Music / Performance

In Conversation With Félicia Atkinson

Félicia Atkinson performing at ISSUE Project Room (Photo: Cameron Kelly courtesy ISSUE Project Room)

How many imaginary dialogues with dead poets have you had lately? Multidisciplinary artist Félicia Atkinson recently orchestrated an experimental performance in dialogue with Francis Ponge’s “The Candle (La Bougie)” from his collection Le Parti Pris des Choses (Siding with Things) at ISSUE Project Room in Brooklyn. An incantation of sorts, Atkinson’s sonic dreamscapes are haunting and hypnotic. In her performance, which followed a trance-like performance by Afrikan Sciences, Atkinson ebbed between a web of analogue and digital tools, including amps, modules, a metallophone, a collection of stones and tiny cymbals she found in India, and a grand piano, played in tandem with her lucid vocals. A few days after her New York performance, Jessica Caroline conducted a debrief of sorts with Atkinson from her Airbnb while on tour in Chicago—speaking of secrets untold, words unread, and sounds manifest:

JC: What’s your sound of choice today?

FA: There is an interesting combination of music being made from the dishwasher of my Airbnb apartment and the L train that I find captivating. The dishwasher makes sounds of tiny sharp throat lozenges, whereas the L train is more like an overwhelming, rapid, gravel wave.

JC: Expression of the day?

FA: Far niente! [“pleasantly doing nothing”] since it’s my first day off in about a month. Doing nothing is a bit like silence; it’s both a something and a nothing–a secret room difficult to reach.

JC: Favorite object for making noise?

FA: Stones. I collect them when I travel and have a various collection of them. I don’t label them, but remember where I picked them, either it’s from the Sonoran desert or the coast of Brittany, but I can’t tell which is which. They become a “mélange.” I discovered music made of stones during a workshop lead by Christian Wolff about his own work, and John Cage and Cornelius Cardew. I was studying at Les Beaux Arts de Paris at that time–it was my first year there and this experience was an epiphany to me. It made me want to play music, a practice I had stopped for 10 years, between ages 14 to my age at that time, 24. But I didn’t start using stones in my performances until last year. I am slow burner. First, I started using them as a silent gesture during my concerts: it felt like I wanted to move something, or act, but I didn’t want to add any sound to the ongoing performance, so I moved stones. And then, slowly, I started to make sounds out of it–not all the time, only intermittently.

Félicia Atkinson performing at ISSUE Project Room (Photo: Cameron Kelly courtesy ISSUE Project Room)

JC: The most intolerable noise to your ears?

FA: Hearing/listening to someone’s pain is the most awful thing. For example, a dog behind a door that feels desperate is very painful. Or people arguing very loud. Or a child crying for hours in a train. I feel my incapacity to make it stop and therefore, I feel like I get very vulnerable and in pain too. I once recorded, secretly, a very odd argument between a man and a woman on a train. They were not talking loud; they were almost whispering. It was a strange grammar argument. The man was teaching French to a woman, reading together some kind of lesson on an iPad, but he was also commenting on the French lesson in English. He was very mean to her, saying she wasn’t understanding the “complement d’objet direct.” He was so rude. I almost said something but didn’t. I felt stupid not knowing how to interject. I didn’t know what to do, so I recorded the exchange as a secret proof of something that was so absurd, but also aggressive at the same time. He was lecturing her so much, and she was so passive. I called the recording file “The Grammar Argument.” I never used it though.

JC: Can you talk a little about your process for your 2017 album Hand in Hand, without giving all the mystery away, of course…

FA: I think I compose music the same way I write, draw or make installations. I construct spaces that are in-between, “potential spaces,” as Donald Winnicott would put it. I think horizontally and vertically; I think diagonals, spirals, air and depth. I remove objects and add color. For Hand in Hand, I thought about gravity, deserts, moons, biospheres, plants in hostile environments. I wanted each track to deal with granular textures, to oppose wet to dry, the curved to the swollen. I also recorded at EMS studio in Stockholm and used, for the first time, two Buchlas and the SERGE. My approach to them was very candid and ceremonial. I felt I was a child meeting an alien in an 80’s sci-fi movie. I wanted to believe. I wanted to interfere. I wanted to be taken away with them. This record was thought as kind of escape, a journey, like those Environment Records from Irv Teibel at the crepuscule of the 60’s. But I wanted also this voyage not to be nostalgic, or retrograde, I wanted the record to be able to look at a possible future, however scary this future is, like a round window of some kind.

JC: The Afrikan Sciences performance that came on prior to your performance at ISSUE Project Room was super pulsating and rhythmic. We were all quietly spazzing against the back wall so as not to annoy seated people. Were you dancing and getting into it too? I noticed that your performance shifted the mood after interval. Whereas the former performance was an Afrofuturistic, shamanic serenade, yours was akin to an incantation, or a summons. I’d go so far as to say a séance. Plus it was a full moon that night! There was definitely something witchy and spellbinding going on, you were in a zone that, at first, was self-contained but then throughout the performance gradually became more porous. Did you feel that vibe too? Do you actively try to lose boundaries between yourself and others, or is it more of a thing arrived at passively?

FA: Aha! I am so glad you saw through me. I agree with you. I felt the whole night deForrest Brown Jr. curated at IPR was very symbolistic. And that each performance was like two different poles of the same planet. A performance is always a kind of strange exchange between the audience, the performance, the environment and some absent forces that enter through it. I often construct my sets this way, in this kind of energy flow where we need to keep some moments vacant, so an exchange can be made. Sounds, thoughts and energies makes waves between the audience and the performer, and at the end, I want the audience to feel that they “received” something. It’s complicated to make a gift, because first you need to charge yourself. But I believe a good concert /performance is when this exchange is right and the audience is giving as much as the performer. I think it happened that night of the full moon at ISSUE and I feel very grateful. It’s like, all together we’re making a “situation” where things can happen. As Mallarmé said: Jamais un coup de dé n’abolira le hasard… [A throw of the dice will never abolish chance] This riddle is sort of talisman for each performance I have to offer.

Afrikan Sciences performing at ISSUE Project Room (Photo: Cameron Kelly courtesy ISSUE Project Room)

JC: The night after your show I was laying in bed listening to my roomie making her breakfast. Every container, every grain pouring into a ceramic bowl and the clinking of the spoon… I don’t want to tritely label it as “mindfulness,” but it’s more of an attentiveness to objects and their sound. I remember as a kid going to the shopping mall with my mother and was obsessed with that subtle clomping of high heel shoes on the glossy tiles. I tried to recreate the sounds wearing my mother’s shoes at home, but our floors couldn’t produce the same slickness and sensuality. Was sound always innate to you as well? Even in childhood? Do you recall what was your first sound obsession?

FA: I think this awareness of sound you are talking about  is very important. It can transform the way you deal with the world, actually. As a child, I felt very annoyed by noise. I was living in Paris in a not-very-well-soundproofed apartment and I first experienced sound as something that was aggressive to me, that was invading my personal space, whether it was at home hearing neighbors or in the subway to go to school.

But I remember two things that would give me comfort:

Once was I was in Poland staying at my aunt’s studio, it’s was a very small apartment and while I was still sleeping in the morning I could hear my mum and her sister whispering very fast in Polish in an intense discussion while drinking coffee. I loved listening without understanding. It’s my first experience of what I call “ la langue retournée,” I don’t know how to translate it directly, but it implies a language in a state of reversal, of returning, like a sweater that you would wear back to front. I found it beautiful and intriguing soundwise.

And then, another experience. I was around 10 when I had these anxieties with sound and my father, who listens to a lot of music, proposed to me an experience. He said, go to your room, alone, close the light off and listen with your eyes closed to Alexander Borrodine’s “In the Steppes of Central Asia” from the beginning until the end. And it was my first deep listening experience. It’s a very dramatic piece of music, almost too epic for me now. But it worked on my 10 year-old self very much. And I think I started listening better after these two epiphanies.

JC: What is it about Ponge’s La Bougie in particular that spurred you to adapt it in performance? How do you go about creating distance between his original text and your own?

FA: When I was in high school everybody in my class would praise Ponge, and I thought it was boring. Who care about soap? I was more into Lautréamont or Artaud, I wanted violence and despair, I wanted ego-related readings.

But 20 years later, I wanted to come back to Le Parti Pris des Choses. I needed this attention to objects. In this digital, image-oriented world, what’s the experience of describing a thing in depth, with only words, without image? I tried to consider this material as dark matter I would soak and fall into, a slow typhoon, using on one hand, Alice in Wonderland’s method, in which she swirls in the underground and on the other hand, the avant-garde collage method, in which I would deconstruct the text and move words like pawns in a chess game.

JC: I adore his matter-of-factness, the humor and his willingness to be eluded by ineffable Otherness… Such acts of seeking voices from the voiceless seems as much a political gesture as a poetic one. Do you agree?

FA: Exactly. It’s very accurate in these times when we start to acknowledge again that non-human spirits, elements, can have rights too. That’s why I chose The Candle and The Water. I mean, air, light and liquids are the essential elements of any life, are they not?

JC: Agreed. Do you feel that Ponge’s poetry can get lost through French to English translations?  

FA: Yes, but it’s ok to be lost in translation. There is a strange beauty in those misunderstandings that I cherish very much.

JC: Did you ever read Derrida’s analysis of Ponge’s Fable? Was it any easier to comprehend in French?

FA: I haven’t yet but I want to, although I have sometime troubles with Derrida. I don’t agree with what he says, for example, in Voice and Phenomenon, about the oddity of listening to your own voice. However, I enjoyed Animal therefore I am, particularly the part where he talks about the strangeness of being naked in front of his cat.

Félicia Atkinson performing at ISSUE Project Room (Photo: Cameron Kelly courtesy ISSUE Project Room)

JC: I’ve gotta read that. I was listening to your latest album Hand in Hand. Valis, a track evoking Philip K. Dick’s novel VALIS (acronym for “Vast Active Living Intelligence System”) by lifting quotes from the tractate by Horselover Fat, Dick’s third person self:

“We did not fall because of a moral error; we fell because of an intellectual error: that of taking the phenomenal world as real. Therefore we are morally innocent. It is the Empire in its various disguised polyforms which tells us we have sinned. ‘The Empire never ended.”

This one, particularly the final sentence, resonates in your composition, not to mention its relevance to this day. I think VALIS shares a kinship with C.G. Jung’s The Red Book, in that both are grappling with deep psychic trauma and demons and gnostic phases of the self … VALIS was published in 1981 and then Dick himself passed in 1982 (born in 1928!) I have a thing with numbers and reversals just like Dick did. Do you? Do you find yourself having a weird psychic affiliation with materials “born” the same year as you?

FA: Actually, yes I do!

I discovered that book through the experimental filmmaker Alexander Stewart who was making a short film inspired by VALIS and asked me to do the soundtrack (which happened to be an alternative version of  the track VALIZ in Hand in Hand. I hope you ll have a chance to see his film, it’s beautiful.) Alexander sent me a list of sentences I could use for the voice of the track. I haven’t read the book yet. It was just after the news that Trump was elected; it’s the last track I composed for the record. I find that quote so striking.

JC: Was there a reason to de-acronym the title?

FA: I changed the acronym at the last minute. There is this term in French called “mot valise” which means “a word that is a suitcase.” It defines an invented word that embedded at least  two words in once. In English, you say “portmanteau. It was used by Lewis Carroll often. I wanted to make a mot “valise” with “valis” and I turned it into VALIZ, which means suitcase in French. It’s a little inside linguistic joke that i didn’t wanted to reveal, but… here you are 

JC: That’s very Derridean of you! To what extent do you intellectually and creatively partake in the Dickian universe? Have you ever experienced visions like he did?

FA: I don’t feel I’ve had divine visions per se, but I do believe in the invisible and the unknown. Art and music is my way of swimming into it. For example, when I draw, I feel connected to the word of abstract shapes, I feel them in my body, I feel them in the cosmos. I did research on Daphne Oram’s archives and it seemed she was very interested in the way sound can be a way to communicate with plants, bodies and planets. I do believe that music and art is a way to communicate without words with the cosmos and that recordings and books are a thread to hold the hand of the dead. I feel that when I listen to Nina Simone, for example, she is in the room. If I look at a Clyfford Still painting, I receive something from him, a delayed presence through the painting.

JC: I love that idea of a delayed transmission of sorts. By the way, I see JG Ballard is another of your inspirations. I haven’t thought about Ballard for a minute, but it’s funny a friend just asked had I seen the adaptation of High Rise, which looks fantastic but I haven’t seen it yet. Can you talk about the track Vermillions from Hand in Hand?

FA: I used cut-ups from The Thousand Views of Stella Vista, a short story from Vermillion Sands. It’s about a house that evolves and moves depending on its inhabitants’ psychology and desire. I feel that text can be interpreted as a beautiful metaphor of the act of listening and hearing. The ear is an evolving thing, it shifts depending your state of body and mind. It’s very erotic.

JC: Ballardian to a T, shifting states of violence and eroticism! On the composer front, you’ve cited Joan La Barbara as one among other influences. Have you derived certain extended vocal techniques and compositional arrangements from her? Feel free to talk about Derbyshire and Ashley too, I know La Barbara worked either with or under Ashley as well as Cage… And any other influences…

FA: Yeah, the three of them La Barbara, Ashley and Derbyshire in The Dreams were very important to me. How narrative and abstraction can hold the same floating thread, one at each end. Also L’apocalypse de Jean by Pierre Henry, that I listened by accident at home as a kid and gave me a terrifying experience. And of course Cage’s Mesostics.

I don’t have any technique with voice though. I would love one day to take singing lessons actually. My choice of using voice was simple: I am a terrible singer but I take much pleasure in reading out loud. I take pleasure also listening to speaking voices in music. So I combined a lack of an aptitude to a research of pleasure and here it was, the speaking voice!

My favorite album of Joan La Barbara is 73 poems, from 1994 with Kenneth Goldsmith on Lovely Music dedicated to Cage. I read that she was inspired by the graphic design of the Goldsmith’s book–how words were playing with the blank of the page. Again, it was dealing with space. And each poem is so short. It’s so precise. It’s like a polishing a diamond to me. I also listen almost weekly to Improvement by Robert Ashley:

do you have the ticket? Yessss.

There is humor also in Ashley and La Barbara. It’s full of spirit! It’s brilliant.

Félicia Atkinson performing at ISSUE Project Room (Photo: Cameron Kelly courtesy ISSUE Project Room)

JC: I so agree. From glancing over your Instagram feed, you seem be enchanted by the desert. The desert is indifferent to humanity–it is a blank slate in which man imposes and projects his own anxieties and desires. It forces us to adapt to conditions of scarcity and disconnection. Can you describe your connection to such landscapes?

FA: Well, landscape teaches me. Between 2014 and 2016, I lived with my partner Bartolomé in the French Alps. Being so small in this vast entity changed my way of seeing the world and therefore making art. It’s like all of sudden I understood what the concept of dimension meant.

I felt the same going to the high desert five years in a row. I had a shock going to the Petrified Forest in Arizona and seeing those minerals that were once vegetals. The world shifts. Each state is impermanent. I also love, whether in a train, a car or while walking, to look at landscape while moving. I feel I am reading. I see landscapes, and especially the desert, as the best open score ever. I could read it forever.

JC: Your 2018 EP Coyotes is a response to the shifting nature of the desert. It also marks a kind of return to narrative and to slightly more conventional uses of instrumentation. Given how intellectually loaded the Western concept of the desert has become, with thanks in part to Baudrillard and Zizek (i.e., “the desert of the real”), in which there is no real left to distort, only competing and collapsing simulations, but also popularized as the site of a continuum of the empire, the final destination and the apocalypse, as in popular films like The Bad Batch, Mad Max, Jodorowsky’s Dune… Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness also dramatized the desert as a pinnacle spectacle of relentless war and its horrific seduction… Do any of these references resonate with you? It seems you’re conceiving a more organic connection to the desert, its specificity, its nuances… the desert as an interwoven site of ephemera, distortion and hallucinatory salvation…

FA: For me, those are very masculine ways of interpreting the desert. I feel I relate to it in almost the opposite way. Their way of interpreting it erases almost every presence that is not connected to the male body and the empire.

I feel closer to Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Martin, Andrea Zittel or Nancy Spero’s work. Or Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point’s melting dance desert. Or Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. Or Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines... It’s not toward the desert, it’s inside the desert. The desert’s earth owns, beside the danger and menaces of its rough environment, fragile and fertile elements, with which adobe houses are built, transforming pigment to paint, clay to mold, all drawing from the earth.

I went to Taos, to Abiquiu in New Mexico and felt close to Martin and O’Keeffe, but I also visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s house near Phoenix, Taliesin West, and Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, and the Biosphere II. I also enjoyed reading Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred. In the desert, the cohabitation between the hostile and the fertile is so interesting.

JC: That’s so succinctly put. Rothenberg is great. I love this poem by Essie Parrish, (spiritual leader of the Kashaya Pomo tribe, Sonoma County, California) transcribed by poet George Quasha:

And there is white light, at the center
while you are walking.
This is the complicated thing:
my mind changes.
We are the people on the Earth.
We know sorrow and knowledge and faith and talent
and everything.
Now as I was walking there
some places I feel like talking
some places I feel like dancing
but I am leaving these behind for the next world.
Then when I entered into that place
I knew:
if you enter heaven
you might have to work.
This what I saw in my vision.
I don’t have to go nowhere to see.
Visions are everywhere.

Pretty apt, considering where our conversation is at!

FA: Oh, I love that:

some places I feel like talking
some places I feel like dancing
but I am leaving these behind for the next world.

I met Rothenberg once–he came to a show of mine in Brussels with Charlemagne Palestine, I felt so honored! Also, I was in LA two weeks ago digging in David Antin’s archives at the Getty and found some beautiful poems by Rothenberg in those files, as well as the original issues of Some / Thing.

Félicia Atkinson performing at ISSUE Project Room (Photo: Cameron Kelly courtesy ISSUE Project Room)

JC: Special! I can certainly see Rothenberg’s influence on your work, the sense of a “slower music” as he would put it. In Coyotes, there’s a sense of a gradual arc of accumulation, a barren landscape in a state of adornment, a rich chimeric field. I can definitely hear a gentle, Yoshimura-esque lament, almost like a lullaby. Maybe even a bit of Basinski in there too. What was it about Yoshimura’s compositions that you wanted to emulate?

FA: I was interested in the concept of miniature garden and of the postcard. How the micro and the macro connect and how the abstract and figurative hold the same space–it’s just a choice of perspective and focus. In Music for Nine Postcards, the balance is so right, the melody stands at the exact distance. You hear resonance behind and before. It has various dimensions, yet it seems very clear. Like watching the clouds moving in the sky.

Yoshimura is drawing a line that is at the same time imperfect and perfect. It reminds me of Silvia Bächli’s drawings. It embodies a silent presence. It is simple. I love this word, “ simple.” I think simple is difficult to make. I hope one day I will be able to compose “ simple” music. I listened a lot to Haruomi Hosono’s “Watering a flower,” the music he composed for the first Muji Store. And Paul Bley “Open, to Love”. And of course a lot of Eno.

I love Grouper’s music so much, and I see a link with her music and Basinski’s music. The way she uses melody, voice and loops is unique. Listening to her music gave me a lot of courage to write my own. I feel very grateful to her work in that sense.

JC: Now seems an apt moment to ask, what would be a dream collaboration for you?

FA: Ah. That’s a tough one. I could say a strange one, like for example with someone who is no longer here and far from my music, like Miles Davis or Hildegard von Bingen! Or a score for Antonioni! I mean, if it’s a dream one, it’s something I would never think of. Something very odd that would turn into something very inspiring and joyful.

JC: Finally, can you talk about Shelter Press and any other upcoming collaborations or irl projects?

FA: Sure. Well, I am the co-pilot of Shelter Press with Bartolomé Sanson, my partner. We have published books and records since 2012. We worked with artists such as David Horvitz, Estelle Hanania or Camille Vivier, musicians such as Stephen O’Malley, Ben Vida or Tomoko Sauvage. The desire was from the beginning to gather book people and music people in the same room. Our next record is Justin Meyer’s LP, an acousmatic opus called “ Struggle Artist”, quiet a program, no?!

I just finished recording a collaboration with the musician Jefre Cantu Ledesma–it’s the follow-up of our first effort Comme Un Seul Narcisse (Shelter Press, 2016) and it will be out on Shelter Press next year.

I am currently working on my new LP. It’s exciting. But I keep everything secret about it so far.

Oh, and I just composed music for the aisles of a supermarket, a swimming pool and cellar window that will be distributed in May commissioned by La Galerie Art Center, in Noisy-le-Sec, a suburban town near Paris, as well as an 8-hour podcast for insomniacs that will be on air next full moon through the art center’s website. It’s gonna be a new experience for me, to unleash sounds like that in the streets and in the heart of the night. Think “situationist” meets werewolf!

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