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Pop Is Dead: Entering the sound world of Anne-James Chaton

In March 2011, sound poet Anne-James Chaton released Événements 09 on Raster-Noton. The Frenchman was an unknown quantity within the electronic music community, but releasing an album on Alva Noto’s electro-experimental label opened up his work to an entirely new audience.

Chaton’s output will most likely intrigue and confuse any first time listener. Sonically woven, literary doctrines offer an inherent, almost subconscious state of listening. Even if you don’t speak French, the monotone yet emotionally-charged vocal deliveries posses a reflective brilliance. Chaton has been releasing his sonic experiments since 2003, with his debut Événements 99 on Al Dente, a French publishing house and record label dedicated to various styles of avant-garde poetry. He is quick to insist his output is sound poetry, not music: “All of my work comes from text – the sound I create always comes from a form of writing,” he says. Chaton combines his sound poetry with a number of other artistic pursuits – he dabbles in visual arts, choreography and is also a published author.

While many producers fall over each other to list their EBM, industrial, synth pop or drum and bass influences, Chaton’s creative points of reference stem from artistic movements such as Futurism, Dadaism and avant-garde poetry, citing early Russian Futurists Nikolai Myaskovsky and Viktor Vladimirovich and Latin writers such as Tacitus as key influences. Other touchstones include collaborations between 1960s and 70s American minimalist poets and musicians, including legendary experimental composer Steve Reich, whose influence is audible throughout Chaton’s oeuvre. In 1964 the American recorded “It’s Gonna Rain”, his first major work and one later heralded as a landmark in minimalism and process music. Reich defined process music not as “the process of composition, but rather pieces of music that are, literally, processes”. This practice can be heard throughout much of Chaton’s work, most notably in “Événements Nº27”, a piece that has much in common with the scrambled, processed and sometimes nightmarish content of “It’s Gonna Rain”.

Whereas Reich collaborated with choreographers Eliot Feld, Alvin Ailey and Laura Dean, and his wife and video artist Beryl Korot, Chaton can be seen working with sound designer Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto) and guitarist Andy Moor. His long term collaboration with guitarist Moor, a former member of Scottish tribal folk-noise band Dog Faced Hermans, is the result of a mutual admiration of each others work. The two met at a festival in northern France, when Moor, then part of the improvisational anarcho-punk outfit The Ex, was performing a duet with British electronic musician Kaffe Mathews. Chaton explains: “Andy asked me to come on tour with The Ex, to play as their opening support act. We decided to work together to find a way of fitting his style of playing guitar with my way of writing and making strange sounds with my voice.”

The result was “In The Event-Événements Nº19”, a two-part venture with The Ex,  involving Chaton’s 33-minute long “Événements Nº19” and The Ex’s eight minute “In The Event”. However, Chaton and Moor’s first direct collaboration came in Le Journaliste, an eight track LP released on Dutch experimental electronics label Unsounds. Chaton recited journalistic texts from newspaper articles and radio broadcasts over multi-layered soundscapes carved from Moor’s guitar.

This was followed by the Transfer 7″ series, an ongoing project that maintains a conceptual emphasis on transition and transportation. Chaton explains: “Each 7” works with a different kind of transportation, such as cars, rail or air travel. The idea is that the A-Side’s text is built with concrete materials and the B-Side’s text is made with fictional materials, such as literature, film or art.”

Perhaps the most powerful entry in the series is “Princess In A Car”, which details the events before and during Princess Diana’s death in Paris in 1997. Chaton’s mordant narrative, translated by an English speaking female, gestures a call-and-response in describing the harrowing moments leading up to Diana’s death. “She wears a blazer, bracelets, pants, pearls… she is with bodyguard, photographer, valet… she is being photographed, followed harassed… she gets into a car, in a Mercedes with Dodi, she drives… she is in the back seat, in a Mercedes with Dodi… she has an accident”. Enter Moor’s shredding guitars, an aural descriptor to the sheer horror of the crash. “She is lying on the ground, but she is still alive, she is folded in two, but she is still alive, she is trapped, but she is still alive, she moans, but she is still alive…” An incredibly powerfully and potent passage of literature and music, capturing the tragic hopelessness of Diana’s final moments. The remainder of “Princess In A Mercedes Classe S 280” withers away to the motif “she is still alive, she is still alive”.

Much of Chaton’s work is based around what he calls “poor literature”; the everyday and often banal text found on receipts, travel tickets and miscellaneous documents. “One day I asked myself, ‘why can’t these types of documents become a part of literature?’”. The blunt nature of the everyday paper trail we create is what Chaton denotes as “poor”, or “low intensity” literature. “People read this shit everyday, more than they read books,” he says. The allure of Chaton’s anomalistic nature piqued the interest of another revered sound experimentalist, Carsten Nicolai, better known as Alva Noto. Like his first encounter with Moor, the two met at a festival, this time in Amsterdam. Almost a decade later they remain close friends and collaborators. Chaton featured on Alva Noto’s Unitxt album in 2008, supplying morosely spoken three letter acronyms to the track “uni acronym” on 2011 follow-up Univrs.

Chaton credits Nicolai as a significant factor in his recent success, with Raster-Noton shining a light on his work to a new and receptive audience. The release of his 2011 Événements 09 album elevated Chaton’s poor literature to the world stage. The spoken word tracks on Événements 09 are in effect nine “events” – “Événement Nº 20” through to Événement Nº 28”. They simultaneously embrace the ostensibly dull information found on receipts picked up by Chaton on his daily routine with newspaper headlines of globally significant events such as the election of Barack Obama or Michael Jackson’s death. The end result, he says, works like a short story. Chaton achieves this by layering two sentences on top of each other, creating a deep and rhythmic stanza, using only his voice. He explains: “I took four or five newspapers and used the best headline. I recorded myself reading all of the headlines using a lo-fi mic and listened back to see which ones sounded the best. On the same day I kept all of my receipts from when I went shopping, had coffee or went into the bank”.  The spoken word elements on Événements 09 are performed in a hypnotic monotone fashion, which Chaton says “helps my voice become more of a sound, so the audience is transfixed on the story. Words act as sounds and this allows people to interpret what they want from what is being said”.

Like many before him, Chaton is more popular outside his own country than he is in it; although the critical response to Événements 09 was generally positive, few of the reviews came from France. He does however maintain a presence within his homeland’s literary scene, and is currently a board member for the Centre National du Livre (National Centre For Books) in Paris, a state-funded organisation which offers cash grants for poetry-related projects. The board consists of 12 poets from various backgrounds. “Before a commission we receive seven or eight project proposals,” he explains. “We read them all and discuss how much money we can allocate. It happens three times a year and we get one day to give away our funding.” For the struggling poet today, commissions like this help breath life into a dying art.

The aforementioned “Événements Nº27”, a highlight of his Raster-Noton debut, underwent a re-release and remaster by Japanese imprint 10label last year, featuring alongside bludgeoning techno cuts from Ancient Methods, Sawlin and Steven Porter. A staunch, black-eyed seagull was 10label’s suitably chosen artwork for the Mu EP – picture Hideo Nakata remaking Hitchcock’s The Birds and you get an idea of the aesthetic label boss Yuji Kondo was going for. Kondo approached Chaton with the idea of re-releasing “Événements Nº27” replete with a club-centric master. “I proposed they keep the master from Événements 09 for the Mu release, but they suggested a different way of mastering it. I agreed because their method is interesting and quite different to mine,” explains Chaton.

So as Chaton’s music is cut for the clubs, he finds himself performing in them and relishing the opportunity to work with larger sound systems. “When I perform live, especially in venues designed for electronic music, I really work with my voice. It really becomes a physical experience for the audience – I have to read very fast to make the sounds. When I was touring in Japan in October last year, the Japanese really embraced it as performing art and physically connected themselves to it.”

Kondo’s masterstroke of remastering “Événements Nº27” further developed the Anne-James Chaton listening experience. His poetic stanzas now connect with people both aurally and physically, fusing poetry with EBM in the process – so much so people began dancing at his shows, something Chaton says he is not used to but thoroughly enjoys. “I like the idea that a piece like this can affect people in different ways. People can come from an electronic music background and not know it is sound poetry, but it doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s good to bridge the gap with art.”

Chaton’s most recent project is Décade, a three-pronged collaboration combining his own singular style with shades of Alva Noto and Andy Moor, also released via Raster-Noton. It merges the trio’s penchants for experimental electronics, exploratory guitars and dour sound poetics, resulting in an intoxicating cohesion of far-flung musical styles. As with Événements 09, Décade consists of eight chapters, and each chapter or track tells its own story. The 10-minute opener “Chaptire 1: en ville” is a perfect example of the Noto, Moor and Chaton symbiosis of monotone script readings, atonal textures and glitchy electronics.

Décade also includes a book containing 15 portraits created using papers and receipts Chaton collected when meeting his portrait subjects, which provides another glimpse into his artistic obsession with low intensity literature. “The portraits, built with Andy and Cartsen, showcase one portrait of a person, but one person doing a lot of different things,” he says. In 2003, Chaton released a DVD entitled Autoportraits, a project linking himself to his favourite painters and the art of painting. His fascination with short stories and portraits appears throughout his work and for the past decade he’s completed around 70 different portraits, all of which have been made by receipts and miscellaneous paper documentation related to the subjects.

Take the poet away from Anne-James Chaton and he could easily be seen as a quirky hoarder of newspapers, magazines, bank slips, shopping receipts, promotional flyers, customer loyalty cards, business cards and bus, train and metro tickets. But unlike many, Chaton can see beauty in the bland and tells stories waiting to be told in the mundane. If sound is the vocabulary of nature, then Chaton is its voice.

Main image: Laurent Combe

Words: James Manning