Félicia Atkinson’s Music Is Full of Whispers, Both Intimate and Terrifying
The French composer’s ‘Hand in Hand’ is an ASMR-like meditation on the physical qualities of sound.
Photo courtesy of the artist.
Free Radicals is THUMP's column dedicated to experimental electronic music. Each month, we take a look at the trends emerging from the frayed fringes of the dancefloor and why they're meaningful.
Félicia Atkinson is coming for your throat. At least that's what it feels like on "Valis," the second piece on Hand in Hand, which the French composer released earlier this month on Shelter Press, the label she runs with Bartolomé Sanson.
A few seconds into the track, a sound shudders into the mix that you feel as much as you hear: a high-pitched fluttering that lodges itself somewhere behind your tongue. It sorta feels like like a hornet trying to flap its way out of your esophagus, though friends I've played the track for have described feeling it in their spines or on roof of the mouth.
Either way, it feels invasive—an unsettling reminder of the penetrative properties of sound. Even when you listen to music with cheap earbuds, you're bombarding your cells, and the air around them, with vibrations that have the possibility of transforming anything they touch. Hand in Hand is full of moments like these. Between the acrylic-on-chalkboard creaks of "Monstera Deliciosa," the stomach-rumbling bass of "Vermillions," it's a record that will get you thinking about sound as a physical force.
Atkinson has been playing with these sorts of ideas for a little over a decade now. Under her own name and the moniker Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier, she's made collagist compositions that stitch together intimate human whispers, samples of domestic objects (like what sounds like chairs squeaking across the floor, or a closing door), with broken-sounding electronics.
The narratives are hard to ascertain, as she speaks in both English and French and her recited passages are as deliberately gnarled as the instrumentals. Vocals jump between channels, words get obscured by ringing bells or sounds that swirl like helicopter blades. "No Fear But Anticipation," from Hand in Hand, gets pretty close to a full thought about the role of cognition in romantic and sexual desire; but even that is deliberately obscure, like a thesis-shaped idea just out of reach.
All of which is to say, that her work is pretty singular. From the 2013 collection Visions/Voices through Hand in Hand, she's made music that feels sort of like listening to thoughts from inside of her head, as if in some cochlear cosmic accident, her nerves got fused to yours in a misfiring bundle of electrical impulses. It hurts, of course, but it's kind of intimate too.
A few weeks after the release of Hand in Hand, we caught up with Atkinson via email to talk about how she came to composing these strangely physical pieces, as well as her relationship to the quasi-scientific phenomenon of ASMR and the alien power of the Buchla synth.
THUMP: Can you tell me about your upbringing? Was your family very musically or artistically inclined?
Félicia Atkinson: I am the only child of a French dad who was a psychiatric nurse interested in Indian philosophy and contemporary music, and a Polish mother who used to work at the National Library and loves listening, cooking, walking, gardening, and reading.
They are both retired now, but they are involved in non-profit and local community groups. The way my parents lived influenced me very much. They are not homeowners, and neither were my grandparents. They believe in culture as a source of emancipation—rather than money. We argue all the time, expressing our opinions with passion and conviction. Passion was always something strong in the way they raised me.
[When I was growing up,] they would always find ways to find discount tickets to see shows and go to exhibitions for free. They would take me to Indian music and Pierre Boulez concerts, to see Ariane Mnouchkine's Theatre du Soleil in Vincennes. My dad bought me a CD by the French hip-hop band IAM when I was 11, and also a box of CDs by the Velvet Underground. They listened to a lot of public radio. Being born in in 1981, the year the French president François Mitterand was elected for the first time, I was raised in a kind of socialist way: "Go the library, listen to the radio; the state should help you to educate you."
My grandparents and grand-uncles—both on the French and Polish sides—were involved in fighting the Nazis. People died or were severely injured. I was raised knowing that I was lucky to be born in the 80s, and to grow up in the 90s, with freedom of traveling, thinking, and making whatever I wanted.
In France, school is free, so I was able to study art and work part-time, with some financial help from my parents. The fact that I was an only child allowed them to be supportive. Growing up in Paris gave me the opportunity to have a lot of interesting part-time jobs: I answered the phone at IRCAM; I sold books at the Pompidou Center; I worked in a gallery; I took care of kids; I assisted artists.
How did you get into making-music yourself?
I began to learn music at 4, learning méthode Martenot and eveil musical [two forms of alternative musical education in France]. And then I studied harp, piano, and how to write and read music.
But I quit music school around 14, in the middle of the regular teenage crisis. I was listening to a lot of Brit-pop and trip-hop and grunge music, and I wanted to escape from savant music. I went to Bristol on my own with a friend when I was 15 with the hope of meeting Tricky, but we ended up just walking around and eating white rice at each meal. We only brought £10 with us for four days of exploration! I was babysitting every afternoon after high school, and using the money to buy CDs and go see music shows.
But it didn't occur to me to play music [again] until 10 years later. I was studying theater at school, discovering improvisation, but I wasn't playing any music. Music came to me with spoken words first. My first record is called Roman Anglais; I made it with the musician Sylvain Chauveau around 2006. I used only voice at that time.
Then I did a project with my friend the dancer Elise Ladoué called Strechandrelax, where we would do reductionist music without any instruments—only bottles, objects, and stuff. And then, in 2009, I started to make my own music, under my name and the moniker Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier, a project I explored until 2013.
I want to talk a bit specifically about Hand in Hand. The Shelter Press website mentions it was made during a snowstorm—can you tell me a bit about what that was like?
I arrived in Stockholm in early November of 2016, with a kind of bronchitis, and it was the first day of the worst snowstorm in Stockholm in 100 years. The whole city was blocked. Everything was covered by snow. I had the wrong shoes, so I kept falling on the streets; walking three blocks took me half an hour. I would arrive at EMS [the Swedish center for electronic music and sound art] covered with snow, my clothes wet, my whole body aching.
And inside, it was so warm, people were so nice and respectful. I was alone in the room with a gigantic Buchla, able to cough as much as I could and play strange sounds on top of it. I would play straight from 10 am and 6pm and go directly to bed with a fever, watching Trump speaking on television with horror, and then The Simpsons. It was surreal. I felt weak and strong at the same time.
It seems like a record that's about opposites and contradictions.
The experience of the desert in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada changed my way of thinking [about] sounds. I go there with Bartolomé [Sanson, the co-founder of Shelter Press] almost every year now, and have learned a lot about contrasts there—how you are cold in the night and warm in the day, how you feel tiny and immense in the same time, how it is violent and soothing. The energy of the desert really fed the album. I wanted to make sounds like cacti, with water and secrets inside—sounds that had different layers, that could have one texture "inside" and one texture "outside," like a plant, a body, or a chocolate.
"I feel sometimes disappointed that the only places where you can go dancing are clubs. I am dreaming of a ball where people would dance like seahorses or plants for hours, in the daylight, in the grass, or in a ballroom."
I've noticed that whether working with mundane samples or abstract sounds, you seem interested in the physicality of a given sound.
I remember this video interview with Éliane Radigue where she seems to speak about sounds like they are people. She says "You have to have a respect for the sounds." Her cats are sitting and they seem to hear frequencies we can't hear. To me, sound is space, is time, is live presence.
When I played the Buchla at EMS, I felt like I received messages from outer space. The machine was sounding like a bird. I felt very moved. I felt I understood it. It was not any more about being "musical" or not, but "understanding" the sound, like a language. The only thing I was trying to do was tuning to receive as much information form that language as I could. Also, I felt I was touching waves of electricity. It was very physical.
Sound is matter, like clay or painting, it shines through its invisibility, its absence of material form. Sound can get inside people, get in and out as it pleases. Yesterday, I did a kind of deep-listening session with dancers at Musée de la Dance in Rennes, where I live. They had to react to the sounds I was playing, [deciding] how to open or close their body to receive them, how to listen with their toes or with their eyes, it was an intense experience for everybody.
I learned a lot yesterday. I want to make music that makes people dance, but in their dreams, or in a state of slow moving. I feel sometimes disappointed that the only places where you can go dancing are clubs, with strong beat-oriented music. I am dreaming of a ball where people would dance like seahorses or plants for hours, in the daylight, in the grass, or in a ballroom.
Can you tell me about the whispers that fill your work? Do you find whispers comforting or unsettling?
Some people are scared of them. Some are not. Some are excited. I don't expect one kind of reaction. Whispering is a way to get inside your ear. It's a feminist approach also to me. Whispering is a way to get inside, to take territory. To melt the inside with outside. It's a bit queer also. It's folding poles, making things less binary. It's making knots and loops, like a snake, a silk scarf, or a river.
I whisper because I like to be close to the recording device I am using, usually my telephone. I whisper also because most of the time I record in my bedroom and I don't want anyone to hear what I am doing.
I whisper because I am a bad singer, because I like hearing other people whispering. It's about pleasure and intimacy. Also, most often—there are exceptions—I don't like when a musician gives orders, I like to make music that empowers sounds without taking authority. This is why I like Robert Ashley's work so much, the voice keeps always a bit of doubt in it, it's never an order, more a possibility.
I've seen people talk about this release in particular in relation to ASMR. Do you experience that phenomenon? How do you relate to that idea?
My first experience of ASMR was being a kid and putting a part of my head on the torso of my mother or my father, to hear how the voice resonates directly from there. I always found it fascinating and soothing. Now, when I speak, my voice comes from within, goes outside and comes back in, lt's a loop. Sounds circulates. I believe in the touching, healing, disturbing, pleasuring power of the voice, but also, of the effect of sound waves in general.
But I didn't know the term ASMR when I recorded A Readymade Ceremony, I recorded the album without thinking of it. I was just thinking of whispering in Suspiria by Dario Argento, of Carrie covered in blood, making a kind of noise show in the DePalma movie, of the voices in Pierre Henry's Apocalypse de Jean, of Kim Gordon in some Sonic Youth's songs.
For Hand in Hand, it was different. I felt collapsed by the terrorist attacks, by the election of Trump, by Syria, by all this sadness. I wanted to make a record that was more calm, I couldn't bear more violence in a way. I wanted a record closer to landscapes, plants, non-human forms. To give some perspective. I wondered, "What is a voice that whispers to something that has no ears? What effect does it make if I speak for a rock, or an ocean?"
Then, I began to think of humans again. I fancy the idea of a record that delivers not only music or text, but physical emotions, something that directly affects your body. That's why also the album is called Hand in Hand. I want to touch the audience through the sounds and with the sounds only, not symbolically but physically. I wanted to make a record for people but also for cats, magnolias, and microbes.
This also explains why I am static during my shows, I think [my] presence passes through the sounds, not through the persona or image of me on stage. Ideally, I wish I could disappear, like Bilbo Baggins or Harry Potter during the concert. I wish I could completely turn into music for an hour or so, and then get back to my body when the music is over.