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PARIS — While in New York some years ago, I virtually met Laurent Fairon, a French blogger and record collector based in Paris, when he was documenting and archiving for the web the Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine in partnership with UbuWeb. We later met in person and I was indelibly impressed with his vast understanding of, dedication to, and love for difficult music. This devotion has blossomed in two releases of Fairon’s own music this year: one LP of new music on the European label Entr’acte, Musique Isotype (it dropped in early July); and a coming reissue of a 1993 cassette, Réalisme Electronique, on the Parisian label Charivari (the term for a French folk custom where communities perform noisy, discordant, mocking serenades).
I have kept abreast of Fairon’s vast musical tastes through several channels, foremost among them his mp3 blog Continuo’s Weblog, which he ran from 2007 to 2012, disseminating obscure records and cassettes from his collection. It remains a valuable resource, continuing to raise awareness of overlooked, non-mainstream releases. In 2008 he launched the ongoing Continuumix mixtape series, one edition of which was performed live at London’s Cafe OTO in May of last year during one of Fairon’s rare live appearances as a DJ. Since 2011, he has been constructing the Continuo’s Documents blog on Tumblr, where he archives and brings to light documentation around noisy, obscure, difficult, and avant-garde music.
In light of Fairon’s multifarious contributions to art music, I seized the occasion of his two album releases to tease out some background information, consider this new output, and take his measure of the international art music scene.
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Joseph Nechvatal: What first attracted you to sound art and unusual music?
Laurent Fairon: Until the age of 18, I grew up in the French countryside or provincial small towns where I was only exposed to commercial music. Instinctively, I suspected there must be something more ambitious than simply music for dance or romance. In my late teens, I used to order New Wave and pop-rock records from French mail order services like New Rose. If memory serves well, French TV of the mid-1980s was rather open to the avant-garde. I remember watching movie clips by Art Zoyd, Kas Product, Laurie Anderson, and Urban Sax, and loving them all. But it was really upon entering art school in 1987 that I started to consider music as an art form. At that time, I ordered records and tapes from Ursula Block’s mail order Gelbe Musik in Berlin — at prohibitive prices for my meager student budget. I was also a fan of a few radio programs on French national radio, especially the legendary Multipistes, which I remember fondly and still have a few tapes recorded on the air with American Minimalists, French electro-acoustic music, or British Industrial Rock.
At the end of the ‘80s, with a couple of friends from high school, I founded the cassette label Nos Yeux Aveugles to release our music and trade our tapes with others. We were into home-taping with four-track cassette recorders and synthesizers. I tried different styles: pop-rock, musique concrète, repetitive electronic music.
My two friends attended college in Paris and Bordeaux and had access to specialized music, which was still hard to track down for me in Angoulême. They used to send me mixtapes and cassette recordings of their discoveries and when they came back in my area during breaks they always brought highly specialized records and tapes in the fields of Industrial music, avant-rock, like the Swans, or plain weird music like Freshly Wrapped Candies. As far as I know, we all stopped making music after college (in 1993) to concentrate on jobs.
JN: Can you describe the sound of the home-taped music you first made in the early ‘90s? Was there a sonic thread throughout the different styles of music you experimented with?
LF: In the ‘90s, I wasn’t specifically focused on avant-garde music, but had a yearning to explore the various genres I kept discovering at the time, be it Rock In Opposition from Recommended Records, Systems Music as theorized by Michael Nyman, INA-GRM electroacoustic music, early British electro (Warp, Orbital, The Orb, The KLF), sound art by contemporary artists, etc. Then, as today, I see music as a kaleidoscope of styles, the exploration of which is a lifelong process. Additionally, I delight in the myriads of possibilities offered to the aspiring composer, especially when free from record deals or expectations from producers or fans. I favor independent music for the freedom it represents, almost as a political stance. A common point to all my music creations, then as today, is simplicity and ease of realization — I didn’t spend a lot of time composing or recording; if something didn’t work in the first place, I simply moved to another idea.
My first cassette, Région Par Région (released in 1990), was under the influence of late ‘80s favorites like Pascal Comelade, Pierre Bastien, Biota, or Atrium Musicae de Madrid, and consisted of short vignettes recorded with melodica, mandolin, flute, voice, homemade bass, found percussion, etc. The 90-minute-long 2 Pistes (A & B) was a kind of split cassette with two wildly different projects. The first side contained an album titled Minimum Metal (mostly new wave and cold wave songs, including some covers) and the B-side had Suite Rustique, my own attempt at a musique concrète album. Recorded in 1992, the Réalisme Electronique cassette collected stripped down, skeletal electronic sequences with naive lyrics in French (this one is about to be reissued). The oddly titled Amalgame de Onze Modélies Réductibles cassette, released on the German label Tonspur Tapes in 1993, was more in the style of my first one, with better arrangements and more synthesizer added to the acoustic instruments. Also in 1993, I worked on an unreleased demo titled Apogée Stadium, collecting minimalist songs with a lot of synthesizer, drum machine, and sequencer. My obsession at the time was to create electro-acoustic songs, but I never really succeeded in creating this hybrid style.
JN: The new album, Musique Isotype, is sonically rich and deliciously quirky. The album’s title, which is also the title of the fifth track, refers to the rather obscure 20th century philosopher Otto Neurath. How does he relate to the click-techno sounds that start the track down a seamless blend into an abstract noise field and then into choral-like blocks of sound?
LF: This particular track, as well as the entire CD, references Mary and Otto Neurath, the creators of the Isotype concept in the 1930s, in an analogy between Isotype charts to represent big data, on the one hand, and samples from existing sound material to make sense of the ginormous amount of sounds floating around on the internet, on the other hand. I’m using this analogy with graphic design because today’s sound treatment programs are entirely visual things, so that music making has become the matter of designing sound waves or patterns via more or less attractive graphical user interfaces — to the point that it must be very difficult for a blind person to compose electronic music today, whereas a deaf person can easily create music via music software.
In the track titled “Musique Isotype,” I’m using chopped up and processed basketball sounds to create fractured rhythms and bouncing conflagrations of sound. Basketball sounds are a fantastic source of inspiration for a musician, I find, but to really benefit from the variety and elasticity of basketball rebound sounds, I had to swab entire training sessions, rather than merely sample a short rebound. The rhythms on this track are punchy yet not repetitive — I hope. That’s the nuance I would see between my music and sample-based music. I also like the rebound vs. resound analogy. After the deluge of percussion and low-end blast of the first half of the track, I felt the need for some soothing sounds, hence the beautiful looped choir at the end, an out of this time threnody lifted from a ‘50s mono LP.
JN: On track seven, “Tippecanoe 1811” — my favorite — the title points to the Battle of Tippecanoe. Toward the end I hear what might be the sound of a Native American drum, but most of the track sounds metallic, almost futuristic, to my ear. Can you explain what the connection is?
LF: For the composer, some tracks are minefields, some are rose gardens. “Tippecanoe 1811” is actually the result of multiple, unconnected recording sessions and how I struggled to make things hold together despite the disparity, confusion, and lo-fi quality of the material. Synthesizer sounds were recorded with analog synth emulation software found on the web. Portions were actually first recorded on cassette and then digitized to add some analog sheen to the music — a technique I used on several other tracks. The undecipherable voice comes from an Armenian YouTube TV channel monologue, and has been distorted through an online graphic filter. The martial drum sounds opening and closing the track reflect my mental state while working on it. It’s only when everything was eventually packed into one more or less coherent track that I realized I was simultaneously reading a book on the battle of Tippecanoe between Native Americans and the young US Federation Army in the Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois Territories. The connection made sense for me and I love native tribes’ names (Menominees, Kickapoos, Wyandots, etc.).
JN: What other influences inspired you in creating Musique Isotype?
LF: I was certainly under the influence of many beloved, historical records from my collection while composing Musique Isotype, especially French stage music and poetry from the ‘60s like Semprun & Christodoulides or Jacques Doyen. Also, as a fan of Belgian minimal pianist, field recordist, and poet Dominique Lawalree, I was perhaps remembering the reference to Isotype on the cover artwork of his 1985 LP, Traces.
Self-taught British musician, poet, and painter Graham Lambkin was certainly an inspiration, too, even a model, as I simply love the way he can negotiate all activities with creativity, humor and wit. His book, Came To Call Mine, is a masterpiece associating deranged nursery rhymes, Surrealist poetry, and vivid color pencil drawings. Musically, I feel close to Lambkin’s work with The Shadow Ring trio. I greatly relate to their 2005 LP, I’m Some Songs, and its grotesque vocal treatments, sound collages, the alternating of dull and powerful moments, and unabashed creativity eschewing any kind of skilled musicianship. Lambkin belongs to the same artistic family as other heroes of mine, like the US duo Idea Fire Company, with which he shares a similar aesthetic.
JN: What is your impression of the state of experimental, challenging, electronica today?
LF: There has never been a better time for music as today, with a zillion daily album releases. Even in niche music areas like experimental music, it is overwhelming. The choice is far from infinite, though: there are still some specific fields where the options are poor, like modern opera or harpsichord music, for instance. In many ways, looking for new music today is looking online for the reliable recommendation that will lead you to good music. It’s just a matter of finding the good, deep link through your own network of bloggers, reviewers, or music platforms.
The only caveat of contemporary music in my opinion is perhaps the unsurprising taste of reissuers. Amid the flood of reissue releases currently hitting the shops or download platforms, I regret the conformism and unimaginative choices of record labels. They tend to reissue music with a specific sound quality resonating with today’s tastes, leaving behind a lot of music that sounds utterly weird or enduringly provocative. If you released some good music in the ‘70s and it doesn’t sound ‘70s, chances are it won’t be rereleased in 2016. This situation tends to misrepresent the ‘80s, for instance.
When I started my first mp3 blog in 2007, digitizing and uploading files of obscure experimental music releases of the past, I was merely carving a niche out for myself where I could feel at home among the music that really matters to me. Some music was never mentioned online and I resented that as a discrimination against me personally. I’m glad to have been one of the few — and sometimes the only one — to mention some composers online, like Maran Gosov, Dominique Lawalree, Knud Viktor or Juan Blanco. All fine composers in want of reissues.
Laurent Fairon’s Musique Isotype is available from Entr’Acte.