“Your Notes Echoed Far, But Nothing Happened”: an Interview with Joni Void
Mise En Abyme, the second full-length LP from Montréal/Lille producer/composer and sound collagist Jean Cousin’s alter ego Joni Void, is out 29 March 2019. Longtime Constellation ally Graham Latham sat down to talk with Cousin, who then supplied some written follow-ups to their conversation, eliciting this heartfelt, detailed and thoughtful interview that delves into depression, identity dysphoria, memory and time, expression through other voices, the construction of the self, video games, anime and existentialism — an interconnected array of touchstones for Void’s acclaimed new work.
“Jean Cousin draws despair and wonder from within the vast unfeeling of digital communication. There’s the chance to hear data transformed into music and feel music ring in the body, where the trackers can’t yet reach. Mise En Abyme hunts that sensation of flux and liminality, unearthing warmth in a landscape of paranoia.” — Sasha Geffen, Pitchfork (8.0 review)
Let’s start with the title of the album. As I understand it, mise en abyme is a formal technique that comes from visual art, but not as often brought into the realm of music. Could you tell me a bit about the concept and how you’ve used it in making the album?
The simplest description, or visual representation, of a mise en abyme is an image within an image within an image, or a copy of a copy of a copy, which creates a recursive sequence or feedback loop. This wasn’t a central concept for the album from the start, but I wanted to base the cover artwork on “La Vie Après La Mort” by the French artist Nicolas Malinowsky — which represents a face within a face within a face — and the idea unfolded from there. The literal meaning of mise en abyme is “placed into the abyss,” which is a fitting title for what the album is about: struggling against the sense of personal doom, going through layers of yourself, or regressing into former versions of yourself at different points in time.
It’s much more complicated to apply this concept to sound — to place “a sound within a sound within a sound” — but you could say that the use of loops, delay, reverb and feedback can all relate to the idea. In “Voix Sans Issue” I tried to make a Shepard tone with my voice, which is a constantly escalating line that gives the illusion of increasing pitch: you feel like you’re constantly moving but in fact you’re still in the same place. More on point, the first and last songs of the album contain samples from every other song on Mise En Abyme, so in a sense they do contain copies of copies, and reference the “file nature” of the sounds. It’s a concept I’ve been doing for almost every release of mine since the first johnny_ripper album, having an extra track that’s a “song of every song,” usually called “Dreamscape”; in the case of Selfless, it was the last song, “Deaf.”
You also call the album a “time travel experiment.” Can you expand a bit on this idea? Is there a connection between this and the concept of mise en abyme?
The concept of “non-linear time” I definitely owe to Black Quantum Futurism, which is a collective based in Philadelphia and founded by Camae Ayewa (Moor Mother) and Rasheedah Phillips (an activist attorney, poet and author). I knew Moor Mother’s music first. I really relate to her ideas around sound collage, taking different sound sources and samples, noise, and spoken word, often directly referencing historical and contemporary events and stories; it would require paragraphs of its own to describe properly. Through meeting Camae I was able to hear Rasheedah give a presentation talk about her text “Dismantling the Master’s Clock,” which was life-changing for me. It’s basically about how African peoples, before slavery, had a perception of time that was experienced more in relation to emotional state, where your present was dependent on the generations that came before and after you. It was only with slavery that suddenly the new industrial conception of time was imposed, where a clock defines when you get up, how long you work, when you eat, when you sleep, and so on: literally the master’s clock. Our sense of modern, “linear” time is a very recent invention, and a very reductive one in regards to the complexity of time and how it is differently experienced. We need to understand that it has not always been like this, that this is a product of less than 300 years. So seeing Rasheedah recite that text and extend these concepts of time really impacted me, followed by an equally affecting experience reading her time travel fiction book Recurrence Plot. I came to see this as a whole way of processing reality. These ideas like time and money are symbols we invented, so why can’t we transcend them?
I connected to this on a very personal level, especially during my experience of emotional breakdown, in how this feeling of old behaviours and thoughts and trauma resurfacing seemed to be a temporal echo, and reflecting on my origins, and those of my family. It became an extended reflection on time unfolding cyclically — rather than on a straight, linear path, constantly moving forward — and about intergenerational trauma and how to end recurring cycles. We would have such a better understanding of ourselves if we better understood the complexity of recurring cycles — this is how nature works, basically.
The album suggests that this conception of time you’re evoking feels like a closed loop, or a perpetual present, almost like an actual space in which you’re trapped. The closing line of “Deep Impression” — “Jean, you are, and will always be, your depression” — feels something like a thesis statement. How do experiences of despair and depression play into this?
That’s definitely a defining line for the album. What I wanted to say wasn’t, “Oh I’m always going to be sad,” but that I’m always going to perceive the world through my own personal filter, that has been shaped by these experiences of emotional extremes, and by external factors like the environments I’m in, and what I project onto others versus what others project onto me. An alternative for that line could have been “your condition” instead of “your depression.” I can never escape that headspace, no human can experience life outside of their own head, so that line was more about acceptance. My past experiences and life events have shaped me in a way where my story will always be about my struggle(s). It’s always going to be there. Even if, say, I somehow “cure” my depression, my story will still be about how I got over my burden, whether I relapse into it later, or know how to act/react differently to recurring, similar situations, or if I find myself caught in the same dead-ends…it will always be a defining aspect of who I am. There will always be this perpetual echo that resonates through all my different selves, in moments of emotional distress, with familiar sensations and situations that play out my whole life, and will give me this feeling of being trapped in my own self.
One of the main themes of the album is definitely closure, or the impossibility of reaching closure. I think there’s a kind of paradox in the whole thing. You have to know your past and those elements that impacted you. If you’re not in tune with your pain and/or trauma, you are probably doomed to repeat the same mistakes and not be aware of it — how can you change what you don’t know needs to be changed? On the other hand, too much self-awareness can become a problem: if you dwell too much on your past you get lost in it, you start seeing signs of it everywhere. You’re not living the present, you’re only seeing the present in relation to the past. So it’s a kind of dilemma. You need to know where you’re coming from, but you can’t let that completely define what your life is now. With difficult things happening in my life, it just seemed impossible to resolve anything. I think this can be extended to the idea of intergenerational trauma, where you almost feel like you have to deal with the lack of closure of those who came before you, you carry on that pain and extend those cycles. How do you ever have closure? Especially in the modern context, thinking about colonialism, how do you actually have closure after something like that? How is that even possible, knowing how much it affects everything that’s happening?
If the conceptual core of Mise En Abyme is a focus on interiority, memory, and the construction of the subject — as opposed to the more outward-facing trajectory of your previous album Selfless — how has this shift in focus changed the formal methods you’ve used to create these songs? How does your aesthetic vocabulary interact with your conceptual one?
Aside from the differences in theme — there’s definitely some more self-referential aspects here — mostly I haven’t changed my approach to composition. There’s again the concept of collaborations, but I’m not just simply having someone singing over a song I send them — I’ll try to record them myself and the song come to revolve around the process of recording, using the room and so on. I’m still using the “no instrumental composition” rule, which means being more about sound sources and the textures of the samples, and more about the sound design and editing work than ‘traditionally’ musical composition. That’s a concept with anything I do solo as Joni Void, for sure: making my own kind of “montage music,” or Cinema-tek and Cameratronica as I like to call it.
Since the start I haven’t been interested in working with micro-samples. I want the music to have less of that loop-based, staccato aesthetic that has defined so much of my previous work. On Mise En Abyme there’s only really “Safe House” that has that sort of cut-up aspect, but even that’s in the original sample, which is very cut up and glitchy, so what I was actually sampling had that nature to it. What I prefer to use are long takes or extended samples; I actually prefer expanding the samples more than making them smaller. Like the Eliane Radigue sample in “Non-Dit,” that’s five minutes of a 20-minute track, of course with effects added over it, but it’s not like I created a mini-loop of it. I want the samples to be the skeleton of the songs, and I prefer to say the songs are “based around” them instead of just that they use “samples.”
The concept for this album is that the first half starts with collaborations, working with voices of other people, the second half is me solo, using samples, it’s much more beats editing-based. That was definitely inspired by the album The Birds Outside Sang by Florist. She had a near-fatal bike accident, and so she made this album where the first half is her solo, basically from her hospital room reflecting on her own vulnerability, mortality and life events; and the second half is accompanied by a band, and the theme is more about how much we need other people, how our loved ones help us heal, and the songs feel much more “addressed” to someone versus self-reflective. On my album it’s kind of the opposite: the narrative of the album moves from a sort of social setting to one of isolation, in a sort of a cycle: “I can’t be with people, I can’t be with myself, I can’t be with people…”
The human voice figures prominently on the record, though with the exception of “Voix Sans Issue,” these voices are not your own. For the most part they remain wordless, while for the album’s single lyric-driven track the words seem to be yours, but they’re delivered via computer voice.
I have always felt very dissociated from my own body/voice, so the presence of vocals on the album is definitely important to the kind of collaborations I’m doing.
Seeing N Nao and Ylang Ylang perform live sets a cappella, vocals only, has had a big impact on me. I’ve worked with Noah since 2015 — we’ve done a collaborative EP together, she features on Selfless, I’ve remixed her work — and she just has the voice of an angel. The song that would eventually become “Dysfunctional Helper” is based entirely on a video she sent me, where the soundtrack is just her layered vocals and room recordings. So before even I had the concept of the album she had sent me something that was perfect for it. Then Sarah Pagé, a close friend, is usually more recognized for playing harp, but she has an amazing voice. She had expressed interest in working more with vocals, and as we were collaborating frequently she ended up featuring on “Abusers”; I think it’s her first solo vocal work on a recording.
I have a huge growing obsession with music that is all vocal-based. One album that has always been my favourite is CoH plays Cosey Fanni Tutti. Basically Tutti sent CoH (Ivan Pavlov) a bunch of recordings of herself in extreme emotional states, like reciting lines of a journal, and then he, using only those recordings, cut everything up and made these experimental, eccentric songs restricted to her voice as sound material. It’s always been one of the most inspiring albums to me. “Dissociation” on Selfless is a sort of tribute: it’s all Ky Brooks’ voice, similarly reciting emotional statements of dissociation, and then me essentially cutting and pasting all that up to make it into a song. CoH plays Cosey Fanni Tutti has really influenced my process of working with people, recording material, and even just the sound of the work.
The emotive layers of voice on the Swiss Army Man soundtrack, by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, was a huge influence — a film that portrays Daniel Radcliffe as a dead body that helps a cast away man-child, played by Paul Dano, who’s stranded on a desert island for unknown reasons. It’s simultaneously one of the weirdest, absurd films and yet one of the most emotional, human, touching films made. I can easily connect to that. I think it relates on a deeper level to the headspace you live in as a young boy, and how cinema/fantasy impacts your imagination and real-life relations. The song Cave Ballad is sampled on the album actually.
The most direct references I had were Maja Ratjke and Joan La Barbara. Joan La Barbara’s Voice is the Original Instrument was a huge inspiration, even just the title inspired me to work with voice as an instrument, work with the sonic qualities of it, rather than creating meaning through lyrics. Like looking at the texture of sound the way you would a synth pad. And then Maja Ratjke extended that concept with Voice, an album that’s entirely her voice, electronically effected. Both of these were directly referenced/sampled in the original version of “Voix Sans Issue”. Because of sample clearing issues I had to redo the song in my own voice. So there was kind of a twist, but they’re still very much an influence for the album.
For “Deep Impression,” I had planned to recite the lyrics myself, with the theme being more about “finding your own voice.” It works better in French — trouver sa voix — because it’s voix as in “ voice” but also voie as in “path.” The album had this concept of an escalation, a crescendo, with a climax that was going to be me singing, or reciting, this text that I’ve had on my phone for like 4 years. I never write lyrics, but I’ve been carrying this little set of lines around for a long time, like a journal post, basically. I was going to record me reciting it but I just wanted to make sure it fit the beat, so I did a text-to-speech bounce of it and found that it worked better than anything I could record myself. It kind of created this whole other layer, where it’s my music, or the virtual entity of Joni Void, expressing itself, rather than just me personally or “as a person” — even if those are real human experiences cited.
Much for your sonic palette is based on samples of sounds produced by various media technologies (analog cameras, telephones, skipping CDs). How does this relate to the album’s other themes?
That theme wasn’t intentional originally, but it revealed itself gradually as I worked on the album. I came to realize that every song has a specific relation to a technology or form of media: “Paradox” is all about feedback; “Dysfunctional Helper” is entirely made from a video; “Lov-Ender” has phone recordings. “Abusers” is based on a Facebook post — It’s not only about my own experiences of dealing with people that have been abusers, but yes, inspired by a post I read written under a fake name, that really gave me this heavy feeling of heartache. I’d never seen someone put those feelings so eloquently into words. It’s basically all about how acts of abuse can break a person’s life, when you’ve put trust in someone and everything is normal, until that act just shatters everything.
And then on Side B, there’s the phones, camera, skipping CDs, effected voice, and though it wasn’t actually intentional, it made sense with the time-travel theme. These are media that capture time, that allow us to save and store memories, to revisit things you might otherwise have left behind, and that alters how we process reality. And what if time, with those technologies, wasn’t linear anymore, and you could just access those different points? If it was something we could technologically control, how differently would we process time?
You drew a lot of conceptual inspiration from non-musical sources for this record, can you tell me about some of those?
Video games are an important part of this album, as I reflect often on how our generation has grown up processing reality like video-games; my first vivid memories have to do with my father’s death and obsessively playing video games. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is an important influence. It’s this bizarre, surreal nightmare where you end up in a town where there’s an evil spirit causing chaos, and the moon is going to crash into the town in three days. Basically, through the use of songs played on an ocarina, you travel back in time, reliving that three day cycle over and over again and meeting all these characters with predestined paths in a chain of events that you become involved in, and end up controlling to your advantage. With the “Song of Healing” (a song I’ve covered before) you cure people of curses, and it turns their curse into a mask. When you wear the mask you’re able to use the curse to your advantage — you control it now, you can use it. That’s what I wanted the album to be, turning my curse into a mask, through song. Majora’s Mask was originally referenced much more directly: before I settled on Mise En Abyme, the album was going to be titled Your Notes Echoed Far, But Nothing Happened, which is said in the game when you play a song on the ocarina but to no effect.
Also important are two animes by one of my favourite directors Masaaki Yuasa. There’s The Tatami Galaxy, an anime series where a neurotic, introverted young student with messy hair repeats the same cycle of 2–3 years of university, as he ends up always dissatisfied with the course of events that unfold from his first day of class. He keeps going back in time and starting the cycle again, but in the final episode, after being entangled in so many people’s lives and predetermined paths, he decides to not go to class or join clubs, becomes a recluse, and ends up trapped in a universe made entirely out of infinite copies of his room. Traveling through all these different variations of his room — represented as mise en abymes — searching for an exit to the outside world, he learns to appreciate the relations he had with friends and people he met, how they filled his life with meaning.
Mind Game is also and always an inspiration for anything I do; it’s a life-changing anime film I was religiously watching over and over again when I was 16, living alone for the first time, and at a low point in my life. In the opening scenes fragments of every main character’s life are shown in 2-second clips, in and out of chronological order, and with time-traveling twists, flashbacks, and dream sequences it becomes sort of a collage of these people’s lives and all their entanglements. It ends with the main character projecting what the future could be, shown in a similar sequence of all the possibilities for each character that could occur from that moment forward.
There’s the film 88:88 by Isiah Medina, which is a film of editing, basically. He had a 4K camera and for three or four years he followed his friends around, who were dealing with abject poverty and mental illness. He collected all this footage and then put together this film of editing. There’s no linear narrative to it, it’s more of a chaotic assemblage of snippets and mixed material — it’s very disorienting. He called it 88:88 to indicate how you process time when you’re living in poverty, when it’s survival. So the film represents that through its intense editing style: the impossibility to order time, to have something linear in that lifestyle. So it’s an intense, abstract editing style, and really inspiring. It gave me the desire to attempt something similar musically.
Lastly, I only read this book once the album was finished, but Mise En Abyme does feel in a way like my own personal interpretation of Le Mythe de Sisyphe by Albert Camus. It’s a philosophical essay in which he reflects on “the only question of philosophy that matters”: the question of suicide, and whether it is an appropriate response to what he defines as the absurd condition: “Man’s futile search for meaning, unity and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world devoid of God and eternal truths or values.” He states that it’s through revolt against the absurd that you find meaning in life, through your own struggles and by being aware of their inevitability. It ends with the whole metaphor of Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill as this recurring, eternal thing, and it’s this that “fills one’s own heart” or “makes your heart sing.” I wouldn’t put it that way but I understand what he means.