In the press
Vito Camarretta, Chain DLK, January 29, 2018
Donata Marletta, Digicult, May 21, 2013
SOCAN, May 17, 2013… une des plus hautes distinctions des arts numériques.
Julian Cowley, Musicworks, no. 115, March 1, 2013“The very reason I choose to do electroacoustic music is because I feel that it makes everything possible,” Bernier affirms.
Tobias Fischer, Tokafi, March 22, 2011It is sweet, it is bitter. It is fragile, it is rough. It is sentimental, it is cool. It feels spontaneous, it has been carefully constructed — there’s no end to the list.
Deanna Radford, MutekMag, January 19, 2011Yes, noises are really important. It’s a part of our life! It’s a part of our day to day!
Montréal-based sound-artist, performer and composer Nicolas Bernier recently dropped a new release on the label of Acte community (grouping some experimental sound artists on an edge of innovation, who are active in Montréal area). According to the introduction by the label, Transfert / Futur, the title of this release “marks a shift from Nicolas Bernier’s rather reductionist approach of the previous series to a more expressive and colorful aesthetic.” We tried to find out the reason by talking to its author.
Chain DLK: Hi, Nicolas! How are you?
Nicolas Bernier: Fine! In the middle of the electronic music students concerts at Université de Montréal, so my head is (even more) overloaded with sounds this week!
Chain DLK: Before focusing on Transfert / Futur, some introductory words for the readers who don’t know you… first of all, how did the spark for experimental music (if you agree with such a way of labeling it) become a fire?
Nicolas Bernier: I think the desire for experimentation, to get out of the common musical formulas, has always been there. For instance, even when I was doing folk music (among other punk, post-metal, and every conceivable rock variation) when I was a teenager, I was the one plugging effects, pedal and distortion and playing progressive patterns on my, well, mandolin! Just the fact of playing the mandolin was experimental in the era of power trios.
I am totally fine with the term “experimental.” I actually quite like it, as it puts forward the ideas of trying things to get to a result, on the experience, on the sensitivity, which is one of the main reasons to make music or art. There is no experimental aesthetic, per se; it’s more a state of mind before anything else.
Chain DLK: You said Transfert / Futur is the beginning of a new stage in your artistic and creative path… could you tell us something about the previous stages and the way they interrelate with the present time?
Nicolas Bernier: … And maybe not a long stage, to be honest. I don’t know yet, but I don’t think it will live 7 or 8 years like the previous “frequencies” cycle of works. All my creative cycles are reacting to the previous one. The frequencies were following cycles based on machine and field recordings, so I wanted to avoid this noisy universe to get back towards more basic sounds. The starting point was the sine wave of the acoustic tuning forks, but also the electronic sine wave and micro-sounds.
The funny thing is, while my projects are reactions to the previous ones, the previous will always be included in one way or another in the current ones. The title Transfert / Futur is, in the first place, a way to talk about science fiction, which is the main topic of this new series. But, on a more technical and personal level, it is also a transfer of the previous series within a totally new context. The piece Transfert (299 792 458 m/s) started out by transferring to synthesizers the midi sequences I used in the very first piece performance of the frequencies series. The second piece, Futur (299 792 458 m/s), also started from an old, unused and unfinished synth-based composition that was actually my very first midi sequence I made around 2013, I think (before that date, I was refusing to work with midi and synth, working only with field recording in a musique concrète perspective).
Chain DLK: How many diapasons do you own? What’s the oddest one, and why?
Nicolas Bernier: That’s a good question. I’ve got a couple of drawers full of them, old to new, metal to aluminum, brown to silver. But I’d say around a hundred.
Most of them are just boring tuning forks, but there are a couple that are more interesting: a huge 30 Hz tuning fork, for instance, or the stroboscopic ones, or an old one from the Max Kohl Chemnitz company that was one of the main scientific apparatus suppliers in the late 19th century. But there is one I have a really special relationship with: the Secretan one. Secretan was the company who was commissioned for the official international pitch A=435 Hertz tuning fork in 1859 (before the norm was set to 440 Hz), the “diapason normal.” The tuning fork was once a really serious scientific and musical topic, and the official one was kept in a controlled environment so it’s frequency wouldn’t change over time; it was the Mother of all tuning forks. I don’ t remember how a Secretan tuning fork ended up in my collection one day, and since then, each time I open that drawer, I fantasize about having one of the most important artifacts of music history. But, I mean, it’s really just me inventing stories, as it is probably just another anonymous tuning fork.
Chain DLK: Most of the artists dealing with pure sounds or frequencies I spoke with told me they developed a sort of idiosyncrasy for “dirty” noises… What’s your relation to sound and noise?
Nicolas Bernier: With the frequencies series, I wanted to look towards some kind of purity… while staying well aware that I would never find it. And, frankly, I am not that interested in purity; I am usually more looking for equilibrium between elements. This search towards purer sounds led to a certain clarity in my artistic proposals, I think. I am not a sound racist: all sounds, whether purer or noisier or everything in between, can be of interest. It’s more a matter of how you organize your ideas and elements together.
Chain DLK: Did you use any of the machines you previously built on Transfert / Futur?
Nicolas Bernier: Nope. This album is 100% digital virtual synthesizers. So, pure in a way, but dirty at the same time in the way the elements are organized.
Chain DLK: Well… why did you quote the speed of light in the titles of Transfert / Futur? Any sci-fi-like reverie?
Nicolas Bernier: Basically, all my projects reflect my obsessions (my life is made of obsessions that usually stay for a couple of years, and then leave space for a new obsession and therefore a new series of projects). For the last couple of years, I’ve been obsessed with science fiction. Before 2014, Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey were basically 100% of my relationship with sci-fi, nothing else. But then I got hooked and I’ve been watching, reading and dreaming about parallel worlds, lasers, and humanoïds since then.
With the first project of the series was an installation where I wanted to recreate the feeling of the space travel scene at the end of 2001. So this is why I chose the speed of light as the main thread in the project, because my aim is to reflect those travels at light speed, those transfers to parallel zones, those spaceships full of neons and blinking control panels. And, well, the speed of light is saying that, as in my previous projects, I am still working with light, but with a different angle, a different sub-topic.
Chain DLK: The idea of attaching an interview (in French and English) in the booklet is pretty good…
Nicolas Bernier: I think so, too! It is something the label, Acte, really wants to keep in all their releases. It gives some content, some sense in releasing music in this era of unlimited downloads. A pretty exciting new label from Montréal, by the way, with a quite open-minded vision of what music should be in this 21st century.
Chain DLK: Most of the sounds in the second track synthèse (299 792 458 m/s) reminds me of something I did ages ago by short-outing circuits of some old drum machines… how did you create the sounds you included in this track?
Nicolas Bernier: This is quite interesting, as it is one more proof that the nature of the tools doesn’t really matter, whether they are analog or digital, old or new. Because, like I said earlier, this piece is 100% virtual synthesizers. No short circuits. All “clean” and planned, but composed in some kind of dirty ways that make it feel a bit improvised or out of control, even though it’s the complete opposite.
Chain DLK: Any word about the first half of Transfert / Futur?
Nicolas Bernier: In reaction to my previous series, one of the intentions of this new one is to NOT be conceptual, and transfert (299 792 458 m/s) is a good case in point. While I flirted with pop elements in my first releases a decade ago, I have always been away from the four on the floor type of music. This piece is a long ascension aiming to place a kick drum on every beat. In the end, the 4/4 stays a bit disarticulated, but we are pretty much as close as I get to more conventional rhythmic electronic music (aside from the scores I made for modern dance pieces, maybe). So it’s kind of a return to more intuitive and more physical music.
On the other hand, the visual, scenographic, installative or performative aspect is often an important component in my work these days. The music was composed beforehand and should then be able to live by itself as music, but in the end, it is also an audiovisual performance that pursues those science-fictional ideas. There is a glimpse of the performance here: https://vimeo.com/242128789.
Chain DLK: How are you going to move this new series of releases forward? Any installation in progress or in your forthcoming plans?
Nicolas Bernier: I worked for years on a quite important installation project, but for some reason (mainly financial) I had to abandon it. I’ve got tons of other ideas, but as soon as your projects rely on the fabrication of tangible devices, it gets complicated technically and financially. So the future will tell.
Nicolas Bernier è uno degli artisti più interessanti e raffinati della scena contemporanea. La sua opera frequencies (a) è stata premiata due giorni fà con il prestigioso Golden Nica per la sezione “Digital Musics and Sound Art” dal festival Ars Electronica.
Nicolas è un artista del suono che lavora con strumenti meccanici e digitali. Le dicotomie sembrano descrivere al meglio la sua produzione artistica: digitale / organico, tradizione / sperimentazione, cerebrale / sensoriale, meccanico / elettronico. Le sue creazioni artistiche e collaborazioni sono varie; è anche membro di Perte de signal, un collettivo e centro di ricerca sulle arti multimediali situato a Montreal, e candidato al PhD in arti sonore presso la University of Huddersfield (Regno Unito).
Il Golden Nica è stato l’occasione per intervistare Nicolas sui suoi ultimi progetti e la recente performance dal vivo di frequencies (a) presentata durante l’ultima edizione dell’Elektra Festival di Montreal, direttore dall’artista e curatore Alain Thibault
Donata Marletta: Mi puoi parlare della performance sonora frequencies (a)? Quali sono state le fonti d’ispirazione per questo tuo lavoro?
Nicolas Bernier: L’idea di lavorare con i diapason mi venne un po’ di tempo fa mentre stavo cercando un modo per integrare toni stabili nelle mie performances sonore che erano per lo più basate su rumore e oggetti. Stavo cercando di evitare l’uso di strumenti musicali tradizionali come elementi tonali. Poiché ho sempre lavorato con oggetti obsoleti, e che spesso mi soffermo sulla relazione tra musica, suono, vecchia e “nuova” tecnologia, l’uso del diapason mi sembrava perfettamente logico. Lo era perché il diapason in passato è sempre stato uno strumento scientifico di precisione, perché è il simbolo della musica tonale, ma soprattutto perché produce un suono che è vicino alla sinewave (onda sinusoidale) pura, uno dei primi suoni utilizzati nella composizione di musica elettronica. A quel punto iniziai una collezione di diversi tipi di diapason, dai pre-440hz del IX secolo ai più recenti, usati in campo medico. Portavo con me i diapason ovunque (a quel tempo stavo facendo un po’ d’improvvisazione) e quindi realizzai un primo album usando i diapason (strings.lines, 2010, Crónica).
Gradualmente fui ossessionato da quest’oggetto che diventò il mio strumento musicale principale. Ancora non ero del tutto soddisfatto perché, attraverso la gestione manuale dei diapason, non potevo essere preciso come avrei voluto. Da questa esigenza mi venne l’idea di automatizzare i diapason.
Donata Marletta: Recentemente hai presentato frequencies (a) al festival Elektra di Montreal. Come hai organizzato l’allestimento della performance dal vivo? Che tipo di strumentazione hai utilizzato?
Nicolas Bernier: Per questa performance il festival Elektra mi ha fornito la condizione più ideale che potessi immaginare: una piccola sala (100 persone al massimo) unicamente dedicata alla presentazione di frequencies (a) per tre giorni di fila. Questo è davvero un lusso poiché di solito i festival di musica elettronica sono alquanto schematizzati: una grande sala, un grande schermo, poco tempo per sistemare le apparecchiature in base ad un nuovo ambiente. C’è una ragione per tutto questo, non è una critica, ma il fatto è che alcuni lavori hanno bisogno di condizioni diverse. Questo è il caso di frequencies (a) in quanto non è stata costruita secondo un formato standard per la presentazione, ma secondo i bisogni specifici della performance stessa. Poiché l’opera ha a che fare con oggetti di dimensioni ridotte (i diapason, piccoli solenoidi, suoni delicati, precisione), il pubblico ha bisogno di stare molto vicino all’opera. È stata creata secondo il principio dell’intimità piuttosto che della grande spettacolarità.
Per quanto riguarda la strumentazione, con l’aiuto di Laurent Loison e Olivier Lefebvre, abbiamo costruito delle piccole strutture in acrilico che trattengono i diapason e i solenoidi, usati per attivare i diapason. Ognuna di esse è collegata ad un microfono e ad un flusso di luce generato dal tavolo luminoso appositamente progettato sul quale sono collocate. Il tavolo inoltre nasconde la parte elettronica (usb / scheda dmx). Tutto il voltaggio inviato alle luci e ai solenoidi è trasferito attraverso la scheda dmx. Il resto è una questione di composizione, di organizzazione delle sequenze audiovisive in sincrono, che gestisco io dal vivo con Ableton Live e Max For Live.
Donata Marletta: Trovo davvero affascinante il modo in cui riesci ad abbinare strumenti analogici e digitali. Come ti poni rispetto a questi due elementi contrastanti?
Nicolas Bernier: Questa relazione tra l’elettronico e il meccanico / fisico è stato l’elemento scatenante che mi ha fatto venire voglia di lavorare nel campo delle arti elettroniche. Oggi il dialogo tra questi due elementi è totalmente fluente ma 10 o 15 anni fa, all’apice della laptop performance, quella combinazione era estremamente attraente in quanto la maggior parte dei lavori erano o esclusivamente digitali oppure non lo erano affatto.
Da allora il mio lavoro ha sempre fatto affidamento sull’uso di elementi fisici processati da un computer. Lo stimolo per un’idea o un progetto viene sempre dal mondo fisico ma il modo in cui voglio presentare l’idea richiede abilità al computer. Per me la cosa più importante è l’equilibrio tra gli elementi, cercando di non precipitare sia nel completamente “naturale” e neppure nel completamente “digitale”. Io credo che non si dovrebbe distinguere tra il naturale e il virtuale / artificiale. Tutto è collegato e comunica reciprocamente, tutto è processato in un modo o nell’altro. Per esempio, l’azione di innaffiare una pianta può essere vista come un processo artificiale.
Donata Marletta: Hai una varietà di lavori e collaborazioni molto differenti, dalla danza, teatro, post-rock alle arti visive, performances sonore e musique concrète. Mi puoi dire quali sono i tuoi punti di riferimento principali e le tue “muse ispiratrici”?
Nicolas Bernier: Sono profondamente interessato alle arti e non capisco perché esistano delle “categorie”, se non per ragioni politiche e storiche. In ogni caso, non posso dibattere sul fatto che il mio mezzo principale è il suono e probabilmente resterà sempre questo. Il mio interesse si ferma ovunque, ed offre una molteplicità di influenze al mio lavoro. Quando sono colpito da qualcosa, non mi chiedo a quale categoria faccia parte. È la stessa cosa quando creo, faccio quello che sento di dover fare, senza chiedermi se la cosa rientra in una categoria o in un’altra. Questo è il motivo per cui, anche se il mio mezzo è il suono, spesso mi interrogo sull’aspetto performativo, teatrale, gestuale, visivo e, ovviamente, musicale.
Per questi motivi le mie muse sono ovunque. Tendo a preferire le persone che mi stanno vicino. Denis Marleau e Stéphanie Jasmin sono direttori di palco con i quali ho lavorato e che hanno avuto una forte influenza sul modo in cui percepisco le arti dal vivo. Olivier Girouard, Jacques Poulin-denis, Martin Messier e tutti gli artisti di Perte de Signal (un centro gestito da artisti di cui sono membro), sono tutti cari amici che mi hanno ispirato.
Se dovessi fare dei nomi, direi: Jim Jarmusch, Pierre Schaeffer, Marcel Dzama, Karl Lemieux, Janet Cardiff, Wong Kar-wai, FW Murnau, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luc Ferrari, Francisco Meirino, Ryoji Ikeda, Hermann von Helmholtz, Sol LeWitt, Alain Bashung, Zimoun, Portishead, Chris Salter, Vilém Flusser, Jacques Rancière, Marc Ribot, Wes Anderson, Sébastien Roux, Carl Andre, Arnaud Fabre, Jean-Pierre Gauthier, The Dillinger Escape Plan, William S Burroughs, Dan Flavin, Mark Fell, Gilles Gobeil, Herman Kolgen, Robert Lepage, Pe Lang… ovviamente questo è quello che mi viene in mente al momento.
Nicolas Bernier, compositeur de musique électronique membre de la SOCAN, vient de voir son œuvre frequencies (a) couronnée du prix Golden Nica de la catégorie «Digital Musics and Sound Art», dans le cadre du prestigieux concours Prix Ars Electronica, une des plus hautes distinctions des arts numériques.
Le prix a été annoncé le 16 mai dernier, et le gala aura lieu à Linz en Autriche en septembre prochain. Pour connaître les détails du festival et les autres lauréats du concours, consultez son site web — www.aec.at.
Nicolas Bernier, né en 1977 et qui vit à Montréal, crée des installations sonores, de la musique concrète, électronique et post-rock en plus de travailler pour d’autres formes d’art comme le théâtre ou la danse. Il étudie également au doctorat à l’Université de Huddersfield, au Royaume-Uni, sous la direction de son compatriote et membre de la SOCAN Pierre Alexandre Tremblay et de Monty Adkins. Consultez son site web — www.nicolasbernier.com — pour la liste de ses activités et de ses spectacles.
To the outside observer, Canada must sometimes seem as though it were founded on paradoxes. An industrial powerhouse sporting some of the leading cultural metropolises, it is also torn one of the most thinly populated countries on the planet, with vast, uninhabited planes opening up right next to its sprawling economic centres. It should seem only logical that a nation as complex as this should give birth to an artist like Nicolas Bernier, whose œuvre has forever been caught between a plethora of dichotomies, feeding from the effort of finding a balance between extremes: It is sweet, it is bitter. It is fragile, it is rough. It is sentimental, it is cool. It feels spontaneous, it has been carefully constructed — there’s no end to the list. In an unlikely conflation of influences, Bernier, who was born in Ottawa, but eventually moved to more urban Montréal, has oscillated between the fury of punk and the development of a captivating personal style in the field of electroacoustic composition, a genre otherwise associated with humourless academicism and intellectual rigour rather than the celebration of synaptic stimulation. Before making a name for himself with early stand-out piece Les arbres, however, Bernier left his mark on the scene as part of the Ekumen collective, a tightly-knit community simultaneously operating as a label, design agency and creative hotspot (in fact, its members prefer to refer to it as a “microorganism”). Today, he has definitely closed this chapter. But the focus on an allround multimedial approach has remained part of his philosophy to this day, as have the friendships with Olivier Girouard and his long-term visual partner in crime Urban9, who has signed responsible for the artwork to all of Bernier’s albums so far. So, although he has remained connected to his past, the end of Ekumen also marked the real beginning of his solo career: After early composition Ail et l’eau faille and his strongly folk-and song-oriented work with composer and guitarist Simon Trottier, released on netlabels 12rec and Zymogen, Bernier burst onto the sound art scene in 2008 with Les arbres, a work which he had diligently been sculpting for years and which would eventually be awarded an honorary mention at the prestigious Prix Ars Electronica. Its densely layered arrangements questioned the implicit dogmatism of the electroacoustic scene, with heartbreaking strings shimmering underneath sheets of metalically rustling and crackling noise. The old stylistic polarities were eliminated and merged into a new style synthesising all of his different preferences. A variety of works further defining this aesthetic quickly followed suite: strings.lines, which explored the sound-producing capacities and cultural implications of tuning forks. courant.air, which dealt with the force and flirtations of wind. And The Dancing Deer, a quirky piece of magnetising electronics within close proximity of radio plays, guided by the playful spirit of Pierre Henry. As cohesive as all of these releases might have been, they were also unanimously marked by yet more contrasts, which delineated a fertile ground for discussion entirely without the use of words or clever liner notes. On Bernier’s latest work, usure.paysage, meanwhile, his individual take on field recording has resulted in what is possibly his most pure piece of music: There are no obvious clues as to the origin of these sounds, but you can feel yourself drifting far, far while listening to them, your body entering a world of obscure forms and surreal shapes as your mind takes a journey to the vast, uninhabited planes stretching out all across the Canadian heartland.
Could one regard the strong contrasts in your music as a direct reference to the contrasts of Canada, with a big city like Ottawa lying next to vast patches of wild nature?
Clever! But it is more about the contrast between my teenage years near a huge national park and my adult life in Montréal. Back then, cross-country skiing all alone in those woods was undoubtedly among the best moments of my life. And those moments disappeared as soon as I moved to a metropolitan city. By moving here, I’ve gained culture but lost nature, since nature here is quite tough for a big city. This nature/culture dichotomy is at the heart of most of the music I’ve composed.
What are the fundamentals of this dichotomy?
It’s all about this love/hate relationship with the computer. I admire the computer in a way. As a freelancer, I can do so much work, from business to communication and creation with one single piece of electronics — truly incredible. And I can take the core of my studio and travel with it to anywhere in the world. On the other hand, the computer is such a boring, anonymous, unpleasant interface, especially when it’s time to make music. It is making everything virtual and I still hope to live in the real world, a world that I can feel with all my senses, not only from a computer screen. So I find ways to work in the real world. Performance is one way of achieving this, collaboration and field recording are others.
Is that why the term “handmade" is so prominently featured in your biography?
Yes, that’s how I manage to beat that computer down! It’s a way for me to feel that I am still living in the real world and not just inside a virtual environment.
How has this influenced your perspective on recording in the field?
In 2009, I spent a lot of time in the Canadian West. It is the perfect cliché of what a foreigner will imagine Canada to be like: never-ending forests and mountains. Canada is so big that you don’t travel from East coast to West coast every day. And that year I had the chance to work with a multidisciplinary company called Theatre Junction. In the same year, I had a residency at Banff Centre, an art centre based literally in the middle of the rockies — the Canadian mountains. Composing there was fantastic. The Dancing Deer was entirely created there, far from my usual studio in downtown Montréal.
usure.paysage is my first release of real musique concrète in a way. There are no musical instruments, mostly field recordings. For years, all my musique concrète was based on studio recordings of machines, old forgotten objects and musical instruments. With usure.paysage, I am breaking with this habit, bringing nature into the studio. I wanted to distance myself from the habits composers have when dealing with field recordings, where they’ll usually integrate the recordings without intervening. Even when they are edited, composers often keep this gentle attitude towards recordings of nature. Or they do the complete opposite. I wanted to find a “juste-millieu” between editing while still keeping a sense of the original timbres. In usure.paysage, I wanted to find the points of articulation in the recordings to make a music that lives, that’s not just nature-ambiances. It’s not so much about processing but more about working with a tight “montage” technique.
How do you feel about the idea that if we attune our senses and expectations, we are constantly surrounded by the most wonderful music?
I’ve always thought it difficult to make any clear statement with music unless it uses voice. During the Iraq war, I composed an electroacoustic piece with a rapper singing an anti-war, anti-Bush text, but it didn’t really work out. Nobody but me actually heard that piece. I would situate myself far from the Henri Pousseur or R Murray Schafer and the philosophy that music exists in nature. The idea is pertinent but it’s not where I stand. If there is a political statement in my music, it would relate to the notion of keeping our awareness faced with the predominance of technocracy.
In which way did folk and acoustic music, as typical symbols of purity, play a role in your early musical education?
This question of purity is interesting because what one could consider as pure in my early musical education is, in fact, not so pure. This is, in a way, because I started with real instruments and punk rock. I began my musical life within a wall of distortion. Now I deal extensively with timbre, with unidentified materiologies. But stage performance and distorted guitars remain my own personal folk, my roots. And I think that sometimes I still make use of that punk rock energy and those hooks when composing musique concrète or audio performances. One thing I have to mention is that even in my punk rock phase, I was immediately attracted to blending all the different kinds of music I loved, from jazz or new age to grindcore.
You indeed seem to consider these genres as options in a giant toolbox. Can you trace this back to the music that surrounded you when you were young?
I’ve definitely always considered music as a “field of possibilities”, to paraphrase Henri Pousseur. This is not so much a strictly musical view but a social perspective. I’ve never really understood why people we’re hanging out in small groups, why they so badly need to find their identity by being in a closed relationship with others who share the same ideas or habits. Can one trace that attitude back to when I was young? The answer would most probably be “no”, because I did not grow up surrounded by music at all. In fact, it would be more like a counter-reaction to my early social environment: a bureaucratic region where everyone had to fit in their little tight box, afraid of stepping outside. In a metropolitan city, meanwhile, the phenomenon of marginality barely exists — which was not the case in the place where I grew up.
How and when did sound as a musical element enter into your world?
It entered progressively. It entered timidly in my early teenage years by trying to produce weird chords, weird rhythms and so forth. The big bang occurred when I arrived in Montréal. I brought my band from rock to improv-based ambient rock. Sound was entering more deeply into the practice and I was discovering modern music. I soon attended my first concert of electroacoustic music. It took place in complete darkness, with no performers on stage, nothing to see, everything to be heard. That was a turning point. There was something I did not understand about it — and I loved it. So I’ve tried to understand it better to be closer to that unknown.
You seem to have a special relationship with sound.
Yes, I am in a relationship with sounds. No doubt! (laughs) Sounds are my lovers. I love sound. They make my imagination flourish. They free ourselves from the visuals which imprison us. Sounds have no limits, they flow in space freely. I am attracted by sounds that come from a particular — material — reality. I’ve never been interested in electronic sound. Synthetic sound, more specifically.
How has this relationship changed over the years?
It’s hard to say. I think that it began with a poetic relationship and grew into a more technical one. I am not a technical guy at all, but I am becoming more sensitive to technique — maybe because I feel that my relationship with sound is now mature.
In the notes to strings.lines, which uses recordings of tuning forks, I found the following description of your interests: “On the one hand, this obsession with old objects, obsolescence, dust. On the other, a fascination for bareness, sobriety and purity."
In that single object, the tuning fork, I’ve found not only a symbol of my musical objectives, but also of my general interest for that dichotomy between the old and the new. I think it has something to do with the relation between the inside of the mind and the real outside world. I like to spend time on old bazaars and in antiquaries. When I compose, I think I feel closer to antiquaries than to avant-garde artist. In the meantime, I just love to be in a white museum room or to listen to minimal electronic music. I feel there is this obsession for clarity and sobriety in the art world. This is maybe what would segregate the official and the underground scene. The underground is more rough, more drafty, the works are less organized, they don’t give an impression of perfection. So maybe I feel closer to the underground, maybe it is still that punk-rock thing running after me, bearing me to not cross-over into the official realms. This obsession for dust is also a counter-reaction to my tool, the oh so white — or grey or black but please not beige — the oh so sterile laptop. With strings.lines, or with the tuning fork, I think I have found the middle-ground between those two obsessions.
Tuning forks, as the project suggests, have become symbols of the occident’s entire musical heritage. In which way has this lineage and tradition played a role in your life?
There this extremely purist approach in electroacoustics, based on space and timbre as the most important parameters for music. When I started out with electroacoustics, instead of falling into the endless possibilities of creating completely new sounds, I quickly faced the fact that the timbres of traditional musical instrument are the most high-class timbres of all. They’ve been developed over centuries to achieve perfection and richness. So I never really understood why one should not use them when doing sound art. I am not that much engaged in occidental classical music. I am engaged in it, but for me it is just another aspect of this giant toolbox called music. What strings.lines is stating is that if we look closely, the boundaries are not as insurmountable as we think. Like the sound of those tuning forks, which is so close to the sound of electronic music. Is it important in any way to do "electronic music“? Or is it electroacoustic? Or instrumental music? Are these good terminologies? Not sure at all. Here, one could argue that my approach is post-modernist. But I do not feel that my music is a melting pot of whatever. I think that even if there are multiple influences, all projects are tied to a coherent aesthetic. The pejorative image of post-modernism is over. We are now beyond all of this, I think.
Projet Perault was, if I’m not mistaken, your first public work. What role did it play in your development towards these goals?
It’s funny to bring that project up. I’ve put it in my list of works just because I don’t want to forget it and also because I don’t want to forget that Pierre Perrault, an important poet and cinematographer from the province of Québec — we owe him the “cinéma-vérité” — was the main influence which inspired me to start with field recording. When he was working for the radio in the 60s, he was speaking about how the recorder was an important tool for keeping our collective memory and the words of our predecessors. At that time, I was barely aware of electroacoustic music but that reading left a big impression. In the multidisciplinary Projet Perrault, I was only taking care of the video part. My friend Olivier Girouard was composing the music. Curiously, when I started out with electroacoustics, I was more attracted by the visual arts. For me, the music scene was a bit boring, so I was digging elsewhere. Afterwards, in 2007, I had to make a choice between those two full-time jobs: Sound or video. I choose sound. My first musical education was that of a self-taught-punk-rocker. But even then I was working like crazy, playing my instruments eight hours a day after school, getting up in the middle of the night to rehearse or to note down new ideas. After learning the guitar and bass, I finished my rock “career” on the drums. I hope to get back to it someday.
When did you decide you wanted to be an artist?
After those years, I’ve tried to convinced myself that music was not an option, as you could barely live as a musician. But you cannot decide to become an artist. There’s a force that make you involved in what you like the most. It’s not a choice, you either do it or you don’t. When I was about eighteen, I tried to convince myself that I had to study something more common. So I studied radio, which I thought was close to music but it’s not at all, and marketing — I actually wanted to be a graphic designer. Always keeping some rock and improv projects, I worked as a web programmer/designer for almost ten years. And that’s how I made my musical education: I had money to buy CDs and books, so I was digging and digging and reading and reading and learning. This is how I discovered about electroacoustic composition. As a personal challenge — I didn’t have any classical theoretical education, after all — I decided to go to University and return to my real love: music. After a couple of courses on musical history, I found out about the electroacoustic program. I didn’t understand this music, but I was incredibly curious about it. So I did my Bachelors degree, and then a master degree with Robert Normandeau at Université de Montréal. I am now starting a PhD at the University of Huddersfield in the UK under the direction of Dr. Pierre Alexandre Tremblay and Dr. Monty Adkins and it’s really awesome! But I don’t consider myself as an academic. For me, studies are just one part of life, which is always made up of different aspects. For me, it is really important to be involved in more than one circle so I don’t get lost in a tiny micro-community or in one way of seeing things. I don’t believe in academic thinking and I don’t believe in profane thinking either. I think it is the relationships between all the different visions that ultimately make life and the arts interesting.
With its Honorary mention at the Prix Ars Electronica 2009, Les arbres must have been a first highlight in your career.
It was a huge highlight indeed! I wouldn’t say it was the first one because there are little highlights every day, it all depends on your need for big things. Personally, I am still fascinated by small events. Les arbres was a long and really organic process which had more to do with sensuality than cerebrality. At one point, an artist will always have to verbalize his work so it looks more intellectual than it really is. I could even say that Les arbres is my first work in a way because it all started in 2004, quite at the beginning of my electroacoustic introduction. As I was super-occupied with school and with a job to pay tuition fees, I was working on Les arbres really slowly, sharing the time between all the others obligations. And as I was at the beginning of my learning curve, I quickly grew dissatisfied with the music I was composing. So all the movements have changed quite a lot over this five year process. I was testing all of it with Urban9, the one I gave total confidence to judge a piece of music, because music is not his job, he just feels it, he doesn’t think about it. I think I could say that if I am doing the kind of music I am doing today, I owe it mainly to Urban9. When I met him, I was still working in the web and there was this awesome experimental music shop called feu-Esoteric just in front of our office. I was more purist in those days, looking for only “serious” art. Urban9, on the other hand, was listening to a kind of glitch-drone stuff that I wasn’t into at all and he made me discover all this wonderful music. Urban9 and I were exchanging some images and sounds and while sharing this, the work was slowly evolving into what it has become today. No matter what, it’s with this project that I found that I could merge my pop side and my electroacoustic side.
Would it be correct to refer to Les arbres as a catalyst in many respects?
I’ve always been producing like crazy actually. I just can’t help it: making music is like breathing. When Les arbres was published, it was already an old project for me in a way. One always wants to search further and further. Between the first draft of Les arbres in 2004 and the mention at Prix Ars in 2009, I had the time to work a lot and to make contact and to learn and to grow and now I feel that everything is coming together and is going well. But of course Les arbres brought a lot of positive effects — even though they are not as tangible as one could hope.
What have been your main compositional challenges over the past two years?
One of my main challenges was… to find myself! I cyclically get lost, every three or four years. Most of my works between 2005 and 2008 were collaborative. After an overdose of collaboration, I wanted to work alone. There will always be collaborators, but in the last projects, I decided to live alone with the challenges of creation. courant.air had its load of challenges: after two albums of improvised folk/electronic with Simon Trottier, I wanted to bring this amalgam of timbres into a strictly compositional field. How to achieve this? How to work with an interpreter of a non-classical formation, with the forces and weakness of a more intuitive oriented playing? How to write a score for this kind of work? I’ve never written scores before, I barely read and write traditional music. Especially, how to write the electroacoustic part? How to stay conceptually coherent when, on the one hand, I want to play with more noisy textures, and on the other, I am working with completely acoustic timbres? The most important challenge, and this is what I am still working on and I am not rushed in finding some answers if there are some at all, is how to make an electronic music performance appealing, interesting, coherent gesturally and musically thrilling? How to make a “spectacle” with electroacoustic music? I will not be the first one trying to find some elements of answers. But I am still rarely convinced with the shows I see so I want to engage myself more and more in this way after some years of work oriented for fixed media.
In the preface to Les arbres, you mentioned the “abolition of boundaries" as one of your main goals. Do you, in sync with the old saying that “all art aspires to music", believe that sound has the strongest potential of all forms of art in achieving that elimination of borders?
I would never say that sound is the art form, not in an absolute way. Of course it is for me because it suits my personal interests. But this is only a personal matter. Besides, as soon as you get into a concert hall or exhibition space, it’s not just about sound anymore. It’s a ritual, it’s a show, it’s always a multi-sensorial, multi-aspect experience. Shows are great. But this is maybe why I love so much to compose for a fixed medium — CD, digital, DVD — because I know that some of the audience will be appreciating the work quietly, in the intimate setting of their homes, not expecting any spectacular show but with the more modest aim of simply listening to the music. Besides, there are art forms that impress me even more. In dance, for example, all you basically need is a body. Most of the shows are complex and involve music, stage design and lighting. But in its most simple form, when the movement of a body can move me, this is a truly amazing thing.
Concerning the abolition of boundaries, we come back again to that question about this giant toolbox, this “field of possibilities”. I just don’t see the point of segregation. The world is rich and sharing this richness is about all we can do here. A couple of years ago, when I was active in different fields of sound creation, I was putting all my different approaches into different boxes made for different sensibilities, different people. But over the years, those different approaches have all collapsed into one entity made of various components, that still can be identified as one single thing. I hope you are following me?
Perhaps one could say that courant.air and The Dancing Deer are good examples for this?
Yes, they are combining tonal perspective alongside some noise, drones, clicks, acousmatic gesture, pop and rock influences. When I did Les arbres for instance, this was for me my “pop” side. But now it just doesn’t matter to me anymore to have different sides. It just what it is and sometimes it’s closer to purer forms like the pieces included on usure.paysage. And sometimes it’s a combination of its own unique blends. But I will no longer separate my more “pop-experimental” compositions and my more “serious” ones. It’s all related to each other in one way or another. I even like to shut my brain off altogether from time to time. This is where playfulness resides, I guess. The Dancing Deer is close to my very first solo release called Ail et l’eau faille. There is something really light and loose in those works. Something that tells me that I am not taking myself too seriously even though I am seriously involved in everything I do. Music, life, seriousness, playfulness… it’s all a matter of equilibrium.
And still, despite aiming at the eradication of borders, your artistic world is not without its delimitations.
I guess there is always a frontier after all? I guess we could say I am working in the contemporary world of the arts, not around works of previous centuries. I am not creating dance or theater shows, even though I am thinking a lot about how to perform electronic music in some of my latest projects like La chambre des machines. Oh! And there I said it… I said “electronic music” in the previous sentence. But I never tell myself: I will make electronic music today. I just create music without having to restrain myself with this or that. The better tool to achieve what I want to is the computer. All the terms to describe styles of music are so problematic. Electronic music is rarely electronic and is often filled with acoustic or analogue sounds. Any pop artist is doing electroacoustic music, semantically speaking, because they are using acoustic sources, processed acoustic sources and electronic sources. And what is the difference between sound art, audio art, musique concrète, acousmatic music?
As you can see, I am not in a good position to label myself. I guess there are people better equipped at doing this. But my fundamental objective would probably be to make music that feels human despite the fact that is made with a computer. The fundamental aesthetic of my work will probably always rely somewhat on the tension between conceptual rigidity and intuition.
In 1913, Italian futurist Luigi Russolo penned the Art of Noises manifesto where he outlined important facets of music criticism and creation in the face of a young century and an industrialized society well on the verge of world war. Bringing his manifesto to fruition just one year later, Russolo introduced his intonarumori (“noise instruments”) in a series of concerts held in London”. The manifesto “rejected inherited preference for harmony in favour of the dissonant masterpieces that serenade us everyday without our conscious awareness” and instead celebrated “the crashing down of metal shop blinds, slamming doors, the hubbub and shuffling of crowds, the variety of din from stations, railways, iron foundries, spinning mills, printing works, electric power stations, and underground railways”. Usurping popular understandings of music and conventions of beauty, Russolo laid the groundwork for what we now know as noise music, often inextricably linked with electronic music. Russolo wrote; “The rhythmic motions of noise are infinite”.
Flash forward to 2010, and Nicolas Bernier explains the implications of La Chambre des Machines ’ relationship to Russolo: “We are not going to say; we are children of Russolo. But we are all, because he was more or less one of the first; he made [music] with sound, [the] sound of machines. But now today, politically speaking… we cannot really relate to that. He was in the fascist era and it was the first phase of the industrialization. There is maybe not [a] political but more a social aspect of doing what we do and it’s almost in a position of what Russolo was talking about, because he was talking about using the machine. Because the machine today is the computer, this is our machine.” The sounds that Bernier and Messier’s intonarumori are generated by software along withfound objects like gears, cranks and clocks, and tools like mallets and bows. Says Bernier, this is; “a lot more interesting than the computer.”
Going back a couple of years, Bernier enlisted long-time friend, builder and wood-worker, Alexandre Landry to create their first intonarumori. Says Bernier, “he’s not in the artistic world but in the meantime, when his day job is over he’s going to his basement and he’s super. He has a nice artistic sensibility. Basically, for the first [intonarumori] we did some back and forth. He made a first machine for a show that I did in Québec City at Mois Multi. He has carte blanche, more or less because I’m not, and Martin either, we just don’t know how to work with our hands.”
With the introduction of the second intonarumori, Martin Messier says that prior to its realization, “I had a solo performance with old clocks and [Nicolas] had [a] performance with one box.” Landry produced the second machine in a short time period as Messier and Bernier were pitching La Chambre des Machines to festivals.With the solidification of the second box and in the span of a year, Bernier and Messier performed at Mutek 2010 and at other renowned festivals including Sonar Chicago and Barcelona and Transmediale in Berlin.
There was some debate between Landry, Bernier and Messier on whether the box should be open or closed. Bernier explains, “the fundamental thing in making a new box was to have it open. When you think of the machines of Russolo and our machine with computer, the parallel is really funny. His box was already closed and we couldn’t see what’s inside. Today it’s the same thing when we go to electronic music performance[s]; there’s this box, this computer. We hear things and we don’t know how the sound is made.”
The duo describes their work as “a sound construction at the crossroads of acoustics and electronics.” Though this is the case, Bernier and Messier are also drawing on musical traditions and contemporary tools in a visionary manner that conceptually, is like the infinite reflection of mirrors upon mirrors; blending the old with the new. Bernier and Messier’s composition that is La Chambre des Machines is built upon traditions open and closed, with laptop to produce digital sound, the use of found objects, traditional music tools like the aforementioned mallet and bow, and consequently, extended playing techniques. The very ways in which these elements are combined are in fact re-combined and appropriated as the well-designed object that is the intonarumori; though the laptop is a closed machine, the overarching concept and box is completely open, sounding as unique as they look.
Unravelling the creative processes responsible for La Chambre…, Bernier explains the dichotomy between old and new: “what’s important to me is the object. What I’m attracted [to] is old; I’m a fan of antiques and when these antiques make sound, now I’m getting really super excited! And that’s because all my creation process is so — there’s something so virtual. You’re in front of your computer and you, your music is in a file and then you want to send your music to a friend and you send it via the web and you receive and you did all this with one single object.” Perhaps in describing another project of his with Simon Trottier (of the Polaris Prize nominated Timber Timbre), Bernier’s statement is equally a propos of La Chambre des Machines. He says, “it’s the fundamental thing I’m trying to do is look at the past and the future and to find a way to be atemporal.”
Both artists have a significant track record of composition for theatre and dance. They bring their experiences from these realms back to their sound-based canvas and explain the influence. Says Messier, “of course there’s a lot of influence that comes from theatre and dance shows that we see and work on and that’s maybe why we’re focusing on gesture and not just on doing the right note at exactly the right place. That’s maybe why also its more about the show and than just the music. We’re really focusing on sound but for this kind of project it’s more about a show. It’s little things; it’s how do I take my clocks and how can I take it with my hands so people can see it… How you use your body — it’s not a huge choreography but it’s a little thing that we’re thinking about so visually it makes a difference.” In performing La Chambre des Machines, Messier and Bernier are fully immersed in the experience, which comes in part from digital sources, and from tactile and physical. They get their bodies behind their playing of the intonarumori and their relationship with these machines is active. With the open-machine in mind, Bernier and Messier share the performing experience with the viewer on both the intimate, small-scale and on a large-scale when they incorporate video for larger venues. The work becomes more immersive for the artists and audiences.
Bernier agrees in that theatre and dance have — “100% had an influence. To work on dance and theatre and to see all that people are doing — it’s just another world completely. That to me, as a music guy, as a sound guy, I would never have been into that world and just to see how they construct things how they think about movement and about light, it’s developing that sensibility.”
Building on this, Messier says, “sometimes, people are telling me what I’m doing it’s theatrical but I’m like ’no, it’s music, I’m just focusing a bit more than you on gesture but it’s obvious for me that I’m not doing theatre because I take this like that and you don’t.’ But we’re still musicians. We want to incorporate lights and all these things but we’re still thinking as composers.”
There is fluidity in the approach that Messier and Bernier take to composing and preparing their works. Whether it is by incorporating elements from theatre and dance or with the programming they do on the digital side of things. Messier says, “I’ve learned a lot from programming because it helps when you have an idea to know ’okay, you have a problem, how can I solve it?’ And it can be applied to whatever you’re doing, it’s not just Max-MSP, it’s when you’re composing, it’s when you want this mechanism to make a sound like [a certain way]. How can I find that?”
With the spirit of Russolo’s railways, iron foundries and underground railways in mind and where Bernier and Messier incorporate a broad palette of influences and sound sources to their work, when asked to consider what place noise has in their music, Bernier explains, “it’s really weird because now I have a feeling that the fashion now is not in electronic sound but more and more in organic sound and I am really shifting into tones and noise. So noise is really important in our lives. Yes, noises are really important. It’s a part of our life! It’s a part of our day to day!”