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Interview with Francisco Meirino

by Chris Whitehead

Francisco Meirino lives in Lausanne, Switzerland and has been active in the field of experimental music since 1994. His work explores the tension between programmable material and the potential for its failure. He is fascinated by the idea of recording what is not normally deemed useful: The death of PA systems, gear failures, static, magnetic fields and electrical faults. He has collaborated with such artists as Dave Phillips, Mike Shiflet, Jason Kahn, Zbigniew Karkowski and ILIOS among others. Meirino has also worked with Michael Esposito, an expert in Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), in which human-sounding voices from an unknown source mysteriously appear on recording equipment. His latest release, ‘Untitled Phenomenas In Concrete’ was partly made using software developed by the composer Iannis Xenakis, which involves drawing waveforms and envelopes that are then rendered by the computer. To coincide with this release, Chris Whitehead interviewed Francisco Meirino in order to find out what forces shape his art.

-The Field Reporter

UNTITLED AND GRAPHICS

Q: Francisco, on your newest release ‘Untitled Phenomenas in Concrete’, you use an unusual piece of software devised by Xenakis?
A: Yes. As a “fan” of Xenakis I was at first really surprised by the UPIC idea, to “draw” sound. When I read more about his works, especially the polytopes and UPIC works, I decided to look in that direction, but of course, getting access to the real UPIC machine was very difficult. I tried many visual-to-sound softwares, like Methasynth, and did some max/msp patches, but nothing too fancy, or complex to really work with it.
I got more involved when the first version of HighC was made available. I did 85 of those HighC/UPIC sessions, from 12 to 480 seconds each.

Q: What does max/msp mean?
A: Max/msp is a unique and powerful software that allows you to create anything you want/imagine, either in sound or visual art, it’s very famous, very powerful but pretty hard to master.

Q: So the drawings on the poster that comes with the release are the score? That is what was fed into the computer programme?
A: No, the graphics designers, Xavier Robel & Eva Rittmer, did the reverse thing. They drew while listening to the record, to create a sort of mirror, like an answer to the whole CD concept. Some of the original drawings can be seen on my website. I did some videos where you can see and listen to them.
The label has a strong graphic line, very minimal, black and white. To use my original score was too complicated and I wanted them to listen and to do this process of mental drawing themselves, like any other listener. They did not see my score, only parts of it.
The visuals, are part of the concept. The graphic designers, the label and myself wanted to get the listener involved in the process of listening and watching at the same time, even if it was not the real score.

Q: I did that when I listened to the CD, because each section of Eva and Xavier’s graphics is given a time which correlates to the music.
A: That was the idea. I worked a lot on psycho-acoustic phenomena for this piece, I did a lot of stereo and sound positioning, because originally the HighC/UPIC is mono. It demands a lot of work and outer-space thinking to make it wide.

Q: How do you work with psycho-acoustic phenomena?
A: On studio records it’s maybe a bit easier because of the limitation of the CD or LP format, which is stereo, 2 channels.
So when mixing the tracks, a lot of work is done on the panning envelopes. I also work with a max/msp patch that I designed that allows me to add an extra dimension to the stereo position. It’s not only left and right, but it’s also high and low (in space-position) on each channel.

LIVE AND UNDETECTED

When playing live I calculate the room frequencies so that I can carefully choose which frequencies will produce psychoacoustics. I usually play with four speakers and four transducers to achieve that.
In the studio I use only crappy gear, old reel-to-reel recorders, broken oscillators, crappy microphones, etc., but I compose everything to 24 tracks on my computer. My live performances are mainly done by real time composition on 9 channels using sounds from my private audio library.

Q: That brings us nicely to ‘Undetected (untreated recordings from on-site testimonies archives)’ on the OtO label. Is that the kind of thing you use live?
A: Yes, I will use those kinds of sounds, but all together; snow recordings + static hiss from gear + sounds from field recordings, for example, to create a new composition.

Q: Some of those recordings from your archive are almost silent. I like that.
A: I like them too, but it’s the first time I dared to go in that direction. I mean I use silence as a composition tool, but my other records are far from silent..
I think that sometimes people use silence like a pause. I use it rather like a tool to make you aware of something else, of some other sound.

Q: Do you use silence in live performances?
A: No, I use dynamic changes, I mean near-silent, but always something. It might be tiny like those snow recordings on ‘Undetected’, but never complete silence.

Q: I like ‘Undetected’. The more I listen to it, the more I hear.
A: I’m glad you like it, and I’m very grateful to Takanobu Hoshino for putting it out. When I started my field recording blog, I never really thought it would interest anybody else.
I really enjoyed putting it together, and I can’t wait to see it available. Unfortunately the first pressing contained a mistake, but the re-pressing is on its way.

Q: Do you enjoy live work?
A: I have a complicated relation with it. I hate it as much as I love it, but as long as it’s in balance I’ll continue to do it. I don’t play much, maybe 20-25 times a year, but often I really enjoy it.
Sometimes I have mixed feelings about it though. I’m never totally happy with the concert. I have a serious problem with the idea of the artist being someone special that you come to see, the idea of artists having a “gift” or something like that.
I enjoy meeting people, to have them listen to my music in real time, to make them feel the sound, but I don’t like the idea of being a show-man. If possible I never play on stage, always amongst the audience, and even if I must play on stage for any reason, I usually go down with the audience to listen with them. I programme the next 2 minutes of the concert, draw the envelopes and then go down to join them.
I just hate the idea of putting people in different categories: Artist / Non-artist.
I know a lot of people who are creative, but don’t want to show it or share it. They are repressed by quality standards, or shame. I think anything can be good, like my Undetected CD. I think lot of people, even “artists”, will think that doing a CD with super simple sounds and acoustic phenomena is not art. I don’t, you don’t, we all have a different idea of what is or is not art.
It’s the eternal question of what is art.

DECAY AND LITERATURE

Q: Francisco, where did those squid come from that are on the cover of A While and Awhile?
A: Oh, the squid? It’s a picture I took in Shanghai, in the old (now destroyed) Museum of Natural History. Everything was rotten or in bad shape there, my personal heaven.
I’m working on a book, my second actually, with pictures from this museum and field recordings from Shanghai.

Q: Your first book was ‘Transduce’?
A: Yes, ‘Transduce’ was my first book. I only did 50 copies, I didn’t think it would be sold out that quickly! I wanted to do a book for a long time. I don’t really write essays or anything like that, but I do keep notes on dreams, ideas, concepts etc…

Q: What sort of dreams do you have?
A: I sleep only 4-5 hours each night. I don’t remember so many of my dreams, only the weird ones, but I do write a lot in a half-asleep state, do you know the record I made under my old moniker phroq called ‘half-asleep music’ ? It was an audio document of this, many of my album titles or tracks come from these ‘half-asleep’ notebooks.

Q: Do you write poetry?
A: No, I don’t think so. My girlfriend says that ‘Transduce’ is a poetry book, I don’t know… I did this book and I did with words what I do with sound, assemble, destroy, awkward moments, purity of the process, etc..

Q: Looks like poetry to me. Once again, like art, poetry is also hard to define.
A: Yes, totally, I’m a librarian part time, my field of work is children’s books and comic books, I love books, I’m not a huge poetry reader, even if I one of my favourite authors is a poet, Beckett.

DIY AND COLLABORATING

Q: I understand you make your own equipment and instruments?
A: Yes I do, I make my own contact microphones and light-controlled oscillators. I also did a lot of max/msp, but I am pretty bad at all of this. It’s more that I can’t find the gear I want, and when I find it the sound is too ‘clear’, too ‘perfect’ for my taste. My own oscillators are so badly done that they have the sound quality that I like.

Q: That explains your unique sound. I love that. I am terrible at making contact mics. They always buzz and hum like bees
A: Yeah, well that’s what I like, when you build your own mics. Firstly they’re cheap, secondly they all sound different, and you can adapt them to your needs.
I build a contact mic with a strong magnet and a 5 metre cable that I can throw over barriers at constructions sites, the magnet will stick to any metal pipes then I’m ready for some recording.
One of the tracks on ‘Undetected’ was done with this homemade magnetic contact microphone. The scaffolding was around my house for about 8 months. I did a lot of recordings, by day, by night, I will use some to make a record with ILIOS.
I have 2 LPs coming in 2013 and a CD re-issue of my 2010 album ‘Recordings of Voltage Errors.’. Also some collaborations, and I think the book will be ready for the end of 2013.

Q: I was going to ask about collaborations, such as the one with Dave Phillips. How do they work?
A: Most of my collaborations are done by meeting with the other person and recording something over a long period. The album I made with Dave was really a studio album. We met many times over five years at my home studio to record, days and days.
With Mike Shiflet we met in his hotel room, got drunk and recorded like in a live situation. With Jason Kahn we recorded live in an empty cinema then we edited the recordings together. It’s very unique every time.

EVP AND THE BLACK CASE

Q: Where do EVP come from?
A: That’s the question! For some they come from the beyond, the voices of the dead, for me they are more the “proof” of the persistence of energy.
Ii just curated a day’s workshop with EVP expert Michael Esposito last week. We also performed live together last Saturday.

Q: Are the EVP real?
A: Yes, EVP stands for Electronic Voice Phenomena, it is as real as electro-magnetism. For the workshop we recorded with the students in my library where the source material for our CD was recorded, so they could witness that no one was speaking when we later found some voices hidden in the recordings.

Q: Does Michael Esposito think they are the spirits of the dead?
A: Yes, I think he does, but not in a spooky way, more as a trail of energy of the soul.
He says they are like when our body dies, all the energy in it does not disappear, energy is kinetic, it becomes nano-small but never disappears. He will use the image that our body is a flashdrive. If you destroy that flashdrive, you will still be able, with the right tools, to retrieve information.
He also relates it to phantom organs. If you lose your arm, you will still feel it, in some cases, its energy field will still be present, why ?
I really do not believe in ghosts, but when I face a phenomenon like that it makes me curious.

Q: Finally I must ask about the black suitcase in the photo. What is the machine with 11 knobs on?
A: It’s my gear for my “no laptop” live sets. I sometimes do analog sets, but only in Switzerland. The thing with 11 knobs is an analog synth/filter from Trogotronics.
There are tons of cables because my analog set-up is 12 track based. Analog synth + contact mics + reel-to-reel recorder + 4 home made light sensitive oscillators + magnetic field detectors + 12 channels mixer. It’s pretty heavy to carry.

Q: What if all those black cables crawl out and wrap around you one dark night?
A: If they do that, well at first I’ll be surprised, then probably dead. Let’s hope that I will be able to communicate with you through EVP then!

Francisco Meirino website