I recently participated in a unique music festival in Rochefort, France, called Rochefort en Accords.
The slogan of this small festival in the south of France — the brainchild of French Canadian organiser Pascale Graham and her partner, American cellist Eric Longsworth — is “a festival of the unpredictable and the unexpected”.
And it certainly was — for the participating musicians most of all.
The challenge presented to each of us:
Produce your own show using the other invited musicians, many — or, in my case, all — of whom you have never met or worked with before.
You were expected to work both as the “bandleader” on your own show and as a sideman on other people’s shows.
You were expected to accomplish this in two days, and then perform your show for the city during the Friday and Saturday night concerts.
Whatever kind of musician you thought you were…whatever you may have been used to doing…you were going to be moving out of your comfort zone.
I spent the first day listening to musicians from France, Germany, Japan, America, Argentina, Canada, Madagascar and West Africa, imagining them playing on my music…and imagining myself playing on theirs.
Piano, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, violin, viola, cello, harmonica, electric keyboard, drums, bass, electric guitar, accordion, mandolin and vocals were all available to work with.
Throughout the two rehearsal days I approached musicians, proposed their participation on particular tunes and negotiated time to rehearse with them.
Despite my limited French and most other musicians’ limited English, everything worked out brilliantly.
We simply communicated musically.
I was able to organise and perform ensemble arrangements of “Ladies Night” with cello (Eric Longsworth), violin (Jacky Molard), harmonica (Guy Belanger), drums (Franck Vaillant) and bass (Dia Youba), “Shinkansen” with an improvising vocalist (Mikea), “Rainmaker” with a drummer (Franck Vaillant) playing percussion and full drumset, “Love In The Old Country” with cello (Laura Caronni), clarinet (Gianna Caronni), bass clarinet (Fabrice Barré) and flute (Maïa Barouh), “Night Ride” with blues vocals (Mathis Haug) and saxophone (Daniel Paboeuf), and 40-minute set with an improvising harmonica player (Guy Belanger).
I also worked as a sideman (playing electric rhythm guitar) in two other musicians’ shows.
It was an amazing experience to hear my compositions arranged with other instruments.
I found my rubato ballad “Love In The Old Country” backed by cello, clarinet, bass clarinet and flute especially eye-opening. It seemed to come alive…as if it had been meant to include that instrumentation all along.
What struck me most about this little festival was the incredible atmosphere of openness, enthusiasm and support coming from fellow musicians, and the genuine esprit de corps that had developed by the end.
The ticking clock was everyone’s challenge at Rochefort. There was never enough time before you were going to be on stage performing with someone you had just met. Luckily the staff knew this and were excellent at last-minute and logistical problem-solving.
The brutal timetable forced you to be spontaneous, flexible and open, to create using available personnel and materials, to take risks, to learn quickly from failures and build on successses, and to develop confidence working with other musicians.
I got very little sleep.
It was exhausting, stressful…and extremely fun.
I made new friends and now have a pool of superb international musicians to call upon when I am ready to do an ensemble record next year.
You leave this festival with the feeling of having tested yourself to a
never-before-experienced level…of having been appreciated by a community of peers for what you do…and of having become a better musician — and person perhaps? — for having navigated its demands.
When I think about it now, I smile.
It was a gift.