In 2002, while idly flipping through the “Experimental” bin at Amoeba Music, I came across a three inch cd from Métamkine, L’étoile absinthe by Michèle Bokanowski, part of their “Cinéma pour l’oreille” series. I had had only good luck with three inch CDs from Amoeba so far, and particularly so with the ones from this series, so plunk it goes into my basket. I had no idea. It was just another day with my sons, spending our hard-earned cash at our favorite record store. Several days later, all unsuspecting, I opened this little jewel and put it on the stereo. Captivating, utterly captivating. And it doesn’t stop captivating, either, not even after dozens of playings. So in 2006, when Michèle Bokanowski and Patrick Bokanowski came to the California Institute of the Arts [CalArts], I requested an interview with Michèle Bokanowski for the then hardly yet even nascent Asymmetry Music Magazine. She very graciously and charmingly agreed, and so in a little outdoor nook at her hotel in Stevenson Ranch near Valencia we sat down and had this little chat.
Asymmetry Music Magazine: I’d like to start if I may with what you’re doing now.
Bokanowski: I did, what is it called, the Composer’s Forum, on Monday. We listened to my latest piece, Chant d’ombre; in English it is “Song of the Shadow.” It’s almost thirty minutes long and dedicated to Éliane Radigue. Very minimalist, which is why I dedicated it to Éliane. You know her work?
AMM: Yes, in fact, when I first read that you had studied with Éliane Radigue I was surprised as I’d heard very little in your work that reminds me of her music.
MB: Well you know it’s funny, because we do think very different though we are very close. I admire her work; I think it’s very interesting. And she’s a good listener for me, too. You know, she wrote the text for Cirque, the poem in the CD booklet, which she wrote at a stretch. I don’t know how good the English translation is, but the French is quite good poetry, and she did it, just like that you know? And she understands the music well, even though it’s far from what she does.
AMM: The brief biographical note in the booklet to Cirque [also online at http://www.electrocd.com/en/bio/bokanowski_mi/] mentions that you had studied with Éliane Radigue.
MB: Yes, we met once a week for about a year.
AMM: I was interested, too, that you read Schaeffer’s À la recherche d’une musique concrète at age 22. That seems to have been quite important for you.
MB: The problem was I was born in a family of musicians. My mother was a musician, and I think she did not want me to go through what she had to go through, the work she had had to do to win her way, like playing the piano for silent movies for many years. So I did other studies. I was at the school of Oriental Languages, learning Russian and philosophy. And while I was interning at the ORTF in the musical research department, I was also doing translations from Russian to earn money. But when I was about twenty, when I met Patrick, I said it’s not possible, I will miss my life if I don’t study music, you understand? So I started again, from the beginning: solfège, harmony, counterpoint at the conservatory, very classical. Then I met Michel Puig with whom I studied Schönbergian principles. The way he was teaching composition, it’s very different from the classical way.
AMM: More logical.
MB: Yes, much more close to the real problems of composition. In classical teaching, they give you everything: in a fugue, they give you the subject, in harmony the bass or the upper part, the melody, so you have to guess which is which, huh? It is a question of guessing what the teacher wants you to write. With Schönberg, from the first chord, you have to be inventive, to compose the fugue subject, which is the most difficult thing about a fugue, because if the subject isn’t interesting, the fugue won’t be interesting either, I think. And at that time, Schönberg’s principles were not yet translated into French, so it was oral teaching from someone who had learned from Leibowitz who was a student of Schönberg’s. Direct oral tradition.
AMM: Then you read À la recherche d’une musique concrète and ever since have done — are known for — musique concrète.
MB: When I met with the students [at CalArts], I wanted to explain why musique concrète is so attractive to me, as opposed to writing music, written music. To write music implies that my thoughts are at the origin of the compositions, that the final thing is a sound rendering of the search. The sound is at the end of the line, in other words. Musique concrète is the exact reverse of this process. You start from sounds, sounds that will perhaps lead you to a structure. Here it’s the material that induces the thought. The possibilities of finding / inventing new sounds and, therefore, new forms are tremendous, infinite. And because you can do everything, you also have to be rigorous. But I think one should not have a despotic approach to sound. When I start making sounds, mixing sounds, I of course have some idea of what I’m searching for, but quite often the result turns out rather different and much better than what I intended. And I have to be open-minded enough to hear it and humble enough to accept it. Always free to go into the unknown. That’s what I did in L’étoile absinthe. I did some improvisation on my synthesizer; it was terrible. I think if one could have seen me doing these clusters with my arms…
AMM: They would never have predicted L’étoile!
MB: No! I did some crazy things, but very interesting. It was instant music. I kept the recording. It took me a long time to be able to hear what I had done. Sometimes, for example, the beginning, it was given to me, I didn’t do anything. I was very lucky. I had this voice on tape [it’s her voice, by the way, and yes, she still uses tape] and then I joined the improvisation I did on my synthesizer with the voice.
AMM: So one must be patient.
MB: Yes. And keep everything. It was the same with Tabou. At the time I made Tabou, I was taking jazz dance lessons. In the changing room, I often heard two American women talking, and I loved the sound of their voices, so I invited them to record their conversation over a cup of tea. One of them brought her husband, so there were four of us. I put the tape recorder on and we had tea, and I ended up with about four hours of conversation. I kept this recording for a very long time, and sometimes when I was listening to it, I had a strange feeling that behind the casual things being said, something very mysterious and important was being hidden, which should be revealed. Anyway, this conversation inspired me with melodies, which I played on the electric organ, but the mixing of the two, the melodies and the conversation, didn’t come out right. But I managed to save some fragments that I made into loops. And this gave me the basis for the piece, because these short things were very good. And you could hear the sound of the organ but as if from far away, you understand? But it gave a musicality to everything. The original mix was not very good, but it was very, very useful. Even in a bad mixing, you can find… something. You have to be a good listener.
MB: Yes, and that is why it pleases me that you like L’étoile absinthe so much, because with it I was going in a new direction. The basis of that is improvisation. I did not want to pursue all this work with loops; I wanted to go somewhere else. Also, after doing music for dance and for cinema and theme-based music for concerts, such as Phone variations and Cirque, I wanted to come back to the abstraction of “pure” music. I wanted in L’étoile absinthe to work on space, or rather on the illusion of space—how listening simply in stereo could give a sense of the materiality of space. I wanted to render the music almost tangible, as in painting an illusion of perspective can be achieved.
AMM: You also have done sound installations?
MB: Yes, yes. I did a musical tree with my brother. He was a very gifted painter in his lifetime; he did all the masks and costumes in L’Ange. We all three used to work a lot together — my brother, Patrick, and me. For this musical tree, my brother made it with these enormous sea urchins, like the flowers of the tree, and when the wind blows it sounds like water, and the sounds are higher or lower depending on the size of the sea urchin. We did this in a library, a library for children. The tree was very small, so, unfortunatly, the children took everything off! Then I did another installation in the Nucourt caves, for 24 hours. I had to do music for 24 hours. It’s exactly like Éliane’s music — always changing, always the same — and she loved it! And during all that time there were dancers, poetry, many things. I’m working with a dancer now, using music from L’étoile absinthe and some new music written just for her. And then I will work on the music for Patrick’s new film. It would perhaps surprise you, but I haven’t seen one image of the new film.
AMM: Not a bit!
MB: Because I want to be fresh too…, and he also. It’s better. If I see all the images, you know, all the hesitations, it’s not so good. So we always work like that, not talking too much about it, me not seeing too much. You have to be careful when you do this, you have to chose carefully which moment in the work you see the images.