Talking Heads: Arandel

It is deepest summer, and Arcana is on an online call with Arandel, live from Burgundy. Taking the music of Johann Sebastian Bach as his inspiration, the anonymous French composer and producer has been discovering a wide range of material that has so far yielded two InBach albums. The second enjoys new perspectives offered in live performance of the first, and it presented the perfect opportunity for Arcana to step in and discuss.

We begin with introductions – especially the one Arandel had with the music of Bach. “I’m not sure, but it was some of the music my father used to play on this turntable when I was a kid. I remember being very impressed by the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, it used to be the soundtrack of the opening credits for a children’s cartoon called Il était une fois… l’homme (Once upon a time…man) My father used to play all kinds of music and Bach was one of those.”

His curiosity grew. “One of the things that attracted me to the music was that I was trying to figure out why it was so present in everyone’s mind. In today’s modern music there are glimpses and traces of Bach, more than any other classical or Baroque composers.” Inspiration took hold, but what was it about Bach that made Arandel realise he could use it for his own music? “It all started with a preposition from someone I worked with at the Paris Philharmonie. He asked me to think about something for a weekend dedicated to Bach, a Bach marathon. I had carte blanche for the end of the evening, and I had 45 minutes to do whatever I wanted on Bach. I had remixed Mozart once, but while I am very impressed with and have a lot of respect for classical music, I’m not a classically trained musician at all. I can’t read or write the music, so I look at classical music with very much respect but also a bit of distance.”

In spite of the lack of experience, Bach’s music took hold. “It was never a career plan of mine to venture into electronic classical music, but I thought it was a great opportunity to work on something different. I felt like there was enough material, diversity in Bach’s music for me to find something I could work on. I think it would have been very different with Mozart or Beethoven, but with Bach there is something that makes it possible to make it your own. From this position, I dived into Bach’s music, and I asked friends and colleagues to give me recommendations on Bach. That’s how I found a lot of material for the first InBach. Every scene has its own little story – I couldn’t answer how I made those tracks in general. One is with a particular instrument, another because of cooperation with another musician. It reflects the different tones of the album.”

One of the musicians collaborating with Arandel is cellist Gaspar Claus, who appears on three tracks on InBach Vol.2, including Fabula (above). “That was a long time ago,” he recalls, “Three years, I guess. It was great. We have known each other for over 10 years now but hadn’t really worked together other than a small jam one night in a small French town. I don’t normally do this kind of improvisation because I don’t feel comfortable, but with Gaspar it was easy to think about something, because he brings so much and frees you to bring something different. I remembered this night when I asked him to if he wanted to join the InBach project. At first it was with his trio, but they were not all available, so it became just Gaspar. At first, I wanted him to play the viola da gamba, and I asked him if he was up for playing an instrument he hadn’t played before. Of course he was, but we had little difficulties with the museum we approached, because of very strict rules about the consideration of the instruments. The rule was that you couldn’t have someone playing the viola da gamba if they were not a professional. In the end he played a historical cello, and they agreed to let us use a facsimile of an old viola da gamba. It was great, very natural.”

Arandel also worked with Myra Davies, who provides vocals on Doxa Notes, the first track on the album. “I was impressed by her in a way that I was almost scared, as I have a lot of admiration for her work. Talking to her was almost challenging, in some ways, because she’s so brilliant and clever! I wasn’t sure I could keep up with her but the level of conversations we had was really interesting, about metaphysics and the meaning of live.”

Are these the sort of discussions Bach’s music could fuel? “Maybe it’s because we had the same feeling about Bach’s music being timeless. The magic of his music could be inherited, and from century to century it will survive us all. That’s probably where the metaphysics came from. When we are not here anymore, where will Bach’s music be?”

Both InBach albums are likely to surprise with the scope of their approach and invention. Was it Bach himself who brought out this creativity? “Yes, of course! To me, it’s not really my music. It’s my take on Bach’s music, and I think it’s because of the way I approached it, which was like what I would do for a remix. It is about finding the find bits of the original piece and maintain something of the original, it has to float somewhere. You have to bring your own creativity or touch. It was a bit challenging at first, because Bach’s music is regarded by some as perfect and sacred. Some of the musicians I approached for the collaborations turned it down because they said, “No, Bach’s music is perfect.” They told me it would be very cocky of me to bring something to Bach’s music. I can understand their point, but I don’t agree! I can try to bring my light touch to it and still think that Bach’s music is great on its own. I’m not trying to make it better! I always say it was like being iconoclastic, and I wanted to do it with respect to what I hear in Bach’s music.”

With such a wide and varied range of responses to Bach in pop music, is it fair to say the best ones are those treating him with great respect, such as Wendy Carlos in Switched On Bach? “Yeah. It’s not easy music to listen to, with all the bleeps – I think it’s very inspiring, but for my own taste it is a little too close to the original, and at the same time a little too ‘bleepy’. After two or three tracks, it gets hard to listen to the whole album.”

Was it an emotional experience writing the two Bach albums? “For the second one, of course – there was the whole thing about the lockdowns, and my brother passed away while I was working on it. I’m not sure how it affects the way I produce though.” I asked as one of the most telling tracks is in fact the Capriccio, subtitled by Bach as ‘on the departure of a beloved brother’, “Agnès Gayraud, a French writer and philosopher, wrote a great book called Dialectic of Pop. She wrote the press release for the album, and we had a long talk about how she felt about the album. It was really the first time I could talk to someone about this subject because I was still very immersed in it. We talked a lot about God, and dramatic apparitions. The music of Bach to her was starting to get more haunting. She really had a point, and it resonated with me very deeply. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older – aren’t we all?! – but I feel like I’m becoming more haunted. People who are not here any more are at a place where you can go and look for them, you know where they are.” Is it true that Bach’s music can act as a link between the two worlds? “Yes, because it says something about eternity, and how things keep on enlightening us. Death is not an end in itself.”

Bach’s music continues to inspire, whether in reinterpretations like Arandel’s but also in new recordings from classical musicians. “There is something about the composer that still resonates, but I like that after two volumes I still don’t know why! I’ll probably never know, and that’s fine. I will keep on looking, but I don’t think I will make a third album. I will keep looking at Bach’s music though.”

In spite of the lack of classical training, Arandel agrees this can be a help rather than hindrance when talking of an original approach. “I don’t see things from this perspective, but how can it have any influence on the classical world?” I suggest that it can inspire different approaches to concerts and flexible audiences, who could be pleasantly surprised by electronic musicians and their approach to Bach. “I wouldn’t really know because I don’t have much feedback from the classical world. It was actually those reviews that were interesting. I like to read reviews, and when I read them, I learn about what I did. That’s why I liked your critique, I remember reading it and thinking it was very interesting.”

With no more Bach planned for now, is there other new music on the go? “At the moment I should be working on remixes, but it’s the middle of the holidays and my mind’s not exactly in music right now. I’m in the garden, working with tomatoes and potatoes. It’s different but it’s what I need! The next album is almost ready. It was actually ready before InBach, but this project happened in a very short period of time and the label decided that instead of moving on with my next album I should put it to one side and focus on InBach. I have made some tweaks and adjustments now I have worked on InBach. I feel it might change a few things about how I listen to my own music!”

For now, the man behind Arandel will remain anonymous. “When working on the promotion of InBach we discussed a lot with the label as to how I would have to adjust my communication because it was a different project, but I felt I said everything I could say while still being anonymous and not showing my face and not doing video interviews. For a while I felt that everything that could be said had been said, and I had to do something differently. I was reluctant and still am, to use my real name!”

Interview by Ben Hogwood

Both InBach and InBach Vol.2 are out now on InFiné, with a link to the Bandcamp site for the current album below:

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