Chamberfest: The many paths of Ensemble Variances’ Thierry Pécou

Ensemble Variances: Thierry Pécou is front and centre with white bowtie.

The French composer and musical director Thierry Pécou has had many influences on his musical life. And most of them find their way into his work, especially with the group he founded, Ensemble Variances.

This Sunday, Ensemble Variances will perform a Chamberfest concert with music by Stravinsky Debussy and Pécou, himself, on the bill. Before he boarded the jet for Canada with his ensemble, he told ARTSFILE that what he tries to do in preparing a program is to pair pieces that work with his original work.

“What I try to do is find composers (with whom) I have some common interests,” he said over the phone from the Normandy countryside. “That music is not necessarily French only. I like to invite European composers and we work with composers from the United States too.”

While Pécou doesn’t limit his concerts to French repertoire, his own musical life does begin with Claude Debussy.

“It starts with Debussy. But I also answer Ravel and Stravinsky when I’m asked about influences. These were my first teachers. I heard them first when I was quite young.

“I was introduced to classical music by listening to music from the late 19th and early 20th century. I really didn’t listen to 18th and 19th century music. That came later.

“My brother loved to listen to Stravinsky and Debussy. He introduced me to this music.”

You can hear the influence of a composer such as Debussy in how Pécou describes his writing process.

“Very often when I compose, I first have a kind of picture in mind. The colour and texture of the music comes first. Then I find a way to express it with the notes and chords.

“For me I like the way Debussy’s thinking is very free but the form he uses is structured. This is important for me too.”

In Ottawa, Ensemble Variances will play a concert Pécou calls the Wings of Desire.

The evening is built around his piece titled Les Machines désirantes which features piano, flute, saxophone, clarinet, violin and cello.

Before that piece are works by Debussy and Stravinsky. The piece was inspired by the writings of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze who is considered a major influence in the evolution of postmodernist thought.

Deleuze believed, Pécou says, that the innate human desire for creativity is constrained and stifled by society.  Deleuze and Pécou both advocate liberating the individual to allow them to express themselves. That’s the starting point of the piece, he says.

“In a way, it is very political.”

After Debussy and Deleuze, another critical influence on Pécou is Igor Stravinsky.

“The Rite of Spring was my first composition school. I really studied it well before I started formal composition lessons. For me, what is very important in Stravinsky is the rhythm. which is also very important in my music.”

Pécou found another influence within Stravinsky. There are elements of the Russian’s music that point to Indigenous culture. That is something that has also grabbed his attention.

His first forays to North America involved residencies at the Banff Centre in the 1980s and late 1990s.

During the latter, a chance meeting with a Mexican composer introduced Pécou to Indigenous culture in North and South America.

“I’m originally from Martinique in the Caribbean. I have this attraction to American continent.” After Banff, Pécou spent some time in Madrid, Spain, where he met an Argentinian musicologist who was studying Indigenous music in Argentina and Peru.

“And now I’m working on an opera with Laura Tohe, a Navajo poet from Arizona.”

Pécou is attracted to the worldview of Indigenous people.

“They  have a different response to the world. They are more connected. They are part of the natural world, not on top of it. This is important to me.”

He says he likes working with Indigenous artists and hopes he is helping to recover things that have been lost since contact more than 500 years ago.

“It’s a big source of inspiration for me. You have to recreate and imagine what it was before to create something new.”

Ensemble Variances
Where: Dominion Chalmers United Church
When: Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.