Kassel Jaeger Takes Us Into The Swamps For A New Experience Of Music

 [Cover photo credit to Eleonore Huisse]

Francois J. Bonnet, who usually works under the moniker Kassel Jaeger, recently released a new full-length album, in fact, it's a double LP, with Swamps/Things. He also has another release poised to drop on October 2nd. Add to that the fact that he's recently published a new book, and you get the impression that the Director of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, or INA-GRM, is a rather busy person. We may not be conviced otherwise, but his projects often do stretch out over a number of years, developing in parallel lines, and suddenly arrive all at once in ways that even a pandemic can't really derail.

Bonnet's work derives from a combination of musical approaches, including "concrète experimentalism, ambient noise, and electroacoustic improvisation'. He both creates and gathers sound and turns those elements into compositions meant to give audiences a sense that they are experiencing sound the way you might encounter a landscape with its own mysterious and autonomous qualities. On Swamps/Things long tracks, often blending into one another, create a kind of landscape of the mind, and this one, Bonnet suggests, is like wandering in a primeval swamp where time passes differently and human beings are fleeting. 

Francois J. Bonnet joins Tower's PULSE! to talk about Swamps/Things and why direct experience of sound may be a way of life that's on the wane.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Have you been able to work during this time?

Francois J Bonnet: I have a regular daily job, actually. I’m Director of Groupe de Recherches Musicales, which is a research group at a big institution, Institut National de l'Audiovisuel (INA). We organize concerts, promote experimental music, and research musicology.

There were a lot of adjustments in the workflow during the lockdown, but I managed to do stuff. I finished writing a small book called The Music To Come. When a record comes out, you made it last year. For this record, that’s true, and I have another one coming. It’s a long process. It was actually released in Europe in July, and is arriving later in the US.

HMS: There has been some slow-down due to COVID, I know. Did you have any thoughts of holding it back because of the global situation?

FJB: We discussed this with the label, but we had this confidence in the music itself, that it was going to reach its audience anyway.

HMS: It makes sense not to wait because, as you said, you have other things you are working on. Also, people really do need new music right now.

What’s really cool about your record is the different formats that you’re using to release it. The Double LP is a great thing. I don’t think I realized at first how long it was. What’s the full play time on it?

FJB: [Laughs] I actually don’t know. I can check if you want. It’s more than one hour. On the vinyl, some of the tracks are cross-faded.

HMS: I saw that part of the goal was to have no divisions between the tracks.

FJB: For the vinyl, it’s very fluid. There are sides, but not really tracks.

HMS: Did you have to think about the sides when you recorded the album?

FJB: When you work with vinyl, you have to work for the format and also the experience of the listener. I really thought of the record as an opera, which is a progression, a trajectory with different scenes. I worked on the scenes separately, and then adjusted it a bit to fit. It worked pretty well from the beginning, though, so it was kind of lucky.

HMS: How many scenes are there?

FJB: There are eight, with four on each one.

HMS: That is very balanced!

FJB: It was interesting to use the opera idea to capture the attention of the listener. It’s something that has to be listened to from beginning to end to really grasp the thing. Each separate entity echoes another, and that was the idea.

HMS: Do you recommend that audiences listen to it, as much as possible, at one time?

FJB: Yes. I know that people have less and less time for longform, but it’s shorter than a movie, so they can do it.

HMS: There’s at least a small return right now to long form! People say they are sitting down and listening to whole records at a time because there’s nothing else to do.

Is this the first time that you’ve thought in terms of an opera for an album?

FJB: It’s the first time. It arrived kind of late. People probably think, “What?” since there’s no singing.  But it was really about stepping to one side of the traditional idea of what an opera is. It’s not about what an opera is but what is at stake in the opera format. I think that’s an interesting way to think about the movement of opera, made of fragments, that only reaches complete integrity in your mind, really. That’s what I was interested in trying to achieve here.

HMS: So the audience is part of constructing the narrative in their minds, then?

FJB: Totally. I really belong to this tradition of music that brings something to the listener, but the listener brings something as well. Music occurs at the meeting point of what I can present and what the listener can bring. If you put this music on in the background, it’s not very interesting. You’re losing the music and you just have nice sounds instead.

HMS: I saw some information about your book, The Order of Sounds: A Sonorous Archipelago, published by MIT. I have an academic background, but not in music. I could, however, understand that your book emphasizes the role of the audience for constructing meaning in their own mind when they hear sounds. I can see how your ideas would apply to this composition, too, even in this larger format.

FJB: Yes. In the book there are two aspects: the listening process is a process of fantasizing things through sound. You have this dimension of projecting, through listening, the fantasies you have in your mind. On the other side of things, you have the intervention of structural language as a tool to say the sounds rather than to experience them. The individuality of what a musical experience is a phenomenal experience of something that doesn’t “say” anything, really.

The vast majority of music, from classical music to a lot of other types, uses a lot of “gimmicks”, a lot of recognized common language to use as a tool. So then you’re not really making music, you’re talking to someone through music. Whether it’s classical music or Jazz. You’re saying, “Do you get it?” and they are saying, “Yes, I get it.”

HMS: These are allusions, musical allusions to forms and traditions?

FJB: Yes, communication. And the thing I’ve tried to defend is listening to music the way you would look at a landscape. You don’t communicate with a landscape. There is the metaphor of the two types of gardens: There is the French Garden, which is structured, and made by architects. It expressed a world view. But if you walk in the forest, you don’t see any signs addressed to you. It hasn’t been built. Then you have the idea of the English Garden. The English Garden tries to mimic natural shapes. I try to create music as if it’s something there already. It’s not about whether you can expect what it’s going to do or not.

HMS: Recognizing patterns?

FJB: That’s a William Gibson book, right? Pattern Recognition.

HMS: There’s a tendency in modern music to look for the creator and assume they are trying to tell you something, which you have to figure out. So, it’s like a game. A Rock song can be obvious in that way. Sometimes when I talk to Rock or Blues musicians, I come across people who write the music first and the lyrics afterwards, and I find that interesting. But, of course, Rock and Blues have very key repetitions and traditions they are referencing, sometimes even key musicians who invented things.

On your website, there’s some information about your thinking on this album, and it’s a narrative, of a person walking in a swamp, and to some extent, the person becoming lost in it. Then there’s the idea of impermanence, even for the person who passes through. It seems primeval or on a more cosmic scale of time. Why is the natural world something you turn to in order to talk about music?

FJB: Well, there’s a problem in the term “natural world”, but let’s say “the given world”. Because “natural” could also be a dialectical construction. But it’s a good question: Why do I articulate the given world with the experience of the sounds of music? Probably because of the idea of a phenomenal experience that is outside of codes and outside of signs. The way I make music may allow me to step away from the dialectical world and this evocation of this blurry state of what you are feeling kind of resonated together. This non-defined thing, non-formal thing is something that’s been driving me for a long time.

I also wrote another book from MIT called The Infra-World. The Infra-World is the world of the Infra-sensibility. It’s the same thing. What’s there when you don’t process your sensation into words or actions? It doesn’t go anywhere. It just affects you and stays with you. It’s kind of a combat since I feel the world is driven more and more by signs, language, and slowly we’re losing another way of being alive. I think music is a good alternative to offer that. Because you can escape for a while from pure meaning, in a way.

HMS: Wow. That is an amazing thought. We might be losing a form of receptiveness because we’re using all these structures to interpret everything all of the time?

FJB: Yes.

HMS: Earlier, you mentioned that rather than having a direct experience of something, the intermediary of language is catching us, and keeping us from reaching the direct experience. Is that correct?

FJB: Yes.

HMS: That’s very interesting. You seem to have an ideal that you want to make sure that people don’t lose that experience. Is that your motivation in creating music, to make sure that people can still have those experiences?

FJB: No, it’s more selfish. I build the situation for myself first, and I assume that by this, maybe someone somewhere will be touched by this as well. I started creating music in order to make sure I could listen to the kinds of music that I wanted to listen to. Even so, of course when you finish an album, you think, “I could have done this better.” I still listen to what I do, though, because in my way of composing, I don’t put a lot of ego into. There’s already distance, and I can contemplate it from a distance and enjoy it, somehow. I do this first, and then I share it.

HMS: Is that how you know when a composition is finished, that you can experience it as if it’s not something that you created?

FJB: Kind of. Sometimes it’s just a question of timing. But the result is when it feels that it’s gone somewhere else. It can be quick or take years. People say that I work a lot and release a lot, and I do, but I also work on things a little bit every day and think about them every day. I also work on different projects in parallel, and some take five minutes, and some take years. Sometimes projects just all come out at the same time.

HMS: It sounds like the release dates can be a little deceptive. It’s the phenomenon of waiting for a bus, and they all come at once after you’ve waited for an hour.

FJB: Yes, I actually have another release coming out the 2nd of October.

HMS: Very cool. I saw that you had been working on a series of “Fragments”. Is that a different way of working for you?

FJB: I usually build a lot of material to use for my compositions. I always build original material and I don’t sample or resample myself. Sometimes there’s a sound I really like, but I can’t make it fit in a composition for different reasons. It’ll sit there for a while. After it’s there, I don’t want to change it, so it becomes a kind of fragment. It’s something you can enjoy that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. There’s no structure. It’s like if you walk somewhere, and listen to a sound that attracts you, and you spend three or four minutes listening to it, and then you go away. That’s why those are digital releases. For me, it’s a way not to bury a sound that I love in my hard drive where nobody can enjoy it.

HMS: It’s more like a collection of rarities or singles?

FJB: Yes, but at the same time, there’s not structural work. There can be structure in the morphology of how it was created, but it has its own pace or own form. The structural gesture from me, sometimes, is just fading in and fading out. It’s kind of like a ready-made.

HMS: Creating all your own samples sounds like even more work!

FJB: I always have my recorder with me, and I’m lucky to travel quite a lot. It’s something that I love. Sometimes it’s quite a meditative moment, being really into the experience. Then I bring it back with me. It’s a daily practice. It’s not like a studio session which goes on for weeks.

HMS: What sort of instruments or recorders do you use to get what you need, and what are some of your favorite places to go to find sounds?

FJB: I come from the Musique Concrete tradition, where everything is a candidate to be a sonic body which produces sound objects. I’m trained as a sound engineer as well, so my first instrument is a recorder. Of course, I use synthesizers. We have nice facilities at GRM. I can access equipment. I also have my own. I have most of the different acoustic instruments. The thing which is quite important is to play with these different qualities of electric and acoustic. They carry different energies.

The acoustic always has a resonance in its body, which gives almost an aura around its sound, while electric can be very rolling in its sound, like pure electricity. I really like to have both of them most of the time. These are sounds produced by artifacts, my instruments. But I also really like to have given sounds, from outside.

The places I go are not driven by the sonic capacity of the environment, per se. I always try to record in places that are special, and that’s hard to define. It’s not just a place, it’s a time, a moment. Somewhere, sometimes, something happening. I do that for two reasons: I will be concentrating in the moment of recording sound and carry this feeling with me, and because of that, I will care much more about the sounds themselves.

For example, and this is an example I give a lot: If I want to record a water sound, I won’t go in my kitchen and open the tap. I’d rather walk two hours to find a tiny river, even if the sound is the same, and even if you can’t tell the difference. I know the difference, though, and I know the process. Because of that I will treat it differently, and I believe that.

I couldn’t tell you a favorite place, since I don’t have favorite places to record. It’s more about encounters, and it’s a beautiful moment, and I record it.

HMS: When you say that everything, for you, has the potential to become a sound artefact, that’s amazing but could be overwhelming. But now you’ve explained your process of choice, so that’s very helpful.

I think our Tower Records motto definitely applies to your work as much as everyone else’s: it’s written “No Music, No Life” and also “Know Music, Know Life”. Which do you prefer and how does that apply to you?

FJB: I don’t know which I’d choose because I have a problem with knowledge and music. I think that music can be a space where you’re in an experience of life, but not one of knowledge. On a deeper level, it brings you knowledge, but not knowledge as we usually understand it.

HMS: I bet you’d prefer a different way of phrasing this, given your theoretical framework: How about “Experience Music, Experience Life”?

FJB: Yes! I think so.

HMS: Let’s be simplistic though: if you hadn’t ever have made any music in your life, how would your life have gone?

FJB: I would have done something else. People adapt. But I would probably seek what music has provided me here. I would try to look for the same thing: to experience things without being trapped by the empire of signs.

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