soon as you are in that uncomfortable situation. I value that a lot, too.
And about the music scenes that you are a part of, is there a change of perspective, are they the same everywhere?
N: For me it’s really funny that you can play the same forty-five minutes of music, and in one country they are worth sixteen hundred euros, and in another country, they are worth zero. I think that every country is very relative.
C: But sometimes it also happens that we see a copy-and-paste of a venue halfway across the world. There are certain things that are always in common. I wonder if it is because of the Internet or not, or maybe the kind of people that this type of music attracts. But of course, there is always a different flavour everywhere you go.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova