Photo: Dan Wilton

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

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
Arts & Crafts

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.

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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]