When did the two of you meet and how long have you been playing together?
We have met two years ago while touring in France with our other bands. Célia’s is called Vitas Guerualitis and mine is called Guili Guili Goulag. We talked a lot during this tour about the bourdon box, an instrument of Célia. I was really fascinated by this instrument and his maker Leo Maurel, a very interesting instrument builder who drew his inspiration from the hurdy-gurdy, the drone tone-clusters and overtones parameters. At the end of the tour we have decided to fix a little residency of a week to make some music together.
Léa wanted to continue to play her harp, work on other parameters than those she developed with her other band and experiment more with her voice. And me, I wanted to play the drum. We didn’t know what we were going to do, only that we wanted to play with this bourdon box Boîte à Bourdons (a harmonium inspired by the indian Shruti-box and the hurdy-gurdy). For the first residency we brought all the instruments we had at home, we shaped our set up naturally by following where the project was going to take us. We’ve been playing together for one year. I think we made around 6 weeks of residency spread over a year and 20 concerts.
Do you always use the same set of instruments or does it vary from show to show?
The set up is the same from show to show but we make some arrangements to improve the sound we like. For instance, Célia made her minimalist drum, with just toms, snare and DIY cymbals (two cymbals she broke and reassembled to which she added a collar of hooves and goat horns). We did the same with other stuff. For instance, my DIY hi-hat consists of little frying plan in which I put bits of broken metal and on which I step and crush with my foot. Together and with our sound engineer and friend, Hubert Monroy, we also think about which microphone fits which instrument, in order to get the desired sound diffusion. Presently, we are each focused on our respective instruments, but in the future we like to switch roles. I would like to hit the drum also and experiment the bourdon box and Célia wants to explore the harp as well.
Are your live shows based on free improvisation or do you follow a more fixed structure for your compositions?
Our shows are semi-composed/semi-improvised. We are trying to go beyond compositional outlines. Different combinations of patterns are written and improvised in the moment; they appear, remain and disappear along the impulse of the situation. We have different patterns for different parts. To find ourselves in the narration we have meeting points, which can be activated either by Célia or by me when we wish. If one of us is not ready for this meeting point because the other is still into telling something, we look and listen to each other and we wait for the other to catch up. The challenge is to pay constant attention to the space, each other’s time flow and that of the narrative as a whole, all linked to the unique intensity of the moment.
Your music makes an intimate impression and yet has an outgoing and energetic drive. Can you tell a bit more about these qualities that seem to provoke a fresh tension in your music.
Yes it’s true. One day, after our first concert in March 2017, a friend told us:
“Wha, it’s so strange! I didn’t expect that. It’s seems that in your collaboration the agitation of one cancels that of the other to make room for a certain tranquility, still unknown. Like magnetism: two identical poles repel each other.”
I think that’s quite a spot on remark.
Before this project we have experimented more with our harsh, noise energy and buzzing side than with our quiet and calming one. We were surprised to discover that we could also experience this kind of energy while still in tension. I think it’s in our nature (laughs). On a serious note, I think we like this parameter in music.
Yes, but also, the mutual truth has led us to a form of intimacy which was quite surprising. Maybe it’s a kind of female intimacy. I don’t know, it’s like now, we can drop our weapons because we have nothing to prove one another. It’s not because we are girls, but more related to our backgroung and our new ability to let go.
The open and experimental character of your music seems to leave a lot of space for the listener to step into. How do you see your role as a performer towards an audience?
I like, first at all, for my part, when things are not determined and remain open for different potentials. When I play music I am aware all the time that I come back to this point. For that reason, I don’t like to make music in a particular genre, or be caught up in musical clichés or stereotypes. I try to be aware of this and observe myself all the time. Being my own guardian is not easy and I really don’t know whether I am doing it right. In terms of being a listener, I enjoy music that remains open, letting me my intimate space in which my imagination roams wild. In all the bands I have played we got in position ourselves facing each other. It happened naturally and it was not a sign of shyness or withdrawal, but rather to leave more room for listening. Maybe it has also something to do with a kind of sincerity towards the audience and the other band members.
The fact of being sincere automatically creates a connection with the listener. No matter what you do. I think it’s when you adopt a fake position on stage that you leave less room to the listener.
Yes, and I think you cannot be sincere everywhere. In music you don’t have 36 000 possibilities of sincerity. When I work alone or with other people, the challenge is to find where we touch this, and sometimes you have to mourn certain possibilities because, in fact, it is not you and you can feel it. If you want to go there, you feel you will not be able to be sincere and that you will enclose your intention. It’s like everything at this moment is too clear and yet too fake.
The way you use rhythm is minimalist, repetitive and steady. This allows for minor changes to happen and be noticed. Why do you install such a minimalist approach?
Because this approach is rough and authentic. You have to be efficient; you cannot fake your play; no sugarcoat, no ornaments. We are not into making pretty things with virtuoso techniques. My instrument is the piano. Because I didn’t learn the drum, I have to make simple and efficient things. I have to go straight to the point. Also, when you are in this position and you introduce minor changes, you are discovering all the time; you discover, at the same time as the listener, a new sound or a new nuance.
It’s funny, because when you say that, I think about how I did things, but the other way around. I have started playing the harp when I was 7 years old. After many years of classical training I began to deconstruct the acquired skills: remove all the virtuoso and cheesy side of the harp and try to go to the simple thing, one note, one interval, or work more with sound and less with notes and harmony, work with the volume, the mass and look for different attacks of the string, different colors, different “grains” of sound. In my new research I try to make radical choices, work deeper on one parameter.
In terms of voice, I am aiming for a minimalist approach, despite all those many learned techniques. On the other side, Léa doesn’t know how to sing. Her voice is always honest, even if she is not in tune or she doesn’t know how to use it. Our instruments enable certain intersections between us and this shared approach reaches the essential: remove all the ornamentations, be in the raw/rough thing, observe what happens when you take an instrument that you have not learned and seek its potential.
Your music is being described as a re-reading of traditional music (Norwegian, Breton, Indonesian, songs of the shepherds from the Alps...) which also resonates through the mix of ethnic and electronic instruments you use. Would you describe your music as neo-traditional music, contemporary folk music, world music or something else...
It’s true, we used the term of re-reading in our first text that we wrote one year ago, but we have changed it. It is not so much a re-reading of traditional music, but more an influence in general. We don’t try to play traditional music from a particular part of the world or focus on a specific style. It is not our aim to play traditional music. We have big respect for traditional music and the authentic way it is played. To acquire those techniques you need a first hand experience with the members of that specific community or culture. If we appropriate such techniques without a dedicated training, we would reduce a lot of these cultures to stereotypes. Our results will be just a mere copy without a cultural fragrance, and we don’t want to do that.
I think from traditional music, we take the energy, the power and the emotional specificity, whereas from electronic music we take the organic texture of sound and the way of improvise.
Yes, totally, and from both, we try to work on the grain of our music, the unpolished character of our sound. In the orality world (the world where traditional music is created), you don’t go through the intellectualization and explanation in rational terms of what you do, but these musicians know very well what they do. They could tell you if it’s that or not, just they do not enclose their know-how in technical and conceptual definitions. I think, what we does in Osilasi, is more to try to show how traditional music is totally contemporary, only with the fact, it influences us as powerfully as avant-garde music of today. I think you can feel a lot of links between traditional music and avant-garde music when you listen the sound textures, also, these both music invite you to be an active listener, to engage with the sound. Traditional music is not easy or nice to listen, it’s a big different betwenn traditional music in one part and folklore or world music in other part.
Yes and also, you cannot perform music half-heartedly; you have to be totally in the present with the entirety of your human being. In Osilasi, we don’t try to think too much. We just like to listen to what do we have inside us. I think we have a spontaneous and intuitive way of working more than a theoretical approach.
Maybe, if we have to describe what we do, we could call that Mad Max trad (laughs). Imagine you are in a post-apocalyptic context and you have flashbacks, a kind of body memory, of what humanity used to be. You translate this through your own media and you will discover something primitive (in the good sense of the word). You plunge into the unknown and follow your instinct.
How do you approach your lyrics? Do they spring from the sound of spontaneous vocalisations or do you write with a specific meaning or image in mind?
Sound gives me a specific emotion and this very emotion will induce/trigger a specific vocalisation. Behind images there are mostly emotions. At the beginning, an emotion is personal, but you can share it because it is common to all people. Also, at the beginning, it occurs spontaneously and further on it constructs itself in a sort of writing which is emotional, but does not pertain to a specific image.
I am more interested in how each language carries its on sounds, their specificities rather that the meaning of its words. Starting from our own language, we have the capacity to modulate our voice in different ways, and this I find incredible in people. I get my sound ideas by listening to foreign languages. I have the impression that the words available to me don’t allow me to convey a meaningful message. The words we use on a daily basis enclose us in a world of limited possibilities. I don’t want that when I play music.
This resembles the Dadaist thought, Hugo Ball’s 1916 manifesto in which he insists on the responsibility we have as individuals in inventing our own words, creating our own syllables and rhythm which stem from each other’s vibration, drop the sounds as he put it, because the words of our common language are soiled/contaminated, sullied by the tyranny of war and racism.
It comes to my mind another example, of a french dude who sings in french in the right way. His name is Noir Boy George. For once, he is a true poet, an exception to what I have just said. But he is completely nihilist and no future. Maybe that’s why he is able to sing our times without a trace of falsity.
When you say you try to make a sound with grain I imagine you are looking for a certain unpolishedness that challenges the listener. Could you tell us a little bit more on how you approach this and what you want to achieve with this?
You’re absolutely right. I’m looking for some unpolishedness in my practice with sound. When I experiment with my harp, I try to produce sounds that are multiple. That is to say, a sound that will be made up of several other sounds, all the opposite of a clean/smooth sound. These different tonalities within the sound will create rhythm, volume and activate overtones; and because it is unstable, because it does not necessarily control the entirety of this complexity, it will move and create micro-variations who will turn the sound in what I’m looking for. I find it very enjoyable and powerful.
Absolutely, that’s also what I’m trying to do with my drone box. Also, for me the grain is bound to authenticity, to the carnal side, something that vibrates and that is alive. It’s all the opposite of something aspetised. It’s fragile too. It moves us because it is closer to what we are, with our imperfections. I like unpolishedness because, for example, when I go to a noise concert I like to share this emotion, not necessarily pleasant, that connects me to my darker side. It is the first to say you’re not alone and also “wake up!”. It jostles you, it makes you stay up. I associate it with punk: we’re alive, we wake up. It is a little bit like when I scream on stage; it’s like a way to be alert. Not to resign yourself, but to stay awake. For me, music is not digestive.
For me, in fact, there is also something political about it: taking care of these spaces, in the sense of cultural diversity, taking care of its specificities and not to add a layer of varnish.
What challenges or fascinates you most as a listener?
13 years ago, I attended a Moroccan wedding, next to Bengrig, a non-mixed celebration. I have found myself among women celebrating this marriage. The bride is 15, she cries and the women, in a form of hysteria, transcend this tragic moment through music. There are only percussions, voices and dance. What touched me the most was how we are able to find a force and an outlet through a tragic situation (because the girl was in a situation of forced marriage.) It was extremely powerful in terms of percussion and voice, both violent and benevolent. I went through a moment of collective hysteria, a form of trance.
There are many things that trigger me every day; the sounds are everywhere. But some examples: When I was little I have heard a bagad (a Breton band, composed of bagpipes, bombardes and snares); 10 years ago during my first concert of Sunn O))) I felt the frequencies completely connected to my belly, making my entire body resonate; my first time at the Festival Présences Électroniques in Paris; a 4 hour Dutch acid hardcore in Rennes in a castle squat; a synesthetic sound and visual installation of Riojy Ikeda; the Master Musicians of Jajouka concert at the Ateliers Claus last year; recently, the incredible voice of Svetlana Sapjic in Belgrade. Also, birds singing at dusk or at dawn; I listen to the brillant rhythms and songlines that they make; an acoustic improvisation not planned at the end of a concert, with the musicians who have just played and people from the audience come and play with everything they find. Last but not least, I’m fascinated by toilet fans. I listen to the overtones and small polyrhythms in the blower drone.
Repetition makes something new, states the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. How do you think or feel about that statement?
It’s like the skipping rope: you start, at the beginning it’s not obvious, you go on, and at one point there is a tilt. You reach a different level; it’s the trance principle. The fact that in the beginning it is not necessarily easy to be in this state, this repetition seems obvious afterwards, as if it had always been there. But also, it’s a form of performance that allows you to exceed your human limits. You feel exhausted, but you continue, and you end up somewhere else. It’s like skipping rope.
But also, repetition has to do with taking time; taking time when things happen, instead of composing them in an intellectual way; you experience them in an organic way. At this stage, things are slowly forming. While taking time with a tension and a requirement, we remain focused, we are completely concentrated as in a meditative state. But the repetition, we must also believe in it to join in. If you do not believe, if your mind is not there, it does not work, you stall.
Also, for me the novelty we discover in repetition is the modulation within it. It’s always the same thing and at the same time never the same thing. This modulation is produced by both the musician and the listener. It leaves a lot of room for the listener. I will take another example to explain what I want to explain, because it was this one that made me realize something. The music genre is Harshnoise wall. It literally means what it means: it’s static sound, described by the French musician Vomir as : “a literal consistent, unflinching and enveloping wall of monolithic noise.” what is crazy is to see that when you immerse yourself in it, your brain starts to create his own imaginary narration. You forge your way as a listener, you have no choice, otherwise it does not work and you leave the concert. This shows us the human creative capacity to transform things permanently; we are always in movement. It shows us that we cannot stay frozen. Everything is movement, and in the repetition you feel that very clearly, because in this state you take your time to appreciate each tiny variation.