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An Interview with Jean-Michel Veillon

photo of Jean-Michel Veillon

Note: Jean-Michel's excellent recent flute CDs Er Pasker (1999) and Beo! (live album with guitarist Yvon Riou) are now available. In the US, contact Dick Abrams. Also check out Jean-Michel's official Web site for more information and interviews.

Jean-Michel Veillon is best known as the flute player with the Breton groups Kornog and Pennou Skoulm. He pioneered the use of the wooden flute in Breton music, and is also an excellent player of Irish tunes. His musical style is sensitive yet powerful, full of energy, subtlety, and great feeling. He is regarded by many musicians as the Celtic world's finest player of the wooden flute.

Jean-Michel was born in Frehel, near St. Brieuc in Cotes D'Armor, in 1959. He started Breton dancing at the age of 12, and began playing the bombard at the age of 14. He began playing wooden flute in 1977, and developed a great interest in Irish music and culture, learning tunes from Desi Wilkinson and Paddy O'Neill. In 1979, he founded, together with Paddy O'Neill and the piper Martin Nolan, the Breton-Irish Band. At the same time, Jean-Michel played with a local East-Breton band and was encouraged to adapt the Breton repertoire to the wooden flute.

From 1981-1987, Jean-Michel played with the group Kornog throughout Europe and the USA. He was a founding member of the dance band Pennou Skoulm with Patrick and Jacky Molard, Soig Sibéril, and Christian Lemaître. From 1988-1992, Jean-Michel played in the group Den. He also was a founding member of Barzaz with the great singer Yann-Fanch Kemener. His highly regarded first solo album, "E Koad Nizan" is the first record dedicated to Breton music on transverse wooden flute. Jean-Michel now plays in duet with the guitarist Yvon Riou. They recorded an album in 1995 album entitled "Pont Gwenn ha Pont Stang." and a live album, Beo!, recorded in 2000.

In the U.S., you can order both "E Koad Nizan" and "Pont Gwenn ha Pont Stang" from Sidestreet Music, via Elderly Instruments in East Lansing, Michigan. Tel: 517-372-7890, extension 123. Retailers and mail-order establishments may order bulk copies from Doug Berch at Side Street Distributing, 517-372-7890, extension 853. You can also order Veillon's recordings directly from Coop Breizh Diffusion, Kerangween, 29540 Spézet, France. Fax: +33 2 948 938797. Many Breton albums are also available from Keltia Music, 1, Place au Beurre, 29 000 Quimper, France.


Q: You started out as a bombard player. What inspired you to begin playing Breton music on the flute?

A: I started as a dancer when I was 12 years old, in a traditional Breton dance band (with costumes and all!). When I turned 14, I started to play "pipeau" (a sort of plastic whistle) and then bombard -- the Breton shawm, very loud with a double reed. At that time, Breton musicians had a growing interest in Irish and Scottish music. This is how I first heard Irish music. The sound of the wooden flute, often a bit drowned in ceilidh bands or even folk records, attracted me already, even though I had no real passion for the flute yet. I bought a tin whistle and first travelled to Ireland in 1976.

I finally found an old French flute in 1977, half-broken and low-pitched. Knowing no flute player at that time and therefore not getting any help or information, and being as rough as the average boys from the village where I come from, I decided to tune that flute myself, sawed its foot joint and widened the holes of the right-hand piece. It worked! (more or less...) Then I spent hours trying to get an acceptable tone out of this destroyed collection piece, playing exclusively Irish tunes on it. Being a bombard player, I didn't really try nor feel any need to play any Breton tunes on the flute. Until later, when several people around me suggested that I try it, and then insisted until I did.

Q: Which musicians most influenced you when you began playing the flute? Who are some of your favorite players today?

A: In 1975, apart from some early records of the Chieftains, I knew very little about Irish flute music. During my first trip to Ireland in 1976, I brought back some recordings of Tom McHale, Matt Molloy, Seamus Tansey, and Roger Sherlock. I was therefore somewhat influenced by all those musicians, but at the same time I was still playing mostly bombard, and Breton musicians were naturally my first influence. Not long after I'd started to play the flute, I met Desi Wilkinson (flute) from Belfast and Paddy O'Neill (fiddle) from Tyrone, who both "educated" me about Ireland. (Not only music but also history and politics!) I learned many great tunes from them, and even though Desi never really influenced my style directly, I became more self-interrogating about my own playing because of him.

My musical influences since that time have been various. Not only from flute-players: several Breton singers, bombard and biniou players, trujenn gaol (Breton-style clarinet), etc.

Concerning flautists, I particularly like Josie McDermott and Paddy Taylor for their apparent simplicity in phrasing (which always makes me think of certain Breton musicians, even though there are lots of differences between Breton and Irish music). Talking about Irish flutists today, I can mention some that impress me, but there are so many others that I like for one thing or another! Matt Molloy always impresses me a lot with his "luminous" playing, Seamus Tansey with his undoubting energy, Kevin Crawford, Michael McGoldrick, etc... Now, I must also say that I don't listen regularly to many Irish music records at home, because I prefer to exchange and to tape tunes from Irish friends visiting me.

Q: Can you describe some of the differences between the traditional Irish style of flute playing and the Breton style that you developed? Could you comment on some of the challenges you have faced in playing Breton music on the flute?

A: It is a difficult question, because there is no such thing as an old flute-playing tradition in Brittany. Small fifes were used in Central Brittany, but disappeared totally during the first world war and all that was left from their presence are some photographs. Patrick Molard and Alan Kloatr were the first Breton musicians to use English wooden flutes (bought in Ireland while they were playing with Alan Stivell, around 1975), but they never really concentrated on adapting Breton music to them.

When I started to think of how flute should be played in the Breton repertoire, I spent more time than ever listening to singers and "sonneurs" from all parts of Brittany (sonneurs are biniou/bombard players, and to a larger extent all Breton traditional musicians). Then I tried, literally, to "translate" their music and feelings through my flute-playing. It takes time, and you can never tell for sure what is right or wrong in your own technical choices in playing Breton music. It's like "inventing a tradition," I guess!

However, to answer your question, I should mention some important points that I always considered as a basis for my work:

Strictly about flute technique now, practicing and experience taught me a few more things:

Q: The first thing that strikes most people about your playing is your magnificent tone. That, of course, is due partly to you and partly to your flute! What qualities do you look for in a flute?

A: Thanks for the compliment! I was told that a flute player never really hears his real sound while playing (just like someone speaking) because the inner cavities resonating in his head actually change his hearing. Is this true?

I have played several flutes since I first began, which have all been, I think, determining my playing today.

For a long time, I played on keyless, one- or 3-keyed flutes: Holzapfel (in D)/ Bruce du Ve (in D)/ Hamilton (in D)/ Lehart (in D, Bb, Eb, F, and a G with an old Breton scale). And two or three great bamboo flutes by Patrick Olwell.

Then, three years ago, I started to play on three 8-keyed flutes: an old Cook in D and an old Rudall & Carte in Eb, and a D flute made by Peter Merebeth in Brittany.

I now play a D 8-keyed and an Eb 8-keyed Pratten model, both by Chris Wilkes, who makes fantastic flutes. I still play some of the Lehart flutes. As some of these flute-makers know, I have a hard time explaining and choosing exactly what type of flute I want! I can't say more.

Q: You also play Indian flute. Would you describe how you got into playing Indian music, and tell us about your teacher? Do you play other kinds of music (and flutes) besides Irish, Breton, and Indian?

A: Since I started the flute, I have almost always had my ears wide open for other flute music (and singing) from all over the world. Among the fantastic things I've heard, Indian raga played on flute -- especially by Hariprasad Chaurasia -- has the strongest effect on me: hypnotizing, relaxing, and revitalizing at the same time. I can't go a week without listening to him. A few years ago I found myself organizing a workshop of initiation in "North Indian classical music on bansuri (bamboo flute)" in Brittany, with the great master Harsh Wardhan, from Delhi.

This said, I certainly do not consider myself a bansuri player, and even though I followed the workshop, I still don't understand how a raga works! Harsh Wardhan told me to go to India and study more with him, but this would take my entire life...and it takes only three weeks out of Brittany to make me feel homesick! But I really love to sit and play the bansuri at home.

I don't play any other traditional music than Breton, Irish, or some Scottish tunes. From time to time in concert, I include tunes from the Balkans (I used to play some with Kornog years ago), or tunes from the American Indians. That's it.

Q: Like Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, or Kevin Burke and Michael O'Dhomnaill, your playing with guitarist Yvon Riou is a true musical duet -- his guitar is never a mere "accompaniment." Can you tell us a little about how you work together to come up with arrangements for tunes?

A: We select tunes that we think will suit our style and mood. Then we play away, stopping at every interesting corner! I generally propose rhythmical structures, leaving most harmonic ideas to Yvon's intuition. We never write any music down, because neither of us is able to read nor write a single line of music.

Q:Do you have any advice for beginning flute players? Any advice for people who want to play Breton music on the flute?

A: Of course, start by listening to other players, as often and as carefully as you can.

Try to find a good balance between what is taught to you and what you can discover and experience by yourself. It makes a big difference sometimes.

If it doesn't come naturally, search as much as you can for the most comfortable position while playing: