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Jean-Jacques Perrey: At the Reels of the Master

July 10, 2017

“For the beginning, I use a high sound, then it must be a low sound next. The third one must be a medium sound. Then go back to high, so it is not boring.”

This is how the late Jean-Jacques Perrey described his working method when creating the distinctly imaginative rhythmic patterns with tape loops, using sounds he recorded and processed himself.

“I chose whatever sound works best after the previous one,” he continued. “For instance, I would use a soft sound, and then an attacked sound, then another attacked sound, and then a soft sound, almost schematically. But I never prepared the scheme in advance.”

Although well-known for his collaborations with Gershon Kingsley on influential recordings such as The In Sound from Way Out, Perrey’s own Moog Indigo was equally innovative in how it combined his obsessively crafted loops with en vogue electronic instruments such as the Moog synthesizer and the Ondioline (a tube-based monophonic keyboard). Originally released in 1970, Moog Indigo was re-issued earlier this year by Vanguard Records on 180-gram vinyl using the original analog masters.

To really understand Perrey’s virtuosity in the studio, one need only listen to his re-imagining of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee” from Moog Indigo. Not only did he record the bees himself, he spent 50 hours assembling the piece, including tuning the buzzes to the correct melodic pitches—using only a tape machine!

“I changed each note by slowing it down a little bit to get the half tone,” Perrey explained to us in 2007, “and then slowing it down again to get the next half tone. And when I needed a C, or a D, or a D-sharp in the melody, I would select the corresponding tapes and cut them to the proper length, because they had to be cut into mathematically exact lengths. If you don’t do that, the rhythms slow down or speed up.”

The reissue of Moog Indigo also provided us with the opportunity to speak with Patricia Leroy, the composer’s daughter, by phone from her home in Switzerland. Although she didn’t work on this particular album, she did, in fact, work closely with her father many times.

At that time Moog Indigo was made, your father, Jean-Jacques Perrey, was living in the States.

Yes. He lived in the States from 1960 to 1970, until just after the release of this album.

Did you ever help him with tape cutting and splicing?

Yes! I was living in Switzerland with my mother, but I went to his place in New York for the summer school holidays. And during that period, he would spend lots of time in the studio, and I would go with him and help him as much as I could. Splicing a tape into minute bits and putting them together was something that I could do for him. That was from ’65 to ’70. I was from 10 to 15 years old at the time.

What sort of instructions would he give?

He would give me one piece of tape where he had recorded, say, a series of similar sounds. Then, he would give me a ruler and tell me to cut the tape, for example, every half inch or so, and then give me another tape with another kind of sound and tell me to cut the tape, let’s say every inch and a half, and so on and so on, which I would do. And then he would instruct me to use splicing tape to put the bits and pieces together, when it was something very simple, of course.

Most of his loops were very complex, and he would do those himself. But he would give me the simple things and it would save him a little time.

Did you get a chance to hear the results at that point?

Oh, yes, of course! He would then put the results on the recording machine and we would listen to it. It was not actually difficult work, but it took a very, very long time to do. But, of course, the main thing about the loops was his inventiveness; deciding which sounds should go together and how long the silence should be between two bits of tape.

You mentioned that your father was always hearing music in his head or composing. How did he express that to you?

We would have dinner or something and he would say, “Oh!” And I would say, “What?” He would say, “Listen,” and then try to sing what he had in his head, which he managed to do sometimes. But sometimes it was too complex, so he would just write down some notes.

Back in his studio he would remember what he had thought of and he would play it and record it. But it was like that all the time—all the time. Like when I would drive him somewhere, even two or three years ago, it was still like that: He would look out of the window at the scenery and I would see his head moving with the beat in his head and his lips doing “do, do, do, do…” [Laughs.]

He literally was composing or playing his music continuously. So, there must be quite a few things unfinished in the vault, so to speak, of his work.

Apart from the things that were in his head in the last years where he didn’t actually play anymore, I think he pretty much recorded everything he wanted. After that, he was still composing in his head, but he did not necessarily intend to actually record it. It was just, to me, a sign that his brain was purely music. I mean, he would think of almost nothing else.

Was he still performing and lecturing the last couple years?

The last time he did was in 2008. After that he said “No, that’s over now.” He turned 80 and he said “Now, I’m too old. I don’t want to do it anymore.”

He was starting to have memory problems and he would feel ashamed not to find the words, immediately, of what he wanted to say. He preferred to stay discretely away. So, he did not perform, he did not lecture, but there were, fairly regularly, young musicians who wanted to come and visit him, and he would always welcome them. He would speak with them and show them the Ondio-line and how it worked. And they were, of course, fascinated by this instrument. But he didn’t do more than that anymore.

How did he feel about people sampling his work or using it?

He absolutely adored that. He said it was an honor for him that tenured musicians would use his music—although nobody ever asked permission or paid anything, you know? But he said, himself, it was fabulous. It was evidence of people’s appreciation of his music.

When did you first become aware of the fact that your father was a musician?

Rather late, I must admit. Since I had been born into his music, and I was hearing his sounds and his tunes all the time when I was a child, it was quite normal for me. It was only when I was, maybe, a teenager or so when people started telling me that my father was so creative and what a genius he was, etc. that I gradually started to realize that he was not only a genius because he was my father, but also as a musician.

When you were helping him out with tape splicing, what were your feelings at the time?

For me, what was important at that time was to be with my father. Whatever we did was great because he was there. I missed him so much the rest of the year that if he had suggested we go and pick flowers, I would have loved picking flowers. But since I had been surrounded by his music since the beginning of my life, I was probably more sensitive to music than to flowers, so I was particularly happy to be with him in the studio, meeting other musicians and listening to their comments or listening to them working with my father. He hired people to play drums or bass guitar or instruments that he would include in his music.

Do you remember any of the artists that you met at that time?

Well, there was Gershon Kingsley, of course, with whom my father worked. There was Angelo Badalamenti. He and my father were the best friends in the world. Actually, I’m going to visit Angelo next month.

There was Harry Breuer, who was at that time a famous vibraphone player. And, of course, there was the guitar player Vinnie Bell, who did “E.V.A.” with my father.

Which of your father’s tunes is your favorite, or which record? What’s your favorite work of his?

Moog Indigo is probably the most complete album that he did in the sense that, by that time, he had accumulated a lot of experience, he had met lots of other musicians, he had developed his own style, and he had diversified his music a lot. So, with Moog Indigo, he probably was at the highest point in his career. But me personally, I would pick The In Sound from Way Out.

In terms of Jean-Jacques Perrey’s legacy, are his instruments being put in a museum?

The Ondioline is here with me. The Moog synthesizer stayed in New York when he left the U.S. But I’m half thinking of, someday, trying to put up a very, very small museum of Jean-Jacques Perrey, with music scores and the Ondioline, and maybe the posters of his performances and whatever I can find in his archives.

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