Talking Heads: Labelle

Arcana chats with Jérémy Labelle, the prodigiously talented composer and performer signed to InFiné, about his album Orchestre Univers. This ambitious project looks to bring classical and electronic music together, as well as the musical cultures of Europe and the Indian Ocean. We explore his methods behind that combination, beginning with the inevitable first question…

Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

Not exactly, it was at primary school. But the first piece that really did stand out for me was Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale:

You say your family home had a wide range of styles – was it important for you to reflect this in your own music?

Yes, it’s very important as this wide range of styles is an expression of the multiculturalism in which I was brought up in and through which I define myself. Actually, these different styles belong to the same world for me. If you look beyond the differences, you can see what links them.

What dance music did you grow up with? The InFiné site makes reference to Derrick May and Jeff Mills.

I discovered Detroit techno when I was around 10/11 in 1995 and 1996, thanks to my older brother. It was the first type of music I played when I was a DJ and from then on it was the base of the music I was composing.

Was it a long (but enjoyable!) process getting the musicians together for ‘Orchestre univers’?

Getting the musicians together was actually pretty fast (a few weeks). It was the writing process that was very long (but enjoyable!)

It is very difficult to place the music of ‘Orchestre univers’, in a good way. Was it important for you to bring these contrasting styles of music together?

Yes it was very important for me as it’s how I see music for ensembles. A music that is capable of integrating instruments from other cultures but more importantly to find space for the body again. It had become too disconnected from the mind in certain contemporary expressions throughout the ’90s and the ’00s. The body and the mind are a whole for me, a single unit with which I try to communicate.

Where did you learn your skills for making colour with orchestral forces?

I learnt to write at university when I was studying music. But what I did really learn was to understand the different schools of thought and genres that have existed in the history of classical and contemporary music and how and when these genres appeared. Practical exercises allowed me to understand and appreciate the mechanics of these music. But beyond learning, I also have teachers that gave me the keys to understanding the space and the dimensions inside a piece as well as contemporary orchestration and time.

How did you arrive at such rhythmically driven music too?

Rhythm is a fundamental part of maloya and how the trance emerges. It’s in this spirit that rhythm expresses itself. I can’t not work with rhythmic instruments 🙂

The track Oublie-voie-espace-dimension brings in some remarkably strong percussion to go with the held chords. What were you describing in this music?

It’s exactly the beginning of the trance! You have to understand the title as a succession of states. Oublie = forget, forget your markers, letting go; Voie = path, the path that appears at that moment ; Espace = space, the feeling of vertigo, of depth that having chosen this path brings to you ; Dimension = a new dimension opens up (the one that expresses itself in O).

You did a concert recently at the Philharmonie in Paris? What was that like

The concert at the Philharmonie was one of the most beautiful concerts of my young career. The feeling of the acoustic space when you’re on stage is incredible. You can really feel how the sound moves in the room, it’s beautiful. Also the energy that the stage catalyses and disperses is out of this world. The stage seems to float in this circular movement with the audience. The room is unique.

What else can we expect from you this year?

Starting from now until the end of the year, I’m going to be working on my next piece, which is written for a string quartet, as well as on my next album. I’ll also be touring my solo electro-maloya act from the end of August till mid September for the promotion of Digital Kabar with my friend BoogzBrown and the Sheitan Brothers! A special night will happen at La Réunion early Octobre (Digital Kabar – Le Club) with many of the artists that appear on the compilation! Finally, for the first time I’m organising a night dedicated to experimental music on the island. It will happen at the end of Septembre.

What does ‘classical’ music mean to you?

The term “classical” is rather distorted actually. Musicologists refer to MOTE (musique occidentale de tradition écrite = western music of written tradition) and it’s in this sense that I understand classical as a traditional music just like other traditional music in the history of humanity.

What other musical plans and ambitions do you have for the future?

Writing pieces for large instrumental ensembles! But also develop the trance and dancing. I want to stay in touch with the club world and the festival world while writing pieces for orchestras that have this unique combination of classical instruments, electronics and the percussion from maloya.

You have contributed to the new InFiné compilation Digital Kabar. What does the word ‘kabar’ mean to you?

Historically, the kabar is the place and time of maloya, but for me it’s also the place and time of all the maloyas: electronic, electric, pop etc…

The track ‘Block Maloya’ has a strong rhythmic drive. How does maloya manifest itself in your writing?

It’s actually in the rhythms but it also manifests itself through other means! The distant pad that introduces the track is an ancestral reminiscence that carries the track through its development. It’s this relation to ancestors and customs that’s particular in maloya. Maloya is also a spiritual music when it’s played in ceremonies.

Could ‘Block Maloya’ become a really substantial track in a live performance?

Yes and that’s exactly what you’ll hear in my solo electro-maloya live act that will be touring for Digital Kabar in August.

If you could recommend one piece of music from this year to Arcana readers, what would it be?

I know I should think about other artists but right now I’m thinking of my piece Playing at the end of the Universe from Orchestre univers 🙂 It’s a song that always surprises me. I wrote it for my previous record Univers-île but it took another dimension on my new record.

Labelle’s third album Orchestre univers is out now on InFiné, who have also just released the Digital Kabar compilation which can be heard below:

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