A Sound Without a Source
Ghédalia Tazartès undermined any assumptions of origins, creating music, and living a life, proper to his diasporic condition.
A voice calls out from nowhere, its long, wordless phrases broken into discrete units not by any convention of language but by quick cuts in the recording. Then comes a whirling chorus; mechanical repetition and low fidelity suggest that what we are hearing is a looped tape. Perhaps the first vocal was looped, too. No time to ponder. More voices join in, childlike but aggressive, likewise looped and careening slowly out of phase. The assembled group of singers, live and/or manufactured, flowing and/or clipping, intone over each other for almost nine minutes. This, in toto, is the opening track of Diasporas (1979), the first album by Ghédalia Tazartès, a French musician of Greek Jewish ancestry who passed away one year ago at the age of 73. Tazartès left behind a rich if inscrutable catalogue of recordings that betray the personal and creative impact of his debut’s titular concept—some two dozen albums’ worth of musical bricolage, by turns violent and serene, modern and archaic, hermetic and aching for communion. From Diasporas through Gospel et la râteau, an album of his final recordings released last month, Tazartès undermined any assumptions of origins, creating music, and living a life, proper to his diasporic condition.
Born in Paris, in 1947, Tazartès emerged in the mid-1970s as a singular and somewhat divisive fixture in the French musical avant-garde. Known for his eccentric vocals, he had begun singing as a boy. His parents were secular Jews, modern in sensibility, who introduced their son to American jazz as well as classical composers like Beethoven. Tazartès’s mother moonlighted for a time as a nightclub singer and, with his father, operated a clothing shop. His father’s family had come to Paris from Salonica (Thessaloniki) via Istanbul in the 1930s. The events of World War II devastated the Jewish populations of both their old and new home; Tazartès’s father was imprisoned at Auschwitz, survived, and returned to Paris not long before Ghédalia was born. The young Tazartès seems to have assumed a vexed relationship to heritage, something he would go on to work out, however incidentally, through the sound, text, and language of his music. “When my grandmother died, I went to the woods and began to sing,” Tazartès recalled in an interview with Electronic Beats. They had long faced barriers to communication. She, a Salonican Jew, spoke Ladino but hesitated to use it around the young Ghédalia, hoping rather to exorcize the language—and the painful histories encoded within it—from the family lexicon. Unable to understand her, “I invented my own language,” Tazartès said. “She had her language, and I had mine.” From then on, he often sang in a made-up dialect, a shifting array of pseudo-words which, like instrumental music, expressed meaning only through connotation. If this sounds isolating, for Tazartès it offered a means of cross-cultural, indeed cross-dimensional, connection. “I was singing for myself,” he thought, “for God.” Perhaps his grandmother could hear him, too.
Tazartès’s music often took shape like the opening of Diasporas—as a cascading wall of noises largely derived from his own pliable diaphragm. Often recording alone, Tazartès sang into a tape machine for hours on end and then cut the results down to size: glossolalia rendered semi-coherent by technical means. Track two of the album opens with a resonant hum, foghorn-esque, likely produced by his body. In comes another avatar of Tazartès, at a higher pitch, voice about to crack. As the album unfolds, so does his oral toolkit: grunts, yelps, and chants support quasi-melodic “singing,” bolstered on occasion by sampled audio, from outside noise to children’s voices, sometimes a musical instrument. The techniques and technologies that he deployed changed over time, as he also began to play with other musicians, but his nimble voice and the dense, peculiar compositions structured around it remained the hallmark of his sound. Tazartès termed this approach “impromuz,” a portmanteau of “improvised music.” A fragmented sound, it suggests, too, a split identity—part man, part machine. (Not for nothing, Tazartès performed early on as a one-man “band,” Ghédal et son Double—in English, Ghédal and His Double).
If a sense of loss, personal and historical, laid the foundation for his musical practice, Diasporas sounds at times like an attempt to mend the broken fragments of this ancestral past. Tazartès cobbled bits of Spanish, Arabic, and Greek music together, his vibrant non-language—belonging at once to everyone and no one—acting as the glue. Amid the sonic torrents, one might pick out a Turkish mode or a hint of rebetiko, the Greek folk style made famous by Jewish singer Roza Eskanazi. The most accessible song on Diasporas, “Casimodo Tango” (which apparently garnered some radio play in Paris), approximates tango and riffs on The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Here, Tazartès replaces his invented tongue with French, the language of his everyday experience. Another song, “Reviens” (“Come Back”), bears the mournful character of its French title, but the music remains adrift. At least three registers of Tazartès’s voice intone without melody, harmony, or synchrony—ungrounded. To where, then, should the song’s recipient “come back”? If Tazartès operated in a reparative mode at times, his music simultaneously seems to explode the past, throwing its bits into a sonic maelstrom: a dialectic of construction and destruction.
In different ways, then, remnants of Tazartès’s story trickled into music. Traces of jazz mingled with Sephardic chants, the disparate elements at times complementary, at others clashing. The dynamic is common to those whose ancestors followed circuitous, often forced, routes. “For children of immigrants, details from their parents’ other lived locations are precarious things,” the scholar Alexandra Vazquez writes in Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music. These personalized details “are often all that is left behind from a near past,” she adds. “They remind us that that place is always partial, that we will never have a fullness of a past picture or sound.” To listen in detail, is to “assemble that inherited lived matter that is both foreign and somehow familiar into something new.” If Vazquez highlights listening, her concept might also apply doubly to recording. Tazartès was nothing if not his own best listener, meticulously editing impromuz transmissions into his final days. His recent, final album begins with a moody, skittering instrumental; the rest trades, for the most part, in semi-formed songs, full-bodied vocal runs, heavy electric guitars, processed percussion, and the occasional hum of Mediterranean strings. The mix, as ever, realizes a slippage between near past and present. One moment, the terms sound incommensurable; the next, one understands the former to be immanent within the latter.
Tazartès began to record his songs in his Paris apartment in his twenties, while working in factories and participating in the revolutionary activities of 1968; his interests, by that point, had grown to include rock and roll and avant-garde jazz. But his “break,” so to speak, came in the mid-70s within the world of the French-born experimental music tendency, musique concrète. Developed, in the 1940s, by Pierre Schaefer, musique concrète comprises “non-musical sounds”—often borne from field recordings, sampled instruments or phonographs, or electronic noise machines—compiled and then altered by hand or with technological devices. Untethered to conventional harmonies or instrumental timbres, the noises produced were, in Schaeffer’s word, “acousmatic”: “a sound that one hears without seeing what causes it.” Separated from a visible source, each sound attains meaning in itself; listeners, unconditioned by visual stimuli, apprehend it as a “concrete” object of sorts that comingles, on record as in the world, with other objects.
The perceived dislocation of sound from source derives, in part, from sound’s presentation as a commodity: “an elaborate commercial and cultural project,” as scholar Jonathan Sterne writes in The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. To sell phonographs around 1900, Sterne notes, salespeople suggested that the device was magic—that it spoke with its own voice rather than a human’s. An attempt to mystify the product’s origins, suggesting that its effects appeared from nowhere, this logic animated capitalism and colonialism writ large in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as their proprietors violently uprooted sounds, things, and people. Tazartès’s quasi-“concrete” music can signify, even reproduce, this violence, with his penchant for dissonant noise, the rough grain of a tape, the tinny compression of his later digital recordings. At the same time, these material qualities suggest resistance to the mystifying logic, an admission to the listener of the recording’s contingency. (If his albums, by definition, became commodities, it’s worth noting that they never threatened to top the charts.)
In 1976, invited by future collaborator Michel Chion, Tazartès performed a pivotal concert at INA-GRM, musique concrète’s chief institutional supporter. The event set him on course to be a recognized member of the French avant-garde, but his idiosyncrasies often kept him at a distance from these would-be peers. He arrived late to the scene, which emerged around the time of his birth; even more to the point, his relatively direct use of voice contrasted with the apparently disembodied sonic manipulations of composers like François Bayle (who harshly criticized Tazartès’s 1976 INA-GRM performance). But, supported by other prominent figures like Chion, Tazartès’s work fulfilled the acousmatic promise in its own way. Recall the opening track of Diasporas: the difficulty of discerning who’s singing, whether the voice is looped or live, if the melody is Western, Eastern, not a melody at all—a sound without a (clear) source. For Tazartès, we might say, the relationship between sound and source materializes as an ongoing process, not total severance. Caught up in the flow of his songs are all manner of false and recurrent starts—origins multiplied in both form and historical connotation. Voices and aural ephemera emerge from all over. Echoes of an Ottoman folk song never last long, nor do they take precedence over metallic clatters. Sounds coded to Western ears as pre-modern—i.e., non-Western or religious sounds—percolate into a modern, secular soundscape, albeit one full of vocalized winks and nods, deliberate flameouts and frustrations. His singing—always multiple, split across channels—never quite comes together on tape. The phonic cuts make audible a continual process of displacement: the voice from the body, the body from the site of recording, the site of recording from history.
For long stretches, Tazartès tended to pigeons in his Paris apartment. “You don’t have to contain them,” he told Electronic Beats, “they can be free to come and go as they like.” Pigeon-like himself, he came and went at will, collaborating with musicians, dancers, and theater directors in Europe and Asia to broaden his approach (he only once performed in the US, in 2016). But Tazartès ended up, always, back where he came from. “I am really French,” he once said, “despite my name as a Salonican Jew.” Like his parents, and unlike many Salonican contemporaries, he resisted the call of Zionism (or a return to Greece), remaining committed to France. Still, he seems to have perceived a sort of dissonance between his longtime home and that of his ancestors. In a separate interview, he noted that he sang in French “rarely—always with humor, like a joke.” He used the language more often on later recordings, but, even then, his French was either delivered in a somewhat distended, mocking tone, as on “Le crapeau,” from Gospel et la râteau, or it came borrowed, as on a short 2006 album that drew its lyrics from Rimbaud and Verlaine. Invested in French modernist traditions, from symbolism to surrealism, Tazartès seemed to channel the poets’ words as if automatically, as if they were intrinsic to his personal history—part lived, part imagined. His fractured, sing-songy delivery at once acknowledges the influence of these texts and casts a playful, suspicious ear on their power of interpolation. If he uses French “like a joke,” one imagines in this case, as in the earlier tango, that the humor lies in a sort of failure: that French, a vector of his assimilation—not to mention modernist hegemony—would never quite comprehend the diasporic history that suffused his sound.
Analog or digital, French or fanciful, quasi-structured or wholly formless, Tazartès’s music made audible what Edgar Morin, a French Salonican Jew, termed “multi-rootedness”—in short, a “dialogue” with “uncertainty, unpredictability, randomness, disorder, antagonism.” Each loop, each cut, suggests at once the singularity of its sound and the impossibility of singularity. Backed, often, by a veil of noise, these cuts figure the space between words or voices as a gash, and it was Tazartès’s project to chart these gashes, to make them sing in their own peculiar way. Indeed, these are open, permeable edges, not fixed barriers. In view of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tazartès named an album—a suite of lengthy, synthesizer-abetted musical nightmares—Check Point Charlie (1989), as if to mark the policing of borders since World War II, sure to continue in perpetuity. Counter to such policing, whether real or symbolic, political or cultural, Tazartès went on wandering undeterred, trying music every which way—across languages, places, sonic dimensions. It remained his hope, as after his grandmother died, that his voice might reach across to the other side. No doubt it comes to us, powerfully, from there now.
Joe Bucciero is a writer from Chicago, based in Brooklyn. He has contributed to publications such as The Nation, Jewish Currents, and Artforum, and is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Art & Archaeology at Princeton University.