You're a composer-researcher. Is that a dual occupation? What does it consist of?
I believe that a composer and a researcher are the same thing. Here at IRCAM, the word "researcher" is associated with extremely high scientific or technical skills. But I don't have a scientific background. During the Cursus program I followed here, and thanks to the commissions I received, I have both acquired new tools and I modified tools I already knew. My research work is actually musical research work. This research requires the mastery of certain tools, but above all a scientific context in which it can be nourished. To be more specific, my residency here was on the singing voice, a field that has always interested me. This interest has been enriched by the incredible knowledge of the Analysis-Synthesis, CRIM (?), and Musical Representation teams.
Research: my "researcher" part, is the ability to make this connection between what is scientific and what is musical. And also to convey my musical needs to scientists. So it's about making the link between my universe and a universe that's further away from me. It allows me to import into my music elements that would be impossible to implement without science.
It also means accepting the limits of scientific research. You can't have everything right away; it's an exciting journey, sometimes very slow, sometimes fast. The results can be as slow as they are immediate... The discovery of this universe during these years at Ircam has been really exciting. It was like a never-ending Christmas! All this abundance is like so many gifts, and the emotion of discovering them is very strong!
Finally being able to understand things that we were getting close to only by intuition is rewarding, especially as it involves specialized knowledge that would otherwise be difficult to access.
So in a way it's a sort of companionship that opened musical doors for you?
Yes, it allows me to progress musically. But discovering this knowledge also helps me to construct questions. Research means constantly questioning yourself. It's this impossibility of giving definitive answers, but rather this invitation to continue asking questions.
For me this is the most profound part. It is in my nature to ask questions, and to ask myself questions.
So you are more interested in asking questions than in answering them?
Of course there is a great pleasure in finding answers! If we never had answers, it would probably be difficult to continue to question ourselves! On the other hand, I can clearly see that a question is never definitive, but always temporary and transitory. And the pleasure comes from the journey, from the fact that discoveries are made in stages.
In this process, does one idea lead to another, or is the questioning staged, directed towards a goal?
The two trajectories coexist, so it is not easy to answer. But I would rather choose the second option. A trajectory is often drawn by an intuition: we want to go in one direction, and the path is made by questioning that will go deeper and deeper into the subject. But it also means allowing yourself the possibility of making detours, of having a more complex articulation. The question of vocality, of the physical perception of sound, has always accompanied me. And it was difficult for me to articulate it, to understand why I was attracted to certain types of sounds, certain types of composition methods. Little by little I understood the connection between my initial background and the type of writing that developed in me.
So it was pure research and analysis that allowed you to understand this?
No, I think it's more the fruit of musical practice. I have a need to do. I'm a very abstract person, and rational I think, and it's easy for me to get lost in my own thoughts... So my way of concretizing, of moving forward is to do. The act of writing, researching, working especially with instrumentalists is my ultimate means of discovery. I don't try to verify an abstraction; the questioning, the comprehension is done by doing it.
Are the questions you are asking yourself in your research related to compositional issues? Are these two areas of inquiry within the same scope?
Yes, there is a constant back-and-forth. There is never a technical question per se. I don't ask myself, for example, the question of tracking a fundamental in a frequency. The question I would ask myself would be: I have such and such a musical idea, how do I make it happen, what are the means to achieve it? I have to formulate this idea, and it's the experience that allows me to do this; I rely on the steps I've gone through, including with my other pieces and my previous research.
When I compose, there is the moment when I feel attracted to an idea, a sound or sounds, which are sometimes relatively complex. But then it's months of work, and a whole writing process to get close to it! It requires concrete work with the instrumentalists, which involves sketches. And sometimes also through moments of silence.
We need silence to make space. Like in music: if the space is permanently filled, there is no more room to perceive the details. This need for silence is a classical fact in music, but I think it is just as important in reflection. You have to come to accept it. This silence is like an absence, where we know that the mind is working, metabolizing all the inputs, questions and work already done.
Your music seems to give an important place to silence and space.
Yes, I think there is a physical space of sound. You can't always be intentional, you can't always be full of energy, or happy. There is a conflict between expectations, needs, desires, and the need to respect physiological time. If I have to write a 30 minute work, I have to live with the frustration of having written only thirty seconds! And to know that before I reach the end there will be months and months of work.
On another scale, there is also an intensity to looking for the next five seconds. And from zero to thirty, there's a whole journey that sometimes takes days to write what you had foreseen, without losing sight of your horizon, that is to say the thirty minutes. There is a central spatial dimension in the temporal sensation.
Is it difficult for you not to lose sight of your horizon, not to let yourself be drowned out by the time it takes to write?
I'd say not, even if I might contradict myself in a few years' time. Right now the need to go where I want to go is so strong that my horizon seems stable. It's rather my impatience that I have to fight! One of the difficulties is what will become of the work if it is not a derivation of a theory. It starts from a sound experience. I have a strong intuition of the relationship between a sound, a sound cluster, and what the piece will be. But finding the means, finding the trajectory or the energy to get there, that's extremely difficult. And that's where the composer's work and patience really lies.
Does having a very strong need to go where you want to go create coherence in your works? Does it bring out commonalities between them?
I think so, and I feel really lucky to be able to carry out my research projects here at IRCAM. Sound is a vibration, this vibration is reflected in the body, and this phenomenon is a link in everything I do. At the beginning of my research, I spent hours, alone or with the musicians, listening to notes, percussion, violin, with the ear very close, trying to discover under the same note the myriad possibilities and nuances that were offered, beyond the simple parameter of pitch. This was a large part of my work with musicians, the act of seeking all the possibilities of these sounds which in the absolute would be only one note.
One of your objectives would be to free yourself from the note to give it back its purely vibratory character?
A note is a note, but it is above all a vibration, a color, an intensity. Never the expression of a feeling. It's true that I come from this tradition; the fact that I studied in Germany probably contributed removing that "feeling" aspect from me. But that has never been my approach. The risk was rather that of a philosophical drift. I was exposed to this culture where the approach of composers was very much tinged with intellectual, social and philosophical reflection, with this passion for the spoken word as well.
And at the same time I had a strong attraction for sound, for matter. And this friction has existed in me since the beginning. I began my studies as a singer, where the physical aspect and the sound are paramount. But at the same time I was studying literature, and that led me to composition and aesthetic reflection.
And then at a certain point there is a sort of trigger, like a certainty that there is a priority. And my priority was this fascination for sound. Even today, that's where I still find my pleasure. We know that work can be tinged with fatigue, frustration, struggles, tensions, but there is that moment of pleasure that is not the performance of the piece: it is the discovery of a sound. There you say to yourself "ah, I have an idea, I understand" and it is this moment that is for me the ultimate pleasure of being a composer.
Even more so than the moment when the work is performed?
Yes, without a doubt. Because it is the discovery of a sound, because it is an emotion that is very strong. It is the moment when the - or the - possibilities open up. And that triggers the need to look for the continuation.
I don't think I've ever verbalized so clearly the importance of this moment of discovery.
Would you say that this physical approach to sound, that experiencing it is your main source of inspiration?
Yes, it comes from this experience with the musicians. But it also comes from the outside, or from the inside, with myself, with my voice.
What also inspires me is the possibility to make connections. That is to say that an isolated, singular sound suddenly becomes extremely rich, and carries an enormous potential to be connected to other things. That's what makes it the most exciting moment.
How do you make these connections? Is it a work of imagination, or is it done in the concrete, always in physical experimentation or on the computer?
A big part of the pleasure I get from this process is that from a real sound I hear other sounds in my head. A connection is made, which extends it. I don't know the science of it, but there is something very real in this connection. It is produced by a physical sound or an external event and creates in me as a form, a kind of pearl, which appears and grows.
But this is only the beginning, because questions arise after the discovery and imagination of a beginning sound universe: what kind of energy is unfolding in this universe, what is the trajectory? And there begins the equally exciting part of the construction, the architecture... of the life of the extension of this sound.
Where do you start the compositional work?
When I have a commission, I take a fairly long time to listen and reflect. I try to open my ears and my eyes completely to the outside world. I also try to open myself up to theoretical subjects, for example to question my relationship with melody or vocal ornamentation.
Or else, I know that such and such a musician will intervene, such and such a soprano, such and such a vocal ensemble, such and such an musician... So my first thought is to try to find out what the musician’s sound is, and what his relationship to his instrument is. What are his preferences? It's like having a guest at home, you're going to ask him what his favorite food is. Then there's my way of cooking, but this listening, this exchange beforehand is essential.
Sometimes things are very open and it's from an external stimulation or a sound that I leave. Independently of these two possibilities, I always go through a moment of projection where, from this intuition or sound experience, I try to imagine where I want to get to, if I can get there and how. This is where the question of time also and above all arises. I often have a fairly precise idea of how long I want my piece to last. And the result is rarely different from my initial imagination. Because I build on this duration.
Once again it's like in the kitchen: you have the amount of salt you need pinched between your fingers and you know how long it takes to cook the sauce for it to be great. So it's a question of experience. That's why I said earlier that my love of composition is a love of making. You can't theorize cooking, you have to do it; you also have to miss and burn dishes! It's the same thing here.
The voice seems to be an important component in your work, could you tell us why?
I think the voice has always been my instrument. I come from a family of non-musicians but where music has always been important. Not only classical music, I remember our car trips... We sang a lot, my dad did a second voice, I always did the soprano. And then there was my mum with her deep and very strong voice but she could never hold a note, it was always approximative. That always messed up the songs, and... maybe it's her fault if I like contemporary music, I don't know! (laughs)
I've always sung, I was in the little school choir when I was six. You don't really realize it at the time, you're in the moment. But when I'm asked about a work, "Where did that come from?" I think about it and I have to answer, "It's always been there.”
So it's not by coincidence that I started my studies as a soprano. This dichotomy, or this complementarity, between reflection and practice has always existed. In the end I think that composition is the place where these elements have merged, where this need to choose disappears. Because we need both.
Do the vocal gestures you hear in your works come directly from yourself? Do you vocalize them, do you sing them?
Yes, I sing them! Probably not as they should be sung, though! Colleagues tell me that you can see that I used to be a singer, but I can sense the gap with the performers. These vocalizations, these vocal gestures, I think they're part of my research practice. And they go hand in hand with working with singers.
One thing that interests me a lot is the link between the vocal gesture, the vocal tradition (found in Bel Canto and in the Baroque tradition), and the future. How does my contribution add to what we already have, how does it nourish it?
I also question my relationship to the text. I have already been asked about this relationship with my last piece, and looking back I realize that I need, above all, a negation of meaning. I never write without a text, but the text is always decomposed. Ornamentation, for example, is a possibility for me to deny the meaning of a text. It is a possibility to create an extension, a deviation...
You want to break free from the text?
Partly. It's one of the technical possibilities. There is also, of course, the question of the register. Knowing that if a soprano sings certain types of words or consonants, they will be more or less intelligible depending on the register. My vocal knowledge is useful here! So I have a whole strategy for editing and elaborating the texts.
I'm more focused now on the questions of trajectory, of energy. Trajectory is the most appropriate word here: what is the trajectory of the voice, in a given time. And how this space, this space-time is articulated. As for ornamentation, it is part of the vocal tradition and it is an aspect I felt the need to confront.
I have the feeling that this range of possibilities has expanded over time. Even for pieces for voice and instrumental ensemble; I think my palette of colors and articulations of the voice has broadened.
Is there a special link between voices and electronic sounds in your work?
Yes. The research year I spent here at IRCAM has shed a lot of light on all this work on gesture, vocality, and everything I've talked about in terms of the vibration of sound. I presented a project on the vibrato of the sung voice and distortion and that helped clarify what was going to be for me a point of convergence between voice, vibration, body and electronics.
Just as the theoretical and physical aspects are complementary, the acoustic and electronic fields are linked. They take different forms but are of the same nature. It is sometimes only with the help of Loop and other manipulations that I find the vibration I am looking for in the voice. The voice has very clear physical limits that the computer allows me to overcome. Although the computer itself has other limits...
Is the research project you are talking about only useful for your work as a composer, or are there other possible uses (software, plugins for the IRCAM Forum)?
IRCAM has a tradition of sharing knowledge: your research belongs to you, but it is always useful to others, it remains available to them. In my specific case and my work on the vibrato of the sung voice, the idea was to expand the possibilities we have at our disposal.
The Analysis-Synthesis team was working on Isis, a voice synthesis software, and one of their questions was about deepening the vibrato aspect, how to create the natural vibration of the voice. And this was in line with the work I was doing, which was about sung voices, not synthesized voices.
The research led to the possibility of recreating and manipulating this vibrato, from real recordings, and therefore to compose it, with parameters of time, intensity, rhythm, etc. It also led to appling it to a non-vibrated voice. So we have the possibility to override the physical limitations of a voice, to be able for example to change its vibration speed without being limited by its register for example. Within the framework of my current project, which should result in a finished piece, we are working on the possibility of recreating this process in real-time. That is to say, layering over the singer's voice over their own voice, manipulated in such a way as to give it a vibrato that would otherwise not be possible. An extreme vibrato, or one that changes speed...
I've also been working on distortion. The interest I took in this issue allowed me and the team to develop Angus, a small software program available on the Forum. I didn't have a piece to write at that time—it was a period of research—but I can now use in composition. It is as if it were a sketch that O concretized afterwards.
I was able to write an article on how this process works, so we remain in the idea of sharing scientific knowledge. I was able to contribute to this research through my practical, concrete knowledge of the voice, far from theorizing, and this was of great value to the team.
Interview by François Vey.