The Amateur, a talk with Christophe Piette

A few weeks ago, Christophe Piette surprised me with a visit. Before I took him to some of Antwerp’s finest spots - c.q. Table Dance and the Antwerp Piano Bar, where Christophe sung a Jacques Brel's song accompanied by the Piano Bar’s pianist – we had a talk at my place meandering through various subjects. Later that night, we came home, blasting Jacques Brel really loud while finishing a pretty expensive bottle of Champagne. We talked about how Olympus should pay us for free advertisement, and that Melodyne should do the same with me – I have a screenshot of their application prominently on one of my recent LPs. The Olympus SD recorder is mentioned a few times in the liner notes and press release of Christophe’s upcoming CD. We also had a few tips for Olympus, to improve their product. Oh well … We had a laugh about American artists who are keen for this sort of sponsorship. (Cover photo credits : Quentin Nicolai)
25 February 2019 | AG 14

About that Olympus SD recorder. Christophe received this little machine from the late Roland Sassi, a radio producer from Switzerland. Born in 1928, he started working for the Suisse radio during the late 1950s. He dedicated a lot of his time to music and voice recording, collecting this massive archive of tapes and cassettes. Among these are many musical gems and interviews with interesting people, like the writer Ludwig Hohl with whom he developed an intense relationship. He has for instance this spoken pamphlet written by him, where he talks about the rules of swimming across the lake of Geneva, something that the city offices tried to prohibit, but something Hohl liked to do when being in a bad mood for instance, to clear his brain. 
In his later years, Roland Sassi went to a music store to buy a new dictaphone. However, after a life of working with analogue equipment he couldn’t really wrap his brain around learning the specific specs of the digital Olympus recorder. Christophe, dating Roland’s daughter at the time, recommended him to buy a cassette dictaphone which were, and are, still in production. In return for this advice, he received said Olympus recorder from Roland, thus steering Christophe into the terrain of digital sound. After many years of dedicatedly working with “inferior” analogue equipment, it was the first “hifi” object in Christophe’s artistic life. After years of working around the flaws and difficulties of some analogue recording techniques, Christophe was now able to easily record for instance some of his film and music workshops he was giving to children and having these readily available for feedback and reflection. After being a bit shy for the clean and digital sound, Christophe began to like this quality. Furthermore, he always takes this Olympus recorder with him on his many trips, and started using the device as a sort of travel log, on which he records loose ideas, sounds, various music et al. Not unlike how Roland Sassi was using his.

After expressing my intention to produce an album by Christophe, I left everything open. It could be whatever he wanted, and whenever he wanted to complete it. Since Christophe has always been very important to me, both as a friend, but also as a feedback board, as an intellectual inspiration, I deemed it to be very important to add him to the Edições CN catalogue. So when he suddenly came back from a trip to Jeju Island, informing me that he recorded hours and hours of sound of which I could maybe produce an album from, I couldn’t be happier. I left the sounds grow on me for about a year, until I finally deemed myself ready to edit an album from these recordings. 'Quelpaert, six tableaux de l’île de Jeju' was born, a CD spanning over an hour of beautiful and idiosyncratic recordings of natural sounds, a band practice, a restaurant dinner conversation, a bus ride, etc.
Jeju-Do is a volcanic island in the East China Sea somewhere between Japan and Shanghai. After a long period of being an autonomous and matriarchal society, it nowadays belongs to South Korea. Women play an important role on the island and enjoy a special status. This matriarchal tradition among other things manifests itself in the culture of the legendary Haenyeo – female divers for shellfish, octopus, fish etc. Two years ago, Setaik Yim invited Christophe Piette to this island to film the paintings of Myonghi, a South Korean visual artist. Myonghi paints beautiful works exploring the hidden dimensions within nature. Her work is admired both inside and outside the art world for its poetic qualities. Next to his 8mm and 16mm cameras, Christophe Piette brought with him the handheld Olympus sound recorder as a sort of travellers log” and expanded a film beyond the screen. With his particular ear (and eye) for details and humanity, he registered an organic sound world in six chapters. Creating a deep listening experience where normal everyday sounds receive a mystical connotation. It’s an interesting self-portrait of the sensible artist through an idiosyncratic attention for particular details and situations, as well as directly through moments where the artist records himself while being in conversation…qu'est-ce que tu écoutes là?” This somehow very anecdotal work could stand as an aural postcard from Jeju, an imaginary card depicting a more universal and imaginative evocation of a certain place”.

Christophe, invited together with David Maurissen (aka Dimitri Runkkari from Vlek Records) who was asked to record some sounds surrounding the artwork, initially didn’t have an idea of what to do on Jeju island. I mean, he did know his way around film cameras, but to be asked for such a specific thing as to “film an artwork,” at first humbled him. Also, David is more experienced in the field of the image and Christophe more in the field of sound, but they were invited to Jeju exactly to do the opposite. At first, having personal reservations since they didn’t consider themselves professional filmmakers and sound recorders they warmed up to the idea and used this to their advantage. It was in the spirit of the old artistic traditions of China – for instance during the Tang dynasty - in which there was a particular fondness for the arts of the “amateur” that Setaik Yim invited them.
A part of the CD consists of a sound recording made in the terminal of the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris. At first I couldn’t really understand why Christophe made this particular recording. Until I listened more closely and discovered a beautiful melodic drone in the distance. It’s a pivotal piece on the CD, giving away Christophe’s particular eye (ear) for details. An interesting aspect of field recording could be the artist showing you the way to a simple beauty. Instead of hunting for that special and weird sound, Christophe shares this poetic quality of modesty. Also, many of the sounds he shared were almost miniature compositions. While Christophe was pressing the record button, he was not only recording, but also composing. He told me that this is coming from his past of using limited analogue equipment. Instead of wasting a lot of cassette tape, and for instance Super 8 film, he had to use his equipment sparingly. Every action should be made after consideration and should with a particular intention. This way, still doing this with the SD recorder, a lot of interesting insights and sounds are created. It made me think of how important it is to initially build your trade with limitations. It makes you a more creative and more imminent being. 

Stan Brakhage’s In defense of the amateur came up. In this text, dating from 1971, Brakhage talks about the amateur photographer. When this amateur photographs a scene, for instance a travel picture or a shot of his children, he’s basically seeking “a hold on time.” He creates a memory moment, and takes a scene beyond the limits of time. In comparison to Hollywood, where film making is more an act to play towards the “mass memory”, or an act that is considered a result from this mass memory, the amateur rather shoots the people, places, and objects of his love and gives vent to his happiness and personal importance. A gesture that can act directly and solely according to the needs of memory. He does not have to invent a sort of “god of memory,” as does the professional. He is free if he but accepts the responsibility of his freedom, to work as the spirit of his god, or his memory, or his particular needs. It is for this reason that Brakhage believes any art of the cinema must inevitably arise from the amateur and that the so-called “commercial,” or ritual cinema must takes its cues from the films of amateurs rather than, as is too often the case these days, the other way around.
This inspired Christophe’s love for the Super8 and 16mm film. Media created to capture home movies, for instance to register Christmas and family moments. Also, these media historically are the “cheap media.” It was apparently very important in for instance for the building of a genre like Cinema Verité, as, suddenly, more people where able to record their ideas. The independent artist and movie maker, now less limited by budget constraints was finally capable of fully creating a personal work, drawn from personal experiences. Less attached to budgets and financers, one was able to relate a personal dream, a personal memory.
In this memory, sound is also important. This is also what Proust writes about, how a sound can bring us back to a particular scene, a person, a feeling. These sounds we sometimes registered subconsciously. For instance, a lot of sounds on the Jeju CD stand for specific feelings and stories for Christophe. This delivers an interesting look over the shoulders of an artist. Through his ears, we look at a scene, and try to deduct meaning. It’s almost like looking at someone’s Instagram. What is someone sharing, and especially what does someone want us to believe? But instead of the Instagram sharing that ultimately vanishes from perception, the memories collected on this CD will be preserved. It made me think about Walter Marchetti’s, Perpetuum Mobile (1981), a “serenade” of a motorway in dialogue with a pond of frogsMarchetti deemed this “readymade composition” very important and wanted to save it for eternity. Christophe shares a similar attention for the everyday sound, where a passing truck, a random conversation, frogs croaking, a dinner conversation, airport atmospheres, a bus ride, light restaurant jazz and a band practice by the people of Doksu village are all having their status inside a certain reality. A reality that is now preserved for “eternity”.

R.O.T., photo credits: Marion Innocenzi

I recently read a pretty bad piece of writing by the photographer Michiel Hendryckx. In this column, he speaks about how he had to throw away the complete photography archive of his dad. Hendryckx was disappointed that for his whole life, his dad “only tried to be an artist” (his words). Instead of just taking pictures of parties and holidays, his dad tried to make nature pictures in an artistic way. Hendryckx thought he failed and decided to throw away every picture. However, while reading this piece, the first thing that came to my mind was that I wanted to see this archive. To me it looks like a healthy obsession of an amateur artist wanting to capture something, understand his surroundings and trying to tell a story. Like, you know, basic feelings. In this forced artistry, there might be a deeper truth lurking. Same thing as the way in which I listened to Christophe’s sounds. Why is he staging this conversation? Why is he particularly recording this moment? Again, looking over the shoulder, we might find something out there for ourselves. We might learn something.
What actually is sound? Why do I have the reflex to turn on the radio whenever I wake up. Mostly Radio 1 which is filled with pretty bad music. Still this bad music and voices give me the feeling that I’m home. The same goes for when we go to a bar. There’s always music playing in the background. If there’s no music, people tend to speak a bit more silent, maybe they’d even want to leave the place as quickly as possible. It makes us a bit afraid, to be in total silence. This total silence doesn’t exist anyway. This is what Proust speaks about. Our life is a vast memory bank of scents, of colours, of sound. Some we register consciously, some subconsciously. But it creates this giant pattern that we call our life and memory, our feelings. Sometimes we don’t hear this pattern anymore. When Christophe recorded certain insects of Jeju, some locals where like “what on earth are you doing?”
The insects, although being very loud, weren’t heard anymore, weren’t registered anymore by the locals. Maybe subconsciously blocking this sound out prevents them to go insane, since the sound is very loud and all-consuming.
Somewhere in 2003, Christophe made this conceptual field recording on a train between Brussels and Louvain-La-Neuve. Christophe pressed ‘record’ on his tape player, and just recorded the atmospheres on the slow train going back and forth between those two cities. Due to the inferior quality of this recorder, the resulting sound was a thick hissy drone. Not really dynamic, yet really organic. This recording was then used as the backdrop for a theatre play, Les Refugiés, performed at l’Ecurie in Jette. It reminded me a bit of Pierre Schaeffer’s Étude aux Chemins de Fer where he was using the sounds and cadences of various trains as a readymade composition, being intrigued by their cadences, rhythms and tone colours. However, Christophe made these recordings influenced by French writer Paul Virilio, who wrote about the rhythm of machines. He connected the invention of the train and the cinema, using the idea of the turning wheel to connect them. The sound of the recording transformed while being a backdrop of the play. Disconnected from the original train, it was this imaginary and strangely sounding scene. It was also Christophe’s first time that he really worked with the recording equipment itself, instead of the recorded material. The tape player itself became a musical instrument, since the recorded sound was more the sound of the machine itself, than the sound of the train. A technique he would also apply during his years in the experimental group R.O.T..