“Temps Libre” is the first release from the St. Laurent Piano Project, a recording series initiated by musician Stefan Christoff.
Featuring Brahja Waldman on sax, Peter Burton on contrabass and Stefan Christoff on piano, “Temps Libre” is a musical exploration recorded at La Sala Rossa in late summer 2012 as Quebec’s student uprising echoed across the city.
In order to have a concept of time we have to begin with an understanding of periodicity, La Monte Young tells us.
Pre-industrial life was marked by natural cycles or events of predictable durations. These units became measures of time specific to a given culture. For instance, in Buddhist temples the passage of time was measured by the burning of incense. Some Catholic rituals involve ceremonial candles that burn for an entire week. Peoples from all over the world tracked their calendars using the passage of the sun, or their agriculture by the cycles of the moon. As long as time is being measured within a particular community and reflects their needs, these devices were more than sufficient.
It wasn’t until a majority of goods began to travel by rail, quickly traversing long distances, that there was a need to synchronize time precisely. How to organize a schedule if each town has their own time?
It surely isn’t a coincidence that it was around this time, of industrialization and rail roads and the telegraph, that poetry freed itself from the strict formalist meters of classical poetry. At that time, free verse must have seemed like the only way to organize a poem that could rebel against the institutionalization of time being undertaken around the world.
Industrialization promised us less work and more leisure, more free time. The reality is the whatever gains were made have been rolled back, and now leisure and work and becoming increasingly indistinguishable from one another. Either you have a job that requires you to be permanently connected, making an affective investment that runs counter to the very idea of labor, or else you are part of the growing legion of precarious workers constantly looking for the next freelance gig.
Last year’s student strike in Quebec was the longest if its kind, and time certainly did seem to be measured quite differently, with the clanging of pots and pans announcing each evening. Born of that context, the music of Temps Libre, or free time in French, takes on a special significance. On its cover, the time keeping mechanism from within a clock has been removed from its cage, the pallet and gear designed to ensure the second hand move in precise increments. Freed from this function, time no longer conforms to imposed precision. Each interval can determine its own duration. This simple idea, given extra weight by the strike, is a powerful metaphor for the music itself, and the power of art in general to communicate that which can’t be articulated with words alone.
During the American Civil Rights movement, jazz freed itself of its own chains. Harmony itself became associated with a “European” approach to music, and innovative players began to explore texture and timbre, challenging hierarchical structures and rekindling the communality of early jazz. Free jazz is inherently tied to this historical moment of its creation, and it reflects the confrontations and struggles of its age.
Temps Libre was recorded during the Quebec student movement of 2012. One might expect a record made during a protest to be aggressive, but Temps Libre’s free time is quite the opposite. It is music made during a time in which free time, and free jazz, begin to raise troubling questions, but the music it re-presents the feeling of hopefulness rekindled by 200,000 people taking to the streets.
Drum machines and sequencers have made inhuman precision commonplace in music these days, and the grid has replaced a drummer’s time feel as the predominant means of structuring music. I won’t make a normative claim here regarding which is “better,” but certainly there are different aesthetics at work. Even leaving electronic time keeping aside for the moment, the nature of music as a motion-medium has allowed various composers to produce very different feelings of time in listeners. Stars of the Lid‘s slow moving compositions, or the hyper-sped up blast beats of Napalm Death, force the listeners to consider the compositions on multiple time-scales simultaneously. Set Fire to Flames‘ free form compositions were recorded as a kind of endurance music, channeling a frame of mind entered in after days spent awake.
Other composers have drawn on conceptual means to mine their own histories. Wadada Leo Smith put forth a theorization of music and composition that doesn’t force outside conceptions of time onto his players. Steve Reich, drawing on techniques he learnt in Africa, also eschews some traditional forms of temporal organization. In Music for 18 Musicians the length of a bar is dependent on the breath of the bass clarinetist. The number of repetitions is improvised by the group as a whole, the vibraphonist calling out the changes.
Both Smith and Reich have composed powerful reflections on world historical moments of their youth. Smith’s epic 5+ hour long Ten Freedom Summers about the Civil Rights Movement, and Reich’s Different Trains, about the very different experience of a child riding a train in the USA and in Europe during the Second World War. These pieces are evocative of an historical moment, a narrative, and both are able to conjure a nuanced understanding of the feeling of these times in a way that words alone never could. But they area also both conjuring the past, personal though it was. They were bringing to life their childhoods, during the War and the Civil Rights movement respectively.
Temp Libre is a rather different sort of work. It is a reflection of a movement that was underway. During such an active and well-defined struggle, one may come to wonder what art is for, what it can do. I think the question becomes, why art? What makes this a valid use of our time?
As Stefan Christoff and Brahja Waldman found themselves recording in La Sala Rossa early one morning, they found this use of their own free time to be evocative of something larger. What does it feel like to be on the street knowing that mere hours later it will be filled by activists? It’s something like the tension of an empty stage, an empty bar, an empty dance floor in the hours before the crowd arrives.
Howl Art’s earlier project Duets for Abdelrazik seemed designed to raise awareness of the injustice done to Abdelrazik, but Temps Libre strikes me as being less about raising awareness as transmitting a mood. Stefan recently published a booklet collecting his writing during that period, Le fond de l’air est rouge. Like these writings, the disk seems to be broadcasting from Montreal but aimed at those who weren’t here.
At the time Stefan “was thinking a lot about the relationship between time and jazz as a liberation music, given that jazz originated in the African American experience, a community that was involved in liberation struggles.“ Quebec has its own history of liberation struggles, which though very different allows a kind of sympathy with the struggles of others, a sympathy that has had aesthetic implications on the diverse musics that have emerged from Quebec since the Quiet Revolution.
The casserole is a method of disruptive non-violent protest borrowed from Chileans who used the technique during food shortages under Allende. After the passage of an unconstitutional by-law restricting public assembly and protest, even those who did not support the students’ demands began to protest. Protesting against elected official who are not just out of touch, but corrupt. Protest against the abuse of peaceful students demanding a free education, not out of self-interest but for those who come after, protestors who had the courage to imagine again, to envision a different way of organizing society. From grève illimité to rêve illimité (unlimited strike to unlimited dream). Each night at 8 common citizens of all stripes would take to their balconies banging pots and pans in advance of that night’s rally. Marching through the streets in defiance of the law, often in the rain, banging pots and pans with my community was the only time I felt truly at “home” here in Quebec. It wasn’t just about protest, about one issue. It was about vision, it has about the feeling of being part of something larger, thinking collectively as “we” rather than the “I” we’re so encouraged to identify with (and consume as). “Jazz is free music, expressing a sense of freedom because of the struggle for freedom that was happening in real life,” Stefan explains regarding the music of Temps Libre. “It was reflective of the dreams of that community.”
This context helps in “understanding” the music, but it’s not necessary. The feelings – the weight of choices, the freedom and apprehension, the gentle promises, the hope and risk- are in the music. The internal structure of the music is suggestive as well. Stefan plays a piece, Brajha plays its mirror. Brahja pushes Stefan towards major scales he is less accustomed to playing, an uneasy optimism that isn’t unlike that we all felt during the student strike. This isn’t melancholy, it’s not jubilant, but rather relaxed and content. The musicians are clearly not feeling rushed nor aggressive, never straining or exerting themselves too much, they are content to float around, patiently exploring each new space, enjoying their free time spent together.