The young and highly promising French percussionst Adélaïde Ferrière tells us her choices of repertoire and a burgeoning career as soloist and chamber musician with the K/D/M and Xenakis trios.

Adélaïde Ferrière
© Cécile Lhuillier Gorce

NM: You originally learned both piano and percussion, and then specialised in percussion when you entered the Paris Conservatoire. Can you explain why you made this choice?

AF: I was attracted by the richness of percussion instruments. You can move from one instrument to the next and play with the diversity of timbres and soundscapes. And I fell for the marimba. I wanted to develop this instrument which is really an expressive keyboard, percussion's answer to the piano. And I love the marimba's repertoire, which has plenty to be built on.

Indeed, the marimba has pride of place in your work…

It's one of the only percussion instruments on which you can play classical music, since you can adapt pieces in both their harmonic and melodic dimensions. That's different from contemporary repertoire, for example the music of Xenakis, in which we're dealing with works that seek to imitate cataclysms or raw forces of nature by using a whole battery of instruments. In the orchestra, in addition to a purely rhythmic role, that battery permits you to colour, to illustrate, to impart works with particular characteristics – think about the glockenspiel or triangle to evoke magic, or traditional instruments like castanets to suggest Spain. In addition, some composers have gone outside the European tradition to find different sounds.

Adélaïde Ferrière
© Jean-Philippe Leclair

How does one conceive of a carrer as a percussion soloist?

My hope is that percussion will gain more recognition. Many percussionists have the same desire to move the instrument forward, but it's also about the image. One of the first great figures in percussion was the Japanese marimba player Keiko Abe, followed by Evelyn Glennie and Martin Grubinger. These are the world class figures of the instrument and the forerunners of the percussion soloist. Today, there are more and more of us.

As a percussionist, how does one deal with sound and space?

On average, percussion is louder than other instruments. You have to consider that volume level, but you mustn't reduce percussion to just that. You can find great finesse in timbre and ways of playing. People often don't realise the range of nuances that's available on the marimba, and the same is true of all instruments.

As regards space, there are many works for percussion or percussion ensembles which were conceived in spatial terms, because you can create a staging effect simply out of the way you install the instruments. You see that with Xenakis as well as other composers, where the audience is surrounded by percussion instruments to create an effect where the sound swirls around it.

How do you work on a piece like Xenakis' Rebonds B ?

Before you start, you have to set up your instruments, which isn't as obvious as it sounds. Sometimes, you have preset schemas on where to put everything, sometimes not. So you have to start by researching this and deciding which instruments to use. In the case of Rebonds B, the composer has specified the set of instruments, but not precisely. We know that there's a bass drum, a tom-tom, conga and bongos, but it's up to us to choose the tuning, the size of tom-tom, which woodblocks or sticks we're going to use. There's an enormous number of aspects to consider, so one generally starts from a base idea which gets revised in the course of working on the piece. Rebonds B uses a set of instruments that's reasonably simple for us, with fairly standard components, so it's a big favourite! There have been many different versions and one can be inspired by things like the layout or choice of sticks. But for some pieces, there are instruments that we have to find or build, stick changes to sort out, even thinking about a particular arrangement of the scores as against the instruments...

One of the things you've done is to transcribe works for marimba, most notably Albeniz's Asturias and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. How do you choose the works to transcribe?

There are a lot of transcriptions of baroque music, because the writing lends itself quite well to this, being fairly clear as regards the harmonic structure: Rameau's Nouvelles Suites are an example. The point is that when you move from a piano version to a marimba transcription, you're moving from ten fingers to four sticks. So the question you have to ask is whether this is feasible. Next, it's essential that your transcription respects the work's original idea, without destroying its nature. Rhythmic pieces like Asturias work well, whereas a Chopin sonata would be far too virtuosic. But more generally, I transcribe the works I love.

You've recorded several of your transcriptions outside the concert hall, more as video clips. Why the need to complement the sound with visual imagination?

I love working with video and finding a link between the work I'm playing and a set of images, like the views of New York for Rhapsody in Blue. Besides, we're living in a world which demands increasingly that we develop this kind of content to keep in touch with our audience and to reach new people. Percussion isn't very well known yet and using images allows us to develop interest in a wider set of people. It also allows us to bring into play the imposing character of the instrument as well as our physicality, something that's more important than with other musicians.

Alongside transcription, a major part of your output is the playing of newly written music , most notably in your first CD, entitled Contemporary. What are you able to explore in this repertoire?

It's a repertoire that follows on from the starting points of the solo repertoire. There was Varèse in the 1930s with Ionisation, Milhaud's Concerto for marimba and vibraphone in 1947. Next, there was Les Percussions de Strasbourg, the Trio Le Cercle, great ensembles who collaborated with the great composers of the time. The programme for the CD was designed in this tradition. The works it contains are in the key repertoire for the Paris Conservatoire, in parallel with the orchestral repertoire. We don't work on many transcriptions! It was important to shine a spotlight on this contemporary repertoire, with pieces that develop a virtuosity and musical language that weren't there before. The performer pushes his musical and technical limits, whether it's with Xenakis or with Mantovani with a work like Moi Jeu. With works like that, you can push the boundaries of what's possible with the instruments; they're what have permitted us to make giant strides in recent decades.

Adélaïde Ferrière
© Cécile Lhuillier Gorce

How do you juggle your solo activities with chamber work with the K/D/M and Xenakis trios?

I love doing these in parallel because they're highly complementary. In the two ensembles, I don't necessarily have either the same role or the same project. Generally, the group doesn't form the principal activity of each of its members, touring a programme once per year and going out to find a high number of concerts. Rather, one works on specific projects, usually creating new works or versions, in the course of a season. It's very interesting to be able to take advantage of the emulation and the sharing you get in chamber music. I also get asked to play with other instrumentalists, mainly for the classical repertoire, but for now, that's only occasionally.

Last question: can you give us a chamber piece for percussion to recommend to our readers?

Steve Reich's Six marimbas. You get caught up in a whirlwind of rhythms and harmonies for twenty minutes – it's superb! But I'd recommend everything by Reich, who has written a lot for the marimba!

Translated from French by David Karlin