Endlessly curious in his approach to sound, Alain Berlaud is a difficult man to categorise. In his on-going exploration into the importance of music to harmonious human societies, the 43-year-old composer, musician and educator chooses to look at the big picture. And pictures play a significant role in his fascinating work.
“It’s easy to say, ‘I’m a composer.’ In fact, I am also a teacher.” says Berlaud. “I’m not only a teacher. I am also a painter. Actually, if I start down that route, there is a lot of ‘I am.’”
A native of the picturesque seaport city of La Rochelle in western France, as a young man Berlaud studied French horn, chamber music and music composition at the National Conservatory of Tours before completing his studies with vocal training and choral conducting, as well as a course in musicology at the University of Orléans-Tours. Later he entered the respected National Conservatory of Paris.
Today, Berlaud’s passion lies outside his homeland, he is a professor at the Faculty of Musicology of Cayenne, in French Guiana in South America. There, he also conducts the Petit Choeur Polyphonique d'Amazonie, for which he wrote an educational opera – called Opéra Amazonia – in 2010. Berlaud’s extensive research into the musicology of differing cultures and societies, in fact, has taken him as far afield as China’s Guangxi province, to the West African nation of Mali and beyond.
“I study ethnomusicology so that I can convey the ‘meaningful’ aspects of sound,” he says. “To go to a music concert, to see a painting … that’s not just simply appreciation of art or aesthetic beauty. It means we have to move inside ourselves. For me it’s a form of therapy.”
As an example, Berlaud cites one concert he was particularly pleased to organise. “I placed the audience in the middle of eight speakers, which then played sounds of a drum,” he remembers. “If you closed your eyes, the sound of the shamanic drum seems to spin around your head. I wanted to provide a therapeutic experience to the audience.”
Ultimately, Berlaud aims to achieve a clearer understanding of what it means to be human, and how we fit into the world as a whole. To illustrate his holistic philosophy further, he opens his laptop computer to show some of his paintings. With their bold use of primary colours, and recurring motifs of animals, stars and flowers, they recall depictions of the natural world created by the ancient Mayan civilisations, the naïve peasant paintings of southern China, and the Aboriginal art of the Australian outback.
The first painting Berlaud chooses portrays a seated man with a lyre or similar stringed instrument resting on his lap. The figure sings while holding out bowls of food to a menagerie of lizards, foxes, snakes, birds and deer. “Here in the natural world – in all these details, in the animal world, the plant world – all are involved in music,” Berlaud explains. “All are participating in the singing.”
Next he displays his personal representation of Pachamama, the Mother Earth fertility goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes, and who presides over planting and harvesting. Depicted in vivid orange, her mouth is agape as she sings against a blue background decorated with bright yellow blooms. “Here the spoken world is emitted and passes through the plants,” Berlaud says. “There is such a rich history with Pachamama, whose singing represents the Earth.”
Finally comes a character reclining on grass beside a lake or an ocean. “Once his voice emerges, there’s a kind of spirit that dances between the water and the plant life we see – it communicates life,” Berlaud says. “Communicating life is more important than presenting music. Life passes through music, through art. It is these fundamentals that are the core issues for me – these are important; much more important even than do-re-mi-fa-sol.”