Words Like Little Stones: Félicia Atkinson Interviewed by Ben Vida

The sound artist on collecting and hunting for language.

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Félicia Atkinson, graphic score for a performance titled A House, A Dance, A Poem, 2016. Courtesy of Shelter Press.

French musician and artist Félicia Atkinson’s recordings and books are intimate dispatches from the space that separates private thought and public expression. For over a decade, across multiple mediums, she has been slowly evolving an abstracted narrative that explores the emotional and spiritual frequencies of an interior life that is ever in motion out in the world. In addition to her solo work, Atkinson publishes other artists’ books and recordings through the imprint Shelter Press, which she runs with her partner Bartolomé Sanson. Voice and text are central to Atkinson’s work, and it is through language that she communicates the dimensions of a multi-faceted career in which travel, performance, publishing, and family are each elements acting to inform and nourish a holistic, creative life.

—Ben Vida

Ben Vida Is the language you use for music and for writing shared, or does one style of writing find its way into your music and another into your books?

Félicia AtkinsonEach form of language I use nourishes each form of art I make. On stage I always improvise what I am saying into the microphone. I build up these abstract stories that evolve from show to show. Sometimes they are reminiscent of my books and records, and vice versa. Sometimes the images that appear in my head are the start of new writings.

When I record voice, I open to pages randomly, whether from books I’ve written or books written by others. I only do one or two takes with voice, picking words from those books like I would to make a spontaneous, wild bouquet of flowers.

I write quickly as well, and come back often to rewrite the text. My books are made of layers of rewriting.

BV Do you feel like your use of language has a specific functionality?

FA Language, for me, is a way to provide a sense of place. It’s like planting a tent on a piece of land. It creates a kind of center for the song’s composition, a sense of scale, and so I build circles around it, and therefore, perspective. Some objects on the track will sound close to it, some far. It obliges me to make a choice, to decide on a landscape for the composition I am building.

I like to use the ambivalence of words. They can lean toward abstraction or present themselves in a narrative. To me, they are like an instrument or an artistic material like clay; my use of them is always playful. 

I use a lot of cut-ups in that way. Playing with found language allows me to isolate words as if they were little stones or marbles and make them roll in strange directions.

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Félicia Atkinson performing at Semibreve Festival, Braga, 2019. Photo by Adriano Ferreira Borges.

BV Do you have a system in place for collecting words?

FA I don’t. I am not good at following rules or a system in my work. But I know how to create situations that will allow me to find what I am looking for. I like to do two things at the same time. I will take a few books with me and read them in parallel. I cross stories. I also like to buy manuals in second-hand bookstores while I am traveling. But sometimes I will just use Wikipedia in a quick impulse, looking for the average meaning of a word.

In general, I try to jump into my fishing for words quickly, in the moment of desire for them. It’s a bit like a hunt.

BV How conscious are you of your voice when you are recording?

FA I try to listen while I am talking. It’s by listening to the words that I find the proper way of speaking them. While I’m recording, I look for a kind of truth—as corny as it sounds. I ask: What would be the “true” intonation of what I am going to say? Although, I rarely know in advance what I am going to say. It’s a search. I hit the record button and begin to explore with my voice and with the words that come to my mind.

But I am also speaking to someone, whether it is the audience (especially live), a specific person, or an imaginary person.

BV Do you play with affect? 

FAI believe in art, affection, sensitivity, emotion—but in a cosmic manner. It doesn’t have to be human or attached to a specific experience or identity. I feel things when I see landscapes, and then I think about them while I make sound or art.

Even if I use some narrative elements in my text, I usually try to carve the narration in a way that keeps it somewhat elusive. It’s poetry versus theater. If I had to choose a category, I would put myself on the side of poetry. I am not playing a role, but I am convoking different voices in my sayings. I believe in that ambivalence.

BVAre you always speaking as yourself in your work, or are there other characters?

FAThere are many voices, but I don’t like to be clear on who is talking. I am interested in polyphony; it’s almost political to me. This is why, for example, I will incorporate cut-ups from other people’s interviews. I read them and I hear something that resonates with me, closer to me than what I could enunciate myself. Sometimes it’s the opposite of what I am thinking, but I feel the desire to speak through it. 

For example, I used interviews from BOMB in The Flower and the Vessel (2019) that I completely carved and cut. “You have to have eyes in the back of your head” is a sentence from an interview with St. EOM, the vernacular architect. He is so far from me in many ways; but I felt touched by his words, by accident. That whole interview is mesmerizing. I recorded my voice reading it for the first time. I didn’t know what the next sentence was going to say, and I almost felt possessed by it. Like a kind of casual, down-to-earth spiritism. When I finished the song, I felt a bit disturbed, because it turned pretty dark. But I was also happy, because I was surprised by how it came out.

For the same record, I was also obsessed with this question that Shirley Kaneda asked Shirley Jaffe: “Did your ideas change over time?” and another moment where she answers, “I could break up that space.” Those exchanges inspired my song “Shirley to Shirley.” They are like mysteries that I carry with me, like found gemstones in my pocket.

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Félicia Atkinson, Animals (Shelter Press), 2015.

BVWhat is your relationship to musique concrète?

FA I’ve been listening to musique concrète since childhood. My dad, who was a psychiatric nurse, was very fond of contemporary music, and we would listen to Pierre Henry at home. I would also listen to the Radio France program for kids, L’oreille en colimaçon, and follow sound labyrinths in my bedroom. I remember being terrified and fascinated at the same time by Henry’s album L’Apocalypse de Jean (1968). I found that music could be frightening, and it was exciting to me.

I discovered Luc Ferrari later, when I was twenty years old. I was very moved by Presque rien avec filles (1989). I met him once, around that time, at a concert at La Fondation Cartier. His work is very important to me. In a way, it showed me that this country exists. It opened up a landscape I could dream to visit. I am not a scholar on his music. I listen to it sometimes. He is like an imaginary uncle that you don’t visit often, but with whom each visit counts that much more. 

Musique concrète was in my ear from a young age, but I always listened to it in a state of distraction. I felt like this was music for dads, and I was a young woman. I enjoyed it, but I also needed some fresh air. I needed to see rock shows and young women on stage, something I could identify with a little bit more.

But then, when I recorded A Readymade Ceremony, which is kind of the first of all my following albums, I was thinking heavily of musique concrète. I thought: Ok, what am I made of? What kind of music can I make that tells my story? And all that musique concrète suddenly came back into my ears, and into my recordings, but mixed with other things—filtered by the diversity of the rest of my tastes and interests, and sound techniques that are very DIY.

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Félicia Atkinson, exhibition view of Sustain / Musique Possible at Last Resort Gallery, Copenhagen, 2016. Photo by Carl Holck.

BVHow do you think about working across disciplines? 

FAAgain, it’s about desire and space. The desire of changing rooms, basically. Of having the choice. I like to think of each practice as one room in the same house. It’s like cooking and walking; I need both. One feeds the other.

But I also feel that I am identifying more and more as a musician, that my scene is the music scene. I don’t really belong to the contemporary art scene, even if I am making exhibits once in a while. I never cracked the contemporary art code; it’s not my language, actually. I don’t have a gallery. Whereas I feel pretty at home in the music scene. I don’t know if it’s a social class thing or not, but I feel more at ease at a music show than at an art opening.

BV Do your practices run parallel to one another, or are they braided together?

FA I think, both. They run parallel until, sometimes, they braid together, and then they run separately again. My work is also very dependent on context. If I am invited to play a music show, I play a music show; if I am invited to do an exhibition, I do an exhibition. It’s also contingent on what I have in my hands. If I have a pen, I draw; if I have a piano, I play music. I work in reaction to my material reality.

I am also traveling constantly, and that shapes my ways of working and thinking. I generally do very little preparation for my shows. Most of it is done last-minute. It’s my way of working. It doesn’t mean I don’t care; I think about it all the time. But I will prepare for a concert by walking in the woods, or prepare for an exhibition by watching a movie. I like to exchange sources. The common ground for my different practices is walking, reading, thinking, and cooking.

I recently had a child that my partner and I care for full-time, and it has changed my way of working completely. I have very little time for myself, and I need to be fast and precise when I do. It’s a challenge, but I really enjoy it.

Félicia Atkinson will be participating in Music Sanae, a research-based art project exploring the intersection of music and medicine, where she will be presenting a new work entitled Hedera Helix at Museum Kesselhaus in Herzberge, Berlin, on November 15.

Ben Vida is a composer and artist. His four-hour composition Reducing the Tempo to Zero will be released by Shelter Press this fall.

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