Montréal, Canada. This is where Olivier Alary, French composer revealed on the musical scene thanks to his collaborations with Björk and artistic installations appeared here and there, in Europe and North America, resides. Let’s meet him…

Céline: During my research I went onto Ensemble’s website… Are you in hiding?

Olivier Alary:No no (laughs). Right, I’m by myself for a start. The first album was recorded with my partner of the time, Chanelle, but we split up during the recording of the record. I have tried to maintain a band image whilst this one was completely disintegrated. The new record will mainly feature collaborations: Mileece, Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Lou Barlow (Sebadoh) et a friend from France too, she is a lyrical singer. I needed her to double my voice on one of the tracks and she sings extremely well!

C: So you’re recording it as we speak…

OA:No, it’s finished. I’m mixing right now.

C: Can we talk about it or you’d rather keep quiet?

OA: The thing is I didn’t want to talk about it until now because it was rather difficult, say to get Cat Power’s voice on it. I had to go to the United States to record with her, it took six months between the time she heard the track until recording it. I had this project in mind, I knew what the result would be but there have been so many changes. Sigur Rós’ singer was due to appear on the album but it didn’t happen. Now that everything over and done with, everything has been recorded, I feel more comfortable talking about it.

C: What was your vision for the project? How did you decide on using artists like Lou Barlow, Chan Marshall?

OA: 10, 11 years ago, Lou Barlow released a record, Freed Weed, that I was listening to constantly at high school and it marked me deeply. I find prodigious the fact that he managed, with virtually nothing technologically speaking, to create a print resulting from using all the defects. He sent me some material at the beginning and the voices on it very clean. It destabilised me a bit, it was odd because I was so used to hear the breathings that gave a life to records. That’s what was really interesting when I started working with his voice. What attracted me first in Lou’s style was that breathing.

C: You’ve worked extensively between 1998 and now, a lot of gigs at the beginning, then some sonic installations, some art exhibitions. How did it happen? Were there any particular factors?

OA:It’s quite random, some artists had heard my tracks and desired their use for their exhibitions. In Guy Bourdin’s case it happened thanks to a London company that I’d previously been in touch with, ShowStudio. Everything that happened, regarding the installations and the contemporary art, is due to some head-hunters looking for new faces. I don’t know if these opportunities really brought me anything, if only for my name to appear next to other artists benefiting from a media cover.

C: The first Ensemble album is released on Rephlex, Richard James’ (aka Aphex Twin) label. Laila, one of Björk’s collaborators on Debut, also appears on the same label. Still I don’t have the impression that these elements were sought after but rather that they contributed in creating a “snowball effect”…

OA: Exactly. Despite the fact that Rephlex didn’t really promote the first album, somewhat Björk managed to find the record. A combination of circumstances rather extraordinary then followed: Bogdan (Raczynski), my flatmate then, played in a Warp night and meet Björk, who more or less asked him to work with her on Vespertine. That didn’t happen in the end. I pushed my way through to try contacting her, I didn’t know then that she’d already heard my record. A Fat Cat employee suggested I send her some material, he thought she might like what I did. So we came to work together a little by accident.

C: And were you a Björk fan?

OA:Not at all (laughs). When her first album was released a lot of my girl friends were in awe. Someone I have wanted to work with for years, without great hope though, is Stina Nordenstam. I’ve always had that feeling that the people I’d like to collaborate with, I won’t! I am working with very interesting people at the same time, but it is accidental in a way, apart from Cat Power. There’s never been any calculation, I sent her a demo and I let it be. If you calculate even a little, it doesn’t work!

C: When will the new album come out?

OA: For now I’m discussing with some labels, more typically indie, because I’ve kept some interesting stuff I’d developed on an electronic level, but also some orchestral arrangements made in Berlin by a friend of mine. Everything is treated in a way to confuse the listener, to get him to ask himself whether the instruments are played or assembled on computer. I haven’t decided who will release it yet.

C: You studied architecture before turning to sound. Do you think it helps in the way you compose?

OA:Yes and no. The way I work is extremely intuitive, I think architecture helps me more in the building of the songs itself. Architecture and Sonic Art helped me in recreating some sort of sonic physicality, I’m talking about the sound within the space, the way it moves.

After a few escapades and mishaps, Olivier finds himself in Montréal. When I ask him whether the cultural and geographical shock affected him in some way he surprises me with his answer. According to his experience, Quebec is a mix of old Europe and North America, a stunning mix, due to the French/English duality to start with, and that human warmth Southern French are able to express. A contrast between the winter landscapes found on postcards and the real and almost down-to-earth heat of Canada. We’re not that far from the Méditerrannée!

C: How did your meeting with Björk go?

OA:When I sent her my recordings, I said I wanted to collaborate with her and then I forgot all about it. One day, David from Fat Cat contacted me and told me he’d seen my album on her living-room table! My reaction was to believe it was some silly rumours. As I was preparing to leave for Montreal, I received an email from Björk who said she really liked the record, that she had listened to it repeatedly before and during making Vespertine. She asked to meet for a symbolical handshake before we started collaborating. And there you go.

C: Which then lead you to remix two tracks from Vespertine (Sun In My Mouth recomposed by Ensemble and Cocoon Retangled by Ensemble) and to participate indirectly to Medúlla.

OA:Another accident! I had just sent a CD with various different tracks I had recorded and told Björk she could use them if she wished!

C: About Desired Constellation, Björk actually says she hadn’t realised it was a treatment of her voice. Where did this idea come from and what treatment did you apply to her voice?

OA: If you take any form of complex periodical wave, you can almost always reduce it to a sum of sinus wave. What I simply did was to use Björk’s voice as a waveform, I isolated a fragment from it and manipulated it a certain way to use it as a basic wave for the whole track. (I will obviously not reveal the magical formula to you, readers, it is for Olivier to know it and for you to rack your brains!) Everything comes from a sentence from the acapella version of Hidden Place, “I’m not sure what to do with it”. I needed a pure note and I used the word “sure” as it held the more stable note.

C: Are you going to tour with her?

OA:No, nothing’s planned there. Generally speaking, with Björk it’s always random, very intuitive.

The unknown often leading to great things, we’re are left with a patient wait till Ensemble/Olivier Alary’s new album is being released

Céline Lux

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