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There is no progress in art: An interview with Ghédalia Tazartès

A sonic Renaissance man and a musical nomad who freely transgresses various aural topographies, Ghédalia Tazartès, born in 1947, first embarked on his long journey as artist and medium in 1979—at least officially—when he released his first album Diasporas. As its title denotes, Tazartès, a descendant of a Ladino community, of Judaeo-Spanish heritage, explores the notion of disembodied nations and voices. The voice is his major instrument, pliable and serving his intentions often to hypnotic, almost lucid effect.“Imagine John Cage meets Muslimgauze and Nurse With Wound on a field trip to India”, is only a scant description of his oeuvre according to Boomkat. With a recent revival of interest in this peculiar persona, we caught up with Mr. Tazartès during a suitably apt home for his music, the avant garde festival Babel Prague.


How did you start singing?

When my grandmother died, I went to the woods and began to sing. I was singing for myself, for God. I had not been very kind to her, and she was a saint, while I, as a young boy, was a little devil. When she died, I realized I had no more chances to be kind to her. That inner turmoil pushed me to sing.

Your ancestors originate from the Ladino community. Has this linguistic diversity and heritage influenced you?

Certainly, but in a contradictory way. My grandmother spoke almost only Ladino and Judaeo-Spanish. Ladino is different because it is a religious language, written in Hebrew. She spoke in a more common language, the Jewish language. She didn’t want to speak to me in it though, because she didn’t want me to be Jewish, since her son had been to Auschwitz. She said: ‘The little boy is not Jewish’, to save me. That’s why I don’t speak Spanish, so I learned Italian. Although first I invented my own language. She had her language, and I had mine.

Are you interested in the Jewish mystical tradition?

Yes, I am very much interested, but I don’t know anything about it. I’m not part of the Jewish tradition, I’m Jewish myself. I’m a Jewish agnostic, agnostic Jewish. My parents were really modern at the time. They loved the bebop. My father was into Zazou.

Some say your music is Surrealist, would you agree with that?

Yes, I take it as a compliment. But I would say I’m more Dada than Surrealist. It is not a conscious decision. You don’t decide you’re going to become a poet or a painter, life will turn you into one. You can decide to study a lot of piano, but to invent music or improvise is not a decision, but an incapacity.

How is that need expressed?

I’m not able to analyze myself. I’m not really my own subject: “what’s happened to you. Oh, myself is good today, but me is not fine”. A Russian guy once told me after a concert: “You have a fantastic genetic memory”.  

You have soundtracked the cult 1920s film Haxan about the history of witchcraft, which you performed live in Prague. Why did you choose this particular movie for your music?

It worked really well with my stuff. My agent suggested doing it and after I had seen the movie, I was shocked, it was really beautiful. I could try any of my music with it and it worked.

It is a dark film, were you intimidated by it?

Mainly it means something very important to me and my political motivations. It reflects women’s destiny. The movie says something really strong about how society sees women. It was made in 1922 and is about the Middle Ages, but it is really talking about what is happening in the world now.


You also utilize the poems of Verlaine and Rimbaud in your songs, a sort of sonic poetry. Why did you choose these French authors in particular?

Because I love them very much. When I was a teenager, I used to read Rimbaud a lot, you can read it a hundred times and always find something in it. Then I realized that these poems had been sung in a rather serious way before. I’d never heard a rock’n’roll song with the words of Rimbaud. The words in rock’n’roll are generally poor.

How did you manage to transplant these poems into songs?

I don’t know, before making music I don’t have a plan. I do these things, and if it’s good, I keep it, if not I don’t. My way of working is empirical.

Has it changed over the years?

I’m not sure. I don’t know really.

Is it still the same feeling?

Yes. In the past I’ve thought, “Oh I’m better now than when I started”. Now I realize I’ve always been the same. I don’t believe in progress in the arts. I don’t think that painters nowadays are better than in the past. I don’t think in life—because I’m not a technician—you can ameliorate the thing technically. But artistically, I’m not sure if I’m better now than I was when I was young. Maybe that’s good, maybe bad.

Your home in Paris is full of sculptures. 

I love art very much. But art is expensive, so I have to do it myself. When I had money, I bought some paintings of my friends. I live alone, I have few friends, two children. I first lived with my daughter, she is 27 now, then I lived with my son. I’m not in any movement, company or religion. It’s not only a choice, it is my nature. I’m very shy.

You also had birds.

I had pigeons, you don’t have to contain them, they can be free to come and go as they like. They have their life and I have mine. I stopped eventually because it was difficult. Firstly, it’s forbidden to have pigeons in Paris by king’s law. I was crying about my birds. Later, I bought canaries and the same thing happened. Even though it was not forbidden, but animals reproduce when they are in good conditions, and there were simply too many. So then I stopped with that too.

Could you describe your music-making process?

I live in a studio. I also record external sounds. The music-making used to be regular, now less so. I don’t say to myself I have to make music from 8 to 12.

Your voice, the colour of it, is it something that just comes out naturally?

It’s not my voice, it’s the god’s voice. It’s the voice of Jesus, if I can be a little bit pretentious.

What about your concept of impromuz.

I did not study music. At the beginning it was really pretentious for me to say I’m a musician. Also, it could be a response to people who could object about what I do not being music. I agree. Maybe it’s not music, but it’s something. I had to find a name for what I’m doing—improvised music.

Today it is different with young musicians. They have to promote themselves profoundly.

These days it’s easy for anybody to make music with a computer without studying. But it’s the same thing, some music is good, some bad. There is too much music around perhaps. Sometimes I watch TV, and you see a report and I’m interested in the content, and I simply don’t understand why there always has to be music in there. Perhaps we really do live in a world that is polluted with music.

Maybe because people are scared of silence, because there is no silence. 

You sing because you are afraid. When you are in the woods at night, you are going to sing to be less afraid. This is also why I’m singing, because I’m afraid.

Of what?

Life, death.

Fear also pushes you to do things.

Fear is not only negative.

Photo: Anne Gayan

Published October 29, 2012. Words by Lucia Udvardyova, photos by Anne Gayan.