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Geneva and Paris are now linked by a high-voltage acousmatic cable. The Présences électronique festival, created in 2005 by Christian Zanési, artistic director of Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), has been resonating in Geneva since 2010 thanks to Jérôme Soudan, an artist known as Mimetic and co-curator of the Electron festival. These two conveyors of sound ideas engage in friendly crosstalk.
How did this experience of bringing Paris and Geneva closer together come about?
Christian Zanési: Very simply. In 2009, I was invited to perform in a space at L’Usine for the Electron festival. So I was able to check out the festival, and I also went to listen to my friend Christian Fennesz who was playing at the Alhambra. That’s when I discovered the space, and I saw that it was perfect for the Acousmonium. I discussed it with Jérôme Soudan, who, along with Emmanuelle Dorsaz, was very responsive, as the first edition of Présences électronique Geneva was held the following year.
Jérôme Soudan: Actually, I had already performed as Mimetic at Présences électronique Paris at La Maison de la Radio in 2007, then a few years later at Le 104. But after seeing Fennesz perform in 2009 at the Alhambra theater, Christian told me that it would be really great to integrate the Acousmonium into this space during the Electron festival. After thinking about it, we agreed that it made more sense to create a Swiss version of the Paris festival, because for me, the basic concept was worth a separate event.
Présences électronique breaks down the barriers between various expressions of electronic music, inviting artists from techno, industrial or electronica to try their hand at the electro-acoustic and acousmatic approaches of the Acousmonium, as we saw with Wolfgang Voigt and Dadavistic Orchestra. Is it difficult for these artists to apprehend these concepts of live spatialization?
Ch. Z: I don’t think it’s very difficult. Actually the Acousmonium allows you to listen to sound very naturally. In nature or in life, we are constantly surrounded by sounds, and our ears respond to this immersion with continuous and subtle selectivity. So we are all, “despite ourselves”, great specialists of multicasting. In terms of spatializing, the musician’s job is to direct or orient this selectivity. So the musicians adapt to the system very quickly, as they are also assisted by a very competent technical team. And once they’ve experienced it a first time, they want to do it again.
JS: The idea of offering a tool such as the Acousmonium, with its unlimited possibilities for reproducing sound and disseminating it through the space, to composers who have perhaps never had the chance to work in surround sound before, takes on its full meaning when these composer-musicians play the game. It’s more difficult for some than for others. It seemed naturally suited to the musical style and compositions of Dadavistic Orchestra, even if it was their first live performance. One single member did the spatializing, while the others performed. For Wolfgang Voigt it was completely different, as he comes from a very minimalist techno background, targeted at a very specialized audience, notwithstanding his more experimental or ambient projects [Gas, Kafkatrax]. This disorients some purists. He doesn’t spatialize much, but this can appeal to a more casual audience that sometimes feels lost in “contemporary” music festivals. As for me, I didn’t give the same guidelines and advice to these two artists. I try to accompany them as they struggle to tame the concept (uphill and in situ). The assistance of specialized technicians from the GRM is crucial in this accompaniment. In the end, Dadavistic Orchestra and Wolfgang Voigt felt that they had participated in something unique.
With artists performing directly from the Acousmonium, others from behind their laptops or opting for a very raw, staged performance (Erik M and FM Einheit), not to mention repertory electro-acoustic pieces (L’Œil Écoute by Bernard Parmegiani), it seems that the approaches are very esthetically diverse…
Ch. Z: We did try to include various musical modalities in the program, that is to say, different ways of producing music, as well as give new artists a historical perspective with repertory works.
JS: Yes, as Christian said, I share this search for diversity, which goes against most contemporary music festivals, which have a tendency to preach to the converted. For me, a sound by FM Einheit on the power drill is not so far from the esthetics of composers such as Varèse or the philosophy of John Cage. And Black Dog (member of Dadavistic Orchestra) or Wolfgang Voigt, coming from techno, may have a conception of sound that is less elitist, but which aptly touches today’s audiences, who live in a mixed society, where specialization is sometimes a refusal of openness.
But there’s always the idea of discovering new artists, and specifically electro-acoustic composers, as this year in Geneva we heard two young women, Esther Venrooy from the Netherlands and the Russian Olga Kokcharova from Switzerland…
JS: Ever since its first edition, two of the specificities of PEG [Présences électronique Geneva] are to provide a space for Swiss composers such as Olga Kokcharova, Martin Neukom and POL, and to show the analogies with contemporary art—a recurrence in Geneva, where the DJs are often visual artists. Both Olga and Esther come from the world of galleries and contemporary art. In their installations, they work very precisely on spatialization, so I thought it would be interesting to invite them to perform live and adapt to a spatialization designed by someone else.
Some artists have been influenced by this acousmatic experience. I’m thinking of artists who come from electronica or rock such as Jim O’Rourke, whose music seems to evolve more and more toward electro-acoustic…
Ch. Z: There’s one exmple that I like a lot because it’s a friend—Robert Hampson (ex-MAIN) or the duo Matmos, who for their second appearance at Présences électronique Paris did a performance in two parts, of which the first part was purely acousmatic. In fact, what all these musicians have in common is the concept of inventing sound—sound as expressive material and as a medium for musical structure.
JS: After having performed several times in this Acousmonium and invited other artists to do the same, I sincerely believe that it’s a unique experience! Because the Acousmonium merges Cage’s conception—that electronic music comes alive through spatial gesturing—with the sensations of techno that I felt for the first time in Berlin in the 1990s. Feeling electronic music through the body. That’s why I’m trying to conceive the Acousmonium like a club, like the Zoo of L'Usine in the latter part of the evening. When you manage to combine true quadriphonic sound with artists like Tim Exile performing live, you get that sensation that fuses the physical and the mental and associates them with what you’re hearing.
In Paris, the concerts at Le 104 are free; in Geneva there are the nocturnal quadriphonic techno festivities that Jérôme was talking about at the Zoo of L’Usine. Is this one of the essential points of Présences électronique?
JS: I think that here the two versions are completely different. In Geneva, PEG is managed by an independent association with very little funding. Its approach is fairly unique, as most associations of this type organize either very experimental festivals, for example around improvised music, or very commercial events in order to cover their costs. For me, and in particular for Saturday nights at the Zoo, the goal is to approach as much as possible the ideal version of a club-like Acousmonium in the second half of the evening. The Zoo is 100% auto-financed, so it’s crucial that people come. In my opinion, last year’s Acousmonium at the Zoo was poorly planned all night long until 5 am. That’s why I’ve decided to openly adapt the system while taking into account all the restrictions, both financial and esthetic, of the alternative venue that is L'Usine. We are openly thinking about making PEG free entry, but for now we’re losing money, because we’re not at all a “contemporary music festival” type of institution, but rather a team of passionate organizers from the alternative world of electronic music.
How do you see the future editions of Présences électronique developing over the next years? What new challenges would you like to take on? What improvements would you like to make?
Ch. Z: There is always the key question of having one or several spaces. Otherwise, I believe that the basic concept is open and rich enough to easily find many variations. If we have several spaces, then we can offer different length formats. We could also enrich the festival—it’s a question of money—with installations where artists challenge the notions of sound and listening. We are in an extremely vibrant field, with many artists to discover, and with each new edition, I’m amazed by the diversity of esthetics and approaches. In short, I feel that artistically, I’m in sync with life.
interview by Laurent Catala
Présences électronique Paris > www.inagrm.com/presences-electronique-2012-0
Présences électronique Geneva > www.presenceselectroniques.ch
Published in Digitalarti Mag #9
Digitalarti Mag, the international magazine about art and digital innovation
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