Leila Bordreuil: an interview

Originally from Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, Leila Bordreuil moved to the USA to study at Bard College and now lives in Brooklyn. She will play twice at Third Edition on Friday 9th February — a duo with double bass player Zach Rowden and as part of a larger ensemble performing new works by Sean McCann.  Bordreuil will also give a talk about her work at KMH at 2pm earlier the same day. We met in NYC in January and switched on the recorder whilst talking about Eliane Radigue and Leila’s recent, fraught experience interviewing the legendary composer.

Photo of Leila Bordreuil playing cello
Leila Bordreuil. Photo © Peter Gannushkin / downtownmusic.net

L: The interview is super technical. She explains how she writes acoustic pieces. She gives out all the secrets and says how she tunes the instruments, how she does not notate the pieces, what are her vocal instructions, but it’s a little too technical in some way…. It’s about the resonance of string instruments and how to make your cello sound like naldjorlak 

J: Do you listen to her music now any differently having met her and spoken with her?

L: We only spoke about her instrumental music.

J: Have you heard the recent Occam Ocean release on Shiin?

L: No, I haven’t heard that. She told me about that. I should buy it before it goes out of print. But her synth music…. I don’t know if I listen to it differently.  I love it a little more. I’ve been really into psychedelic music these days — not as in the genre.

J: Not flangers and swirling phasers and stuff?

L: The FX, no.  Psychedelic music as in really psychedelic. Heavy psychoacoustics. I’m thinking about psychedelic experiences with health issues or physical states or psychedelic drugs. And her music is really psychedelic because y’know if you listen to an hour of Trilogie de la Mort then you start hearing the sounds come from different parts of the room — they’re floating and sometimes you can even touch them y’know because the frequencies are so intense and that is something that I work on in my music these days. 

Another person who inspired me, even though I’m not the biggest fan of his music — I saw Thomas Ankersmit play at Cafe OTO and his stuff, though somewhat rigid — very serious, like his personality — master of his craft — was super psychedelic.  I came up to him after the show and asked ‘do you hide a speaker in the bathroom?’

J: He’s really good at that. I remember having conversations with him about some kind of art installation he had done or wanted to do where you walk into a room and the room has been treated in a way so that it doesn’t feel like the size that it actually is. You go into a small room and it’s like going into an aircraft hangar or you go into a really big room and sonically it’s like you are in a closet… and the kind of crisis you have of struggling to understand where you are is part of the point, realising how awkward and disorientating that experience is. In the same sense psychedelic. 

L: That’s genius.  

J: I don’t know if it’s an actual thing.

L: Not many people could pull it off.

J: I really don’t understand the technical side of how you would do it.

L: Maybe it’s impossible!  I have no idea.

J: What is it that you are trying to go for with your own work? How do you try to initiate this kind of psychedelic experience.

L: I think about layers a lot and when I play the cello what I’ve been really really working on is delving really deep into overtones but also polyphony of the cello. I’ve been working on a lot of techniques that do a wide variety of sounds at the same time but that are very different from each other. Those sounds tend to be kind of spatial in themselves as well. I also do multi-channel stuff but I also try and achieve some of those kind of effects without a multi-channel setup. There’s certainly some specific frequencies on the cello that are also very bold, and that you can almost touch like I was saying. So I try to do something like that. 

J: How much does it relate to the cello as such and the ideas that people have about how a cello is supposed to sound? Is that part of it?  Do you need to know that the sounds are coming from a cello?

L: It would be the same experience I think.  Reimagining the cello was a motivation at first, but I’ve gone beyond it by now. It’s no longer about that. If you hear some of my cello recordings then you’d have no idea its a cello, but it is a cello…. What it was basically was that I had some health issues when I was eighteen — I mean I still have them — and I couldn’t play the cello like the way I used to. I did conservatory for eleven years, starting at age seven. This was in the south of France. It was very strict and closed minded… and kind’ve horrible, but… anyway, my cello teacher said that with this health problem ‘you’ll never be a cellist — you should focus on being a composer’. But I liked playing the cello so I reinvented my whole technique so that I could still play despite my health issues. I have epilepsy — and there are all these different kinds of seizures like the big ones but also tiny ones that you might get throughout the day that manifest themselves in kind of auras and stuff and so I reinvented my whole technique so that if I hit the stage and I’m totally delirious I can still do something. My hand shakes too all the time so that’s also a reason why I did what I did. 

J: You take medication?

L: Yeah, the shakes are a side effect of the medication — Lamotrigine — what it does is that it creates a permanent micro micro seizure as a way to balance things out. But because of that I have a permanent trembling and a lot of times it is so subtle that you wouldn’t hear the difference on the cello but sometimes you really can. 

J: And maybe more noticeable in a classical/conservatory context?

L: Yes… and I’m also not as quick [snaps fingers]. So it’s hard for me to play in time for classical chamber music. 

J: How come you moved to the States?  When was that?

L: I came here to study philosophy and electronic music at Bard College — with Marina Rosenfeld mostly. I studied a lot with her.

J: How was that?

L: Amazing. Especially in college I was very very sick and I had to eventually stop and move back to the south of France and Marina was like a mother to me. She took care of me.  I went back and finished later.

J: Did you know Marina’s music before you went there?

L: No.  I love her music though. It’s beautiful. That record — Plastic Materials

She put it out when I was in college. I remember there was a picture on her office door there was a picture from the WIRE with her picture on it and it said Marina Rosenfeld ‘Material Girl’ and I was 18 or 19 and I thought why is Marina Rosenfeld on the cover of a technology magazine?  [laughs]

J: At what point did you become aware of the difference between Wire and Wired and this ecosystem of other music that exists?  Did you know about this kind of thing when you applied for Bard?

L: I was definitely passionate about this kind of music but completely unaware. I grew up in a small town — Aix-en-Provence — and it was a total cultural no man’s land except for highbrow stuff — a lot of classical music. It has a very famous opera festival. It has really excellent classical music, but that’s it. There’s not even a tiny basement rock venue. There is no space for anyone to have a band. Otherwise I probably would have had a band. 

J: You would go and see orchestral music, operas and such when you were younger?

L: Yeah, because all my friends or at least a lot of people had jobs there as ushers so I got to go and see crazy operas for free all the time. I saw a lot of opera even though I don’t really like opera. It’s too much information! You have to be focussed, really focussed and when I listen to music I like the option to wander… but I knew Xenakis, I knew Pierre Henry, I knew Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin and Stockhausen and I was really really into philosophy and philosophy of sound. I loved and was a really good student of philosophy in high school.  I’ve always been a failing student and I hardly made it to high school — I was supposed to go to hairdressing school — but philosophy I was really good at it because I really liked it. 

These artists I list are what I knew of and I was really into it and I wanted to study it and that’s why I went to Bard. I looked for a college that had a 20th century electronic music department and a philosophy department so I could do both things and that they would be intermingled.  But I dropped philosophy two years into it. 

J: You’re not tempted to move back to France?

L: Sure, I’m tempted. Because I feel that the government doesn’t do anything for me here.  I struggle here in New York.

J: Do you have a day job?

L: Soon. I haven’t had one for a year, but now I need one. I was lucky to get really well paying gigs and projects this last year. For example I lived in Philly for a month and a half to play in this opera so it was 9—5 or more like 9—9 six days a week and when you work like that you can live off it for a while because its a lot of hours. Stuff like that. But now…. I’m a sound engineer as well but that is kind’ve here and there. I’m about to start some temp/odd-jobs until September when a commission kicks in. I really enjoy doing sound. I feel like it’s really important that there are female sound people. It’s 50% of the reason why I’m doing it because in my career as a musician I’ve had a female sound engineer only once. 

It’s hard because some of the musicians don’t take you seriously.  It’s either/or — like they do not trust you because you’re a woman. Some people literally won’t let me plug things in. Once I was coiling cables when the musicians arrived at the venue and they ask me where the ‘sound guy’ is. I’m coiling cables FFS. But then again other people are thinking it mustn’t be easy to get to this point so you must be good and I think that is the reality for a lot of female sound engineers — that you have to really work for it because people just don’t trust you.

J: You did the tape with Zach recently — do you have any other records coming out?

L: I’m a perfectionist, you know?!  I think about other people and waste and capitalism and pollution and I don’t want to release anything unless its really good and necessary and that it deserves the plastic. I think a lot of people who release a lot of music — I’m not saying some stuff is bad — but I think some of it is not necessary. But I do have something coming out in February. 

J: Something necessary?

L: Yeah, I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. It’s called La Brut. It’s solo acoustic cello. It’s coming out on a noise label called Moral Defeat — an edition of 50. It’s tiny.  And that label is not very eclectic. It’s a lot of harsh noise, but this acoustic cello record is definitely not harsh noise but the people who are into harsh noise will like it the most. It’s interesting I remember a critic saying that my album with Zach even though it was quite far from being noise music the people who were into ‘noise noise’ were the people that would appreciate it the most. I really don’t think I make noise music or at least the ‘genre’ or labelling of it…

J: It’s nice to have some other associations and open up the idea of what the music can be.

L: Exactly. The cross pollination of scenes is something that I’m really interested in, in general — on a social level, a musical level and a personal level.  Even in my music it’s totally multiple personality disorder. I do multi-channel sound installations, I play strictly harsh noise shows, I play ‘acoustic free improvisation’ — the other day I did some borderline ‘free jazz’ stuff which was great — Weasel Walter, Michael Foster, Brandon Lopez and I —  We played for 50 minutes straight! 

J: You don’t feel the need to compartmentalise?

L: No.  And I’ve never felt the need to have a band name which is related. I don’t want to feel forced to be anything. “This is my noise project ‘Headflush Assassination’” you know? [laughs]

J: You’ve clearly thought about the band names before though?

L: I just made this one up! 

J: It came so fast, I’m suspicious.

L: Headflush is a thing that I’ve thought of a lot, actually. It might be the name of my other solo record that is coming out later this year on Catch Wave Ltd. Not the tape. The tape ‘La Brut’ is about… La Brut in French means The Brute, but the clumsy one, the vulgar one. It’s kind’ve a conceptual thing that to me is about my inability to play the cello correctly but also as a child I was always accused of being clumsy and then vulgar because of that clumsiness — not very proper! There is this story about the epileptic nuns in a convent in Aix-en-Provence where I grew up and I believe that convent was actually converted into my elementary school and its a crazy story about these two women who get raped by the priest and one of them is epileptic and the other one is schizophrenic and hears voices and speaks to herself and they think that the devil is within them. They ended up burning them. This is in the 1500s or 1600s…

Someone in college handed me a photocopy of an encyclopaedia page and asked “isn’t this where you grew up?” and then I found the original text in old French and its this whole story about the epileptic nuns and about how vulgar and ill mannered they were because they were possessed by the devil. They wouldn’t look at you when you speak and flake out on you and do their own thing — being disobedient by not listening — but they are actually just sick. But they think its the devil that is within them and they can’t get the devil out of them so they end up killing them. Isn’t that crazy?  That’s what the album is about.  Harsh noise.