The sound poems of Anne-James Chaton

Interviews 25.01.2023

Poet, writer, performer, visual artist, Anne-James Chaton is all of these. But the diversity of these practices, which may have traced parallel paths over the years, masks what has linked them since the late 1990s and which is at the core of her protean work: the triangle of text-sound-performance. From his first books published by Al Dante - Events 99 in 2001 and Self-portraits in 2003, accompanied by CDs - Anne-James Chaton does not write without saying and does not say without performing, recording and manipulating. For him, poetry is inseparable from voice and sound, even when it seems to take the form of a narrative, as in his last two books published by P.O.L., Vie et mort de l'homme qui tua John F. Kennedy (2020) and Populations (2022). We look back with him on two decades of textual and sound art.

Anne-JamesI propose to start in the middle. In 2008, you published a book-CD, Questio de Dido, which is both a Radio Creation Workshop, commissioned by France Culture, and a text made of reported voices whose object, both omnipresent and evanescent, is Virgil's Aeneid. From the point of view of writing, both textual and sonic, this book breaks with your previous work, which was centered on your voice and whose sound work was an assumed lo-fi*.
Questio de Dido is indeed a pivotal book. It is about the only time I have ever practiced what could resemble a sound writing, with a dramaturgy and a compositional work over the long term. This is due to the format of course, the piece was a commission, which went hand in hand with a certain number of constraints. But it is also a piece that allowed me to return to a form of prose. I'm keeping the emblematic material of my beginnings, that of poor writing, cash register receipts and shopping notes, but I'm going to start substituting these raw texts with classical ones. It's a bit like replacing a sales slip with The Aeneid. The writing canvas is almost identical. It's a question of matter more than a question of language: I change the substrate. Can a sales receipt be poetry? I think so. If I treated Virgil in the same way, would I get the same kind of result? No, it wasn't, but that's what drove my writing forward. What opened up was the possibility of prose. It was a very simple prose, that of the subject-verb-complement, but the leap was decisive. I went from the racing note to the ordinary sentence, to a third grade grammar, a bit like relearning to write. A structure that I will take up and develop in Elle regarde passer les gens (Verticales, 2016) where I substitute Virgil with biographies of 20th century women that I weave together.

In Questio de Dido, the same thing happened in terms of sound writing. Before, I only wrote my voice: I recorded it and I manipulated it, I saturated it, I compressed it and I put it in a loop. In this piece, there is a lot of work on the depth, the ambiences, the multi-socket, on different types of microphones, etc. It was the first time that I recorded other voices than mine and therefore other timbres, most of them in situ, in Naples. I have a funny memory about this. I wanted to work on the San Paolo stadium, which is now called Maradona - they renamed it. I went to the stadium with a Tascam DAT, which is what I had at the time, and a shotgun mic with a giant windshield. It was the first time I had been to a soccer stadium. I found myself in one of the curves, which in Italy is called the Curva, where the ultras gather. They were all dressed in black and I, with my hot microphone, looked like the Pink Panther. I left pretty quickly. I went across the street to catch their voices on the cannon. It was very beautiful because they don't watch the game, they spend their time singing neo-melodic songs, a very fashionable genre in Naples. " In un mondo che non ci vuole più, canterò di più, canterò di più ". Which means: "In a world that does not love us, I will sing louder, I will sing louder". Tough guys with a soft heart, as they say here!

Questio de Dido, Al Dante, 2008

In any case, Questio de Dido is a work that allowed me to switch to other forms of literary and sound writing. To take a more recent example, in the Lives of illustrious men (Al Dante, 2011), in which I rewrite a number of classical texts dedicated to the lives of famous men such as Jesus or Freud, some "lives" have given rise to a sound writing work - a CD accompanies the book. For each of them, I worked with a different type of microphone. Thus, for the life of Tiberius, in which I rewrote the text dedicated to him by Suetonius in the Life of the Twelve Caesars, I used a head-microphone, binaural, but working on the feedback, which is a very improper use of this type of microphone known for their fidelity. What interested me was the sound material of the voice as much as the writing itself.

Life of illustrious men, Tiberius

Your first works and performances in the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as Événements 99 (2001, Al Dante) and Autoportraits (2003, Al Dante), are part of the legacy of what is known as sound poetry, a practice that has its roots in the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century but whose two pioneering figures in France were Henri Chopin (1922-2008) and Bernard Heidsieck (1928-2014). Do you still claim this heritage?
I don't claim it at first sight, but it is real. What I still share with most sound poets today is my lack of knowledge of MAO** composition tools. It is what makes the singularity and the nature of this poetic writing there. We appropriate and manipulate tools which are heterogeneous or foreign to us, of which we do not have the know-how. What interests me, because it is there that something arises in terms of writing, it is this moment when, using a software, a type of microphone or a recorder, I manipulate them in an erroneous, inadequate way. I use the potentialities by means of writing templates that come from literature. It's like adjusting the parameters of a delay or a reverb by applying the rules of composition of an alexandrine or a sonnet. It generates accidents and something like a form impossible to predict. The writing starts there. I have sometimes wanted to go towards what I imagined to be the way a real musician would work, a musician who would have a real knowledge of his tool, and each time it gave flat and disappointing results. I had to come to terms with the fact that what I'm interested in is this craft.

How do the two forms of writing, textual and sonic, relate to each other in your practice?
I always follow the same path. It goes from text to sound, with back and forth. It starts with the written word and then comes the sound that this writing generates. But my work remains very far from what would be the work of a musician. What interests me in sound is the spectrum, its visible face, its image. That's how I compose, from what, in the field of writing, one would call a graph. The spectrum of the sound interests me more than the sound itself. Once the sound is produced, it generates rewriting and so on. It goes on like that, by back and forth, by trial and error. These are graphies that are at work, in poetic as well as sound terms. In the whole series of Events, I start from the spectrum, from the image of the sound. This practice obviously supposes the computer. I have been working on the Ableton Live software for many years. But I started with audio tapes. With the computer, I moved on to other types of accidents. My use of Live is very basic. I don't want to become a master of the tool.

Your work, both sound and text, is inseparable from your performance practice. Was this interplay between sound, text and performance present from the beginning?
The text-sound-performance triad is original. It was my encounter with Bernard Heidsieck, Henri Chopin and the entire sound poetry movement that made me understand this obvious fact: that my entire work consisted of the articulation of these three dimensions. From the start, I write knowing that it will be said. It is the combination of the textual score, the sound score and the way I deliver the text that defines my work. From this point of view, the encounter with sound poetry was decisive, physical even, when I attended the first reading of Vaduz by Bernard Heidsieck. That must have been in 1996 or 1997. However, I know the limits of the field of what is called performance, and this comes, in my opinion, from the literary origin of my work. I have been in a situation of confrontation. For example, on the few rare occasions when I have been put in a position to improvise with musicians. There is a latency in the writing that prevents me from entering into a fruitful dialogue with them. It's a question of speed. Improvisation goes too fast for me. My instrument - writing, the voice and their relationship - implies a time that prevents improvisation. I don't come from oral poetry or slam poetry, two scenes that both have the capacity and the strength to remodel their language in situ. For me it's impossible. There is a writing below the performance that produces all sorts of latencies. I've never gotten out of these improvisational situations well.

You have collaborated a lot with two musicians, Andy Moorguitarist in the collective The Ex, and Carsten Nicolaian electronic musician also known as Alva Noto. How do you work with them?
Through dialogue, which almost always revolves around writing issues. It's a four or six-handed composition. The objects we produce take a certain amount of time to write and develop. That doesn't mean that nothing is done on stage. In the beginning, with Andy Moor, we could arrange raw materials in a concert situation. But there were subtexts and phrasings that pre-existed the work of arrangement. In a concert with Andy, a movement is always possible. I'm not a musician, let alone a singer, and I don't want to be. I don't want to have a memorial relationship to the writing. Having the text in front of me is a way of telling the audience that I am there as a sound poet and not as a musician. But with Andy, I can place my voice in different places and he has this ability to listen that makes small variations possible. With Carsten Nicolai, it's impossible, you have to be on the click. It's not at all the same relationship to the concert and to the writing. When I do concerts with him, I need a teleprompter, because everything is timed to the second. It follows that the tension in the body is not at all the same with Andy or Carsten. A concert with Carsten requires a fixed position, a minimum of movement and a precise listening. The duet with Andy is more free. I can move around, interact in a way that generates movement myself during the live performance.

When we compose an album together, like Decade (Raster-Noton, 2012) in trio, or Alphabet (Noton, 2019), with two hands, there is first a period of exchange of materials, either materials that will be used for the writing, or sound materials, voices, recordings, etc., it is very diverse. A data base is gradually built up which will serve as a basis for the work. After that, on my side, I rather manipulate everything that is of a textual nature while Andy or Carsten, on theirs, work on sound. But there is no prohibition. Carsten can give me things to write and I can tell Andy to go listen to this or that music. There is a back and forth on the sound and musical materials and on the textual materials. The piece is written like that, at a distance. We send each other the written texts and the musical compositions, the music can make the text move and vice versa. The last phase takes place in the studio: we record the voices and the music and we mix them together. As we are a slow maturing group, it takes us each time three four years to make an album. This also gives us time to tour. The material on the album is played live before finding its final form in the studio.

How is your sound work, performances and albums, received? One can hear sound poetry but one can also hear music. In your practice, the border between the two is sometimes very blurred.
It's a fascinating question. This is clear in some of the Events. They are made only of texts and voices but the sound work can let believe that there are arrangements and instruments. There is a becoming of music in this sound poetry that is inseparable from the work done on the voice, which is why I said at the beginning of our interview that I no longer "claim" the term sound poetry. In order for this aspect to be perceived, I have stopped categorizing my work. This was the case, for example, with the Events 09a CD released on the electronic music label Raster-Noton in 2011. This was a decision we made together with Carsten Nicolai, who was in charge of the label. The album was not associated with any genre. It was very interesting because, depending on the country and culture, it was placed in different categories. In Southern Europe, in France, Spain, Italy, they very quickly identified the literary origin, the link with sound poetry. In Germany and Japan, it was an experimental form of electro. In North America, they also made a link with literature, but linking it either to the Beat Generation or to the Spoken Word.

I could also see this ambiguity physically. After the release of the album, we did a tour in Japan. I found myself performing in clubs in Tokyo between two and three in the morning between two electro producers. I would arrive with my lyrics, they would turn the lights back on because I needed to read and people would start dancing: there's a beat, it pulsates, they dance. It's the context that gives meaning to the object. If the same thing happens in an art center, it's not the same object anymore. And in a bookstore, it's another object. Since this experience, I have decided not to say that it is sound poetry anymore. If I announce it at once, I close the listening. There is thus indeed a musical becoming, but more on the side of the reception than of the manufacture.

Events 09, Raster Noton 2011

Most of your first publications at Al Dante took the form of CD books. Since Elle regarde passer les gens, it seems that the two practices, textual on the one hand, sound on the other, follow parallel paths: the book and the CD. Is this the effect of editorial constraints or is it an evolution of your writing?
A few years ago, I arrived at a new publishing house, P.O.L., and I quickly realized that it was going to be complicated to make CDs to accompany the books. Besides, the books I wrote after Questio de Dido obey different types of narration. They lend themselves less to a work of sound writing than to compositions for the stage. For example, after The Perugia Affair (P.O.L., 2019), I also made a proposal for a solo performance for which I worked on film music, wind noises, etc., a whole work of sound effects which then served as the basis for a stage piece that I created with the musician Manuel Coursin.

In Life and Death of the Man Who Shot John F. Kennedy (P.O.L., 2020), it is the book that is the sound. The basis of the writing is a sound material: the minutes of the testimonies collected by the Warren Commission, the audio recordings having been then transcribed. This is what generates the writing of the book. It begins with a classic biographical writing, in the third person, but the more we progress in the book, the more important the sound source will become. At the end, if I may say so, the book becomes entirely sonorous: there are only voices, a dialogue whose elements are taken from the minutes of the trial. The sound carries the writing and transforms it until it becomes the whole book. It is no longer the materiality of the sound and the voice that guides the work as in my first books, it is the orality, the rhythm and the intonations of the spoken voice.

The question of orality has always been present in your work, not only in the sense of the oral passage of written texts, but also of the oral character of the writing itself, which is often built around voices, real or constructed. How do you articulate these two dimensions ?
the time of the receipts, I was told that my way of reading was very monotonous and litanic. But it was not my decision to read like that, it was imposed on me by the nature of the document. You can't intone a receipt, it's too cut up, there's no detectable rhythm. When, in Populations (P.O.L., 2022), I rewrite Proust or Heidegger, it is their text, the language of each of these authors that will generate the phrasing. Proustian prose has this very slow and very long phrasing. It does not allow the same kind of freedom as a text like Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. The freedom is twofold, it's both the freedom of the selections I make from the original text and the freedom to return to a form of prose. But the process remains the same. I start with a document, the minutes of a trial, cash register receipts, À la recherche du temps perdu, Être et temps. I start with a writing reading. For example, I leaf through Being and Time and pick out all the occurrences of the word " Dasein ", all the passages where the word appears. This generates a first textual mass that I then put into prose. My writing is made of these three moments: reading, canvas, prose.

Isn't what we find in these two related practices, writing and performance, a certain phrasing, as much in the sense of the performed reading of texts as in the way of constructing sentences and placing them on the page?
My phrasing is a bit aberrant. But I've always had it. I remember very well when I first became aware of it. When I met Andy Moor, I was giving the Events at Density, a festival of experimental and improvised music in Fresnes-en-Woëvre, in the Meuse. It was in 2001. Andy was performing there with The Ex. After the performance, they came to me and asked me to be the first part of The Ex. That's how the story started. I opened for the band for a few years, which was pretty crazy. And then after a while, Andy and I were thinking about a duo project. That's when he said to me, "Your Events, they're in eleven feet. And if you write like that with me, I can never keep up with you." It was when he told me this that I realized how irregular my poetic phrasing was. In Populations, it can be seven syllables then twelve then nine. It's a question of reading rhythm, but it's also a visual question. The text I write, I write it as I would like to read it and as I would like to see it on the page. For example, in the text I'm writing right now, I skip the commas at the end of the line. They are grammatically necessary, but in terms of rhythm and spelling, they don't fit. For the writing of Populations, I had to finish the book directly on P.O.L.'s InDesign file. So it is partly the characteristics of the books of the publishing house's fiction collection - format, typography, font size - that have decided certain phrasings.

One of your first sound writing gestures was the loop. You sample and repeat. This process can be compared to the poetic process of the list, which you have also used a lot. How do you relate the two?
Repetition is consubstantial with poetry, but it can take all sorts of forms. For me, it took the form of the loop, before taking the form of the list. It is an extremely compressed repetition, close to the drone. It is the machine that allows this. If I had fun doing it orally, it wouldn't work, it wouldn't generate that effect. The machine compression is the generation of ghost words. When we listen to a word repeated indefinitely, the mind ends up being entertained, tired or bored, and it is at this point that the variation appears, but also the possibility of getting out and coming back to it. The looping is what guides my writing since the beginning.

I think it's a question of the times and the machines available. Heidsieck and Chopin worked on magnetic tape, which offered them a certain spectrum of possibilities. On Live, the spectrum changes in nature. I don't use the same machine. But the gesture is similar. My first pieces in the early 1990s, I made them on audio tape. But the horizon of possibility for these pieces was already the computer, the possibility of having one and using it to compose.  

This practice of repetition is inseparable from your tendency to saturate and distort. Why did you have to saturate and distort the sounds?
At the time, the time of the first Events, I used lo-fi microphones, precisely because it created this saturation effect in the sound. And behind that I added a MiniDisc. The combination of these microphones and the MD created saturation and compression in the sound. This determined the sound and the beat. A microphone that was too precise would have produced a sound that was too clean and would have 1) complicated the appearance of the rhythm and 2) abolished the effect of hearing something other than the recorded phrase - for example "Barack Obama" in one of the pieces ofEvents 09 - noises, distortions, everything that makes you forget the meaning of the recorded words to discover others. What opens up is the possibility of a variation in meaning. I look for the same kind of effect with repetition. The fatigue or boredom it generates makes the mind wander, makes it hear differently, forces it to associate, to daydream, to create new, unexpected, accidental meanings. And then this low-fi composition material seemed to me just right with regard to the writing materials I was dealing with. Low-fi and poor writing from a cash register, it goes together very well. Or, a more prosaic reason, I was younger and especially without a penny! Now I'm not so young, famous and rich thanks to sound poetry: it's Ableton Live and Neumann!

Alphabet, QU-SO, Album N°47 with Anne-James Chaton & Alva Noto, Noton 2019

Interview by Bastien Gallet

*Lo-fi (abr. of low-fidelity) is a term that appeared in the late 1980s in the United States to designate certain underground bands or musicians who adopted primitive recording methods to produce a "dirty" sound, deliberately opposed to sounds considered aseptic.
** Computer-Assisted Music

Photo article © Andy Moor