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Section 2: The creation of ZAB ou la passion selon st. Nectaire

At the beginning of the 1980s the modernist movement in contemporary music had long been dissolved and was scattered into a multitude of new experiments with form and sound: Open form structures and improvisation, instrumental theatre with its exploration of sound and movement as well as the emerging multicultural post-modern conception which allowed a fuse of musical styles and traditions. The paradigms of the musical modernism and the avant-garde movement made it necessary to rediscover traditional instruments, thus paving the way for sounds previously unheard of. Serialism resulted in an extreme formalisation and individualisation of the four main parameters of music – pitch, duration, volume and attack – and when, after a while, these conventional parameters began to be regarded as fully exploited, composers began looking for new ways to develop their music. Timbre as a musical parameter then established itself as one of the primary elements within new music. In close interaction with the new formal composing techniques, a new generation of virtuosic performers emerged, who aimed to extend their range of techniques and sonorities beyond the realm of traditional techniques and to increase the repertoire of works for their respective instruments. The more specialized and virtuosic performers quickly attracted huge interest from composers who wished to expand their own musical horizons by taking part in the discoveries that were made in the field of playing techniques. Following in the tracks of the scattered avant-garde, and benefiting from a huge accumulation of experience, the 1970s marked the dawn of the true specialist interpreters of contemporary music in Europe. Double bass players like Fernando Grillo and Stefano Scodanibbio in Italy, Jöelle Leandre, Jean-Pierre Robert and Jean-Paul Celea in France and England's Barry Guy collaborated with composers on new works, often introducing new techniques and sounds.

ZAB is an instrumental theatre piece in three movements for solo double bass. The work was completed in 1981 after an extensive collaboration between the composer and bassist Jean-Pierre Robert. The duration of the work is around 25 minutes. Most sonorities in this work still sound new to the listener and the sonic expression bears little resemblance to the traditional classical double bass. It incorporates subtle and aggressive percussive techniques, sounds that arise from specifically notated physical movements, as well as new ways of using traditional techniques and harmonics. The entire instrument is utilized as a source for creating sounds. Boivin employs various notational strategies, on the whole, however, they produce an integrated and complex, yet relatively easily readable score. Traditional notation, graphic notation, vocal notation and several new symbols melt together into a physical, choreographic score. Novel techniques and movements are explored and incorporated in idiomatic ways. The percussive techniques are introduced from the beginning of the work and are played mainly with the fingers. Variations and new combinations of these techniques are used throughout the work.

The strange title, ZAB ou la passion selon st. Nectaire, is explained by the composer in the following way: “’Zab’ is my secret…‘Passion’ is a name for a musical form and religious ceremony (Saint-Mathieu’s Passion of Bach). Very serious of course. ‘Saint-Nectaire’ is really a Saint in the catholic calendar. But it's also the name for a very well known French cheese…! Not serious at all in definitive…!” ZAB is a multifaceted work. The title’s ambiguity and mystery, the frivolous humour and solemn seriousness are transferred to the music. The work is an image of the time surrounding its creation, making avail on the emerging eclecticism and freedom of expression, hallmarks of the postmodern influence in musical composition. ZAB elegantly fuses modern playing techniques and traditional music, sound and movement, music and theatre, structure and intuition, and is a declared self-portrait of a young composer.

The work on ZAB began in July 1981. Boivin had been going through a seemingly fumbling period of scattered musical studies with Bernaud Alain and Max Deutsch. The latter, being an elderly, and very renowned, teacher of composition both at l’École normale supérieure de Paris and the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse de Paris (CNSMDP) who inspired Boivin to follow his own creative ideas about music, to search for a personal expression and not indiscriminately adapt established compositional systems. Boivin lists Andre Riotte and Iannis Xenakis among the other teachers that inspired him the most at the time. Andre Riotte tought him about Xenakis’ system and the modern conceptions of composition. Here he also found lot of inspiration in the lessons on the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer who had developed a concern for acoustic ecology, and the concept of soundscapes, which shares many similarities with the ideas of John Cage. These experiences and discoveries helped him conceive, and formulate, the acoustic environment for ZAB. Boivin describes the profound listening experiences he used to have, where he could, together with a professor friend at the Sorbonne, sit for hours outside, at a lake or in the forest, listening actively and meditatively for the surrounding sounds.

Boivin assisted Xenakis in a couple of courses, and while the theoretical studies on structure and form where mostly too complicated to follow, he recounts that he first and foremost learned courage during these lectures. He discovered the courage to express himself, to take risks and to be free. But he also learned about structure, and discovered the idea for the structural composition of ZAB through an analysis of Xenakis’ piece Nomos Alpha, a work for solo cello from 1966.

The beginning of the 1980s was a bustling time for contemporary music in Paris. IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) opened in 1977 as an innovating institute for science about music and sound. Boivin regards these events, as well as the coinciding rising debates on modernism and post-modernism, as being part of natural continuum from the Second Viennese school and the modernist experiments. Performers like Vinko Globokar and Pierre-Yves Artaud helped shaping the development by putting instrumental and acoustical research of sound on the agenda. IRCAM even opened its own studio devoted to this research (Atelier de Recherche Instrumentale, managed by Vinko Globokar). Where musical structure had long been thoroughly examined, the gates were now opened to the searching of the periphery of musical instruments. When Boivin was taking up the task of writing ZAB he also found a lot of inspiration in the book The Contemporary Contrabass (1974) by American bassist Bertram Turetzky, the first book that looked on the new possibilities of playing the double bass, which followed in the trend of instrumental research.

Most of ZAB was composed in the Pyrenées. For one month, in the beginning of autumn 1981, Boivin had gone for a journey in the mountains, living in solitude and tending sheep. There, he says, charged by the daily routine and imbued with silence, he found the tranquillity to write the piece. But when he returned to Paris and presented the score to Robert, it was rejected at first sight, and Robert disappointingly claimed that it was not the music he had expected. A little later, after a thorough reading of the score, Robert understood and saw the connection to the work that they had done together earlier during the summer. He began practising, and the first (unofficial) performance, before a small group of friends, was given in Paris towards the end of 1981.

Besides Boivin’s academic education and approach, many non-musical elements came into play along the path leading up to ZAB. Apart from the earlier mentioned Cageian listening experiences, Boivin, who often suffered from a certain loneliness, was also affected by spiritual and literary influences, – reading books on religion and philosophy he also picked up some Eastern influences. Boivin calls himself an autodidact, in a sense that he did not really feel at home in the academic world and pursued a very personal approach to composing instead. He vividly remembers how ZAB summarised and reflected his life experience, with no constraints! ZAB became an authentic picture of himself, and a ground breaking piece of art. When the piece was shown to Georges Aperghis he called it the best work of instrumental theatre he had ever seen. Aperghis subsequently programmed the piece at the Festival d’Avignon in the summer of 1982, where it had its first official public performance.