Floy KrouchiBeing guided and being free

Interviews 30.05.2021

The bassist and composer Floy Krouchi comes from the world of rock and free tekno, the kind you spell with a "k", which she played at free parties and teknivals during the 90s with her electro dub band Mafucage. In the early 2000s, she underwent a double training that profoundly reshaped her practice: in electroacoustics, at a Parisian conservatory; and in Indian music, with a rudra veena master, Pandit Hindraj Divekar, in Pune. Today, she links these two teachings at the heart of her augmented bass project, the FKBass.

You are a bass player. How and when did you choose this instrument, which is usually linked to the world of rock and pop music?
I started as a self-taught musician. The bass is an instrument that is played a lot in bands that are put together like that, with friends. It attracted me because I was marked by two influences: electrified music (pop in general) and reggae/dub, and more particularly dub, which had interested me since my adolescence. I found in this music both the presence of the bass, which is still an important element, and everything that concerns sound manipulation.

Are you thinking of Jamaican dub, or what a band like Massive Attack did with it later?
I'm thinking of both, Jamaican dub, and of course Massive Attack a little later, who helped to successfully mix everything together: the electric, electronic and urban sound with the techniques and vibe of dub. In the eighties I listened to all the dedicated Jamaican and British labels, Studio One singles in particular, Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound label, with the band African Head Charge. It influenced me a lot. However, I have always pursued my research career in parallel with my career as a musician. I learned harmony at the conservatory, I did jazz and free jazz, and I played in bands at the same time. I had integrated this experimental spirit since the end of the eighties: I worked at home on manipulating cassettes, walkmans, radios, sound volume... I had already experimented with all the Schaefferian bases by tinkering with small equipment, in a playful way. I have kept a stock of cassettes from that time.

You were part of a women's experimental music collective in the nineties, Mafucage, which you say was in tune with the burgeoning electronic music of that decade. Can you tell me more about it?
I co-founded my first major band, Mafucage, with Mxr Koznen in 1994, which brought all these influences together. There were two of us (bass and guitar), later joined by a drummer Krx Prince. The idea was that of an instrumental band: I always liked the fact that there were not necessarily vocals and lyrics, and just working with sound. We released vinyl records and played a lot of free parties in the late nineties. I like the tracks from that era, in an indus dub style, I think they haven't aged. Mafucage was my first big professional experience: we toured a lot, we produced our records ourselves in a Do It Yourself (DIY) way. Those were great years in Paris. I've never been an inveterate party girl, I've always been rather peripheral in my career anyway. What interested me most was what was happening in the particular context of the free party. It was a wonderful movement: the possibilities of experimenting with sound outside, in contexts quite distinct from the official rooms, at high volume.

Iknew the free party scene well in the same years.Was Mafucage attached to a particular sound system?
We were distributed by Toolbox. We produced our first vinyl in Grenoble with CORE-TEX labs. As we were downtempo, we used to play in teknivals in the early morning, in the after party. We weren't affiliated with any particular sound-system, but we often played with the English Hekate: a great sound-system, for the vibe, the quality of the sound, the experimental tendency. We were also performing on more official stages during the period, big venues, festivals. I took part in a young challenge at the time: a scheme to set up an experimental studio, which I got, and I was able to equip myself with speakers, a mixer, an Akai MPC 60 sampler. I got into the world of samplers, remixes and sound manipulation. We also sometimes simply played the bass-guitar-drums trio, inviting performers, poets... It was a beautiful collective, because we opened up the forms a lot. The field of sound and human experimentation has always interested me more than the group format, even if it is also beautiful in itself. This period lasted from 1997 to 2003. I also participated in the Planet Generation Global Move collective for a few vinyls.

You then studied electroacoustic music at the Paris Conservatory in the early 2000s, which allowed you to work on the "musicality of recorded sounds". What led you down this more "academic" path, and a little later?
After this nine-year period with Mafucage, I wanted to go deeper, to know where the origins of our work came from, and to turn towards a more "learned" knowledge of sound practice since Schaeffer, even if there had been other experiments before him. I wanted to go further into the manipulation of recorded sound. I found my happiness in Gino Favotti's class at the conservatory in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. It was a very free class that suited me well. It was attended by directors, poets, electro-acousticians: a variety of backgrounds that offered a real place for artistic exchange. We played our pieces in an acousmonium, which was a delicious moment. This loudspeaker orchestra fascinated me by its beauty, which is far superior to that of simple multiphonics. It is a real instrument. I dropped the bass at that time. I was attending the class as a sound manipulator, in order to increase my vocabulary in sound composition. Like any rock band, Mafucage clashed. I had given a lot, I needed to do something else, in the field of pure sound. I received a commission from the GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales). This allowed me to leave the purely underground alternative scene and enter a more academic world, even if it is not completely academic. As long as the artistic expression is interesting, I am willing to experiment with different environments. Certainly the electroacoustic world, which is a branch of contemporary music, is very different from the free party world. However, I consider that pop music is also a place that favours a lot of sound, technological and technical inventions, and I don't want to separate these worlds.

Today, the borders are much more permeable, and you are a living proof of this through your journey.
Yes, I am. What interests me is the crossing. The difference with the world of pop and folk music in general (I include traditional music) is that there is no or very little writing and that we don't work with scores. This is where the clashes between these worlds take place: writing versus orality. But a large number of composers, including myself, are opening up ways of writing between improvisation and notation.  

This moment also corresponds to the beginning of your travels in India, where you have been going regularly since 2003 to study traditional Hindustani music and the art of ragas. Why this interest for this country and for this music in particular?
I went there with the Planet Generation Global Move collective in 2000, to play a live electro show between Goa and Bombay. We were told about the master Pandit Hindraj Divekar in Pune, who played a four-stringed instrument, the rudra veena, which is very similar to the bass. We went to meet him and I fell in love with the instrument. After a series of recordings, I matured this discovery. Three years later, when Mafucage broke up, I felt the need to meet him again. A cycle is coming to an end and life needs to be recharged, a new breath, which I found both in the electroacoustic class and in a new instrumental practice inspired by India, pushed to its extreme slowness. I went there with a Fender Precision fretless bass, as I had changed instruments in the meantime. I was discovering new possibilities regarding microtonality and glissandos. The rudra veena is the ancestor of the bass, with its four strings. It is considered the oldest and most sacred instrument in Indian music. It is the instrument of the meditators. It has an extreme resonance of seventeen seconds. A lot happens within a note: passing notes, filtering effects, pitch, all within the resonance, without any new attack of the sound. Its low frequencies are very interesting, amplified by two large resonators that consist of two dried pumpkins. The ear is glued to the instrument and only picks up the low and round sound that rotates, passes through the neck and returns from one resonator to the other, on the principle of an infinite movement, in the shape of a figure 8.

And all this is done, I think, at a very low volume. It's really the instrumentalist who receives the most sound effects.
Absolutely. When I was working with Pandit, I made him louder, because I couldn't hear him enough. I fitted him with a pick-up like a bass, with an amplifier. It is said that this meditation instrument was played in cellars and caves, naturally resonant atmospheres, at a time when silence was very high. This low volume explains why it was disappearing. Today it is enjoying a revival. It is an instrument with magical properties, a yogi's instrument, which above all accompanies the meditation of the musician himself. It is said to have been given directly by Shiva to mankind, and to possess the forms of Parvati, who represents the concept of energy. Its function changed when it was found in the palaces, where it accompanied the dhrupad, the oldest form of Indian singing. The strings drawn from the rudra veena are indeed very close to the vocal chord. Its sound properties are incredible! It is not a virtuoso and brilliant instrument like the sitar. It doesn't make a lot of notes, but it's inside that some very interesting things happen. I didn't learn the rudra veena. I would sit opposite Pandit with my bass and learn the ragas the Indian way. I insisted on keeping my own instrument. It wasn't my path, I was already in my thirties and I preferred to work on the meeting of these two instruments rather than learning a new one. 

So it was this encounter that gave you the idea for a bass solo?
There are two things that came into play: first of all, I realised that the bass is a very beautiful melodic instrument, especially the fretless one; then the idea of the hologram when listening to the rudra veena, this incredible richness inside the sound that seems to reconstitute the ear, to bring a presence, to give us something unheard of, but which is not there. I made the connection with the question of unheard sounds in electroacoustics. It took a long time, I produced a lot of radio pieces during this period and carried out other projects. I came up with the idea of the augmented bass solo, with electronics allowing me to get out of the rather narrow spectrum of the bass and to open it up and down. For me, instrumental practice allows for a richness of nuance, and electroacoustic practice for a richness of spectrum. The idea was to combine the two.

You say that this discovery brought you a new apprehension of music, new writing processes and a way to dive into the heart of the sound to make it evolve. Can you explain this in more detail?
First of all, there is the question of extremely precise listening to the interior of the sound, which is similar to what we experiment with in electroacoustics. We concentrate on micro-tonality. Indian scales are based on twenty-two microtones (shrutis). There are more in reality, with passing notes and the way certain notes are played in certain modes, over or under. In India, sound is considered to have created the universe, through the primordial vibration of the om. It is said that sages hear all sounds. In fact, we know scientifically that everything is indeed vibration, and this question has become crucial for me, at the centre of my reflection. This spiritual dimension that India brings to me poetises a physical phenomenon that we in the West are familiar with. I like to think about the links between these myths and the scientific theories that measure the resonance of the sound of the big bang. The other contribution is that of the ragas. The raga is very close to modal jazz, which I had practised. There is a dialogue between fixed forms and total improvisation. And ragas are linked to nature, to the cycle of the seasons, to the cycle of the day. Everything is linked in India, the food, the instruments... For example, the drone of the tanpura will evolve with the day. The musician tunes his instrument at daybreak. Then the temperature changes, and the second raga is slightly lower. In the same way, in electroacoustics, we become aware of the resonance of a space. Nothing is an isolated phenomenon. All these things feed my music, they live in me.

You tell me that all this took time to mature. When was your first bass solo?
I've been making solos with effects pedals for the whole period, but my first Bass Holograms with an augmented bass dates from 2012, on a commission from CNCM Césaré in Reims, with a Westone bass, characterised by a very long sustain and active pickups that allow you to go into the very low and very high range. There were three layers: the instrumental playing; the electricity and microphones; and the virtual lutherie. Césaré is co-producer of the new FKBass project , started in 2017, which adds the level of control of the electronics, via sensors.

The FKBass is indeed equipped with more than forty assignable controllers driven by an internal microprocessor, some touch-sensitive, some sensor-based.
Yes, ultra-sound sensors, a gyroscope and an accelerometer on the head, screens, the lighthouse... This is one of the great questions of contemporary music: how to make electronics come alive as much as instrumental playing, and as finely as one can control an instrument by gesture.

Every controller is assignable. Do you change the assignments depending on the songs or do you stick to one system that you master for all?
The FKBass was completed at the end of 2018. Until then, I was studying, especially in India. I tried a lot of configurations for different movements. On the first solo I'm going to write, I'm going to build myself a bit more of a fixed instrument and impose some limitations on myself, to be able to get into the finesse of playing the sensors. I might allow myself two or three different configuration states depending on the movements, but I'm going to try to write something transmissible, clear and without too many changes.

When you look at a pop band, you see the drummer, the bassist, the guitarist with all their pedals, which is still manageable in terms of sound, but the keyboard player still needs his notes to find his way around on his synthesiser, to fix his memory and find his sounds. There is a paradox between the immense richness of its timbres, which seems to open up a certain freedom, and the constraint of having to find them in order to exploit them; between the direct, sensory and organic aspect of playing and the brake of technology.
This is one of the biggest challenges. With instruments like the FKBass, the sound palette is gigantic, we open up worlds. It's a big challenge to be able to let go of the computer completely. I'm not there yet. We're still in the infancy of augmented instruments. I shouldn't have to look at a computer. The day you can play a complete composition, a real one-hour solo, without getting out of your game to look at the screen and make adjustments, things will have come a long way. That's why I put so many sensors on the FKBass. It's a gamble, but it's a long process.

This is the paradox of a controller: a potentiometer, a control surface or a switch does not give a precise idea of the sound you are going to get, unlike a string, a bow or a fingerboard.
Yes, it's learning a new instrument. That's why you have to narrow down the possibilities, while keeping the richness of the sound palette: you have to learn to use them well, you mustn't doubt the gestures you are making, it must remain organic.

However, and this seems to be a significant part of the pleasure you find in it, the instrument guides you as much as you guide it, i.e. you have surprises, and they are quite beneficial to you, in a playful relationship.
Of course, it's because I like improvisation! My forms are semi-written, semi-improvised. Everything comes out of the bass, but I can have a passage based on a looper where some parameters are random. So I have to wait, listen, let myself be guided, as if I were playing with another person. This is also something that comes from India: when I play a note, I listen deeply to what is happening in the space. It guides my playing. Sometimes I feel like the captain of a big ship, I have to play with the latency, with the movements.

This overcoming of the instrument and its sounds is something I often heard when I was working on the world of tekno and free parties, as told by its musicians; but never from electro-acousticians, who instead claim control over their tools.
Absolutely. They claim this absolute control in written composition, which in my opinion is not entirely true. I'm sure that there is surprise in this field too. Brian Eno played a lot with the notion of error. American composers like John Cage thought about the question of the unexpected, the already there, the random, the game. They were much more advanced than us on these points, detaching themselves from this cerebral perspective of control. And the world of pop also brought a lot of innovation through error and chance.

What is your relationship with your instrument, the bass?
I am first and foremost a listening enthusiast. I love the bass, of course, but I would say that the ear is my second instrument, or recorder. I'm also interested in the anthropological dimension of sound, not just instrumental.

What is your relationship with technology in general?
First of all, I don't use very sophisticated technologies. It's relatively simple: I make do with analogue sensors, I'm not in virtual reality (VR) or in 3D ambisonics, I stay in stereo, I can play on a small ordinary system. I don't advocate ultra-technology, but a poetic use of the technologies that are at our disposal. It's a tool, just as we once experimented with the exquisite corpse on sheets of paper. I try to create a symbolic universe that corresponds to me and to share it, with today's tools, which it is good to appropriate. But I am also able to do my solo with my bass and three pedals. I'm not obsessed with technology, I'm a human being and I think about the music above all.

Between December 2019 and February 2020, you will do a residency in Pune, India, with the support of the French Institute and with the sound engineer Robert Piechaud, from Ircam, in order to model certain characteristics of the rudra veena for your FKBass. As Pandit Hindraj Divekar passed away in May 2019, you are meeting several other masters of the instrument. Why such an interest in modelling the characteristics of an existing instrument, when with the FKBass you could embrace an infinite range of possibilities?
The concept of the FKBass comes from the rudra veena. The aim is not to make the bass sound like this instrument, which would be impossible. It is an opportunity to approach it in a more scientific and technical way. The rudra veena is at the same time very traditional, but also very contemporary in the way it is heard. I am convinced that everything that is profoundly archaic meets at the other end of the circle with contemporaneity. I wanted to push the question of dissonances and analogies, what can separate and what can bring together these two worlds? It doesn't seem paradoxical to me because I don't want to create a virtual rudra veena, but to add a module that sounds more acoustic to an electric, microphonic instrument, and capable of generating digital transformations. We have added, for example, simulations of string vibrations by sympathy. I'm trying to get closer to the playing process, not to a sound model, which would be impossible to achieve.

You never wanted to directly increase a rudra veena rather than your bass. Why not?
I have a lot of respect for the men and women who play it today and carry on the tradition. It would be up to them to consider this work if they wanted to do it, it's not my path.

What is the purpose of FKBass Solo I, the piece you will be premiering at Musique Action on October 1?
This piece is a continuation of the series of studies I did in India on the FKBass. I'm currently composing it, and at the moment I'm doing what I always do: I'm making very written large forms with different intensities, movements, passages, transitions and routes; and the improvisation is within this path. It's a mixed form. For example, if I write the idea of a large mass that moves towards a rarefaction at the note, everything is detailed in the writing of the movement, but the interpretation is entirely free. This is the idea of the Indian raga, which is both fixed and very improvised.

I also find an idea that Yann Gourdon developed in an interview, concerning the steps of the bourrée, between an imposed figure and freedom.
That's what's beautiful about the tradition: being guided and being free.

When I listen to the Bass Holograms projects or the FKBass studies, beyond the Indian influence, I can't help but hear a rock base, especially in the bass sounds, but also in the use of distortion and certain repetitive structures. Am I right?
Yes, you are. I was very influenced by industrial music. I clearly come from urban electric music. The bass is an instrument that is part of the rock/pop culture, and that's where I come from. It's one of my undeniable influences.

Interview by Guillaume Kosmicki


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