‘I try to find music that’s gentle as a leaf to the ear while simultaneously making you want to dive into a sea of pine needles.’
Antoine Bertin crafts multi-sensory experiences that capture the natural world in ways that few manage to: equal parts contemplation and chaos. We first discovered his work through our favourite radio station, NTS, where he crafts meditative soundscapes comprised of field recordings, music and hushed dialogue. Alongside this semi-regular residency and his art practice, Antoine is also a founding member of the sound-oriented creative collective, Soundoesntravel.
We caught up with him recently to discuss the transcendent wonders of sound and nature, and his answers typified everything that makes his work so special.
If you’ve ever found yourself with closed eyes in some great expanse of nature, just soaking up the ambient sounds and wondering why that feels so good, then read on…
Could you tell us a little about your background? How did your practice end up being so focused on natural environments, and in particular the sounds associated with those environments?
I have always liked oscillating between art and science. My father is a doctor who plays in a heavy metal band… His guitar would stare at me in the living room, asking simple unanswerable questions such as: What is music? How does the listening apparatus work? Where does sound come from in the cosmos? I studied physics as part of a growing fascination for sound. However If I go back to studying science one day I would definitely go for biology to expand my listening. Collaborating with living organisms is the future of music. The history of science is full of fascinating stories about how the world can be explored through listening, such as how the speed of the wingbeat of bees was measured by tuning violins to their sound. I am a curious listener, I like the idea of throwing your ears out there, into the polyrhythm of how things are interwoven from the centre of the earth to the edge of the universe. I am intrigued by the line humans draw between nature and themselves. My practice currently focuses on exploring this line and looking into how to articulate it differently.
I first discovered your work through your NTS show, ’The Edge Of The Forest.’ It offered a real respite from the more intense and abrasive residencies that I naturally gravitate towards on NTS! An online radio station is perhaps not the most expected of platforms for someone such as yourself to present their work through. How did that come about?
I am indeed interested in combining all sorts of skills together, from casting ears to building a boat or GPS tracking of animals. But I like to think that all I do now can be traced back to radio. I grew up listening and recording stories on tape. Nothing can transport you more than a simple audio narrative: a voice, a soundscape, music. These are the basic ingredients of all I do.
I met with NTS when I was working at Café Oto, a few blocks away from Gillet square [in Dalston], where the studio is located. I immediately fell in love with the fact you could just open the door of the studio and be out in the street. When sound studios generally stay hidden in buildings, the way NTS connects with its surrounding was and is still very inspiring to reconcile my interest for sound making with my interest for being outdoors. The Edge of the Forest sprouted from these ideas, it is a show exploring the connections between forest and city, technology and plants, animals and music.
The music you pick for the shows is pretty eclectic yet somehow always seems to fit with the overarching themes of flora and fauna - whether that’s Youth Lagoon, Of Montreal or Flying Lotus… How do you decide on which artists/songs fit the concept?
I am interested in how artists see themselves and their music as part of the fauna and flora. It usually starts with a banal reference to nature in the artist’s name or in a song title as the starting point to creating the musical atmosphere of the show. I am interested in organic and repetitive song structures, almost like Lindenmayer Systems. It’s aired in the morning so I try to find music that’s gentle as a leaf to the ear while simultaneously making you want to dive into a sea of pine needles (which I embrace quite literally as part of creating sounds for the show).
When I get the chance I interview the artist about his relationship with animals or plants. Forests are often used as metaphors for the unconscious or imagination: I remember especially the interview with Kevin Barnes [Of Montreal]. His music is populated with animals from Earth and forests from other worlds. Have you seen the documentary called The Secret Life of Plants? My dream would be to interview Stevie Wonder as part of the show. Maybe I should invite him with flowers next time he is around!
As my long-suffering girlfriend can attest to, I'm pretty geeky when it comes to abstract and ambient music, so I’ve particularly enjoyed the most recent episodes of your show that focus on field recordings from the Amazon, from Mediterranean Islands. What is it about field recordings - and particularly those that capture the essence of pure nature - that is so appealing to listen to?
Sound is a succession of compressions and expansions. Speaking of audio experiences more generally, I think of them as a balance between what you hear and what you don’t. Field recordings have this very elegant way of presenting a seemingly simple reality to the ears that also leaves so much space for imagination. Listening to a piece of field recording is an invitation to swim through your personal repertoire of images, through something very personal and immersive. It is super exciting to be able to throw your ears into places you’ve never been, or weren't there at the time of the recording anyway, through the sensibility of a person you don’t really know. Something I really enjoy stumbling upon are signs of the presence of the recordist: who are they, and why they are here in the middle of the amazon?!
Alongside your art practice, you also run a sound-focused creative studio, Soundoesntravel. How did this come about and is there a distinction in the way you approach commercial briefs compared to your own art?
Soundoesntravel is a group of talented friends who gathered under a puzzling name to work together on creating immersive experiences based on sound. It’s much more fun to listen together, we all had this hunger for spending time with other people, to convolute complementary practices in order to grow fresh ideas and engineer the technology we need to achieve those. Because we work on sensory experiences rather than objects or technology strictly speaking, it is not always easy for anyone to grasp the ideas we’re developing before they get done. This can be quite tricky when looking for opportunities to create new work! It seemed therefore relevant to be able to diversify our sources of revenue to fast track the developments of new ideas. Thus, commercial briefs and our art are all part of a same organism that requires a lot of caring and passion to produce wonderful things. It’s the variety of people and projects we have the chance to be working on that keeps us fresh and innovative. The only distinction it is important to remain clear about, I believe, is when one is saying something to sell it and when one is saying something to say it, which is an exciting and intricate line to navigate these days.
Do you have any particular exciting projects coming up that you’d be happy to share with our readers?
I am currently working on a human-scale animal burrow / underground listening station to be installed under the surface of an English forest in 2017. I’m also working on an immersive music experience called the Imaginary Club Experience with dj PiuPiu, and on a composition with artists French & Mottershead - for their project about the decomposition of the human body after death called Afterlife. Great for flowers!
Maybe I’m just paying more attention recently, but there seems to be a particular focus right now on binaural sound, field recordings and the like. Do you think this is the case? Are artists and audiences starting to engage more with nature?
There is definitely a growing interest for binaural sound and 2016 is going to be a very exciting year for it. The technology has been around for about a century, yet somehow has always remained a curiosity in the cabinet of sound specialists. While the demand for immersive sound in virtual reality is greatly stimulating the development of new binaural ideas, I think it is also simply a technology that is naturally close to the body, intimate and introspective. With almost no equipment (your headphones) you can feel instantly transported in time and space, which is very refreshing. As Simon McBurney says about the Amazon forest in his piece, The Encounter, “I thought the only way to represent the most biodiverse place on the planet was to make people imagine.” Recording natural environments is one thing, getting people to engage actively with these environments has to be the next thing.
Do you send flowers and plants as gifts? What is it about them that you think make them so popular for expressing sentiment? Do you have a favourite plant or flower?
My grandmother is a florist and flower artist who teaches Ikebana in France. I grew up surrounded by bouquets and oasis foam! I am not so good with the symbolism of flowers. Offering plants for me is essentially offering time with a living being: plants open, radiate, lose a petal you may hear falling on the floor, wilt, decompose. It’s offering a sensory experience, a story with a beginning and an end, which sounds to me as close as you can get to what offering a sentiment may be.
My favourite flowers are cosmos, which I originally got excited about because of their name obviously. But the more I look at these colorful discs suspended in their sea of leaves, the more I actually see galaxies suspended in the universe. There is something there...
Find out more about Antoine Bertin.
Find out more about Soundoesnttravel.