Meryll AmpeModelling the immaterial

Interviews 06.10.2021

Trained as a sculptor, Méryll Ampe has transposed her research on matter and form into the field of sound, starting with recordings from her immediate environment. And by taking advantage of the vibratory potential of sound to better sculpt space, particularly during her live performances.

Originally, Méryll Ampe (born in 1984) was a woodcarver. After graduating from the Ecole Boulle, she went to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Cergy, renowned for the importance it gives to sound art. If her plastic work speaks of sound without ever giving anything to hear, the sound work she developed there speaks of sculpture in an immaterial way. This "musical" activity, which now occupies the major part of her life as an artist, was first developed with a Zoom recorder and a microphone - and then, of course, with good software: field recording has always been the original, primary material. The sounds of reality, summarily processed, have forged the grammar of a music nourished ("informed") by the great works of musique concrète.

This sculptural approach to sound is also coupled with work on its vibratory force, its physical power, its projection in space: "I try to amplify the vibrations to play in a physical way, that is to say that the body is impacted by the vibratory state of the space. These vibratory states provoke images, emotions, abstract feelings. Sound can project forward like an energetic, vital movement...", she recently explained to artist Lauren Tortil for her [woːks] series of online and musical encounters around sound art. Sculpture too engages the body, after all. So live performances are an essential part of her practice, of this music that is both horizontal and vertical, meditative and cathartic, inner and physical. Although she likes to quote Luc Ferrari and William Basinski, Méryll Ampe listened to a lot of "rock" (Led Zeppelin as well as Durutti Column, Silver Apples or Bauhaus) before techno (Plastikman, Peaches, Mika Vaino, Pantha du Prince) and clubbing triggered her desire to make it: "Moreover, rhythm is coming back into my music these days", she notes. And it is hardly surprising that she has made lucha libre, that Mexican variant of wrestling, spectacular to the point of upsetting all the senses, the subject of her most ambitious project to date: a sound installation in which the documentary, the real itself, would become a material to be handled and kneaded, a cinema for the ear that takes the listener, she tells us, into a "subjective, lyrical" trip...

If you learned the cello and the drums in your teens, it was at the fine arts school in Cergy that you switched to computer science and musical electronics. Is it at this period that you discovered field recording?
Yes. My teachers - my teacher at the conservatory and my sound art teacher at Cergy - had given us a microphone and a recorder, with which we had to propose a piece. It was mostly urban noise. I have the impression that field recording was the vector that really led me to be more into music. It was this practice, by allowing me to gather the material of everyday life - whether it was my drums or my parents' boiler room - and to compose from that, that led me to electroacoustics. Although I had heard pieces by Denis Dufour and Pierre Henry, I was not at all familiar with this kind of music before coming to Cergy. My initial objective was to combine sculpture and sound. And then, in the end, after two years, I switched completely to immateriality. 

Do you have a favourite sound source or recording equipment?
I must admit that for a long time I had a weakness for all industrial machines. But it's true that when I was a student, not having a lot of money, I started with things that were in my room, around me. It can be microscopic as well as macro - I can record a large shell in my bathroom or in my bathtub, for example - and it's spread out over time: I test things, as if the object that I move becomes an instrument. Maybe we lose a bit of the notion of "terrain" inherent in field recording, because I put myself in a situation in my everyday space, I use objects that are around me... Later, I went to record things like the atmosphere of the night in the forest, a bit like Luc Ferrari, which I love. But it's still simple stuff.
Also, as I don't have any great microphones, it was mainly stereo, with an amplifier or with a Zoom recorder: the Zoom allows you to draw very quickly, even if it means having a bit of parasite or dynamic jumps when you move - some sort of strange tension with the grain, accidents that sometimes produce interesting things... For me, field recording is linked to waiting: I record for 15 minutes and then I try to find the rare pearl in those 15 minutes.

Until you added the synthesizer, field recording was the main material, the basis of your sound work...
Totally. The raw material was really concrete sounds, everyday material, sometimes very raw, treated in a really simple way: adding gain, maybe a bit of overdrive, equaliser... I proceed rather by superimpositions, by layers. Later, when I finally bought my first little synth, I got interested in electronic energy. But I always come back to field recordings, I regularly reinject them into my music, sometimes as memories, almost psychoacoustic elements... On the other hand, it's certain that I don't do the same work as Chris Watson, Thomas Tilly or Julie Rousse, for example.

For a long time, your sound work has been conceived more for live performance than for recording...
It's true that my research, whether in the field or in the studio, is often first thought of for the live environment. Even if I work more and more with filmmakers or choreographers, so on fixed compositions. On the other hand, I use very little sound in my plastic, "physical" work: it's more about the volume of sound, silence, the way in which we see sound in relief, but without involving it.

Is the physicality of sound something that is essential to you?
Clearly. It's true that I first perceive the medium of sound in terms of density, of mass. What I'm looking for more in terms of physical, material things is a relationship to vibrations, energy, perspectives, dynamics, horizontality and verticality that brings me back to sculpture. I see an analogy with what I did before as a woodcarver - my first training... Similarly, as a performer, I design most of my concerts according to the venue, the sound system, the acoustic impression. I like to play with things that are sometimes quite massive, so I need to know a bit about the place, the way the space resonates and responds, to know what tool to use to highlight them, to play with certain depths, to sculpt, to carve out the sound a bit more, to model it live. Where some would speak of frequency, timbre, tessitura, I see volumes, forms, states, different moments...

The opposition between figuration (or naturalism) and abstraction (since you are not interested in field recordings for what they represent, you distort them to the point of making them unrecognizable) is another fertile tension at work in your work. In this respect, your installation Lucha libre stands out a little by its almost documentary side...
It's true that when I discovered lucha libre (the Mexican variant of wrestling, editor's note) in Mexico, I was impressed, immersed in something I didn't know, it gave me a lot of desire, and I immediately wanted to come back and capture these sounds. After a lot of field recording in Mexico, Lucha libre gave rise to two parts, two formats that don't talk about the same thing. First, there was a fifty-minute radio piece, which I started working on at the beginning of 2018, shortly after my return from Mexico: it's a sort of audio diary, with a very intimate dimension (I tell a little about my life, I talk about the earthquake, my doubts, I try to inject some personal everyday life). The installation, on the other hand, which required an enormous amount of production work over several years, leaves the known world to go into another world, towards something abstract and noisy. The composition lasts 24 minutes, we start from a moment of everyday life and little by little, it switches to an imaginary universe, even if it is sometimes referenced (certain sounds can for example evoke video games) and even if there are always moments when reality returns, including towards the end, when we start to lose track of where we are... There are no images, just light, sound and smoke, and the sound takes on a very important role: It's an almost cinematographic game to take the audience elsewhere, to something totally subjective, lyrical, where everyone can see what they want. It's really a trip.

What place does sculpture have in your practice today? What makes you decide to produce a sculpture rather than sound?
At the moment, I'm very caught up in sound, composition, live performances, research with my machines, "commissions" for live performances or for the cinema. I do far fewer pieces on one material or one support because I have far less time for it. But sometimes, during group exhibitions, I am asked to produce something, a sort of mini-edition - a drawing for example - always based on sound. I'm soon to take part in a group exhibition at the Atelier W, in Pantin, on the theme of the staircase, and I'm thinking about what I'm going to produce... I'm also in residence at the Station, in Aubervilliers, where I'm working on a sound installation based on the hut: I'm going to build a hut - a real hut made of branches and logs, like in the forest - in which there'll be a mini-studio where you can compose.
Having said that, my work on sound always has a graphic dimension. As soon as I have a new project, I make notes, I draw, I make scores with colour, pens, felt-tip pens, to see the energy I want to transmit in the composition. I always have notebooks, A3 sheets, so that I can come back to them, and also so that I can explain my projects to people.

David Sanson

In concert in Paris on 14/10 (duet with Elizabeth Saint-Jalmes), 23/10 (trio Be My Ghost) and 19/11, in Brussels on 18/11 and in Lyon on 21/11.


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