The Emotional Life of Objects: An Interview with CFCF’s Michael Silver

Music for Objects
Paper Bag

Exercises was really about architecture — these grand, large, oppressive institutional buildings that occasionally give our lives malaise or melancholy,” says CFCF’s Michael Silver. “Music for Objects was going in the opposite direction entirely, exploring the little things that you can bring home and relate to in a strong way, to give everyday life a kind of peace or calm or happiness.”

Silver, or CFCF, who works out of Montreal, has been constructing intricate, percussive sonic landscapes mostly out of his computer since the late aughts. After gaining a reputation as a remixer, the Exercises EP, in 2012, established him as an emerging force in electronic music. NME called him, a “Canadian producer who manages to strike a balance between the sturdy emotiveness of pop and the shimmering beguilement of ambiance.” Music for Objects, released on Paper Bag records this summer, both builds on Exercises‘ achievement and cuts it down to size.

Seeking Small Epiphanies

Silver says that the transition began when he was watching a documentary one night last summer. “I kind of continuing in the vein of Exercises but also trying to work in a simpler manner. I didn’t have an overall concept,” Silver recalls. Silver happened onto Notebook on Cities and Clothes, a documentary film directed by Wim Wenders about the Japanese fashion designer Yoji Yamamoto. “In the movie they talk about the value of the clothes in and of themselves, as far as relating to our place in the city and in the world. They give the clothes a tangible quality,” Silver adds. “So after that I was looking at objects around me and thinking about how to convey something intangible about these objects. To try to translate those intangibles into something musical and emotional.”

Not that Silver was sitting at his computer contemplating a bowl and attempting to turn it to melody. The pieces in Music For Objects were mostly written first, then named after an object that seemed to fit the composition. “I wouldn’t say that the objects were in my mind while I was writing songs. It was more that I was trying to convey a smallness, a specific-ness in the music,” Silver explains. “I think in order to achieve those intangible things, it’s probably important not to be beholden to specific objects or to try to compose around specific objects. If the challenge is to make stronger the connection between emotions and objects, it’s probably better to work without an object in mind first, but then to try to relate it afterwards. Then once you have the emotion intact, the object can be imbued with that emotion.”

Even so, some of the compositions on Music For Objects seem to relate specifically to the objects they are named after. “With ‘Ring’, the title really works with the music. The melody has this kind of circular structure, as does the composition, because it’s made out of three different kind of movements that come together,” Silver says. “So in some tracks, there is more of a close link between the objects and titles and the composition. But that comes after the fact.”

Silver has always been inspired by film. His first album, Continent was inspired, partly by the work of Michael Mann, while the EP The River made reference to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Yet while his cinematic obsessions had, in the past, led Silver towards the expansive, even the epic, this time, he was looking at smaller scale, more intimate movies. He became fascinated with the work of Yasujiro Oju, whose films center around family, home and intergenerational issues.

“There is a tradition of finding beauty or meaning in smaller or the details of things in Japan,” says Silver. “There’s a book called In Praise of Shadows. It focuses on the way that Japanese architecture uses light and shadow and natural beauty in an almost philosophical way, as a central quality that gives life its joy. That was, to a large degree, part of what I was trying to express.”

A One-Person Orchestra

Silver worked mostly alone for the EP, building layered, multi-voiced orchestral textures out of synthesized and sampled sounds. You may think you’re hearing piano, drums, guitar, bass, strings and malletted percussion, but in reality the only actual organic instrument is a saxophone. It’s played by Francesco De Gallo, a fixture in Montreal’s experimental-noise-improv scene who also plays in Dirty Beaches.

Yet even the saxophone has been altered, stretched, skewed and denatured, to the point where it seems more like a dream world stand-in for the actual instrument than the thing itself. “I think it’s interesting to utilize these not-quite-right-sounding instruments, like these not-quite right midi sounds, to have kind of a not-authentic sound,” says Silver. “It kind of adds a bit of extra mystery, another veil in a sense.”

Still Silver clearly thinks in multiple instruments, and he says he’d like nothing better than to someday work with a full orchestra. “I would definitely like to do something like that,” he says. “It might not have worked with this project, but I would absolutely love to work with a group of musicians and actually conduct them.”

Microtonal Pop

CFCF’s compositions are complex but inviting, their clear, bell-like melodies ringing out through layers of rhythmic intricacy. Silver is influenced by minimalist classic composers including Stephen Reich and Phillip Glass, but he insists that his music is, at its foundation, pop.

“Pop is boiling down ideas. It’s trying to make a simple expression that is not to heady or too difficult to comprehend,” he says. “I think what’s interesting is to try to make these songs that are very easy to listen to and pop in their instrumentation and presentation, and they’re imbued with cognitive content. It’s trying to make something that’s interesting and evocative and conceptual in a way that you don’t often see with pop.”

Silver is entirely self-taught as a musician and a composer. He got interested in electronic music at the age of 10 or 11, starting with the Chemical Brothers and working his way backwards into older, less commercial hip hop and IDM. DJ Shadow’s Entroducing was a turning point for him. “That was such an evocative record with so many textures and for a long time, it kind of drove me forward,” Silver remembers. “I went from that to learning to make music on computers and also learning to play instruments, doing it all on my own.”

Silver says he’s been shaped by lots of different kinds of music, but if he had to name a touchstone, it would be Ryuchi Sakamoto, Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi — the three founders of the Yellow Magic Orchestra. “It’s because they’ve done such a huge amount of work, together and apart, with such a giant variety from one project to the next,” says Silver. “Even if you just take Ryuchi Sakamoto himself, the variety is insane. There are amazing pop records, ambient records, solo piano, classical-sounding stuff. Just in terms of prolific-ness and variety it’s a touchstone for me, in terms of how I approach playing my music and how I would like, at some point, to be.”

But at the same time, he also really admires Peter Gabriel, especially Security, his first solo record, and So. “He was using what was, at the time, very modern technology and kind of pushing things forward,” says Silver. “There are a lot of sounds on those records that you’ve never heard either before or after. They’re very specific to those records. And the songwriting, also, is just really evocative and atmospheric and evokes a place.”

Silver is fascinated with the way that technology shapes an artist’s sound — and in particular with the kinds of technology which are used for a short period of time, define an aesthetic and then drop out of usage. He calls it “derelict technology” and he uses it quite a lot. “There are lot of sounds on this record which are very early keyboard, processed synthesizer that are very useful and evocative. They give the music a very strange, surreal, forced texture,” Silver says. “Part of that is because they were used so much by Peter Gabriel. There’s a trend in music history, that a lot of sounds get thrown by the way side. That’s what I was interested in, just trying to give them a bit of a platform and use them again.”

For instance, “Perfume” takes many of its synth, piano and drum sounds form the Peter Gabriel playbook. “So they have this ringing Eastern quality to them that chimes out while also sounding very artificial,” says Silver. “It’s the kind of sound that’s very one of a kind and very flashy and cavernous and evocative.”

Silver’s newest album, Outside, is out in the fall of 2013, and he’s already working on two more records for 2014. One, he says, is a very lighthearted pop album, the other more cerebral and almost folky. Both will push the envelope and, perhaps, confound the people who are always trying to put him in a genre box. “The only thing that sometimes is frustrating to me is because I’ve got a diverse catalog from dance music to ambient, it’s frustrating to me comments like ‘being fit for the dance floor’ or that I’m a DJ producer,” he says. “I feel like from the beginning I’ve been trying to express a lot of things and then to be pegged as one thing — dance — that’s kind of a side thing …”

The real thing, maybe, is trying to balance minimalist experiment with pop, as yet another of Silver’s favorites did back in 1986. “Do you know the song ‘Happiness is Easy’ by Talk Talk?” he asks, when asked to name one perfect song. “It’s sort of halfway between their synth pop days and their more experimental stuff. It’s almost like an adult contemporary record. It’s very cheesy in places if you are not acclimated to that kind of stuff. But it’s just a great song because it combines a shiny pristine production and unexpected improvisational elements in a very poppy format. It’s got this very clean beat that drives it forward, and it’s got this spare but also full and varied instrumentation, a lot of different things going on. It’s a song that goes from being small and personal and becomes huge.”