So Many Listenings

Laetitia Sonami

OCCAM IX for Spring Spyre

When I started reaching out to chevaliers to solicit interviews I always was confronted, at some point, with the same question: will you talk to Laetitia? She was already on my list, but I found out, through talking to the others, how deep and special her friendship with Éliane has been over the years. 

Everyone in this issue is here for a specific reason. While some of us can give a very technical explanation of OCCAM, or grasp its metaphysical or social implications, Laetitia can talk about the uniquely human side of its creator. She and Éliane have been friends since 1976, when Laetitia was a young rebel that just wanted to play a synth and Éliane was one of the only people who had one. 

It’s that lens through which this conversation is focused, although a whole issue could be dedicated just to Laetitia’s own work in building and mastering her own instruments. Luckily, beyond her affinities with her friend, Éliane, we get into some of what makes her special in her own right. This conversation took place online on November 25, 2020 and has some added text from Laetitia that came later.

NW You originally studied with Éliane. How did you meet her and what was that like?

LS  “Studying” may not be correct. I was just 18 and recently returned from a year abroad in the States studying at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts where they had a VCS3 synth, and I thought it was so mysterious. When I was back in Paris, I tried to go to the GRM [Groupe de Recherche Musicales] and ask if I could just have access to the equipment. And they were like, oh, no, you have to go to conservatory first for three years. I actually didn’t care about music. I just wanted to play with a synth. So, a friend of my parents worked for Shandar Records which had sponsored a few of Éliane’s installations—that would have been early 70s, because I returned in 1976. I was extremely rebellious and unhappy with being in Paris—unhappy about everything—and was going through severe late adolescence! Anyway, this friend said there’s a person who has her own synthesizer—maybe there were just two people in Paris at that time, Jean-Michel Jarre being the other? So, I got introduced to her, that’s how I met Éliane. I didn’t actually know who she was. I was just 18, had no sense of a career; I just wanted to play a synthesizer. When I met with her, she said what she did with everybody: you can come three times. That lasted the whole year. She says I am her only student.

NW So, you just kept going? [laughs] What did you work on with her? Did she just show you the ARP and let you loose?

LS That’s where the word “studying” is incorrect, because mostly she created a place for me to be. She showed me how to play the ARP, and she would leave. She told me later that she would come back after a few hours and listen at the door; if she heard some good sounds she would just leave again. I would get there around noon, and then she would come back maybe around six. She just let me be there. And actually, the last time I saw her, I reminded her that she would leave me patches—“I never left you patches!” I said, yeah, I think you would leave me some matrix; you know, the ARP has this matrix. She would leave me some bare-bone-something to get me going.

And then when she would come back, she would prepare—you know—her dishes of plenty (Ed. Note: In my experience this is usually a group of snacks consisting of crackers, pickles, chips, cookies, and always a beer) and would talk late into the night. I would mostly listen to her as she had such a wide breadth of interests. I think that she did give me the Allan Strange book, Electronic Music, and said “here, study that,” but I don’t think we ever discussed the music I made. I know she listened carefully to it but did not comment much. She must have sensed that I just needed a place to do my own thing. I always felt encouraged to keep going. She must have recognized some kind of character that she was familiar with herself; kind of rebellious, not in the right place, that kind of thing. So, she said that she never taught me anything. It’s true, except that she taught me everything.

And imagine, I was 18, and she’s a woman with a huge synthesizer. She had huge speakers. She had paintings and sculptures. She talked about Egypt and the cosmos. It was amazing. I wanted to impress her. I wanted to make her like me, because Éliane is really such a spirit. I learned a lot from that mentorship in the sense of her allowing me to be the person I was trying to be. It’s funny, though: while I didn’t like any form of authority, I totally trusted her and would do anything to please her. I think her mentorship inspired me to stay receptive when I started teaching many years later.

NW She has many sides. But my experience with her is that she definitely knows what she likes. If she left you alone, it probably means she liked it.

LS Yes, I think so. She always said that she liked that I didn’t do her music. I think people who came would try to imitate her, so I think she liked that I had no desire to emulate. Now I wish I did; [laughs] now that I know more about her music.

NW Have you always been friends?

LS Oh, yes.

NW What is her feeling about your music now? You went from being 18 years old with no interest in music and no interest in a career, which is maybe the best way to start making music. And now you are a little older, make incredible music, and have a successful career. Do you ever talk with her about how that has developed?

LS A bit. It’s interesting, because she’s always said she never knew if I was going to be a visual artist or a sound artist. At the time I was very visual, and she had asked me to do a maquette of a piece that she has never realized, Les paroles gelées. I made this maquette which, when I see it now, it’s like, how would you even like it? But she thought it was interesting. She says now that I should realize the piece someday, but I don’t know if I will be able to, it is so complex.

She told me, “I don’t know what you are going to be, but you have to go back to America. You’ll never do anything here.” I think she’d been very happy in America and was happy that I connected with the people that she liked: Joel Chadabe and Robert Ashley and David Behrman. It was like we stayed connected through all these people who admired and recognized her—among the only people who did at the time. And I think she’s just really proud that her instinct was right, and that I ended up continuing.

Sometimes I feel like I’m an extension of things that she probably would have done if she was my age but didn’t. She had such a reluctance for technology—digital stuff—she did not like it. When I went back to America, she said I should try to check some of this computer stuff, because that may be the future(!). So, the fact that I ended up doing a bit more tech stuff was nice for her because it’s something she never ended up looking into. Maybe that was a nice thing; having a student that does those things that you would never do, or you did not have time to do.

NW I remember the first time I met her, one of the things she said was that she considered herself an American composer, because that is where she felt recognized. Do you think that she also wanted you to go to America, because you weren’t going to get the same opportunities in France?

LS Yes absolutely, and she probably did not want me to have the same struggle as she had experienced—the isolation—and she was right. With GRM, you had to follow a specific path and first go to conservatory. IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) was just being formed with specific ideas about the role of electronic music in the larger music pantheon. She had no luck—no, not a question of luck—no respect or support from any institutions. She could see that I would not manage in that environment. At the same time, I think she was very aware that there were things going on in the US like new developments in digital tools. So she was aware that, if you had a future, you would have to come here to know what that future was.

© Renetta Sitoy
© Renetta Sitoy

Now it’s changed, I think, but it took, what, 40 or 50 years? Now the GRM is all over her. But she also could have told me to go to Germany, because she did have some recognition there. I just think all her friends were here: Bob Ashley, David Behrman and Phill Niblock, Terry Riley and James Tenney. All the people she liked were here with their warmth and support.

NW She seems radical in the way that all of those people were radical. People like Ashley and Tenney and Behrman were moving away from the Columbia-Princeton “guys in suits with punch cards” aesthetic, and she was working separately from GRM and those kinds of institutions.

LS Yes, I think so; a kind of individualist streak, super independent. I wonder if she was influenced by a particular composer; I should ask her. In a way her music is very unique. I never really realized how radical she was in that way; 44 years later and I’m still trying to understand what it was to be doing what she was doing at that time.

And I’m going totally off track, but her relationship to feminism was unique as well. She would say that people wanted to pin her down as a feminist, but she could only fight one fight at a time. And doing her music was where all her energies went. She could not do both. It makes you realize how much energy it took. I mean, obviously, the concentration, the focus. But it also requires you to really believe in yourself, and that’s hard. And she’s been doing it for a really long time.

NW When you said Éliane wasn’t sure if you were going to become a visual artist or a musician, that set off a bell because, to me, your work seems to combine the two disciplines. At what point did you move from wanting to play a “stock” synthesizer to building your own instruments?

LS I think that was the influence of Mills College. I was at Mills in ’78 which was soon after I met her in ’76. She sent me first to Joel Chadabe at E.M.S. (Electronic Music Studios) Albany and then I went to CCM at Mills in ’78. I was so far from anything I had been brought up with, not just the French side and its separation between engineers and composers, but also my privileged background . I came here, and everybody was crazy. John Bischoff, Paul DeMarinis, and those guys were just building stuff, inventing technologies. I would go, “can someone build me something?” and they looked at me like, “build it yourself,” you know? Very Californian! Frankie Mann had a little group of soldering for women with Maggi Payne and me, and there must have been another woman. It was so exciting. It felt good to be soldering something. So I think I just started by seeing those people doing things and thinking I can try to do that too and became comfortable with burning circuits!

After that, it grew out of these very small curiosities. I never thought I was going to build an instrument. The lady’s glove started off as a joke that kind of kept going, and it became an instrument. And then I started recognizing its impact on my thinking about music and performance. It’s not so much the visual, but more the material world—or the physicality of sound, its embodiment—I don’t know how to express it. I cannot now think of sound outside of gesture, outside of body, outside of physicality. So this may be an extension of how she perceived my visual tendencies.

NW I feel like there was a moment when we first met that you told me you weren’t using the lady’s glove anymore.

LS Yes, back in 2013, I think. I started questioning my whole way of imagining sound, which was bound to that instrument. The sounds, the compositional process, the performative aspect, all were bound to its gestures and the mapping I had developed. I was curious what would happen if I took the instrument away, what would be left of my imagination.

I don’t have that much time—I mean, I’m in my 60s—and I felt I had to start thinking of something now if I wanted to change, because it took me 25 years to “master” the lady’s glove. I also remember thinking that if I am not going to make money with what I am doing, I should be free to do anything I want; I should be fearless. So, I explored various attractions, freeing myself and having some fun until the Spring Spyre started taking form. It took quite a while and I am still trying to understand it, but I knew I wanted certain things: I wanted there to be a chaotic proposition that opened me to improvisation—which I wasn’t really doing with the lady’s glove—and I wanted it to allow for different gestures and sounds and less spectacle.

What’s really funny is that I started developing this instrument and then I see Éliane—who I see every time I go back to France when I go visit my mother, who was also named Éliane; for me they’re like these two Élianes bound in my life—and she’s going on and on about all these instrumentalists like you, and Carol Robinson, and all these wonderful relationships she has, and she keeps on talking about the [OCCAM] pieces. And I wanted that relationship too! Maybe I was a bit jealous, or at least envious, and I felt I was missing on something big; you know? And so, I said, “can you do a piece for me?” I can still remember the café and the table we were sitting at when I asked her!

This was right at the time when the Spring Spyre was starting to take shape. She said, “what do you want to do?” I didn’t have confidence in the Spring Spyre yet, so I said, “I don’t know; field recordings?” She said no, she could not think of a composition with field recordings, so I told her I was building this instrument, that this is how it’s supposed to work, etc. And she says, “great!” And I’m like “shit.” But she was very curious and, again, had that generous spirit. She was trying to create an opportunity for me to move forward with something that I was not really clear about. So, I showed her the instrument and explained that it’s supposed to be totally flexible; for example, right now it’s this shape, but the next time I come it’ll have another shape because it’s supposed to adapt to the environment. She said: “Every time you come, it better look the same.” [laughs]

NW But it must be a really unique experience, because you’re dealing with an instrument that doesn’t have a history yet. You’re building that tradition from scratch.

LS It’s true, and I don’t think she was that interested in making an electronics piece. I think she took so much pleasure in working with—and listening to—instrumentalists and hearing those harmonics and those sounds. With the electronics, I think she was interested in working with the person and trying to weave something from it, but it didn’t have the same challenge. I think that she was very interested in that discovery of making this instrument become something, because it was a very different relationship between the performer and the instrument than typical electronics. I kept saying I felt like I was just doing a cheap version of her music, but she said it was totally different. However, with the electronics, when I heard Thomas Lehn in Paris last year, I was really blown away. I really loved it [OCCAM VI for synthesizer], but it was so different; much more bold than what I expected. I guess I was really trying to stick with a mindset that I knew was closer to hers, if that means anything. But I think she enjoyed the process of working together. I think the sounds were really interesting to her—and how the springs vibrate and undulate and how that motion impresses itself into the sound—but her heart is really in working with instrumentalists now.

NW I think our pieces are the only ones that have a visual performative component to them. It’s not a radically visual thing, but it’s very physical in comparison to other OCCAM pieces.

LS I think the thing that surprised me when I saw Thomas was how active he was; just moving the knobs and going for it! It is Éliane’s music, but he’s so active. I think she likes these kind of performative actions because, again, it’s a bit of an extension of those things that she did not do. I hadn’t thought about that in terms of my piece.

NW I just think that the instrument itself, you can’t help but be drawn to it visually.

LS Yeah. And it is interesting that her music was the first that I did with the Spring Spyre, because the instrument visually has that emptiness: a circle with a void. I’m just now thinking of how it visually seems to echo something about her work. It’s such a strong visual representation in the way of—not how she thinks because I don’t know how she thinks—but somehow the stillness of this void and its potential which manifests on the edges.

NW That was the first piece for the Spring Spyre. Have you been making pieces of your own since then?

LS Yes, I’m still discovering it, trying to understand it. I’ve made several pieces; the first piece that I made for it has evolved through several years. And then I perform with Zeena [Parkins] and an improv duo with James Fei.

NW I wonder now if a certain part of feeling Thomas’s performance was surprising is wrapped up in a reductive expectation of Éliane’s music as being an almost meditative space. For people experiencing it for the first time, they tend to classify it as drone or meditative music, and it’s neither of those things, which is why relating it to the shape of the instrument is so interesting. The Spring Spyre is not simply a circle; it’s very complex.

Éliane’s music has that surface tranquility and deep complexity so, when I’m watching people play OCCAM, I’m looking for their struggle. I find the amount of attention and energy that it takes to make that music one of its most interesting features.

Spring Spyre © Brown University
Spring Spyre © Brown University

LS For me, it’s the hardest piece I play for many reasons. Technically, it’s not so complex, you know. When we started, she said “you’re really not going to like working with me.” And I was like, “yeah, I know.” And she said “you’re going to have to do everything I say.” And I was like, “yeah.” [laughs] I was ready for it after all these years.

NW What was the hardest part?

LS Oh my God. Surprisingly, the hardest part was to listen; to really listen to what I was doing. I think I had forgotten to listen, at least the listening of the moment, of the present and its becoming. There are so many listenings, as you know, but, after years of performing with the lady’s glove, I was listening to the gestures, the arc of the piece, how successfully I was moving between mappings and managing 30 sensors in real time and making it all appear natural. Now I had to slow down. I had to hear and listen. She would hear so many things I was not aware of. And the crossfades—arghhh, that was hard and frustrating. I did not know how to manage them, “the alchemy of the crossfades,” how it is not about appearance and disappearance, but transformation. They still terrify me. I did not do crossfades with the lady’s glove; it is impossible. I learned so much. It’s this kind of abandonment. I don’t think I would do that with anybody else, you know? And it took me 40 years to get to that point of allowing myself to listen to her, but you have to trust someone to do that; really admire or respect them to work in that way. I learned probably more from the time working on that piece than anything all these years.

NW Éliane’s Tibetan Buddhism practice is something that is spoken about fairly often without a deep understanding of what it is or how it affects her work outside those pieces that clearly reference it. I know this is a tradition and practice you share with her. How has that affected your relationship and how do you see it affecting her, and your, compositional work?

LS Yes, it is essential. For Éliane, as she recounts it, the music she made before her involvement with Tibetan Buddhism—and the years she spent with her teacher—is the same as the music she made after, so we can’t say that it changed her compositional practice. It maybe made it more conscious? Or she could frame it better? All these are suppositions. Tibetan Buddhist practice is very personal. For myself, I was getting involved with that tradition around the same time I met her in 1976. I never wanted to talk about it to others; it was hidden, as I did not want people to try to connect my music to a spiritual influence. Now I am ok with it. I don’t worry too much any more about the expectations of others. But it is at the root of my music, which is probably hard to fathom, as the music is so full of contrasts and interruptions—not too chill! I try to make my music be a mirror of my mind—so full of interruptions, accidents, contrasts—until all these movements are absorbed and become a bit more undifferentiated. But we do talk about our experiences, the teachers we had. It does create a deep bond. It is as if we both come out of the same river.