Philippe Geiss - French Crossover Saxophonist - 05
About Philippe Geiss
A musician of international repute, French saxophonist and composer Philippe Geiss has given concerts and masterclasses all over the world. Excelling in diverse disciplines, he has mastered a repertoire that extends from classical to improvised music. He is in great demand as a composer, with a catalogue ranging from solo pieces to symphonic repertoire. He is published by Billaudot, Robert Martin and Leduc.
Philippe is Professor at the Strasbourg Conservatory and the Strasbourg Superior Music Academy / Haute École des Arts du Rhin, as well as a guest professor at the Senzoku Gakuen College of Tokyo. He is a member of the scientific committee of LabEx-GREAM at Strasbourg University. Philippe Geiss is a valued member of the International Saxophone Committee, in which role he masterminded the artistic direction of SaxOpen – the 17th Congress and World Festival of the Saxophone – in Strasbourg in 2015.
I was first was introduced to Philippe at the World Saxophone Congress in Bangkok, Thailand in 2009. When I heard him play, I was impressed by his seemingly effortless ability to change musical style as well as his mastery of the extreme saxophones including sopranino and bass. My own experience with sopranino was that it was a wonderful instrument for finding the cracks between the 12 semitones. Philippe’s playing convinced me otherwise and he introduced me to the expressive and haunting quality of the instrument. Later we organised an exchange so that I spent some time in Strasbourg with Philippe and his students. While I was there he was able to give me some constructive guidance on a new piece I was writing and he introduced me to the exquisite Alsace wine. Later that year in the spirit of a beautiful collaboration, Philippe came to the clarinet and saxophone festival I was involved with and introduced Australia to his engaging stage presence and wonderful music.
- I wanted to play the trombone and my mother bought a saxophone.
- In France, we learn the saxophone from age 6.
- Kids should have fun practising and learn something at the same time.
- We need to find some way to have people motivated to keep practising.
- I remember the very boring mechanical exercises.
- I saw my teacher’s 12 copy-paste students.
- Ivan Roth, had fun playing jazz.
- Jerry Bergonzi called me crazy.
- My last teacher was Jean-Marie Londeix
- You learn to master your body, your mind and your stress.
- I spent a few weeks really working hard at a restaurant, and after that, I decided to stay with the saxophone.
- You have to decide what you will practise because you do not have enough time.
- Taking care of my body.
- Some people play better when they read, some other people play better when they memorise.
- Tips on coming back from a jazz embouchure to a classical embouchure.
- Five years with Zulu musicians from South Africa.
- Learning and studying traditional music from different countries.
- Travelling makes you understand that we are really on a small planet.
- You have to learn to listen, to sample, and to respect different origins and traditions.
- For a long period time, I didn’t think about my career.
- Doing around 250 concerts each year.
- The first thing about improvisation, especially teaching improvisation, is don’t say improvisation.
- Things worked well because I learned to trust my colleagues.
- Open your mind to different cultures and don’t only practise your saxophone.
Links from the Show
- Philippe’s Website | Philippe on Facebook
- Daniel Deffayet
- Ivan Roth
- Jerry Bergonzi
- Jean-Marie Londeix
- Nicholas Prost
- Christian Wirth
- Christian Lauba
- Jean-François Zygel
- Paris Conservatory
- Thomas Pesquet
- Masahiro Maeda
- Mi-Bémol Ensemble
- World Saxophone Congress 2015
- International Saxophone Committee
- Strasbourg Conservatory
- Lars Mlekusch
- Branford Marsalis
- The World Sax Alliance – coming soon…
Philippe Geiss - Crossover French Saxophonist
Barry Cockcroft: So a really good place to start is perhaps you could tell us how you got started with the saxophone.
Philippe Geiss: I got started when I was seven. I started in French music school with solfege, and really wanted to play an instrument after one year of solfege. One day I decided to take my mother to the music shop. I decided that day I wanted to have an instrument, and I wanted to play the trombone. But they had no trombones in the music shop and I said, no problem. I will choose something close to the trombone, and then I really worked very hard, and my mother bought a saxophone for me. That was the start.
Barry Cockcroft: So seven is, well, in my experience, very young.
Philippe Geiss: Yeah, but you know actually in France we start saxophone at six.
Barry Cockcroft: Wow.
Philippe Geiss: In conservatory. And we have more and more special methods for really young beginners now.
Barry Cockcroft: Just like for other instruments?
Philippe Geiss: Yes. Yeah, and also we have small hands instruments. That’s something new. When I started it was funny because I also have the double octave key because I have a kind of old, handmade saxophone model because my parents didn’t have enough money to buy me a really expensive instrument, and then the start was difficult. After a few years, I remember that I got a new real professional saxophone, that was an S1 from Buffet. And for me that was a dream – it was like a Ferrari! Some years ago I switched to Selmer.
Barry Cockcroft: When you say you started with solfege, does that mean before playing an instrument you have to study the theory?
Philippe Geiss: Yes, you have to learn how to read the notes, you have ear training, you sing, but you don’t practice an instrument. You just have a very small glockenspiel. I remember that my feeling was that I wanted to play some music, and I was really in a kind of hurry. I wanted to play, and I was very happy when I finally got my saxophone, which was not a trombone.
Barry Cockcroft: Would you have any advice for a kid starting out on the saxophone? Is there one thing that is really important to you as a beginner?
Philippe Geiss: Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy, and of course for a kid that’s very difficult, but the routine is very important. The kids like that in a way and they hate that in another way. I think we need especially good teachers, good books, and also use new technology sometimes to help kids to have fun to practise and to make them really play some music. I’m actually writing a book for young beginners, six years old. I really think about that, how they could have fun to practise and learn something at the same time.
Barry Cockcroft: That sounds different to some of the traditional French books I’ve seen. When I was a student I remember the Klosé book and these huge books, and on page three you’re already playing almost a concerto. The books were difficult and there were mechanical exercises that were incredibly boring. And I’d be surprised if anyone got to page three before just giving up.
Philippe Geiss: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: So is this a new direction in French pedagogy that there’s perhaps some consideration taken to the enjoyment and the motivation of the students?
Philippe Geiss: I think it really depends on each conservatory. But also in France now we have some new programmes. One is called, for example, Demos. Demos is bringing music to an area where there are no music schools. It helps people who don’t practise music and don’t listen to music to discover what an orchestra is, what an instrument is, how to practise and so on. We need to find some way to bring and keep people motivated to keep practising. At the same time for me, there’s always this big question about what will be in the future, the publishing. What we keep on paper, what we will keep on a tablet and what will we keep on the keyboard.
We start to use YouTube because in some jazz or pop music we have a lot of tutorials, especially for how to do things. But in conservatory, we don’t do that, and in this book project for young beginners, the idea is to have each lesson on YouTube. There’s a private channel that you put a code into access and later they could have some support also to practise or just to remember how to put the reed on the saxophone, because for a kid sometimes that’s very difficult.
Then we think about many tools to have a good balance between fun and practising. I remember the very boring mechanical exercises.
Barry Cockcroft: Now during your time as a student you must have learned with some different teachers?
Philippe Geiss: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: Looking back now, did you see some different teaching styles, and could you perhaps describe some of the things that you came across as you moved from teacher to teacher?
Philippe Geiss: There are different things. Of course, you realise, very late, unfortunately. But I remember my first teacher was a non-famous teacher in a small city called Belfort, but this teacher was really quite good because many of his students make nice careers. That’s a good sign. And he was in a way very classical, very methodic, and you have to do your mechanical exercises. You don’t play of course pop music or things like that. But he also brought some fun and that was a very good thing.
Philippe Geiss: And after the second thing I remember, and when I was 14, I start to have private lessons with Daniel Deffayet. And this was really very different for me, because Daniel Deffayet, the feeling I remember, is only copy-paste. Probably I have many, many things to adjust or to fix for him, and instead of explaining, he just always told me, I play, copy my playing. Why not? But in a way that was always a strange feeling and kind of frustrating. And I remember after one year or one year and a half of private lessons, he invited me to visit the Paris Conservatory class. He thought it could be a good idea for me to do the entry exam. He brought me to his class and I saw his 12 copy-paste students. That was the moment for me when I decided that I didn’t want to do that.
Maybe that was the wrong decision. We’ll never know. That was my second teacher. And after that, I had another kind of not exactly teacher, but I had the chance to have seat in a jazz big band, and the first alto was Ivan Roth, who had fun playing jazz. That was interesting for me because he was very supportive and gave me advice. That was not lessons, but he gave me advice, and that was another kind of teacher. And for a long time after that, I was done from having saxophone teachers, but I had many other kinds of teachers. I started to work with many different artists.
Very early, when I was 19. Like dancers, drama. I also compose a lot of movie soundtracks, and then you learn how to record, and you learn how to write an arrangement, and you learn when you work with drama what it means to give sense to what play and how you play. Because to play a note with another spirit is not possible. Because play the same note with another spirit is not possible for the drama situation. When you work with dancers, of course, as soon as you are on stage you have to think more about what you project with your body instead of just what you are playing. Or if you play for dancers they are waiting for something different. They don’t need mechanical exercises. They sometimes need mechanical music. And after the next teacher was my meeting with Jerry Bergonzi. At this time I am looking for a real jazzman from the American tradition because I wanted to understand and to learn how a real jazzman from the American tradition approaches, practises, and learns music.
I asked my friend the French drummer Daniel Humair, who played with Miles Davis and many other great jazzmen, who could this person be? And at this time he had a trio with Jerry Bergonzi. He said, Jerry Bergonzi. He’s the perfect teacher, perfect performer. I didn’t know Jerry at this time, and we met. I organised a concert and a recording session. We did this concert together, the recording session, and just after the recording session I talked about my project with Jerry, and I said, I would like to do a duet with you in an ancient way. I’m a classical musician, but I love jazz. I play some jazz, but I have many things to learn. I could give you some classical saxophone advice if you need if you want, and I would like you just to share your music and your way of playing music with me. He said, we have no music, you are crazy, but yes.
And this time we have this exchange, a collaboration, and that’s a very great exchange. Each day when I play and teach, I use some advice that Jerry gave me, and I use that in both jazz or classical music. And after that, my last teacher was Jean-Marie Londeix because I was hired by the Strasbourg Conservatory who wanted me as saxophone teacher, but they are heard about me and my career as an artist, but at this time I have not finished the pedagogy exams, so I had to do that. Jean-Marie Londeix was one of the pedagogy teachers for the exam preparation. And then I met Jean-Marie and he was a real teacher for one year, each weekend that we spend with many friends like Nicholas Prost and Christian Wirth and so on. And then he was a very good teacher because he’s a saxophone lover, he is very methodic, he is the saxophone history, and that was very memorable and also each day I use some advice from Jean-Marie.
Barry Cockcroft: So would you say that your teaching method or style has been influenced by all of those teachers? Do you take a little bit from each?
Philippe Geiss: Yeah, a little bit from each, but not only from the saxophone teachers. For example, I have a very good friend who is a very high-level karate master, and we also have an exchange many times. Your body master, your mind master, your stress, and I think we need that in the teaching and in performing. Then that’s my many teachers.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think it’s common for people to seek help or advice outside of their musical field?
Philippe Geiss: Maybe not, but I would advise to always stay open and think that some advice could come from people who are really not in your specialty. I’m also a gastronome. I love wine, I love to cook, and I work a lot with head chefs because just before I did my final pedagogy exam I had to make a decision if I want to be a cook or a saxophonist. And already worked as a cook, as a volunteer, but in a two-star restaurant, and ask my friend who was chief cook, I want to work, don’t pay me, I just want to feel what this job is, and then I spend a few weeks really working in the restaurant, and after that I decide I will stay with the saxophone.
Barry Cockcroft: Could you describe the way that you practise on a day to day basis? For your personal development for whatever you’re working on at the time.
Philippe Geiss: The first thing you learn I would say when you grow up, especially when you become a professional with many activities, is you have to decide what you will practise because you do not have enough time. I try to practise two hours. Some days I haven’t these two hours. Some other day I’m very happy because I have four or six hours or sometimes I spend the day only to practise, do some research and so on. And then when I practise I always am very careful to take care of my body. I always start slow. Don’t forget to do a little breathing exercise, body exercise, just before starting. I get a lot of advice also when I see some masterclasses to practise I would say with a free mind. Even you have to play a very fast piece, very good to practise slowly, maybe rubato, maybe just with the keys. Feel the feeling with your instrument. Then the practising for me needs to be organised, smooth, not too hard. We need to practise, but we need to stay in a good shape if we want to play for many, many years.
Barry Cockcroft: I always find it funny when I hear some students complaining they don’t have enough time to practise.
Philippe Geiss: Yes.
Barry Cockcroft: And it’s like, you just wait.
Is memorization something that is an important part of your performance? And if it is, do you have any special methods or techniques that help?
Philippe Geiss: Personally I have never used much memorization. Of course memorise when I improvise because when you improvise you have no music to read, or not a lot of information. Also, I have done that when I do some shows, drama and things like that because you are not reading music either. I am not the right person to teach this, but as a teacher, I really ask my students to do that, and I’m always careful about that, because some people play better when they read, some other people play better when they memorise, and that’s a good exercise. Your brain needs this sport, then I train my students, and try to feel what is the best way for them.
Barry Cockcroft: So really it’s about choosing what’s best for that individual?
Philippe Geiss: Yeah, and also the thing I really like when you memorise is because when you memorise, if you have a good memory, and you could find a way to be relaxed with that, that makes you more able to listen, to use your ear more, your feeling, and I think that for this reason.
Barry Cockcroft: I’ve seen you play many times now, and you always seem to have a different instrument in your hands. How do you become proficient in the different sizes of saxophone?
Philippe Geiss: For this, I need two things. The first, you always need to be organised when you practise and when you perform. For me for example, in recital, I will always start with small embouchure going to big embouchure, big mouthpiece. Because that’s very hard to come back from a bari to a soprano, for me. In the same way that’s very hard to come back from a jazz embouchure to a classical embouchure. It depends on how you have to play the piece, of course. Sometimes I can do that, sometimes I learn that, no, don’t repeat this mistake. And the second thing is you have to really choose your equipment, to have a good balance on how tiring is your set-up. If you have a very demanding jazz mouthpiece, very open with a reed that is sometimes strong to have a very powerful sound, that’s very difficult to come back for example to a closed classical mouthpiece with a soft reed. You can’t play.
And the last thing is to practise your classical saxophone with a bit of jazz advice – be relaxed. That helps you switch from one to the other. If you know exactly what you have to do, that helps you.
Barry Cockcroft: When I first met you, I think we were in Thailand in 2009, I’d never heard of this term, crossover, and I believe that’s a word you use to describe yourself or the music that you play. Could you describe what that means to you?
Philippe Geiss: That’s an interesting question, and it’s more and more clear, but that’s always a question. I’m a music lover and for me, if we come back to my first year of practising music, I had a classical teacher, a saxophone teacher, and my father was a jazz fan. He was not a musician, but a jazz fan. And each day I listened to about six hours jazz. And not just listening, but he asked me to recognise who was playing, to start to feel the difference between this interpretation and that, and then in my ear, I really have this music. And my father listened to really different kinds of music. He was a real music lover also.
Then I always learned to be very open in the music that I listened to. That was like that, life is surprising, but I met many, many, many musicians from different styles. When I was, 18 or 20, I played with Indian musicians and after I spent close to five years with Zulu musicians from South Africa mixing with a kind of pop jazz, and then each time that you learn something different, afterwards you can understand where the connections are. For example, when you play with African musicians, you learn how to play in one beat. Ask the gypsies. I play a lot with gypsies also. They just want you to have spirit, they don’t care if you have a technique or not, that’s your problem. Practise. But when you play, if you don’t feel your emotion, what you want to say, they think that you have nothing to say with your instrument.
But then crossover is you use different advice from different music with a lot of respect. And then in my experience, my life, for example, I spend a lot of time learning and studying traditional music from different countries, and I’m still very interested in that. I learned that traditional music is really the identity of each country, each region, and you could feel that in the music. That’s not the same to play French music like Poulenc or to play Gershwin, Mozart. When you travel you learn more and more what all these things mean. Different countries, different regions, different traditions. Even if the music is very scientific like Denisov or Lauba and so on. In Lauba, you always could see that he has a small percentage of North African because he is from North Africa.
And maybe he wants that, maybe that’s just him. For me, I am from France, from one region, but in me, I have many countries and many traditions.
Barry Cockcroft: Talking of travel, it seems in the last 10 years or so, your travelling more and more, further and further afield. How important is travel to you and your music?
Philippe Geiss: That’s very important because travelling makes you understand that we are really on a small planet and that you have to learn to listen, to taste, and to respect different origins and traditions. Try to understand. You always learn so many things. The next step for that is recently I became friends with a French astronaut, Thomas Pesquet. I think I will never go in space, like in the space station. But for example, Thomas said that when he was on the space station, he spent six months on the International Space Station, and when he was there, he orbited the Earth 16 times a day. And he has the feeling that Earth is like a very small boat with no survival kit, no spare boat. Each astronaut who has had this experience, they really want to make people understand that we have to take care of Earth. We have to take care of Earth. Then we have to take care of our neighbour to learn, to respect, to work on peace and respect and not fighting.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think travel helps empower this?
Philippe Geiss: Yes.
Barry Cockcroft: So you would encourage it?
Philippe Geiss: Yes, a lot.
Barry Cockcroft: One thing I’ve noticed with many students, and particularly from Australia, the students always travel somewhere to study, to learn with a different teacher. I know certainly some of my former students studied with you, and they’ve expanded their horizons. How important do you think that step is for a student to remove themselves from their own culture and go somewhere else?
Philippe Geiss: I think that’s, I would say, fundamental. Usually, I have around 10 different nationalities in my class. That’s always very interesting because the students learn that the sound, the culture, then the feeling, and the traditions are different from one country to another. In addition, when for example, you bring some students with you to another country, they could discover something different. I would explain that, for example, this year I bring one more time some of my students with me to Tokyo, where I teach also. Asia is very different than Europe, for example, and that’s something you can’t explain. Even if you have many websites and wonderful movies, that help to discover Asia, Japan. But if you’ve never been to Japan or China, you can’t understand these people, this tradition, and what you could learn from them.
I remember one story that for me is one piece advice. My friend Masahiro Maeda, who leads the Mi-Bémol ensemble, who is just an amazing example of classical saxophone ensemble sound. When they were together and he said to me, you know, in France, you are a soloist because you eat beef, red meat a lot, and then you are very powerful, and then you have a lot of energy to be a soloist. In Japan, we eat vegetables and fish and we work on something smooth, to be together. We are really used to working in our community and do not isolate ourselves. That really makes sense. Since I heard these simple words from Masahiro I use them with my sax ensemble students. They understand that, and they work on that. If you travel, you have a chance to learn that. If you don’t travel you don’t learn that.
Barry Cockcroft: Did your career follow a plan that you had, or has it evolved organically by following opportunities that arise?
Philippe Geiss: For a long period time I was not aware of my career. I would just jump from one project to another because I was very lucky. I started to go on tour when I was 17 because I won some competitions and so on. I did many, many concerts, especially when I was between 20 to 35, around 250 concerts each year. Then you have no time to think – you just have to play. But I had the feeling that I have something to organise to show what I wanted to say, and when I started to write some music for the orchestra, when I started to be published, I had to decide what I want to say, what I want to project, and what is my project. Because if you are not clear with that, people just don’t understand who you are, and when you do some recordings, your CDs, you have also to decide what you want to say.
And then I did that, 15 years ago really, and now I try to do my best to follow this plan. I learned that the chance to be able to play one-day rock and roll and the next day Decruck and the day after contemporary music, but after a while, you have to decide in which style you think or you feel where is your best place. The very important thing about that, and I always talk about that with my students, is when this point starts to be clear, many projects find their place because people can understand who I am. Since then, I spent quite a lot of time with my students asking them, try to understand who you are and who you want to be. That’s a very difficult question but I think they need that.
The typical lesson for me is first, work on the connection they have between their body and the instrument, and their body and music. If they feel something when they play if they feel the overtones in the instrument if they feel that they are playing and not the saxophone is playing. Then some days we work a lot on breathing, on how to feel the body, sometimes without the saxophone. It takes time. Then you do less mechanical exercises and more trying to feel your body. Then I give some advice on practising, but I want to trust them to practise, and maybe that’s not the right choice. And spend time with them to talk about the music, the project and so on. And after we work on the music they actually play. Some music could be just to teach them saxophone repertoire from classical to some transcription, contemporary music, sometimes crossover and so on. And the second part is to try to find step by step which repertoire they want to play.
At the time I try to find their personal projects because I want them to work on their personality so that after their studies people could recognise them. And this takes a while but it’s very interesting.
Barry Cockcroft: It seems to me that people who have, let’s call it a successful performing career, always seem to have some unique aspect to what they do. And in fact, the saxophonists that I admire the most are always different, and I don’t think it’s something that’s learned, it’s something perhaps that’s developed.
Philippe Geiss: Yeah, and that could be developed, and also in the Strasbourg Superior Academy. The Strasbourg Superior Academy is one part of the art school where you have all types of students like illustrators, art designers and multimedia designers and so on. For this school of art, the most important thing is working on your personality, trying to be unique. And that’s very disturbing for a musician to work on this question. But when they start to understand, things are different.
Barry Cockcroft: You’re a big improviser. Do you encourage your students, or even in the lessons, to use improvisation as one of the tools?
Philippe Geiss: Yes, but the first thing I learned about improvisation, especially teaching improvisation, is don’t say this word. Work on your ear training in millions of ways, and maybe one day you will realise that you improvise. And in my recent career, I also have an important meeting is one pianist called Jean-François Zygel. He’s a French pianist, French improviser. He teaches improvisation at the Paris Conservatory. And he has a TV and radio show. He is like the French Leonard Bernstein. That’s really the same way. I improvise with him because he only does concerts of improvisation. But that’s very difficult because some days, okay, today we’ll improvise like Debussy for the first part and after we’ll improvise like Stravinsky. If you don’t know that, you can’t do that.
This makes me realise that many, many students, musicians, don’t realise what they are playing when they read the music. In each of my lessons, I ask my students to work on some variations to understand step by step what they are playing. Here I often use together improvisation tools you could find in jazz or find in Johann Sebastian Bach, imaginary practice and things like that because when you have a trill in jazz or in a Cello Suite, it is the same trill. And that could help you to sometimes to do less mechanical exercise because you understand what you have to play. This is a kind of improvisation and I try to have myself and my students understand when you have to do your mechanical exercise, and when the fact that you understand which language you are playing so you can do less mechanical exercises and more music.
Barry Cockcroft: Besides being a composer yourself, you work a lot with other composers. How important is the collaboration between performer and composer?
Philippe Geiss: I would say that’s very important and, how do you say, funny, that could be dangerous. In Strasbourg where I teach we have a very famous contemporary music festival, and we are very used to working with contemporary composers. For a long time, I have had many collaborations with my students and me with contemporary composers. And one thing I learned is to be careful when you show something to the composer. Sometimes you play a lick, maybe you will never reproduce this lick or this sound. But if the composer likes it and tries to write that, it could be very difficult for you to try to reproduce it. But in a way that’s also interesting. For example, in this area that’s one part of the contemporary music where they work on noise, and some composers love noise from the water on your reed.
And that seems very strange, but why not? We know that for example w,e learn from Christian Lauba that it’s very interesting to play very softly on the saxophone. Before Christian, we didn’t realise that. Collaboration with a composer is very important because he could teach you something. With many composers t,he thing I learned is, don’t think that a composer is dead. A composer could be alive. You could reach out to the composer. He could be very happy to work with you. A composer is a normal person. They have different styles, different knowledge, different ways to write and to think and to feel the music, and you have to learn that, and try to earn that.
And music is something alive. You have to respect the music, but try your best to let the be music alive, and of course, when you compose, you learn to find a way to write what you hear. Sometimes it’s very difficult. For example for me, I use a lot of air sounds, and I use a lot of voice in my composition, and just saying, dakuh, dakuh is a problem. Because many different countries are used to saying, teka teka, and not dakuh, dakuh, because dakuh is more French. Then you learn that some composers could have a problem to write down their idea, and of course to reproduce an idea wihtout asking them is a problem.
Barry Cockcroft: But that would be the job then of the interpreter to learn how to produce those sounds?
Philippe Geiss: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: So it’s possible a composer can extend the abilities of a performer, as opposed to them doing more mechanical exercises. They just take a new piece with some new demands, and they have to find a way to do it.
Philippe Geiss: Yeah, and I think that most of the time students don’t realise that they are an interpreter. They don’t have to copy or they don’t have to be like a robot. I would say if you don’t have this possibility of giving a part of your feelings, of your understanding on the music you have to play, you are not an interpreter, because that’s like between two different languages, and you learn that when you travel. That sometimes there are just no words for something you want to express. And we learn that in Asia, that saying no is a big problem. When you translate that in music, that’s something you could more understand.
Barry Cockcroft: This could be a big question, but let’s keep it brief. But you organised the largest world saxophone congress in its almost 50-year history. What could have possibly gone through your head to create such an all-encompassing event?
Philippe Geiss: This story about the world saxophone congress in Strasbourg is different things. First I love to share everything with my friends. Music, cooking, wines or friendship, everything. Second, we live in a small world. Then my idea is to try to do my best to connect the maximum number of people, even they are not there. That’s why I work a lot on new technology to live stream and multi-connected concerts and things like that. Second thing, I understood from people like Jean-Marie Londeix that one person has to do it for friends, and we joke with my colleagues during 10 years and say, that could be nice to do the congress in France, but nobody really say, okay, I will do it. Then one day I decide, enough is enough, I will do it. I know that’s crazy, but I will do it.
After that, I learned in my different spheres, that if I do a project like that I have to do it with fun for me and to express who I am in the project aswell. Then I’m crossover, I’m open, I love to be organised, but to be open, to be crazy sometimes, then I decided this project has to reflect each of these things The second thing is as soon as I decided to do it, I decided to have a real team with me. One professional organisations team, and one artistic team from the saxophone community. For the organisation, it was first of all a question of money. I know that I will cost money, but if I want a very well organised event, I need money. If the politians don’t want to give me the money, I will say, no. And I was very lucky and they said yes.
That was hard work, but they said yes. That’s also one very important moment where you could check if people trust you, if you are friends, if you are a good community or not. Artistically that was very nice because I spend a lot of time and energy to set up an artists’ community, first with my classical colleagues, so they are French teachers, Claude Delangle, Nicholas Prost and so on. We met every two months for three years in Paris, and that was very nice, because like that we had a real community feeling that we hadn’t had before. I expanded that to other styles. We regularly invited other musicians from jazz, improvisation, amateurs and some others to join us to talk about the project. I travelled a lot to meet different people, different communities in different countries to involve them in the project and to explain how crazy is my project.
That was six years of work step by step to build this project, and I was very happy also during the project because that was very, very big. Things worked well because also I learned to trust colleagues, trust friends, trust volunteers, and that’s a very nice feeling. After the congress, three years later, I still have a lot of feedback about that. I know that the saxophone community is more interested about the world sax congress. I would say one more time. Because as well I feel that the saxophone community are not so interesting by this event, now we have a kind of new interest, and that’s great.
In Strasbourg, I have feedback each day from people who say, that it was fantastic. They discovered many styles of saxophone they didn’t know and so on. And the last thing is about the organisation team I’ve built at this time. They were so happy to work together, that’s now they built a company to keep working on cultural projects. I’m very happy about that because when you organise so big an event, you could have a problem, and you could say, now that’s enough, bye bye. But the opposite happened, and they said that they still wanted to work together, that’s the story.
Barry Cockcroft: If you just had one piece of music that you could play from now on, just one, which would it be?
Philippe Geiss: One piece? I would improvise this piece.
Barry Cockcroft: Good answer. If you have just one hour to practise, how would you spend that hour?
Philippe Geiss: Five minutes breathing and take care of my body, play after that five minutes long notes, play some melodies from a concerto or Bach or so on, and after improvise and spend probably also five minutes to listen to some music.
Barry Cockcroft: Who do you consider to be one of the most successful contributors to the saxophone world?
Philippe Geiss: Hoo! I would say Jean-Marie Londeix for the such amazing historical work he did for the saxophone.
Barry Cockcroft: How do you deal with the daily use of technology, the bombardment, the intrusion? We have to use it. How do you manage that and still be able to concentrate and practise and be creative?
Philippe Geiss: That’s a good question. I am a geek, but also I think that we have to learn to use the best of the new technology and to learn to leave technology far from us sometimes during our day.
Barry Cockcroft: If we learn from our mistakes, is it okay to make mistakes?
Philippe Geiss: It depends which kind of mistakes and some small mistakes are good to do. When you improvise you learn how to manage mistakes, or to use mistakes sometimes. But sometimes in your life by choice are some mistakes you could try to avoid.
Barry Cockcroft: What’s the most important thing that you do right before a performance?
Philippe Geiss: Stay alone and concentrate.
Barry Cockcroft: Alright. Could you give yourself a piece of advice to your younger starting out self?
Philippe Geiss: Try to open your mind to different cultures and don’t only practise your saxophone.
Barry Cockcroft: What have you seen during your musical life so far that has changed to do with the saxophone, and what has not changed that might have surprised you?
Philippe Geiss: The things that have changed is that we have more and more now, I would say, crossover or open saxophonists. And the other we have still, I would say, a very small repertoire which could expand if we could be more curious.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you have an approach that you’ve been working on recently that you could tell us about?
Philippe Geiss: I recently released a new CD dedicated to my friend, Thomas Pesquet, the astronaut. I did this with my new project duo, sax and piano. And now I did this CD with many friends also, Vincent David, Lars Mlekusch, Barry Cockcroft, Branford Marsalis many people who follow my way. Now the new project is also to build a World Sax Alliance because some instruments have this tool, and I think we need that, and that’s the new project.
Barry Cockcroft: And where can people find more about what you do?
Philippe Geiss: I would say Facebook because I have also a website, but it takes too much time to update than Facebook.
Barry Cockcroft: And just the final thing. You’ve already made such a significant contribution to the world of saxophone, What’s next for you over the next 10, 20 years? What would you like to do?
Philippe Geiss: The World Sax Alliance.
Barry Cockcroft: Okay. Great. Philippe.
Philippe Geiss: Thank you!
Barry Cockcroft: Thank you again for your time. Should we drink coffee? Always.
Philippe Geiss: Coffee, coffee.