Free Radicals is Noisey's column dedicated to experimental music. Each month, we take a look at the trends emerging from the fringes and why they're meaningful.
"OK, how is electronic music made?"
The composer Michele Mercure poses this question, sitting in front of a humble home studio’s worth of gear splatter-painted with knobs, dials, and plastic keys. Then there’s a sigh, a beat, a repetition of synth arpeggio, and the question repeats or a variation of it does. Over the course of a four-minute “electronumentary,” directed by her partner Mary Haverstick and released earlier this month, Mercure never really offers an answer. Occasionally, she starts to explain, but doesn’t really finish. She says things like “I can tell you that electricity runs through…everything,” or she’ll list some of the component parts involved in her compositions: filters, diodes, capacitors, etc.
But sitting in that chair, dressed like a member of Kraftwerk on a casual Friday, the looming question mostly just loops and repeats, turning what is ostensibly an interview into a strange piece of music in its own right. It’s both playful and a little unsettling, much like the music Mercure has made over her last few decades as a composer. However opaque a gesture it may be as an interview, the overall message of the video is clear, to explain this stuff robs it of some of the magic—the best way to understand is to just experience it.
A couple of weeks before that short film released, Mercure sat in the lobby of VICE’s Brooklyn offices reflecting on the strange and solitary music she started making in the early 80s, which has recently resurfaced due to a pair of re-releases by RVNG Intl. and their sublabel Freedom to Spend. Last year, the latter imprint reissued Eye Chant a collection of hallucinatory songs and electro-fragments originally released in 1986, that slowly became a legend among collectors for the spectral logic of its songwriting. If you want to snag an original copy today it’ll likely run you hundreds. A couple of weeks ago RVNG also released Beside Herself, a compilation that draws pieces from four cassettes she released in the era, including ghostly synth works, tape collages originally intended as theater scores and other oddities. It’s mystifying stuff, even for Mercure. “It’s been really interesting listening to it and then trying to figure out…how did I do that?” she says.
That’s in part because time’s passed and her manner of working has changed. Now, she tends to work with computers and arrange in software. But back when she made the stuff on Beside Herself, it was necessarily analog and lo-fi—recorded at home, where she had the time to experiment, to cut and paste tape loops, to workshop the strange techniques that fueled her work.
There’s also a slightly stranger reason why she might be fixated on where this music comes from. Dreams appear frequently in the titles of her work—there’s a piece on Beside Herself literally called “Dreamplay 2” and some songs from another release called Dreams Without Dreamers—because the ideas for her music often came to her while she slept. Melodies, textures, and structures would present themselves while she was in liminal states, then she’d wake up and lay down those tracks while they were still fresh in her head. In some senses, you imagine that’s why she poses questions like the one that drives her “electronumentary.” Where does this music come from? How is it made? You can list the materials or explain the frequencies and the physics, but there’s something that’s hard to capture in words, some spark that’s hard to bottle.
So that’s exactly what we tried to do that while sipping on cups of coffee for the better part of an hour—to find out exactly drives Mercure’s fantastical compositions.
Noisey: Tell me about the importance of dreams to your music, I’ve noticed that comes up a lot.
Michele Mercure: When I put out Dreamplay—for whatever reason, whatever was going on in my psyche—I was dreaming a lot of music. I would be able to wake up and remember enough to go into my studio and put some ideas down, melodies and feelings and ideas for rhythms.
Were you dreaming of playing music?
It was something else, I wasn’t playing the music, I was just hearing it. It was as if the music was just in me. I was thinking about music all the time and when you think about something a lot it affects your dreams. That’s probably what it was. At times I have really vivid dreams. I love when that happens. During the period in my life where I was dreaming so much about music, I felt like I was having more fun in my dreams than I was in real life. I’ve always placed a lot of importance on dreams and what they mean. If I have a troubling one, what does that mean? It probably has something to do with what’s going on in my life.
What was the beginning of your musical journey?
I was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. My mother died when I was a child and I was raised mostly by my grandmother. My father was around but he was working a lot. I was an artsy kid, and I became one of those typical angst-ridden teenagers who spent a lot of time just playing the guitar. It was extremely self-directed and that’s maybe why I call myself angst-ridden at that time. There was no one in my family who understood me.
Did you have much of a musical community as a kid?
I had some friends that also played guitar but no, not at that point. It was an in your bedroom sort of thing. I got into a relationship, moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and got really involved in the arts community there. Harrisburg is the capital of Pennsylvania but you would never know it. At that time downtown was just state workers and whenever they went home it was a derelict city.
There was nothing there. But within that I found this small community of people. I discovered how you could make art out of sounds, which really intrigued me. I started with cassette recorders and a reel-to-reel. I was making loops and putting them together to create sound environments. [Eventually] a stage company said, we’re doing an experimental performance of Waiting for Godot, why don’t you do the sound design and music for it? I was like, “OK” and that was the first thing I did. My creative mindset changed forever.
What was your understanding of sound art at that point?
I spent about six months in the Netherlands. That was really informative and instrumental as well because I was listening to Radio Free Europe and hearing all this music that you would never hear in the United States. People taking really interesting chances. There was a record store I used to go to. The first week that I was there I went to them and I was like, “OK, I’m new here. I would like you to point me in the direction of some music that you think I might not like but is in this vein. Just surprise me.” I wanted to be pushed. I got in touch with the work of Conrad Schnitzler and then Kate Bush on the other end. They both inspired me in different ways. That was another leg of my journey.
What made you ready to be pushed?
When a person is creative they long for new ideas and new things that inspire them. I was in a very inspirational time in a very inspirational place and I wanted to explore that. I was processing guitar loops, [but I was doing] lots of experimenting. I considered what I was doing more like painting sound. Even though I was working with audio, I was making art pieces, not necessarily pieces of music.
If you were focused on doing things a really DIY way and living in this place that had a local scene but wasn’t New York or LA, do you feel like your music took on a character of solitariness?
I’m not as shy as I used to be, but back then I used to be pretty shy. I was kinda fine with being in a small city doing what I was doing and putting it out into the world from there. My work’s always been a little solitary sounding and dark sounding. Maybe growing up as an only child affected that in some way.
Obviously Beside Herself is a compilation, but do you remember any of the stuff you were thinking about that was driving this work back then. Did you even work that way?
I’m sure there were specific themes. There is a piece on Eye Chant called “100% Bridal Illusion” and the name comes from a kind of wedding gown [fabric] which I found to be really bizarre. There’s so many layers there. At that time I was going through the ending of a relationship and I’m sure that played into that particular song.
There’s all kinds of things that affect me. Stories affect me. Things I hear in the news. Right now, I’m putting together a concept record that has to do with a spy in the Cold War. It’s very dark.
What have the last few decades held for you? Obviously you’ve still made quite a lot of work since then.
I’ve fallen into everything. I never really had a grand plan. It was more…let’s just keep making art. Let’s keep creating. Making low-budget films, you wear many hats. It’s like, “Oh, well, I can do that too.” I’ve also found that love many of the hats that I wear. I love dialogue editing. I can get lost in sound design for films. All of that is very creative to me and makes me happy.
It’s about being open-minded.
Absolutely, that’s what keeps you happy. It’s an essential life skill.
Colin Joyce is an editor for Noisey and is on Twitter.