Lauren: Originally trained in wood carving in the school of Boulle, and then in the Cergy School of Fine Arts, you are now known as a composer of electronic music. A composer who shifts the gestures of a wood carver to apply them to recorded sounds. You trim them, carve them, assemble them etc. How and when did you trade your wood chisel, gouge and burin for a laptop and modular synthesizer? Why did you make this choice?
Méryll: When I was a teenager I played cello and drums. I began to use the computer to create sound much later on when I arrived at the School of Fine Arts in Cergy. There I was able to continue my work of sculpture and installation, while at the same time developing a plastic work around sound. There was a sound studio in that school where I could borrow microphones and recorders. I had time too. I think that my interest for drums and playing with rhythm triggered a desire to see “sound in volume”. In parallel, I entered the music conservatory of the 20th arrondissement of Paris, where I took a course in computer aided music with composer Octavio Lopez. From there I explored different software and an approach to electroacoustic music (composition and broadcast through the use of an acousmonium). When I began to do research and compose creations I found a lot of similarities with sculpture. Sound is, ultimately, a material to be sculpted. Working with sound and sound volume in space, as one works with wood, earth or plaster, is to share the same vision; of shaping raw material, with planes (verticality and horizontality) and dimensions, while also considering one’s physical implication. All of that took up time and space in my life, and at a given moment I said to myself: “Ok, I want to sculpt space with sound, to model sound in a physical space”. I wasn’t aware of it immediately, but it seemed obvious to me; I knew that the medium of sound would become the epicenter of my work.
Lauren: Your artistic approach exists mainly in the form of sound performances. Having had the opportunity to listen to you live a number of times, my first instinct would be to place your compositions in the field of noise. Having gotten to know your process better, I would tend more towards musique concrète and the composers who contributed to its development: Pierre Schaeffer, Michel Chion, Luc Ferrari and even Iannis Xénakis etc. Even though the movement is a historical reference from the 1950s, heavily dominated by men, it represents an emblematic legacy when it comes to the question of sound recorded in the service of musical composition. Recording is no longer used as a medium for keeping a trace but rather as a tool for musical creation. Like musique concrète, it seems to me that your creative process always begins with sounds captured on digital media, that you can then manipulate, transform and arrange. Would it be correct to say that you don’t make any concessions to the preexisting sounds in your daily life, to the sounds that you record? That you dissociate them from their context and manipulate them until there is no longer any possible illustration of, or reference to, reality?
Méryll: Yes, this is actually how I work. There is this process of scavenging everyday sounds that I record, work on, and isolate to find other dimensions for them. I began to record things that were very close to me, present in my living space: a drum-kit, an out-of-tune piano, a fan, a hot water tank, a shell rattling around in a bathtub, the wind, voices, the noises of a garage, etc. This participates in a dynamic that moves from the inside towards the outside. At the same time, I increasingly use analog instruments like the synthesizer. This developed because my live performance practice has evolved and because the instruments and sound sources that I was using no longer corresponded to it. At a given moment, I was bored with only using a computer connected to a midi controller. I prefer to move my instruments from the studio to the live space, to really set them up on site, to have them as a set up for the live show. It took me a long time to find my first synthesizer. Highly versatile and sensitive, it allows me to play with dynamics. Well, it can also spin out of control sometimes… Then I found other synthesizers that allowed me to have other sounds. They drive my playing, like a back-and-forth between the so called natural world and the industrial one. Little by little, I became more interested in this for my live performance: mixing different acoustic and everyday sources, treated using digital devices and also analog instruments. I need to have pure and precise electronic sound sources. Synthesizers allow me to actually have these materials, and thus nourish this abstraction. Ultimately, my work deals with questions that are specific to the plasticity and physicality of sound, but it is also concerned with systems for broadcasting. I seek to amplify vibrations so as to play in a physical way, in other words for the body to be impacted by the vibrational state of the space. These vibrational states provoke images, emotions, and abstract feelings. Sound can be projected forward as an energetic and vital movement.
Lauren: Pursuing this analogy with sculpture, sound editing could be compared to modeling by adding or removing material, through a succession of sound sources that appear and withdraw in time. Even more than the technique of modeling, it seems to me that your compositions are similar to an act of direct carving, a carving that you carry out over a duration, in real time. Would that be right? If so, do you establish a structure for your performance ahead of time or do you make room for intuition?
Méryll: Absolutely, this approach has a link with sculpture, due to the fact that there are materials to be placed and heard, that will gradually take shape according to the action: directing them, shaping them, allowing them to become, but also carving them to create planes, dynamics, reliefs and depths, playing with levels, the space of the place and the body. All of this motivates me to play in real time. I pay close attention to what my body feels. With the vibrations, the acoustic pressure, it provides me with information like a kind of barometer. Live performance provides palpable energy. I work a lot with intuition, with what I have on hand. I think that intuition finds its place when playing live. I think that the unexpected is actually the vector, that interferes and finds its place in the composition. It is the unexpected that leads intuition. The machine produces an unexpected sound – because it can happen that you get sounds that aren’t necessarily those that you were hoping for – and you have to rebound and react live, and this happens thanks to intuition. The computer allows me to throw in samples when I want, like the noise of a drum-kit, a breath, things that I have already recorded, but there is no editing or composition ahead of time. In other words there is no framework. There is no net. The samples are played, fiddled with, modulated at the right time, little by little, to which are added analog machines, totally separate from the computer, that generate sound.
Lauren: In parallel to your many live performances, you have already released four albums. What relationship is there between your concerts performed in real time and the recording of your albums? Do you consider the album as a trace of the live concert or as a new autonomous work fixed on a medium? Do you make a distinction between what is performed and what is reproduced? I’m thinking particularly of Residue of Time, your last album released in March of 2020 on the label Scum Yr Earth, in digital and cassette formats.
Méryll: Sometimes, before performing, I ask the sound engineer to record my concert so that I a have an archive that I can listen to. But unsurprisingly I realize that elements are missing, bodily sensations in particular. Space is missing. This is frustrating because we can’t always find complete sound volumes, not everyone has a live sound system at home. So I haven’t rushed to publish things on physical mediums; like I said earlier, I imagine my music for live performance. What interests me with sound is its volume, its propagation, the place it occupies in space, and the energy of the audience. A few years ago some friends asked me the question: “But Méryll, how can I listen to you if I miss a live concert?” How to conserve the work, research and thinking of the artist? By publishing music on mediums. And I do think that an artist – irrespective of their medium – should pay attention to their archives, their productions, and how they are made public. And so, I have asked myself some questions about the way in which I proceed and how I record: being a little more disciplined and meticulous about things, thinking about working in a studio to create physical editions, etc. Afterwards, in the process of composition, it is important to stay free, we can combine samples that come from a recording of a concert with other sources. One shouldn’t be afraid to assume this.
Afterwards, my albums often have a connection with my concerts. Doing research for a concert takes some time. And so, I try to keep elements, residues made at a given moment. I try to see, during the process or after the concert, if something emerges that marks me or that I still want. For Residue of Time, for example, I used research that I did for a concert. I kept the passages that I really liked in the form of samples to recompose them later. Three of the tracks are continuations of the same work, of the same research. This album was produced with recordings of analog machines (synthesizers and cassette players), sound captures from my daily life (cymbals, fans, wind, voice, etc.) and samples of concerts from 2019. It started with the idea that time is deployed within sound materials. It is a question of keeping ones residues so as to provoke forms that reside within a change in states. However, there are also tracks that never had any link with a concert, for example Absalon EM and 4N4N4S from the album Ma (2019). This allows me to try things and launch ideas. It is a space of liberty that I need to pursue things.
Lauren: You recently (in 2021) did a sound and visual installation called Lucha libre. It is an immersive installation that proposes an immaterial simulation of a Mexican wrestling match. A simulation – or an artificial reproduction that functions through sound, light and smoke, plunging the spectator into a kinesthetic experience. Could you explain the origins of this project to us? Why did you decide to turn your attention to Mexican wrestling?
Méryll: I had the opportunity to travel to Mexico for the first time in 2013. During that trip, I saw some lucha libre matches. And when I saw that, I said to myself: “I really have to come back to Mexico to capture the sounds and energy of these people – it’s totally incredible!” And so, thanks to the "Hors-les-murs" scholarship of the Institut Français, I was able to go back for three and a half months in 2017 to capture the sounds and meet the luchadores. I was lucky enough to be accompanied by someone who brought me to see fifteen matches in five different arenas: Orlando Rimenez, I had been advised that he was a specialist. He opened up doors everywhere we went. We quickly became friends, and thanks to him I was able to get into gymnasiums where I recorded sound right beside the luchadores in action, capturing their breathing, the noises of the ropes, of footsteps, etc.
What I found really interesting about lucha libre, was the dialogue between the fighters and the audience but also the frantic dialogue between good and evil. Good always wins in matches, whereas in our lives, it is often the bad guy who is victorious. And so it turns things on their heads. Also, in Mexico they have this whole set-up with their costumes, and especially their masks. The bad guy often wears a mask and the unmasked fighter is the good guy. This is very elaborate character construction. I am also interested in the cathartic effect of this combat. I interviewed kids, young men and women, who, as they were leaving the matches, told me: “I love it. It takes the edge off, it’s cathartic”.
All categories of people and ages get involved. You can have a baby that is barely a few months old, a tiny granny and a tiny grandad in the audience. Women fight too. They fight other women but also men. There are mixed matches where the luchadores are completely different genders, sizes and ages. That’s what’s interesting. In this arena and in the ring, everyone can meet and mix, without distinction. Everyone accepts each other, for the art of the game at least, in that particular moment. In any case, this is what I liked about this exploration of Mexican lucha libre. I really enjoyed the presence of women in the arena, their energy. It’s wonderful, it stills reminds me of being excited as a child.
Lauren: Contrary to your musical compositions which are more abstract, for this installation you assumed a much more figurative proposition. The sounds being broadcast conserve their nature as signs and refer us back to their original context, in this case a Mexican wrestling match. To stay with the theme that we began with, musique concrète had this desire to bring the everyday sounds that it used to the point of abstraction. However, beginning in the 1960s, certain composers from this movement opted for a return to figurative sound by using very recognizable elements. They all shared the notion of creating narrative evolutions, in the face of the advocates of abstraction. I’m thinking of the piece Hétérozygote (1963) by Luc Ferrari, who was the first to integrate social issues into the music, peppering his compositions with everyday sound images such as texts, snippets of conversation in different languages, outside ambiences… This piece actually allowed him to conceptualize anecdotal music. I am also thinking of Michèle Bokanowski with the album Cirque (1994) that re-transcribes the atmosphere of a circus with the clamor of the audience, the galloping of a horse that outlines the circular plan of the space, etc. Ultimately, Lucha libre could be part of an extended anecdotal music: a composition made using recorded identifiable sounds, that comes alive through the movement of the spectator and their crossing through the space. A composition where you spatialize the sounds so as to restore the space of the match with a certain fidelity... How did you consider this installation in space with regard to your work of composition?
Méryll: I didn’t want to do a documentary piece that accurately reproduced everything. On the other hand, creating links with imagination, that might refer to video games or to cinema, yes. It is true that this sound and visual installation contains a scenographic space: four speakers that materialize the space of the ring, and six others that materialize the space of the arena, backed by basses and smoke that recall the flesh, the sweat. The whole thing becomes a piece that we move through from beginning to end, like a film. One doesn’t feel dropped into the middle of it as there is a narrative and a development of facts.
This cathartic effect reminds me a little of noise, but this installation is nonetheless an electroacoustic piece: I began with sounds recorded in reality that I distorted, twisted, sculpted. Others have even been added to render the effect that Lucha libre even more dense. I wanted to find a kind of elevation within this proposition, the feeling of being freed from something, where one exits oneself. I wanted to hold on to the event. To move from point A to point B. It is an ascension, it is a dynamic. It was very important for me to play with the different states that one feels during a match, and we get there, little by little. When one enters an arena, you will be there for at least two hours, there are five matches and a match lasts around twenty minutes, divided into in three parts. With this 24 minute installation, we almost go through a full match, an encounter.
Also, I find that sound is essential to the sport of lucha libre. I really found qualities of relief and texture that I liked a lot. It is pretty raw, pretty frontal. There are very few silences in the ring, it is constantly moving. If the combat falters a little, they speak to each other, the presenter makes a comment, along with the music in the background and the respiration of the arena. It is an organism. In any case, I saw it like a social organism: there is breathing, the sensation of a wave, of a dialogue between the inside and the outside, between the ring and the arena. There is this constant back and forth movement. And this, this was one of the compositional elements for the writing of this installation. I was reminded of these moments when writing. Well… In the end, this is my interpretation, my view, how I personally feel, about lucha libre.
À l'écoute de ses espaces,
Méryll Ampe and Lauren Tortil, 2021