Mutek Interview: France Jobin – Sound Installation Artist

Photo Credit: Fabio Perletta

Montreal based multidisciplinary sound artist France Jobin is certainly not unfamiliar with Mutek. Her debut in 2001 performing under the alias i8u saw her become the first female audio artist ever to perform at Montreal’s annual festival celebrating digital creativity and forward-thinking electronic music. France takes a minimalist approach to sound, immaculately merging digitally processed field recordings with raw analogue rumblings to create immersive site-specific ‘sound sculptures’ that reimagine the audience’s listening process. Now, leading up to her eighth appearance at Mutek as part of Thursday night’s Red Bull Music Academy NOCTURNE 3: Drone Activity in Progress at Metropolis, we were super fortunate to have the opportunity to chat with France to learn more about her conceptual approach, artistic influences and what we can expect to experience on Thursday night.


It’s now been 16 years since your Mutek debut. What do you think have been the most significant developments in your work and the biggest milestones for you over the past 16 years? What would you say have been the major catalysts which have spurred these developments? Do you think your experiences performing at Mutek has at all shaped the direction of your work?

I’ve been very fortunate because Mutek really put me on the map early on. It was a huge influence in exposing me to so many different genres of electronic music, and to great artists such as Taylor Deupree, Kim Cascone, Goem and Richard Chartier, who is a forerunner in the minimalist, reductionist international community. I became very interested in the sounds that were coming out of those early Muteks and in a movement which was so new to me. At the time, I was still working with hardware – synthesizers, samplers, and all of that. Within four years, I went from hardware to laptop performance. It just turned out that the laptop became my instrument for ambient music, I can’t express myself as clearly with anything else. Mutek was also a springboard that really provided me and a lot of others with an incredible platform to go and experiment, because you feel safe enough to do so within a context of a very open audience.

Your sonic installations and live performances are usually created with substantial consideration of the environmental space in which they will be displayed and experienced. Your project immersound even curates the physical state in which your audience receives your work, for a given space. Do you feel limited presenting your work in an environment which you cannot completely curate, such as the Mutek shared festival bill, or do you tend to adapt to work the situation to your advantage in the shaping of your set?

Immersound was a nice experiment that came out of considerations I felt about three key elements often left unaddressed in the ways audio and sound art events were presented in concert. Number one, I felt that there often was a disregard for the comfort of the audience. You’re being asked to sit on creaking, uncomfortable wooden chairs in a quiet gallery space to listen to a minimal artist… when I left the gallery I did not hear people talking about the sound or the event, I heard people complaining about their backs! The second thing that I wanted to address was the sound system itself. I found that sound artists should really be given the proper sound system to play with. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to cut a bunch of frequencies because I know they won’t be represented well. The third thing was the length of performances, which often are too lengthy. Even for someone who has gone to a lot of presentations, after a certain time, I am no longer receptive! I wanted to minimise both the number of artists and length of performance, I think it’s better when people walk out and want more, rather than the reverse… that’s immersound.

As fas as going into a space I cannot control, it’s completely fine and a lot of fun for me as anything is possible! I think I experience something called architectural synaesthesia – I walk into a space and I know what can be done and what can’t, and I use the room as an instrument, and adjust accordingly. I like to inspect the space prior to a performance as much as possible, and understand the shape of the room, height of ceilings, materials that are used, even windows, to determine the resonance and ways sounds would come out. I’ve been to a lot of concerts at Metropolis with Mutek over the years, and my performance is created taking into consideration that it is at Metropolis.

Photo Credit: Fabio Perletta

More generally, what can the audience expect to be immersed in on Thursday? And more on the technical side, can you let us in on what your set-up looks like for your show? Clues on hardware? Visuals?

My setup is very minimal. My philosophy is that I need to be able to get on my bike and go play, so whatever I can pack in a backpack is what’s coming. For Mutek, I’m using sounds from pre-recorded modular synthesizers as well as processed field recordings, so it’ll be laptop, soundcard, mixer and my midi-controller to process as I go. That’s the extent of my set-up, very small!

Touching more on this weight that you place on listening environment, what is the difference in your creative process when producing works destined to be listened to in a context that you can’t control, such as your solo recordings, versus works designed to be experienced live in a reception environment which you curate?

The albums are completely different from the way I approach live concerts because they’re full of details that are very controlled – I can go OCD and work on a 3-second fade for a week if I want to. I really like to produce albums that are very minimal, also in terms of volume. There’ll be some dynamics, but generally speaking the albums recently have been very quiet in order to draw the listener in. It’s a nice thing for me to create a work where people have to sit down and listen to, that they can’t vacuum to, you know? I’m hoping in that respect that people get a little bit of quiet time from their busy lives.

The concerts are the complete opposite. As of late I’ve been presenting more loud, physical concerts. It’s really the space that determines what I’m going to do, the more quiet works require a very specific context like that of immersound. Most of the time, it is rare I can have access to such a setup, so I have to go full out… which is fun anyway!

I read on the Mutek website the description of your performance is ‘vacuum phase transition: an exploration of metastability’… could you please expand on what this means?

I’m a bit of a nerd and I love science, I think if I wasn’t a musician I’d be a physicist! I’m unsure whether my interest in physics happened first, or going into minimalism and realizing physics has minute elements to it that are really similar, such as string theory and the elegant universe.

‘Vacuum phase transition’ explores ideas of vacuum decay, states of energy and stability, a desire to reach a stable ground state, and the Higgs field, which is metastable – faking being stable. I think this has a parallel meaning with life, that everything goes on ok, then suddenly, unexpected experiences will hit you and alter everything you know – it seems especially relevant to the events in my life over the past 6 months.

Photo Credit: Fabio Perletta

Following this, do you find a substantial amount of your work is inspired from your personal life? And how do you represent this ‘vacuum phase transition’ concept in your performance?

I’m inspired by everything, but I find my life is usually very chaotic so part of the reason why I make chill, minimalist music is that it is a state I try to reach, and I only seem to reach it when I’m making music.

In the performance, the material is always shifting across various states and nothing is exactly stable, as soon as something becomes stable it’ll move. This contrasts to my usual nice development of material, but the transitions are still my number one concern, like always.

Your most recent recorded work has very much been delving into the various manners in which dynamics can engage listeners, and I suppose also comparing the effects that silences can have to the immediacy of a sound? I understand from your Infinite Grain interview you aim to use quieter dynamics to encourage audiences to listen more actively and exclusively? Would you say your intention is mostly to redefine the listening process itself, rather than advancing an explicit meaning as a result of what is heard? Do you tend to prefer for your audience to draw their own conclusions and make their own interpretations from the work you present?

I think it’s more a question of helping people to explore the listening process. People lead such busy lives and are removed from their listening environment, but being a more active listener to one’s environment, you become an active listener to yourself. When I make works that are quiet, I invite people into my head to explore how I hear and listen. Using silence is efficient to get people to zone in on the experience of listening and essentially if I achieve this point, then my works become secondary and people hear themselves, which is even more important. Children are great at this, they hear everything. I guess I’m going back to when I was a kid zoning out with headphones on the floor for hours.

Everybody comes in with their own frame of reference. Oftentimes, people ask me what type of music I make, then I ask what they listen to and explain what I do based on what their answers are, because I can’t explain what I do. I record the fridge, I record the elevator, I record all these sounds that people don’t listen to anymore, I reprocess them and change them to a different form but essentially people listen to their fridge and they don’t know it! In that way, I guess that I recycle sound. I do prefer the audience to have their own interpretations.

You are viewed as an ‘artist’ as well as a ‘composer/producer’, perhaps owing to your deliberate utilisation of musical and non-musical sounds as a medium for conceptual explorations. How do you manage to find such a refined and cohesive compatibility between the technical and the conceptual in your work?

That’s easy! The technical is just a tool I use to communicate and express; I use the best tool to translate what I hear in my head. The conceptual always seems to come first for me, I need substance upon which the work can sit on very solidly. Oftentimes what I notice with media and sound art is a lot of it rests on technical aspects, but when you take that out, everything falls apart. Do you make work based on what the technology or gear enables you to do, or do you use the gear to do what you need to be done? The conceptual and technical are inseparable for me.

Composers and producers would sometimes say that in their creative process, they may run into the issue of not knowing when to stop and oftentimes risk overdoing or overcomplicating their work. As a sound artist who takes an approach that values minimalism and reductionism as core aesthetics, how do you know when a piece is complete? Do you work more from stripping back and re-contextualising, rather than building?

The first thing I do is I build a sound bank. I record a bunch of field recordings, making say 20 minutes of recorded sounds, and come out of that with at least 200 sounds. They’re very minimal – I find a second of sound I like and cut that out, and process it, manipulate it. Once I have a sound bank, I develop a concept, such as ‘vacuum phase transition’ this idea of metastability, and I find ways for my sounds to represent this idea. It’s definitely a building phase, and very often after that it’s a cutting back phase.

In the same Infinite Grain interview, you said you tend to be disciplined to work every day, but restrain from settling into a routine approach or work-flow. Is your process liberal and the output a result of experimentation and intuition, or do you usually have a distinct and intentional vision from conception that you work towards? How do you make your creative decisions – especially as someone who works with an intersection of analogue and digital, found sounds and field recordings as well as programmed sounds.

The sound programming, weirdly enough, is always a variation of experimentation and intuition, but I always have an intentional vision. I don’t know which comes first at times – sometimes it’s the concept, a direct vision, and other times I’d have a sound or 20-second loop I’d want to work with. I did an entire concert once with a 20-second loop that completely changed entirely from beginning to end.

The thing I’m most afraid of is becoming stagnant, inspiration doesn’t just happen you know? The discipline of working every day is that if you’re lucky, certain days you get that brilliant moment. When I’m completely blocked, I just leave everything, go for a run on the mountain – it’s like a reboot.

Sounds are like children, they have personalities. Some sounds get along, some sounds don’t. It’s just a matter of putting the right sounds together, knowing what will work with what. I’m rather obsessed right now with weird musical transitions; I’m mixing sounds that shouldn’t be mixed together. I’m doing things that trick the ear. You have two melodic things happening together and one will be major and one will be minor and be slightly off enough to be uncomfortable, but enough for your ear to adjust to and correct.

I love analogue, it’s very organic. And the sounds that I’m using from field recordings are also very organic. You can’t get more raw, more beautiful than analogue gear. But I really like to mix analogue with processed sounds and the digital.

Photo Credit: Fabio Perletta

How has your experience as a classically- and jazz-trained musician shaped the way you initially approached electronic music and your attitudes towards it?

My instrument as a kid was piano. I haven’t touched the piano in I can’t even tell you how long now, except to use as a field recording. It’s the one recording that I don’t process to an unrecognizable state; it’s somewhat treated, but you can still hear that it’s piano. Classical music I still love, but I’ve never liked playing it because I didn’t know what state of mind the composers were in or what they intended, so I became very frustrated with the interpretation.

I was asked to join a blues band to play keyboard. For one song I’d be playing as a Hammond B3 organ with a leslie, and then horns section for the next, but the sounds that the keyboards came with I couldn’t stand, so it forced me to go into the machine and learn how to make those sounds better for what I wanted to achieve. That was my first little escapade in programming sounds, and then when I got into experimental music it became very important that I create my own sounds. That’s where the field recordings came into play as there’s millions of possibilities, as opposed to a drum machine or software that comes with a sound bank.

When I got into electronic music it took me about 3 years to unlearn everything I’d learnt about traditional music – working within a chord structure, a key, tempo, bars. When you’re playing piano, you’re playing one part and you’re already reading the next bar, which implies that you already know what’s going to happen. With experimental music, you can’t know what’s coming. Oddly enough now, after all these years, I’m starting to reapply my knowledge from classical music. Especially, a lot of the dynamics I’m using takes inspiration from blues music with the big builds and huge momentum then one snare shot drops to nothingness. It’s very effective and brilliant, really, and I’m re-including this concept in my live concert.

Do you think the future and progress of your music and audio-art and electroacoustic music in general will be most strongly influenced by the development of new technologies, or more-so by a re-imagination of the ways current technologies are applied, or something else entirely?

Well I would hope the re-imagination of the use of the technology. It’s important to come up with something that is not predetermined and limited by the software and the person who programmed it. Use it smartly, don’t read the manual, just go, explore and make it yours!

VR is also certainly interesting, in terms of sound environment it can be totally immersive. I’m already doing a lot of multichannel stuff in concert. For instance, I worked with sound engineers to build a concert from scratch in 10 days at EMPAC, running certain sounds through 24 different types of speakers, really surrounding the audience with sound. Visually, I work a lot with lighting. In terms of VR, maybe veering towards the direction of science and organic things; bacteria painting would be something I would be interested in exploring.

More future talk. What have you got planned for yourself and your work in the next week, month and year? Is there a direction you and your work is heading?

I’ve got about five different albums in the pipes coming out within the end of this year and the next. I want to make really weird beats that I can’t do with my laptop, so my focus in the coming year is exploring the modular synthesiser kit that I just built. It’s pretty crazy and unstable, so I’m aiming to bring it to the point where I can perform live, modular techno of sorts. There’s also more concerts on the horizon.

Finally, finishing up with the festival, are there any artists that you are most excited to see at Mutek? And in general, who or what has been inspiring you recently? Tell us what’s good!

The sad thing is the person I am dying to see is playing the same time as me, Graham Dunning, I’ve never seen him but his stuff looks amazing! And Robert Henke is when I’m sound-checking, those are the acts I’m really sad I’m missing. Aurora Halal, rRoxymore I really want to check out, Beatrice Dillon, Murcof, Nicola Cruz I’m hearing a lot of so I’m very curious, and Deathprod is playing the same night I am, what a treat! As usual I’m very curious, I’m going to everything that I can!

Recently I’ve been obsessed with Brazilian Bossa Nova, a very well known pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto who’s had collaborations with Fennesz and other people in the electronic music scene, especially his album ‘A Day in New York’. I’m listening to Boards of Canada like crazy, I love Atom’s ‘HD’ and Sly and The Family Stone.

Maria Wang