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A Quietus Interview

Deep Listening: Bérangère Maximin Interviewed
Cindy Stern , November 6th, 2014 13:03

Cindy Stern offers her unique insights into - and talks to - the incomparable electroacoustic composer Bérangère Maximin

Photographs courtesy of Anton Yakutovych

Some music just connects with me, and it's even better when it happens totally out of the blue. This is what happened with Bérangère Maximin. When I stumbled across a copy of No One Is An Island (Sub Rosa, 2012), the featured guests Fennesz, Rhys Chatham and Richard Pinhas caught my eye. But that didn't prepare me for the surprise I got when I heard it. What a strange mix of electroacoustic music and instruments, touching on the androgyny of My Bloody Valentine; the vibe just drew me in. This was something different, far away from the current electronic scene that I felt in a lot of cases was getting like a production line.

Her music had this unexpected effect of bringing back memories of earlier records I loved; there was a depth and beauty in the experimentation. I also noticed the influence of the contemporary classical genre as soon as I heard her first album Tant Que Les Heures Passent [As Long As The Hours Go By, Tzadik, 2008]; it was a different beast, showing her roots in the musique concrète scene in Paris. I could sense her taste for detail and her perfectionism, her balancing of almost aleatory and tightly written parts, and her sense of humour. Luc Ferrari's Escalier Des Aveugles or even Jon Hassell's Fourth World sprung to mind. Such crossovers for a solo effort; this is what lends her work a special space all of its own.

As we became friends, I was able to hear her third album Infinitesimal (Sub Rosa, 2013) develop from start to finish. I saw her fight, with unremitting pleasure, to stick together heterogeneous sounds. There was a lot of work on layering - she could rewrite some transitions until they gave the proper impact and silence was used as powerfully as any pompous explosion. It was an album of nice paradox, an intimate recording to be heard loud. The listener could get lost in its minimalist backdrop and circumvolutions of sighs, scraping metal, buzzing flies and prominent bass, which I find really close to the spirit of the likes of King Tubby.

Even though the atmosphere remained very solitary and tense, there was perceptible fun in refining the material and mixing it. It had a very organic sensual sound, which she originated in her Home Sweet Home Studio.

When it was finished I said to Bérangère there were so many places she could go next - to expand the material or take it somewhere else entirely - and she definitely has with her forthcoming album, to be released this winter. As a sonic sculptor she has developed a style of her own, a world which is spacious, warm and raw. She clearly loves spending time in the studio and makes the most of it. Moreover, she takes inspiration from her solo practice on stage and occasional improv duo sets with strong characters like Fred Frith (prepared guitar) in the States and France or beside Christine Abdelnour (alto saxophone), Axel Dörner (trumpet) and Magda Mayas (prepared piano) last September in Paris and Berlin.  

She's very curious by nature and finds that anything could be the start to a story. Her new album came out of a challenge; she took the previous material further, deeper and wider. It sounds globally upfront, its massive oceanic music producing expressive drones that melt into manic refrains and strangely manipulated stereophony. It also has powerful phantasmic vocals that build to a crescendo of what sounds like a chopped and screwed John Cale Viola section with a choir of alien sirens. Bérangère Maximin's personality gives her a foundation for taking laptop music somewhere different, a meticulous producer with great resource and tenacity.

[]   You come from an acousmatic music background. Could you tell me a bit about that and how you came to this style?

Bérangère Maximin: I started my four-year composition class with Denis Dufour who's an active composer and a former member of the Ina-GRM, shortly after Pierre Schaeffer - the founder of the musique concrète genre - died. I just turned 18. A friend played me Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry's first piece, Symphonie Pour Un Homme Seul, the summer prior to my application. I got struck by the strangeness of the form and the way it sounded. I immediately sensed that this work filled a gap between music and film and there was something for me to explore. Though I remember hearing my friends and teachers say I had good potential for music since I was a child, it only sparked off when I started to work on my own in the studio. Denis was a real good teacher in the sense that he didn't only give the students a true method, he also offered us a space to debate, listen to each other's work and get feedback. It was very dynamic. And all the more dynamic because the class was open to art school and music lovers during collective listening sessions. That was also the time when I discovered the repertoire: François Bayle, Luc Ferrari, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Bernard Parmegiani, Eliane Radigue. I also listened to the first compositions of electronica and glitch music such as Panasonic (not yet Pan Sonic), Mouse on Mars, Autechre and the early Fennesz - pretty inspiring as I was myself experimenting on tape, editing and mixing my first study pieces with five Revox recorders and a mixing board. There were no visuals to inspire or distract you, this being before the use of computers, so I'd say those years stood as an intensive ear-training as well.

Your first album Tant Que Les Heures Passent seemed to come out fully formed. Was this material built up over a long time?

BM: My debut album is autobiographical in a way: six electroacoustic pieces tainted with musique concrète and some tropical touches which could be compared to my childhood in Réunion, a French island deep in the Indian Ocean close to Mauritius, and then my few years at the Conservatoire. I guess it's a normal process to continue to do more and more personal work. It came out in 2008 and was a selection of pieces I produced in my digital studio, Home Sweet Home. I started it in Paris a couple of years earlier. 'Si Ce N'Est Toi' ['If Not You'], the last piece I wrote for the album, was composed only a few weeks before wrapping it all up. It started with a kind of crush I had on a sample which I caught on an old tape machine. Some synthetic trumpet, very bad quality, so cheap that it was funny but captivating. The event was very short, just a few notes. I cut them into three parts, repeated them, played with superimpositions. Then, the result of it reminded me of some freakish birdsong I had recorded on vacation. So I mixed the two as they were working really well in counterpoint. But it became too funny, too childish, so I added a bit of distorted pipe-whistle noise, a very dirty one, every ten seconds of melody. That was where I got the right balance for the first layer and so on. There was thick static - an almost oppressive background contrasting with very expressive sounds over that.

I rarely write ideas down on paper before the start of a new work but I usually write a lot while I'm working on it. And the titles come afterwards, this one being a sort of homage to John Zorn. I was so grateful he showed such a big enthusiasm for the music in releasing it.

It must have been wonderful for your debut album to be released on John Zorn's Tzadik label. How did that come about?

BM: The day I received that message from John remains one of the happiest of my life. I did the usual, I sent a CD-R. He replied after eight days saying he was really digging what he was listening to. Then he proposed a tracklist and jokingly complained that I was making it hard for him to choose because there was so much good material. You can imagine the effect it produced - and just at the right time, because I'd just quit my job as Denis Dufour's personal assistant, where I'd been learning for five years. It was such a boost.


The Tzadik connection obviously gave you a big link to the NYC Downtown scene and gigs in the United States. Was this the catalyst for your next album No One Is An Island?

BM: It surely was. When the first album came out, I was getting seriously bored of working alone and wanted to confront the audience. I started to receive booking propositions and put my first solo tour together in Europe and the USA. It took time to develop my own live techniques, so the eagerness for playing also came from the necessity of learning from others. And New York is one of the best places for that - you can practise every night if you want to, and with a large range of musicians in various styles from drone to jazz. John invited me over to play a live electronics solo set at the Stone in December 2008. Then I did one more show at Roulette the following spring and have been back to the US three times since, including once on the west coast. The good point of being on the Tzadik label is that it allows you to go extremes, to have free scope to explore the limits of your instrument, and I've had an easy contact with the performers there.

The link to the first album is that they are both a selection of productions, the first one being purely electroacoustic, the second one being the best of my recorded collaborations with guitar players. This album is informed by a period of time where I met wonderful people on tour, such as Fennesz and Rhys Chatham. It seemed logical to me to ask them to take part in the project because I'd admired their work for a long time. Also the promoters kept booking me with guitarists so I thought that it could be the starting point for some mixed pieces. And the proximity factor made it simple, because we were all based in the same city at the time.

How did the compositions materialise?

BM: I composed each of these pieces alone in the studio from recordings of improvised duo sessions. So I can say it is a mix of improv and electroacoustic production, which was challenging because I had to work with material coming from very strong characters and make it my own. Coming from the musique concrète world, I can't just leave the piece as it was first executed. My reflex is to always optimise the sound for fixed media, otherwise my ears are not satisfied. This means that the work on the recording itself, the mix, the stereophonic space, the eq-ing, must all give freedom to the recorded sounds and allow them to bring their own dramaturgy. And I can say that working with such personalities made the challenge much harder.

Your use of vocals is very minimal but has a huge impact. The cut up vocals on such pieces as 'This Vile Body', 'Bicéphale Ballade' or even the second movement of your last album, Infinitesimal bring to mind the sort of forbidden siren vocal Burial mentions when discussing his favourite jungle tracks...

BM: First of all it's the perfect way to make clear the human is still at the centre of the action, though perhaps occasionally off-screen in my case. In the latest pieces I tend to use the voice as kind of transparent irregular filter which alters the other sounds and gives a special texture to the whole group. The original takes are microphonic and not much processed, so the traces of the human are still perceptible, resistant even though they're reduced to the most minimal intentions. This is something one can follow as a continuous stream, a state of mind and a strong energy. When it comes to pieces containing spoken word, the voice is the simplest medium - a direct connection to people. I started making music when I was a teenager. I used to sing 60s hits with my friends in bars on the weekends and on vacation from school. At the time it wasn't much about music, it was about experimenting in life and communicating with people of my own age. I'd focussed my attention on other forms for a long while and then came back to using my voice in live shows. Though it's still very specific work to me, I do enjoy using my voice more and more.


How did you meet Fred Frith?

BM: I first met Fred at Musique Action festival, in eastern France, in 2007. I was a producer of a local radio show and I interviewed him and the drummer Chris Cutler - they were performing as a duo. Then we shared the bill at a festival in Brest in May 2010 [Sonore, scène nationale La Carène]. I remember seeing him on his chair, listening to the whole solo with a lot of attention. I was shy so I always needed to have a couple of drinks before starting any conversation with people I admired. When I got backstage, he simply said that he loved the new music I presented and if I had a chance to come to San Francisco he'd be happy to play a duo with me. I got a grant from Culturesfrance to live and work in NYC for a couple of months the following winter so of course the first thing I did was to contact Fred. He and Randy Yau put a festival together for me and Yan Jun, his long-time friend who'd just arrived from China. That was the Cross-Bay In Between Festivals Mini-Festival which had great guests such as Bob Ostertag and Jeffrey Zeigler. Then in mid-2012 I invited Fred over for a couple of duo performances on a boat in Paris and another in Bordeaux [at Batofar and I-Boat]. I'm proud and happy to say that we will play together again in the future.

You sometimes use dub type effects. Has dub been an influence on you at any point?

BM: Infinitesimal is my first such piece in several movements, as well as being the most minimal recording so far - even though it came quite naturally. I'd say the piece is more atmospheric and droney than usual. It is a little acid-dry in places, with large spaces; it is quite monochrome and probably more cinematic than I first envisaged. The way people have perceived it so far is as a piece which remains very sensual with a keen sense of detail and with bumping bass. They see it as something intoxicating, haunting, making silent damages on them. Well, that is how I imagined it as well: as the opposite of a peaceful scene. It is a disturbance and a tension and is less lyrical than usual, maybe, as well as being more introspective. And that is probably why the piece creates such a sensual feel. I assume I found resources to create this through the popular music side of me I've always kept alive, drawing on that tribal energy.

Here is one of the comments I got online soon after the album came out: "These five tracks drift in on a spacey, stealthy ambience: like dub stretched into infinite recession, they're defined as much by what they leave out as by what they retain. The vibe is sultry like the onset of a thunderstorm, sensuous in the way it engages the listener in considerations of space, of textures, of the ghosts of structures. There's the shadow of a mighty sub-bass, the panting of breath, the buzzing of a fly: the blurring of relationships between physical and manmade, animate and inanimate." How good is that!


Great feedback indeed. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one to sense the dub vibe in parts of the album. After about six years of experience, how would you define your music yourself? Where do you draw your inspiration from now?

BM: I would say my repertoire is divided into different categories there are works that are purely abstract and works I would qualify as more musical - they come from the influence of popular music songwriting. I consider live concerts to be an extension of this; a practice which exists to nourish the main project, which is the work I do in studio. This said, I can't get the distance to really classify them. Critics and promoters usually tell me that my albums are so different from one another and that they don't fit any box. When they say my albums are hard to pin down, it is sometimes meant as a mark of respect and sometimes the opposite. My recordings do often come from a kind of a mise-en-scène, to mark the difference between this and a soundscape or field recording. I do record sounds in an isolated environment, play with all sorts of everyday objects very close to the microphone, and that reveals other colours and morphologies which take them out of the original context. This is where anything can happen - I'm quite open at this stage. Then comes the hierarchy, space, development, nuances, fine tuning and other ingredients of the personal recipe. This could be a few seconds of out-of-tune lyricism, some dissymmetry, density, dissonance or something with another strong characteristic. I create an environment for it to grow up, to develop, and this is a background which underlines its originality and which tells us about ourselves. It is about the fact of being human, the paradoxes inside us, the infinity of stories and possible outcomes.

I've heard your new album and I think it is a masterpiece, taking your writing even further. The 20 minute-plus centrepiece is an amazing star-sailing journey… What are your thoughts on this new series of work?

BM: I'm not really a conceptual artist. Life always seems to topple the concepts. Nevertheless, I have always got some sort of elaborate script in mind as soon as I get the right initial sound. I put myself in a certain state of mind, a particular atmosphere. I think I've gone further into the idea of waves - an idea that came up while making Infinitesimal, the comings and goings in the mix, the progressive evolution of the melody, the nuances that can be created with an organ or piano volume pedal: a 'bellows effect' or a breath. I have kept on working with arch forms and symmetry, the release being as important as the crescendo, the resolution being as progressive as the build-up before the central climax. I've done several pieces based on this idea and, more generally, I've lately used a tighter sound range.

As you were recording this album you also got invited to be artist-in-residence at the famous EMS Studios in Sweden. This spawned an amazing new piece called 'Cracks' which Craig Leon included on a recent mixtape for FACT magazine. You said the piece is the intro to the album, and represents that crisp sound of walking in the snow. How did you make the track?

BM: The new series flows in a similar way to more recent work in terms of theme and structure. I started the production in the summer of 2013, right after Infinitesimal came out. I thought the albums would work as a diptych and that the new one would come out as an EP. But the ideas kept rolling out so quickly that I thought it would be interesting to try playing them live. That's how I put 'Lovesick' and 'Solo In the Dark' together for a festival in Sweden [Gävle, Stockholm]. I kept on working on the pieces at EMS and played them in Paris as well as three times in Berlin more recently. In the meantime, I got the pre-mastering done for the new opus which is now a full-length record. To sum it up I'd say it exploits the notion of risk and failure with a subjective and sceptical viewpoint. It has a lively decorum full of stop-start motion and tension.

Details of Bérangère Maximin's future live dates with Christine Abdelnour can be found here