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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artists.

Pascal Le Boeuf returns to The Jazz Gallery as a bandleader on March 26th to present “Ritual Being.” You may know Le Boeuf from any of his wide-ranging projects across the chamber jazz spectrum, including Le Boeuf Brothers (co-lead by Pascal and his twin brother Remy), works for ensembles such as JACK Quartet, RighteousGIRLS, and Shattered Glass String Orchestra, or Pascal’s Triangle, his trio featuring bassist Linda Oh and drummer Justin Brown. However you may know him, you know that his ambitious works push boundaries and defy expectations.

“Ritual Being” is a focused yet open-ended treatise on our daily habits. The new work encourages listeners to think about the semi-subconscious activities we undertake every day, and to consider the impact of those actions, whether social, environmental, or economic. The nine-piece hybrid ensemble features San Francisco’s Friction Quartet, as well as Remy Le Boeuf on alto saxophone, Anna Webber on tenor saxophone, Martin Nevin on bass, and Jochen Rueckert on drums. We spoke with Pascal Le Boeuf, as well as Otis Harriel and Kevin Rogers of Friction Quartet, about “Ritual Being.” We started with the work’s core themes, and opened into a larger discussion about audience engagement and the creative process.

The Jazz Gallery: Could you describe your conception of ritualistic behavior? How did the project begin?

Pascal Le Boeuf: I grew up in a family of biologists. Both of my parents, for example, researched social hierarchies and behavior in marine mammals. As a kid, they would talk about elephant seal social behavior at home all the time, and would occasionally take me to lectures at UC Santa Cruz. By the time I was old enough to begin thinking about human behavior, I had a little David Attenborough in my head, narrating the mysteries of human interaction. 

What sparked this project into being was my perspective on human behavior, combined with a book I recently read called “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari, which looks at our development as a species. It discusses how we spread from Africa, how we’ve developed over 200,000 years, and how we became a dominant species through our unique capacity to cooperate in large numbers. I’ve always been interested in patterns of human behavior from a more objective perspective, and that’s what rituals are to me: The behavioral tendencies of our species, the habits which we’re predisposed to exhibit. This project is all about exploring rituals. Some are beautiful, some are not. Some are sustainable, some are destructive.

TJG: So how does the new work explore this type of human behavior? How does this concept inform how we listen?

PL: That’s the fun part. Though the work explores the objective idea of human behavior, my way of musically interacting with the material is from a subjective perspective. As an artist, I can only draw upon my experiences, and I create sound in response. I almost think of composing as writing in a journal. It’s part of being alive for me. “Ritual Being” exists as a multi-movement work, with separate pieces that sit well together and are related in certain ways, but the individual movements exist as a result of my natural writing process.

TJG: Otis, how does the piece feel after the quartet’s initial rehearsals with Pascal?

Otis Harriel (Friction Quartet): It’s exciting. It’s a very challenging piece, and it takes a while to digest. Our individual parts are extremely virtuosic, and we’re constantly playing in odd meters. We have to hocket with each other in these meters, or pass off difficult figures. There are a lot of hoops to jump through. It’s tough music, but it’s coming together.

TJG: Pascal, tell me a little more about your process with this work.

PL: “Family of Others” began as an improvised piece that I documented as a voice memo the morning after my colleague’s birthday. We were all getting breakfast and recovering from the events of the prior evening celebration [laughs]. It felt very communal, family-like, and I wanted to remember it with music, so instead of writing in a journal, I recorded an improvisation. That’s how I document my feelings. When it came time to create a collage of ideas for this piece, that improvisation represented a positive, beautiful perspective on human rituals. Across all cultures, we come together, we celebrate each other, we learn from each other.

Kevin Rogers (Friction Quartet): The philosophy behind “Family of Others” really resonated with me, especially that it was created in an improvised moment of reflection and recovery. It celebrates community and the idea that ‘covenant is stronger than blood,’ that “family” better reflects those people with whom you share ideas, passions, and humor, those who want to work with you. It’s a big part of our coming to the east coast to play with Pascal: We get along so well, alongside the fact that we really like his music. With “Family of Others,” playing the piece is in that same spirit of building community by making music with people you enjoy being around. Building community with our listeners is kind of the deeper meaning of why we play music.

TJG: Could you tell me a little more about building a sense of community with the audience?

KR: Often, we use words to communicate, but words are limited. We have all these ideas and concepts associated with words. ‘Conservative’ or ‘love,’ for example, have certain baggage. With music, there are fewer specific associations, because things are more abstract. You can get a general feeling for things, evoke emotions, and not bring external information into the picture. Instead, you can have a sound that makes someone feel love, rather than saying “I want you to feel love in this moment.” Bringing that visceral feeling to another human, without using of words, experiencing a similar feeling at a shared point in time: It’s a way of building deep connection without even needing to speak.

TJG: In the sense of “Ritual Being” as a narrative, how does the final movement bring the work to a conclusion?

PL: I think of the first movement as a diaspora, the second movement as community-building and civilization-forming, and the final movement as a darker perspective on how everything may play out. We are, I think, moving towards a bleak future in which global environmental, economic, and overpopulation issues are going to be huge problems for humanity. We’re not behaviorally programmed to work together on such a large scale. I think I’m an optimistic person, but I’m fairly pessimistic when looking at the facts and our long-term direction.

TJG: Given the degree to which our personal, cultural, religious, and romantic rituals define us, do you think it’s possible for people to step back and really question the impact of these habits?

PL: I hope they do. I’m not trying to tell people what to do through this piece, and I’m not trying to predict what the outcome of humanity will be. I just want people to think about their habits, and to acknowledge their impact. Our lives are so ritualistic, in terms of patterned behavior. Broadly speaking, we have to follow certain rules just to coexist. Of course, we follow patterned behaviors to make money, to pay rent, to eat, to support ourselves and our communities, to live in the world, but art is a great ritual to focus on: It’s one of the most human things we can do, one of the things that makes humans interesting. All people, artists or otherwise, have some creative outlet, whether it’s experiencing art, an outlook on the world, or interacting socially with people in creative ways.

TJG: Otis, what’s your take on the idea of rituals and habits?

OH: It’s immediately relevant, because as musicians, we use habits and rituals to practice and perform all the time. In jazz performance, you try to break out of those habits, which doesn’t happen as much in classical performance. So playing in this context with Pascal is a great opportunity to try to do that a bit more.

TJG: Using string quartets in an improvisational jazz setting isn’t new, but you seem to have really gotten comfortable expressing yourself in the form. What’s your mindset when approaching composing for a hybrid ensemble?

PL: My background is in jazz and electronic music, so even if I’m writing for classically-trained musicians, I try to stay true to my musical instincts. That has, almost accidentally, helped me develop a voice for writing for strings that’s less associated with standard classical composition conventions. I tend to think a lot about tension and release, especially in the ways we build energy and communicate in jazz. I think of writing music as kind of like painting, in the sense that you’re composing and arranging distinct elements. You can cultivate an image and paint over things until you get it just the way you like it. It’s a very detail-oriented approach. On the other hand, I try to include improvisation and randomness, and I seek out opportunities for the performers to express themselves. That’s when improvisation experience is really helpful. You end up trusting the performers to carry the music, if you give them the chance. That’s the essence of collaboration.

Pascal Le Boeuf & Friction String Quartet present Ritual Being at The Jazz Gallery on Monday, March 26, 2018. The ensemble features Mr. Le Boeuf on piano, Remy Le Boeuf on alto saxophone, Anna Webber on tenor saxophone, Martin Nevin on bass, Jochen Rueckert on drums, Kevin Rogers and Otis Harriel on violin, Taija Warbelow on viola, and Doug Machiz on cello. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $20 general admission ($10 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.