FEATURE: French Flautist Sylvaine Hélary (new album Épisodes and touring in Eastern Europe)

Sylvaine Hélary
Photo credit: Arthur Grand

LJN marks the end of International Women’s Month 2019 with this interview with French flautist Sylvaine Hélary (*). She is about to set off on a month-long tour during April, which will take in six countries – Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Hungary. She has a new recording out with Spring Roll, the band she leads, entitled Épisodes. Featuring compositions by Sylvaine, Antonin Rayon (also from France) and New York luminaries Kris Davis, Matt Mitchell and Dan Blake, it is an album which does not get subsumed into the New York sound world. What emerges is resolutely distinctive and different.

Hélary has a broad range of activity. She is currently in her second season as artist-in-residence of the Brest-based producers Plages Magnétiques (previously known as Penn Ar Jazz) and will have the premiere of a new work with her electric band Glowing Life in the autumn there. She is a first-call player for musical projects in Paris and has worked with Eve Risser, Steve Coleman, Marc Ducret, Dominique Pifarely and Jozef Dumoulin. But her interests also encompass theatre projects. For this feature, she talked about her musical background, her various roles as a sidewoman, the new Spring Roll album and women in jazz. Interview by Sebastian:

I first came across flautist Sylvaine Hélary at the premiere of Eve Risser’s White Desert in 2015. In a moment which I shan’t ever forget, her focused pristine and totally clear flute tone gave way to the sounds produced by a small child on a theremin. It was a revelation, a very special theatrical moment in music.

As I have got to know the French scene for creative music better since then, I have seen her name appearing regularly in a number of different ensembles. Just as the violinist whose name crops up again and again is Theo Ceccaldi, and if a trombonist is to the fore it will almost inevitably be Fidel Fourneyron, the standout name on flute is Sylvaine Hélary. This is not least because she is comfortable across such a wide range of music. She is a jazz improviser who has a strong base of instrumental technique and sight-reading, and who also has a very engaging stage presence gravitating naturally towards theatre music.


I started by asking Sylvaine Hélary where she is from: “I am a Bretonne, from Rennes.” She studied at Rennes – in fact she completed the first two years of a degree in history there before moving to Paris. Her flute teachers in Paris were both players from the Opéra de Paris. And what has she held on to from that teaching? “Those teachers really taught me to understand that the flute doesn’t have a wide range of dynamics, so what you have to work on is the colour, the breadth and focus of the sound. And I am very pleased they did!” I remembered that her sound and its quality and personality was what I had noticed first. “People do say that a lot…”

With Sylvaine Hélary, one always has the sense of a multi-dimensional person. Even in those early stages of moving towards music as a profession, there was more than the acquisition of instrumental skills: “But I was doing jazz workshops already in Rennes. And I accompanied a theatre group with the music for their shows. I’ve always had several musical things going on at once.”

Sylvaine Hélary as a member of White Desert, Moers 2015,
with Julien Desprez (L) and Fidel Fourneyron (R)
Photo credit: Elisa Essex


The list of projects and bands in which she has worked is impressive. She was recently invited to play in Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse and has also formed part of guitarist Marc Ducret’s sextet. In a group led by saxophonist Alexandra Grimal, she was not just a flautist, but also speaker, reciter, actress and singer. She very often shares the stage with Antonin Rayon (her partner), as in the septet of violinist Dominique Pifarély, and plays in composer Jozef Dumoulin’s dream-travel band Orca Noise Unit, as well as the context in which I originally heard her, Eve Risser’s White Desert Orchestra.

When she describes her role as a sidewoman, the clarity with which she sees her vocation and the supportiveness she brings to it are plain to see: “Music is about sharing. I find it nourishing to do other people’s music. I really enjoy being at the service of someone else’s music, to understand it, to let the music that other people have conceived of and imagined to be heard, played as well as possible.” And what about the choice of projects to get involved with? “I don’t work with people because they are well known. I imagine the sound – and also friendship. Over time, that element has become more important. In the past, maybe I didn’t place such value on it.”

Spring Roll. L-R: Bruno Chevillon,
Antonin Rayon, Sylvaine Hélary, Hugues Mayot
Photo credit: Arthur Grand


Turning to the project where she is the leader, Spring Roll, there are clearly defined intentions and objectives. As the band’s material puts it:

“In this project, Sylvaine Hélary and her band explore a chamber music with a very singular sound. Playing on timbres and resonances, Spring Roll defends this stream of the New Music while borrowing the codes and playground of the jazz. It is a question of exploring a direction of composing inspired as much by her training in art music, as by her sessions with musicians of the New York scene and by the unclassifiable pop music of her wild years.

Spring Roll instrumentation is unique: four musicians on stage with flutes, saxophone, piano, double bass, an analog synthesizer and a ring modulator. We are tossed between pure minimalism and orchestral effervescence. Many improvised passages are part of the composition itself.”

The relative roles of composition and improvisation again bring an awareness of not just what Spring Roll is, but also the idea of asserting difference from existing models: “With Spring Roll, it is the writing that the Americans have brought that I really like. And they also found a way of articulating a way of writing for improvisers which has nothing in common with the European tradition of free improv. Sometimes we slip from writing to improvising without even knowing we’re doing it. I love that.”

There is always the possibility to be over-awed by what goes on in New York. Hélary remembers: “The first time I met the Americans, it was at a working session in Brooklyn organised by Ralph Alessi, where I got to work with Tim Berne, Kris Davis, Tony Malaby, Matt Mitchell and Tom Rainey. And I remember we were all thinking about how amazing the New York scene is. But what Tim Berne and Tom Rainey – who, to some extent, created the scene – said to us, in effect was ‘We’ve done what we’ve done. But you should do something. Invent something. Make something. Don’t copy us. Make your scene in Paris, in Europe. Wherever it is. Make your own sound.’

Those words clearly resonated and stuck with Sylvaine, and gave her and her French colleagues a simultaneous sense of responsibility and empowerment; and Épisodes, where Spring Roll works with the compositions and transforms them, is the result. There is an acute sensitivity to sound throughout the album, and an astonishing awareness of contrast. The music moves from simplicity and clarity to density and complexity, as if there is a heightened awareness of all of the possibilities at any moment. And the more one listens, the more one is aware of Hélary’s strengths: that she is a trained musician with a capacity to read and interpret complex music, but is also an avid and very aware communicator.


Finally in my conversation with Sylvaine Hélary, we talked about the theme of International Women’s Day and Month. The first noticeable thing about this discussion was the impressive extent of her preparation and forethought, the awareness of the context, of the way things can be improved and the active role that she, as an individual, can and does take.

She framed her remarks with a quote from the Milan Women’s Bookstore (Libreria Delle Donne): “Those who desert the spheres and structures of power do not do so out of weakness, but because these structures do not suit them.” Or, as Hélary said to me: “I have been thinking and reading about issues of parity and equality. There is a massive history before us and, in a sense, there is nothing new. We as women, from a very early age, are ‘governed by fear’. It’s everywhere in society.”

So, what Hélary sees as important is to find the contexts where a difference can be made: “As women musicians of a slightly older generation, we can do a lot.” Hélary is invited to do residencies and masterclasses, and it is in those situations that her clear awareness of a role she can play shines through: “We can show people the journey we have travelled. Not telling [the young women] it will be easy, not giving them illusions or magic dust….” She remembers how women of the earlier generation had an influence on her, even though they were few and far between. “We had role models like Carla Bley or Helene La Barrière.” But her final word on this subject is typically strong, purposeful, clear and optimistic: “Now there are more of us.”

Épisodes is released on the Cleanfeed label and features:

Sylvaine Hélary: flute, alto flute, bass flute and piccolo
Hugues Mayot: tenor saxophone, clarinet
Antonin Rayon: piano, Moog
Sylvain Lemêtre: vibes, percussion
Kris Davis: piano (some tracks)

– (*) LJN’s other coverage for International Women’s Day 2011–2019 is HERE
– from France, Sebastian also interviewed Francoise Clerc of Bureau Export in 2019
– IWD interview with Eve Risser from 2015
– Sylvaine Hélary’s website 
Épisodes on Cleanfeed

Categories: Features/Interviews

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