The meeting between Amaury Cornut and Stéphane Garin of Ensemble 0 gave rise to the crazy idea of resurrecting Elpmas in a stage version, in half instrumental and half electronic form. This album was composed in 1991 by Moondog with the computers and samples of Andi Toma, half of the electro duo Mouse on Mars. Released in 1992, the album was presented as an ecological ode to nature and the cosmos, while at the same time defending the aborigines. Andi Toma had managed to convince Moondog, who was very attached to acoustic instruments and human performers, that the complexity and rigour of his canons would find an ideal realisation in the implacable regularity of computers.Ensemble 0 's project proved even more ambitious with the release of a magnificent book-disc, 'Elpmas' (Moondog) revisited/revisited, released in 2018 by Murailles Music, Ici d'ailleurs and Super Loto Editions.
Amaury, can you tell us more about the Elpmas stage project with Ensemble 0?
Amaury Cornut: The idea was born from my meeting with Stéphane Garin during a Folle Journée in Nantes, many years ago. He is a percussionist on the one hand, and a techno enthusiast on the other. Elpmas was an obvious choice. The music had to be brought to life on stage, which was a challenge, because it is a pure studio album. Moondog, with the help of Andi Tomas of Mouse on Mars, had sampled every note of a marimba one by one to create canons by computer. He thought that it was, if not impossible, too complicated to find musicians who could play the sinuous canons that make up this record so coldly and without a single false note. We took the opposite gamble, first of all by putting together an initial version with six instrumentalists, with Julien Pontvianne, who can play all the sax and clarinet parts, Joël Merah, who cleaned up the 237 pages of scores from my archives and copied a piece I didn't have as a bonus, all-round percussionists and Vincent Malassis as the master of ceremonies, who works on the tapes live. There is also the complicity of a sound engineer who manages the samples, because in Elpmas, which reads "sample" backwards, it is necessary to use samples even live, because it is impossible to have sixteen marimbas players on stage. In addition to this, a lighting engineer has created visuals for each song.
Has this initial team evolved?
At first we used original samples sent by Andi Toma for the viola da gamba scores, as if the ghosts of the original record were with us on stage. They have since been replaced by Barbara Hünninger, much to our delight. All the singing parts have been re-recorded as well, with leads provided by Jonathan Seilman and Vanille Fiaux. Four of the Macadam Ensemble's singers are now on stage with us, having recorded the backing vocals for the album. Rodolphe Alexis recorded field recordings that perfectly match the ambiences of the original record. Tomoko Sauvage had, in another context, lent her voice to the reading of a poem that introduces a piece on the record: we used this tape with her permission. The current version therefore has eleven musicians on stage.
Stéphane, can you summarise the main stages of this project?
Stéphane Garin: Like any good project, it started in a totally informal way over a good meal between myself, Amaury and Cyril Jollard, who was then the programmer and creator of the superb Variations festival in Nantes. It was exciting, because it allowed us to envisage a reading of this album that we could bring on stage, but also re-record using only acoustic instruments. Then, the work was organised with the precious contribution of Murailles music for the production and the organisation of residencies. I was in charge of gathering the troops, while Joël Merah was in charge of the arrangement/ re-orchestration of Moondog's original music.
We realised that this album could not be played live on stage with the full band. For example, the opening pow-wow features 25 marimba parts in canons. So we had to use samples that were broadcast on stage, within which the musicians on stage had to deploy themselves. This is where Guillaume's sound work comes into play, positioning the speakers on stage and the acoustic balance between broadcast and live, and Azeline's lighting work.
Can you also describe this beautiful object, the Elpmas record/book set?
Amaury Cornut: The original record only exists in the form of a CD in a plastic case, accompanied by a booklet. Since we wanted to bring back some human and organic elements in our version, as opposed to the machine-like character of the original, we also wanted to counteract the digital version with this vinyl, and therefore analogue, version. We completely re-recorded all the material: it wasn't a question of putting on vinyl a medium initially intended for a digital medium! Quite quickly, there was talk of a book-disc co-publication between Murailles Music, Ici d'ailleurs and Super Loto Editions. It was packaged in the format of a double 10″ vinyl with an 84-page art book containing four texts entrusted to four authors, around the great themes that make up Elpmas: pulsation, travel, nature and the cosmos. I signed a short preface that sets the context for this record. We chose the authors with Super Loto Editions, who took care of the book part. This offers very different approaches to the same object. The same principle applies to the visuals, this time with two artists per theme, also selected by SLE.
Stéphane Garin: It's just the most beautiful record I've made so far: a kind of suicidal production object, considering the state of the music market today. But I think it's going to have a long life, because it's of great quality and it respects whoever decides to own it. It is a visual work of quality that brings together ten designers, a very beautiful print run, a high quality mastering by David Chalmin, an impeccable recording by Benjamin Maumus and the precious support of the GMEA (Didier Aschour).
Amaury, for this project, you also called on the talents of Vincent Malassis, who plays a personal electronic composition for the last fifteen minutes of the concert, a soaring, timeless, almost ritualistic moment. What are the reasons for your choice?
Amaury Cornut: My collaboration with Vincent dates back to 2012. At the time, he had developed a composition for magnetic tape already inspired by Moondog's "Cosmic Medidation". This is the same basis that he developed to arrive at this moment that you describe. Even if, unlike the rest of the team, Vincent has no academic musical knowledge, he is a real musician like the others: he is a real turntable player, he masters sampling perfectly, and isn't that the heart ofElpmas after all? When I suggested Vincent to Stéphane Garin, he shared my feelings. We had to transform "Cosmic Meditation" into something else, and this is indeed the only moment of freedom we allowed ourselves compared to the original record. While I love listening to the original in the quiet of my living room, it seemed unattractive to end such a rich set with this very ambient piece. However, there was no question of changing the order of the track list, we wanted to finish with this long piece. I see it as a digestion of everything that has happened in the last hour. For me, the original has this ability to blur the temporal markers, and if you find that the rendering is "out of time", then it's mission accomplished!
Vincent, what is the reason for your interest in Moondog?
Vincent Malassis: Amaury had sent me some diagrams of Moondog's compositions, portraits representing the past and the future. His work on time fascinated me, and as I am used to working with loops and their shifts, counterpoint speaks to me well, as well as the complexity of the rhythmic signatures, which paradoxically are so obvious on his beautiful melodies, which seem simple and which one sings directly. I've been listening to Moondog for a while and his music feeds me, it's a chance to have been able to deconstruct a complete record to try to understand this artist.
What is your role in the live performances with Ensemble 0?
V.M.: Elpmas is full of field recording and soundscapes from Moondog's travels. I burned the tapes on vinyl. I use the turntable as an instrument, which allows me to modulate the sounds and send them into effects. For the end of the concert, I composed two pieces that follow on from each other, inspired by the last two tracks on the album: 'Introduction And Overtone Continuum' & 'Cosmic Meditation'. The loops are enriched with distortion, tape, reverb, delay and feedback, it goes from ambient to mental noise, which I dose on the mixing desk.
Stéphane, I think there were some particularly strong moments with Elpmas, like your performances in New York, one of the artist's main cities of residence. You had some great encounters there. Can you tell us more about them?
Stéphane Garin: I remember a very beautiful person, about 75 years old, who told me that when she had just gotten a job at MOMA in New York in the 1950s, she would pass the Viking on 6th Avenue every day on her way to and from the office. She decided one day to talk to him, and then became his friend. It was quite moving that she told me this story on June 21, when she had come especially to see us play to celebrate Moondog's music.
What about this street performance, filmed on 21 June 2019 by Derrick Belcham, in the footsteps of Moondog?
SG: The project was that the music should fit in the street and in our suitcases. We chose a few compositions that we humbly tried to interpret experimentally, as Moondog must have done in his time.
I proposed Jean-Brice Godet especially for his work around the cassette, which brought a lo-fi angle to the project. Thomas Bonvalet was there from the start, and Alexis Degrenier was unable to join us for health reasons. This ephemeral moment no longer exists and only existed during the months of May and June 2019.
Interview by Guillaume Kosmicki