Purple Magazine
— Purple 76 Index issue 29

Crasneanscki stephan

soundscape
everything is vibration
listening for chaos
sonic accidents

portrait and interview by OLIVIER ZAHM

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI AT THE SOUND INSTALLATION PRINCE PARMI LES HOMMES, 2017, PRESENTED DURING FAME 2017 AT LA GAÎTÉ LYRIQUE, PARIS

OLIVIER ZAHM — You are a hunter of sound. Is there a place, a city, or a country where you haven’t gone to harvest, or capture, sound?

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — I’ve been to pretty much all the continents. But it’s a vast hunt, and the sources of sound are infinite, so there’s never an end to the sonic journey. I’ve done South America, Africa, Russia, the Middle East. Yes, I’ve covered a fair amount of territory.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Right now, for example, we’re in an old, somewhat gangsterish café on Strasbourg Saint-Denis. Do you have an ear cocked? Are you listening to the sounds?

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes. It’s a deformity. I’m talking and listening to you, but my ear is always alert. You scan the sound at all those various levels. You listen with an ear for chaos. All those sounds are superimposed and create sonic accidents. And it’s the accidents that I’m after. The poetry of sound. Sounds that encounter one another, that shouldn’t have come together but have in fact met, creating a new possibility.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Our general impression of sound is that it’s a significant line. It means something. Or it’s musical. But you’re telling me that it’s chaos.

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — My area is above all the sonic environment, which can include music, but not exclusively. Most of the time, our relationship to sound is passive. Sound seems very linear for most people because most people don’t pay attention to it. They receive and filter it, often unconsciously. In other words, the filtering is done unawares.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you try to negate the filter?

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — I treat sound proactively. Sound is often something of a backdrop, helping the image to come into focus. First you look, and then sound completes what you see. I’ve taken up a position where I set aside the looking. I invert the relation and let my looking be dictated by sound.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You take a mental look, almost abstract.

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes. It’s a mental territory, a sonic mental space that on close inspection is made up entirely of strata. These heaped strata create a sonic narrative. Sound does not exist by itself. It’s an accumulation of sounds, a stack of layers that create a narration, a state, a color, an emotion.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Or a landscape.

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Or a sonic landscape, a hard one to reach for most people, who unfortunately don’t pay much attention to sounds. When you find yourself in a very scary situation, a crisis, where you’re fighting to survive, sound becomes a very important element. Or at night, in a house with the lights out, you suddenly have sound to help you feel out the room — with the creaking  of a floorboard, for instance. A door opens; a window claps shut. That’s when you realize the power of sound. Sound is spatial.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Where does the passion for sound come from? It’s obviously the medium of music, or of musical material, but you approach it like an artist, like a painter or a sculptor, or like an architect — and therefore not like a musician.

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — No, not like a musician. A musician is always looking for harmony and consonance.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Or the opposite.

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Counterpoint, tension. But there’s always a desire to control sound. For me, though, the beauty in what I try to do is just my being in the right place at the right time to capture a sonic encounter — being present when the sonic landscape opens up. So, it’s a rather passive position, a position to listen from. Where does sound come from for me? Back in the day, I studied art. Especially cinema, with Jean-Luc Godard, who was the first to trigger the power of sound. He was able to understand sounds that collide, that meet by accident, that block out other sounds — the entirety of sonic accident, the whole idea that sound is also a sonic image. That, for me, was a revelation. Godard was the first to awaken me to sound.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Jean-Luc Godard was rather unique from that perspective because that use of sound wasn’t really followed up or built upon in cinema.

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — No one before him thought of sound the way he did, and no one after him has really paid attention to sound again. He’s the only one who’s really understood the potential of sound. He had a lovely thought: that possibility arises precisely when two sounds, as distant from each other as can be, meet. They find each other and create a third possibility, like a color.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, for you, sound is really a quest, a path, your way of creating art and discovering the world.

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — I love the idea that we’re surrounded by dormant sheets of sound. What I try to do as I travel about and journey through territories, or when I meet other artists, is to awaken these dormant sonic memories. When you awaken these sonic memories, you get a new read on the territory. That’s where sound interests me. The territory of the seen was largely explored, even exhausted, in the 20th century. There aren’t too many ways to read a territory, a place, or a history. I’m restoring a sort of humanity to our history through sound.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s take an example: the work that you did in the gypsy lands of Central Europe. Could you tell us something about that?

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Once a year, I do a sound piece commissionned by the radio station France Culture. That one was a
voyage along the Danube, which divides all of Europe,
14 countries, and feeds into the Black Sea. And what you find at the end of the Danube is gypsies — the Roma, as they’re called. There are 10 million in Europe. They’ve been there for more than a thousand years and still have no papers and no passports.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why do they live on the riverbanks?

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Because no one else wants to live there. The ghettos and the shantytowns in Romania and Bulgaria are often located along that river. It’s more humid, less comfortable. High water is really high, so there are always floods. The idea, then, was to go up the Danube as a sort of artery of Europe and tell of the sound that carries all along the river, and the function of sound and music in the suffering of the Roma — because their lives go beyond suffering, beyond what we in the West can imagine. The function of noise, and music, allows them to make the unbearable bearable. It’s not just about the music because, naturally, we’re familiar with Roma, gypsy music. It’s also about the sonic chaos. I know of no other place, no other society, that produces such a din. There’s just a crazy, colossal din. Children yelling, cars racing past, mamas shrieking, men arguing. It’s utter chaos. I mean, total chaos. To a point where you’re never alone. And in the end, amid all that suffering and wretchedness, you feel swaddled in that sound.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s a humanity that ekes out.

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Where there’s sound, there’s life. When I did that project — I remember quite well — they took me to the Vienna airport, and when I got there, with that marble silence and all those men and women in white  walking around like that, I felt like I was in a cancer ward, a place where people are left to die. At the end of the trip, I realized that the understanding was all on their side. Despite their problems, they were far more alive than us, in their community of sound, in their collective energy, in their desire to survive and live, in their sonic chaos. They live no matter what the cost. Their lives are tied in to sound.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your next piece will be about Antonin Artaud’s crack-up or temporary disappearance in Mexico. He was one of the first to work with the human voice, through his theatrical readings.

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — It was punk before its time. He was doing feedback before there was feedback. He was using distortion, screeching before anyone else. He transcended all the possibilities of sound. He had a very brutalist side. The postwar avant-gardes took a lot from Artaud. I’m talking about a very specific period of Artaud’s life, between the world wars, when he went to Mexico to do readings on the French Consulate’s dime. He vanished, fled into the mountains to hide. For a year, he took peyote with the Indians there because he had to flush out the heroin, being a notorious addict at the time. While in Mexico, he came to understand that the peyote and cactus rituals would allow him to get off heroin. And indeed it allowed him to kick his habit, but it also gave him incredible hallucinations. He saw God in a universal sense. He saw the lie of humanity. He saw the other side. It was a tough road back. They found him in the mountains and sent him back to Le Havre, where he spent the rest of his life in an asylum. Not that peyote was necessarily the cause, but I think that was a cathartic moment for him. He got to a point where he couldn’t deal with human mediocrity or bourgeois thinking anymore.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How will you turn this into a sound piece?

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — So I’m setting off for a month in Mexico. I’m going to take peyote. I’m going to go meet the Indians. And record sounds all the time.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Same process as for your Rimbaud sound piece that you just finished for France Culture?

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, just as I did with Rimbaud and Sufism. Same thing:
I followed Rimbaud’s trip to Africa, to Harar. He becomes a big fan of Sufism. He speaks Arabic fluently, having learned it from his father, who’d translated the Koran back in the day. He starts reading the Koran.And then there’s his fascination with Sufism, which is essentially the music of trance. He lived in Harar, which is the holy place of Sufism, and Sufism is a permanent, constant trance, where you chant for two or three days, without stopping, eating leaves that put you into a trance you wouldn’t believe.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you spin as well?

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — No. That’s what they do in
Syria, in Aleppo. In Africa, it’s just men that get together and do “call and response,” as they call it. Twenty men and one man. And time and again, they repeat as a chorus. They bat phrases back and forth, and over an hour, over several hours, the repetition puts you in a trance… And Rimbaud
was mad for all that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do we know if Rimbaud took part in Sufi rituals and chants?

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Jonas Mekas told me he’d met someone who told him that Rimbaud, having lived in Harar for practically 10 years, had reworked some of his poems for Sufi chants. Some of his lines, some of his sensorial poems on eternity and his Golden Age (L’Age d’Or) poem  as well, had been reworked so that the Sufi masters of Harar could chant them in translation. The idea was kind of a thumbing of the nose at the West and Europe, which had rejected him. Still today, there might be lines by Rimbaud in the traditional Sufi chants of Harar. That’s what Jonas Mekas was thinking. And that idea, true or not, myth or not, was enough to justify the trip for me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You went there and recorded trances?

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, precisely. I retraced Rimbaud’s journey to Sudan and Somalia. And after I’d recorded the Sufi masters,
I asked Patti Smith to sing Rimbaud’s verses with them. The Sufis respond in Arabic. We made recordings in Harar, then went back to New York with the recordings and had Patti Smith sing with the words of the Sufi masters. It’s really beautiful because it leads to a sort of crossroads where French poetry ends up translated into Arabic and then passes into English. The result is the same idea as with the Roma: that the word and sound have no borders, and that borders are just a mental creation of man.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Patti Smith  sings Rimbaud’s verses in English?

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — The fragments of Rimbaud’s verse that were selected — because fragments work best with the repetitive rhythm of Sufism — are fragments that
I chose with the Sufi masters. It was a very pleasant collaboration. I was with them, we’d translate the verses together, and then they’d go through the poem with me and choose what would work best with their chants. It was a real collaboration with the Sufi masters of Harar.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And is it now taking its final shape?

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — It’s turning into a radio piece. France Culture and Radio Deutschland, the two largest European national radios, are funding the projects. All of my sound productions start this way. They start with radio funding, and they become radio pieces. Then I usually turn them into albums. There’s usually a label to take an interest in the radio piece, which suddenly turns into a music track or a soundscape or a sonic composition. And finally the album becomes a sound installation of the kind you might see at the Gaîté Lyrique. But the genesis of all these projects is radio because public radio in France and Germany is still financing these kind of projects.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Radio is the sound artist’s contemporary art gallery.

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yep. Because there’s no economy for the sound artist. It’s really the poor relation of the art world. It’s immaterial. For 15 years now, these radio stations have allowed me to do sound pieces all over the world. A radio station like France Culture takes the bet that you’re going to do something original, something new and different. Radio workshops, especially the ones at France Culture, are true workshops of pure experimentation. They’re the sort of thing that no longer exists in museums or in contemporary art, which has become so mercantile that there’s no space left for the avant-garde. I’m talking about the visual arts here. The avant-garde is dead. Whereas in sound, on France Culture or Radio Deutschland, there’s a totally free space for experimentation and creation.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why do you like sound so much?

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Everything is vibration. So much so that when I’m in this or that city, I feel the vibrations in my body. They change and vary. We’re just
vibration. Sound is evidently vibration, but not just sound. Everything is vibration. We’re in a world where everything is always vibrating.

END

[Table of contents]

Purple 76 Index issue 29

Table of contents

Purple Index 76

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