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.