Private Transportations

Ghédalia Tazartès, collector of glass figurines, surrealist of sound and lifelong Parisian, sang in a private language and recorded his albums in a small atelier in the 11th Arrondissement, many in the company of domesticated pigeons. He often said that his life as a musician began at the age of twelve, when his grandmother died. The story goes that Tazartès went into the woods, dug a hole, and then sang so loudly that the ducks on the lake began to shake. He and his music continued in this vein until his death in February at the age of 73, after years of fighting both lung and liver cancer.

Depending on when you asked him, Tazartès said that his instrument was his voice, the tape deck, or a microphone. His first album, Diasporas, was released in 1979 on the Cobalt label founded by Philippe Conrath, a journalist with Libération. ‘My wife worked with him at Phydor, a biscuit factory’, Conrath told me. ‘He would sing while he was loading the cookies onto a truck. I knew he was singing something very, very, very, very strange’. As with everything he did for Cobalt, Tazartès recorded the music at home on a Revox reel-to-reel and delivered a complete album to Conrath. It begins in media res, Tazartès ululating in benevolent code, the tape collage making a dirty trampoline for his voice. The eleven tracks sound as if Tazartès had spent years watching cities from a train, landed in prison, and then decided to create a guidebook from memory, screaming about each city, one after the other, from his cell.

His second album, Tazartès Transports (1980), took this sound further. He collaborated with Jean-Pierre Lentin, editor of the counter-cultural magazine Actuel, who wrote a series of fake ethnographic texts describing the music of invented regions. ‘Each track had a particular function, to chase away birds for hunters, or something’, Tazartès explained. This gives the impression that the record might resemble something like CAN’s ‘Ethnological Forgery Series’, a collection of songs that does live up to that name. But, despite the origin story, Tazartès Transports does not sound like the music of another country. The album comes across as exactly what it is: a sui generis performer with no musical training, improvising on a Moog synthesizer and pushing the world in his head out through his mouth.

When Tazartès uses a language we recognise, it feels like a clue. On the first Tazartès Transports track (numbered but not named), he sings in French with his throat constricted. It is squeaky, as if the tape has been sped up slightly, his voice put over a timid synthetic rhythm. Translated into English, his plea ends like this: ‘It’s no small matter to give birth to lots of little cockroaches / Who will go about their business and won’t be cited in history / At least they won’t have fought any wars, it would be cruel to resent them for it’. This music seems like it might have fallen, after some half-hearted redacting, out of a bureaucratic satchel, a samizdat manifesto with an audience of zero.

Tazartès’s labels sometimes felt like this about his commercial potential. My favourite of his albums, une éclipse totale de soleil, came out in 1983 on Cobalt. It has not softened over time. Singing and tape edits create an immersive bad trip over the course of two very long tracks, birdsong and rhythmic pips jump cutting to fried pulses and vorpal growls. The topic and mood are so impossible to determine that one can only listen, obediently, hoping to answer the only real Tazartès question: What is this? Cobalt’s American distributor, Celluloid, did not care what it was, and refused to put out the record unless Tazartès waived his fee.

When I found une éclipse in 1987, I was entranced. I assumed ‘Ghédalia Tazartès’ must be the name of a collective. The only image on the sleeve was of a smiling toddler sitting next to a boat. (It’s a photo of Raphaël Glucksmann, now a member of the European Parliament.) My first thought was that the Tazartès Collective had kidnapped the baby as some kind of anti-imperialist gesture. That this is as far from Tazartès’s character as possible does not negate the fact that the music was intense enough to suggest a kidnapping was not out of the question.

On the basis of these first three albums alone, Tazartès deserves a comfortably elevated place among the sound artists of the 20th century. Like Meredith Monk and David Hammons, Tazartès was a hybrid artist living at the world. In the same way that Monk is a dancer equally skilled as a composer, and Hammons makes beautiful objects while questioning the need for objects, Tazartès was a spontaneous musician with a fine compositional sense, who made furious and compact recordings that give lie to the assumption that improvisers are experimenting rather than stating.

He was born in Paris in May of 1947 and got his first name from his grandfather, ‘born in the Ottoman Empire’, in Tazartès’s words. More specifically, he was from Salonika in Greece, a city which Tazartès said ‘was almost entirely Jewish, 80%, like Warsaw at one time’. After moving to Istanbul and having children, Tazartès’s grandfather relocated to Paris in the early Thirties, apparently for medical treatment. In 1933, at the age of fourteen, Tazartès’s father started working to help support the family. He was imprisoned at Auschwitz during the war but survived and returned to Paris where he worked in various shops. Using the stage name Betty Riche, Tazartès’s mother sang in clubs briefly, before leaving the stage to work with her husband in a clothing shop.

His family’s path has led to Tazartès being described as an inherently diasporic figure, a characterization that the music supports. But it isn’t quite accurate. ‘I am really French, despite my name as a Salonician Jew’, Tazartès said. ‘It bothers me a little when they say that I am something other than French because it is not true. I do not like lying very much, it is useless – it is not my style’.

Tazartès was not only a Parisian but someone whose life revolved mostly around three places: a bar called the Baron Rouge, a flea market called Marché d’Aligre where he found most of his clothes and glass gewgaws, and his beloved atelier, the loft on the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Antoine that he found in 1968.When the building started selling off apartments in the early Seventies, Tazartès was strapped, so his friend, André Glucksmann – philosopher and father of Raphaël – bought the atelier for him. He lived there, at least part of the time, for the last fifty years. ‘I have some kind of superstition about this place’, he told The Wire in 2008. ‘Without it, I don’t know if I am a musician’.

Tazartès fell in love with Beethoven and jazz as a teen but was unable to stick with either piano or saxophone. Though he never travelled in any specific musical cohort, his ex-wife, Nathalie Richard, recalled that he was a devoted fan of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane. Around the events of May 1968, Tazartès decided that he was a revolutionary and, in his words, ‘a bigmouth’. After working in the Phydor and General Motors plants, Tazartès started attending lectures at the Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis. As his daughter, Elie, described him, Tazartès was very much ‘in the present’ and participated in May ‘68 largely because that was the most intense present available. In the early Seventies, he became, briefly, the singer of a rock band but the arrangement ended when he was asked to sing in English. Tazartès refused and walked away, permanently, from normative music, deciding to observe his own militancy of sound.

In l’atelier, as everyone called it, Tazartès began experimenting with a tape deck and a microphone, creating collages he called ‘impromuz’, sharing the results with a few close friends. One of these tapes reached Michel Chion, a composer of musique concrete – a style of composition that builds from recorded sounds rather than performances – with whom friends thought Tazartès shared some commonalities.

In 1976, Chion invited Tazartès to play a concert at the INA-GRM institute, musique concrete’s high church. The event, though, earned him an instant enemy in GRM chief François Bayle, who allegedly asked his colleagues during the show, ‘How can you all listen to this shit?’ This resentment aside, his entry into the public went well enough that Tazartès found the confidence to make a go of it with Conrath and Cobalt. Chion is actually part of Diasporas, heard on a fairly traditional track that isn’t representative of either artist’s general style. On ‘Casimodo Tango’, Chion plays both piano and toy piano while Tazartès croons the part of Quasimodo, singing in French about a leap from the top of Notre Dame and his love for Paris. According to Tazartès, he improvised the lyrics while riding his motorcycle around Notre Dame. According to Chion, it was played on the FIP radio station in Paris.

This was the closest Tazartès ever came to a hit. What little income he earned came not from records or live shows, but from the work he did with dancers and theatre directors. François Verret was one of the first dance artists Tazartès worked with, and their first collaboration in 1978 was an accompaniment for a routine which Verret performed with his ‘face plastered in clay, in a dress made of rags’. (Though they never discussed it, Verret said he made the piece while thinking of refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge by sea.) For the rest of his career, dance and theatre kept Tazartès afloat, including some fairly mainstream work with Philippe Adrien at the Comédie Française.

Richard gave birth to their daughter, Elie, in 1985, and Tazartès began splitting his time between the atelier and their nearby apartment. He slowed his recorded output and didn’t release anything for seven years after his 1990 album, Check Point Charlie. At home, with Elie, he created a language called ‘jhama’, a variation of the dialect he used for singing. ‘It’s a kind of emotional conversation’, Elie told me. ‘It relates to his family’, Richard said, ‘because the grandmother, she was talking Greek, and the parents were Ladino, and then they never talked in Ladino with Ghédalia, so he invented his own language.’

Tazartès had moved away from dance and was working more in theatre. ‘After 12 years working with modern dance, I felt there was nothing more to say with it’, he said. ‘I was interested in theatre, because there, you have text and you can discuss the subject with the director’. He came back to recordings in 1997 when a musician named David Fenech asked him to make an album for his new label, Demosaurus, created for the occasion. ‘He gave me three C90 tapes from which I picked a coherent set of tracks’, Fenech told me. These selections became the album Voyage à l’Ombre (1997).

As Fenech pointed out, the cassettes Tazartès gave him also contained tracks that showed up on later albums like Granny Awards (get it?) and Repas Froid (another joke). This cassette was drawn from the recordings Tazartès made over the years in his atelier, a collection only now being sifted through. In the last two decades of recordings, Tazartès was moving closer to a kind of universal melody, though without attempting to be more accessible. The jump cuts and dirty sounds had been abandoned and a new kind of approach was taking hold. Tazartès began sticking to a single mode for the length of the track without interruption, even if it was just an unidentified opera singer and Tazartès gargling above a rumbly synth pattern. Tazartès started playing bandoneon more and working with Tibetan bowls to create his drones. He began, essentially, trusting his own sound and interfering with it less.

In the 21st century, Tazartès returned to live performing, reaching New York once to play Issue Project Room in 2016, Cafe Oto in London that same year. Though he never quite cottoned on to computers and went to an iPad only to return emails, Tazartès upgraded his equipment, moving to a sampler which he loaded with pre-recorded sound libraries. From here, he would burn CDRs of his creations. On the 2010 album, Ante-Mortem, Tazartès has become the ghost of his own machine, singing over stock string sounds, much clearer but also more uncanny than in his 1970s recordings. On ‘Seize’, he sounds as he often did, like a court jester larking about over some kind of cheap organ sound. On ‘Dix-Sept’, he seems to be chanting over a destroyed guitar drone, his two voices sounding like lost plainchant. How firmly he avoids anything identifiable begins to support his claim that he was a sound painter, and maybe not even a musician, a term he found pretentious.

Over his life, Tazartès created a small network that understood his thinking. At the Baron Rouge, he met an employee named Quentin Rollet who became a collaborator and ended up releasing some of his records. Together with Jerome Lorichon, Rollet and Tazartès played an improvised set at Église Saint-Merry in 2019, the recording of which has just now been released as La Chute de L’Ange. Tazartès played Tibetan bowl and small bells, Lorichon a Buchla synthesizer, electronic effects and a trumpet, Rollet alto and sopranino saxes. The concert proves that Tazartès was something he rarely described himself as – an improviser, though he often called his music ‘spontaneous’. The three musicians build a mesmerizing and dead serious meditation. For someone who always seemed to be playing a cosmic prank on the world, this recording demonstrates his sensitivity and how fully he could blend his work into that of others.

As his catalogue of unreleased recordings reaches the public in the coming years, comic and spiritual sides will hopefully receive equal attention. His tendencies towards the vulgar ensured that the musique concrète hardliners would never accept him. (For the 2015 album, La Bar Mitzvah du Chien, Tazartès demanded that Rollet appear naked, on all fours, for the album cover.) What remains is a lifeforce that shreds any container.

He was accompanied in his final days by his partner, Dominique Abensour, and his friend Goury Deco, a set designer. ‘The last music he made me listen to, a few days before he died, was a montage around a text by Artaud, pure Ghédalia, sensitive and angry’, Deco wrote to me. ‘Ten minutes non-stop of an acidic and guttural text, almost without taking a breath. I asked, “How did you do that, in multiple takes? We can’t hear you breathing!”’

‘“No,” he replied. “Just like that all at once, here, in one evening. Afterwards, I thought I had to do it again a few times, to get a handle on it, but no! The first take was the best.”’

Special thanks to Meerabelle Jesuthasan for the translations.

Read on: Eric Hazan, ‘Faces of Paris’, NLR 62.