Intervista a Olivier Alary

Titolare del progetto Ensemble, con cui ha pubblicato tre dischi di cui gli ultimi due usciti per la FatCat Records. Ha collaborato con Bjork con cui ha anche scritto il brano Desired Constellation. Ha realizzato le sonorizzazioni per varie installazioni e negli ultimi anni si è avvicinato alla musica per film. Sta realizzando il suo prossimo disco che uscirà per FatCat Records e si chiamerà Fictions / Non Fictions. Per me più che altro è colui che ha scritto alcuni dei miei brani preferiti degli ultimi anni, tra cui i due qui sotto. Brani in grado di ricreare i suoni e le sensazioni della nostalgia, riuscendo come spesso accade con la musica a mutare qualsiasi sentimento di tristezza altrimenti negativo in piacere.


LM: Your musical cv looks brilliant, and probably it’s the result of en effort which lasted for years and features hard study and a lot of practice, plus the ability of proposing yourself and your skills in the music industry. How do you feel with your professional path? Are you satisfied of what you have done?

OA: There are certain things that I am proud of but I feel that I still have to improve my composition skills and my understanding of music. It’s an endless quest. Equally fascinating and frustrating. In retrospect the change of career path that I chose (from being a recording artist to a film composer) has been a blessing so far. The only way I made some decent money was through the Björk collaborations. All the ensemble albums did not bring any substantial revenue, really.

LM: Have you ever perceived any necessity for putting off definitely musical commissions from other committents and focusing only on your artistic needs?

OA: Of course! It’s always a struggle to find time for personal projects. For example, I just finished the music of two films and now I have 10 days to work on a piece for my second solo instrumental album on Fatcat records. I have to come back to what I did previously and build back the creative momentum, write more, then stop for a couple of weeks in order to work on another film. It can be quite schizophrenic.

LM: Is it possible that musical jobs and individual artistic needs can converge nowadays? How do you manage this commonly conceived trade-off between these two divergent lines?

OA: I think that it’s a case by case scenario. Since the end of ensemble, I’ve decided to move more towards instrumental music. Today, there’s less and less distinction between some of my film work and my personal work. Also, I developed a lot of new textures and writing techniques through film music. I’ve also learned a lot about music budgets and music mixing through film which can really help me in the recording world. The main difference now is that my work is a bit more experimental and not attached to any moving image whatsoever.

LM: Most parts of the Ensemble album Excerpts (2011, FatCat Records) remind me the sweet melancholy of travelling and leaving one place for one another, which can be represented with the deep reverberant acoustic guitar strumming of some of your songs. Maybe I was influenced by the video of the train sketches from the title track. Was it your feeling when You were writing and arranging these music pieces?

OA: Thematically speaking, Excerpts was about the collecting and cataloging of memories. How they are changed by the sheer quantity of media surrounding us. I have been subjected to so many films, records and books that I sometimes cannot distinguish fiction from reality; what I’ve lived from what I’ve seen, heard, or read. I remember weddings I’ve never attended, kisses with someone I’ve never met, childhood landscapes that I only saw on screen and faces of friends I’ve never had.

This dizzying confusion that either alienates or triggers nostalgia was the subject of the album.

LM: That wonderful sound that we hear along the album and can be described as a gaping harmonica with a little bit of distortion and sometimes having an amplitude modulation of 1/16 (in the title track for example), where does it come from? Do you like to think about it as an old train locomotive?

OA: This is actually something that I developed for a film and used again throughout Excerpts. It’s a vibrating physical object that I plugged into an oscillator.

I just like the sound of it. I never attached any meaning whatsoever to it, though.

LM: “There are certain things that I am proud of but I feel that I still have to improve my composition skills and my understanding of music. It’s an endless quest. Equally fascinating and frustrating”. It’s a good point, I’m quite fascinated from learning theories since in these last months I worked a lot on a machine learning system. Recently some researchers focused on the concept of deliberate practice, developing theories that favor the way in which one person practices instead of natural tendencies or how much times a person does a particular task. While I like such types of readings I don’t believe anymore in theories and models that try to discern the key aspects of career success as a matter of learning methodologies. Instead I ask myself if it is possible to enhance your abilities and your motivations for your whole life, or conversely each person has its own age limit beyond which she starts loosing strength and motivations for learning anything new. What do you think about that? Is the life-long learning a real possibility?

OA: I can only reply with my own personal perspective. Music is such a wide field that it can take a lifetime to explore one aspect of it. I feel compelled to explore and learn because I am not satisfied with my work and my understanding of music. As I wasn’t classically trained when I was a child, I can really see myself learning for my whole life. But I also know other musicians who are totally content with their limited skills and made a career out of it. It’s a personal choice, I guess.

LM: Why so many artists make their best albums at the beginning of their career? Do they get too satisfied from too much success with respect to their psychological maturity? I don’t think it’s your case, your album Excerpts was far more brilliant than the previous Ensemble album, in my own opinion.

OA: Thanks! I agree also. For me each Ensemble album documents how I was trying to master new techniques at a certain time. Sketch proposals was about learning electronic music and basic production. Ensemble was about learning more challenging mixing and production techniques. And finally, Excerpts was about learning to write more precisely and stop hiding behind a wall of sound. Fiction / Non-Fiction (which will be released by FatCat later this year) is a compilation of personal and film music work that also shows a progression in instrumental composition. I like elements of all these records, but I don’t feel satisfied with any of them, really. They just represent a snapshot of my musical path at a given time. I think that what you’re saying can be applied to youth oriented music. (rock/pop/indie/hip-hop/etc..) As this music is most of the time based on image, youth and energy, it’s by definition quite transient and ages quickly.

It’s impossible to recreate what you felt in your twenties when you’re older.This is the reason why, bands like the rolling stones or even worse the sex pistols look and sound so pathetic nowadays. But If you look at jazz, classical or modern composers, they don’t really encounter this issue at all. Their music is more about maturity then youth.

LM: The musical evocation of nostalgia is something I really learnt to love when I was a child and listened to some soundtracks of Ennio Morricone, especially the music from Once Upon a Time in America, which is a huge cinematographic work based on nostalgia. I do think that Excerpts is the best musical concept on nostalgia over the last years after the Goldfrapp album “Tales of Us”. The mix of acoustic sounds like strings and strumming guitars with the electronics is perfectly calibrated, and the margins between these two sound universes tend to vanish. How much did Johannes Malfatti help you with the technical making of the album? Are still collaborating with him?

OA: Johannes is great collaborator and one of my best friends. We’ve been working together since 2001. He did the string arrangements and the mixing of the second ensemble album in Berlin. He was more involved in Excerpts as we also co-wrote songs together, co-arranged and co-mixed the album.

We still work on projects sometimes. As he’s Berlin based and I live in Montreal, we work through internet and chat. We both have more or less the same computer and recording system so that we can send sessions back and forth between Germany and Canada. it works quite well.

LM: Still about the album theme, you talk about the sheer quantity of media surrounding us, do you miss old physical support for memory? Don’t you feel like we are as men drowning into too much digital information and loosing much of the pleasure that carried the discovery and the conservation of a photo, or a painting, or a musical album?

OA: I am not really a medium fetish, I am not really a collector either. I find incredible the fact that we have access to music so easily through internet or digital means. Also, we’re flooded with cultural information but most of it is quite redundant and beige. So I find that it’s quite easy to filter the stream and find interesting things.

What I find very strange is the ever present feeling of nostalgia for periods such as the sixties, seventies and eighties in our collective culture from film, literature, music and fashion. It feels that we are constantly reassessing these eras and for the generation that came after, there’s a feeling that we missed something great. But as we’ve seen it so often in documented forms, we can only feel the weight of nostalgia for it. We yearn for this idealized era that we never lived, for beautiful places that we’ve never been to. It’s very strange to feel a sense of loss for something we don’t even know. it’s as if time had stopped and the past became continuous.

LM: Olivier, thank you very much for your answers, one last question about your upcoming album, will it be instrumental or still with lyrics? Will it have a concept behind it?

OA: Fiction / Non-Fiction is my first solo album on 130701 (FatCat records). It is a compilation of soundtrack and personal instrumental pieces that I composed from 2008 to 2015. I am currently working on the follow-up record but it’s too early to know what it’s about, really.I’ve been researching and developing experimental pieces to explore the intersection of electronic music and post-tonality. The concept and direction will emerge in the coming months. The only sure thing is that it’ll be instrumental.