Name: Olivia Louvel
Nationality: French - British
Occupation: Composer, Sound Artist
Current Release: ‘SculptOr’ on Catwerk
Recommendations: I recently discovered the artist Gego, known for her geometric and kinetic sculptures, see for instance, 'Reticulárea (ambientación)' 1969.
A book edited by Julia Eckhardt, ‘Grounds for Possible Music: On Gender, Voice, Language, and Identity’ (2018) with contributions from AGF, Cathy Lane amongst other fascinating sound artists.
If you enjoyed this interview with Olivia Louvel, find out more about her work on her excellent website.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
When growing up in suburban Paris, I used to make my own mix tapes from cassettes. My father was working for Agfa-Gevaert, so I had plenty of cassettes at home. As a teenager, I joined a choir.
So, I guess my first introduction to sound was from home-made cassettes and voice. I then turned into contemporary vocal music, discovering Meredith Monk - very inspirational - Cathy Berberian … And in 1993, Bjork’s debut had a substantial impact.
Circa 2001, I began constructing fragile sound objects on mini discs, from ambient sounds and my voice - rather embarrassing. I think this stems from my experimentation with paint in 2000, painting liberated my creativity. I connected with my inner world, and this led me to develop these sound objects. In 2003, I purchased my first laptop, an iBook - this was a liberating game changer - and with a second-hand Mbox, I could run Pro Tools.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
My self-taught approach in operating a digital audio workstation was rather experimental back in 2003. I had no idea about time signature, grid, and my first track was a rather weird assemblage of anarchic time signatures. I knew I wanted to be able to create my own vision, produce my own ideas. So, it was pretty much a DIY ethos. My long-time partner Paul Kendall was never too far to help if I was stuck on Pro Tools - Paul was one of the first ones to have Pro Tools in the UK, at the time it was called Sound Designer.
But anyway, I wasn’t trying to emulate; I have searched for each project to develop a singular sound vocabulary, mostly from field recordings and voice processing.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Once you have familiarised yourself with the technology, the compositional challenge remains. Last year I worked with Pure Data, writing a generative patch - something I thought I could never ever do - but in the end, it’s about experimenting and working at it. Something eventually comes up.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first studio was in my tiny flat in Paris in the 11th, a one room, so tiny, but there was a cupboard, so I could record myself in it – Peter Rehberg came once with the writer Denis Cooper to record in it.
My set up hasn’t changed that much, I work mostly in the digital. I have used for nearly a decade the GRM tools, which were offered to me by Christian Zanési at the Qwartz Electronic Music Awards back in 2011. Also, I’ve been using the FabFilter plug-ins for many years. In terms of hardware, what fundamentally changed my live performance is the use of a Kaoss Pad to treat my voice live, and the addition of a couple of midi controllers to run with Ableton. I am now in control of my own effect, synchronising to my vocal performance, it is a much more intuitive live performance.
My studio is now in the loft; I call it the ‘tin foil studio’ because we’ve left the insulating material exposed. It looks more like a multidisciplinary studio as there are brushes, paint, books, notebooks … I am grateful I have this space by the sea.
A new piece of gear I’m adding is a hydrophone, which I’ve ordered from Jez Riley French, and my plan is to go more often on the beach, at low tide, to record some sounds for a new project. But my essentials are my laptop, interface and my microphone.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
The laptop is an instrument. I don’t differentiate machines from violins, both are technological instruments that need to be learned. I’m not the sort of person who wants to have plenty of plug ins or hardware, I am very minimal. My work is based on the manipulation of the recorded material, and this processing is informed by the plug-ins I use. It is an interdependent relationship! But machines are fantastic for automation.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
For instance, when I developed ‘The Whole Inside’ (2019), a generative sound mural, which was due to be reinstalled at Sonorities Festival in Belfast but because of covid - I fell ill mid-March + lockdown v1.0 - the festival was postponed. When writing the patch in Pure Data, I found out that I could be the author of much more than sounds. I could devise a system for the sounds to be diffused, a system which is not a timeline rolling from left to right as in most DAW, but a deconstructed temporal dimension in which all the sound elements are distributed randomly forever. This was a truly fascinating experience and I hope – it’s on my list of future ventures – to have the possibility of developing something else with Pure Data.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Collaborative projects are refreshing. In 2016, I was invited to take part in ‘Mean Time’ for the centenary commemoration of the Easter Rising of 1916. I composed ’25 minutes and 21 seconds’, on this idea of clawing back the lost time. Dublin Mean Time was rising 25 minutes and 21 seconds later than at Greenwich. For the broadcast on RTÉ Lyric FM, we performed at Richmond Barrack a piece all together - ten women with nearly ten laptops as I can remember. The event was curated by La Cosa Preziosa and Rachel Ní Chuinn - a very enriching adventure. But in general I am a solitary introvert composer.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I have the most energy in the morning. Last Summer, I was finalising ‘The Sculptor Speaks’, the mix was very demanding - it is a 35 mn piece. I would start early as my headspace and ears are fresh, not tainted by the email to answer or anything else. So, the morning is key. To record my voice, end of the afternoon is a nice time. But nothing is fixed.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
This year, I released ‘SculptOr’ (2020), a suite of nine pieces based on the writings of British sculptor Barbara Hepworth. I started to develop this project four years ago. I collected sounds in the metal workshop at the University of Brighton and composed the first track ‘Studio’ from these field-recordings, an electro-acoustic workshop with spoken words taken from Hepworth. This was the starting point for the album.
I also used a lot of scissors sounds, I searched for all the scissors – including a pair of secateurs - I could find at home and recorded all of them. Through my research, I discovered an archival tape from 1961, ‘The Sculptor Speaks’, a tape Barbara Hepworth initially recorded for a pre-recorded talk with slides. I was thrilled to find material with her voice, as my practice is based on the manipulation of voice, so I embarked on ‘resounding’ the archival tape.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Doing and letting go of self-judgement, burst out energy, then let it rest, open another track in progress in the meantime. I often leave a session in a desolate state before returning to it. I’m not afraid of it sounding unfinished, eventually it will grow. I find that time is a major player. It gives perspective.
As for strategy, often when I nap, lay down a little, I get an idea for sounds, words, or solving an issue. Salvador Dali was known to rest in a big chair holding a spoon, with a recipient at the end, and the moment the spoon would drop from the noise he would wake up, this is the exact moment where you let go, you are refreshed, reconnected with yourself.
But, yes distractions are plentiful – even though I hardly see anyone these days - 2020 new status - the stream of news must be shut down.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
I rarely think about the performance aspect when assembling new material. Often I find my live versions more exciting, certainly for ‘Data Regina’ (2017), which I performed quite a lot since its release. The last show I did was at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff last March.
I feel that certainly the voice performance is more vibrant in the context of an audience. Also, I can revisit my audio stems, injecting new effects, and it is refreshing.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I collect field recordings and design a vocabulary. Sound is music, noise is music – the Art of Noise, Russolo. Each sound has its own musicality, the metal scraping, the scissor cutting, the door creaking … Each of these sounds is unique. As opposed to a preset in Logic. I come from a lineage of musique concrète - I can say that now after studying(!) I manipulate the recorded material. And so, we have stepped away from the composer writing symbols on paper. Edgar Varèse called himself a sound organiser, I am too. Sound organisation is composition.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Sound is visual, I need to see it. And when I start developing a sound project I often develop visual ideas, doodles, colors … That’s why sound art practices appeal to me, when sound is at the border of another sense - visual or tactile.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Art as “a purpose in its own right” can be a refusal to operate in the common spatio-temporal dimension, an aesthetic proposal of some sort, and that is already a ‘political’ statement in itself.
The more I’ve been developing my practice, the more I’ve looked to construct sound projects that situate themselves in a contemporary discourse. I feel this shift towards sound art happened more or less in the last 7 years.
Circa 2014, I began to develop ‘Data Regina’ (2017) on the writings of Mary Queen of Scots, and the online platform dataregina.com is showing political statements by protestant John Knox against her and women in power. In 2016, I contributed to the Rojava campaign curated by AGF and female:pressure with my audiovisual work ‘Afraid of Women’, a cut-up using sampled sounds and re-fragmented images sourced from the Internet. The piece was an attempt to highlight the formidable solidarity and courage of these women in Rojava fighting on the front line against the Islamic State.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
I would like to play with a software in which I draw, and my samples sound are triggered accordingly. Live coding is very exciting.