A few months ago I stumbled upon this lovely album by “Angil and Hiddntracks” called Oulipo Saliva. The album was put together (one gets the sense it was built instead of recorded) under a great deal of constraint—avoiding the use of the letter “e,” avoiding the musical key of E, a restriction to mostly woodwind instrumentation excepting, for instance, the use of an old untuned piano.
I would certainly recommend it, as it’s a carefully crafted piece at every level. If you are interested in hearing more samples, here is their myspace page.
With experiments like this, results can be either gimmicky or a wonderful surprise. They are, in this case, pretty dazzling. I wrote a small piece about it and Mickaël must have had a google alert set up for his name, because he dropped me a message and then graciously agreed to have an email conversation with me about his music.
Here’s the text: I think you’ll find that Mickaël is an uncommonly sharp, crafty, and friendly musician. I’ve let him know that I will be posting this here, and that you may be commenting on it. So, if you have anything to say, make sure to say it
(Sean) First, was it difficult working the constraint in English? I understand that you speak French as well and that the most common letter in both English and French is “e,” so had you ever considered writing your lyrics in French? How did you compose the lyrics? Did you compose music and lyrics separately or did you manage to get into a space where you could just avoid using “e”? (Avoiding letters while writing is still very difficult for me).
(Mickaël) Using English is one code of pop songwriting I’ve always respected. French is my mother tongue; I use it every day. I want to keep the moment of songwriting special.
For Oulipo Saliva I wrote the words first, and then composed the music based on the inner rhythm of what I’d written. Words came out pretty easily, actually – I knew what I meant to evoke (loss), and how (finished lists). The music and arrangement were quite immediate as well. I wrote the entire album in just a few months; it usually takes much longer!
(S) This is pretty interesting to me, because I rarely have the opportunity to ask someone whose mother tongue is different why he or she would choose to write in English. You say that it’s a pop songwriting code you respect, but I still wonder why you would choose it over the French language one, which also has a history and richness to it. Is it only because French is your day-to-day language?
(M) Mostly, yes. Also, I don’t consider French as a pop songwriting code. There are few examples of French speakers who manage to write good pop songs in their mother tongue. Serge Gainsbourg was the most remarkable one; artists like Katerine and Matthieu Boogaerts are quite good at this too, but they’re exceptions. A very large part of the others are really bad!
French is relevant as a language in some other genres, such as hip-hop, and ‘chanson’, of course. But I don’t think it works well in pop music’s various incarnations.
(S) I can understand the draw of a different language, though sometimes I wonder if English needlessly dominates pop music, especially since there are so many sonic possibilities to be explored with the use of other languages. Do you consider writing new songs in French? Might you be worried about the possibility of a concept’s non-translation due to the fact that many people only speak English?
(M) I can’t write songs in French, and don’t think I ever will. Using English to write songs feels like wearing a nice costume. French is, well, dressing casual.
(S) On the constraint of the woodwind sounds: I find it fascinating that you seem to have restricted the creation in every sense, even focusing on the physicality of the instruments. Did you find that the instrumental constraints changed your mode of musical composition?
(M) Absolutely so! I’ve realised that so much depends on ‘matter’. I mean, I could write a bunch of songs with just a piece of rope, if this was all I had. Imagination is important, but it works much better if I impose limits to myself. Saying “let’s use woodwinds as the core part of this album” made me think of the wide range of possibilities this implied. How would an alto saxophone sound if it played the part of (meaning ‘if it acted as’) a slide guitar? There you go: you can hear the result in the song “Kids”. And all over the album, really.
(S) I find this to be the case, too. Imagination is important, but when untempered by constraints, it loses itself. At some level, constraint is related to all creation—rock music generally uses the same 3 or 4 instruments, musicians play in modes, authors write in literary traditions, poetic forms, etc. It is nice to see someone being more imaginative about their work down to the very basic matter of their composition; down to the letters in the words and the material of their instruments. It has almost a free jazz feel to it, of pushing each unit to the limit of its possibilities.
One thing that most impressed me about the album is the playfulness, because often such strict constraints run the risk of being gimmicky, but when executed like this, I think they express a huge amount of creativity, and also an awareness of craft that one doesn’t often come across in music.
Another question: how do you consider your work in relation to musical genres? It definitely speaks to a number of different genres, and I wonder what your aim was in relation to these different genres it flirts with.
(M) One of my favourite bands is Broadcast. I regard Noise Made by People and The Ha Ha Sound as gates to postmodernism (though some artists did step across these gates before them, if only the Beatles). I admire their ability to mix influences from various periods of time, and musical genres, and deliver something that could never have been done before. I hope Oulipo Saliva feels the same – that there is some free-jazz, some hip-hop, some minimalist music in it; even though in the end, I hope these songs are just decent pop songs as well.
(S) Since it is probably hugely expensive to tour with your own piano, do you think your songs would work without your strangely tuned piano? How is it working with a piano like this? Did you end up focusing more on its rhythm than melody?
(M) I did focus on the strange melodies this piano unwillingly renders, as well as the nice blows of its hammers on its century-old strings. Composing with it has been quite magical. Start playing a melody, and another one (a ghost, playful, unexpected harmony) will play at the same time. Always reminds me of the first few notes of Gil Evans’ Last Vegas Tango, which is my favourite piece of music ever.
As we cannot tour with this piano, we’ve figured out a way of delivering the spirit of songs without it; notably through additional guitar, brass, and string arrangement. Conjuring up a ghost piano is something! But it is not a problem, really. I’ve always seen the recording of an album and the moment of a show as two very distinct processes, anyway.
(S) The way you describe the piano reminds me of John Cage’s work with prepared pianos, or even Hauschka’s recent records. Though, it seems like what you are playing is a pre-prepared piano. [(M) It is indeed! I love how this sounds, “pre-prepared piano!”] The timbre is rich, it has a lot of color and aura to it.
So I wonder if you’ve had much interaction with minimalism? Its obvious listening to your music that you’re well acquainted with a lot of forms of music, and your approach seems to mirror the minimalism in its aim if not always in sound. How would you characterize your music’s relation to minimalism?
(M) I generally like randomness in music. The unexpected, the unbalanced… Danger! This is why I love Kim Deal, I think there are lots of happy accidents in her recordings. Now, I like Cage, and Reich, because the process in their music is somehow the opposite. They’re all about accidents, and sometimes their pieces unexpectedly turn into some kind of pop music. “Different Trains” is a pop song, isn’t it?
Their influence was very practical in Oulipo Saliva. The intro in “You most III” is inspired by Cage’s works: the instruction I gave to the brass and woodwind players was “play any note, as long as it lasts 8 times. Then breathe in during one time, and start again.”
(S) Did the musical palette influence your lyrics? Did it help you to open up your music up to other compositional possibilities? I find sometimes setting an absurd limit on something can help open me up creatively and I’m wondering if you feel the same way.
(M) Previously answered – sort of.
(S) Fair enough!
(S) Your videos seem to be fairly high-concept (and very visually arresting, by the way), so have you tended to work around with an organizing concept for your songs and videos, and have just not publicized it much until this album?
(M) There was no plan, really. Different people have been working on the videos. I’m glad if the whole thing looks coherent in the end, but there is no scheme behind all this. Metronomic made A long way to be happy; Bernard Films made Beginning of the fall and Narrow minds. The very latest video was made by a friend of ours, Cédric Lamarsalle: Trying to fit.
(S) Since the literary and musical limitations of your work already interact with each other, I wonder if you’ve ever considered trying to find a way to carry these sorts of limitations over to the videos as well?
(M) Yes, but they’re more absurd. “A long way to be happy” was all shot in reverse order, and edited backwards. That means I walked backwards all the way when we shot the video. I only did it as a reference to Lynch, no big scheme behind this. In “Trying to fit”, all supporting roles wear moustaches… just a funny glimpse to the Beastie Boys, you know.
(S) The album is being advertised almost entirely by the constraints you and your band used in constructing it. Do you prefer that people hear the music first, and then find out about the way it was put together? Or does the order not matter to you?
(M) Well, I love it when some people tell me they like the songs, and can hardly believe me when I reveal the concept afterwards. It does happen occasionally. On the other hand, what attracted me to Perec’s e-less novel, for instance, was the restriction. Then I loved the story. So I guess the order does not really matter, I just don’t want people to think I used limitation as publicity – the aim has always been to write good songs.
(S) I am in agreement about the order. There is some controversy about whether the constraints of such a work should be revealed or not, and often it seems to treat the constraint like a secret that the audience is charged with finding. I think it is nice to see that you treat the limitation as just one thing among many, which is part of the reason the limitation and the work in general succeed.
And it doesn’t seem like you are stressing the limitations over good songwriting. The writing speaks for itself.
Have you considered submitting this to the OuLiPo? I hear they sometimes certify these sorts of things, and as far as I know, no one has done this sort of thing before.
(M)I have indeed. I met one of the current members and he told me he’d given a copy of Oulipo Saliva to the others. But that’s about it…
(S) Hmmm… I would have thought they would be more interested.
(M) I wish!
(S) In following with Georges Perec’s work, did you intend the lyrics of your album to act as a sly reference to the restrictions you set?
(M) Yes indeed. In French, “e” pronounces like “eux” (‘them’). Years after writing La disparition, Pérec admitted he’d written a novel without E as a reference to his parent’s death (without ‘them’). There is something similar in Oulipo Saliva. I don’t want to get into details, hope you don’t mind. But there is something.
(S) No, no, I don’t mind at all. I don’t like it when an artist overdetermines their work for their audience. When there is a debate about the work and the artist “explains” what it means, I find it belittling and sometimes infuriating. Language is a common material of expression for both of us, but means different things to each of us. You have said just the right amount to make me very curious, though!
When you wrote the lyrics, did you have any thematic aims, or did you find that the lyrics took you in strange directions as a result of your inability to use the letter “e”?
(M) I guess you expected me to answer “both”…
Well, both! I knew what I meant, and I took strange, unforeseen bypasses to get there.
(S) I always find myself inspired by the way that expression can be bent around any limitation we set for it, creating something strange and beautiful in the process. This touches on some of the strangeness permeating your record, since the expression is filtered through loss of different types, but becomes something enigmatic as a result. To me, it’s a very noticeable quality that comes through as a sort of color to the music.
(S) Is there anything you’ve been meaning to say about the album but haven’t quite gotten the opportunity to? I understand that people probably mostly ask about the constraint (which I am also guilty of doing).
(M) Not really. I’m glad most relevant subjects are covered when evoking the album with people who liked it. The use of brass; danger; freedom through limitation… There may be some other layers to it, which you (and I) will keep discovering with time. Hopefully.
(S) Would you work with constraints like this again?
(M) Some of my new songs have similar constraints. Writing lines with just one letter, for example. “Remember September Eleven.” Or using all vowels in a short phrase: “Me with you all”.
(S) So, I have to ask, then, have you read Eunoia by Christian Bök? [(M) Only heard of it.] Each chapter uses only one vowel, and then piles an absurd number of rules on top of that. The whole thing is available online. He also has a lot of interesting things to say about conceptual writing. He believes, for instance, that the book shows that each vowel has its own personality. He has written about letters and fractals, among other more abstract ideas. He’s a wonderfully engaging read, and an imaginative, elegant thinker.
That ubuweb site, by the way, is a treasure trove of experimental and avant-garde materials from the past century or so, if you are in to that sort of thing.
(M) Sounds amazing! I’ll definitely check this out.
(S) Do you relish the attention you’re getting as a sort of “mad poet”? It seems that everyone wants to talk about either how whimsical the record is or how strictly determined it is. But I think it’s interesting that few seem to mention just how natural you manage to make it all sound.
(M) Thanks a lot, this is a great compliment. This is probably my biggest challenge, and what a band like Broadcast does best: mixing unexpected elements in a ‘natural’ song. Sylvia Plath did the same in The Bell Jar: instilling poetry in a proper story.
(S) I think it can be an important way of introducing people to new ideas, as well. Smuggle them in under the guise of something familiar. You did a wonderful job with that.
(S) Why OuLiPo “saliva”?
(M) Because of Francis!
Francis is the Hiddentracks’ saxophonist. I love hearing his saliva running through the brass when he’s playing. The album is a tribute to him, really.
(S) Perfect. I love that answer.