From dancehall to magical realism: An interview with Sourdure

srdr 0010_7A-éloïse decazesUnder the moniker Sourdure, Ernest Bergez works within a hybrid sound field, combining raw electronics (modular synths, feedback), acoustic instruments (violin, voice, foot percussion), and non-musical sounds (field recordings, spoken voice). As a guideline, he makes a fundamental effort to meld experiment with popular music and vice versa, taking traditional songs and dancehall themes from the French Massif Central area as the starting point for his experimentation. Sung in French or in Occitan, his songs give an odd sense of temporal distortion, dissolving the frontiers between the old and the new, original and traditional.

You combine electronics with traditional music as well as dancehall and pop. The result is a sort of melange of sounds, styles and musical worlds. Can you talk about your work in general, and its conceptual aspects?

The term dancehall is not exactly appropriate as it refers mainly to Jamaican style…still I use it because the idea of music for the dance-hall literally is part of what I do and I feel very close to how dancehall and rub-a-dub music works: popular ‘folk’ music with rhythm tracks and declamation. I started working with traditional elements about 6 years ago. Initially I was mainly into electronics, using modular logic and self-generating processes for composing. Right now I tend to work on a more direct and physical axis. I use electronics interfacing with live, acoustic or electro-acoustic instruments: violin, foot percussion, voice, frame drum…In a studio situation, most of the time I record live tracks, aiming to get a defined sound image immediately.

I try to set the aesthetic at the recording and not only rely on the later mixing process. Once the recording is done, I dub the tracks using cascaded audio effects. For a live situation, I use a small modular set up triggered by my right foot, which provides a real time and totally synchronous accompaniment. This is combined with amplified violin and voice, which are also processed through the modular system.. The electronic is an extension of the acoustic and vice versa. As for the conceptual aspect of my work, one could say that I’m at the intersection of popular ground, traditional fashion, experimental mind and a surrealistic / magical realism aesthetic.

You focus on a particular geographical area – the French Massif Central, can you talk about it, and why you chose it in particular?

I’m attached to the Massif Central area, and especially Auvergne, through my family. Some years ago I discovered that there was a living musical tradition there, and immediately became curious and affected by it because of the type of musical forms I heard: drone-oriented pieces, repetitive and hypnotic, crazy and happy dance music, beautiful songs with odd lyrics. Even though they were completely new to me, these musical forms found a direct connection with those I was working on in the electronic/electro-acoustic field: extended droning pieces, surrealistic musique concrète-like songs, organic automated rhythm…To sum up, at the time the motto was “always the same; always different”, and traditional music from Auvergne matched oddly well with it.

On top of that, I discovered that Auvergne is an Occitan speaking area and I suddenly realized I wanted to learn that language and sing in it. I heard Occitan in records my parents used to play when i was a child, and this had a strong impact on my vision of the country I lived in; there was actually a language other than French spoken in France!! I bought a violin, with no intention of learning how to play but with the idea of recording drones in the style of Tony Conrad…at the same time I started learning traditional songs from archives, and from friends (songs sung at parties and for dances). I began learning songs in Occitan without knowing anything of the language, trying to reproduce tonality, accent and articulation…Soon all of that began to influence my way of using electronics and my approach to composing; the philosophy of acoustic music started to melt into an electronic / modular / sequential logic, which eventually led to a complete hybridization.

Working with traditional music in the electronic music field has become popular. There are also questions attached to this: how can we deal with this heritage in a respectful way, without exploiting/exoticizing this material. What is your opinion?

I think that you’ve raised one of the main issues regarding traditional material here. Of course traditional music, songs and words transmitted from the mouth to the ear, are a precious legacy. But strangely, I don’t see traditional music as music from the past, to me it is music from the ‘ever-now’. As soon as some music or word is transmitted from one person to another, it starts to mutate, because of memory, because of the constant crossovers that occur in life. Tradition is a constantly evolving corpus of known fashions, approaches and styles, it is defined through the multiple occurrence of itself. I think that the question of respect can be solved quite rapidly and easily. It’s a matter of dealing with the codes, conventions and institutionalized forms which characterize the traditional musical object. At a minimum, you have to know what’s making the object efficient, recognizable, how it’s ‘used’ and in what context (for instance dance music) and be a part of it. Knowing the rules and playing with them, that’s the first stage of creation. The second stage could be: knowing how rules define the game, making new rules to keep the game exciting or slightly modifying the rules to see how it works with people.

Regarding the problem of exploiting traditional music and the exoticizing effect it can have when it is put into other sound worlds, I think it occurs mostly when the composer is not engaged with the tradition. (That applies also to the inverse situation: a traditional musician using electronics without any knowledge or experience of it..). I’m anchored in the musical tradition of Auvergne, even if i do strange stuff with it. I don’t approach tradition with the idea of renewing it or making it more appealing or even extracting whatever I like in it to do whatever I want with it. Instead, I compose with elements of tradition and elements of total invention without distinction. To me there is a continuity between the existing and the ‘new’. In the same way, I don’t see electronic instruments as heterogeneous elements of the tradition, they are integrated into my practice of traditional music (just as violin or voice are integrated into non-traditional music). That’s hybridization, not juxtaposition, as is the case most of the time when traditional elements meet electronics (for instance: the convenient and self sufficient use of African traditional music samples anywhere in electronic dance music…or traditional music with a 4-on-the-floor kick and pumping bass…)

Can you talk about your latest album, L’Esprova?

Released by Pagans and Les disques du festival permanent, L’Espròva is the second album I made starting with traditional material. It has got a warm, mediterranean, folk-tale-like, ambiguous and sometimes humorous mood, which i think Mathieu Tilly aka Druidhigh Visuals expressed really well in the artwork. The word Esprovà in Occitan covers ideas of a trial, a print, proof, the overcoming of a difficult situation and the outcome of a process. As with my first album La Virée (which could be translated as “The Turn”), this one was named after the kind of experience its creation was for me. L’Espròva is a digest of three years of research, testing and in depth experiments relating to songs and traditional melodies. It is a synthesis of a studio / modular / dubbing approach and the kind of live performance I’ve been elaborating since La Virée. It’s also the outcome of two learning processes I’m going through: learning Occitan (in two different local varieties: Languedocian and Auvergnat) and beginning to write lyrics. I wrote in an immediate, tempestuous, almost automatic fashion, in French and Occitan.

The result is a direct, naïve, speech-like kind of poetry, quite close to the way I speak. The album is equally made of traditional and ‘invented  material and through the whole process of creation, the frontier between revisiting and arranging and composing has never been so thin and undefined to me. There has been a long process of digestion of the songs, making the words mine, finding the right intonation, changing modes and sometimes melodies. The same process happened with the violin. The album combines most of my musical and conceptual obsessions: building narrative structures into songs, confronting fiction with reality to obtain hallucinatory effects, making the album a meta-structure in which elements refer to one another, using quarter tones on violin and voice (these are audible in “L’Entendu”, see video clip).. To give me some blank territory to work on, I decided to use brass and woodwinds, which i had never worked with before and which always attracted me because of their joyful, exclamatory and ‘prophetic’ character. There are a bunch of guests, on winds, brass, voice, guitars…it’s a bit of a joyful mess!

Photo: Éloïse Decazes