It is an honor to present this extended conversation with Félicia Atkinson, whose latest record, The Flower and The Vessel, has just been released on Shelter Press. We discuss her multifaceted art practices, her musical formation, the importance of running an independent press, and the power inherent in stones.
Sound Propositions is an ongoing, semi-regular series of conversations with artists exploring their creative practices and individual aesthetics, conceived of as a counter-narrative to a dominant trend in music journalism which fetishizes equipment and new technologies. Rather than writing copy that can just as easily have come from a press release or a consumer electronics catalog, this series tries to take the emphasis away from the ‘what’ and shine light on the ‘how’ and ‘why.’ You can find the previous fifteen conversations, as well as additional articles and features, here.
I haven’t published a new written installment of Sound Propositions since my conversation with Rutger Zuydervelt in January, because I’ve been hard at work on ‘season one’ of the SP podcast. (Listen here or wherever you get podcasts.) The eighth episode will be out next week, with a few more to follow before taking a little hiatus. If you have been enjoying these features and the podcast, please consider supporting Sound Propositions on Patreon. One of the rewards is access to vocal-free versions of the episodes, that is, more traditional mixes, as well as other benefits for higher tiers of support, including custom made mixes, soundscapes, and collages. But even $1/month would be much appreciated. Thank you.
Everything is gestation and then birthing.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Patience dans l’azur!
Chaque atome de silence
Est la chance d’un fruit mûr!
And in that loss a self-effacing tree,
Color of context, imperceptibly
Rustling with its angel, turns the waste
To shade and fiber, milk and memory.
As above, so below.
We at A Closer Listen have been big admirers of Félicia Atkinson (b. 1981) since she was releasing music under the moniker Je Suis Le petit Chevalier, a project we documented over at The Site Before as well as in our early years. Hand in Hand (2017) and Coyotes (2018) each impressed us enough to make multiple appearances on our end of year lists, and a pair of collaborative records with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma cemented her reputation as an artist not to miss. Whereas Hand in Hand was rock and body and Coyotes driving music, both inspired by the desert landscapes Atkinson finds so enchanting, The Flower and The Vessel is inspired by ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. Her instrumental palette has not changed very much, but there is a distinct shift in tone and structure that only reveals its subtle beauties with careful attention.
The title of Atkinson’s latest work invokes the old distinction between matter and form, between the content and the container. We began our correspondence last summer, and picked it up again more sporadically following the birth of her son last autumn. She describes The Flower And The Vessel as “a record not about being pregnant but a record made with pregnancy.” The state of being pregnant, gestating life within while simultaneously giving shape to an artistic work, recasts the traditional Aristotelian dichotomy in which form is something imposed upon matter, of the masculine shaping of the unshaped feminine. Instead, the relationship between the flower and the vessel is left much more ambiguous, it is unclear which dictates the other.
The Flower And The Vessel was mostly recorded in bits and pieces while on tour, but the end product is remarkably coherent. At just over 70 minutes (split across four sides of vinyl, but also available on CD and streaming), it is a long and decompressed affair, often sparse and drawn out. That’s not to say it drags, but on the contrary there is an unhurried patience, a calm assurance behind each track. The familiar tension inherent in Atkinson’s past works is still present—how anyone could mistake her work for ASMR is beyond me—but it is buried below the surface of what is perhaps her most melodic work to date. Drawing on childhood memories of French classical music (their affect if not, certainly, their form), The Flower And The Vessel oscillates between sparse ambient textures and bouncy melodic pulses. At times, the bass lines are downright plucky, anchoring the simple yet energetic melodies. The familiar timbre of the Rhodes and Wurlitzer recur, as do generative iPad gamelan loops, plaintive piano progressions, rumbling low tones, and high-frequency squalls.
The record begins with her voice, mostly unadorned, but as it progresses her voice is increasingly absent. This is noticeable due to the long length of so many of the 11 tracks which make up The Flower And The Vessel. Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley even contributes guitar to “Des Pierres,” the massive nearly 19-minute long closing track. While somewhat understated compared to the maximalist work he is normally associated with, here almost lyrical, the occasional sharp attack and jagged tone helps the final quarter of the album a close on a powerful note.
Je Suis Le petit Chevalier mostly eschewed the use of voice, something which, under her own name, has become a defining attribute. The use of her voice is nothing new; in fact it was her only instrument on Roman Anglais, her very first record, made with Sylvain Chauveau around 2006. Strechandrelax, a collaboration with dancer Elise Ladoué, utilized mundane objects as sound sources, paving the way for her instrumental explorations. So when she returned to her given name, foregrounding her voice on A Readymade Ceremony (2015) this was not exactly a decisive break from her previous work. Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier seemed to have been moving in this direction already: “Fever Dunes” from An Age of Wonder (2012) saw her using her voice, drifting closer to the style of her later records released under her own name. But as her first major work since retiring her nom-de-plume, A Readymade Ceremony announced a more focused and intimate approach to composition which she is still pursuing.
Moving between French and English, Atkinson’s evocative whisper often provides the conceptual link, unlocking her work as a poet and providing the key to understanding the shifting moods she creates. Her voice is surely the reason why ASMR is evoked so consistently in relation to her work. She tells me that where once she felt the need to be aggressively loud, she has since discovered “the power of hushing,” that a careful whisper close to the ear can be much more affective. But this isn’t the tingling, soothing affect of ASMR, instead it is just as likely to be deeply unsettling. The voice, she continues, is also “a feminist embodiment of a flexible force.” This embrace was something that took her time to come to. Compared with the masculine or neuter “Little Knight,” behind which she obscured her identity, her use of her own name and voice registers a confidence brought all the more into focus on an album made “with pregnancy.”
Atkinson is attracted to a wide variety of creative activities, and even if her music combines many of these interests it far from exhausts her identity as an artist. Music allows her to integrate her activities as a poet, visual artist, and publisher, but she also explores some of the same impulses with her assemblage influenced installation work. As co-curator of Shelter Press—which has established itself as a force to reckoned with, quietly releasing records (and books) from Bellows, Gabriel Saloman, Tomoko Sauvage, D/P/I, and many others—Atkinson’s solo work has continued to evolve alongside the growth of her label. It is my pleasure to highly recommend The Flower And The Vessel, and to finally share our conversation with you now. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Do you have a favorite piece of gear you’d care to talk about? With this series, I try to not fetishize equipment the way that often happens but rather to try to demystify the creative process. Some people have all this expensive stuff and produce nothing of interest, others use literal garbage or broken old things and produce beautiful soundworlds. So, not necessarily from a technical standpoint, but as a piece of equipment that you’ve developed a kind of relationship with.
I like to collect stones from my travels, especially the ones I find on empty beaches or desert. I put them in my pockets, forgetting where they come from, and then use them during my show with micro contacts. Sometimes I just hold them during shows, they don’t make any sounds but they give me energy or at least the courage sometimes to stay silent or not add anymore sound to what’s already in the air. It’s difficult sometimes not to add more, you have break yourself somehow in order to keep the focus and sharpness.
I am fascinated by this image of you deriving inspiration from these stones, even when they are not making a sound. Do you have any early memories of sound, as listener or recorder, that stand out to you, that you draw inspiration from as you do with your found stones?
I think the first sounds I enjoyed were birds in the evening and trains passing. Especially just before nightfall. I am still always moved when I hear them. I leave not far from the station in Rennes and there are birds in my garden, and every day I feel still deeply touched by those sounds.
I seem to recall you’ve spent some time in the American southwest, a residency perhaps? Were you at Taliesin West? Can you talk a bit about your interest in the region? Quite a contrast to Brittany, no?
We went to Arizona, California’s Mojave and Nevada, and also New Mexico quiet often. Each year since 2014 we do the LA Art Book Fair with Shelter Press and we manage to add some wandering time before or after, a kind of research time where I can record, see, draw,s listen, write, paint…
We actually went to Taliesin West, and the Biosphere, and Arcosanti, but also to the Meteor Crater and the Petrified Forest. Arizona is Crazy! In New Mexico we visited Georgia O Keefe’s ranch and Agnes Martin’s room in Taos. It’s very inspiring.
There are so many contrast and different energies and people out there.
My relationship to those places is very intimate and I don’t know how to speak about it rationally; but let’s say my records Hand in Hand and Coyotes are my way of explaining and sharing my relationship to those environments.
But speaking of stones, you know Brittany is very rich in dolmens, monoliths and megaliths, that are sacred stones…
May I ask about your musical formation? Did you study an instrument as a child, or play in more traditional bands in your youth? How did your current practice develop? Can you describe what led your interest in making music? What is your musical background, both in terms of playing instruments and musical “scenes” which you were shaped by?
I studied harp and piano as a kid, listening to classical music mostly, but was very bored with « solfège » and music theory.
I remember learning « Methode Martenot » [an unconventional form of music pedagogy] that was more intuitive and based on rhythm and really enjoying it.
Also, some people came to my public elementary school to present to us the Structures Baschet by the Baschet Brothers and I was fascinated by them.
I grew up in Paris and my parents were listening to music all the time. My dad, who was working as a psychiatric nurse, was listening to Robert Ashley, Stockhausen and Pierre Henry and my mom, who was working as a librarian at the National Library to world music such as Yiddish songs, Cape Verdian music, Polish music…
I stopped playing music at the age of 14 when I discovered grunge music, Brit pop, indie rock and trip hop. I decided to keep on studying theatre instead. I even wrote a few plays. I wanted to be a writer at that time and was writing all the time; poetry, novels… I destroyed everything 🙂 I was really living in my imagination.
In those years (14-18), I was listing to music all the time and reading the NME, The Face Magazine, Les Inrockuptibles… I was a music fan, collecting images, reviews, of the bands I was adoring!
I was doing a lot of baby sittings all my teenage years to buy records and go to shows. (There is no age restriction in shows in France.)
I even went to Bristol when I was 16 with a friend to see where Massive Attack and Tricky where coming from, but we were so broke and young the only thing we could afford was to hang out in parks. But we really enjoyed it, Ahha!
Then in my twenties I was a fan of Sonic Youth, Cat Power, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Smog, and Low and the voice of Kim Gordon showed me you can speak in songs. I still enjoy the mood those musicians were putting me in, the importance of the lyrics and the feeling of being very close and intimate to the singer. The energy, the experience.
Then I started writing a bit in French magazines such as Octopus and Mouvement about music, read The Wire Magazine, and thinking about it in a more theoretical way.
At the same time, I discovered in my late twenties improvised music, avant-garde music, going to see shows at Instants Chavires, Fondation Cartier, Centre Pompidou…. I studied at Les Beaux Arts de Paris and did a workshop with Christian Wolff that was very influential to me. I started listening to Luc Ferrari, John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, but also Jim O’Rourke, David Grubbs, Fennesz, etc… I started playing music, in different projects such as Strechandrelax with dancer Elise Ladoué and a spoken word project with Sylvain Chauveau.
Then, when, and then around 28 years old, under my own name and the moniker Je Suis Le petit Chevalier. With Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier I made a lot of tapes and CD-R on great DIY labels that really encouraged me to be prolific and use recordings as a kind of sound diary. I feel it was a very liberating time because there was no pressure. I was doing live shows that were very short, very loud and noise, I felt since at that time I was playing in talking audiences I had to be louder than the audience. It was like an exorcism. I really enjoyed that psych / synth DIY scene with labels such as Not Not Fun, Stunned, Digitalis, Ruralfaune, Kaugummi…
And then, in 2011 we created Shelter Press with Bartolomé Sanson and it changed a lot for me, knowing I had my own home to release my music and trying to shape things with more specificity and control.
I had a very important discussion when we were living in the Alps with Bartolomé with our friend Pete Swanson. I think he asked me something very basic, like « what kind of music do you want to record » and it made me rethink the whole thing. I discovered also new composers, such Ruth White, or Moniek Darge and came back to Pierre Henry, Ferrari and Robert Ashley, and then I released A readymade ceremony, which is for me the volume 1 of a kind of new moment in my music, that I am still following now.
I’d like to ask about Shelter Press. You’ve brought together quite a roster of artists, with some incredible aesthetic variety. Shelter Press also publishes books and artist’s books. This feels very right to me, and isn’t something that is as common as one might think, as there is so much overlap between artists who produce work in small editions, whether it be music or books, but I’d imagine that the second decade of the 21st century has been a challenging time for such an endeavor. Please, tell us more about Shelter Press, how you go about business, how you tie these various threads together.
Well, Shelter Press is 90 per cent run by my partner, Bartolomé Sanson, he is the captain, holding the vessel on an everyday basis, thinking things ahead and making it possible; even though we take all the decisions together. I am more like the passenger, watching the GPS, looking at the window and tuning the radio accordingly to the drive…and making sandwiches!
It’s a lot of work to publish in the same time books and records, especially since he is handling creative direction, design, editorial, sales and shipping on his own
I think in many ways we often feel overwhelmed by work!
I can imagine!
But we are very happy and proud of what we put out: for example lately from the Ocean Scores of the artist David Horvitz to the latest Eli Keszler record, Stadium, passing by a compilation of essays about utopian pedagogy (In The Canyon Revise the Cannon), the first record in ten years by Tomoko Sauvage, or the first album by CV & JAB in collaboration with artist Zin Taylor, etc…
We try to draw a kind of circle that links a kind of sparse but connected family.
We try to always meet people in real life before working with them, this is why we do not accept demos, we are not a dating app of some kind, a record doesn’t happen in one sec, it’s a slow process of exchange, not a fast delivery.
Metaphorically, we invite people to eat our table, and in that order, we like to know them first and then take our time to eat different courses and have a good conversation.
Shelter has just released Spectres, in collaboration with INA-GRM, in which you have a text. I’m looking forward to reading this, it looks fantastic. Can I ask about how you understand the relationship between theory and practice in this context, between ‘research’ and the production of artistic works? You mentioned that in preparation of producing new works you have a period of absorbing various inspirations (books, films, landscapes, etc). Does the intellectualization of the process, as with this essay, come as part of the process or is it more removed (before, after)?
I just believe things are never isolated. Sometimes my ways of rehearsing is making a salad. I am very inspired by John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Ana Halprin, or Alison Knowles in the way they embrace(d) the world as a whole. A walk in the forest could be a research.
More and more time passes more and more i believe there is not in one hand theory and in another practice, everything in embedded.
Right now I have a small child, we spend most of the day in the park under the trees, and observing an Atlas Cedar for an hour is for me a way of deep listening.
I understand more time since I started to do soft boil eggs, for example. They handle a very good duration I feel.
And music is about duration.
It’s an important stage. The thinking part is the moment where you allow yourself to stop producing, and look back and forward. What have I done? What am I gonna do?
What is around me? What is missing? What is too obvious? Who / what should I call? Where should I go? To whom am I connecting, referring, in order to say/ show/ make what I feel /want?
I feel full of questions. I need to share those questions sometimes, and take the risk to make some hypothesis. It’s part of the game. Share your ideas and the risk to be wrong or boring.
Right now, for example, I have a small baby at home. My creative time is very limited, my hands being full all day with this little and wonderful person. Well, it allows me time to think and observe.
I go to the park with my baby, I go close to the Sequoias and Cedars of the park with him, I am not playing music, but I feel it is something that prepares me as much as a rehearsal to play shows or record later.
It’s about being alive. I don’t separate life and theory and creation. Each one is one hour of a whole day.
I feel close to John Cage again in that way. Picking up mushroom is also making music. Or making music is just a part of a bigger process.
I’ve only been able to read the first page of your essay in Spectres so far, but it concerns the voice. It seems to me that your work often foregrounds the voice (and the body, as in Hand in Hand). Can you tell me more about the role that your voice and language plays in your music?
I bring my voice with me. I record it and then, a double exists, and people are listening to the double, to this strange stamp called recording. I find it fascinating.
Language is an obstacle to fascination. It brings doubt and subjectivity. I use language to break the image and I use the voice to play with its plasticity and its ghost-like ability to be multiple, pitched, distorted, doubled or vanished. Voice is a wind that penetrates the ear and leave again and come back, it’s also a feminist embodiment of a flexible force.
I believe also in the power of hushing versus screaming. Getting closer to the ear where the shout push you outside. I believe in energies and flux through the voice and its recording.
The voice for me is interesting because it’s always with you. It’s also for me something that travels; from inside to outside, passing walls, staying recorded and filling a room while your body has always disappeared.
The voice is the metaphor of the spirit in that way. It can talk but in the same time stay difficult to understand. It brings images but also confusion. It’s like a stream or cloud. You can see in it or not, it can appear and vanish.
I am very fond of Robert Ashley or John Cage’s voices. Even if they passed away they are still speaking to me.
Sometimes I feel inspired by that, I want to talk to some listeners who are not born yet; at least to people I will never meet. Recording my voice is a way to travel in time and space.
One of the tensions Sound Propositions is concerned with is the difference between working as an artist in the studio (producing records and compositions in “fixed,” recorded form) and in performances. Do you approach to a live situation in terms of improvisation as opposed to how you work in the studio?
Aha, I would say it is almost the opposite: I improvise way more in the studio than live 🙂
Most of the outtakes on my records are first takes with a lot of improvisation in it, whereas live I construct more the performance with diffusion and scheduled sounds.
I feel that the fact that the record is « fixed » allows many strata of improvisation, because you can pile up time on it, the record has to be played several time, and is recorded in that goal of fighting with age and time; whereas a live event is meant to disappear and therefore has , in my opinion , to be anticipated ahead, so it’s strong enough to face such a rapid and short amount of time and existence; like fire works!
Perhaps working as a writer brings with it a similar tension?
Almost all the texts that are not borrowed from literature or cut ups from magazines are improvised, they “happen” to me when I record and then I convoke them again live.
How does this vary between working solo and working (live or in the studio) in collaboration with others?
I don’t do that many collabs, but for example with Jefre Cantu Ledesma the process was like a mail correspondence : I send you this, you answer, I react, etc… we never recorded on the same room / continent!
We would conceptualize very little ahead but rather exchange links of records and books we like to read / hear. The connection and language was a very special way of listening that, I think, we have in common.
How do you approach or conceive of the process of musical composition? Is it a studio-based practice for you?
It’s a slow process, very similar to the way I do art. First I read books, watch films, listen to music, walk in landscapes. Then some ideas and desires appear out of this contemplation. Therefore I start producing various materials: field recordings, melodies, modular patterns, voice…. and then I listen to everything and assemble, like making a bouquet of wild flowers, according and tuning sounds into this first hunch I had at the beginning. This « feeling » or « idea » that will be the shape makers of those drafts, that will give sense and cohesion.
I think of composition as way to create form in space, with layers, blanks, densities, perspectives and light.
Would you be willing to choose a recent or upcoming track and break it down, talk about its development, equipment used, etc?
This is impossible for me to answer, I never follow recipes, neither in the kitchen, nor in the studio.
I can explain what inspires me, the environment of a composition but I’ve always been a bit skeptical about technique demonstrations. I find it often obviously masculine and even sometimes even shallow; like ooh look how much gear I’ve got.
I feel creation, wherever it’s music, literature or painting can be analyzed as an objet, of course, but what the artist does can only be explained in terms of intention and context, that’s it. It’s always completely relative, because at the end, the listener might catch something very different, because he/she is a different person than the artist, at a different time, in a different place, and that’s the beauty of the artefact. To be able to travel, to be able to remain a mystery and in the same time, to be able to be explained and analyzed in many different ways. Like a diamond with different facets.
In fact, I feel rather the same. I don’t mean to imply that the particulars (of the studio or a particular track’s creation) should have some universal importance, or be instilled into some kind of hierarchy, such that readers might think, oh “this piece of gear or software would make my work better.” I absolutely do not subscribe to this idea, and I’m very much moved by work that comes from making do with what is available. (Arte povera artists, or the sculptures of Louise Nevelson for instance, or the artists I’ve profiled in the series). So, yes, I absolutely agree (about cooking as well!), improvisation is key, and formulas are generally to be resisted. Art is not a recipe to be followed. I also concur regarding the masculinist tendency of gear shots and demonstrations of skills, flexing in the studio and all that. (I for one dislike FACT Mag’s On the Clock series in part for this reason.)
So perhaps the question is more pedagogical: what advice would you give to someone starting out to make music or art in whatever form?
Take your time. Believe in small forms.
Be curious and imaginative. Don’t forget to have some humour and distance around you . it’s only music. It’ s just music. and to paraphrase JL Godard what is « une image juste / juste image »?
You evoke Godard, and I think there’s something pedagogical in all we absorb. So, I always like to ask about an artist’s favorite work outside of sound art or music. What books, visual art, plays, films, etc you are inspired by, or find common cause with? Are their artists working in other media (past or present) that you feel an aesthetic kinship with?
So many of them of course. I wish i could have seen the Anni Albers retrospective in London and the Hilma Af Kint retrospective in NYC. Both of those wonderful women are very inspiring for me. They are both masters of colors and shapes, and I could watch their work all day. Same with many other artists such as Ruth Asawa, Agnes Martin, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Sonia Delaunay… Painting is source of every day joy for me.
I was lucky enough to catch the Af Klint at the Guggenheim while I was home for the holidays. What a revelation, when viewed all together in a space such as that. She knew her work would be misunderstood, so she imposed this long restriction on public exhibitions of her work. To think it’s taken this long for her work to be appreciated. Imagine what else is out there, still hidden.
What is on the horizon for you? What future projects can you tell us about?
Horizon is a line in the sky I am always contemplating and questioning. We never know.
I am currently composing a piece inspired by the work and persona of the painter Helen Frankenthaler for Atonal in Berlin this summer and another piece called Hedra Helix for Musica Sanae in Sokolowsko in Poland in August. [Episode 6 of the podcast includes an excerpt from her live performance at Musica Sanae in Napoli in May of 2019.]
I am gonna play at Le Poisson Rouge in New York in September and I’m working on the score of a dance piece by the choreographer Rebecca Chantinell in Stockholm.