Les boîtes à musique and Les ondes silencieuses revisited for Record Store Day 22 April 2017

April 22, 2017 § Leave a comment

Colleen et les boîtes à musique, 2006, The Leaf Label, silver vinyl edition limited to 750 copies, featuring new artwork by Iker Spozio for Record Store Day, 22 April

I’m not a commission and collaboration person; I’ve known this for a long time and have finally embraced it fully, but when I started releasing records, I did accept a few projects, such as the invitation by the Atelier de Création Radiophonique of French national radio station France Culture to produce a 1-hour broadcast that wouldn’t be just music. I had been attracted by the world of music boxes and mechanical music instruments in general for a while, so the choice was immediately obvious. I also love watching old films (by “old” I mostly mean anything pre-80s, from the silent era onwards) and I had noticed the unbelievable quantity of films including music boxes. I spent the next few months rewatching the films in which I remembered music boxes being used, and watching more films in the hope of catching more examples.

As chance would have it, I had already planned a visit to my friend John Cavanagh, whom I mentioned in relation to the rare glass harmonicon used on The Golden Morning Breaks. John had formerly been an antiques dealer specialising, among other rare musical items, in mechanical music instruments, and I knew he had huge Victorian music boxes and a few other music boxes lying around – the timing was perfect! It turned out I wasn’t so keen on the complex melodies produced by those large boxes, especially as I couldn’t quite see how I could manipulate the music they produce; however, their combs were so large that it was impossible not to see their percussion/ plucking (thumb piano style) potential. We spent a couple of afternoons with John recording my improvisations (quite a feat in itself, as the sound produced by hitting a comb with small mallets or plucking it with your thumbs is not very loud, to say the least!), and once home I proceeded to cut and manipulate the results. The other half of the project  I recorded in the living room of my Paris flat, using a couple of music boxes from my collection, including my beloved componium for which I had composed two melodies by punching cardboard strips.

The idea was to go beyond the “cutesy” image that music boxes tend to conjure up, and I think that I succeeded in that, especially when coupled with the film excerpts. The Leaf Label liked the results so much that they decided to release it as an EP, without the film excerpts for copyright reasons. This is the first-ever vinyl pressing, and extra special thanks go to John Cavanagh for his generosity in providing access to his collection and for his expert recording, and to Iker Spozio for the amazing new artwork he has created for this release!

For the curious and cinema-inclined, the films were: The innocents by Jack Clayton – Ensayo de un crimen by Bunuel – For a few dollars more by Sergio Leone – Sedmikrasky by Vera Chytilova – Casanova by Fellini – L’Atalante by Jean Vigo.

Les ondes silencieuses, 2007, The Leaf Label, transparent vinyl gatefold edition limited to 750 copies for Record Store Day, 22 April TODAY! 

… and a friendly word of advice: if you don’t live near any physical stores and/or the stores nearest to you don’t have or have run out of those vinyl, there will be solutions, please just be a little patient (and don’t buy ridiculously priced copies on discogs…)

Les ondes was my third and last album for The Leaf Label, and clearly the end of a cycle for me: an artistic, professional and personal cycle, all rolled into one. Artistically speaking, the viola da gamba had been my dream instrument since I’d first heard its sound in the film Tous les matins du monde as a teenager, and it remained just that, a dream, for about 15 years. As a non-classically trained musician, how could I ever hope to play such a complex instrument? And what about the price? But after acquiring a cello in 2004, and beginning to earn a living as a musician around 2006, suddenly these seemed like false excuses. In Paris on a day on which I went to buy strings for my cello, I saw a battered second-hand  viola da gamba being inspected by a prospective buyer, and my mind went “click”: I need to find a viola, or have one made. An internet search led me to a couple of French gamba makers, and one stood out in particular: François Danger. In addition to making reproductions of ancient instruments, he had also made a few electro-acoustic models and could get special pickups fitted within the bridge of any viola. I liked the idea of a non-conventional viola maker, so contacted him, then visited him in Rouen and was astounded by the sound and sheer physical beauty of his instruments. Nine months later, in early2006, I received my 7-string bass viola based on an 17th century model. I started to take lessons with another open-minded person, teacher and interpreter Florence Bolton, and almost simultaneously started to make my own music on the instrument.

In September 2006 I was granted a sabbatical from my English teacher job at the last minute, enabling me to go on a tour of Japan that proved crucial to the overall aesthetic of Les ondes. Organized right before the recordings for the album, my first visit of Japan, organised by Kazuki Tomita of Windbell who released my records in Japan at the time, deeply affected me: I was constantly feeling rushed and overwhelmed and in Japan I found a traditional aesthetic and a few concrete places that put my mind in the calm space where it so badly needed to be.

Once back home, recording this new music proved the limits of my DIY-on-cheap-gear approach: the minimalist compositions coupled with the very rich and peculiar sound of the viola just could not be captured with my meagre recording techniques and mikes. My mastering engineer, Emiliano Flores, who is also a recording engineer by training, really saved the day by recording me in the attic of his parents’ home. Once the main parts of the album were recorded, he sold me a mike which is still my favorite go-to mike, a Beyerdynamic MC834, and I proceeded to record the rest of the album by myself in the living-room of my Paris flat.

Right at the time of the release of the album, I got the news that my request for a second sabbatical year had been refused, so I decided to resign, convinced that I just could not let this unique opportunity of dedicating my life to music slip me by. The next year was filled with touring, promotion, a dance commission, the inevitable administrative chores and worries that come from having a non-conventional job, and inevitably in 2008 I started to feel I was losing the feeling of magic I’d once associated with music-making. In 2009 I decided to take a long break (you can read about it here and here), and came back refreshed and with a new musical approach in 2013…

Thanks so much for reading me and to all those of you who’ve followed me on this path for so long!

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