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Escape Velocity

Multiple Media: Olivia Louvel On Music, Art & 17th Century History
DJ Pangburn , May 9th, 2017 08:37

For her latest record, Data Regina, Olivia Louvel packages experimental electronic music, new media art, and 16th century conflict into multimedia art, says DJ Pangburn

After several years of releasing electronic music, Olivia Louvel had grown restless—not just with the computer music process, but her own vocals. Always one to operate at the creative frontiers where music and art intersect, Louvel, starting in 2010, began piecing together a project that would feature experimental shifts in instrumentation and vocal stylings. Orchestral sounds would collide with industrial noise; pop would give way to ambient textures; and Louvel’s voice would get layered and pitched to the point that it almost became a multi-timbral synthesizer.

In the past, Louvel had previously drawn inspiration from silent film, her own paintings, and haiku, amongst other types of artistic media. For 2014’s Beauty Sleep, she paired each of the 11 tracks with an experimental short film. But for the long-gestating project that would become the new album, Data Regina, Louvel gradually decided to explore new media art forms like web art and 3D animation in telling the story of her infiltration of the lives of and conflict between Mary Queen Of Scots and Queen Elizabeth.

I spoke with Louvel shortly after her music video for 'Infiltrate' premiered; an appetiser of sorts for Data Regina, introducing the album’s concept and sound, but also showcasing the new media used on the project, like 3D scanning of her face and 3D animation. In our conversation, Louvel details how she incorporated Mary Queen of Scot’s then cutting edge poetry into the album, as well how the battles between England and Scotland informed the new album’s narrative.

What is immediately apparent with Data Regina is that this isn’t just music - it’s various types of new media art and a conceptual album organised around Mary Queen Of Scots and her poetry, as well as Queen Elizabeth. Was this your first time working with more than just two media?

Olivia Louvel: It’s the first time I’ve done a project that is multimedia with 3D animation. I guess I’m quite visual in what I do, so I did some storyboards for the 3D animation. I had a few ideas in mind that I tried to draw in a very raw way. But, it’s the first time I’ve done a project that is a total project with all of the images and the website.

With the website, there is this interesting juxtaposition between the new media, web-based art and 16th century history. How did this concept arise where Data Regina becomes a multimedia vessel for this time period?

OL: What drew me to the project was really the story of Mary Queen Of Scots. I was reading books about her, which was the starting point. I wanted to sort of infiltrate the narrative with my own narrative. It’s a project about her, but it’s also a project about Elizabeth, as well as other types of women. It’s about femininity, women in power, a queen in captivity for years. She was moved from Scotland when she was five years old and taken to France because Henry VIII was trying to make a marriage deal with her, and she was always moved around, and I was just drawn to her life.

But, it’s not enough to make a project - you need to find an angle to tell something that is beyond it. I wanted to have a balance between songs and battles, and so I wanted a raw sound. I didn’t think at first I would make a website, and the 3D animations came after. We started a year ago as part of the necessity of having visuals for the album.

'Infiltrate' by Olivia Louvel from Cat Werk Imprint on Vimeo.

Is the title Data Regina another way of drawing a juxtaposition between past and present in this project?

OL: There were multiple titles. At one point it was called The Queen Project, it was calledData Battles, it was called Data Queens. We work with data with computers, and I make computer music, so for me that made sense. Data as in I had an accumulation of information which I had to gather, select, and curate. And Elizabeth and Mary used to sign letters just “R”, which stands for “regina” or “regent”. It’s one of those things that just comes together, and it’s beautiful when you’re brainstorming and you know what a project is going to be called.

You talk of infiltrating the narrative, which is musically interesting as it’s a technique mostly used in fiction. Did you insert yourself as a person, or did you assume a fictional character or version of yourself?

OL: In my own way I try to embody Mary. Sometimes I am her, and sometimes I am not - I am Elizabeth. I had to think of anything I could grasp from my readings and my research, and then try to integrate it and embody it without completely embodying it, if that makes sense.

Did you conceptualise this scenario first, then start recording, or was it the reverse?

OL: I started this project some time ago. I literally started planting the seed back in 2010, so it’s been a long, long process. So, I’ve been planting various bits of sounds here and there. Two years ago, I was really bored with my voice and being sort of locked into this electronic sound type of writing, and I wanted to do something different. So, with some of the sounds, like on the track 'Deploy', emerged from a different type of soundscape because I wanted it to contrast with the refined kind of voice of electronic music. I wanted something more brittle and a bit more noisy, and that is when the battles started to emerge and it fit perfectly with the historical backdrop - the brutality between England and Scotland. It all made sense, but the historical backdrop wasn’t there early on.

How did the battles influence the music?

OL: The battles are all soundtracked. There is no voice, but there is a narrative. I was influenced by battles at the Anglo-Scottish border because I did some research. For instance, there is a track called 'Langside'. It’s not at all like a battle - it’s very slow. It’s 1586, it’s just before Mary is about to fly away to England, and this pretty much marks the end of Mary Queen Of Scots because she is going to then be under the control of Elizabeth; first as a guest and then as a captive. So, this track is not at all like a battle: it’s really slow, stretched out, and really repetitive.

One of the interesting things about your interactive website is that it notes that Mary Queen Of Scots was a poet, and features some of her work. I had no idea she was a poet.

OL: Neither did I. I’m not a historian, but I found this book, which was a collection of her poems and essays, and it was like me finding a treasure. As an artist, this was reinforcing everything I wanted to do because not only was she a queen but an artist—a writer documenting events through her writing. She was writing poetry.

I spoke with Dr. Rosalind Smith, who is an academic based in Australia, and she wrote this article about Mary Queen of Scots as a poet called Mary Queen of Scots was a poet — and you should know it. She said it was completely forgotten in history. The last poem she wrote was on the morning of her execution, and I put this to music - it’s the poem called 'February 8th, 1587'. Mary was the most read women writer of her time, to the point that she was plagiarised by other writers.

For the music video for ‘Infiltrate’, the video’s director Antoine Kendall did 3D scans of your face. What was it like going through that technological process, and were you working together as far as conceptualising the video’s motif and look?

OL: It took ages because you have to move the camera around bit by bit. [Laughs] Antoine is my son, and he’s very talented as a 3D animator, so it was a constant dialogue. We worked together from the start. Animation is such a tedious process, so he would work on his own and propose directions, but we did spend a lot of time together because I wanted to have some input on the narrative and aesthetic.

This project had a long gestation, and you usually work on several albums simultaneously. So, are you currently working on some other multimedia projects?

OL: I’ve always been interested in visuals, but I’d also like to work in spaces with different media like sound installations maybe. I’m also hoping I can do other projects that have strong visual elements. I don’t think this is a one-off. I think I’m evolving. I don’t think the next will be just audio on its own.

‘Data Regina’ is out now on the Cat Werk Imprint