The Balustrade Ensemble

Bird sanctuary and crushed pears (V.O.)

» Interview

le 31.08.2009 à 06:00 · par Rémi Q.

French version

What was your musical route before forming The Balustrade Ensemble?

I began playing music at age nine, starting on drums and switching to guitar a year later. Back then I was listening mostly to British pop and Top 40 radio, later psychedelic and prog rock as I got older. I never had formal training for classical guitar, but was interested in that style, so I began teaching myself. Working in free-form radio while at university brought me in touch with more extreme musical forms like musique concrete, contemporary classical, ambient, and noise. There, along with two other announcers, I performed in a trio for magnetic tape, guitar and cello. We called ourselves Freaks Amour. This was my first band. A couple years afterwards, having moved to San Francisco, I formed Mandible Chatter with Neville Harson. We were an ambient-industrial group strongly influenced by Zoviet:France, Hafler Trio, and the like. We released six albums between 1993 and 2003. Then, the following year, our attempt to begin a seventh record stalled and it was in the aftermath of this, realizing it might be time to make a record on my own, that the initial steps were made toward what would become The Balustrade Ensemble.

Had you already worked with the other members in the past? Could you tell us more about your first encounter...

No, we hadn’t worked together before. When I started Balustrade, I thought it was going to be a solo project. I spent about a year writing pieces on guitar alone not sure how I would get them recorded, but feeling confident the stars would align somehow. I knew I needed collaborators for recording, as well as the arrangements, but didn’t know where to begin, really. It was like starting all over. A friend of mine who goes by the name Lazarus had just made a record called Like Trees We Grow Up To Be Satellites, which I loved. The engineer’s name was familiar to me from another record I’d heard a couple years before, The Order Of Things by Tarentel, another great release. I decided then that this was the partner I needed and I resolved to get him to make my record. That’s what led me to Scott Solter. When we met for the first time, we spent an entire afternoon just talking about music and the artists who had influenced us, discovering so much in common. A moment I clearly recall : standing inside a church looking at a collection of pump organs, discussing what we wanted to do and talking about Vini Reilly. That’s when I knew everything was going to work out.

Capsules is an atypical record, which seems to be built around the concept of a world made of vague recollections of a mysterious past somewhere at the beginning of the 20th century. Did you, before working on the composition, have a precise idea of what you wanted to achieve?

Not at all. The aesthetic came after the music. Capsules began as guitar pieces and, in the beginning, I was imagining much more traditional arrangements, combined with elements of ambient music, for sure, but not as far out as we ended up taking them. That was a surprise. We struggled for awhile to find the right sound and when we did, it all happened quite suddenly and accidentally. The defining moment came while working on the accompaniment to Drowning Calm. Everything else fell into place after that except for Szól A Zene which had been completed previously, and if you listen to that piece, you will hear what I mean because its texture is unlike the rest of the record.

Yes, that's true. The texture is less “liquid”, the background is there, but the sound is rougher.

That’s right. The watery approach hadn’t been discovered yet. Szól A Zene was our first arrangement and I remember Scott asking how I thought we should proceed -- not technically, but metaphorically. I said I wanted him to imagine someone using one of those wooden moving dollies (with the wheels on four corners) to ride down the street upside-down while doing a hand stand. I wanted the music to sound like that might feel.

The Balustrade Ensemble's music is beyond classification, but if you really had to do it, how would you define its genre to someone who has not heard it yet?

This is always the hardest question. Everyone asks and I’ve never found an answer that feels right. Solter made up the phrase “an underwater haunted bird sanctuary kaleidoscope”. I love that, but it’s too long for a genre name. Usually, I tell people “ambient soundtrack instrumentals”, but it never comes out gracefully. I’m still waiting for the right term to come along.

What is, precisely, your role in the group? To what extent the other musicians bring their own universe and ideas, to the group? Do you write a full score, are you a sort of an orchestral conductor?

I am composer first and guitar player second. That’s it. In Mandible Chatter I was doing a lot more, but after that, I was determined to simplify my relationship with the music I make. I gave away most of my gear and effects pedals and focused on just playing guitar. My goal now is to write simple music I can play on any guitar I happen to find. If it ends up sounding differently on the record, that’s fine, but it has to start simple. Solter brings his expertise in rendering the sound and also plays several instruments. Together we add the most basic accompaniment. And Wendy Allen is the voice. All the other players are chosen for what they will bring and on Capsules we would guide them informally. Everyone was recorded separately. We didn’t use scores, though that is changing for the next record.

Matt Henry Cunitz uses old keyboards like the mellotron, the orchestron, the claviola, the celeste... This plays a big part in defining the sonic identity of The Balustrade Ensemble. Is your working method different with him? Did he take part in the genesis of the project?

Not really. Matt’s parts were recording late in the game, after we already had determined most of the sound of the record. With Matt, we approached things in very specific terms. We knew exactly the instruments we wanted him to play and on which tunes. His primary role was to add counter melodies. For example, it’s the claviola that appears in the middle of Incarnadine (around 1:30). I had originally written the part to be performed on a melodica, but I couldn’t get it right, so we had Matt do it. A different approach occurred on Glorianders where the orchestron appears (1:12). We knew we wanted that instrument, but didn’t yet have a part composed. Matt improvised and came up with the melody there.

It may be difficult to answer this question: where do you think your fascination with old photographs and generally for the ancient times comes from?

It think it’s mainly a visceral thing and somewhat universal. There’s a natural intrigue we have for earlier times, especially eras before film where movement and voices exist only in our imaginations. Photographs are time capsules and frame their moments like stage proscenium. For me, old black and white images invariably evoke more questions than they answer, which is what I love most about them. The picture of the girl on the cover of Capsules comes from an old french postcard I found in a curio store years ago. She looks like someone I would have wanted to know. I originally kept it on my mantle. Later, when I needed an image for the record, it seemed like the perfect complement to the music.

I didn't know that this picture came from an old French postcard... I am even more curious now to know when the photo was taken and who is the girl; but you're right, questions are more important than answers. When I look at her eyes, I get the feeling that each one don't express the same thing. The right eye is like veiled by a cajoling look, while the left one coldly gazes at us. I think that it is this ambivalent look that extracts that capsule from its bygone era, as if the girl wanted to travel up to us to try communicate something. I perceive a link with the short film La Jetée by Chris Marker, where the photographs are mysterious fragments of the past, but with a timeless significance. La Jetée may well be, in its own way, another collection of “capsules”...

The photograph is most likely around a hundred years old, though the postcard itself may be newer. I’m not sure. Another quality I like about the girl is that her age, too, is beyond certainty. She could be 12 or she could be 21. No way to know. Actually, all of the images used in the packaging for Capsules are French in origin. Look beneath the disc in the American release and you may recognize the Seine. And it’s funny that you happen to mention La Jetée. I know that film quite well. There’s a moment in La Jetée I’ve always found particularly striking : When the couple are walking together silently through the museum of taxidermy animals, joyfully experiencing Paris in its final days before annihilation. The image I’m thinking of shows the couple, blurred and faceless, shot through the multiple panes of glass of an enclosure, like an oversized vitrine, filled with exotic silhouetted birds, the sun streaming in from behind. I would like to believe that our music is the aural equivalent of that image.

When I listen to a record, I often try to pinpoint its music influences. I don't succeed with Capsules. This album seems out there, it might have been released 30 years ago or 30 years in the future. What artists are the most influential for you?

Most of the music I listen to is unlike the music we make. In terms of influences, we are just as likely to draw from Tarkovsky, or Parrish, or Joel-Peter Witkin as we are any of the musicians we enjoy. Film, paintings, photography, the places we travel - all have affected our music in some way. In terms of direct influence, though, I cannot say. It’s as mysterious to us as it is to you, the process of making the records being as innocent as the process of listening to them. At times with the making of Capsules, I can tell you, desperation, actually, was a prime mover, when an absence of direction would force us to work and rework the sounds until we found that moment where it connected somehow... And influences are ephemeral, too. What influenced us on Capsules isn’t necessarily going to be among our influences now. Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot of Victor Young at my local café and really getting into it, so listen for that in the next record and know that I said it here first.

Do you play live concerts? What is the scenic presentation? Do you improvise?

There have been just two shows so far by The Balustrade Ensemble and in name only, meaning it’s either been myself alone reciting pieces on guitar or with stand-in musicians improvising. Neither worked particularly well and my promise now is not to do anything live until I have a true ensemble that can do the music justice. Honestly, though, I don’t enjoy playing live nearly as much as I like making records, so it usually requires some coercion.

I find that the Tangle In Delirium video is a good illustration of your musical universe. Have members of the group taken part in its creation? Were those pictures really shot in the 2000's?

After Capsules was released, a film maker in Canada contacted us on Myspace offering to make the video for that song. I was thrilled. Her working name is Frvescent. We’ve never met and she’s not connected to the group in any other way. The images she used were all from a film archive and exist in the public domain which means there are no issues concerning copyright. So, they are actually quite old, just as they appear, but Frvescent used modern techniques to alter their appearance and fit it all to the music.

Your album was issued on the Dynamophone label in the US and on Ominous in Sweden. The track list and the mix are slightly different on each version. Why is that? What are your relations with these two labels?

The version on Ominous is how the record was originally intended. We signed up with that label first, but all along I wanted a deal in the US, so I continued looking until I got connected with Dynamophone. We gave them the same mixes, but Dynamophone felt strongly that a few of the pieces needed additional work. Because they were all good suggestions, we went back and remixed a few things, hence the differences.

On the Ominous version (the one I own) there is a very beautiful piano piece called Pears. I think it contrasts even more than Szól a Zene, the piano being the central element and the melody and structure being more “standard” than the other tracks. It is replaced by a more ambient track on the Dynamophone issue, Crushed Pears, on which the guitar comes back to the fore. One can also hear a sound that resembles an old film projector. Was this change motivated by the will to create on Dynamophone a more homogeneous version of the album?

Yes. Pears was originally a guitar piece like the others; however, when we listened back to it later, it just sounded terrible that way, so we had Liam come in and perform it on the piano. Even so, Dynamophone felt the piece stood out too much from the others and requested we make it stranger. Crushed Pears, then, is simply a destroyed (or “crushed”) version of its predecessor. That’s still the piano, just heavily altered, and with some accompaniment added. The sound you mention is the clicking reel of an old wire recorder used in the making of the remix.

Ominous Recordings is known for releasing « dark » -rock, bizarre and experimental music, sometimes close to Gothic. The Balustrade Ensemble's album contrasts with the rest of its catalogue. Do you feel close to the dark-folk or Gothic genres (for example Current 93)?

Yes, I actually do feel closer to those genres than the music on Capsules might suggest. Mandible Chatter was commonly embraced by fans of dark ambient and gothic music alike, and I enjoy some of that stuff myself, so to me it feels natural. And certainly, Ominous seemed to feel enough the same to release the record.

You are working on a new album. If you want to talk about it, I would like to know how your music is evolving... Have you set a release date yet?

Yes, we are working on a second record. We only just started recording in June which means it will probably be awhile before we finish and way too premature now to announce a release date. For this one, I’ve attempted to push myself further, to write better pieces, and in terms of the accompaniment, there will be a few surprises. We are experimenting with using different instruments from the last time – but not too different. We want to keep all the mysterious and evocative qualities we had, but have it be something a little more rich.

Interview realised by mail by Rémi. Thanks to Thomas Lafon for the translations.

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