Murcof: Experiment in the Key of Cosmos
In conversation with Fernando Corona, Mexico's leading electronic musician
Vincent Pollard - May 31, 2011
This Thursday, June 2nd, when Murcof’s Fernando Corona returns to MUTEK for the third time, he’ll be performing with avant-garde visual label AntiVJ's Simon Gellfus for the Canadian premiere of a mesmerizing stage design composed of three massive screens to create a three-dimensional cosmos. A bona fide MUTEK discovery, Tijuana’s Fernando Corona infamously played his second show ever at MUTEK 2002. From there, he has gone on to become one of the most revered names in ambient techno to emerge from the 2000s. He has released six solo albums and two collaborations with Swiss-born trumpet player Erik Truffaz. Corona was also a member of the Nortec Collective of electronic musicians based in Tijuana, but he now lives with his family in Barcelona, Spain, which is where he was when we called him for this interview.
Murcof's music is powerful and minimal, incorporating elements of modern classical, ambient and IDM, taking samples of classical musicians and field recordings and weaving a tapestry of ambient abstraction with a glitchy and discomforting undercurrent of tension and suggestions of urban decay.
MUTEKMAG caught up with Corona recently in Barcelona to ask him about his work, the reissue of the La Sangre Illuminada soundtrack and his forthcoming performance at this year's Mutek festival, which is a planned collaboration with renowned European visual artists AntiVJ.
I wanted to ask your upcoming show at Mutek on the Thursday. You're doing a collaboration with AntiVJ. What do you have planned?
Yeah, that's right. Yeah, we’ve been playing together for a couple of years. Not constantly, but I think we’ve done around maybe ten concerts together, more or less. Since the first time we’ve been polishing and working towards, you know... it’s like a work in progress where each time there’s a new element. Actually, before we go to Montreal we're gonna have a small residency in Paris so we’re gonna have a few days to bring it to the next level.
Even though we feel it’s very well-integrated, we have further goals we are looking forward to. So, we are gonna be presenting a mature set. It’s already mature, but I think it’ll be more interesting. So, yeah, it’s a collaboration that we really, really enjoy. I really enjoy the work they do, so I’m looking forward to it, as well as Montreal and MUTEK. Amazing festival, so it should be all good.
What’s the set-up for the visuals?
It’s a semi-transparent screen that is placed between us and the audience, so we’re trapped in a small cage and when the lights are off, you can’t see the screen so you have the feeling that the images are floating in the air. I don’t remember the exact dimensions of the screen, but it’s a wide screen and they split the image into three different projectors. So, it’s a very wide projection there. It’s all light and dark so they hardly using any colour, just light. White light.
What music will you be playing for us as part of this installation?
We are using mostly tracks from Cosmos, because it fits really nicely with what Simon has been working with. We also have new material as well that we’ve created during the time we were working together. The last piece we integrated we developed during a small residency we had in Bristol, so we’re hoping to do the same thing in Paris next month when we have the residency. Maybe we’ll add a new work or polish what we have, so we’ll see what happens. So, it’s a mixed bag of new and existing material, mostly existing but they’ve been a bit modified as well. Some parts of it. The music now with the visuals has a different meaning so we’ve reshaped them a little bit. I made adjustments at the beginnings and endings. Add a new fragment at the end of a piece or at the beginning or in the middle as well. Some minor adjustments to make it fit better with the visuals.
What kind of venues have you been playing in, for example the Bristol residency?
It was a small residency, and at the end we had a private presentation of what we were working on, mostly for friends and people we were working with. So it was a real proper public gig, but it’s a very peculiar set-up that the project demands. So we’re basically looking for closed environments where we have the three projector placements, which defines the spaces we can work with. The screen also has to be hanging from a certain distance and a certain width. That narrows the scope of venues we can work at.
So basically you have to play in bigger venues?
Mid-sized theatres and upwards, or auditoriums, spaces like this. At the RavennaFestival in Italy, we played outdoors on an outdoor stage and they had to do a lot of adjustments. They had to bring the whole infrastructure to make the gig possible. It’s a tricky one, a situation like that. We had to mount the whole structure to hang the screen and also surround it with black cloth on top, on the sides. Also, they had to have the proper distance from the projector to be able to spread enough for the whole composition to work. So it was a bit tricky, but it worked very perfectly in the end.
Those sort of things, logistic things, you gotta nail things down. It can be complicated to bring it to a place where there’s no infrastructure. It was a very beautiful setting. It was in an old fortress or a castle or something like this so it was a very nice environment of stone walls with an open roof so it was really good. Also an amazing sound system, it was really powerful so it was quite impressive.
But musically, it's a solo show at MUTEK. I know you've collaborated a lot before, for example with Fransesco Tristano.
Yeah, it’s just me on the music side. The whole focus is on the visuals, so it doesn’t make much sense to have another musician on stage and also because of the material we’re performing. It’s basically my own stuff. With Francesco, the material we developed together. So it's basically the two of us onstage, me and Simon [Geilfus], and we’re in this little cage behind the screen there working our computers.
AntiVJ is a collective, isn’t it?
Yeah, I think there are five video artists – five or six. Each one has his own thing, ans they collaborate on specific projects. But for this one I work only with Simon.
You played in planetariums recently, for example your show in Greenwich. That must’ve been amazing.
Oh, yeah! That was something else. It’s a very new planetarium. It had this really hi-tech projection system and, also, it made a huge difference that the technician there was really into the music and had the music beforehand. So he had time to prepare a few things, and when I got there for the soundcheck we polished what he already had. It turned out to be a really immersive experience for all of us.
It was open to the public. At the time, I was doing a small planetarium tour, and so we booked as many planetariums as were interested in having me present the music. We did the one in Greenwich, also in Brussels, Bratislava, also Tijuana and I think in France and Berlin as well. We tried to get as many planetariums interested. The funny thing is that each planetarium is very, very different. It was an interesting tour to do. Some older tracks as well, but mostly tracks from Cosmos.
What’s your live set-up these days?
It’s very simple. It’s basically a computer running Ableton Live with small gadgets: a mixer, a MIDI controller and sound card. So I have all the samples in Live. I play more or less the structure of the songs but I have the flexibility to go one way or the other, to add a little effect or make small adjustments while the track goes. So nothing fancy, it’s very simple.
How do you compose your music? Do you start with the modern classical melodies first and add the sound treatments afterwards?
Most of the sounds come from acoustic sources, from recordings I’ve done throughout the years of acoustic instruments: piano, strings and wind instruments, also some field recordings, some found sounds. From nature to instruments, whatever sounds I feel I can work with. I listen to and grab small fragments that catch my attention. Then I feed them into the multi-track and start to process sounds little by little, until it starts to say something. Then I start adding sounds that kind of go with that.
I never, or hardly ever, begin with a pre-conceived idea. I just sit down and listen to the sounds I have there and see what pops up at the moment. Different samples will be interesting in some moment, and others in another moment. I try also to upgrade my sound library each year or couple of years. I try to record new material, to hire musicians and go into the studio or invite to the house to record new sounds or go out with my field recorder to have new source material that will work as inspiration for new music.
So sometimes the shape of the new album could be very influenced by what sounds you find?
Exactly. Right now I’m in talks with a local ensemble here in Barcelona, a wind ensemble, a brass ensemble – tuba, French horn, trombone and I think there’s a sax as well – to go into the studio and record, improvise for a few hours with the ensemble and with each musician individually. And hopefully to get new material to work on a new album. Hopefully.
When can we expect some new material?
No idea! When it’s done, basically.
Yeah, hopefully but if not then next year. I don’t know, until I feel that it’s worthwhile putting out. There’s so much music coming out that I don’t want to put anything out until I feel it’s worth have it floating out there.
On Leaf records?
Yeah, I hope so. I'm pretty happy with Leaf.
Most of your work has been on Leaf, except for a couple of things.
Yeah, the new soundtrack for a Mexican film that I did a soundtrack for back in 2007 called La Sangre Illuminada that came out on an independent label in Mexico back in 2008. Now it’s coming on InFiné records here in France, on vinyl and digital.
Can you tell me a bit more about the film and the project that this score was recorded for?
Yeah, it of course makes much more sense when you see the film. It’s supposed to go together with the film, but we found it had some value on its own. But yeah, I recommend seeing the film. It will make much more sense, and it’s a very peculiar thing. How can you put it? In a few words, it’s about a soul that travels between different people, accumulating the experiences of each person so the last person the soul gets into has all the experience of the past ones. It’s a metaphysical drama, an independent Mexican film by a very good director, Iván Ávila Dueñas. If people have a chance to see it, I think it’s out there on Amazon and you can find it with subtitles. It’s available.
The title in English means?
Enlightened Blood, you can say.
When it was released in 2008, it was released just on a small label?
Yeah, on a small label. Intolerancia Records from Mexico, Intolerance in English.
It was just a Mexico only release?
I'm not really sure, I think so, although they might have some distribution in Latin America, I cannot tell.
It's good that it's getting a wider release. It must feel good to have it out there.
It’s nice. People have been curious about it, and I have quite a few emails from people who are interested in getting the proper hard release in Europe, so it’s nice to have it here, especially on vinyl.
What's in the pipeline after this?
I’m working on a commission with a musician friend of mine from Tijuana. It’s a project that’s based on music from the Huichol community, from indigenous Huichol people. We hired two very good musicians and recorded with them in Tijuana. Huichol violin, Huichol guitar and chants. We want to derive new works of music with this material. We have a presentation in the Saint-Denis festival in France in June, and other festivals as well.
Most certainly we'll be also releasing it properly on CD in the near future, so that's the closest project I have. Also, there’s the new album I'm working on and there's other things in the pipeline, but nothing as evident as these two.
I plan to take the project further with AntiVJ as well. We have plans for a few more dates. In the second week of May we have a gig in Paris with the small residency. I'm sure we have a few other dates, a few other gigs here and there.
So, if people can't make it to Paris or MUTEK they'll get a chance to see the show somewhere.
Yeah, we'll try to bring it out there.
Murcof + AntiVJ perform at Salle Pierre-Mercure on Thursday, June 2nd.