by Michael Freerix
"I am more like punk-rock" says french composer Berangere Maximin, talking about her attitude towards composing. "I am a lap-top artist, yes, but I use primitive digital tools to achieve what I want to achieve. I donít need top-notch-tools to achieve something profound." After releasing three records on Sub Rosa and Tzadik and collaborating with musicians like Fred Frith, Rhys Chatham and Christian Fennesz, Maximin is looking forward to release her new record on Crammed Discs in the spring of this year.
Growing up in Reunion in the Indian Ocean, she had a relaxed upbringing. With a population of about 800,000 people, Reunion has little excitement to offer except for the two very active volcanos in the center of the island. The island was unpopulated until the middle of the 17th century when French settlers moved there. They brought black slaves with them to do the hard manual labour. Slavery ended in 1848 and many people from India, Africa and China settled on the island. From this mix of races, an egalitarian society developed, dominated by the French culture and language, with radio stations playing only French chart music. There has bit very little tourism to date, and people make a living from fishing or farming.
When she was 15, Maximin moved to France with her family, settling in Perpignan, in the south of France on the Meditarranean sea. A city with 120,000 citizens, Perpignan is overrun in summer by 700,000 tourists, drawn by its medieval architecture. But Perpignan also has industrial areas and an industrial harbour providing all aspects of modern French society. For Berangere, it was a culture shock, but she immediately adapted to her new surroundings at school. Soon, she found friends with whom she started a band: "I used to sing '60's hits with my friends in bars on the weekends and on vacation from school. At the time, it wasn't much about music, it was about experimenting in life and communicating with people of my own age."1 Later on, she discovered avant garde composers like Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry and decided to seriously study music: "I got struck by the strangeness of the form and the way it sounded. I immediately sensed that this work filled a gap between music and film and there was something for me to explore."1
At the academy in Perpignan, she became a pupil of Denis Dufour, who himself was a disciple of Pierre Schaefer, one of the godfathers of electro-acoustic music in France as well as the inventor of 'musique concrete.' Dufour was an inspiring teacher and he also provided a space to debate and listen to each other's work as well as getting feedback. The class was open to art school students and music lovers during collective listening sessions, so it was a very open-minded space to discuss new sounds and insights in music. MB became his assistant for four years, but after finishing her studies, she moved to Paris, where she finally built her own studio to concentrate on her own work. "Of course everything started when I moved to Paris, it's very stimulating," she says about her move there.2
In Paris, she developed her own style of composing. Everything was developed in the studio. Any objects she could find in her own household like plastic bottles, spoons, knives, broken guitars are "recorded very close to the microphone. I donít want to destroy the sounds when I compose with them. I try to keep them intact, and not to transform them too much or stretch them too much."2 She amasses a collection of sounds when she starts to work with on a new composition. There are some sounds that she doesnít want to use any more, because she has used them too much, but other sounds never grow to be part of anything she composes: although she likes them very much and periodically works on them for inspiration.
For Maximin, composing begins by fooling around with sounds, then trying to figure out how they can be put into proportion. For example, there is a piece "Tant que les heures passent" on her debut record that started with a sample of a trumpet which she found on the internet: "'Si Ce N'Est Toi' ['If Not You'], the last piece I wrote for the album, was composed in only a few weeks before wrapping it all up. It started with a kind of crush I had on a sample which I caught on an old tape machine. Some synthetic trumpet, in very bad quality, so cheap that it was funny but captivating."1 The sound reminded her of a singing bird she recorded during a visit on her island and she started to mix them both, and then added some sounds from a guitar. "I never prepare things before so i never know how the piece will finish Ė I don't know if thatís good or not. It's only in the last minute I know if itís worth it or not."2
This was her method for the debut record Tant dans les heures passent, which came out in 2008. It contains a lot of different sounds from original sources with a slight touch of field recordings in between. Even some spoken words can be heard on one track, so the record draws from many sources. Overall, the six pieces contain a lot of rainforest atmosphere and she admits that the record has something autobiographical. The release of Tant dant les heures passent in 2008 on Tzadik was one of luckiest days in her life, as she remembers.
"When the first album came out, I was getting seriously bored of working alone and wanted to confront the audience. I started to receive booking propositions and put my first solo tour together in Europe and the USA. It took time to develop my own live techniques, so the eagerness for playing also came from the necessity of learning from others," Maximin remembers now.1 Playing live is a totally different experience for her, not only to recreate what has been issued on record, but to be open to the situation she is thrown into. The live set is a totally different adventure. "It's a reaction to the space I perform in, and the audience that's there Ė especially to the noisy people at the bar!" she says, reflecting on her recent live show experiences. She likes to perform quite loud, discussing with each sound engineer what would be the perfect volume for the performance space. Her music has to have the perfect pitch between the loud and silent, she thinks.
After the experience of playing with many different musicians, it was only natural to include the support of others on her next record. No One is an Island incorporates the works of Rhys Chatham, Frederic D. Oberland, Richard Pinhas, Christian Fennesz, to only name but a few. The pieces were real collaborations in a sense that Maximin sometimes would lay down tracks on which the others would add their own music or she would use some of the music of the others and build a piece around it. So, with all the new touches coming from others, No One is an Island sounds really different from the first record, although it stems from the same roots as her debut. And again, her voice can be heard on some tracks, but her voice is not only a pure sound. The lyrics on "Bicťphale Ballade" for instance are a reflection of something that happened to her:
Hey you look at me, Nobody else!
Watch my hands, then in your pocket (tttttttt)
Gorgeous! marvellous! fantastic! terrific!
Give me one, I give you two
Mix the pack, hey look at me
Nobody else, thatís magical!
Watch my hands, then in your pocket (tttt)
Give me one, I give you two
marvellous ! fantastic ! terrific!
Give me one, I give you two
The story behind this piece is that Maximin was attending the opening of an exibition in London. "A girl was standing at the corner of the room, whereas she should have been admiring the paintings on the walls, she couldn't keep her eyes off some very chic man standing on the opposite side. I couldn't figure out what exactly was his role play in there but he was like comprising the show and managed to get a table and start some magic trick with cards. That girl seemed to have had an instant crush on him. She was like magnetized. The magic man seemed a bit bothered. This went on for a while, I never saw them speak."3
After the record was released, she cut down on her touring schedule to focus on recording music. "Itís true that I love to work alone. You learn about yourself everyday and you really kind of deal with serious matter when you compose. It sounds strange or stupid but it's true. When you are alone, you are much more concentrated into that process and progression." For a while, she held a job as a composer for a dance company where she hoped she could experiment with music and dance, but no cooperation was allowed. She had to bring her music, press the button so the dancers could dance to it, but when the choreographer felt he needed something else, her compositions where cut into pieces and something else from somebody else was added, without her consent. "I could do nothing against it. I was payed. Payed to compose, payed to press the button so the tape would run, and payed to keep my mouth shut."
Her record from 2013, infinitesimal seems to be a step away from her former recordings. Stripped down, minimalistic sound pieces, that together work like a concept album. The record is divided into five parts that slowly grow, then dissolve and reappear. Where her two former albums where more atmospheric, Infinitesimal seems to be more sensual. Promoters tell her that her albums are so different from one another and donít fit into any box, but they all come from the same attitude of being quite open minded and willing to play with all sorts of sounds. In fact, it takes a lot of time to sort things out, to assemble sounds and decide what kind of structure would be appropriate for them, so they would fit in.
1. Quoted from an interview with The Quietus: http://thequietus.com/articles/16574-berangere-maximin-interview
2. Quoted from Medium: https://medium.com/artist-series/artist-series-berangere-maximin-6386350da95a
3. Quote from a personal interview with the author
Also see Berangere Maximin's website
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