“it started as a way to communicate with people and my friends at school”
Bérangère Maximin is a Paris-based French electro-acoustic composer and a former Denis Dufour (Groupe de recherches musicales [GRM]) student. Her discography spans several albums — Infinitesimal (2013), No one Is an Island (2012), and Tant Que Les heures Passent (As Long As The Hours Go By) released on John Zorn’s Tzadik Records label in 2008. She is one of the artists featured in my upcoming documentary, microfemininewarfare.
I discovered Bérangère in 2009 while housesitting for my friend JG Panis in Paris. Upon arrival, I took a shower and immediately approached his music collection. How else can you get to know your friends if not through their soundworlds? The title Tant Que Les heures Passent reads like the start of a poem, and so I put it on to listen at a volume too loud for his neighbours, and didn’t look at the other CDs for days. Bérangère immediately obliged me into her cosmos — a vibratory nexus of musique concrète and a Diamanda Galás-ian aesthetic with difficult but rewarding melodic arrangements and a playfully dark sense of humor.
Fascinated by the poiesis of her music, I knew then that I would ask her to participate in my project, microfemininewarfare. Our meeting in 2011 marked the first interview Bérangère ever did in English. During her USA tour earlier that year, she cancelled an interview with WFMU in New York at the last moment because she was apprehensive about her English. Bérangère and I spoke at length regarding the toil and pain of the process of musical creation. She also opened up about the the difficulty in participating in the music scene in Paris, a city she finds constantly stimulating for her work but also prone to producing exclusive and dogmatic attitudes between electronic, electro-acoustic, and jazz musicians.
“Of course everything started when I moved to Paris, it’s very stimulating. But Paris is very snobby. People are snobby with each other. For example: I’m an electro-acoustic composer and I’m released on Tzadik and it’s something absolutely unimaginable for somebody from the generation just before me (i.e. the generation of my teacher) because I have nothing to do with a saxophone and there is a world between jazz and electro-acoustic. There are many people who think that in Paris and they don’t talk to me; they snub me and despise me. They want to destroy the energy around it. For example: the other community is visual artists who use sounds in their installations and they think a lot about sounds and do lots of research and they have a very theoretical way of thinking about space. When I play in concerts, when we talk to each other, and when we exchange ideas, I can see there is a gap between them and me because they don’t like to have any obvious relations. They don’t want their work to have an obvious relationship between what has been made before or between other types of arts so they are unique in their position so they deny anything else around.
I have the impression I fight against different gangs: visual artists, the electro-acoustic composers who don’t like jazz and they hate improv, and the other side, all the pop/rock musicians who don’t understand experimental music. I always feel (laughs) like an outsider everywhere.”
Most of the women in microfemininewarfare discuss their desire to merge communities, and to create communities and support networks that aren’t reductively based on aesthetics/genres. Music politics can be exhausting and leave little room to make the music you need. Bérangère was generous with her time, welcoming me into her live-in studio in Paris and I hope I served her well. The documentary, photos and interviews in full will be available in 2015.
Below is an interview excerpt in which Bérangère reflects on her musical process and the differences between collaborating and working alone.
Magda: For the structure of your pieces — I’m most familiar with Tant Que Les heures Passent (As Long As The Hours Go By) — you use your voice and field recordings?
Bérangère: Not exactly field recording. I record here [the home-studio] most of the time. We say in French, because it’s vocab from musique concrete, “the objects are very close to the microphone.” Field recording is when you go outside with the mic and you record. It’s exactly the contrary. Like in visual art and you go outside with the camera and take a panoramic view, or when you take the object very close to the camera, it’s very different…
Magda: So you use objects inside your house? Anything in particular?
Bérangère: Anything! Plastic bottles, spoons, knives, broken guitars, any kind of thing.
Magda: Do you have something in mind when you’re doing that. For instance, to re-articulate or re-interpret a sound? Or do you try the objects out to see how they sound? or Both?
Bérangère: Both! I share the session in two parts. First I have an idea and I make a list, I pick up the objects and I record them with a particular series of gestures of different movements. The second part of the session is, “let’s see.” Sometimes I read or take something and try it out. I do both.
Magda: You mentioned earlier you like to keep the sincerity of the sound, or at least portions of it. When you are making/recording those sounds and those elements, how does that actualize?
Bérangère: During the recordings I first imagine a texture, I imagine a kind of fabric, a very special fabric and then I try different objects to find it. During this research there are some accidents, but not exactly. When an object produces a sound that I hadn’t expected, it starts to react like an instrument. To obtain expression, there needs to be an initial stimulating texture. Then it starts to have a movement and then a development and then an interesting end. You say Ah! It gets high and then low, in a very funny or dramatic way, or very alive and political way.
That’s the moment when I listen to my recordings again. I just cut it and keep it somewhere so it’s that kind of accident that I keep — I classify and I use. I don’t want to destroy the sounds when I compose with them. I try to keep them intact, and not to transform them too much or stretch them too much. I just want to optimize them, just to use the filters if they are kind of dirty, or if they are low frequency, I cut it. If it’s too high or close to saturation, I cut it. I just optimize that moment, that accident. That’s what recording musique concrete and l’objets sonor is about to me.
Magda: So then you have a large bank that you work with of your own sounds. Does it ever happen — you record sounds and you go through the motions and you think, I don’t feel this right now, but then a year later something will happen and you will feel it?
Magda: Can you give an example of this?
Bérangère: It’s difficult to give an example because I don’t speak. I listen to the sounds I have done. There are some sounds I have used twenty times and I’m trying not to use twenty more times (big grin). So I have some very strange sounds, I never can use, and each time I start by them: I say, let’s try that one I haven’t used because it’s a nice sequence and I really like that strange bass and that high wave. I really like that sound so each time I take that sound and I put it in a ProTools Session and I start thinking, ‘Ok, now what am I gonna do with that?’ Most of the time it doesn’t work, and I start somewhere else. At that moment I have to think of the sound as not wasted! Explaining this is difficult.. it’s a strange mix between French and English in my head and I don’t know where to put the words.
Magda: It’s difficult no matter what! So you can take your time… maybe if we can think about your process and about these sounds. You were telling me before that you’re really into literature and your songs on the album are very much a narrative. When I first heard your music, it was an immediate movie in my head. This is what compels me towards artists, if they can provide the conditions for my imagination to expand.
I’m curious about this world of sounds that you have, this kind of world that you’ve created with all the sounds that you have, then creating almost, characters and cities and songs. “Si Ce N’est Toi” in particular, for me, is very strong in doing that. Can you talk about the process…
Bérangère: What is funny, is that I spent a lot of time composing my pieces but as soon I finish them I forget everything, sometimes I even forget the sounds I use because it’s very instinctive. I never, for example, make a score or any sketches. It’s really only by listening to everything and so it’s difficult to tell the story about the piece because I don’t remember anything except I used a sample of trumpet I really like. It’s a free sample I caught on the Internet. The quality of this sound was so so bad, it was very funny. It was a very cheesy, synthetic trumpet. Very cheap really and I wanted to use that sound because I found it so funny, so I started: the event was very short, it was like 3 seconds, you had about 3 notes of trumpet and nothing else. So I started to cut them in three parts and to repeat them to make small loops and play around those notes in a very simple way.
Then, that sound reminded me of the singing of a bird I recorded six years ago on my island, so I started to mix them together it worked really well. But it was too funny and too childish so I recorded a bit of dirty punk guitar. I used about 5 seconds of the melody of the guitar I recorded and I mixed the three together and at that moment I had the right balance. I had dirty and static. I had very thick sounds on one side and on the other side I had really free and high and very expressive and very simple easy to understand sound.
I’m quite classical, because I use tension and release and all that kind of classical form. I feel a tempo and after that I know if it will be upbeat or very slow. When I have the tempo and the main sounds then I am ready. You know what you could do with the space and all the variations on the sounds and the developments on the frequencies and then you play with all these parameters to build the music. I never prepare things before so I never know how the piece will finish — I don’t know if that’s good or not (laughs). It’s only in the last minute I know if it’s worth it or not.
Bérangère: I’ve started to write and be interested in the relation between music and literature about four years ago. I took that kind of process on as a fan, because it’s a big discovery for me: Diamanda Galas or Laurie Anderson. They write, read, and sing their own texts with music. I wasn’t into that type of music before. Now I am ready to go deep into that type of music.
Magda: Are you interested in collaborations with other artists? You did something with your husband?
Bérangère: Yeah, once, a long time ago. It’s a very young work, we did an installation together in 2001 in Kiev because my husband is Russian. It was about 6 months after we were together so it was the first strong experience. We did everything in fusion. The end result was more interesting for the artists than the audience. It was a very young work. I’m more mindful of that now.
Magda: Do you prefer to work alone then?
Bérangère: No no. I don’t know. It’s true that I love to work alone. You learn about yourself everyday and you really kind of deal with serious matter when you compose. It sounds strange or stupid but it’s true. When you are alone, you are much more concentrated into that process and progression.
When you work with somebody else, it’s more like you have your skills and the other person has theirs and you exchange what you do. It’s more like a game, like ping pong. You play with already have, and the other person plays with what they have.
That makes a kind of particular musical moment. For me, it’s more like entertainment (laughs) and when I compose alone it’s painful and difficult and it’s much deeper.
Photos courtesy of author, Magdalena Olszanowski.