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Xavier Bellenger, Antropologue et ethnomusicologue

Xavier Bellenger departed this life on 8 February 2020. An anthropologist and ethnomusicologist of repute, he was also a valuable collaborator of our Foundation and and a longtime friend.

It was at the beginning of the ‘eighties that Xavier finalised a posthumous album of recordings by Professor Louis Girault, the very man who had initiated him into musical and Andean anthropology.

At that time, too, he met Jacques Cloarec and Alain Daniélou. The latter, some twenty years earlier, had been commissioned by UNESCO to produce a series of albums with the aim of discovering and safeguarding traditional musical heritage. The collections were published by EMI, Philips and Bärenreiter.

This adventure started off in 1961. Alain and Jacques wandered the world with their Nagra in a shoulder-bag. Numerous albums were produced: “A Musical Anthology of the Orient”, “An Anthology of African Music”, “An Anthology of North Indian Classical Music”, etc. 

Xavier shared their enthusiasm, their insatiable curiosity about what was then still termed “ethnic” music. Deeply respectful of cultures and ancestral traditions, fiercely opposed to any kind of colonialisation, levelling and globalisation, Daniélou defended those differences that make peoples unique. Attracted by Xavier Bellenger’s professional and human qualities, Daniélou proposed that he become deputy director of the “UNESCO collection”.

In his turn, Xavier would also travel the continents, recording musicians — from Eskimos to Pygmies —, meeting ethnomusicologists, discovering forms of musical expression that were totally unknown to him. Such a beginning was extraordinary at a time when the means of communication were not what they have since become.

Neither were technical media. Just like Alain Daniélou however – a pioneer in so many fields, who made great use of photographic material and the latest recording gadgets, Xavier took a close interest in new technologies and in particular the CD-Rom, a then revolutionary format. Derived from the Audio CD, it integrates images, sound and video and is especially used for interactive presentations. Xavier Bellenger produced one devoted to Alain Daniélou’s work, with the title “Le labyrinthe d’une vie”.

Xavier frequently visited Alain Daniélou’s Italian residence at Zagarolo. At the outset of the ‘nineties, during one of their conversations, Alain expressed his desire, having already entrusted Nagra-Kudelski to produce a prototype, to manufacture a microtonal musical instrument according to the theory of his work “La Sémantique musicale”. 

A few years earlier, when synthesisers became popular and albums of electronic music flourished, Jean Michel Jarre, a trailblazer in this field, enlisted Xavier Bellenger’s services for his sixth work, Zoolook (1984). The composer, one of the first to utilise a ‘sampler’, was looking for vocal excerpts from all over the world. Xavier provided him with unique recordings from everywhere on the planet and, during his mission, came to meet Michel Geiss, a close collaborator of Jean Michel Jarre since 1974. Electronics engineer by training, a musician and sound engineer, Michel invented especially for the artist various instruments of electronic music utilised in many albums.

Xavier Bellenger became a great friend of his and, quite naturally, shared with him Alain Daniélou’s instrument project. So great was his interest that Michel met Alain two years before the latter’s death, first at Lausanne and then at Zagarolo. Assisted by three collaborators, he got to grips with the conception of what would become the Semantic Daniélou-36.

In February 2018, with the collaboration of IRCAM, we organised a formal presentation of the Semantic. Xavier made the trip from Peru, where he had been living for some years, both to assist and take part in the event. His relationship with Peru is a long tale. A specialist in traditional Andean music, at the age of sixteen he visited the country to learn to play the quena — a sort of recorder – in the traditional manner.

Returning to the “UNESCO collection”, at the end of the ‘seventies, Xavier Bellenger recorded the traditional music of a Bolivian people known as the Chipayas. These recordings were praised by Alain Daniélou for their quality, but were unfortunately not published until 2018 in the form of a co-edition with the Institut Français d’Études Andines to celebrate their 70th anniversary (« Pueblo Uru Chipaya, Música y cultura de Bolivia » Audio CD by Xavier Bellenger).

Very recently, to push the frontiers of his ethnomusicological work still further on, Xavier with the help of Mariano Rosales addressed an ambitious project: the development of a sensor-based system capable of recording the fingering of musicians on their instruments, the Diginotator. Facing, you will find more detailed explanations, plus a video.

Forty years from the outset of our collaboration, he was still animated by the same passion, the same flame: to safeguard a musical heritage threatened by expansion. Xavier devoted his life to it. Although he has left us, he continues to exist, not only in our memories, but also in all the music that, thanks to him, has not become extinct!

We have lost a precious collaborator and friend: all our thoughts are with his family and those close to him.

Christian Braut on behalf of Alain Daniélou Foundation.