In celebration of International Women’s Day, Matthieu Jouan at our French partner Citizen Jazz caught up with flautist Fanny Ménégoz to talk about her music, playing with various collectives and gender balance within the jazz community.
Born in Savoy (France), Fanny followed a rather traditional education route, studying at her home town conservatoire then onto the Paris conservatoire, making the most of jazz workshops and competitions. She developed a very rhythmical musical language, honing a clear sound and a natural ease with the instrument’s percussive elements.
Since then, she has made a name for herself on the French jazz scene – playing mainly with large ensembles, but also fronting more personal projects. And the best is yet to come: her band Nobi have been shortlisted for this year’s 6th Jazz Migration program (an annual platform showcasing the rising stars of the French jazz scene).
Citizen Jazz: Most of your projects as a band leader feature percussion and vibes. What is it you like about them?
Fanny Ménégoz: As far as the vibraphone is concerned, it all started when I met Gaspar José – who I play with regularly now. He plays vibes with Nobi, my quartet. To me, the vibraphone is an instrument that resonates in such a unique way and its frequencies just blend really well with the flute. When we play in unison, the feeling of being one is very strong. And the vibraphone is a polyphonic instrument – though quite a minimalist one compared with an instrument like the piano. I really like this minimalist aspect because it gives me plenty of space in the harmonic spectrum and can easily create a sense of ambiguity.
As a child I used to listen to a lot of music that had percussion in it, more so than drums, and I liked the melodic aspect that emerges and that feeling it gives of really digging deep to find the sound. Today, I mostly play with drummers, but those who approach their instruments as percussionists do. Rafaël Koerner in Dune – our drum/flutes duo – is one of them. The melodic and harmonic dimension of his music takes on a very important aspect in this specific set up.
CJ: You have made some very clear, strong artistic choices regarding the type of projects and collectives you are involved in, but you also play a different role in many of them, for example in Fanfare XP, Surnatural Orchestra and Orchestre National du Jazz (ONJ)?
FM: I do have a slightly different role in each of these three groups – compared to classical orchestras for example, where all musicians have minimal freedom of choice in terms of musical direction and improvisation.
Surnatural Orchestra is a collective with a strong sense of collegiality in the artistic and extra-musical aspects of the group. Everyone is involved in their own way and to varying degrees, but there is no conductor. There’s a pool of about ten composers, including myself. The music is organised collectively; each player has a fairly defined place in each piece, so I have some written parts and some more-or-less defined solos, but together we also create unexpected musical spaces.
Fanfare XP has a charismatic leader, Magic Malik. We have a charter that he wrote himself which allows everyone to write music for the band, which I do. There’s not much scoring for the music so it gives us a great amount of freedom to decide where we might want to play or improvise or take a solo.
The ONJ project I’m playing in is a show about Dracula starring two actresses. Artistic director Fred Maurin is collaborating with Grégoire Letouvet for the composing and direction. The two composers have a very strong identity. The parts for the whole orchestra are precisely written so as to work with the theatrical parts. However, I also have a lot of space for improvising in the music during the opening as the audience are arriving.
CJ: You studied with Malik “Magic” Mezzadri…
FM: Yes, I feel very lucky to have studied with him for three intensive years and in a non-institutional way, which is very unusual in France. He opened many doors for me and helped me find my own path, giving me the confidence to move in directions I believed in, without trying to sound like other musicians. On top of that, he taught me how to structure my ideas when writing music and improvising and he gave me technical, harmonic and rhythmic tools that really stand out. To this day, Malik remains an example of a musician with incredible thirst for the music and great artistic integrity.
CJ: Would you describe the music you write as being mainly based on melody and a strong sense of groove?
FM: I would say it involves a quest for oddity and distortion, particularly in the harmony, rhythmical structures and the elasticity of time, but that it also keeps a link with very “earthly” musical notions such as pulse, modality and even tonality. It is a music in which improvisation has a very important place and that seeks to put the spotlight on the musicians who play it.
My approach is based on my perception of the world, how it resonates with me and how I translate it musically. What emotion it evokes in the listener comes next and then it no longer belongs to me!
CJ: In the Surnatural Orchestra and the ONJ, there is a certain amount of gender balance among musicians. Have you encountered any gender-related problems in your career? Is this an important issue to you?
FM: I’ve encountered two kinds of gender-related problems in music. The first is the confrontation with misogynistic, aggressive and disrespectful men, which has happened to me several times.
The second is a much more complex, diffuse and unconscious phenomenon and it happens through a set of completely insidious and unquestioned behaviours embedded in our society. In fact, to become a musician/improviser/composer/leader, I had to deconstruct the idea that this wasn’t for women. And that’s not an easy thing to do when, except for one class with flautist Sylvaine Hélary and a few arranging classes with pianist Carine Bonnefoy, none of my teachers were women. I have been surrounded with 95% men in band practice and concerts. As far as interacting with other musicians is concerned, my being a woman has really had an impact. Overall, I’ve felt that my voice has been less heard, less legitimised and not considered as seriously as men’s.
Even though I’ve felt all this deeply, there have also been many women and men who’ve supported me on this issue. There are men who have attempted to address these issues, who would speak up and say “she’s been trying to talk five times, but nobody listens to her”. And there are many men who are calling for action and change, for equality and discussion, which I find so encouraging. Tomorrow’s world must evolve in an equal and fair way and we must build it together, women and men, for the benefit of everyone.
I spent many years in my teens and young adult life arguing that art should be detached from all these considerations, that we should only be interested in the artistic quality of what people produce, that I did not want to be judged on the basis of my gender, but on the music I made instead. Today, I have to admit that in my opinion art doesn’t exist separately from social and economic issues. But that it is upto artists to confront these questions and take positive and constructive steps, both in their art and beyond.
LINK: Fanny’s website
This original interview will be published in French on the Citizen Jazz site; we’ll link once live.