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Interview with Marc Battier


Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #071, 28 September 1996. Kalvos & Damian on the road in Paris at the composer’s studio. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:37:45–1:33:45].

Composer Marc Battier (France) started using computers in composition in the early 1970s. His electroacoustic music has been played in most countries of Europe and in Japan, China, Taiwan, the United States and Canada. Professor, University Paris (electroacoustic music). Has worked at INA-GRM (1978–79) and at IRCAM, 1979–2003. Current research: electroacoustic music studies; East-Asia electroacoustic music; origins of electroacoustic music; genesis of synthesis; modernism in art and music; relations between literature, art and music technology. Co-founder of International Computer Music Association (ICMA) and the Electroacoustic Music Studies Network (EMS) with Leigh Landy and Daniel Teruggi. Founder of Electroacoustic Music Studies Asia Network (EMSAN). In 1992, designed a twentieth-century collection of electric and electronic musical instrument for the Museum of Music in Paris. On the board of Organised Sound and Leonardo Music Journal (the MIT Press). He is a Director of Electronic Music Foundation.

[Kalvos] On the road, in a room of arched objects of all kinds, including children’s toys, and…

[Damian] A whole bank of our fave, LPs.

[K] LPs everywhere, what a wonderful studio. We’re here in Paris with Marc Battier, on the Kalvos & Damian New Music Sesquihour, welcome to the show.

[Marc Battier] Thank you, hello.

[K] Hello, and we have just had, off-mic before anyone else has had the opportunity, a chance to hear some of your music, and I think we should start at the beginning.

[MB] The music you just heard was from a CD called Transparence. This is a rather old project, which we realized only last year, when the CD came out. Back in 1984, I was in contact with a sound poet, Henri Chopin, who at that time was living in England. Henri Chopin is really considered the founder of sound poetry, that is poetry using tape recorders, using recorded sounds, to expand the possibilities of vocal expression. To go beyond singing and beyond poetry reading, in a way, but using the voice as a material, not for creating music, because sound poets would consider that they are doing poetry. So it is a field which is strange, because it uses technical means, but he really wants to remain in the poetry field, as well.

[K] It’s pushing the border back and forth between sound and the music. Expressing the word “sound,”and pushing that over and, you can kind of hear it as music. As a matter of fact, we’ll hear part of the actual sound poem itself, which it is very reminiscent of what was called Music by Fred Rzewski and his Gruppo in the mid-1960s.

[MB] Right, right. Nuova Consonanza, yeah, all these Italian groups at the time . Yes, I guess you’re right. The important aspect in Henri Chopin’s work and in other sound poets’ work is that they are really on the edge of something which is rather hard to define. In this case, it’s on the edge of poetry, and music, and performance, because they are using what they are doing in live performance as well, so it’s really exciting to walk across borders like this. The project was at first to use one of Henri Chopin’s sound poems that he gave me back in ’84, and create a piece of music with it, that is, start from material which is already a work, the piece itself.

[K] Right. It’s already in the sound world.

[MB] Exactly, exactly, and not any “found object,” which is the tradition of musique concrète and most of the electroacoustic music. So, instead of gathering sounds to try to make music with it, I was at that time interested in the voice, in the vocal expression. In this case, the work of Chopin is rather wild. It grabs you, it’s not something you listen to as a song, or as a singing voice, it’s really a live performance of poetry. It’s a very strong sound, it has a very strong sound reality.

Anyway, starting from that kind of voice was very challenging because it was a work, and at the same time very rich, because it’s a very rich material, rhythmically and on the timbral level as well. Recently, I was discussing with Ramuntcho Matta, who is a composer and a producer, and he described to me the idea of selling a collection of CDs of recorded music gathering an artist and a composer, and to create a work which might be a CD with a book, or maybe starting with the picture of the visual work and having a translation of it into sound of some sort. And of course, I described the project I had with Henri Chopin, who is also by the way, a graphic artist, and I said, “Well, let’s do it,” and this is how the project came into existence.

[K] So that’s how the project begins. Now, you then extract part of this and you analyze it. How do you analyze the sound? How do you develop from that not only the graphic image, but what processes do you use to change that, and how do you make it musical?

[MB] Well, the process has to preserve the integrity of the material, because you have to respect the fact that you are starting from work already achieved, yet at the same time you have to make music with it. This is my goal, and you have to find an extrapolation, a way to derive from this material a whole musical world. The process I used is the following: I start with a very short excerpt of Chopin’s work.

[K] How short is “short”?

[MB] Well, it’s between 4 seconds to 20 seconds, so it’s really quite short. But, in that short amount of time, Chopin has a lot to say already, so it’s a very rich material. I go through a computer which delivers a graphic image from the sound content of this particular excerpt.

[K] And the graphic image is done how, it’s the frequency is one position or colour, and the time it transcends is another? How does it produce that image?

[MB] Well, basically, the image on the computer screen is organized in pixels, little dots, and the position of the dot corresponds to a pitch, and the size, the length of the dot, in this case, which is a line, is equivalent to the length of that particular component in the sound. You can also, of course, control a number of things in this translation of sound to image, but that’s basically the idea. You can have colours corresponding to the loudness of each component which evolves in time.

Now, once you have this image, you can consider it as a score, or you can consider it as a pure image, and continue, keep going with other graphic programs to further process the image as you would do with any other picture, which I did, using standard picture- or image-processing programs. By the way, the sound program I used was designed by Vincent Lesbros, who is a composer and researcher in France, it’s a non-commercial program that’s available to composers if they want to, it’s a very rich program, and you can do a lot. I’ll give some more examples, maybe later.

Anyway, once you are in this picture world, you can further process with the goal of doing a re-synthesis of the image, that is, the image can become the sound again, but of course, it has been processed, and it’s like writing a score. You have the sound in front of you, because it is converted to image, and you can process the image in many different ways. It’s very exciting, because after all, the idea of using graphic score is not new, it’s been here for a long time, especially in electronic music, naturally, but it’s the first time that you can go back and forth between sound and image, actually, which is very exciting. Also, another possibility is to create a graphic score, and you can just start drawing, or you can import into the program, what’s called MIDI file, which is, as you know, a score which has been composed using a notation program, and you can then write notes, write chords, and how many parts you want, and that is translated into image, and you can further process the image. There is a lot to say about this program…

[K] So, essentially you’re taking an image, and with manipulation of that image, with changing that image, you not only produce another image which is very interesting to look at, as you’ve shown us, but that translation, that change, that orchestration, if you will, is transformed once again into sound, producing a new reality.

[MB] Yes, so the image can be considered a score, but in some cases I got carried away, I must confess, and I just decided to keep going on the graphic level and not try to produce a sound but just use it as an image, and eventually when the CD was released, there was an exhibition in a gallery in Paris, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, for about 6 weeks, where people could listen to the CD but also look at the pictures of Henri Chopin and those pictures we talked about, as well.

[K] Okay, let’s hear some of this, what’s the first one we’re going to hear?

[MB] Well, I would think the first example could be Walk, which is really different from the others, in the sense that this piece is not derived directly from the analysis and the picture-processing, but from a MIDI file based on the pitches which the program found in the voice.

We listen to Walk by Marc Battier [0:49:30–0:50:20].

[K] Give us some more about that particular piece, how that derives. Maybe you can lead us through just this one piece.

[MB] In what we just heard, there was a rather strong rhythmic element, which you can find in the original material from Henri Chopin, the sound poem is very rhythmic, and I tried to respect this. The rest of the piece is to trying to create a harmonic field, a harmonic world, so the harmonies, let’s say (which will appear more clearly in other pieces, I guess), but it’s really a re-composition of these rhythmic aspects. So basically, you can re-compose the elements that have been analyzed by the program.

[D] This may be not quite relevant to that particular composition, but you had a folder here with the seal of the University of California, San Diego, did you go there, for any reason?

[MB] Actually yes, I spent two years at UCSD.

[D] Is this a new hotbed of new music? Because in the past couple of days, we have met a number of composers here that have gone to UCSD, and in fact, this morning, or whatever it was, radio time, we talked to Kaija Saariaho, and she had been there, and before that Mary Oliver, a violinist, had studied there before she came here to live. So, before this I was unaware that there was so much happening at UCSD.

[MB] I was there between ’84 and ’86. At that time, there weren’t so many places where you could work with the computer on advanced software, basically, I mean, there were a few, probably more in the States and in Europe, but not so many. I just happened to be invited to teach at UCSD for a couple of years, and while I was there I developed a computer music lab for the undergraduates, which was a very exciting thing to do, because there was the beginning of small systems like, you know, Macintosh arrived pretty much at that time, and IBM PC’s and software for personal use, so it was very interesting, and at the same time, UCSD was of course very advanced in sophisticated processing software like CMusic, devised by Richard Moore. Gareth Loy was there at that time also, so it was a very exciting place to be at the time. I guess it still is, people have changed, there are new people there, but it’s still a very nice place to be, and I go there regularly…

[D] To surf.

[MB] Well, I wish I could, yes… I don’t have much time for that yet. [Laughter]

[K] Just the opposite of surfing, is a wonderful piece for the evolving tones of the voice. Very long, stretched-out tones, what section is that?

[MB] Well, I guess, there are a certain number of pieces which are called Landscape, and that there are a number of “Landscapes” on that album, which by the way was composed for the CD medium.

[K] Yeah, that’s an important thing, let’s break into that question now. You don’t produce this for a concert hall, you produce this for private listening, personal listening? Who listens to it, how do they listen to it?

[MB] Probably radio-listeners. Yes, the idea of listening to loudspeakers in a private environment is very appealing to me, because the way you perceive the music, listen to the music, is very different from the concert hall. The concert hall is more like theatre, and there is an “event” taking place. Now, if you listen to the CD in your own home, or wherever, but not in a concert situation, you listen to things differently. You might forget the sound for a while, but come back to it because something else catches your attention. It’s really a more interactive situation than in a concert, where you are focused towards the stage, and what’s going on. And, by the way, listening to a concert piece with only loudspeakers is not so appealing to the audience.

[K] Something is lost in the experience, because it’s written for a different medium.

[MB] Right, exactly. So, this was an experiment in composing music for another kind of listening, and probably radio listening could be described as a paradigm for this activity. But, it’s also “private listening,” or whatever.

[K] When our listeners hear this, should they have it through loudspeakers or headphones, which is best?

[MB] It doesn’t matter, it’s not so much the way you listen to it, it’s more the situation in which you are which is important. That is, you can listen to the whole CD from beginning to end, if you wish, and you don’t have to sit down and listen to it, you can do something else and come back to it, and sometimes, something grabs your attention, or gets gets in the background. That’s the idea of this kind of listening, which I would call sort of a more interactive listening than in a concert situation. It’s possible only with this medium, the sound quality is excellent, it is digital sound, so it can sort of respect the quality of the material to begin with. At the same time, it’s a small object, and it’s a different, very exciting — nothing new there — but I think for a composer who works mostly in concert music, it’s a new experience, is something that really deserves to be experienced. I think in Europe, and I think in the US also, more and more composers are turning towards radio, with Hörspiel, for instance, radio plays, and pieces for the radio. Strangely enough, the radio medium is something which changes, at least in Europe, because of the arrival of online systems, where you can use the Internet to listen to some radio program from Australia, or wherever. You can choose the radio program you want, so you don’t have sit down with your short-wave radio, so the radio system is changing. And yet, more and more people in Europe are rediscovering the charm of listening to radio.

[K] That’s very nice. You listeners are now discovering a charm. Remember that, you’re participating in something very new. Now let’s listen to the piece that is particularly long, extensions of the vocal tones. Which one is that?

[MB] I guess you’re referring to a piece called Transparent Landscape.

[K] And you had explained that that particular piece stretched the tones of the voice a great deal.

[MB] Because the material from Henri Chopin, the basic material, is composed of very short excerpts, very short events, I should say, from his voice. He uses the voice as a percussion instrument, in a way. So, one iteration, one small sound fragment can be stretched in time, and I used a program which is able to stretch sounds a huge amount. It’s actually a program called SoundHack, by Tom Erbe, which is a very efficient program, very easy to use, and the sound quality is excellent. So, with this program I stretched the sound by a factor of maybe 100, which gives very slow, evolving tones, and there is a richness in the material, which is short, at the beginning, that you can’t really grab it. But when it’s stretched, you can enter this sound from within, inside the sound, so it’s a very exciting thing. I use the stretching technique quite a lot, to create those Landscapes. Another program I used is a program which is composed of filters, which are actually active on some region of the sound, from low pitches, or medium or high pitches, and those filters resonate. That is, when there is a sound, and it tends to resonate, but not as a reverberation, more as a harp, which is the title of two pieces, actually, on this CD.

[K] We’ll hear some of those. Right now, more music by Marc Battier.

We listen to Transparent Landscape by Marc Battier [1:01:00–1:05:20].

[K] The way in which you stretch the sounds is reminiscent of the work of another composer we had on the show, who did some very beautiful work in stretching sounds, and that was Carl Stone [see interview in this issue of eContact!]. Do you know Carl Stone’s work?

[MB] Yes I do, he’s one of my oldest friends.

[K] Ah, so, there you are. His sound-stretching, was it Shing Kee, where he had a long sound stretching on it? Yes, a piece called Shing Kee, and he draws the music from one small fragment of a Schubert song sung by a pop singer, over a course of about 15 minutes. It’s quite wonderful. And I was reminded right away how, when you begin to pull the sound over that period of time, somehow your own sense of time changes, and falls inside that music.

[MB] Which is maybe because as you know, Carl Stone has a radio program, so he’s a radio man. Once again, this is it… maybe radio has an influence on the way you do music. Anyway, yes, I don’t know this particular piece, but I’m very fond of his work in general, which is very inventive. The idea of stretching a sound, when the sound material is rich to begin with, is very appealing and very exciting. As a composer, you can discover many things, and as a listener you can experience a new way of listening to sounds. Of course, the program has some artifacts, it’s not neutral. It creates some effects which we have to either correct, or use, or further process. In this case, the processing I used after the stretching was the filtering, the resonant filters, which technically are called comb filters, because it tends to smooth out the asperities of the sound, while retaining some of it. That is, I was rather interested, when I started this project, in voices which were, like I said at the beginning, wild or different from the singing voice, so they have a lot of roughness in them. Chopin’s not a singer, he’s a poet, and all those programs tend to smooth out all of this. So you have to also struggle against the program to preserve some of this original strength and roughness, which I like.

[K] Very different, but using the same base material, is your Aeolian Harp, particularly the #2. How do you move into a piece like that, how is that derived?

[MB] The idea in this Aeolian Harp was to use the material as unchanged and untransformed as possible, and yet to create harmonies, and to apply harmonies, on this material. So you can hear that the original rhythmic aspect of the sound poem, but it becomes music because you can hear chords which change and evolve, and in the beginning of course, there was no such thing as chords and harmonies. The way the harmonies were done, were by of course trying to enlarge, like a graphic process, to enlarge whatever pitch intervals were in the original material. Sort of taking those intervals and blowing them up as much as possible, and of course, with resonant filters you can create chords which last, and that creates harmony. So it’s what I call “harmonic fields,” which evolve and change over time. So that’s basically the idea, and this is of course something which, I don’t know if it works in usage, but I call this “musicalization” of speech. It’s not new, for instance, in the German studios of Cologne, Herbert Eimert, the founder of the studio, also used the same term when he used vocal sounds and made, let’s say, musical sounds. So it’s, I guess, that you are also on the edge between speech and music, and in this case, of course, it’s not speech, it’s actually the vocal sounds.

We listen to Harpe éolienne #2 by Marc Battier [1:10:33–1:12:40]

[K] We’re going to listen to something else, tell us about it.

[MB] The piece we could listen to was derived from my reading of William Gibson’s books, and actually the title of the piece, “The Sky Above the Port,” the first sentence of Neuromancer, written in ’84…

[K] Right, and the fella who gave us the word “cyberspace,” and a number of other…

[MB] “Cyberpunk”…

[K] Yeah, a number of the other important thought-currents on the net.

[MB] Right. In this book, there is a character, Case, who is a cyberpunk, that is, someone who actually lives in a universe between virtual worlds, crime, and survival, it’s sort of a rather interesting character. And influential, in this piece, because the music I was trying to create was not… there was no such danger as in Case’s life, but it was trying to deal with the creation of a virtual world, a virtual landscape in that particular case, and it was also, I’m not sure about the word in English, but it was on the edge between several kinds of music. That is one of the aspects of the work I’m trying to do: that is, not to compose music in a particular style, which would be either, say, electronic music, that’s a style. Not even sure that’s a style, but contemporary classical music, for instance, academic music, pop music, or whatever. I think in the 90s, we really try to go beyond those limits, beyond those borders, try to cross over those borders, and try to find a dialogue between people who like various kinds of music, and they hardly connect.

[K] Yeah, as a matter of fact, that’s one of the questions to ask, because we spoke to another composer who had been at UCSD, and said “Out the window were all the surfer boys,” and inside, here’s a composer working diligently on a score for full orchestra, that bears almost no relationship to the lives of these surfer boys. So my question in that case, and to you, is how do you get the surfer boys to listen? What will they hear? Objectively they’ll hear the same sound, but subjectively, how do you draw them into your world?

[MB] That’s a good question. Well, I’ve no answer to that, I think nobody has, but it’s a fact that the question becomes asked more and more often. So it’s a sign that people have to try to connect the way you get those surfer boys into your music. I don’t know, but clearly it’s not by ignoring them. Probably it’s by making a music that belongs to your own world, and yet pays attention to the way it’s received, the way it’s heard, the way people react to it. So, I guess, more and more composers are aware of the social aspect of the music, not the social aspect for their own survival, but the social aspect of the impact on the listeners.

Probably there’s more awareness now. There are all kinds of solutions, and I have no particular one, but it’s true that this line of CDs which was started by Ramuntcho Matta, is along those lines, trying to make music which is not characterized as academic, or “classical,” or “pop,” or whatever, but might attract various kinds of listeners. As a matter of fact, I’ll just give you a brief example from that particular CD. There was a fairly nice review in a popular magazine for electronic musicians in the popular world, and yesterday I was just being interviewed on France Musique (which is the radio for classical music), so, it seems that it somehow works, it’s not a CD that is sold very much, but at least I was pleased that such a different audience could be interested.

We listen to The Sky Above the Port by Marc Battier [1:18:50–1:19:56].

[D] Some of our listeners have been following the career of another electroacoustician who apparently also in fact studied, or claims to have studied, at UCSD, and wondered if he was there when you were there, he goes under the name ofYanni. Do you know this alleged musician? He dresses in robes and has long hair, and sometimes has laser shows, but he claims to be an electroacoustician.

[MB] Yes, I think I’ve heard the name, and I’ve read his name connected to new-age movements.

[K] Well, how does the composer get to [the electroacoustic] world? I suppose most composers, in one form or another, start with playing an instrument somewhere along the line, and transforming that experience in hearing sound, or sometimes are just “born composers,” in a way. How did you get to the stage of creating music using software, extracting the other people’s voices and transforming them graphically? How do you get there from wherever you came from?

[MB] Well, I was lucky enough to be born in France. As you know, France is the country which gave birth to musique concrète, which is considered the first kind of electronic music, in a way, so rather young, I became aware of this music. Although, at that time, it was hard to listen to, I mean, there weren’t so many records or concerts, but still it was around, and there were many composers. So, I had more chance to encounter this kind of music than I would in some other countries in Europe. So yes, I did become interested in that music very early.

[K] This is kind of an off-the-wall question, but what is the first recording that stuck in your mind? I can remember the first one for me.

[MB] Well, yes, definitely the Pierre Henry records. Pierre Henry, this composer who started musique concrète back in 1948 with Pierre Schaeffer, the father of musique concrète, had many records out. Philips was the company that produced these records, so I guess he was the most published composer at that time. Back in ’68, there was an amazing concert, 26 hours of his music non-stop, in a theatre in Paris, so, I mean, 26 hours means it’s more than one day. So, you leave one day from morning, to evening, morning again, bathing in this music. That’s a rather strong… it’s not something you can forget easily.

[K] You were there for the whole time?

[MB] I was there for the whole time!

[D] At the time did you think of it as… that it worked in this theatrical event, or were you already thinking that maybe this should be recorded and listened to in the privacy of one’s own home?

[MB] You have to have such events, absolutely. No question about that, you have to have events as well, because it’s so strong. Of course, there are aspects of electronic music that you can’t duplicate in your own home, like for instance, the space. This music was performed on many loudspeakers hanging from the ceiling or balconies, and you not only listen to the sound, but you listen to the sound from everywhere, and there’s a very strong, of course, aspect in his compositions using space, even if he uses mono tapes (tapes were done in monophony at that time), he performs when he plays, and he performs his sounds, because he knows his music so well that he knows that next time he will arrive here on the left, and next time there, and so on… so of course you have to have those events. So, yes, I was already composing music for tape recorders at that time, using very archaic means, but that’s the way musique concrète started, anyway, so I guess as a young man, I was duplicating that history 20 years later. Very quickly I became interested in computers. In France, at that time, there was no way to create sound with a computer, there were no facilities for doing that. So I started to compose music with computers using algorithms. It’s only in ’74, ’75, that microprocessors, microcomputers became available, and then you can connect the computer with a synthesizer and, you could keep writing software, and yet you could hear sounds. So that was a new step.

[K] And, in those early days, there were so many primitive little plug-together interfaces you could build, and little boards sitting around, and yes. But now, you have very rich sound on this recording. What equipment do you use for that?

[MB] Well, I use my home studio. We have come full circle, basically, because the composer is now able to work at home, using software which recently was only available in large institutions like UCSD, or IRCAM in Paris, but those algorithms have now been written for microcomputers, or home computers, or whatever you call them. Small computers. So they are available.

[K] So your home studio consists of what?

[MB] Basically a Macintosh, sound boards, a DAT machine, just to remain in the digital domain, and some outboard gear. Not much, really, so it’s all based on the computer.

[K] Amazing. From the days of composing on the harpsichord, or with the harpsichord in a small chamber, back to composing on a small device, in your own home.

[MB] And what’s great, is that you can keep not only composing music, but also performing the music, because when you do the whole thing, when you do pieces like this, you are also performing the piece itself, to record it.

[K] Some more from your CD of sound poems of Henri Chopin

We listen to Cybernaut’s Flight by Marc Battier [1:28:28–1:30:20].

[K] This is some wonderful work, and I’d like to ask you: at this stage in your career, you can probably close your eyes and imagine the one point at which you began to be a pioneer, in some regard.

[MB] Well, I’m closing my eyes, but I still don’t see. [Laughter]

[K] Well, close ’em harder and see… [Laughter] if you can identify at least one pioneering act, in the art of music.

[MB] No, I don’t think I can answer that. But, no, I don’t think I can answer such a question, really, because I don’t consider any of my work, really, as pioneering work. I mean, there are so many influences now, and I think each composer — and you’re a composer too, so you can tell — wants to create his or her own world, and that’s pioneering within your own life, I guess, you’re trying to create a new path in your own life, because that’s the way it is today. Nothing is stable, and you have to create your life, and I guess that’s what’s pioneering, that’s what a pioneer might be today, but within one’s life, really within one span. Sorry for my English.

[D] Of course, many pioneers don’t know that they are in fact pioneers, and the fact that they’ve pioneered something doesn’t occur to people until much later. So, you may already have pioneered and you don’t know it, and no one else does, yet…

[MB] Yeah, I doubt that. Well, thank you anyway, very much. [Laughter]

[K] And thank you, Marc Battier, for joining us on the New Music Sesquihour, and we have one wonderful piece to close with.

[MB] Yes, the Landscape in a Dream.

[K] And, just a moment’s description of Landscape in a Dream, and how you arrived at creating it.

[MB] Okay, well basically, again from this very short excerpt of Henri Chopin’s voice, I tried to present, in two minutes, a series of dream states, which, as any dream, can change from one moment to the next. So, it’s really a series of “states” that you go through in this piece.

[K] Thank you, Marc Battier, for joining us.

[MB] Thank you so much.

We listen to Landscape in a Dream by Marc Battier [1:33:45–1:30:30].

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