A portrait of a man wearing glasses and a black t-shirt against a midnight blue background.
April 3, 2020

Nicolas Bernier Interviewed by Gabriel Ledoux: Transfert/Futur

Part One: Transfert/Futur

Gabriel Ledoux (G) : You’ve published several albums in the frequencies series. Transfert/Futur isn’t part of it. Would you say you’ve entered a new creative phase?

Nicolas Bernier (N) : Absolutely. The new series is subtitled (299 792 458 m/s), which is the speed of light. I’ve really been into science-fiction for the past two or three years. All my new projects, including two pieces on this album, follow this theme. The installation created this summer, Parallèle (299 792 458 m/s), was the first of the series to have been made public, even if the two pieces of this album were created before it.

G : When you start a series, is there a time where you decide that the previous series ends and a new one starts, or is it pretty vague?

N : It is pretty vague. The new series’ instigator piece, synthèse (299 792 458 m/s), was thought out as the last one from frequencies. The idea behind the project – a work on the fundamental waveforms of synthesis – was in line with frequencies, but my state of mind and the esthetic were much less about minimalism. I’m much more into kitsch right now, something rhythmic and inspired by pop culture.

G : Which you can really hear in the way the album sounds. In transfert (299 792 458 m/s), there are claps and fake guitar sounds. It reminds me of the Fairlight CMI.

N : Yes, it’s plastic in the bubblegum sense of the term.For me, the term “transfer” is related to science-fiction. It’s related to travel, the transfer from one space-time zone to another. There’s a futuristic ring to it. But the piece is mainly called transfert because I transferred the MIDI sequences from frequencies (a) (live piece with tuning forks created in 2012) and applied them to a ton of synths. Of course, the transfer from one piece to another wasn’t simple. In the end, I had to rewrite everything.With frequencies, I understood that I would probably always work within series. I know a certain topic will always haunt me for a few years. Unique pieces as autonomous work are not that important for me anymore. I’m interested in the broader picture, in a set of ideas worked around for a certain amount of time and unfolding in different ways.

G : Does it make you feel safe or does it terrify you to dedicate yourself to this one idea for several years?

N : Neither. I’ve been obsessed with science-fiction for a long time, but for several reasons, such as me being a professor, my work doesn’t progress at the “speed of light” anymore. I have been working on this series for three years, but everything is coming out in the next six months: the installation presented at the DAÏMÔN centre in Gatineau, the album with ACTE, and another installation. I already feel my interest for science-fiction fading and I haven’t even had the time to share my projects! I don’t force myself to exploit a theme if it doesn’t interest me anymore. I will only keep going if I have ideas. frequencies might have lasted 6 years (2011-2017), but this new series about science-fiction might only last a year or two... But I noticed that my obsessive cycles usually last about 4 years.

G : Have certain science-fiction works made a big impression on you, or are you inspired by a general mood?

N : It’s rather a general mood. I have read and watched a lot of it, and I couldn’t name three quarters of the ones I’ve seen. The science-fiction obsession started with Asimov when I bought one of his books in a used book store during a seaside trip to the US. Then came the big classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris (the Tarkovsky version, of course). I will never get bored of watching Solaris, but my obsession also allowed me to discover the book, which is as good as the movie. More obscure examples include Saul Bass’s Phase IV (1974). Enki Bilal’s work is also a big influence.

G : What I like about works like Solaris or 2001 is that man creates technology, which in the end is only a reflection of himself. They travel far into space to find something, only to be faced with themselves. That’s what I take away from those movies.

N : That’s deep.

G : Thanks! [Laughs] But what interests you about science- fiction? Is it this kind of will to go further?

N : It’s actually the opposite. [Laughs] I often think up my new projects in reaction to the previous ones. frequencies were of a pretty rational and conceptual nature. I had pretty clear ideas of what I wanted. For me, science-fiction is the opposite; it’s irrational. It’s one of the first times I don’t really work with a concept. In science-fiction, the stories you tell can lead to almost anything. I sometimes meet people who want me to explain my work with this new series... But I have nothing to tell them! It really is a plastic-type work leading to unknown and unexpected places.

G : Your approach also changed. In frequencies, several pieces have a relatively algorithmic structure. For example, two of your albums are made up of very short tracks meant to be played on shuffle. The track synthèse (299 792 458 m/s) was originally an algorithmic piece that you reworked and shortened for the album. In transfert (299 792 458 m/s), you used a more absolute approach. I don’t know exactly how you wrote it, but I feel like it really is more linear. There is a structure.

N : Indeed. frequencies was a departure from the idea of the composer writing perfect structures. I was reacting to the previous (mechanical) cycle. I wanted to play within my structures, which isn’t revolutionary in itself, but is an important step in my own process. The piece transfert (299 792 458 m/s), on the other hand, was written from scratch, even if I include some effects in real time for the live version. However, the installation created at the DAÏMÔN centre is more algorithmic than anything I’ve done in frequencies. But the frequencies we’re more or less algorithmic. Very little was actually random.

G : But the structure was algorithmic, even if it’s a simple algorithm!

N : Indeed, the structure was random… But the Parallèle (299 792 458 m/s) installation goes well beyond. It’s a piece where matter and form both get created organically.

G : By listening to your music again, I noticed that your pieces preceding frequencies were longer and more homogenous. The structure was far more  directional. Tracks were often  7 minutes long. Then, eventually, you arrived at something more interspersed, with short sequences. When I was listening  to Transfert/Futur, I realized that even if it was written as a whole, it was still made from short sections. It’s like a comeback after going through algorithmic structures in short sections, right?

N : That seems like an accurate analysis... I never thought about it! It makes sense since we’re always the sum of our previous experiences.

G : When you use drum machine sounds like 808 claps, is it with a retro-futuristic attitude?

N : Yes, it’s a bit like that, and it’s also voluntarily kitsch. How would I say this... I thought I found a nice way to explain why I use handclaps and how it links to the future... I had found a nice formula... I forget.

G : I don’t think we should ever need to justify using 808 claps. [Laughs]

N : True! Claps kind of symbolize the 80s, and the 80s are the epitome of artificiality, of exaggeration, of neon-coloured esthetics. It’s the epitome of baroque. For me, science-fiction – particularly in movies – is a bit like that. In other words, I’m interested in the pop aspect of science-fiction, not in the intellectualization of the genre. This retro-futuristic perspective (a popular one, let’s be honest) has an influence on me. The vision of the future in fiction is by definition a bit retro by default, it seems.

G : I really like when you talk about baroque. I think it translates well to your use of synthesizers. There are so many layers! It’s overflowing; a gestalt creating an enjoyable melting pot.

N : Yes. There really are a lot of synthesizers. A LOT. I have no idea how many there are. But I’m surprised you would say that, because I find that you can’t really tell while listening to it.

G : No. You’re right; you can’t tell. According to the principles of gestalt, it means we only hear their sum.

N : The piece was really hard to mix, especially in sections drenched in synths. Sometimes, I put emphasis on one of the tracks and it completely changes the atmosphere. Two days before I sent you the final version, I completely changed the pieces by bringing forward some buried layers. In the end, the mix for this piece was somewhat random. I have completely forgotten about the existence of some of the tracks, because we can’t hear them, and I could have relied on other tracks.

Music writer Nicolas Bernier with glasses staring at red, green and blue bar lights in a dark room.

Part Two: History

G : In which context did you decide to found Ekumen, which became your own label for some of your early albums?

N : Ekumen… It’s good that you bring that up, because it was something important for the Montreal scene back then. There wasn’t really anything like Ekumen before Ekumen, when today there’s Acte, Kohlenstoff, and other small groups, collectives and labels. Back then, there wasn’t any organization halfway between academic and the music scene outside universities, aside from Codes d’accès. There were some entities organized within educational institutions, but outside of those, people didn’t really structure themselves that way (for the experimental and the electroacoustic music). There were big organizations, but little underground support for contemporary music creation. I think it was significant and important, even though nobody remembers it today, which is totally fine. Olivier Girouard, who is now at the helm of Ekumen, is currently doing something entirely different.

But to answer your question, the story of Ekumen begins before  I even started my Bachelor of  Music. It must have been in 2000, and I was starting to make electronic music. I started doing sonic experimentations on a PC I bought to make music.

G : Which software did you use back then?

N : The very first one was Fruity Loops! (And also the first version of Nuendo.)

G : Oh yeah!

N : These days, there’s FL Studio, which is a bit more sophisticated, but back then, Fruity Loops was really basic. Incidentally, I’m thinking of downloading early versions of Fruity Loops and Reason to compose a piece at my dad’s place on a computer running Windows 95. I also used Cakewalk, but the sounds were so “General MIDI” that I couldn’t do anything interesting. I did pretty decent things with Fruity Loops.

I had a web-related job when I founded Ekumen, and it was originally my personal website. I thought of using it as a stage name. It allowed me to share my first electro experimentations.

During my bachelor’s degree, I met really cool people with whom I worked: Delphine Measroch, Jacques Poulin-Denis, Olivier Girouard and Martin Messier. I saw that none of my friends had websites, and therefore no way of sharing their work on a bigger scale... Since I grew up with the web, it was very natural to me, but it wasn’t for musicians. I wanted to support what my friends were creating and that’s how Ekumen was born.

The concept was always vague; it wasn’t structured more than it needed to be, even if we tried our best. [Laughs] It simply started out as a website, but we ended up becoming show producers and a label. In a nutshell, we did what was convenient for us, since nobody else would do it for us. As for any young musician, the existing structures weren’t interested in us. We were too much this, too much that, not enough this, not enough that, not well-known enough, too well-known, too rough, not

refined enough, too ambient, too articulated, too musical, too instrumental, not electronic enough... There was always something to keep us from joining the official ranks of the music world. The less “official” organizations only took care of their friends, which is understandable considering the limited amount of resources they have. And in life, we’ve talked about this, it’s all about friends. We didn’t have any friends in the official structures. [Laughs] So I created the framework. We worked hard back then. I sent CDs all by myself, and licked so many envelopes... We paid for most of the production ourselves, despite our limited funds.

We created a lot of projects together and individually, and it breathed something into the artistic scene. I think it influenced some people for what followed. It’s pretty crazy to see that it’s still there today. It was completely innocent when we started it. And today, with Olivier Girouard, Ekumen creates huge public art infrastructures shown around the world.

In 2008, I left the direction of Ekumen to assume the role of artistic director for the Akousma Festival (a mandate now overseen by Louis Dufort).

G : Did Ekumen allow you to  become part of the contemporary music scene?

N : It’s funny because what prevents you from becoming part of a scene is exactly what will allow you to distinguish yourself if you persist. If your approach is caught in between two stools and doesn’t fit with the traditional framework, you tell yourself that it’s not going well and that nobody will take any interest in your work. Except at some point, it works precisely because you offer something refreshing.

At first, it was really difficult to fit in, because the electronic music scene was based on the premise that everyone travelled with a laptop, a 1/8” cable and a VGA cable to do a laptop performance. When you asked for four 1/4” cables, two spots on the stage and 3 hours of editing when usually sound checks only lasted 15 minutes, the organizers were reluctant. Today, electronic music performances are far more complex and the producers are getting used to it.

G : So, you were caught in between two stools for a long time. When did you feel like you were finally sitting on the right stool?

N : I should like to think I’ll always be stuck in between two stools, but I’ve become much more comfortable on my own stool with the La chambre des machines project. First of all, because it’s a show in which we [with Martin Messier] are physically involved. The show couldn’t go on if our bodies didn’t move with the piece, as opposed to an electroacoustic or a video piece. Secondly, we’ve done a lot of tours for the first time. In contemporary music, the opening night for a piece is also often its last. Quite a contrast.

G : So music becomes your “real” job after La chambre des machines?

G : No, I forced that earlier. In 2006, I decided to stop doing web contracts, which was my cash cow throughout school. It’s not that I made a decent living from my art, far from it, but I was intent on only making music. I became very poor... But happy!

G : That’s pretty much where  I’m at! [Laughs]

N : With respect to projects,  I’ve always been irrational. I never wanted my projects to be dependent on a funding system where you only work if you’re funded. I always start my projects telling myself that it won’t cost me a lot of money, but even if I always start with a $2 gadget, when you work with equipment (not just a computer), you get to $200 pretty fast, and then $2000... Or $20,000. I’m keen on keeping a certain freedom in my creative process, to only do it when I feel like it, without waiting for anyone. It’s the only way for me to pursue my ideas. Besides, I always  get a return on my investments  eventually. That’s how I addressed the frequencies (a) project deficit... When I won the Prix Ars Electronica!

A composer with glasses through a futuristic glass window.