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Sourdurent’s trad-electro music from the Auvergne takes Opéra Underground on a cosmic trip

Interview of Ernest Bergez

10 February 2020

Sourdurent’s trad-electro music from the Auvergne takes Opéra Underground on a cosmic trip
 
On February 14, the Amphi welcomed Sourdurent, one of the most original groups on the new French folk scene.

The man behind the group is “Sourdure” (Deafness), otherwise known as Ernest Bergez, knob-twiddler, multi-instrumentalist and musician. A sort of mad scientist, capable of producing a mix of trance, rooted in the traditions of the Massif-Central, and electro from his jumble of machines, tangled cables, violin and cabrette (a kind of bagpipe), Following the release of his album L’Espròva in 2018, “Sourdure” became “Sourdurent”, a quartet dedicated to bringing rustic polyphonies and polyrhythms to a wider public. We met with Ernest, the group’s composer who has managed to meld traditional Franco-Occitan music with electro.

How did you first become aware of this traditional music ?
Well firstly, traditional music from the Auvergne is still played in the Massif-Central and can be heard in lots of places. I became interested in Occitan music through groups like Massilia Sound System and Fabulous Trobadors.
I knew about the existence of this language from my parents and through some research later on, particularly in Lyon, when I was training for my music teaching diploma. In my year, there were musicians specialising in traditional music like Jacques Puech, who now plays in Sourdurent. With them, I explored this traditional music in more detail, looking at folk dances, oral traditions, etc…Once I realised that the Auvergne was an Occitan-speaking region I started to practice playing this music on the violin and to learn the language.

Why “Sourdure” (Deafness) ?

It’s an unusual story. I just found it one day written in my notebook! I didn’t remember writing it. I must have just scribbled it down when it popped into my head, maybe something to do with a mistake I’d spotted.
When I saw it again, I recognised it immediately and it seemed like an obvious choice.
There are so many things behind this name. You know how we play around with words for fun so that they become something else? That’s what Sourdure is. There are puns to be made with the French words for welding, deafness and endurance, it describes a concept, an inexplicable phenomenon. Plus, it came about spontaneously, which is how I like to create.

Is taking traditional music and transposing it into contemporary and futuristic sounds a way of protecting it ?

I don’t think in terms of “saving” traditional music. We’re living in a period where there has already been a great deal of collection and documentation throughout the 20th century, particularly 1970s revivalism. Things are very different now, we have access to a huge mass of sound archives and a lot of knowledge. Music is a world of niches, all operating independently. Many people think that some kinds of music have disappeared but they live on, through dance as much as through music. There’s a whole new generation playing them. We keep them alive by thinking of them as living things. Our solution is to take this music beyond what can be found in the archives. I guess I invent, I embroider by mixing this traditional music with other sounds. I like that ambiguity.

Are your songs adaptations of traditional music or original compositions ?
There’s a very fine line between the two. For several years now, I’ve been totally immersed in listening to and playing this music. It provides me with raw material, a kind of language that allows me to keep creating.
It’s like my memory has hoovered up all these melodies and keeps them for a while before bringing them out again unexpectedly and unconsciously when I’m composing. Sometimes you can find existing phrases and mash-ups of bits of text, but they’ve been tweaked and transformed.

Sourdurent could be the soundtrack to a retro-futuristic film which takes place between the Auvergne and another dimension ?
Yes, absolutely ! (Laughs). It really all started when I discovered the traditional repertoire.
My background was in electronic and experimental music. But from that moment, I started to question everything I’d done. Once I started playing the violin and singing, my way of working with music, especially electronics, changed completely. My identity as an electro musician has fused with my identity as a singer/violinist of traditional music.
And believe me, the two work very well together.

That’s when you wrote your first album, La Virée ?

Exactly, it was the culmination of all that searching and questioning. How do you make all these things work together? I struggled, believe me! I had to make these two worlds fight with each other and dance together. And now they are one. There are no gaps between the two; electronic and traditional music are on the same journey.

Did you do the same for the album L’Espròva ?
Yes, I’m usually a bit of a hermit when I work but on this album, I surrounded myself with a lot of musicians, especially wind players. I had to compose with people in mind, so the process has evolved.

Was it, as the title suggests, another test ?
Ahah, yes ! Though I’m in charge. I tap out the rhythm with my feet while playing the violin and singing at the same time (laughs). It’s a bit like when you develop a photograph. You see the first rendering, then there is a transformation process with certain obstacles to overcome. That’s what Sourdure is all about.

You’ve also had the idea for a while of adapting the music to the venue you’re playing. I’m not just thinking of the opera house on February 14, didn’t you also do something in the Hautes-Alpes for the Mantra album ?
Yes, it was a commission from the Dôme association which organises the Echo festival in the Hautes-Alpes. It takes place in a very special place, the Faï farm, which has a huge natural echo. There is a sound system made out of speakers in tubes. The nine tracks were composed on site. The location is responsible for the project’s meditative quality.

And now a new concept for Opéra Underground – Sourdurent the group?!

We’re going to play a completely new repertoire as a group. It’s a whole new ballgame!
As a group, we wanted to take things further. We’ve left a lot of room for the expressiveness of the voice, a kind of intoxicating sound. The energy becomes quite strong and overwhelming. There’s a feeling of coming together, of communion, and that’s something you only get with a group.

Occitan music is close to a lot of other traditional music such as the Brazilian forró. You like to cross borders, there are even some North African influences in your music.
That’s the result of experiments I did with Sourdure. I sort of cleared a space in the music from the Massif-Central by mixing it with other kinds of traditional music. In the violin music of the Massif-Central, its songs, the cabrette (a kind of bagpipe from the Auvergne), there is a wealth of sounds and scales that are also found elsewhere in the world, particularly around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East. There is an obvious intersection, so you might as well show it.

What about the electronics ?
I use modular synthesizers, effects pedals. I use electronics a lot for drones, continuous sounds, rhythmic elements which are then prettied up using the acoustic elements.

What are the messages of your songs ?

All the lyrics, apart from one text, are by me. It’s my attempt to use the Occitan language. We have a pagan spirit, we tackle questions that are more or less philosophical. Like, for example, why do we feel the need to get off our heads at parties? There’s also a coming-of-age story about youth, how a child learns to walk, or how a teenager comes to leave the family home. There are several links to Sourdure’s music behind these stories. We like this enigmatic feeling.

You are sort of the Sun Ra of Auvergne. Can we call what you do Auvergnafuturism ?
(He laughs again) Yeah Sun Ra, now you’re talking! He developed a futuristic vision at a time when the whole concept of the future was the bringing together of a lot of different hopes and desires. Now we have a different idea of the future, we aren’t really futuristic, even if our music is introspective. We’re more “presentists”.

What will the Opéra Underground concert be like ?

As I told you, it will be a coming together, with everyone sharing the same feeling. The audience mustn’t hesitate to get up and look at each other, share the emotion, without being obliged to watch us play. And the result of this communion will surely be an album in the near future.

Currently, we can see a whole scene in France that’s breaking away from the mainstream by reinventing traditional music. What’s your explanation for this ?

I see no reason why this shouldn’t happen. The different musical traditions that exist in France have been passed down and are still alive. Nothing can prevent them from crossing paths with each other. It’s a generational thing. The new generation of traditional musicians meet artists from other spheres and it creates new paths for this music. Sourdurent, the La Nòvia collective, La Tène, Bégayer, L’Ocelle Mare are all fine examples of this.

If you could bring back one artist from the dead and invite him to play with you on stage, who would it be ?

Boby Lapointe! He was a cabaret and music hall artist. He would come on stage alone and capture everyone’s attention. He would rattle his words off, playing with words and his strong accent. I could really see him performing in one of our shows. He would juggle his beautiful words around us, creating a joyful atmosphere.