Originally edited and published by RIP ephemeral PostMATTER magazin
Julien Bayle, on the need to slow down to think and improvisation through machine structures.
Photos ©François Boukhalfa
Can you talk about your new performance “Struct”, and what attracted you to modular synthesizers?
STRUCT is the codename of my live improvisation with a modular synthesizer, including visuals generated in real-time and coming from the analysis of sound itself. Before having properly named it STRUCT, I recorded two live performances with this setup: one for Secret Thirteen community and one for Shape Network / Radio Campus
Inspired by structuralist methods, brutalist architecture and minimalist visual forms, STRUCT is a live improvisation with a Eurorack modular system as the only source of triggering and sound. I am physically building all routings on stage, starting the performance with no pre-recorded material and no modules configured or even connected. Progressively, the patch is built, the sound changes from noise structures to more tonal and micro-tonal ones, depicting a complex world oversaturated by informations, data and individualism.
STRUCT addresses the idea of post-techno improvisation by relating to electronic music, but in a uniquely odd way. Indeed, it relates to musical structures where the percussive sounds can structure the whole but in which the structure can also be created by the noise itself. Techno music relates to step sequencers and rigid repetitive structures, STRUCT flirts and disturbs this repetitive concept to go from linear grids to sparse particles, from order to chaos.
STRUCT also addresses the concept of systems structuring and constraining everything. By using a pre-programmed system for live visual generation, the artist have to deal with the system on stage. Depending on the sound itself, by deeply analyzing the music content from frequencies to repetitive structures and using advanced maths based algorithms like Markov Chains, STRUCT displays unique visuals at the threshold of organic growth, crystallization process and architecture.
I am interested in modular systems because it offers me a more physical way of sound manipulation and takes me away from my tiny (even if 15’’) computer screen. I have never recorded as many sounds as when it goes all hardware. Indeed, with my computer, I can control everything. I can save/retrieve everything. Of course I can go random/chance/noise too (and please don’t only talk to me about « pseudo random » as I really used and still use Geiger Counter to generate « almost real » random list of numbers too!), but the whole process can be saved.
That is a feature of the computer and I like the way it does that. With my modular system, I was very well organized at the beginning. I wanted to trigger it with my computer, sequence all tracks and even trigger all modular machines to the computer in order to be able to retrieve exactly the same parameters, the same sound but the same global sequences too. I was wrong because I already have a machine for that: my computer.
And I see A LOT of people going modular and using it AS computers. That’s boring and exhausting. I applied to Red Bull Music Academy this year and they dropped me out. I tried to explain this way of creating new sounds, new sounds elements & structures by using modular on some unstraight ways. I think they didn’t understand my purpose and too bad, they also went to modular side but on that … very usual and boring way. Modular is not only a fashion way. Modular provides a way of deconstructing things. I don’t care about module that can do the same thing as my computer can do… usually better. I totally love Make Noise and Intellijel philosophy, but I could quote also Mutable Instruments and Tip Top Audio. I’ll probably make my own modules soon. I’d be a global designer and performer using them, and I have friend able to design the circuitry and all wizardry inside. I want to mention Monome also. Their teletype is very very deep and allow reprogramming live or in studio and then you can change totally the behavior of it. Basically, Brian (Crabtree) provided us a kind of very polymorphic platform with inputs and outputs and we can program all the logic inside and it can discuss with eurorack modular and trigger proper electrical signals, which is the important part.
For answering the question properly, I’m attracted by modular because it makes me recording more sound, thinking more about the sound than thinking about music itself or even time interval and all musical related usual and legacy concepts. I can use a frequency-modulated sine wave signal as a clock. That results in a weird changing tempo. Directly, with that basic example, we have a meta-approach: the tempo is induced by the processing of a sine wave. We have a control over the tempo, but on a very indirect and unusual way (indeed, take any DAW, and you’ll have a static tempo approach. You can make the tempo evolving automatically, okay but using a static timeline based envelope). This is not yet another way to do something, but a new way of complexity to do something.
Indeed, the underlying concept here is : power of custom routing. I like to call it routing plasticity. We basically can connect anything to anything. A signal is a electrical voltage. If this voltage changes with a frequency in the range of 20 Hz to 20 kHz, we can « hear » it. If not, we cannot. In any case, we can use it to alter/control other elements in the modular case.
I’m sure my scientific background helps me a lot here. I have been always interested in study of complexity. How a structure can develop itself or can be self-organized at any scale, like fractals etc.
I think I feel that when I’m performing with modular. I’m okay with very complex sound & sequence structures and I’m not afraid being lost, sometimes.
Before going to modular, I was very straight thinking music. Too much straight.
I liked to use a specific amount of track, of processes. I was building a global system that « should have worked for almost all cases ».
I think I was wrong.
Now, because I cannot retrieve all my parameters from a modular session to the other (it would take me hours to make snapshots of each module, of each cable connections etc), I used to keep the modular patch plugged until I finish the sound recording. It made me going from a « parallel music creation mode » to a more « serial music creation mode ». As I have (and want!) only one modular system, I cannot have multiple projects running at the same time on it. I really have to finish something before starting something else. Again, it made me slowing things down a bit.
This approach has progressively contamined my computer programming approach too.
Making me being less like « I want a proper process for my whole stuff » and more: no habits, no center, adapt every time.
Briefly, I could conclude: modular saves my life, making me more adapting my process to the result I want than before.
My friend Alexandre, who is studying inner human cognition mechanism through NPL, would be interested by seeing this.
How do you control your modular synths when you play and could you describe the technical setup and process of playing?
I have assembled my own modular system. It contains sound generators, triggers generator, envelope generators and sound modifiers (modulators). I like to describe the system as an omnipotent organism. By patching it, I’m progressively constraining it. This is interesting because it reminds me a building process. At the very beginning of the building of a house, all early houses look like the same. Progressively, they begin to be a bit different, then they are totally different. From omnipotency to very specific.
Cells in our body are like that too. Specifically, even if recent studies demonstrates that brain’s cells keep some omnipotency capacity, cells in their life cycle start by becoming cell that can do everything, then they are specialized, constrained, and they become like very specific and expert in a field (like degrading / consuming ß-glucose molecules only, for instance).
To be more clear about my process with these machines, I have an infinity of setup. I can start to prepare things in studio and then play on stage, usual.
STRUCT starts with the whole system disconnected. I connect sound generators to modifiers to sound system. Sometimes you can hear some clicks when I unconnect some wires. It is a part of the process, but not systematic. Textures of sounds are spreading… I like to surprise the audience or myself by using very hard modifiers. So sometimes I can use a parallel process to alter the volume of that textures. That creates disruptions more or less brutal. That is a nice case for explaining the focus point idea. Indeed, I like to drive the audience into complex sound fields, to loose them in kind of sounds limbos. The focus point is blurry. The texture has a density. We could imagine to define the center of the sound (it relates to frequency centroid but not only) as a very blurry blobs. Then, I disrupt the whole cloud. And the focus starts to be on that. On the disruption itself. Even if it is very sudden and brutal, even if, finally, we only hear it 20 milliseconds each 10 second, we start to focus on that. And so on. I’m always trying to disturb structures and making them or looks like fragile.
Space can be tensed by spreading a very well designed sound texture. We can really create a kind of physical pressure (I don’t talk about acoustic pressure, which everyone can easily create with a sound system and a sound source), I’m talking about evolving context, evolving textures. Disrupting it is also a way of making the tension changing, breaking, increasing or constantly existing.
I’m using a lot of modules in my 18U 104 HP Rack.
The modular cases is connected to my sound card directly as I still need my computer for sound analysis & visuals purpose.
I have a specific setup in progress for a very amazing idea (with my friend & great painter/drawer/video maker Sebastian Sarti) that involves my single modular for sound.
This will be a new live performance including visuals on a totally new way. We will tense the sound & visual space with him on stage. We’ll need a proper art residency for properly testing and produce it, if any interested.
Sound analysis is done with some processes I programmed using Max7. I’m using different way for extracting sound descriptors from usual ones like « global amplitude » and « stereo image center » to more complex like: frequency centroid, energy in specific frequency bands, noisiness, roughness in very specific and tiny frequency bands if required, fundamental tracking and more.
It involves such calculation that I need a computer for that. All these sound descriptors evolving alter or generate visuals in real-time and even if you don’t know them properly, and you are not conscious about them, you can hear the difference if I change the sound in order to modify one of them. It means that if I connect one of them to a color, for instance, If the sound is changing, the color will change and you’ll feel that specific low-level and physical matching in your ear & eyes. The use of this science is probably the reason why I often have comments from the audience saying « I really really felt the sound & visuals connected. how did you do that ? »
My process of playing is based on my experiences and my knowledge (and sometimes lack of knowledge) of my machines.
With STRUCT, as visuals are evolving according to the sound, I wanted to create a kind of inner feedback loop in me: I change the sound, it changes the visual, I see the change and I want to change the visuals again so I keep changing the sound in another way etc etc.
This is also why I want to collaborate with Sebastian Sarti and play the live performance on stage. We’ll define contexts. In each context, one of us will start. And the other will try to reach the other one. And the sound will influence his visuals and his visuals will influence my sound. Our head + eyes + ears will be the communication devices between our systems. Dramatically simple.
You draw from techno, but also noise, rhythm-based music as well as atonal one. Are you consciously navigating between these two streams?
I think there is both a conscious part and a deeper and unconscious one.
I’ll try to give you some deeper insight.
I will describe a concept that can be applied to many different scale of my creation I think.
Imagine the whole performance as an inverted tree.
I start at the very topand there are a some possible decisions represented by branches.
Some decisions are very important, these are like big choices. Some are not and I can even gravitate around some branches as exploring a set of possibilities
I feel like deciding structurant and important choices sometimes during my modular live performance. For instance, I start to layer sounds, using splits. I use the same sound multiple times, within a module that will make the sound resonating and reverberating. It will makes an important and thick structure that I will want to keep and make it evolve progressively ; at least, until I will crack it suddenly or alter it very deeply. It means that the decision of layering sound is a very important one. After this one, I’ll be more free and I will explore possibilities around it during next minutes.. Then, I’ll decide to go more techno related, for disrupting the concept of beat-centered usual techno. New decision. I’ll go using a straight rhythm, using some patch cables from a straight source but a source that can be deeply altered (another decision, because I decided to go from straight to altered) etc.
Live performances are like trees and branching for me.
And as any model, it is just wrong but sometimes useful (Georges Box wrote it)
For answering more properly, maybe, I can say I’m really and deeply influenced by techno music. Cold sounds from the Underground (Resistance) contamined some parts of my mind. And I forgot about them during a bunch of years. I explored more complex music, including jazz fusion and machine driven electronic music. Æ is my major influence even if my music is very different as theirs. But they still influence me deeply in my processes and my creation approaches.
I don’t feel borders or walls between noise and tones, between percussive and drone sounds. This is all continuous for me.
The same matter. The sound and sound structure continua are just a dense and thick matter, according to me.
This is maybe why I don’t feel these as two streams, but as a unique one.
We already debated a lot about genres and names. Obviously, we don’t like genres but they are there for people sorting music, for some rare lazy curators etc.
This is why modular needs to have a world like « techno » or « drone » or even « ambient » next to it.
I don’t like that.
Modular system (I don’t use or rarely « modular synthesizer » terms as I have as much sound generator module as modifiers or triggering modules) should be more considered as an instrument. Not only on papers, but by curators and promoters. If some people like my sound, they invite me and I play modular system. It is up to me to fit the moment, or not to fit it, by the way. This is the real improvisation live performance way of playing.
Your inspirations range from structuralism, brutalist architecture to visual minimalism. Can you elaborate?
Structuralism is taken in the sense of its primary meaning, related to holism which is the fact that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (defined by JC Smuts). The Structuralism term as the core of this concept is a bit abusive but I assume that.
Studying a whole by deconstructing it, as a sum of parts and interactions, or what can emerge from the association of these parts, is one of my main processes. My scientific background is probably the cause of that. I used this unconsciously at first, then after some steps of conceptualization I started to use this process to better understand the world. So this is basically a cognitive tool, a cognitive process. Understanding something (whatever it can be, from humans’ feelings to cryptic OpenGL algorithms) by decomposing it, all without forgetting about the interactions and interferences between the parts.
I have been and still am more interested by the interaction and interferences between elements than elements themselves.
Addressing how a sound can disturb a visual process, how the movement can alter the sound, how a space can change the sound are few questions I am trying to seek through my artistic research.
I am not only using the sound as a result of a process, but as a matter that can be disturbed by another matter or another medium. This is the disturbance which becomes the core of the piece, not what it is disturbing.
I used to study a lot and I don’t think we have to just read brief and pre-digested texts or books.
France prepares vote for 2017 and the only word on mouth is « WORK ».
I’d prefer « THINK »
This is just the basic key to understand things. We are in such a fast world, that goes faster than our thoughts. A global network seemingly forcing us (although we take part in letting that happen) to only work and produce, have fun during weekend (as a rest for better producing). Only that. France prepares vote for 2017 and the only word on mouth is « WORK ».
I’d prefer « THINK ». Everything seems so overwhelming that people cannot even .. think. That’s a problem.
I think we have to take time, to read, think and understand things, even if we are slowing down to do that.
My way of creating is related to brutalism in the first sense and with all its ambiguity too. It comes from Le Corbusier explaining the use of concrete in its raw, brutal form. It also relates to the sudden change in architecture following modernism, and even if it is not a proper current movement nowadays, it has been followed by other interesting architecture forms.
I like raw. It often relates to primitive shapes or processes. Not primitive in the sense that they have not been considered but more as the result of a lot of thoughts that ended in a primitive form, an element, a unit. A unit which can be taken individually, refined and minimal enough, but that can be combined with other elements.
This relates to the visual minimalism I am seeking, actually. Refining is a permanent process. Removing is always better than adding but it requires the object to contain enough matter from the beginning.
I think Structuralism and Brutalism interfere in my creation process. SIG.INT, which I produced in residence at SAT Montréal for ELEKTRA Festival this year, was really the interference between these 2 aspect of my art practice. I think the sound that came out then was a real illustration of that.
I am interested in the interference between elements included in my different creation processes. This is a bit of a ‘mise en abyme’ of Structuralism embedded in Structuralism and Brutalism themselves. We should actually create an acronym for that.
Can you talk about the visuals connected to this performance?
The STRUCT visuals system is still a bit omnipotent. It is based on the generation of a cube. This cube represent the elementary brick, the smallest unit. This is similar to my other piece/performance ALPHA which also employs a cube.
In STRUCT, the cube can be seen from further, from the outside or the inside, the camera rotating around. That cube is also disrupted by the environment.
It appears spread in many lines and the whole structure then seems like a whole and dense grid in which we are all immersed. After the world premiere at Fond Régional d’Art Contemporain PACA (FRAC PACA), I had some interesting discussions with some of the audience.
Some people were surprised to see grey tones in the visuals and not only black and white, and others were interested by the « kind of visual remanence » in the visuals. I used a very basic process that evokes photography. I would describe it like: if lines remain in the same part of the screen for a while or are superposed, then the screen appears overexposed and produces a light trace that progressively vanishes. It reminded me of my 10 years as a semi-pro photographer. I was looking for blur and light traces and these ideas are resurfacing very strongly in my current practice.
STRUCT represents this because it talks about traces. All evolving structures alter memories. Even if they are evolving fast, slow or subtly. I want to keep traces. I want to make prints of my visuals.
Disruption and “deconstruction” figure heavily in your work. What are the tools that you use to accomplish it?
I’m using sound and visuals for that. I can develop more, of course.
I can talk about processes but it will drive into a sound synthesis course, maybe.
Disruption in sound can be done by using very fast process on the amplitude of a sound (volume).
Let’s use a sine wave 150Hz, ok. We can start by slowly modulate the amplitude of the sound. We hear some tremolo effects. We know that.
But if I start to change the amplitude modulation very fast (like greater that 12 Hz for instance), then… weird things happen.
We are in that disruption limit, and new things are emerging. Basically, it also illustrates the idea of structuralism we talked about before: the only one sine wave oscillating + the amplitude modulator are not enough to describe the result. Indeed, some new frequencies are appearing for real. And we can hear them. This is called Ring Modulation, by the way.
Disruption is not only a cut. I call what I described a disruption. This is a disruption in the apparently quiet continuum of modulation frequency… At some point (disruption point), new behaviors are occurring.
I can also quotes some disruption related ideas:
- tempo change
- emergence/disappearance of a sound
- sound descriptors sudden change (sound going from tonal to noisy for instance)
I could also gives some examples in visuals part. I’d more talk about disruption on a more meta level for visuals. This is not a disruption change a color, here, but how a proper sound features can influence more or less the visuals. Disruptions in my visuals are not only instant, but also more global, more like: a sound change the visual behavior from a way to another.
Deconstruction is really related in analysis, in my work.
I won’t develop further this idea, but it seems to relate to deconstruction/construction as analysis/synthesis in acoustic/sound research world.
Data and sonic information are the codes you use to transmit your works. In that sense, the sound is abstract, yet loaded with messages. Could you talk about them?
Sound is coming from abstraction in the sense that it originates from circuitry or math equations. I think this is the meaning of your question here and a very interesting one.
I feel the sound sources are very important. I used to take only theories as a source, by that I mean only synthesising sounds.
From oscillator to proper FM synthesis, to Ring Modulation to specific equation in my DSP, I was only using sound originating within the computer. It was a conscious decision.
It probably came from my need of control. The idea that I can control everything and then disrupt it exactly as I want.
Russel Haswell’s show in Marseille in 2014, just after my first ever ALPHA performance on the same stage, convinced me to put my hands on modular. I did it one month after and my whole life changed. Really. Not in a superficial way. No: deeply.
Sound became less abstract, in the sense that the source of the sound was circuitry with its imperfections. Circuits besides other circuits generated a proper character, including the disturbance of electrical interferences. This is at the same moment that I decided to have a proper setup for each track and not only one for all. This is the moment when I decided to assume and work on the trace concept, keeping traces like one writes in a sketchbook.
Between 2014 and now, I also experimented with field recording a lot. From hydrophones to anechoic chamber, I accumulated some sound recording material that I would like to release. In particular, I spent almost 2 weeks inside the anechoic chamber of the LMA (Laboratoire de Mécanique et Acoustique – CNRS – Marseille). I recorded materials for 3 projects:
– 2 hours of silence (I’ll use it these as a source for granular synthesis)
– Audio feedbacks (iterating filtering condition between microphone & speakers)
– Iteration of my voice (playing it in a space, recording it and playing the recording to re-record it. As an anechoic tribute to Alvin Lucier, of course)
I don’t know if people will say I am more concrete in the sense of music concrète, but I can say that recording sounds opened my mind to new possibilities.
I knew I could explore them before but I wasn’t interested in them. And I did not want to force myself into it.
The next project related to sound recording will probably involve granular synthesis. This is a proper way to use sound recording in which I can zoom inside the sound, read a lot of small parts (grains) of the sound at the same time, pitching them harmonically or not, changing the enveloppe of grains, and mix the whole with proper sound playing at the same time. This is a really concrete way of using the sound already recorded. Like a new listening of a sound you recorded before and you want to interpret again in a new space, in a new context.
Processing voice that way would be interesting.
I cannot not quote the Phonogene machine by Pierre Schaeffer. Making Noise eurorack modular constructors design a proper Phonogene module. I would want to have a rack with 4 like that only, each fed with different voices samples playing. I could make a live performance using background noise + whispers. An art residency would fit perfectly this kind of production process.
I will also have Alice Paradisi aka Cigùri as an artist in residence at my studio in mid-december. It will be interesting to record her voice properly for this other project. We will collaborate and my modularapproach combined with her very organic and powerful voice will melt into a new paradigm for proper dark electronic .