Nicolas Bernier on his piece frequencies (light quanta)

sandris murins
25 composers
Published in
14 min readMar 27, 2024

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Read my interview with, Montreal based, expanded music composer Nicolas Bernier on his piece frequencies (light quanta). The composer says that frequencies is a cycle of work comprising more or less ten works that are sometimes very different from one another. The thread they have in common is to work around basic principles of sound synthesis. Some are working with the tuning forks, some with digital synthesis and frequencies (light quanta) is Bernier’s most known work which is an installation with sound and light. It was commissioned by LABoral in Spain, by Danielle Romero and the first version was co-produced with LABoral and Perte de Signal which is a nonprofit artist organisation in Montreal.

The composer explains that the commission was more about doing a purely sonic work and he was basically free to express himself in whatever way he wanted to. He was already working a lot with the acrylic and light and in the end he created the sound and light sculpture.

The text version of interview was created by Armands Stefans Sargsuns.

What is the concept of the piece?

The Quanta is the smallest energy unit and I wanted to transpose that in the sound realm in the first place, so just working with the smallest sound possible. I was interested in working with the small instead of the “big” which is a topic I’ve been working on since almost the very beginning of my career. For this piece I just started with the sound actually, so I just made really tiny bits of sounds and I wanted to make something algorithmic, something that would never be the same that would continuously evolve in time. I made a hundred little snippets of sounds where the length is between not even a second to maybe three or five minutes. hose hundred sequences are played more or less randomly.

It’s this relation with quantum physics where you take the smallest unit to make something that is infinite, so from the smallest, tiniest particles we have our never-ending universe, playing with some notions like discontinuity and probability. Well, the light part which is like the quanta is basically the element of light, so I made these 100 plates of acrylic with engraved graphics that are recalling some readings I made on quantum physics. The piece is just playing by itself with no beginning and no end.

Would you describe this as a concert piece or an installation piece?

It’s really an installation piece, it’s not a concert piece at all. You just enter the room and it’s there and you can go around the piece. If you go around the piece the transparent plates are reflecting infinitely one after the other. The graphics on the first plate will repeat itself on the other plate after and then you can move around and discover multiple variations so it’s never really the same. Neither the sound, nor the music is never exactly the same and yet it’s all the same 100 elements that are always articulated in different ways. The visual is algorithmic as well. It’s like a superposition of different visuals, it’s never the same visuals that will be superimposed, so it’s always like a new vision, a new angle on the same material.

Watch full interview

How did you come up with the title of the piece?

Like most of my work, it came by reading something about the titles changed in my creative pratctice with the frequency series: I now want my titles to reflect the work I will do during a certain time frame, as opposed to a title of a single piece. It’s not the works themselves. It’s not like you’ve got piece one, piece two, piece three. For me this is of least important now. What is important is that between that year and that year, I worked around a certain topic, so frequencies is like a period of my life. The very first piece of the series with the tuning fork was really to say that I was going from more noisy material to more pure material, so this this is why at the at the beginning I named the series frequencies — to make a point that I was less into rich sound material and really into the more pure sound material.

Then in a parenthesis of the frequencies titles there’s like a specification of what is the more specific topic of that particular piece. The first piece was frequencies (a). A was for “acoustic” because I was working with the acoustic sound of the tuning fork. And then there was frequencies (synthetic variations) that were a series of variations. It was my first synth-based piece basically. After that, frequencies (light quanta) was more about the granular, the particle, so another basic form of sound. Maybe not really pure, but the fact that I’m basically working with clicks which is basically the smallest sound, so this is why I named it that way. Also, it’s about this interest I had for quantum physics in that time. This was already 10 years ago and I’m not there anymore. When I have to talk about my “old pieces”, I don’t often remember what I wanted to do like 10 years ago. I remember a little bit, but not everything. I just remember that I was really into quantum physics and that was really my thing, but now it’s really like gone and I’m into something else I guess.

Does the piece have a message?

Honestly, having a clear message is not really my cup of tea. Generally my work is more a reflection on the medium itself, on how you compose music itself. It’s not about giving a specific emotion or something. For instance, just the fact that I’ve been working with these hundred sequences was not easy to compose! Compositionally speaking, it was a tremendous challenge to make something that was algorithmic and at the same time to have this kind of precision in the articulation of the hundred of small audiovisual units. I didn’t want to have a hundred words always playing randomly, I still want to keep some kind of coherence in the language. So this is humble , but it’s already a proposal. Just the fact that I’m blending electroacoustic music techniques with visual arts and the fact that it’s an installation, you know, it’s just like throwing ideas in the field of what we can do with sound composition and how we can pursue to expand the work in that direction.

Did you want to create a certain sensorial experience with the piece?

I had an idea in mind. It’s quite a poetic idea. As I was reading a lot about protons, accelerators and stuff like that, there was something, not really a message, but an intention: creating a metaphor of putting oneself inside one of those particle detecting machines like the large hadron collider (LHC). It’s a bit like if you were in that thing and if you could watch the particles moving super fast. It’s a bit of poetic take on that idea, but I don’t know if it’s working in the end honestly. And I never asked anybody, I never talked about this to anybody. I know that the installation seemed to fascinate people, because people were staying and moving around, so I am happy with that!

How long did it take to create the piece?

I would say about a year more or less. I started with just the sound and I didn’t really know actually if there would be a visual part. Then I had some ideas, I tried things, it worked and I was able to have a bit of a budget.

Watch Frequencies (light quanta)

What kind of stages did you go through during the process of composing?

For the first stage I cooperated with a label which is now called Editions 901 who released the music part of the project. Back in the days they had another name, it was called Pharmacia 901 and they released this granular synthesis software developed by Ennio Mazzon. I started to use that software to create granular sounds and then I guess I just made those hundred snippets of sound from what I thought was interesting. From what I remember, a lot of time was about trying to put the really right amount of silence before and after every sound. And we’re talking about fractions of seconds, so when played randomly, it would always feel right. feels a bit silly to say that, but, musically speaking, it was the most difficult part for me to find the right amount of silence, so everything was always falling in the right place despite the randomness.

Then there was this prototyping with the visual phase. I already had my light rig, so I knew what my USB DMX interface was, I knew what my DMX to voltage interface was because I’m using all the same system in all my pieces, so then I just started to try things with the acrylic panels. Then I worked with Robocut, the fabricator I often worked with. Actually, just before I sent it to the fabrication I just decided on a graphic concept and this really small part just before the fabrication was what changed everything. Before that, it was not that nice visually. But then I had just a last minute flash and this is what made the piece stunning. During the creation of this piece I read many books without understanding any of that as mathematics is not really my thing, but I fell on those kinds of graphics that I rereated in vector and made a poetic version. When I was talking about the superposition of graphics, if I’m taking just one part and I’m superposing it to another part, it’s just creating something else. I did this like a thousand times and then it can give things like that superposition. That was the visual idea which came just at the last minute and this is what made it work graphically. Everything was put on a grid, so everything is kind of falling visually at the right spot.

I made the fabrication here in Montréal and then I had to go to Spain to finish the work, so the big enormous road case was sent to Spain. This is where I decided on the audiovisual relationships, as this is a part that wasn’t really done at that point. I just printed all my visuals like that on the floor and every hundred sequences I was picking what kind of graphic I wanted to have more. Like I said earlier, often it’s algorithmic, sometimes it’s always decided if for this sound sequence I want, for instance, all the circles, it’s giving a certain effect or sometimes I want the oblique lines, but all played randomly, for instance. Then I worked with what I call my visual score which is on the floor and I was just trying to figure out what kind of audio visual relationship could work.

That was really fascinating because before I arrived there I didn’t really know if it would actually work! I never saw it because I didn’t had the budget to prototype, so it’s just a matter of chance. When I arrived in Spain, I took the sculpture out of the case and then I plugged my thing and then it was like, “I just hope it’s going to be nice” and…it went well!

What kind of hardware and software did you use to create the piece?

As for software, it’s super classic. I’m using Ableton Live with Max 4 Live. I like when things are simple… because everything is always going to get complicated at one point, so I like to centralise everything. I really like Ableton Live especially because of the fact you can have Max MSP in there, so basically I can do more or less everything I want with just like this one software as long as I can use a Mac (as long as it’s not based on a microcontroller). It’s helping me a lot with the music part because it’s really intuitive, so I can have the tech and the music in the same software. For me this is a super important thing. There’s also a part of the communication with the lights. I’ve got MIDI sequences sent to DMX, then a USB to DMX interface called uDMX, then a DMX to voltage interface made by Celestial audio… and that’s about it.

This is a question I’m often asked, but it’s really weird because even though I work with technology, technology for me is not really an interest, it’s just a means to do certain things. If I want to do something I will try to make it work and for this I will try to fetch the good technology for it, but it’s not something I’m having fun with. This installation technologically speaking is really super basic. I mean, it’s just like MIDI transferred to DMX which then is transferred to voltage and to lights. I think it’s just the whole thing which makes it interesting. You know, at the base I’m a composer I ask myself things like, “Is it working in time? Does it have the effect as a spectator? Is it cool to be there for a certain amount of time?” and if so, well, that’s cool. But overall technology is not really my cup of tea ironically.

Does the piece have a structure?

There are some structures. There’s a kind of a balance to find between structure and randomness because if it only were randomness then it’s just noise. The first element of structure and, when I’m talking about the hundred little snippets, those are structured. It’s not synthesis, it’s really just sound samples. Those samples are always the same.

What is changing is the order they’re played in. When the order is changing then the relationship is changing, so the perception of what we receive is changing as well. Visually it’s a bit of the same thing. On the panels we have some graphics, they’re always the same, they’re not moving, they’re engraved in the acrylic panels, but then it’s never the same that will open up, so the relation will change. If you have a line over a circle or if you have only lines with the same line going through all the hundred panels then it’s not the same. Again, there’s some randomness, but there’s also structure. Structure is my thing a bit, I think that’s the thing I’m good at, so there’s always structure in everything I do more or less.

How did you connect the sound and light?

There were some ideas. To be really honest I don’t even remember anything specifically, I just remember it was really clear 10 years ago! My conceptual justification of using light is the quanta, which is, if I remember correctly,the smallest particle of light.

Then for the relationship there’s this one to one relationship. I have a sound and the light goes on and the sound disappears, the light disappears. This is like the most basic relationship which is honestly almost always working and maybe even deceptively always working: it’s a bit too easy. You turn on a light and you put a sound on it, and it will just work, so it’s a bit too easy. My PhD supervisor Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay gave me this idea that when I work with light I try to disconnect this relationship and, for instance, to fade in with the light and the sound will interrupt the light or the other way around. There are all these interplays that are possible and enriching the audiovisual discourse. But then the most effective part is the part that I, again, didn’t plan at all, it’s just like the reflection of the light on the other plates. If on my hundred panels I only have the first panel lit up, it will reflect on the other and it will naturally fade out in the structure and that wasn’t planned. The magic for me is coming a lot from the fact that just there’s this natural dialogue between the light and the obscurity, let’s say, that is moving all the time. This is what I think is working in that piece.

Can you imagine the same piece without light?

It exists because, like I said, there’s this label Edition 901 who released the sound-only edition. When they released the music, they did it with the software and it was designed by the same programmer who created the software I use for granular synthesis. It’s super basic, but when you play start, instead of going to the Apple store or Spotify, you add this software and it just plays the file randomly. It exists, but then is it the same piece? Probably not.

The music-only version is called frequencies (sound quanta) because I wanted to emphasise the fact that it’s sound-only. I don’t think it’s the same piece. It’s a bit like if you go see a theatre play or a dance show, you can listen to it on your TV screen, but is it the same piece? I don’t know. There are a lot of performances that I’m not releasing on CD or digital release because I think they’re made to be lived in a space and not to be listened to at home.

Can you imagine transforming this piece into a concert?

I mean it would be a variation of it. It could work. I could think of something. I could perform that. With the installation I think it, instead of just launching the thing and randomly playing by itself, I could decide what sequence I want to play and for how long, so it could probably be possible.

Can you tell more about the company you worked with?

For the fabrication part you need a studio with machines and need to be able to generate sawdust and everything. I don’t have that at home and I’m not really good manually either, so I’m working with people who can help me build those things for sure. This fabrication lab is called Robocut. We worked together for a lot of my work which involves fabrication like that. This is an interesting topic because at one point I realised in my life I was a composer, let’s say, and I realised I was becoming more and more a director than composer, so it’s not just about doing the music, it’s about making sure the end result of a project with many parts involved. I’m doing what I can, so all the programming, well, it depends as sometimes I’m not even programming, but I’m at least keeping the music part.

How did the cooperation with the company shape the piece?

here’s is a lot of back and forth of ideas, but in the end I’m the one taking the final decision. It depends on what you’re thinking about shaping the work, but at least it will shape the visual side for sure because they’re doing the work really great and perfectly. If I would do this myself it would just look like a six year old kid trying to put pieces together. Visually the finality of the visual, yes, it is helping a lot, but in the end the work itself relies on the decision or the command I’m doing.

What advice would you give to composers who would like to begin working with light?

That’s a good question. My first suggestion would be… I was about to say not to work with light. There are a lot of people working with light now and, I don’t know, I’m kind of a bit tired maybe. I would say maybe try to avoid the one-on-one thing: a sound — a light. That’s the thing I’m a bit tired of just having like a sound and a light together. And as I say it’s working, it’s always working. I would maybe give the suggestion to work more with space and, instead of doing really discrete articulations, go back to more of a James Turrell inspiration and to play with the perception of a space. If you want to play with more precise things and objects, maybe create your own objects, create your own scenography. It’s difficult to answer that question, I’m sorry! Actia;;u. the only good advice is: don’t listen to my advices or anybody advices!

Photo

Source: Nicolas Bernier

Nicolas Bernier creates audiovisual performances and installations aiming to carve a dialogue between sound and tangible matter. Shaped by his work within the fields of cinema, literature, dance and theatre companies, his own language blend together elements of music, photography, design, science, video art, architecture, light design and scenography. In the midst of this eclecticism, his artistic concerns remain constant: the balance between the cerebral and the sensual, and between organic sources and digital processing. Awardee of the prestigious Golden Nica at Prix Ars Electronica 2013 (Austria), his work widely recognize, presented all over the world: SONAR (Spain), Mutek (Canada), Elektra (Canada), ZKM (Germany), Transmediale (Germany) and LABoral (Spain) to name a few. His sound compositions are widely published on electronic music labels: 901 Editions (Italy), LINE (US), leerraum (Switzerland), Entr’acte (UK) and empreintes DIGITALes (Québec). He is a member of CIRMMT and Hexagram media arts research and development centres based in Montreal. He is teaching in the Digital Music program of the Université de Montréal.

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