Richard Pinhas on lessons learned during a lifetime making experimental music


Richard Pinhas. (Patrick Jelin/Patrick Jelin)
May 29

For experimental-music aficionados, it’s hard to imagine a world without Richard Pinhas. The French-born guitarist and composer has been a fixture in the international underground for four decades.

But there was a time when Pinhas, now 63, thought he was done with music. “In the early 1980s, I was at the point where I had nothing else to say. I was just repeating myself,” he says by phone from Montreal. “I didn’t think I’d come back, because after years away it’s very hard to return, both to playing your instrument and to the circuit.”

Pinhas did come back near the end of the ’80s, spurred by Steve Feigenbaum of Cuneiform Records, the Silver Spring-based experimental label. Cuneiform has released the majority of his music since, including two new albums: “Welcome in the Void,” recorded with Japanese drummer Yoshida Tatsuya, and “Tikkun,” featuring Australian multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi. On Sunday, Pinhas celebrates those releases with a show at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center in Silver Spring.

Pinhas makes his living through his art, but when asked how he has survived as a full-time experimental musician, he bristles at the notion of “surviving.”

“Being a musician is to live, not to survive,” he says. “Surviving is going to work every day and giving up your liberty and your time. When you do music, it’s a free life.”

Here are some lessons Pinhas says he has learned during his life in experimental music.

1. Play every day

For Pinhas, playing guitar is a necessity, even a form of therapy. “I play at least two hours every day,” he says. “I can be very anxious, so getting my guitar and playing, it cools me.” That discipline helped Pinhas create “Welcome in the Void,” a piece he worked on for months, improvising and adding parts until a fully shaped composition emerged.

“I finally left it alone, and six months later I woke up and thought, ‘I need a drummer on this track,’ ” he recalls. “And I realized I didn’t just need a drummer, but I needed Yoshida Tatsuya.” Best known for his work with noise-punk duo Ruins, Tatsua crafts a heavy, open-ended rhythm that adds thrust to soundscapes created by Pinhas.

2. Let the music take its time

“Welcome in the Void” contains two tracks, one lasting four minutes and the other more than an hour. Pinhas takes these durations seriously: He has spoken frequently about his philosophy concerning the relationship between time and music. (He holds a PhD in philosophy from the Sorbonne, where he studied with influential thinker Gilles Deleuze.)

According to Pinhas, the length of each piece is up to the piece itself. “Each one has its own internal length, its own clock,” he explains. “So if a piece is two minutes, it has to be two minutes; if it’s one hour, it has to be one hour. ‘Welcome in the Void’ had to be as long as it is. After months and months of hearing it, I have no doubt about this.”

3. Forget about technique

Tatsuya’s considerable drum chops are evident on “Welcome in the Void,” and Pinhas often plays with technically proficient musicians. But when it comes to his own playing, he insists that “I don’t give a s--- about technique.

“If you only have technique and not the little miracles that make your music happen, you can have 10 PhDs in music, but you will never make real music,” he says. “Of course, sometimes you need technique to do what you want to do with your ideas. But it’s never the point.”

4. Don’t dwell on the past

Pinhas has a long musical history: He began playing in France in the 1970s with the pioneering prog-rock group Heldon, whose influence is something Pinhas still hears about frequently from fellow musicians. Yet Pinhas claims he never listens to his previous releases.

“It’s not that I don’t like them; it’s more like they don’t belong to me now,” he says. “When I did them, I was happy about them, but I’m not tuned to the past. I’m tuned to the present, and more so to the future.”

5. Surround yourself with great musicians

“The best part of music is finding people you can get by with,” Pinhas says. He has spent most of his career collaborating with like-minded musicians. Early on, he played with members of French prog-rock innovators Magma and with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. His list of current partners includes Japanese noise legend Merzbow, Norwegian experimentalist Lasse Marhaug and American industrial howlers Wolf Eyes.

“Music is one thing where age doesn’t count, race doesn’t count, religion doesn’t count. Nothing counts except the music,” Pinhas says. “When I find a musician I like, I want to know him, spend time with him and hear something that makes me think.” That extends to his family: Pinhas’s son Duncan Nilsson has played with him several times and appears in “Tikkun.”

6. Don’t be afraid of politics

There are no words in Pinhas’s compositions, but that doesn’t keep him from expressing political ideas in his music. “Music is a kind of politics itself,” he says. “You can change people through music.” “Welcome in the Void” is the second part of his “Devolution” trilogy on “the historical political effect of machines,” and he considers it “a cry to revolt against slavery.” The title “Tikkun” is taken from a kabbalah phrase that’s Hebrew for “repairing the world.” “I don’t believe in God,” Pinhas says. “But reparations seem very good and necessary for the kind of society that we currently live in.”

7. Focus on the positive

Pinhas is relentlessly positive and continually expresses appreciation for how his career has developed. Pressed to cite disadvantages, he acknowledges that all the travel can be tedious and, for someone who hasn’t worked with a band for decades, lonely.

“But to play is a fantastic thing,” he says, quickly pivoting back to the bright side. “When you have a good concert, it puts you in another planet. It’s like a drug, to be onstage.” In fact, even discussing why he does it seems redundant to him. “It’s my job; I don’t know what else to do,” he says. “I don’t think I have a choice, and I am happy about that. So until I can’t do it, I will do it.”

Masters is a freelance writer. Pinhas will perform on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, 8230 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring.

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