Welcome to Sounds of Europe, a platform for field recording. The blog of the website will travel to a different European country every month where a local organisation or artist will be responsible for maintaining it. Each country´s particular context and practices with regards to field recording will be explored and presented in a personal way.
Éric Cordier : Ways of Music
04/09/2012 · Pali Meursault

Some sound artists and field-recordists sometimes seem to be avoiding the question of music, filling in with a relation with sound, sound art or soundscapes that is very aesthetic but somehow tends to remain extra-musical. However, breaking up with the history of the musical issues and exploring a new territory for the aural sensitivity, with the invention of a vocabulary of its own, is not the only way of looking at the sonic world.

For an artist such as Éric Cordier, the musicality of sounds is not just a figure of speech, and the questions of music and composition go through every aspects of his work, should it be made of instrumental experimentation, electoracoustic works or or pure field-recordings. For him, the practices and techniques of recording and sound manipulations are very much connected to musical influences and musical issues, ways of expanding the musical territory to new and unsuspected forms of listening and musical sensitivity.

— Your work goes in many directions, you are an instrumentalist, a sound artist, an electroacoustic composer, a field-recordist…
What is your relation with the sounds you are producing, whether it’s for an installation, playing with an instrument or capturing them in the outside world?
Does the liberty you have with sounds has something to do with your education in an art school, with the idea of ‘plasticity’?

Yes indeed, if I’m going in my directions it’s because of education. I make music like a plastic artist would develop a work, starting from a problematic and opening with different concepts. I followed an art curriculum at the university in Paris and I regard music as a plastic art, looking for new ways and developing a style. This is also why I have a difficult relationship with the improvised music scene: I am fascinated by the process of improvisation, but not by the way that milieu is going, in which revitalization consists in doing the doing the same thing with other partners.

Graduating from the art university, I wasn’t able to do anything with my hands, but I had learn to think and to push the limits. All of our teachers were crazy: Michel Journiac was shooting at is students with real bullets, Paul-Armand Gette was especially only in what was under his female students’ skirts, the film-club was scheduling ‘Étant-donnés’ because Dominique Nogez was in charge. In fact, I never encountered such a stimulating environment anywhere else. Even after hours, from 8 AM to 10 PM, there was an amazing effervescence… I am completely indebted to that education as a plastic artist. If I had studied electroacoustics at the conservatory, programming DX7 for making starship sounds and giving sound files not to much evocative names to be sure to consider them as abstract entities… It probably would have sicken me for good. I think that in that university, we had the luck of living a end-of-the-70’s atmosphere that had got lost by the end of the 80’s, but everything got wiped clean in the 90’s…

In the end, I’m not visual artist, I didn’t know where to go in that field, whereas in music things get more clear to me. I cannot give a straight answer about my relation to sounds, because for each project I’m trying to create a different form of relation. For example, I’m making electroacoustic using very little processing, but I’m playing hurdy-gurdy with a huge amount of processing, because to begin with, hurdy-gurdy has a crummy sound, but the electronics turns it into a wonderful interface. Somehow, I conducted an exchange of good practices between the instrument and the electroacoustic.

— In your work, there is a wide range of approaches, but also, it seems to me, some kind of distancing with sounds: no strict rules, any kind of combinations or transformations is possible, you don’t make a fetish of your recordings…

That is true, I don’t fetishize the recordings: I’m trying to work with a good equipment, high-end if I can, because one would hear the difference. But on the other hand, I’m very much interested in all kind of accidents or tainting. There is a necessity of adapting the means to the end. in order to make field-recordings you don’t have much choice, you need a good equipment, because you don’t want do get some hiss or to have to denoise.

With electroacoustic it’s different, because there will be some mixing involved, you would always be able to mask the flaws, or the flaws would become the music. The most radical thing I did in that way was ‘Breizhiselad’, for which I challenged myself to work with only the crackles of a completely worn-out record as a source, without making any attempt in digital cleaning – which anyway would have been impossible in such a case. I agree that the result is kind of exterme. In the third track, on which I worked the most, there is so many layers of samples that the crackles were multiplied to the point they form a high-frequency cloud that is completely disconnected from the music. I was very pleased with the result, and it led me to work with only the flaws, to create an ocean of crackles… So even the defects can become music.

I think that everything is possible, but the social pressure that comes with the banners of respective fields tend to narrow the possibilities down. There is a tendency for gregariousness that pushes people into prescribing rules. For example, in the milieu of ‘star wars’ electroacoustic, it is mendatory to process everything with the GRM Tools… For my part, I’ve been meeting some rejection for my current work based on psychedelic sounds. But adversity is stimulating and I might go a little further working with some ‘progressive’ matter!

— That diversity is also in the ways you’re approaching the field: live transformation of reality with Afflux, documents on very strong social or cultural contexts or more electroacoustic uses of sounds from the environment…

Just as well here, everything is possible. With Afflux it was not just about recording environments but to develop apparatuses: Éric La Casa recorded from static microphones positioned in very specific places, like inside tubes for getting a reverb at the source; Jean-Luc Guionnet was extending metal strings everywhere, which were producing 4X-like sounds. And I was plunging contact microphones under water, imitating rain drops with a metallic scrubber or the steam-pulser of a factory using a delay pedal.

Constraint is very stimulating to me. When I worked at reconstructing the sound environment of the town of La-Ferté-sous-Jouarre for ‘Règne Minéral’ with Denis Tricot, there was a lot of documentation to gather beforehand, matters related to the millstone activity dating from before the automobile industry. Then I had long exchanges with witnesses who were saying: ‘that sound is not good, it should higher pitched’, and so on… We pulled through with the help of the local museum, from which I was allowed to use the actual tools on the millstones.

For the piece I’m currently working on in Japan, I have about 10 hours worth of interviews, successively describing the earthquake, the tsunami and the radioactivity, all of which dictates what the piece will look like…

— Would you say that there is a ‘plasticity’ of social sound, of political sound?

I don’t remember the exact words from Jean-Luc Godard, but to paraphrase him: it is necessary that each musical phrase has its own issues, its own moral. I’m not trying to make an empty music, I want it to have weight. Then it’s not for me to tell if the audience gets it.

Life is a struggle and art is a part of it. There are political dimensions to what I do, in the way Pasolini pointed at. There also can be anti-social dimensions to music, Genesis P-Orridge, Christopherson or Turmel have led that way. I’m not sharing their interest in esotericism, but the way they are using very strong documents to make a very strong music as well, and the way they put their lives in adequacy to their music. I think this is admirable, even if I’m not sharing all of their ideas. P-Orridge didn’t achieve making the world revolution to come, but the ‘antigroove’ that goes through his music is amazing! I hope there is some kind of an antigroove in my own music. But most electroacoustic musicians don’t care about that, I might only be sharing such things with my friend Alexandre Yterce.

— How does the question of ‘music’ and ‘musicality’ appears in your work? Is it an objective? How does it appear when it’s field-recordings?

Musicality is not an objective, it’s a parameter as much as any other, such as form, texture… I would say I’m not doing field-recordings for the sake of field-recording, but I’m recording a lot of things for making electroacoustic compositions, and most of the time sounds are reworked. It is also possible that they are less processed or not at all. The ‘not at all’ sort of being my definition of field-recording: just cutting off the accidents, lightly filtering but no mixing at all, no processing, no hacking. Then, indeed, the question of musicality appears, I hate flat and banal field-recordings. So for a ‘not at all’ to be kept, some musicality has to be felt in the recording, music has to be there.

— What makes an environment or a phenomenon to be musical? Or how does it become so?
I remember that you once described musicality to me as something that could be luck, a lot of work or something in between…

For a composition it’s rather clear: it consists in the arrangement of a whole series of elements, repeated or not. The thing is getting to be interesting from working on it. For field-recording, because I don’t allow myself to intervene afterwards, luck has its say, but it cannot do everything. Positioning a microphone anywhere is not enough for making a good recording.  For me, the notion of ‘apparatus’ [Nt: ‘dispositif’] has its importance (another thing inherited from art school). In my only record made of only field-recordings, ‘Osorezan’, there actually are many apparatuses. In the first tracks, for instance, I’m working in tracking shots: the source is static and multiple and my tracking shots are ‘performed’ excessively, sources become a sound ‘palette’ from which I’m picking…

The last track of that record had been recorded long before and then forgotten. It’s a take I did on a 14th of July in the south of France, in a very remote place, during nap time. I knew I was likely to record emptiness and a few insects, so I had to come up with an apparatus: I positioned myself on the side of a pathway so something would happen, it was curving and counter-curving so motions would be brief and diverse, a place that was opened to the downstream so there would be a background. Then I didn’t stay behind the microphones, which made a dog to come close… The rest, the plane, the fly, that’s luck. But luck has to be cultivated, to be provoked…

When I’m recording for electroacoustic compositions, I don’t want the recordings to be flat either, what is slack or stable is very difficult (or boring) to compose with. In the process of composition, what’s important is not the phrase but the transition, the articulation. So I’m always trying to avoid recordings that are too stable and continuous, I’m looking for the accident, for unevenness.

In my electroacoustic compositions, there also are things that look like field-recordings, sequences that sound ‘realistic’. I am especially thinking about that one piece I played a lot but never got published, called ‘Règne animal’. We heard wild boars rolling about in their den and a flock (of unidentified animals) in close-up, at night, which are bolting in reaction to an unknown event. In reality, that was completely made up. It would have been impossible to record such a close-up of wild animals, so it was made with domesticated animals. Also, my ‘realism’ is never so stable, it always gets out of control.

— For you, are the questions of music and sound tend to converge or are they two distinct domains, two different questions?

They are the two sides of one thing, one being organized and predictable and the other unorganized and unpredictable. I don’t favour one over the other, I’m merely trying to set the cursor at the right position.

— Do you have a clear typology of methods, distinctive periods in your work? Do you start each new project with the idea of inventing a new ‘constructive’ approach?

About a typology of methods, the answer is definitely no: I try not to fix things and I prefer the bricolage that gets things out of control and make them unpredictable. In short, I’m trying to experiment. My methods are fluctuating, they are slippery and most of the time I have several tools at my disposal so I would pick the one that fits the best. More than often I was happy to take out my Zoom because it’s so discrete (people generally think it’s a big cellphone), instead of a boom-pole that would have frighten my source away.

I wish I could invent and renew my methods every time, but that is the most difficult thing to do. That being said, I also reactivate an old idea from time to time, because it would be the best to tackle one specific problem…

— How does a sound matter dictates its ‘choices’ to a work of composition?

We have to go back to the importance of the recording. If my take is technically flat, I might be able to do something with the GRM tools, or I would work on it forever. In opposition to that, if the take is rich, surprising or even unrecognizable, if there is something of a processing right up at the source, if there are articulations… then the work of composition will be easier. And if the piece also has a good quality, if it’s already musical and there is no need for any intervention, then I got what I call a field-recording.

A part of the french-speaking milieu of electroacoustics is reproducing the system of the demiurge composer who, in a classical way, conceives a form (like a symphony) to which he will ‘bend’ the sounds. On the other side of the Atlantic (even if we also have a few representatives of that tendency in France) there are other kind of immutable systems: a low, continuous sound overlaid on any kind of recording… and if there is no drone, reverb would be add, or excessive processing.

I don’t like taking these mapped out roads. Maybe that’s the thing with plastic arts over again: I like to confront with the matter, which means recording with my feet in the mud or my hands in the sludge and also to work in the respect of textures. In that sense, I’m still faithful to the kind of manifesto I wrote with Jean-Luc Guionnet in about 1989-90, in which we were saying things like:

‘The specificity of our electroacoustic works lies on the use of sound sources of which the internal organization generates the musical matter. (…) Do not think that this introduction on the characterization of the source is only anecdotal. (…) We are convinced that there is a determination that affects the relation between micro and macro-structure. There is always a notion of induction that is inherent to the transformation of sound and we would not consider a processing that would go against the object. (…) Therefore, it is not possible to satisfy with only capturing sounds because we know that their nature and quality will have too much influence on all the coming transformations. Nourished with our instrumental practices, the composition work paradoxically starts before the sound recording, with construction of sound matters. Therefore we have to shape sounds before their fixation on a medium, by working on their parameters: timbre, rhythm, morphology of the sound object… ‘

Everything was already there! It was very constraining, sometimes even impairing. In an ongoing project it’s holding me down: I’m up to 3000 hours worth of work over 5 years and not yet satisfied. Yet I think it’s what contributes to our style. I didn’t ask Jean-Luc if he was still feeling in phase with our manifesto, but for my part I think it’s quite beautiful to have constructed a problematic so long ago on which I can still rely.

— You told me you have listen to Luc Ferrari before Peter Cusack… And your approach of environmental sounds is through the prism of musical questions and the issue of musicality. What part did your culture as a music listener played in it?

Yes, I’ve been flirting with field-recording for a long time before I realized I had made some, and also that it wasn’t an end in itself but one of the possibilities. Maybe it’s because I’m coming from somewhere else. My personal itinerary has been rather complex, I already had a solid rock and experimental background (along with some baroque with Purcell, but I’m still allergic to classical music) before I discovered electroacoustic. My parents were records sellers and I’ve been listening to a lot of things as a child. I thought everything was lame except Pink Floyd! Then I was initiated into music in 1978, assimilating at the same time progressive (the good one), folk, punk and new-wave: King Crimson, the Residents, Malicorne, PIL, Joy Divison and Coltrane all in the same bag. Then my first blow was Voice of America. A very much musical blow, while Throbbing Gristle and PTV were more extra-musical blows.

So above all, I listened to Cabaret Voltaire before Bernard Parmegiani and Tangerine Dream before François Bayle. I filled all the gaps in my contemporary music culture over one year in 1984, thank to the university’s multimedia library. That was the opportunity for making up a properly organized knowledge in a minimum time. So in the end, yes, for me field-recording is coming from Luc Ferrari, even if it’s not ‘real’ field-recording and even if when we hear him saying ‘I caught a big one’, it was probably overdubbed…

[Interview & translation: PM]

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Notes & references:

Éric Cordier:
Last release, ‘La Cité du Bruit’ on Universinternational:

Afflux, with Jean-Luc Guionnet & Éric La Casa:

Denis Tricot:
Alexandre Yterce:
Luc Ferrari: