Listen to the Hearing Voice: A Conversation with Emmanuel Mieville

Posted by on June 1, 2017


Slowly but surely, with zero fanfare and nary a peep to the press, Paris-born composer Emmanuel Mieville has worked his way into contention as being one of the most essential artists currently working in field recording. My interview with him, conducted over several evenings this spring, represents, as far as I am aware, the first time he has opened up to a Western publication. It makes sense; until recently, most of his work was being released in tiny editions by labels in places like Russia, Malaysia, Norway and Hong Kong — not exactly accessible to guys like me in central England, however many submissions I was receiving at the time.

It was Four Wanderings in Tropical Lands, released by the fantastic French label Baskaru in 2011 that introduced me to Mieville’s work and I was instantly struck by the depth and purity of his arrangements. For all intents and purposes these were straight-up field recordings, collected in the same countries where they were ultimately released, but layered and manipulated with such skillful subtlety that they acquire a remarkably vivid cerebral aspect. The questions and ideas Mieville’s best works stir in the listener are myriad, speaking a million words where in fact there are none: politics, economics, the environment, and religion all raise their divisive heads throughout Four Wanderings, and hardly a human voice is heard. I was awestruck and fascinated; how was he doing it? I wrote a favorable review and more Mieville arrived on my doorstep soon after: his collaboration with Eric Cordier for Xing Wu Records and an early CD-R, both of which were similarly excellent, and I found myself watching for his work as eagerly as I did that of Francisco López, BJ Nilsen and Chris Watson.

A flurry of tracks and EPs on Portugal’s Cronica followed, proving Mieville’s star was finally in the ascendant in Europe, before he returned to Baskaru for Ethers in 2015, and issued his first full-length for Cronica this year in the form of Juryo: Durée de la vie de l’ainsi-venu. I was initially surprised to hear this contained music he had released previously until I realized the CD-R I was sent six years ago probably wasn’t still spinning on all that many machines, if it ever was.

But Mieville’s reasoning behind bringing back two pieces from Buddha-Anima-Asia (Obs*, 2012) and slotting them into his newest collection are more to do with the way they sounded in their initial surroundings than a desire to recirculate the tracks. “‘Taisi Funeral’ and ‘Nyorai’ were recorded a long time ago,” he explains. “Neither has changed, but they are on Juryo because I wanted to gather together significant older recordings and [use them] to make a coherent album. When I am not satisfied with an outcome, I don’t tinker — I let the music rest for some time and then return to it.”

Happily, they also provide a reminder that his musical roots take sustenance from world music, abstraction and musique concrète as opposed to pure field recording. Mieville’s musical upbringing was not typical, and all his formative influences remain audible in his output. “I have had no academic training,” Mieville admits, “except piano for a brief time. My first forays into music were just listening to the radio and records with my family, which were very eclectic [but mainly] classical and ethnic music.” He was enchanted enough to take up studies in sound engineering, which broadened his horizons even further. “Without a doubt my ears were tickled by Pierre Henry,” he says. “Symphonie pour un homme seul was mind-blowing; it was a brand-new method of capturing the world’s sounds.”

In the early nineties, inspired by Henry, Mieville enrolled with Paris’s legendary Groupe de recherches musicales (GRM), where he studied briefly under Philippe Mion and Jacques Lejeune. Mieville admits it was not a wholly rewarding experience: “I learned mostly samplers, synthesizers, and MIDI,” he remembers, “but this is not my thing!” In hindsight, though, these sessions did provide an invaluable basis for his own journey into composition. Mieville followed-up Four Wanderings with Ethers, the most uncharacteristic album in his catalog to date and the closest-sounding to what you imagine he may have been submerged in at GRM. Mieville calls Ethers his attempt to “lower drone music from the skies” in which the recognizable (rolling stock, torrential rain) is “totally modified with glitch, interference and filters [until] the narrative element was dissolved.” It was a success; where Four Wanderings’ lucidity placed the artist close to minimalists like Claudio Curciotti, Ethers was the sound of Mieville in hardware mode, taking cues from his other stated influences such as Éliane Radigue, Alvin Lucier, Jean-Luc Guionnet and the Fluxus artists. “Significantly though,” Mieville clarifies, “GRM taught me to listen. I forged a structured language for my own music that would later unfold further in my field recordings.”

Sure enough, Juryo returns to similar terrain as Four Wanderings both geographically and thematically. Buddhism is a central thread, particularly the Lotus Sutra as taught by Nichiren. “Buddhism is vital in my personal life, for equilibrium,” Mieville explains. “[Nichiren’s] method is based on chanting a mantra, engaging the whole body, the breathing, the hearing voice… it has influenced my perception of sound and composition in terms of form, rhythm and duration.” Most of Mieville’s published field recordings have been those he took away from his travels in the Far East, a part of the world he is continually drawn to. The seeds for ‘Murasaki,’ the composition which completes Juryo’s cycle, were sown during time he spent in Japan with Butō dancers, but Mieville says he rarely goes into situations with clear targets in mind: “I have no method for composing,” he says. “Usually I just let myself go out in the field and record something surprising. I let my ears find the beauty or dynamics and I listen to these materials until a form, an intent, or an idea appears. The intrigue, or narrative element, in a field recording is very important to me but I am seldom satisfied with what comes up [naturally] so I edit and modify in the studio to build up my own drama. It can be very quick, but the composition process can be very long and spread out over a few months, even years.”

Occasionally though, something will attract him and he will feel drawn back to record it with a kernel of an idea in tow; these tend to turn up in black sheep pieces like “Tanit Astarté,” which references Phoenician mythology and Antonin Artaud‘s Héliogabale. It is the track on the album that seems to chime best with the stark municipal image on its cover (Mieville says “urban, man-made” environments are, more often than not, those to which he typically “goes [back to] for specific sounds.”) It also provides a neat continuity between the sonic worlds Mieville has developed thus far: Ethers‘ earth runs into Juryo‘s atmosphere like an unfinished landscape painting turned upside down.

Mieville tells me his focus has indeed returned to nature and, interestingly, closer to home. “The next trip I have planned,” he says, “is to the Azores Islands in Portugal, to record out in the field. I’m working on water sounds: oceans, rivers, rains and so on, trying to gather them into coherent soundscapes. It should be a dreamlike place…”