Colleen’s Modern Quietude
The cover of Les Ondes Silencieuses, the latest release by French experimental musician Colleen (neé Cecile Schott), features a black and white illustration of her playing the viola da gamba in an enchanted forest at night; inside she’s depicted playing the spinet. She’s playing antiquated instruments, but the imagery is thoroughly contemporary, visually conveying the music to be discovered within—the nine pieces are at once ancient and modern.
The illustrator is Italian-Spanish artist Iker Spozio, who originally contacted Schott because he was a fan. “I feel really lucky to have found someone whose visual tastes and abilities correspond so closely to the sort of feeling I would want my music to evoke,” Schott said via email. “I think that this idea of a night music to be played within nature really fits what’s on the record and also matches the title, which is a reference to both sound waves and calm water.” (In French, ondes means both “water” and “wave.”)
Ondes, released on the Leaf Label in May, is Colleen’s first release using the viola da gamba, a Baroque bowed instrument resembling a cello, but with frets. Schott fell in love with the viol as a teenager after watching Alain Corneau’s 1991 film Tous les Matins du Monde (with a much-lauded soundtrack by viola da gamba player Jordi Savall). The popular French film explored the lives of two of the most important viol composers of the seventeenth century. “I was awestruck by the beauty of the viola’s sound, and the compositions struck me as very modern, by which I mean I felt I was hearing a music that was really speaking to me,” Schott said, “which is all the more remarkable since I had no classical music education whatsoever at the time.”
Schott’s first instrument was actually a guitar, which she took up at age fifteen because of a Beatles obsession, but she soon became bored with it. In her twenties she began composing as Colleen, initially just sampling from records and using a looping technique to compose. Two years later she started learning to play the cello. “What I really wanted to play was the viola, but the instruments are expensive and hard to find compared to a cello,” she said.
Eventually she invested in a viol of her own, “a seven-string viola with a lot of natural resonance. Harmonics remain in the air long after the note has ended and that’s the first thing I noticed when I started playing it,” she said. “I knew that the record would have to be a sort of tribute to the particular beauty of the resonance of wooden instruments and the viola in particular. This idea was the opposite of what I’d done so far in the sense that, even though my music was pretty quiet, it was always very busy and almost never included silence or real quietness,” she said.
The viola also enabled her to vary melodies within songs, a much more difficult task when working only with loops.
Far from being a sterile or institutional quietude, Silencieuses’ is an intimate silence, which can be partially attributed to the fact that Schott records in personal spaces, in this case an attic. “My music is something that still feels incredibly intimate and private to me,” she said. “It’s funny because now I’m a full-time musician, and of course my music is a public thing because it’s on records and I play live. But ultimately it’s the most personal expression of who I am.”
Schott recently had the opportunity to present her music to a New York audience at the Society for Ethical Culture in the Wordless Music Series, which pairs contemporary instrumental music with classical works. “I think that the series is a great idea, as I would be one of the first people to advocate that there is great music to be found within all genres,” she said. Indeed there seems to be a resurgence in young musicians marketed as indie rock who are promoting unconventional instruments, with many thanks owed to the internet. It was also on the net that Schott first found information about viols; she later grew to appreciate its ability to help artists go beyond regional or national popularity and have an immediate international audience. Not that there aren’t downsides.
“There is a general information overload problem and, like a lot of people, I’ve been guilty over the years of a kind of musical bulimia,” she admitted. “So I do think we get too impatient and don’t take enough time to get to know a record, for instance. And if I take my last album as an example, it’s obvious that if you’re in a hurry and skip through the first seconds of each song you’re just not going to get what the album is about.”
KATY HENRIKSEN posts regularly at helloloretta.tumblr.com and twitter.com/helloloretta.