Interviews

"A Reflection of Your Internal Life": A Conversation with CFCF and Jean-Michel Blais

Photo: Dan Wilton

Fresh off their collaborative EP, Cascades, CFCF's Michael Silver and pianist Jean-Michel Blais spoke with PopMatters about their collaborative process, what to do in Montreal, and much more.


CFCF and Jean-Michel Blais

Cascades

Label: Arts & Crafts
Release Date: 2017-03-15
Amazon
iTunes

In the digital age, where collaborations are often highlighted by their distance between partners, it's refreshing that one of the most promising in recent memory came about thanks to an in-person conversation.

Also unsurprising for this age was that this conversation and subsequent first collaboration was sponsored by a billion-dollar brand (this being music celebrator Red Bull), but regardless of the circumstances, the pairing of ambient-electronic artist CFCF (Michael Silver) and acclaimed pianist/composer Jean-Michel Blais was an inspired one.

Their debut EP as a duo, Cascades, was released to warm reviews from numerous publications for its distinct blend of the artists' digital styles. On it, the pair reworked two tracks each of their solo works and concluded with a particularly powerful take on needs-no-introduction John Cage's 1948 composition "In a Landscape". The tracklisting was done intelligently, allowing for the listener to first get a feel for how one interprets the other's work before seeing how their styles combined interpret an all-timer.

The care taken to dissect each other's works, along with our conversation, indicates the clear respect they have for one another. And, given the indisputable track record of CFCF, peaking critically last year with his first Grammy nomination, and the short-but-acclaimed recording career of Blais, whose debut Il is one of the most impressive minimalist works of the decade, it's a respect well-earned. PopMatters spoke with the duo at length, the conversation spanning from their approaches to the EP to activity recommendations in Montreal.

* * *

You're both understandably compared to artists like Philip Glass, and on a song like "Two Mirrors" I can see the Glassian repetition and playfulness, but what are other influences on each of your works that wouldn't be as obvious?

Michael Silver: I'm sure we both each have our separate influences, but when we got together, we weren't super vocal about explicitly referencing people other than some of the people you mentioned or people who are explicitly referenced on the record like John Cage.

Jean-Michel Blais: I think the minimal world is what we have in common. I think that's what came out. I don't think anything is explicit. Who else can we say?

Silver: There's tons of ambient music and electronic music that's influenced me personally over the years, and, obviously, I come to this project with all of that baggage, and Jean-Michel has his own [influences].

Going to the John Cage reference, when you worked on the reworking of "In a Landscape", Michael, I'm familiar with your Night Bus series, where you've done remixes in the past, so what's the difference in doing a remix of a longer, more traditional ambient piece than, say, an R&B track?

Silver: In this case, we had the sheet music and Jean-Michel was playing it, and we weren't even sure if we were going to do the version of it; it kind of came together because Jean-Michel was analyzing the composition -- it's certainly a monophonic composition, there's only ever one note at a time -- and he was analyzing the progression of notes within the piece's time signature and he was able to glean a chord structure from it. So once we had that and just kind of improvised that, that was the basis of the reworking. So from there, we had fleshed out the different sounds from the high and low frequencies that would be pleasing and interesting to both of us.

Blais: I think, because you asked the question for a remix, and I'm not sure we started thinking like a remix: it's kind of like a loose interpretation. In classical, you would give yourself some freedom when you interpret stuff, and we just took a lot of freedom. And I think that's why, at the beginning, it's really close to the sheet music, and towards the end is where it gets [different] because we let ourselves explore all of the structure Mike was talking about and the sound.

I think what we should mention is that [there was] a lot of stuff added or changed, and I think it came a lot through improvisation. [The original tracks were] more like a starting point. There was a lot of improvisation when we were playing together, and looking back, I think that's maybe where, because we're not speaking a lot, and like saying we're going to do that and that; we're just playing. And saying "Oh, this", when we are great on this together, which [was] quite often -- that's why it went so fast.

Michael, in a previous interview with PopMatters, you were describing an outlook on objects that resembled object-oriented ontology, and Jean-Michel, you've discussed phenomenology in the past, so is there any direct link to philosophy either of you have in your work?

Silver: I can't really say: I never studied philosophy. I feel like depending on the project there will be different thought approaches -- I guess there will probably be schools of philosophy that would go along with them. It's hard for me to know specifically. [laughs] I don't know what it's like for Jean-Michel.

Blais: I think I'm making that [connection] with phenomenology maybe because there's this idea that each work of art: your experience of it is created by all of your former experiences and this creates the future at the same time. There's never a first or last experience. In essence, this album, the ambient music in general, minimality, too. This idea of repetition, even if it's the same chord and you've heard it for four minutes, it's not the same chord even if it's technically the same, your experience to it is different because your mind went somewhere else and it might be affecting you physiologically or just emotionally; it's changing and touching upon an almost meditative mood.

On this album, "Hypocrite", I had this encounter even if it's more triumph, it's meditative. I think this is maybe a contemplative mood and you sort of see that going through those chords. If you listen to this track over and over, it's going to be every time something different. My perspective -- my first album, and here we have "Hasselblad", it's this idea that anyway you're going to listen to it -- on your phone, in the street, or on the bus, or walking, or rushing to be on time for an interview, your experience of the track might be faster or slower, but it's always the same [track].

Silver: Even if I'm not consciously thinking about explicit philosophical ideas like that, I feel like throughout most of our work there tends to be a thread of referencing ephemeral elements of life and things that aren't your interior life, more like the kind of little things you come into contact with throughout your life. So, obviously that was a concept on Music for Objects, but even in other things, [they might be] exercises that seem to be more about your surroundings and the buildings that make up your life [rather] than your actual, internal life, or how they can be a reflection of your internal life.

That has a lot to do with the experience I had with the EP. It brought me back to when I was four- or five-years-old, and I would have trouble sleeping as a kid, and my dad would put on these ambient tapes. And I can't, for the life of me, remember who they were [by], but I just remember in hearing the EP, it takes me back to hearing those notes; it has that very Proustian quality to it.

Blais: It's so weird because I was experiencing the same thing in listening to the EP: I had those relaxation mixtapes that I can't find anymore, and I know that they were so cheesy but soothing, and probably brings us back. Mike, on my side, opened me to look at this, I mean it's a large label, but, new age-y music, and saying, like, why this couldn't be interesting?

Silver: People think it's not serious music because it's not made by people who studied classical ... or it's not recorded by an orchestra or a quarter or something like that, doesn't mean it has any less value musically. It's those kinds of things that I try to shed - those prejudices about styles of music.

"Spirit" ends with a flute, and so I wanted to talk about how you choose what instruments go along with Jean-Michel's piano.

Silver: That was in the original piece; we were reconstructing the piece from scratch, and I think part of it was that we weren't sure if we were going to include it; Jean-Michel replicated it on the piano.

Blais: I often say that about this EP, how I'm stuck with the sounds of the piano, and it's really difficult, but it doesn't seem to be for Mike. For this example, it's true; I can foresee somehow the pan flute. It's just a coincidence: I'm a huge pan flute lover, and I was listening to, there's a guy, this white man dressed in white with a white dog and a white bird and so many white animals playing the pan flute in old Quebec, and I was always like hating and loving him at the same time.

Silver: There's definitely some levels of irony. It's hard to separate that kind of element of laughing at, but also appreciating [the music]. If we were truly sincere in everything, like white-robed Quebecois dude, our music would start to be, I don't know, it'd be hard to separate us from that -- we might just become super cheesy.

Blais: This irony, I'm just thinking of "Hypocrite", where we said, 'We need a breakdown', and just to do this huge, Lisztian, Romantic, super loud piano chords. Like it's a joke, I don't do that -- kind of showing-off -- it's ironic, but it plays its role and playing in this order, maybe it can be taken at several levels, like, 'Why this sound?' And it makes sense --: stop judging, sort of, and become the kid you were and listen to it and embrace it.

Silver: [Speaking about ambient and modern classical music.] Anything from super loud, electronic, power ambient stuff to more fluttery piano -- there can be a lot of seriousness there, and we're not trying to be jokey, but at the same time, there's a value -- there's a gray area that you can play with that's both serious in terms of its approach but also has a certain sense of humor or a lightness in terms of the palette that we're working with or the references we're making. Just not taking ourselves so seriously that we're [hesitant] to go to a certain place.

One thing I always like to ask that's never really related to the music, but, just to get a feel for where you're coming from: if someone came to Montreal and you had to give them one thing to do, what would that be?

Blais: This is so hard. [laughs]

Montreal has this quality that some cities have that, stay open-minded, walk, and you'll find something. You can really walk around, and you'll hear music coming from somewhere, and you go there, and it's going to be something interesting. I'm not talking necessarily about downtown and huge festivals and all that, but it still has, each neighborhood is sort of unique: you let yourself go, and you've found something yourself, and that's what it feels [like]. I'm still surprised to discover parts of Montreal I didn't know. Some cities are so vast you need to know where to go, and some districts are really boring, and Montreal has this quality that you'll find a nice café with music in it or a nice venue hidden somewhere.

Silver: I would say go for a walk on the mountain at sundown -- when the sun's starting to go down and the moon's starting to come up and the trees filter any direct light out, so rather than being like a sunset, it becomes this twilight-y kind of place and it's pretty interesting. If you have some good, pensive ambient music, put that on and walk the mountain at six o'clock at night.

Blais: You can feel almost lost.

Silver: Yeah, it's forest, it's all forest.

Blais: Each time you go there, something happens to you, and you come back, and you're like "Why haven't I gone there more often?"

Silver: I would say don't stay there too long after dark because it can get a little bit sketchy. [laughs]


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.