France Jobin: Drones with a Drum Machine

France Jobin is a sound and installation artist, composer and curator residing in Montreal, Canada. Her audio art can be qualified as “sound-sculpture”, revealing a minimalist approach to complex sound environments where analog and digital intersect. Her installations express a parallel path, incorporating both musical and visual elements inspired by the architecture of physical spaces. Her works can be “experienced” in a variety of unconventional spaces and new technology festivals across the globe. Since 2009, her focus has been related to Quantum mechanics with many of her projects being inspired by theories related to topics such as vacuum decay, string theory and more recently, what she feels to be the most perplexing phenomenon in the world of the quantum , entanglement.

Jobin’s work continues to evolve as technologies enable her to create new environments and in the fall of 2023 she was the first artist to have a 5 day long residency at Erica Synths headquarters in Riga, Latvia. Eliza Aboltina met Jobin in Berlin right after her residency to learn about her experience and work process that resulted in an unlikely artefact - a drone music composition performed only with a drum machine, the Pērkons HD-01 .

Erica Synths residency program is done in collaboration with the Public Benefit Organization Artes Liberales.

FJ: I have fallen in love with Riga!

- You have? I'm happy to hear that.

FJ: I have never been here before, it’s a serious “Oh my god!”.

Karlīne Knēziņa

- Can you introduce yourself and your work ?

FJ: I'll give you a quick rundown. My background is in classical music and my instrument was piano. I had a serious problem with it all. I didn't understand how I was supposed to interpret music when I couldn't sit down and have a coffee with the composer in order to figure out what was going on in their head while they were composing. To me, it was completely illogical. So I became very disenchanted with classical music.

I continued playing piano by learning stuff I liked. Around the same time, my parents sent me to synchronized swimming lessons. When you're doing synchronized swimming, you're often upside down with your head underwater executing figures and at the time, we didn't have speakers in the pool. The music was playing from a turntable on the side of the pool and the water was filtering the music. I was listening to Pierre Henry’s “Messe pour le temps présent - 2. Psyché rock” and it was really incredible, it changed the sound completely. Oddly, I only became aware of this particular dynamic during the pandemic as I came to realize that this experience is partly responsible for the kind of music I create.

France Jobin Personal Archives

As I got older I continued playing music, but found it rather dissatisfying, I hadn't really found the way I wanted to communicate. Through a series of circumstances, I ended up playing in a blues band and I realized that keyboard sounds were really shitty, they sounded soooo bad for what I needed them for. This is when I started getting into keyboard programming and adjusting the parameters of the sounds to what I needed. Essentially I learned on the fly, I’m completely self taught in electronic music, an ADSR was completely new to me and I started to figure things out. While connecting rackmounts with keyboards and programming, I could get that Hammond B3 sound I needed and many other sounds as well. One night during one of those blues gigs, one guy saw that I had a Morpheus (which I still own) and he kind of went into a panic and asked: “How can you have this piece of equipment, it has just barely come out!’ I responded: “Well, E-Mu announced it and I put my order in right away, so I was one of the first ones to get it”. He invited me to have a jam in his studio. At the studio, he started playing music I'd never heard before. I realized later it was a Tangerine Dream kind of vibe. And as I would with any kind of improv situation, I listened, and waited to see what I could add. When you think about it, it's a conversation we're having, just with another language. Within 5-10 minutes, I started playing and realized that this was the kind of music I could express myself with. This made me very happy!

Another aspect from my childhood worth mentioning is that I come from Quebec City - a cold place in Canada. We have a Winter Carnival in February with an ice castle and all. When I was a kid, we used to have car races on ice. I would just go there, sit and listen to the sound of speeding tires on ice. I had no interest in the car races whatsoever. I just liked the sound of it. My idea of what music was already back then, was not what most people considered music. I had to stay quiet about this so as to not be branded a weirdo. Fast forward to 1999, I decided to embark on an electronic music career. People in the traditional music scene thought I flipped. “She's lost it completely.’ ' But I've never looked back, it was the right decision for me. So officially, my career as an electronic musician started in 1999. I will celebrate 25 years in 2024!

- Reading your artist statement it feels like you are rather weary of using the word musician to describe the work you do.

FJ: I don't consider myself a musician in the traditional sense.

- How did you reach the point of having a reductionist, minimalist approach to sound?

FJ: I was doing a lot of dark, heavy ambient and I just got bored, essentially I got bored with myself. When it gets to a point where you're doing music, and you can do it in your sleep, it's no fun. I needed a challenge. At the same time, I was beginning to be interested in science. Around 2008 there was a lot of talk about string theory - the size of a string is 10 to the minus 33 centimeter, it's infinitesimally small. In parallel, I was having a lot of thoughts about music, and in particular about how traditional music shaped my ear. For instance, when you play piano, you're playing one bar, but you're already reading the next one. Essentially, this means you know what's coming next, and expectations to me, are the enemy of experimental music. So I found that I had to unlearn everything. It took about three years to unlearn all of the training that I received when I was a kid. Blues was also my first encounter with minimalism, it is a very minimal genre.

- I have spoken about unlearning with a lot of musicians, especially those who have been academically trained but I think you're the first one to talk about it as a destination, something you have managed to reach.

FJ: I had to get away from it completely.

Karlīne Knēziņa

- What was your process of unlearning?

FJ: I stopped listening to traditional music. I started over and listened to nothing but electronic music except for one album and that’s a funny thing. One of my favorite albums is Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. It's so extremely minimal. I listened often and I still do because this album brings me peace. During that three year process of unlearning, I started listening to it very differently and I had a realization: This album is not about where he plays, what's important is not where he chooses to play, it's where he chooses not to play. This changed the way I listened to the album. And I transferred this notion to my practice.

In traditional music, you write down notes, silences, chords, keys etc and that's the music you are “bound” to, I figured it was all wrong, this perception is of course very subjective. I've been thinking about this all my life. Music is not the notes on the music sheet, music is the space between the notes. So I went back to string theory and quantum physics and this is when I started this reductionist approach, because I felt that in classical music or art, there's often more drama, more extremes. I needed to scale back, to go the other way. When I started doing this, I found it to be extremely difficult and of course, if it's difficult, I'm going for it because I thrive on challenges, my biggest fear being stagnation! This provided me with an incredibly interesting challenge. I would say, 95% of my time is spent creating sounds. As a result of this new found perception, my sound processing slowly evolved into a peeling away of each superfluous, evident layer until I reached the distillation of each sound: the apex of a reductionist approach and the essence of my minimalist aesthetic. The same approach applies to composing.

Karlīne Knēziņa

- That beautifully ties together with the next topic I want to discuss in regards to your residency at Erica Synths. Though I know the answer, tell me what was the instrument of choice to work with during the residency?

FJ: The amazing Pērkons HD-01 drum machine.

- In the studio in which we have an abundance of old and new, classic and rare synths, your weapon of choice is a single drum machine. And you choose to use it without the sequencer. Talk about a reductionist approach. Epitome of it! How did that come to be?

FJ: Normally during a residency, I go for any instrument that I don't know and I build sound banks. The evening I arrived, Ģirts said to me: “I thought you would do a concert”. My first reaction was: “A concert with gear that I don't know in five days?!” Then I thought about it for a second, and I switched my thinking to a quantum physics perspective, which is all about uncertainty and probabilities. It was a very quick decision ”let's go for it, let's live dangerously”. I went to the studio on Monday, and as I had just spent time at EMS in Stockholm, where I played with SYNTRX, I thought perhaps I could do a performance with it. Otomārs - my wonderful friend who helped me get accommodated at Erica Synths, showed me the Pērkons HD-01 and I immediately knew this is what would work for me. He continued to show me the sequencer, to which my response was: “Forget the sequencer. I need to focus on something that's going to sound good in four days”. I couldn't take on too much because I would just be messing about trying to learn too much in four days, which would result in no concert. So I completely ignored the sequencer. He explained to me the ergonomy of the drum machine, showed me the four voices and that was all I needed. The rest was a process of discovering the instrument in an unusual way, trusting my instinct and respecting the Pērkons.

Karlīne Knēziņa

- It sounds like you thrive in an environment where you have limited time resources and some kind of restriction - it triggers your creativity.

FJ: Yes, I thrive on challenges.

- Did you have any particular inspirations or topics relevant to you during this residency? Any indirect reference points that might be heard in the final work?

FJ: Ah yes! My work is often site specific with installation or even concerts in unusual venues. In that respect, I felt very lucky that everyone at Erica Synths was extremely generous. The conversations we had at lunch about Latvian culture, which I knew very little about helped me a lot and fed my creativity. I asked questions about Latvian culture, the war, the relationship between Latvia, Russia and Germany. Many of the folks at Erica Synths shared stories about their grandparents, it was fascinating. And then, I was told about the more pagan aspect of things. And the deities, Pērkons in particular (Pērkons is a sky deity of Baltic religion, renowned as the guardian of law and order and as a fertility god - ed.) Also, another interesting aspect with the Pērkons is the blue color of the instrument, which is taken from the cockpit of a Russian jet bomber! So all these things inform my work because I simply cannot take part in a residency without taking into account the community, the history and the culture, wherever I am.

Karlīne Knēziņa

- The exchange with the people around you informed your work as the virtual space, but knowing that you often work with physical space and architectural structures, did the physical surrounding have any influence on your work too?

FJ: Certainly, I specifically chose a place to stay that was a half an hour walk away. This is my usual modus operandi to discover a new city. Otomārs suggested I walk home from Erica Synths on this old defunct Russian bridge that's all beat up and has cracks in it through which you can see the water when you walk. I walked through this really muddy area and I found myself in a backyard where this old woman was sitting outside and her dog started barking at me. I smiled at her and she smiled back and because I don't speak Latvian, that was it. Next, I ended up in this really industrial, deserted area. Afterwards, I found myself walking by these beautiful wooden houses. All of this feeds into the experience, in one way or another. I was lucky also, aside from all the amazing lunch conversations, to spend time with Elizabete Palasiosa, curator, who made it her mission to continue my Latvian culture education at night, through the streets of Latvia and some amazing cocktails.

I knew that the concert was going to be very intimate among the 10 to 12 people, there were several particular connections that felt very significant in a quantum way, strange synchronicities and all. The experience was very real, life and connecting with people are very real, there's no ambiguity, no BS. I wanted my performance to reflect that. It was my way of giving back in light of the generosity that I received - so that's essentially the fundamental inspiration for the concert.

After that, the Pērkons HD-01, the beast itself! I was playing it and pushing its functionality in a way that perhaps is not meant to. Fascinating! At a certain point, I started playing with it, and then all of a sudden, it's not doing what I tweaked it to do, it started doing its own thing. I'm recalling my kits and it's not responding. The Pērkons started having a conversation with me, on its own - it started responding to me, which I thought was beautiful. And at the same time, it was kind of funny. When I told Otomārs what was happening, he changed the power supply and that solved the problem, but a part of me was a bit sad, because it was not responding anymore. I really tried to respect the instrument itself. I wanted to create a concert that remained true to the nature of the Pērkons, even though most people used it as a drum machine and not for drones.

- Our instruments are meant to do whatever you like, as long as your imagination can push them to do so.

FJ: One of the incredible things about this instrument is its ergonomy. The knobs for instance, no matter which way I land on one, I have a solid grasp. That's insane, the size, the feel, the resistance is perfect. This enabled me to go really minimal in my movements, and explore all of the various colors and frequencies very slowly to bring it to another level. This speaks to the care that goes into creating instruments at Erica Synths. That was insanely amazing.

- That is probably not so relevant for most of the people who work with Pērkons.

FJ: Probably not.

I have fallen hard for Riga, its people and the Pērkons.

Learn more about France Jobin's work here


Erica Synths residency program is done in collaboration with the Public Benefit Organization Artes Liberales.

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