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Interview with Laurent Perrier

img  Tobias Fischer

His current press release refers to Laurent Perrier as "one of the most respected members of the French electronic music scene". In fact, Perrier has long been one of its leading unsung heroes. Choosing to create exclusively under his own terms and with the freedom provided by his commissions for theatre productions, the Paris-based electro-acoustic composer has operated mainly in the background for the past decade through a string of fascinating projects as well as his deeply personal and wildly eclectic Sound on Probation imprint. With a trilogy of releases for Baskaru, one of Europe's most exciting labels for experimental sound art, he is now set to move more into the limelight and indeed claim the position his wilful, yet strangely accessible work has long deserved. Each of the three albums is based on a concept  Perrier has dubbed "one-way collaboration", with artists sending him materials as points of departure for a composition. There was a clear sense of purposeful restriction at work, as Perrier neither allowed himself to ask for different material or for more recordings from his musical partners, nor include any source materials of his own devising. On the first entry of the series, Plateforme #1, focusing on field recordings by Lawrence English, Gianluca Becuzzi and Felix Kubin, the results are beguilingly sparse and focused, both serenely cool and sizzling with a passion for detail. One can be sure that the next two entries, including artists like Francisco López, Christian Fennesz and Aidan Baker, among others, will offer equally intriguing delights – especially since the non-collaboration concept might well get expanded to a drum-only and brass-only album at some point. If all of them are only a fraction as exciting as Plateforme #1, Laurent Perrier may well attain his status as one of the most respected members of the French electronic scene for real some time soon.

Before we start discussing your wonderful new album Plateforme #1, I'm curious about the place where the music was created – your studio. What were criteria when setting it up, how has it developed over the past years and how does this environment influence your creative process?
I live in a house in a precinct of Paris with my wife and my young son. When we bought it some years ago, we spent about one year to rebuild everything as it was really very old and we wanted to have it exactly like we wanted. It’s not big, but we agreed that there would be a room for my studio without talking about it. So, it changed my life, as before I worked under our bed in our very little flat in Paris, and worked all times with a headphone. The glass of the windows would shake each time there was too much bass, so it was a quite difficult place to mix or master music!

I’m someone who adapts quite easily. So, my music didn’t miraculously get better the day I entered my new studio. But one thing's for sure; I would find it hard to go back. For three years, I saved up the money to buy premium quality monitoring with high quality equipment for mixing and mastering. It’s clear that everything is easier when you have the right equipment. I am fairly steady, so my mood doesn’t have a so big impact in my music. I know some composers who want to have total control of their music and the materials they use for creating it. That's not the case with me. I do need to understand the software, instruments and materials I'm using and need to invest a minimum amount of time into practicising, but I've never been a good theorist, or a good reader of manuals. So, when I compose, I’m working with errors, and I'd rather be controlled by the machine, as if the machine were human, like a band. I really like the sensation to feel as if it was someone other than me who composed the music. I feel like I exceeded my own boundaries, I find it disturbing and interesting. I love when I do not understand how music is made.


The press pics on the baskaru site show you handling a Doepfer modular synth. Can you tell me just a little bit about the instrument, the reasons for selecting it and what role it plays in your productions and live performances?
Last August, I discovered the world of modular synthesizers. In September I bought my first system, a Doepfer basic system. Seven months later I now have a quite huge system of 30U. From this time I spent all my money and time on it. I used to work with computers for 15 years, and without realizing it, I was getting bored with them. I’ve been working as theater, dance and performing composer for a while now, and worked with it few times ago for a performance with dancers and videos. The Doepfer is exactly the right thing I could find to create in direct time. It's the only thing I work with now, I only use my computer for the mix and sound correction, but I’m really playing in a live mode now.
Previously, I considered myself a composer. Now, I’m a musician, as the modular system is an instrument at the same time very playful (my 4,5 year old kid loves to play with it) and quite complex. I spend most of my times on it, working but also learning about by reading on forums, watching videos, exchanging with people, etc... It has really changed my life in meeting new people, new friends, creating a new motivating reason to wake up. I never met something in my life which captured me quite like this.

Wherever I go, I get asked a lot of questions about it. All the people I know who are in the modular system world are completely taken in. Socially, this issue concerns me a lot. Modular synthesizers ask the question of dematerialization. It’s obvious that to touch buttons and sliders, and to plug cables into holes is an entirely different experience than looking at virtual images on a screen. It is equally apparent that movement and physical impact have a determining impact on your creativity. The possibilities of modular synthesis are unending. It’s at the same time a permanent game for the brain and a constant search for the mind. But it can be also quite dangerous as I think you have to know exactly where you want to go with it, otherwise you can lose yourself and go through a process of looking for the perfect system for your establishment - but most of times, it is an illusion.


Your new release Plateforme #1 is the first in a series of what you've referred to as 'one-way-collaborations'. What motivated your choice of artists for this endeavour and what's your ideal of collaboration?
At first, I wanted to gather artists that are not in the habit of seeing all. I have known some of them for a very long time, such as Felix Kubin, whom I met when I used to manage the Odd Size records label and shop (1986-1998) for the release of an album by his colleague Günter Reznicek, close to 20 years ago now. I communicated with Lawrence English for some years and like his music. I made a split album with Gianluca Becuzzi on my own label sound on probation and wanted to continue the collaboration. I have a huge respect for his music and find it amazing that this composer should not be more recognized. One of the big mysteries of the record industry!!! I also wanted to have artists who have a discography for people who buy the disc have some benchmarks in relation to work.

I don’t have an ideal of collaboration. I’m open to work on any forms, but outside of my band experiences (Nox, Cape Fear, Heal), I haven't made a lot of collaborations. I earn my money as a composer for choreography, theater, performance and sound design. That means that I collaborate all the time and maybe this kind of collaboration is more to my liking: Communicating with other artistic disciplines. Most of the time, I remain very free. And a choreographer often leads me in directions I would not have discovered on my own. It teaches you to listen and to know to feel things quite quickly.
And the fact to play now with a modular synthesizer opens me more doors to live performances. In this type of collaboration, there is not really any interactive process in the sense that when I got materials I go alone and will come back then I’ll decide that the work is finished. We can compare that to remixing, with the difference being that with a remix you start and work from an already finished piece. In the present case, we started purely from sound: isolated, abstract materials with no history.


What kind of materials did the other artists send you, mainly? Did you guide them in a particular direction?
I didn’t give specific instructions. I wanted to have raw sounds quite simply, not yet mixed together. I just asked for sounds representing their own works, but wanted to leave them quite free. Some sent me works they made especially for this release and others gave me a sound bank of their collections. Some sent me a lot of materials, others very few. I respected the rules, and didn’t ask for changes and worked only with what I received. But it's definitely true that for the three volumes I've created, I’ve been listening to files where I wondered how I could ever work with that!!!


How would you describe your way of working with sound? In how far will the sound itself already guide you in a specific direction – or even force you to take a specific decision? Do you like to detach yourself from the sounds or rather imprint your own aesthetics on them?
When I was younger, I started to learn the piano. Soon enough, I realized that I had an aversion for scores. So today I don’t know how to read a score, and must admit that I have problems to not associate it with something bourgeois and boring. It prevents me from feeling the music.

So, I really discovered music sensations later, as a drummer in punk bands. Creating music in the moment, where you may close your eyes, leave your spirit free to go where it wants and not have your eyes and brains concentrated on reading something. Sometimes I think that maybe my music would be more interesting if I knew how to read a score. It might open me up for different horizons, I don’t know. On the other hand, my approach outside of scores taught me to improvise and to hold what I played with my brain, my memory. All that to say that I compose music without writing it, but only by making use of the energy at the time I’m working and in an instinctive way.

About my way of working with sounds, it really changes according to the technical equipment I use. If I'd make this album today, I’d do it with my modular synthesizer, and the result would be completely different. At first, I tried to transform each sound and bring it in a way that satisfies me. And this is where it starts getting difficult for me to explain what is good or not and it’s why it’s very difficult to speak about my music. If I could explain it I might be making films or writing books.

Before being really satisfied, I had to transform the sounds again and again using different software, different processes. When I have all my sounds ready, I can start to compose, and this is the part I like. Preparing sound can sometimes be boring, and I only start feeling the fun when I start to compose. From there, I’ll try hundreds of combinations. In fact, this work was much more difficult than I imagined, because when you compose and there is a sound or a part which doesn’t work you can usually try to get new ones or try something else. In this case, however, owing to the nature of the project, that was impossible!! I could only use the materials I had and nothing else. It’s why I worked on this collection of albums for several years. Before I was truly satisfied, I had to change a lot things, a lot of processes, and try different combinations.


One of the things that make Plateforme #1 stand out for me is how much space you award to the sounds, rather than cluttering the arrangements with myriads of noises.
It's good to hear that you noticed this, as it’s one of the biggest difficulties in composition. Cut and remove. And I used to be quite greedy with my music in the past. It’s also difficult for me because I did not grow up in what you might call a minimal musical culture. I’m a big fan for example of Frank Zappa which is for me the biggest composer of all times. When Zappa made one track, others made one album. It's incredible to have so many ideas in one piece. I am also very appreciative of the work of Meat Beat Manifesto and you’ll notice that once again we are more in maximalist composition territory. I like it, when music is crawling and when I don’t understand how it’s made. If you work for 3 days on a part of 20 or 30 seconds, at that at the end you’re very satisfied about this work. But that it doesn’t really well included finally in your composition it’s very hard to remove it because as you like it as part, you’ll find an arrangement with yourself to place it in the track. Maybe that I’m more mature today to say no if it has no place in the track. But I worked for  years before arriving at this point.


I guess the challenge is how to keep focused at a time when we can dispose of an almost infinite number of tools and when there are few natural limitations anymore.
When you say that we can dispose of an almost infinite number of tools, it’s a quite interesting  topic. For example, I have a friend who had a big system and came back to a small one. He simply got lost with too many possibilities and couldn't be creative. I don’t have this problem and on the contrary I need a big system with a lot of possibilities, because when I create, I need to have everything I could possibly need around me to not feel frustrated. I simply chose the right tool and I'll know immediately what I need for my track. The important thing I think is to have the choice between 10 sounds, and that the 4th is perfect, I’ll use it immediately and will not at first play the 10 and replay them several times as I like this one, but also this one too. I try to manage my energy and my brain when I compose, because I know we are limited at times. I like to work in feeling profitability.


Your releases always seem marked by a meticulous attention to detail. What, specifically, are you looking for and what are some of the criteria that make you feel satisfied with a sound or piece?
I can obsess about details. I can pass hours, even entire days on a detail. I’m a lover of details. I can become crazy if I listen to a track and notice there's a detail I forgot. Because the entire piece is ruined by it. I come from punk, but I like things to be well done, precise. I think we can all agree that with electronics,  a track is never really finished because we use virtual editing software which allows us to change everything all the time. Whereas before, when you had a cut in the tape, it was hard to go back. When I finished a track and come to conclusion that I liked it, for me it was finished. If I play it again one month later I’ll certainly want to change things but a track has a history and is made in a space-time. It’s important to keep that in mind, because if you don't, you’ll never finish a track. And very often, it’s quite easy and fun to start a track and more difficult to finish it. We are in a world where everything must be fast, and if you want to go fast you’ll can’t take care of details. This may be one of the difference between a good and a bad record, book or film: Caring about details. Details are the opposite of vulgarity.


When you're immersed in sound the way you are, does it become less fascinating – because you understand the way certain things work – or even more mysterious? What are some of the things you learn about sound if you're constantly surrounded by it?
Are you speaking about the music I'm listening to or about my own music?
When it comes to the music I play, as I said I like when I don’t understand how it’s made, since things can indeed become less fascinating when you understand how they're made.

But if it’s concerning my actual work with my modular synthesizer, I keep being fascinated. There are so many way to use it, that it’s impossible to be fascinated less, to be bored. Even if I use the same patch, it will sound different each time I’ll switch my system off and on as it works with electricity. It can be a problem if you want to find exactly the same result again. That means each time I play I’ll find something else. If you change one cable, it can change everything. When you have a new module, there is some chance that there will be an impact on the entire system. It’s really without any limits.

And anyway if that were the case, it's a growing industry and there are new modules coming out all the time and new brands are born creating things completely crazy. You should know that module manufacturers are often alone, it is a niche industry, with some modules being built in runs of only 50 copies. I must be sensitive to this because I think it's very close to the underground spirit of experimental electronic music labels, each with its spirit, each style. This is also why I left the computer. Even if you find a new software or plug-in, you start to do the same thing after a while.

Laurent Perrier interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Laurent Perrier
Homepage: Baskaru Recordings