Paris-based Frédéric D. Oberland is an experimental multi-instrumentalist, composer, photographer and the label co-owner of NAHAL Recordings. A founding member of the avant-rock collective OISEAUX-TEMPÊTE and the electro-shamanic and psych-noise groups FOUDRE! and Le Réveil des Tropiques, he has released on Sub Rosa, Hallow Ground, Gizeh Records, IIKKI, In Paradisum and NAHAL Recordings, producing film scores and soundscape installations. Irena Z. Tomažin is active as a vocalist, choreographer and performer in the fields of experimental improvised music and movement theatre, contemporary dance and performance. Her music and her sound experimentation is an exploration of the landscapes of voice that include words, fragments of texts, (traditional) melodic singing, and other vocal techniques, including humming, clicking, and other sounds made with the mouth that pertain not (only) to the voice but also to the body.
(Question to both) You come from different regions (France and Slovenia) and different backgrounds. How did your collaboration start?
Frédéric: Actually, the visual artist Fanny Béguély brought Irena and I together to compose the original soundtrack of Arba, Dâk Arba — some visual installation she was working on for Le Fresnoy / Studio National des Arts Contemporains in Tourcoing, France. A few years earlier, I had met Irena in Beirut, Lebanon, where she was performing at the Irtijal festival. I was also playing at the same festival with my collective Oiseaux-Tempête; we had a few close friends in common. Her album Taste Of Silence blew me away… When Fanny invited us to collaborate, I felt very excited by the idea and we jumped quickly into what instruments / languages it could involve: everything that could come out of Irena’s throat and, for me, electric boîte à bourdons (a kind of hurdy-gurdy, handmade by instrument maker Léo Maurel) which I would heavily process live. The recording was very fast and intuitive with almost ritualised improvisations, then we spent a few weeks editing and mixing the tracks with Romain Poirier between the Le Fresnoy and Mer/Noir studios.
Irena: At the Irtijal festival, where we first met, I had a chance to hear Frederic’s band Oiseaux-Tempête and immediately there was a sonic landscape that felt somehow familiar, though the music that we make is very different. And then, when Fanny invited us to work together on her project, somehow everything went very quickly, as Frederic has mentioned – things like Fanny’s mystic visual work, Frederic’s instruments, my voice and then Romain’s “ear” somehow just seemed to build up on their own. The whole process was very spontaneous and easy.
Irena, you have a background in performance art and have also collaborated with the legendary Slovenian band Borghesia. What led to your solo music career?
Irena: Somehow the connection with the performance art stage has been present in my life from early on. Yes, at the beginning, my “primary” stage was a theatre or dance venue, but then later on, when my voice came in and “took over the main role” of my physical expression, the music stage became almost dominant – I’m still somehow in between… So, my own stage works and performances were and still are a combination of voice and movement. Meeting Aldo Ivančič (one of the founders of Borghesia) and working with him came before collaborating directly with Borghesia. We had already worked together in the music collective named “Bast Kolektiv”, which he invited me to join after seeing me in one of my dance performances in which I had an intense scene with voice…. And Aldo also did music for my “dance” performances, plus we had already worked together for my first album Crying Games and then also for the album Taste of Silence. I love to work in different collaborations and projects, but at the same time, the basic need to find, discover and/or reinvent myself or my “voicebody” in the work is always present – looking back, I see I always somehow “oscillate” between solo work and working with others.
Frédéric, you are a multi-instrumentalist, composer, photographer and co-owner of the label NAHAL Recordings. Can you talk about your work and the themes you explore in your work – do they differ according to which medium you work in?
Frédéric : It’s always hard to draw boundaries for yourself, but I guess each story you’re part of, each adventure you’re joining, requires something specific and dedicated. These commitments ask permission to regularly open up your imagination and push your skills beyond the possible languages you start with, and I love that. It could be instruments, ways to play instruments, concepts, mediums you work in, roles you have, etc. Over the past years, I have learned a lot while leading some post-everything collectives like Oiseaux-Tempête and FareWell Poetry, performing psych-improv’ sessions with FOUDRE! and Le Réveil des Tropiques, collaborating with writers, filmmakers, other visual artists and musicians, or learning how to roughly curate a small label. Art and music are also about politics, ways of trying and doing it. For some years now, my visual work as a photographer has tended to embrace my musical side and I still feel as if I am a guest at this encounter; this is something I will be working on in the coming months.
(Question to both) Your live performances are quite transcendental, transgressive – immersive. Can you talk about your live show? Since you are based in different cities, countries, how important is the live, physical element of your work?
Frédéric : Physicality in sound (and in our live process) is a main part of the duo with Irena. The way we engage our whole bodies inside the performance is at the same time relevant to both of our solo work but also reflects the way Fanny Béguély paints her chemigrams with a sensitive relationship to the paper. Last year at the Sonica festival the three of us had the opportunity to perform together and the whole ritual – sonic & visual – pushed our improvisation into a very distinctive space, sacred in a secular way. I really like the fact that Irena and I are somehow building a very rhizomatic maelstrom together, which guides us from powerful and distorted craziness to gentle and almost song-like snatches of hymns. All this with limited means (voice and untempered string instrument) and all the fragility inherent in real-time performance and instinctive processing. Through this, and maybe through the specific way in which we both get to engage ourselves in the now, our instruments can sound “possessed” as we also do, eventually.
Irena: Even the first time we met in the studio we were improvising a kind of concert for each other. And then in playing, in making music, the sonic world itself pulls you somewhere and this somewhere definitely happens more intensely when we play together in the same place and at the same time. You have some ideas beforehand, but then, when you are there and you are playing in the live physical reality, all the ideas are instantly reshaped and re-materialised due to all the elements that we put together. Music is an alchemical process somehow, a concrete one – you bring some elements and in combination with what the other one brings, they change, reshape, reform and unfold some other materiality, some other musical content… For me, the live, physical element is essential – usually, or many times, I’m playing in the context of improvised music, and the way I am able to listen, hear, connect and try to find the way through depends on that particular live situation. I had a super intense concert and visual performance with Frederic and Fanny when I was last at the Sonica festival in Ljubljana that turned out to be some kind of a ritual – everything was somehow very “easy” and spontaneous, as if something was running by itself in its own flow…but that happens when we are physically present in the same sonic space and time.
(Question to both) There is a certain primordiality that is inherent in your work – the music is haunting somehow, guttural. Can you talk about the aesthetic direction that you both have with this project?
Irena: I often have this very strong feeling, not just a feeling, but an experience, that it’s not really me who makes decisions about some of the aesthetic directions, it’s more the process of the work that somehow does the guiding… Certainly Fanny’s project and her imaginative world did lead us in a very concrete direction when we started working together thanks to her project. But we also both came with our own shaped sound worlds, which are certainly inspired and are taken somewhere else when played together. Somehow, I always have this feeling that I’m taken over by the instrument I sing with or rather voice out with. I guess some kind of primordiality has always existed in my exploration with voice when I slide into “just” sounds and noises – the whole universe of the voice immediately brings out a totally different imagination and sonic sensations when it is stripped of “the human part” in the voice. I suppose that when playing with Frederic we are always on some kind of a “hunt” for what we might find and discover having been allowed to go into more unusual and/or and intense areas of sound.
Frédéric: I guess our duo sounds like the intertwining of two sinusoidal wires. There is this image coming into my mind: two snakes always twisting to re-shape into something different, at the same time bigger and closer. The rough intimacy of our music sometimes (the guttural throat sounds performed by Irena, the squeaking / hurting strings of my hurdy-gurdy) is conjured up by a wider image slowly built up from processing delays, reverberation, compression, frequency shifting and loop destruction. There is a great deal of metamorphosis in our witches’ duet, where a few snippets of chords and melodies can emerge and lightly shine as synergy from the primary chaos, resonating with the space and fed by the audience’s energy. The last show we performed at UH Festival in Budapest brought new ideas to our shared playing in terms of the musical languages / gestures we could use to interact: more percussive and cut-up situations, more assumed choral momentum. Future paths, perhaps?
Frédéric, you have a new album, your fourth solo record, called Solstices, can you talk about it?
Frédéric: This one is called Solstices and has just been released via the sweet folks at ZamZamRec in a limited edition cassette and digisleeve CD. All the tracks were performed and recorded live between Paris, France, and Gabes, Tunisia — the last piece featuring the traditional music trio Awled Fayala playing zoukra (a Berber horn close to the zourna) and acoustic percussion. While working with live material to compose this album, I had this vision with my sound-engineer, Camille Jamain (who is also the guy behind our live performances with Irena, thanks to his sense of sonic quadraphony and life ergonomy), to bring back the space and the feel of the performances – as characters themselves – inside the final mix. My studio albums (“Peregrinus Ubique”, “Labyrinth”, “Même Soleil”) are very much about something related to the listener in an intimate and lonely way – a little cinema for your ears / headphones where your visual hallucinations could move your way – while my live performances can be more direct, looking for some kind of mystical and common relationship: the sound, the space, the people, all of us here in the now.
The machines I’m using for Solstices could be pretty insecure when performed live (the wires of modular synths, connections you forgot, no computer) and sometimes my own skills playing saxophone or singing are so on the edge that I feel like a spinning-top… Over the years, I tried a few things so as to be able to bounce off something other than just myself while playing a solo performance; it could be improvisation with prepared gear, little concepts bringing limits you can push, little goals or incantations to be able to overplay sometimes. This is very audible in Solstices. These are simple gambling questions, on a personal level, about the strange and ever-evolving form of life (and trance) that is music.
(Question to both) You both collaborate with various people; how would you say this particular collaboration differs from your other ones?
Irena: Frederic’s sound landscapes felt quite familiar to me and the most inspiring and intriguing was Frederic’s way of playing the hurdy gurdy – this instrument sounds hauntingly beautiful but when combined with voice it becomes super uncanny because it often seems like a voice. The intensity of Frederic’s sound, the extent to which it is at once layered, dense and sharp, provokes something in my voice where I allow myself and push myself to discover some new territories in voice and music.
I hope this collaboration will continue, because every time we have played – even “just” as a rehearsal, which was as intense as a real concert – I had, among many other thoughts, a sensation while playing – “yep, this is my limit, that’s what I can do with my voice, nothing more…”But then I just kept going, because Frédéric kept going, because the sound didn’t stop… and something “new” opened up for me every time…
So, when you play with some people, you can be hugely challenged and driven to new challenges…and that is what this collaboration is for me.
Frédéric: Irena has siren voices of old and new sonic dreams that I can sometimes hear in my head and barely play with my fingers… I guess parts of our creativity belong to the same weird and crazy hidden universe. It was so blissful to finally be able to perform live together after the release of Arba, Dâk Arba on Hallow Ground and I’m so excited about working on some new material that we recently recorded for a new opus.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova