Kassel Jaeger, once little more than a mysterious German moniker producing captivating music on our favorite boutique labels, has since been revealed to be François J. Bonnet, composer, philosopher, and now director of Ina-GRM, France’s legendary center for electroacoustic research. No longer shrouded in mystery, his prolific output has lost none of its power. In the last year he’s released some of the best records of his career, including collaborations with Jim O’Rourke and Stephen O’Malley. Having grown accustomed to hearing Bonnet’s voice as host of France Musique’s L’Expérimentale, it was a trip to have the opportunity to sit down with him while he was in Montreal for 2019’s AKOUSMA festival. In this episode, Bonnet speaks with us about the development of his music, various acousmatic diffusion techniques, the privilege of composing for the acousmonium, and balancing the legacy of the GRM with the music to come.
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of SPACE—Out of TIME.
-Edgar Allan Poe, “Dream-Land” (1844)
All space, all time, […]
Fill’d with eidolons only.
-Walt Whitman, “Eidolons” (1876)
The Music To Come. That’s both the title and subject of Bonnet’s most recent book, published by Shelter Press (and available separately in the French original, La Musique à venir). It is a curious manifesto that begins from a simple premise: there are new forms of music yet to be discovered. This faith is reflected in Bonnet’s philosophy as director of Ina-GRM, balancing a stewardship of the past with a very active present, always open to new potential combinations and explorations. This approach is also on display in Spectres, an annual essay collection which includes texts from a variety of artists and thinkers from past and present, pushing beyond the old dogmas one might associate with such a venerable institution. But in fact the GRM has never been confined by any orthodoxy. As Bonnet notes in this episode, “acousmatic music” is often misunderstood as an aesthetic, when it fact, it is more properly understood as a methodology. The emphasis is on active listening, and as such a priority has been on commissioning and presenting works, be it on record or via live concerts and festivals.
Bonnet speaks of his own musical formation as a series of contaminations, looping from experimental rock to acousmatic music and back again. He’s not driven by a reverence for the past nor by a naïve equation of novelty with progress. The present is a palimpsest of the past, from which we can create. This approach seems to be reflected in his own music as well as his dialectical relationship with the institution he now leads. Bonnet’s interest in this music was shaped by chance encounters made at his local public library as a teenager, discovering CDs of music by Pierre Henry and François Bayle accidently. Just a few years later, at the beginning of his involvement with GRM in 2003, he helped add subwoofers to the GRM system to accommodate Pan Sonic. This seems to me a strong image of the productive tension that drives Bonnet’s work, a synthesis that encapsulates what the GRM means in the 21st century. Bonnet states that music should not be bound by rules, while emphasizing that a composition must be well-made when creating finished pieces for live multichannel diffusion or recorded media. But as one would expect from someone with a background in rock music, he found it necessary to develop a different approach when performing in more typical concert venues, which in turn informed his aesthetic approach in general.
The music of Kassel Jaeger is full of liminal spaces, in which constant flux becomes its own form of stasis. Swamps / Things (2020) makes this explicit, evoking both the literal (boyhood Sundays in the countryside) and figurative (a maestro’s metaphor). Rather than hearing his teacher’s description as a criticism, being told that his compositions were swamps helped Bonnet to recognize just what it was that attracted him to swamps as a child. The confusedness that accompanies intermediary phases can be a productive point of departure, not to be mistaken for formlessness.
Ironically, being broken into eight movements makes Swamps / Things among the more distinct of Kassel Jaeger’s album-length works. Conceived of as a simple narrative arc, each step is allowed the freedom to become what it is. This formal dichotomy extends to multiple levels of the work, as each side of the double LP consists of two movements, everything always with its double. Opening movements “Fog Constellation (Approaching)” and “Backwards Valley” are understated, making no strong demands for the listener’s attention but rather setting the mood of transition. Side B features contributions from Jim O’Rourke and Lucy Railton, almost minimalist sonic distillations such that now one cannot help but scrutinize the fine details. Beyond these two movements, Bonnet is working alone to mine the personal significance of the swamp, but the variety of forms coaxed from this metaphor is proof of its generative potential. While the title evokes a lull, the 12:40 centerpiece “Accalmie (Light Gaps)” blooms into a shocking and glorious cacophony, with “Patience In Kassari” the necessary blissful respite. Side D, dominated by the 14 minute closer “Ré Island Fireflies (In A Distance),” is among the most beautiful sounds we’ve heard from the composer (while also a call-back to the Ré islands, the source of the sound material for Kassel Jaeger’s very first release in 2007).
As a moniker which began as a mask to separate his music from his day job at Ina-GRM, perhaps it is inevitable that Kassel Jaeger can’t help but evoke questions of identity. While discussing the history of the institution and its engagement with new music technologies, Bonnet evokes the metaphor of the ship of Theseus to describe the evolution of the acousmonium, an elaborate 80-channel sound diffusion system first devised by GMR composer (and then-director) François Bayle in 1974. Since the legendary diffusion system has been steadily replaced and upgraded over the years, is it still the same acousmonium? This ancient philosophical problem of identity and difference was further complicated in the 1970s, when the French philosopher Roland Barthes named the ship Argo, which was in fact a different of Theseus’ ship than that referred to by the ancient thought experiment. Naming has power, it has consequences, and can be at the heart of how we understand identity, how we see or hear, how we interpret sensory information in general. Bonnet discovered philosophy back in that public library in Limoges as well, and this interest has developed in parallel with his interest in sound. His first book, The Order of Sounds: A Sonorous Archipelago, argues for the irreducible heterogeneity of sound. To paraphrase the eminent art historian Ernst Gombrich, there is “no innocent ear,” all we perceive is shaped and filtered by language, culture, and context. His follow-up, The Infra-World, broadens the argument to a consideration of sensation in general, beyond hearing or seeing.
A Guest + Host = Ghost
How does the relationship between François Bonnet and Kassel Jaeger change how this music is heard? Kassel Jaeger’s music tends to proceed from dialectical tension, for instance, Etude Spectrale (2018) explores the double significance of spectral (as frequency and phantasm), while Le Lisse et le Strié (2019) synthesizes the smooth and the striated. I think this is why my mind drifted to eidolons when naming this episode, another Greek concept reinvigorated in the modern day, a concept which evokes both essential form and phantasmic representation. Surveying more than a decade of Kassel Jaeger’s discography, one finds references to epochal transformation, wanderlust, landmarks and waypoints, to intermediary spaces and to constant change. Even a seemingly particular subject, for instance 2011’s Algae, suggests a breaking down of categories and boundaries, as it turns out the definition of what constitutes “algae” is widely contested.
Kassel Jaegar has released records on many of our favorite labels, including Senufo, Black Truffle, Editions Mego, and Shelter Press, and breaking down his discography by label may help visualize some of the currents present in his work. Bonnet’s earliest release as Kassel Jaeger was Ee[nd], a 2007 CDr for the Mystery Sea series, with subsequent releases for sister label Unfathomless. These recordings emphasize the traces of place carried by field-recordings: Ee[nd] from field recordings made on l’Île de Ré; Lignes D’Erre & Randons (2010) from various watery locales in France and Germany; Rituel de la Mort du Soleil (2013) various means of capturing a site specific ritualized performance outside of Pellechevent, France; and Onden 隱佃(2016), weaving between field- and electromagnetic recordings of a shrine in a forgotten district in Tokyo. Each of these works purports to reveal something that has been hidden, utilizing sound as a medium calling forth ghosts of the past.
Bonnet’s teenage interest in bass and guitar led to experimenting with effects pedals, eventually without and input from the guitar at all. His interest in creating compositions from field-recording departs from exploring the trace of a place from multiple perspective, utilizing different microphone placements, contact mics, and hydrophones. This approach was then applied to capturing instrumental improvisations, treating these recordings the same way he did his nature recordings, editing improvisation with unfamiliar or unstable instruments while experimentation in formal structures, often via elaborate microphone set ups. Aerae (2010) for Senufo Editions, features organ and koto improvisations edited in this way. Like other of his early work, it tends towards the quiet side, and its narrow dynamics call for close attention. Additional works for Senufo, Algae (2011) and Fernweh (2012), continued his research in this vein. Together, these works formed my introduction to Kassel Jaeger and are still some of my favorite works in his oeuvre. At this time Kassel Jaeger was still quite enigmatic, as Bonnet downplayed his identity and association with GRM until 2016, the year he took over as the artistic direction of Présences électronique and Urbanomics published the English translation of his first book.
At the same time as his work for Senufo, Bonnet has developed a relationship with Editions Mego, another strong body of work which includes Deltas (2012), Parallel / Greyscale (2013, with Giuseppe Ielasi), and Toxic Cosmopolitanism (2014). The latter deconstructs the use of non-western instruments, like the koto from his earlier records. Daniel Lopatin and Tim Hecker’s Instrumental Tourist (2012) made a similar critique, but Bonnet’s use of field-recordings somehow makes the critique more productive, focusing on the very local realization of his misuse of a traditional instrument from outside his own culture.
As a self-described studio beast, Bonnet frequently collaborates with other musicians in various capacities, often applying acousmatic studio techniques to his collaborators’ sound material. Each new collaboration is truly more than the sum of its parts, taking on an identity of their own. His record with Ielasi features compositions culled from analog improvisations on one side and laptop improvisations on the other, yet this only underscores the fact that origins don’t always dictate outcomes. Other notable collaborations include Zauberberg (2016), with Stephan Mathieu and Akira Rabelais, and Pale Calling (2016) and Face Time (2018), with Oren Ambarchi and James Rushford, both for Ambarchi’s own Black Truffle. His most recent collaboration is Cylene, a duo with Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley that has been the focus of many of Bonnet’s recent live performances. It was also Bonnet who mixed a composition by Alvin Lucier, performed by Ambarchi and O’Malley recorded at GRM.
While these connections may seem like outliers when compared to the reified history of GRM, Bonnet emphasizes that these circulations have always been a part of the institution’s legacy, they have just become clearer, in part due to Bonnet’s own outreach. Since 2012, Bonnet has curated Recollections GRM, an Editions Mego imprint bringing out archival recordings from GRM’s past. In 2020, they also launched Portraits GRM, a series of contemporary music beginning with Jim O’Rourke’s Shutting Down Here, fittingly as its sessions at GRM span 30 years and thus constitute the closing of a significant loop. O’Rourke first visited the GRM in the late 1980s, and he knew that music very well, as Bonnet stresses in his episode. But O’Rourke was equally attuned to NWW and Organum, to John Fahey and Sonic Youth. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Bonnet cites O’Rourke as a defining influence on his own aesthetic. Kassel Jaeger has now released two excellent records made in collaboration with O’Rourke, Wakes On Cerulean (2017) and In Cobalt Aura Sleeps (2020). As I mentioned above, O’Rourke also appears on “NYC Bobcats” from Swamps / Things, which begins this episode.
Recorded works are obviously an important aspect of the GRM methodology, perhaps the primary aspect, but this extends to their concert tradition. Phonography, the ability to record sound on a fixed medium, turns our attention to the mechanism of reception, be it listening to an LP, a radio transmission, or a diffusion of already fixed sounds. O’Rourke’s Shutting Down Here comes with instructions, which seem to call for this mode of engaged listening in its simplest form: “Due to the wide dynamic levels, please adjust your volume accordingly.”Kassel Jaeger’s small run tape series, Antisolar (2013-2015), accomplishes this by different means. Each of the seven releases, made in handmade editions of only 11 copies, is an infinite tape loop, existing only as physical objects.
But it is the live diffusion of concert works that is at the heart of the French acousmatic tradition. In addition to programming concerts, Ina-GRM also organizes the annual Présences électronique, an electroacoustic festival held in Paris, since 2005, featuring classic GRM works alongside those by contemporary artists. While we listeners may mostly know the music of Kassel Jaeger via recordings, much of his music is written with live concert diffusion in mind, something that he’s able to pursue due to his proximity to the acousmonium. Bonnet took over as artistic director of the festival with the 2016 edition, and has commissioned many concert works from artists including Okkyung Lee, Giuseppe Ielasi, and Felecia Atkinson who don’t usually work in this mode. And as host of France Musique’s L’Expérimentale, Bonnet continues the GRM’s long relationship with radio, the very setting which insired Pierre Schaeffer to originally conuct his first ‘concert of noises’ on air. Through L’Experimentale, Bonnet shares music from the GRM, recordings of Présences électronique commissions, and special episodes dedicated to individual composers (Ivo Malec) and traditional musics that resonate with their mission. This last was the subject of a recent episode, which serves as a timely reminder of the (not uncomplicated) relationship field-recording has with so-called “World Music.” Schaeffer founded the Ocora label in 1957 with the musicologist Charles Duvelle to document traditional music from West Africa, Central Africa, Indian Ocean, Pacific Islands, and South East Asia. If nothing else, the coincidence of traditional and electroacoustic music is further proof that the GRM has disarticulated notions of progress from the use of new technologies.
“We are traces in an always intermediate state.”
Bonnet came to Montreal in October 2019, giving two performances as part of the 16th edition of AKOUSMA, a festival dedicated to acousmatic music. The first, at Le Vivier au Gesù, was a diffusion of Éliane Radigue’s Arthesis from 1973, a rare opportunity to experience an early work by this underappreciated composer. Realized on a Moog synthesizer while visiting the University of Iowa, Arthesis marks the beginning of an important shift in her work, themes she would explore for decades to come. Bonnet recognizes how important the access to synthesizers in America was for her, “but mostly she got opportunities she was not able to have, as a woman, in old Europe, especially to present her work in concerts.” Arthesis is relatively short and darkly soothing, something of an outlier in Radigue’s oeuvre yet one to which Bonnet maintains a strong relationship. He explains that “people tend to overlook the hard work she put on tape manipulation in her electronic pieces,” instead emphasizing her longstanding relationship with the ARP synthesizer. Nonetheless, “there was always an important part of recording and mixing the elements with reel-to-reel tape machines, very much in the spirit of musique concrète even if the aesthetic was quite different.” The relationship between seemingly static elements and the movement in space is hypnotic, an effect augmented by live diffusion.
As Bonnet puts it, Radigue’s music has the “rare ability to play with time perception and modify drastically the experience of being during the listening.” Bonnet clearly holds Radigue in the highest regard. He has overseen a box set of her work, Œuvres Électroniques (2018), contributed the first work as part of Moving Furniture’s Éliane Tapes series (Retroactions, 2018), and a photo of a young Radigue intently listening to a sea shell is featured on the cover of his first book, The Order of Sounds. “Her music (electronic or now acoustic) is always driven by this will, strong and quiet at the same time, by this belief in music that doesn’t need any artifice, rhetoric or demonstration to exist. On this aspect, I could say that Eliane’s music is one of the most genuine music I know.”
Radigue studied with musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer in the 1950s, later becoming assistant to Pierre Henry in the 1960s. They set her to the laborious task of cutting tape and splicing sounds for use in their compositions, back when editing was no easy thing. Henry once tasked her with composing a montage consisting solely of the attacks of sounds, leaving her with scraps of sonic decay. Radigue discovered in those leftovers a beautiful world of harmonic potential which she would explore in her own work. By 1968, she had fallen out with both Pierres (“both the damnedest machos!”), however her hard apprenticeship led her to cultivate a unique approach, initially driven by working with tape and feedback, later with synthesizers, and finally, in recent years, with acoustic instruments.
While working in radio in Paris in the 1940s, Schaeffer developed techniques of composing music by manipulating and editing pre-recorded sounds, very often obscuring their origins. Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh’s “The Expression of Zaar [Wire Recorder Piece]” (1944) predates Schaeffer’s first compositions by about four years. El-Dabh went on to produce work at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, carrying out important ethnomusicological field-work across Africa and Brazil. El-Dabh’s role as an innovator is better known today than in the past, it is still Schaeffer who is most often cited in discussions of the history of musique concrète and electroacoustic tape music.
But Schaeffer is remembered not necessarily for his music, or even his philosophical contributions (which were significant). Schaeffer began almost instantly institutionalizing his legacy, what became the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) in 1958 (known as Ina-GRM since 1975). And institutions are never about just one person. The work produced by the GRM became known as acousmatic, a term coined by Bayle meaning sounds lacking clear origin. Schaeffer spoke of the “sound object,” which many misunderstand to be the raw sonic material. In any case, this cultivated a tradition of concert pieces for tape diffused in live performance via an elaborate system of loudspeakers. Distinct from the dub pioneered in Jamaica in the ‘60s and 70s’, the French tradition of sound diffusion developed its own techniques, some of which Bonnet details in this episode, using subtle fader manipulation to produce spatial effects. Their tools have changed over the years as technological trends have come and gone—EMS Synthi, X7, new software—but the approach to sound has remained consistent. Scene as a methodology rather than an aesthetic, it is easier to find the commonality between such different artists as Schaeffer, Henry, Bayle, Radigue, and Bonnet. Beyond commissioning pieces and programming concerts, there are the GRM Tools, an important means by which the research conducted by GRM can spread their methodology to be used and abused by those outside the institution, engendered further contaminations that may later feedback into the GRM.
It is not a simple thing, institutional legacy. “My main role, as I understand it, is to keep the flame alive,” Bonnet explains. “Which means a lot of different things. We are not a museum. We are a place where things happen right now.” Especially in his role as director, Bonnet must wrestle with the weight of history, but he insists that baggage be leveraged as an opportunity, not as a fixed monument to be revered to dogma to be chained to. “Amazing things have been done, great things have been written, but unknown things have been done as well.” This necessitates a perpetual reexamination. In a French language interview, Bonnet elaborates, saying “Many have realized that despite the institution, the music produced at the GRM was often radical. And not in a way that makes it seem like a barrier between artist and audience. On the contrary, it is a radicalism that is an invitation to travel very far.” Each phase of the GRM’s history marks a distinct period, something suggested by the consistent changes in name over the years. The previous directors, Schaeffer, Bayle, and Teruggi, even adapted their preferred terminology for what “this music” even is, from musique concrete to electroacoustic to acousmatic, always reinventing and reassimilating. Bonnet understands with importance of institutional support and the opportunities Ina-GRM can provide to emerging composers. Even if the GRM composers have not always been immune to trends (Bonnet wishes, perhaps, they held onto more of those EMS Synthi), their interest is less in keeping “state of the art” by always progressing to the new novelty. Bonnet tenure is marked by a kind of non-linear relationship with their history, aknowlging that part of discovering the new will come from a reexamination of the past.
Composers, like Radigue, who veered too far from Schaeffer’s orthodoxy tended to be excluded from the institutional support the GRM provided. Even her most accomplished work was often denied official release for decades. As the current director Ina-GRM, Bonnet has set out to change that. Our generation, he says, isn’t chasing “progress” or “modernity.” Sometimes the old ways are best. Another part is outreach, not, Bonnet explains, writing an official history but telling a compelling story, and lending their institutional support to artists in the form of commissions, performances, and through their GRM Tools. In combing the archives of more than 2,000 works looking for editions for Re:GRM, this has often meant branching out to GRM affiliates, exploring previously suppressed aspects of the GRM’s influence, bringing to light remarkable artists such as Beatriz Ferreyra, whose work had gone underappreciate for far too long.
The first night of Akousma featured Bonnet’s diffusion of Radigue’s Arthesis, and despite the subtleties of the work I couldn’t help but hear “Kassel Jaeger” behind the desk. Two nights later Bonnet presented his own work under his Kassel Jaeger moniker at Usine-C, a venue renowned for their 48.8 sound system. Bonnet blared the system with acousmatic diffusions of two recent works; Etude Spectrale (2018), which explores the double significance of spectral (as frequency and phantasm), and Erosions (2019), proceeding from the axiom that “erosion always wins.” This was Bonnet’s first time performing in Quebec, and the “special situation in Quebec” has not escaped him. It is not only composers who may go without proper recognition, but places as well. Quebec has “maintain[ed] a strong cultural independence and, in that way, helped avant-garde and experimental arts with a voluntarist approach from public powers.” Quebec also has its own links with the GRM, where electroacoustic composers from Quebec went to study, including Pierre Mercure (for whom a hall is named not too far from where Bonnet’s diffusion of Radigue’s work will be held). Bonnet acknowledges there is “a big tradition of acousmatic in Quebec and a lot of artists from Quebec have been played at GRM from early on. We did co-produce works with Le Vivier two or three years ago, and we’re always happy to share ideas and discover new artists.”
ARTIST – “TITLE” (ALBUM, LABEL, YEAR)
Kassel Jaeger – “NYC Bobcats” (Swamps / Things, Shelter-Press, 2020)
Éliane Radigue – Arthesis (1973) [Francois Bonnet diffusion] (Live at Akousma, Montreal, 2019)
Kassel Jaeger – “III” (Aerae, Senufo, 2010)
Francisco López – “AI-2012 – With/In [excerpt]” (a bunch of stuff (1980-2020) – 40 years of sonogenic composition, 2020)
Pierre Henry – Spirale  (Voile D’Orphée I Et II / Entité / Spirale, Philips, 1969)
Éliane Radigue – “CHRY-PTUS” [Giuseppe Ielasi Version 2006] (CHRY-PTUS, Schoolmap, 2007)
Luc Ferrari – “Cellule 75” (Cellule 75, Tzadik, 1998)
François Bayle – “Espaces Inhabitables, V. – Amertumes” (1967) (L’Oiseau Chanteur, Phillips, 1968)
Kassel Jaeger – “Deltas” (Deltas, Editions Mego, 2012)
Bernard Parmegiani – “De Natura Sonorum, X.” (1978) (De Natura Sonorum, Recollection GRM, 2013)
Beatriz Ferreyra – “Echos”  (Echos+, Room40, 2020)
James Tenney – “Fabric for Che” (1967) (Selected Works 1961-1969, Frog Peak, 1993)
Lucy Railton – “Forma” (Forma, Portraits GRM, 2020)
John Cage – “Imaginary Landscape N°5” (Early Electronic And Tape Music, Sub Rosa, 2014)
Kassel Jaeger – “Toxic Cosmopolitanism” (Toxic Cosmopolitanism, Editions Mego, 2014)
Kassel Jaeger & Jim O’Rourke “Wakes On Cerulean A” (Wakes On Cerulean, Editions Mego, 2017)
Kassel Jaeger – “Meith” (Meith, Black Truffle, 2020)
FIELD-RECORDING – à l’extérieur de l’usine (2019)
Sound Propositions is written, recorded, mixed, and produced by Joseph Sannicandro.