Back to the Futurists
Nicolas Bernier and Martin Messier, as La Chambre des Machines, wrest new music from their Russolo inspired sound boxes
Deanna Radford - January 19, 2011
In 1913, Italian futurist Luigi Russolo penned the Art of Noises manifesto where he outlined important facets of music criticism and creation in the face of a young century and an industrialized society well on the verge of world war. Bringing his manifesto to fruition just one year later, Russolo introduced his intonarumori (“noise instruments”) in a series of concerts held in London” (1). The manifesto “rejected inherited preference for harmony in favour of the dissonant masterpieces that serenade us everyday without our conscious awareness” and instead celebrated “the crashing down of metal shop blinds, slamming doors, the hubbub and shuffling of crowds, the variety of din from stations, railways, iron foundries, spinning mills, printing works, electric power stations, and underground railways” (2). Usurping popular understandings of music and conventions of beauty, Russolo laid the groundwork for what we now know as noise music, often inextricably linked with electronic music. Russolo wrote; “The rhythmic motions of noise are infinite” (3).
Flash forward to 2010, and Nicolas Bernier explains the implications of La Chambre des Machines' relationship to Russolo: “We are not going to say; we are children of Russolo. But we are all, because he was more or less one of the first; he made [music] with sound, [the] sound of machines. But now today, politically speaking... we cannot really relate to that. He was in the fascist era and it was the first phase of the industrialization. There is maybe not [a] political but more a social aspect of doing what we do and it's almost in a position of what Russolo was talking about, because he was talking about using the machine. Because the machine today is the computer, this is our machine.” The sounds that Bernier and Messier's intonarumori are generated by software along withfound objects like gears, cranks and clocks, and tools like mallets and bows. Says Bernier, this is; “a lot more interesting than the computer.”
Going back a couple of years, Bernier enlisted long-time friend, builder and wood-worker, Alexandre Landry to create their first intonarumori. Says Bernier, “he's not in the artistic world but in the meantime, when his day job is over he's going to his basement and he's super. He has a nice artistic sensibility. Basically, for the first [intonarumori] we did some back and forth. He made a first machine for a show that I did in Québec City at Mois Multi. He has carte blanche, more or less because I'm not, and Martin either, we just don't know how to work with our hands.”
With the introduction of the second intonarumori, Martin Messier says that prior to its realization, “I had a solo performance with old clocks and [Nicolas] had [a] performance with one box.” Landry produced the second machine in a short time period as Messier and Bernier were pitching La Chambre des Machines to festivals.With the solidification of the second box and in the span of a year, Bernier and Messier performed at MUTEK 2010 and at other renowned festivals including Sonar Chicago and Barcelona and Transmediale in Berlin.
There was some debate between Landry, Bernier and Messier on whether the box should be open or closed. Bernier explains, “the fundamental thing in making a new box was to have it open. When you think of the machines of Russolo and our machine with computer, the parallel is really funny. His box was already closed and we couldn't see what's inside. Today it's the same thing when we go to electronic music performance[s]; there's this box, this computer. We hear things and we don't know how the sound is made.”
The duo describes their work as “a sound construction at the crossroads of acoustics and electronics.” Though this is the case, Bernier and Messier are also drawing on musical traditions and contemporary tools in a visionary manner that conceptually, is like the infinite reflection of mirrors upon mirrors; blending the old with the new. Bernier and Messier's composition that is La Chambre des Machines is built upon traditions open and closed, with laptop to produce digital sound, the use of found objects, traditional music tools like the aforementioned mallet and bow, and consequently, extended playing techniques. The very ways in which these elements are combined are in fact re-combined and appropriated as the well-designed object that is the intonarumori; though the laptop is a closed machine, the overarching concept and box is completely open, sounding as unique as they look.
Unravelling the creative processes responsible for La Chambre..., Bernier explains the dichotomy between old and new: “what's important to me is the object. What I'm attracted [to] is old; I'm a fan of antiques and when these antiques make sound, now I'm getting really super excited! And that's because all my creation process is so - there's something so virtual. You're in front of your computer and you, your music is in a file and then you want to send your music to a friend and you send it via the web and you receive and you did all this with one single object.” Perhaps in describing another project of his with Simon Trottier (of the Polaris Prize nominated Timber Timbre), Bernier's statement is equally a propos of La Chambre des Machines. He says, “it's the fundamental thing I'm trying to do is look at the past and the future and to find a way to be atemporal.”
Both artists have a significant track record of composition for theatre and dance. They bring their experiences from these realms back to their sound-based canvas and explain the influence. Says Messier, “of course there's a lot of influence that comes from theatre and dance shows that we see and work on and that's maybe why we're focusing on gesture and not just on doing the right note at exactly the right place. That's maybe why also its more about the show and than just the music. We're really focusing on sound but for this kind of project it’s more about a show. It's little things; it's how do I take my clocks and how can I take it with my hands so people can see it... How you use your body - it's not a huge choreography but it's a little thing that we're thinking about so visually it makes a difference.” In performing La Chambre des Machines, Messier and Bernier are fully immersed in the experience, which comes in part from digital sources, and from tactile and physical. They get their bodies behind their playing of the intonarumori and their relationship with these machines is active. With the open-machine in mind, Bernier and Messier share the performing experience with the viewer on both the intimate, small-scale and on a large-scale when they incorporate video for larger venues. The work becomes more immersive for the artists and audiences.
Bernier agrees in that theatre and dance have - “100% had an influence. To work on dance and theatre and to see all that people are doing – it's just another world completely. That to me, as a music guy, as a sound guy, I would never have been into that world and just to see how they construct things how they think about movement and about light, it's developing that sensibility.”
Building on this, Messier says, “sometimes, people are telling me what I'm doing it's theatrical but I'm like 'no, it's music, I'm just focusing a bit more than you on gesture but it's obvious for me that I'm not doing theatre because I take this like that and you don't.' But we're still musicians. We want to incorporate lights and all these things but we're still thinking as composers.”
There is fluidity in the approach that Messier and Bernier take to composing and preparing their works. Whether it is by incorporating elements from theatre and dance or with the programming they do on the digital side of things. Messier says, “I've learned a lot from programming because it helps when you have an idea to know 'okay, you have a problem, how can I solve it?' And it can be applied to whatever you're doing, it's not just Max-MSP, it's when you're composing, it's when you want this mechanism to make a sound like [a certain way]. How can I find that?”
With the spirit of Russolo's railways, iron foundries and underground railways in mind and where Bernier and Messier incorporate a broad palette of influences and sound sources to their work, when asked to consider what place noise has in their music, Bernier explains, “it's really weird because now I have a feeling that the fashion now is not in electronic sound but more and more in organic sound and I am really shifting into tones and noise. So noise is really important in our lives. Yes, noises are really important. It's a part of our life! It's a part of our day to day!”
For information on upcoming performances of La Chambre des Machines in February and March, visit the website:
Footnotes from 1 to 3:
Russolo, Luigi. “The Art of Noises: Futurist Manifesto.” Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. Eds. Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner. New York: Continuum, 2004. 10. Print.
From 2: Lanza, Joseph. “Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong.” New York: Picador, 1994. 15. Print.
Deanna Radford is a freelance and creative writer living in Montreal. She maintains her blog here: http://deannaradford.blogspot.com