On a beautiful summer’s day, celebrated Argentinian composer and pianist Gustavo Beytelmann and Gotan Project’s Philippe Cohen Solal sat opposite each other in a woodland studio just north of Paris. One was sat behind the Steinway, the other with a DJ controller and an old Roland sampler on a table in front of them. They improvised this exceptionally beautiful suite of music into existence, one song for each season. Phillipe and Gustavo’s afternoon recording session was filmed and will be released as a video album, released on the same day as the album and directed by Gustave Deschamps.
The preparation for this warm and endlessly melodic improvisation had layers. On one hand, they’d agreed to use John Keats’ famous poem The Human Seasons as inspiration and had both spent time with the sonnet’s 14 lines. On the other, there’s two decades of working life under the Gotan Project umbrella, with the mutual understanding that comes from countless nights on stage – including a ‘quite magical’ moment in 2003 when technology failed and improvisation triumphed.
Phillipe had prepared some beats and samples as well as sound effects he’d recorded from nature – with an idea to channel something of two favourite albums: KLF’s Chill Out from 1990 and Keith Jarrett’s wholly-improvised 1975 classic, The Köln Concert.
The songs throw current industry trends for two-minute songs out of the window – the shortest piece on The Human Seasons lasts a gorgeous eight minutes and the longest stretches past thirteen. The music is variously joyful, tender and emotive, bridging time and space with samples that evoke half-remembered Latin tea dances or a sun-soaked bassline half-heard across a field, whilst Gustavo Beytelmann’s gossamer-spun piano lines nudge the different phases of life into the light.
The only practical instruction they gave each other beforehand was to try to remember and reflect the seasons of their own lives. “We have to be intimate. That was my only brief. Let’s take the poetry for ourselves and try to translate it with music,” said Phillipe.
“We discovered in the studio what music we were going to play, and we did it very easily,” said Gustavo. “We discovered a kind of island, and we arrived at this place.”
“It was a real dialogue, like a ping pong game,” added Phillipe, “at one point Gustavo was playing something a bit Latin so I started to use bird sounds and cricket as a kind of cumbia rhythm, like a güiro and a shekere… natural sound effects as percussion.”
They have both been improvising for many years. Tango legend Gustavo Beytelmann was born in ‘deep Argentina, far from anywhere’ with a father who played jazz and tango violin. From the age of five, he was accompanying his dad on piano. “Improvisation is an important part of me – a mother tongue, a muscle memory.” The film composer and educator left Argentina during the dictatorship in the 1970s, founded the group Tiempo Argentino with other exiled musicians, and has since held residencies within conservatoires and at international music festivals across Europe.
“We plan but things change,” Philippe said. “Improvisation is the key of life, is the sparkle of life. We’re scared of the future and of the unknown but that’s what’s exciting.”
The Parisian studio they used for the recording sessions was famous in the Sixties and Seventies – it was owned by the independent French label Vogue and artists including Françoise Hardy, Jacques Dutronc and Johnny Hallyday recorded there.
“It was interesting for us to do something new, to break down some new doors,” said Phillipe, “very gently.”