Music and biology have gone hand-in-hand for millennia upon millennia. Archaeologists have discovered instruments fashioned out of mammoth ivory and vulture bones that are estimated to be 40,000 years old, continuing a larger exploration of music’s ongoing relationship to human culture. Yet while theory after theory is posited, the real responses to music become intensely individual. How do we ourselves react to sound? Where do those sensations register in the body?
Such physiological responses to music are central to the work Leila Bordreuil does as a cellist and composer. Balancing her artistic output between the realms of of improvisation, noise music, and sound art, the French-born, Brooklyn-based performer approaches the overall field of sound with a spirit similar to psychiatrist and trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk’s approach to therapy: Notice what is happening, ask what happens next. Bordreuil’s curiosity, which manifests as a collage of sonic textures and landscapes, has led to her working with an equally wide-ranging group of artists and venues, including Kim Gordon, Nate Wooley, Toshimaru Nakamura, Marina Rosenfeld, MoMA PS1, Issue Project Room, and the Stone.
Up next for Bordreuil in New York is a return to Issue Project Room, where she was a 2016 artist-in-residence, for the world premiere of Episodes et Mutations, an aura-inspired collaboration with light, sound, and space artist Doron Sadja. Commissioned by Issue, the work will be presented with the Mivos Quartet and multi-disciplinary artist Thomas Dexter as part of the French Institute Alliance Française’s twelfth annual Crossing the Line Festival on September 26.
In a conversation with National Sawdust Log, Bordreuil talks about her interest in the physical responses triggered by music and multisensory art, and why that’s much more interesting to her than the notion of virtuosity or perfection. She also spoke about her upcoming show in November at the Kitchen, which will also touch on light components along with the physicality of music in a work for cello and six double basses. (The conversation was edited for clarity.)
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: You grew up in Aix-en-Provence, a town known for its summer music festival. Did that setting have an influence on your early musical studies?
LEILA BORDREUIL: Basically, when that festival happens every summer it really takes over the town. You’d have all these world renowned chamber musicians who would just practice on the piazza, and would stop every five minutes being like — “Go back to measure blah-blah-blah.” I started with the violin and then did the cello, but playing music was my own decision, not my parents’ decision. Being surrounded by this classical music was definitely very nurturing in that way. All of my friends were ushers [with the Festival d’Aix] in the summer, so I would go see operas for free all the time. It wasn’t an influence, but…
Almost like an aura?
You mention seeing the festival’s operas growing up. Was there a standout performance for you?
I liked Shostakovich’s The Nose. Mostly I liked Baroque music a lot. Although most of the things that struck me musically in my life were not at that festival.
What were your artistic influences?
Techno was really big in my town — in the South of France in general in the early 2000s. There was definitely a scene, so that’s the music I grew up on. I still keep techno in mind as a structure today when making experimental music. When you think about it, it’s really similar to Steve Reich and all these minimalist composers. I made techno a little bit when I was younger, but working with machines, the process itself, was a little boring to me.
It’s interesting that you say that: You’ve also said in the past that virtuosity doesn’t interest you, and yet with electronic music you could arrange it so that you hit the perfect note each time.
I am in some sense always jealous of electronic sets in that way. I play a lot of noise shows where people have all-electronic sets and it really takes over the room. So then part of my practice as a cellist who plays amplified music was to reach that level of sonic power. But it doesn’t need to reach perfection. I’m more interested in the wall of sound and its power than playing a piece perfectly.
And I also politically don’t like the idea of perfection. I was in conservatory for a long time and they were very strict, and that’s not a good way to learn music. I still love classical music, I still listen to it. But when I think of electronics, I don’t think about perfection, I think about sound.
Can you say more about that wall of sound?
I like physical experiences when I go to see live music, which is why I’m attracted to electronic music a lot. I go to a lot of noise shows that are made for you to listen with earplugs. Pretty early on, I also got into sound installations. I always liked art overall and installation art and thought sound installations were the coolest thing ever. So there was that, too: the sound from a conceptual level. There’s more in sound art than in classical music, for instance.
At the same time, it seems like a lot of the binaries between classical and nonclassical — even between “perfect” and “bad” — are going away. You’ve spoken to that as well in the past around preferring subjectivity to objectivity.
I think there’s definitely a shift. For instance, with the new musical director of the New York Philharmonic [Jaap van Zweden], their opening concert this season includes in it soloists Brandon Lopez and Nate Wooley. I know Brandon and Nate, and they’re amazing musicians and they stuck to authentically experimental music. And they’re both extremely virtuosic players, who could just as easily be successful as “mainstream” musicians, which is a much smoother career path. So I see things like that, more emerging roles, and I think that’s really cool. I don’t have any radical opinion about apart from the fact that I’m happy about it.
I think in all of music the binaries and the boundaries are erasing themselves. There’s really a cross-pollination. I play, for lack of a better term, as an ambient-experimental cellist on a lot of rock bills, on dance music bills. It’s nice to try and promote a diversity through curating, which is what I’ve done for a long time. It’s even more efficient, actually, to diversify yourself as a performer. I say no to gigs sometimes, of course, but I’ve tried to make an effort in the past year to not say no to gigs that are booked by people who aren’t from my scene. Even if it’s a small gig, I’ll still do it just for that reason. That’s been really fantastic to me.
What was one of the gigs you’re glad you didn’t say no to?
A few months ago, I played this experimental music bill; very experimental, but very diverse with hip-hop–inspired stuff, dance music, jazz… There were five acts and I was the only white person on that bill. And that’s never happened to me, because experimental music is often super white. I can’t believe I’ve been playing music in New York for six years and I’ve only been the only white person on a bill once. So that’s also the diversity in new music I’m talking about, because in new music and improvised music it’s a really white crowd. I was kind of sick of that scene of “academic” experimental music. It really has blindfolds. People come and criticize and put their hands on their chin like, hmm… But music, I think a lot of it is about having fun. That’s why I like playing on these more diverse bills, they’re exciting. Every single band is something new. And that’s why I moved away from the classical world, because sitting down in a huge amphitheater and dressing up for it is kind of boring—a sheep attitude. And that’s ridiculous. I mean, that’s truly ridiculous.
I remember when studying classical music – which I did for a really long time, 14 years – hearing reactions like, That’s not how you play Mozart! Did you think this was Brahms? You can’t just legato it whenever you feel like it. It’s just kind of painful, you know? I don’t know any classical players who have attained classical virtuosity without being mistreated. My teacher was really harsh on me, and never told me I was good even though he actually thought I was good. That’s kind of the norm, and it’s just a way of learning things that’s so rigid. It reminds me of these old French films from the ‘50s where they snap your hand with a ruler at school.
Like The 400 Blows?
Exactly, like Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows. Even when I went to Bard, which is super hippied-out, the conservatory professors were still super harsh. I quickly abandoned the classical thing at Bard and got a new cello teacher, Alex Waterman, this brilliant cellist. He taught me how to appreciate tones and approach the cello beyond western scales. We studied the history of Pythagorean tuning, equal temperament, and so on. That was incredible. I think Alex is a huge influence on who I’ve become as a cellist.
What was that like, going from the strictness of the conservatory to this more open exploration?
It was extremely liberating. It’s not because it’s a free-for-all or a do-anything-you-want. I’m an extremely, extremely hard-working person. It may seem like something kind of lazy – “dropped the hardcore classical world to have fun” – but I myself am working just as much. It’s just that the process is more interesting. You have to practice your music, but it’s also research and you have to inquire within yourself and put a lot of thought into it. And you learn a lot from it. If I spend 50 hours working on my own stuff with electronics, I learn more than by playing Mozart for 50 hours.
So tell me about the pieces you have coming up in New York, beginning this month with the French Institute Alliance Française.
A large aspect of the piece is its light component, and that was a very collaborative process with Doron Sadja, with a lot of discussion and exchanges of ideas. With the Mivos Quartet a little less. At first I wanted to do something extremely collaborative, and maybe to the extent that there wouldn’t be any music stands. I’m inspired by Éliane Radigue, one of my favorite composers. She doesn’t write scores, and she’ll have an hourlong piece for large ensemble. I was hoping to do something kind of like that. But I quickly realized that writing a 50-minute piece for string quartet – unless you want them to take the month off for you, which is not an option – then you have to be pretty straightforward notation-wise.
So this piece is the first fully classically-notated piece I’ve written since college; all the other pieces I’ve written so far largely integrate structured improvisation. The piece coming up in November at the Kitchen is structured improvisation. That doesn’t mean that it’s super free, because the parameters are extremely precise, but there is room for the player to express themself and room for more collaboration because of it, actually.
The collaboration for the piece with Mivos seems to hinge more on your collaboration with Doron.
Previously I didn’t know anything about lights, so I couldn’t tell Doron what to do. But I’m also a huge fan of Doron’s work. Since I met him in New York, before I even moved here, I’ve always really loved his work. It’s stood out on bills for me. So I was also kind of like, Give me anything you want! The inspiration for the light aspect of it also comes from techno again—I don’t know why I keep coming back to it, it’s not as important to me as it seems in this conversation. But when you go to the club, there’s always insane lights. Half of the experience is the light show. And that’s something that does not exist in classical music. It exists in opera, yes. But string quartet? Not really.
In this string quartet, I’m trying to reach people’s’ brain sensitivities. Lights help to do that, it makes for a more immersive experience. The quartet is also very sentimental to me. A lot of it is about memory, so in this kind of corny way I combined what I’ve experienced in the club and what I was brought up with in classical music. In doing so, my biggest hope is that people who generally don’t listen to classical music will enjoy it. And for them to enjoy it, I think you need a little extra push. Collaborating with Doron just widens the audience, because people who are not really into classical music will go see Doron’s work, which is visually extremely compelling and part of the art world.
How does that contrast with the work you have for the Kitchen in November?
This piece is part of a series of pieces I’m writing for this instrumentation. I started with it three years ago and showed it at this DIY venue that doesn’t exist anymore called Palisades. And then I got this residency at Issue Project Room and developed it even more.
I’m all about the amplification of acoustic instruments and how to get special effects from unprocessed amplification, not using any pedals. The string quartet is that way. Some parts of the quartet are amplified, which changes the sound, but there’s no processing. It’s not even louder, just a different texture. For the bass piece in particular, I’m even more interested in amplifying it because of all its bass tones. So for this piece I am doing more research in the relationship between the subwoofer and the bass player. I do live sound as a side job, so I’m especially sensitive to the works of a PA system. Adjusting the crossover in a certain way—crossover being a technical term of the amount of frequencies that you send to the PA speaker versus the sub. I might integrate lights as well, I guess light is my new thing. Exploring again, too, the physical relationship to the piece. You can touch the air when there’s that much sound—there’s six double basses.
You talk a lot about the physical reactions to sound and the responses you hope to elicit from the listener. What makes a great listener in your mind?
A great listener is first and foremost someone who listens and doesn’t look at their phone.
What I love about experimental music, and this physical sensation kind of thing, is that it’s devoid of emotional signifiers. It’s not in a key. The stuff I write is very abstract and texture-based. For the ideas, the listener is free to go on their journey. I’m not telling them how to experience it, they choose. So a good listener is someone who also has the patience, and the understanding that they can get in a zone and that zone is theirs.
Leila Bordreuil presents Episodes et Mutations at Issue Project Room on Sept. 26 at 8pm; issueprojectroom.org
Olivia Giovetti has covered music and arts for Paper, the Washington Post, NPR, VAN, and beyond. She’s previously served on staff at Time Out New York and WQXR/Q2 Music, and her writing has been heard onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival. She combines her love of the arts and meditation practice on The Meditation of Art.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.