Either we win or we lose

Andreas Engström in conversation with the composer Clara Maïda about money, fortune games and the capitalist question about freedom.

Andreas Engström   Your work Lostery 3 is part of a triptych, a rather usual format for you to work with. Each part of the triptych consists of an audiovisual installation that combines two musical works (one for electronics and one for mixed music), an animation video, real objects and built objects, which all deal conceptually with game, chance and money. Could you please give a brief introduction to the history of the work?

Clara Maïda   The concept is a series for music, image and objects. The first part of the series, Lostery 2, commissioned by ECLAT festival Stuttgart, was premiered in 2017. But this first part finally became the second part of the series. In 2012, I was commissioned a piece for contrabass clarinet and electronics by INA-GRM, Later Jester, and I decided then to write three pieces for this instrument and to include them to the series Lostery. Later Jester is the instrumental piece of the first part, but the installation, named Ipso Ludo, which will be associated to Later Jester, has not been realised yet. Then, regarding the last part of the series, Lostery 3, presented in Errant Sound in Berlin in September 2022, even if it is the second installation I realised, I consider it the third part of the whole series.

AE   So you have different titles: a title for the instrumental parts, a title for the electroacoustic works, and a title for the whole installation?

CM   Yes, Lostery is the title of the whole series, and is a play on words that combines ‘lost’ and ‘lottery’. The series includes three electronic works – Ipso Ludo (not composed yet), Ipso Lotto (2017) and Ipso primero (2022) – and three works for contrabass clarinet and electronics – Later Jester (2012), Later gambler (2017) and Later bluffer (not composed yet). All these titles are obviously related to money games, the gambler and Lotto, the bluffer and poker game. The word ‘primero’ actually used to be the name for poker game in the past. But strategic games such as chess are also evoked in this series. I used the term jester in the first piece’s title because it has two meanings: it is a chess piece and it is the King’s fool, a character who played an important role at the courts during Medieval and Renaissance times and could mock figures of power without being punished. The series questions the relations between power and freedom, alienation, as well as the socio-economic and political inequality between people.

Details of Lostery 3, exhibition at Galerie Errant Sound in Berlin, September 7-18, 2022

AE   Can you say a few words about this new work?

CM   Lostery 3 refers to poker game. I started this series about games and money at a time when I had very little money – haha – so I was a little concerned by this topic, and by chance and luck in life. The work is about the combination of money and chance, which is obvious in money games and slot machines. Gambling induces chance, an attempt to try luck. Each time you try, the chances are both as open and hazardous as before you played. When you put into perspective the aspects of chance, this situation in which people do not know what will happen while they still hope for a good result, it emphasizes a paradox: they have a kind of control on their lives since they decide to play, but they have no control on the result. A structural level is also related to game: the notion of combination. In some parts of the work, the same minimal units return, but their combination varies each time, as when one throws dice in a game. I mainly think my whole music as a system of connections. Each work is a specific project, but is also closely linked to my general way of writing music.

AE   The work presented here is made up of different media, different materials: It is a sound loop, a visual loop, several physical objects. How are they connected, is the sound explicitly connected to the visual?

CM   I first composed the music. And as you say, it is an electronic loop, supposed to stand on its own during a concert. I actually do not really consider it as an installation, but rather more as some hybrid way of presentation. The electroacoustic piece can be performed in concert or be played as a loop in an installation. Or, as the case here, the music can also be combined with image. I want to be open to various possible presentations. When I composed the music, I chose a form that can both be played only once and be repeated. I related Ipso primero to Ipso Lotto, the 2nd part of the series, by using the same kinds of sounds that can be heard in casinos or game rooms (chips on tables, dice being thrown, cards being shuffled). The recorded sounds, edited with ProTools, are processed with various electronic treatments. Then I thought it would be interesting to combine music and image. Like in Lostery 2, I connected music, painted objects and a projection (a black and white huge circuit), but this time, the projected image is animated. I wanted to explore what is going on in people’s mind while they are gambling. People keep standing in front of the slot machines, sometimes for hours, with their eyes staring straight ahead, repeatedly doing the same gesture. I wanted to emphasize the combination of this bipolar motion – the oscillation of chance between winning or losing – and the absence of motion, since the mind and the repeated gestures seem completely stuck on game. A kind of mental activity might occur of course, a risk calculation, though within a very short perspective, but then, the same similar movement is regularly repeated. In a way, my music and the video oscillate between being trapped in a system of repetition, which is both living and mechanical, and trying to escape from this mechanical repetition. But I did not use a generative process, neither for sound, nor for the video. I am actually not so fond of generative processes that I often find more repetitive than a process which would be pre-formed once and for all.

AE   It is interesting that we tend to think that as soon as chance or generative processes are involved, there will be a very broad spectrum of occurrences and configurations, but often, this is not the case at all, things tend to be narrowed down instead.

CM   True. I worked once with an artist who had realised a generative video related to my music. But I considered that it finally tended to be rather static, with some repeated patterns that where actually not synchronised with the music. Of course, music and visuals do not need to be symbiotic, that would be boring, but there has to be some kind of crossroad here and there after all.

AE   There are a few areas of interests and research that are important backgrounds and concepts in almost all of your works: psychoanalysis, genetics, neuroscience and neuropsychology. I also like to quote you from the booklet for the CD in corpole vili (edition RZ, 2010): “My compositorial research during my early years, which eventually lead to works, was to follow the unconcious, psychic energy flows and its underlying structure.” Here are two words that recurrently appear in texts about your works and interviews, the unconscious and structure: At a surface, the unconscious might seem to be the opposite of structure…

Details of Lostery 3, exhibition at Galerie Errant Sound in Berlin, September 7-18, 2022

CM   The Unconscious is actually structured, but differently from the Conscious. I am interested in trying to recreate the unconscious structure, which works with associated time and tiny psychic elements. During our life process, the psychic architecture is gradually built by connecting microelements, fragments of memory, of sensations, that do not refer to the conscious part of the psyche, with its logical and intellectual functioning, but are interconnected in a different way, unconsciously associated. This is what a psychoanalytical experience can gradually reveal. These processes are very complex because many elements of a person’s history are interconnected, but basically it works that way: tiny associated elements, quanta of memory, build unconscious psychic conglomerates. It is a kind of unconscious ‘nano-memory’.

AE   You actually call your music nanomusic.

CM   Yes, this ‘nano’ thinking is rooted in several research fields. When I relate it to the psyche, I refer to Lacanian psychoanalysis and the important concept of ‘signifier’. This term indicates small units of language, gestures, or sounds, for instance, that are connected and form a network, building unconscious configurations specific to each individual according to what they experienced. ‘Nano’ indicates that some particles link together to build up an object, whether organic or artificial. It is also strongly referring to genetics towards which I also shifted my interest over the years. Genetics, psychophysiology and Lacanian psychoanalysis have structural concepts in common. In genetics, Chemical elements of the DNA linked together form proteins and then, bigger cellular elements. Psychophysiology research showed that the brain is a network of neurons and the information circulates through the axons. Then, the signifiers in Lacanian psychoanalysis connect together to build each individual’s specific unconscious psychic structure. It is a kind of ‘bottom-up’ architecture. In my composition work, I use the same kind of processes. I start from small units that I connect together. Frequencies are associated in small sound modules. The accumulation of these ‘coagulated’ modules, the eventual convergence of their trajectories, form sound masses, build sound objects. I named my music a nanomusic because I never imagine pre-formed massive sound objects. Instead, in my composition process, I imagine sound particles in constant motion. The frequencies migrate within various registers of the harmonic field. The length of the durations between the frequencies continuously modifies, like a web of threads that can be successively contracted and dilated. These transformations of the sound connections induce mobile and metamorphic musical configurations. This is more interesting to me than working with pre-formed musical shapes.

AE    ‘Nano’ is in a way connected to the grain, a term often used in electroacoustic music. When I listen to your music, it strikes me that on the one hand it is very much about noises, while at the same time it is fine, delicate and transparent, one can really hear the details. Noisy but grainy and thready at the same time. And to make a shift over to your visual art: you have several series of paintings and drawings with titles like “puzzle”, the Deleuzian “rhizome“, sometimes with structures of a ‘map’, an abstract underlying image – there seems to be a clear connection of thinking…?

CM   Yes. Regarding this series of drawings, the term ‘rhizome’ is actually differently written, ‘rhizhomme’. I played on two words, ‘rhizome’ and ‘homme’. But the drawings are related to a rhizome since this term designates a ramified system. In this series of drawings, black undulations are intertwined to give a different shape to each drawing, a kind of human form in movement. My drawings tend to be webs or diagrams of ‘threads’, with intersections of filaments that could follow various trajectories if they were moving. I wish to give a feeling of motion that might be infinite, that might travel in all potential directions. In a way, if we refer to our existence, this can be also related to the question of freedom. How many paths can we take in our life? Do we have little or no choice, or do we have many open choices? The question of freedom is not so far from the gambling situations and chance. I tend to think that, theoretically, an infinity of potential paths virtually exists at the same time – quantum paths in a way –, as if several directions could be simultaneously followed. The question is: how can we move and explore freedom within this? An artistic series is a way of trying numerous paths with the same material.

AE   From my listening point of view, it seems obvious that your instrumental and electronic music is connected. And relating to this idea of diagram, map, machine, and the unconscious, the suburban is another a recurring theme for you, which concrete manifests in your series Psyché-Cité/Transversales about being inside the underground.

CM   This interest for the suburban world, and the subway’s structure, came from this questioning about the connection between the psyche and the environment. I used concrete sounds recorded in the Paris subway and the ramified structure of the metropolitan network. I wanted to develop this idea of intersection between worlds, the ambiguity between the inner world (the psyche) and the outside world (the environment, the underground city), hence the title of the series, a transversal line between the psyche and the city. I wanted to make the listeners feel as if they were in an ambiguous state, as if they were inside a machine, or as if they were a machine themselves, or as if the machine was a projection of their psychic functioning. What is heard in the series? The structure of the psyche, the structure of the subway? The noise produced by the subway cars and their brakes? If I extend this thinking to my artistic processes, composing electronic music allows constant sensorial feedback since I can hear what I am composing. But when I compose instrumental music, I sometimes feel that I completely vanished from myself while writing the music. I then have the sensation that I just came back from a psychic place which cannot be identified. The composition process with electronic music is connected to the body while the instrumental writing, with its attention to very tiny details, requires an important mental involvement, almost disconnected from the body. But there are interactions between both ways of composing. For instance, my rapid instrumental processes influenced how I organise fast movements in my electronic works. Inversely, the concrete sounds used in my electroacoustic pieces lead me to consider noisy sounds as a composition material among others in my musical writing.

AE   In Lostery 3, you also have in the separate room a third part with physical objects resembling objects of game, like coins, chips, dice, cards.

CM   Yes, and these objects are connected to the whole installation as well. Derived from the real objects in poker game, they seem to proliferate. My idea of using a black and white graphic design for the objects, paintings and video is meant to emphasize the binary opposition between two possibilities: either we win, or we lose. Inside this binary situation, what choice do we have?

AE   One could possibly see this work – the electroacoustic piece, the visual loop, and these objects – as a multimedia installation; different elements being exposed next to each other. But it could also be viewed as inter-media; what is shown on the screen is a connected reflection of the sounds and vice-versa… Or maybe you do not see it this way, maybe you see the installation as a result of a transversal way of thinking – neither multi, nor inter-media?

CM   Yes. I try to reveal my general artistic imaginary through various media and materials. Here the paintings’ graphic design is related to the video and the painted objects which are themselves connected to the real poker game’s objects. And the objects of the visual installation are in interaction with the concrete sounds of the musical work which is a kind of sound poetization of game rooms and casinos. I wish things to be open more than stuck into categories. The various options of presentation emphasize the possible polymorph perception of the world. The idea of configurations, that we mentioned about game earlier, is also a way to escape the fixed image everyone can be trapped in. On a general level, I wish to questions how we try to be free and how people perceive us. Being always in movement is a way of freeing oneself, and of keeping one’s freedom, because people do not know any longer what to expect, where, who and what you are.

AE   And money is a means to reach this freedom, or at least a fruitful theme to develop around the concepts of psychoanalysis, genetics and neuroscience…

CM   Money is an interesting mechanism to study, because a society articulated around money tends to make people think in one single directional way. It becomes a mechanical system. Remember Chaplin in Modern Times, as he interacts with all the machines related to capitalism and industrialization. His gestures go on despite his time off. The mechanical mechanisms became instruments of alienation and domination. Money is a good image for our ambivalent behaviour. It also emphasizes a dialectic: does it give us freedom because it is supposed to allow us a wider range of choices in life? Or does it create alienation because our mind might be exclusively targeted at this goal: earning money? Do our movements help us to get away, or are they frozen movements, like a rat who continuously runs on its wheel in its cage? Are we trapped in some mechanical motion, with the same repeated pattern, or can we renew our paths to other directions? We have to admit that money and the capitalist system keep us confined in a box in which our choices and movements are ever more reduced even if we are not all the time aware of this.

AE   A cage is somehow the precondition for freedom?

CM   A cage seems to the be the precondition for life. Already as a child I had the feeling that we are all locked up in a cage. Whether we can choose what we are or want to be, we nevertheless are in a cage. We were born in a specific context: our species, our race, our gender, our nationality, the way we were brought up, with all the conditioning that accompanies these elements. Can we go beyond our boundaries? That is a fundamental question. I assume that we just try to do the best we can despite our body’s limits and our psychic cage. Maybe this is also what people feel when they gamble. Trying again and again could seem like a new attempt to change something and therefore a possible act of free will. What it means to be free is a complex question because it is always related to the question of boundaries. My conception of getting some possible freedom is that we keep walking on our usual paths which seem familiar and safe. But sometimes, a tiny variation of the path can occur. The addition of numerous tiny variations, ‘nano-variations’, can gradually lead us to uncommon paths. This process can also be experienced during a psychoanalysis. Thanks to the free association technique, jumping from one word, one memory to the next, the speech unfolds its ramifications and gradually opens to unknown psychic territories.

The article is a revised version of a discussion which took place at the opening of Clara Maïda’s exhibition of Lostery 3 on September 9th 2022 in the gallery Errand Sound in Berlin. The article was translated into German by Michael Steffens and published in Positionen #134 (Februar 2023).

Clara Maïda is a composer and sound artist, based in Paris and Berlin. Her ‘bottom-up’ composition approach is at the intersection of psychoanalysis, psychophysiology, nanosciences and musical processes.

Cover portrait: Clara Maïda © Douglas Henderson

Andreas Engström
Andreas Engström is one of the editors of Positionen.