Interview with R. Clervaux by E. Bylina

"That project was, and still is, like a notebook, a testing ground, for ways to combine writing and music in ways that feel natural to me."

The Mallorca photo
Photo credit: Tiger Chadwick

Evgeny Bylina: Speak for some time about your practice. So as far as you know this issue will be dedicated to some complicated relationship between music and poetry and between language and other media in general. What you are doing is quite a good example, my first question is, how do you describe yourself? Because at the meeting with students you described yourself not as a musician, not as a poet or a sound engineer but you said you were a sound poet…

Rupert Clervaux: I find that my impression of that changes all the time, depending on what I’ve been working on. But increasingly, I’m falling back on simply using the word ‘artist’. Generally speaking, people think of me as a musician and use that as the way to describe what I’m doing, but let me put it this way; when I first saw some people refer to me as a poet, that was the thing that I liked to hear the most. Because, in a way, my aspiration always was that. Music was something that I did in a practical sense but I think my aspiration, my idealised version of myself, was to be considered a poet. So when I heard people say that I was very happy! I suppose it’s one of those things that I will always tend to disbelieve – about myself in relation to those poets I revere – which is why I feel comfortable with the word ‘artist’, and hope that word makes sense to those people who listen to or read whatever I do. The work is always now a mixed expression of music and literature, a combination of established ways of expressing. So I think ‘musician’ is like the practical description, ‘poet’ is my ideal one and ‘artist’ is just the way it is.

E.B.: I got it but the main thing that you try to combine it to one piece of art. And why I remembered this ‘sound’-explanation which you drove at our previous meeting – as far as I know, language does not know sound, it’s no phonemes, it’s like a complicated relation as we start to think about linguistics. Linguistics, actually, doesn’t know sound… But somehow you try to… Well, do you feel this is a problem? This contradiction between the sound and the language, the sign and the phenomena of sound as something physical, etc.

R.C.: To me, that’s not a problem at all, it’s more like a playground! It creates a space to work in.

E.B.: And how do you try to overcome this contradiction?

R.C.: Well, for me it’s much more playful – in a productive, inconclusive way – than it is something to overcome. Working on the readings for ‘After Masterpieces’ was a good example. That as an almost psychoanalytical process of learning my own words, so I could do recitals without paper, and finding my voice. As I started to experiment, reciting by heart and placing words in the different sections of the music,  it was apparent that after doing it three or four times I was really no longer thinking about the meaning. Gradually these recitals, which to me didn’t sound very rhythmical initially, started to discover  their own rhythm – in some sections particularly – and they became rhythmical in their own way. And at this point, I’m hardly thinking about meaning at all. It simply becomes a sound – either syllabic or  phonemic. George Steiner – who sadly died recently – used the great word ‘ingest’, which I then use in ‘Shadowlands…’ because it’s sort of seminal word for this poem. The idea is that when you learn something by heart you take it in yourself and it becomes a part of you. And like a physical activity that becomes automatic over time, you no longer have to think about it – you have an opportunity to understand a poem, or whatever it is you’d ingested – from an angle that doesn’t require meaning to be processed, or signs to be subliminally decoded. It’s an opportunity to think about it in a syllabic way, in a sonic way, in a rhythmical way when meaning isn’t necessarily intruding in the process.

E.B.: The place where language and the sonic meet is a voice. For example who actually uses psychoanalytical terms, he describes a voice like a like some space between presence and absence, the place which could not be described only as an aesthetical one or only as a semantical one. So the voice is a thing where this contradiction… we cannot solve this, it’s kind of a process. So I want to ask you about how you receive your own voice. It’s an awkward process… What is voice being to you when you’re both writing and composing?

R.C.: It’s a very strange one for me, because learning how to read in a natural way – my own poems – was a process that took much longer than I’d expected, and almost became like a journey of self-improvement! It was so much more revealing, challenging and, in the end, satisfying, than I thought it would be. I thought all I had to do was get over that horror and fear of hearing your own recorded voice. I think everybody shares that essential reaction, expect some kind of megalomaniac! So I thought it was just a process; you’re doing it a few times and then you start to get used to hearing it back. So I did that, and I got used to hearing it back, and then I thought, ‘these readings are horrible.’ They were either too expressive, too dramatic, or else they felt not expressive enough and sounded monotone. Eventually, I started to realise that my natural reading was quite monotone so I had to embrace that and accept that that’s what my voice sounds like when I read my own texts. That was a key part of a very revealing progression. I worry that I sound like a kind of ‘life coach’, but I feel like a happier person having gone through this process!  And now that I’m writing new poetry – unlike the poems of ‘After Masterpieces’ – I constantly go back and read it to myself, even just quietly, which I never did before. So, in a way, making those pieces changed my whole perspective and has become a foundation for everything I do subsequently. I discovered my own way of connecting the written word and the spoken word. Until then, the written word was for me academic, intellectual – something isolated from the performance process. And now the two, if not completely the same – I’m not yet going down to slam poetry nights! – the two are much more coexistent than before, they both feed off each other.

E.B.: Hearing yourself when you’re not thinking, actually, but… reading, in a normal life – it is some kind of when you’re hearing your reading, some kind of a process of subjectivation, a process to meet yourself like the Other.

R.C.: Yes, absolutely. And I think, in a way, until you achieve the natural reading – I’m always wary of using the word ‘authentic’ because of its many philosophical connotations, as you know – of your own poem, you are, in a sense, partially the Other. It’s like the writer, the most important player, disappears behind the reader – and maybe there’s a point, a moment of realisation where the writer appears, or reappears, in the voice.  That moment of recognition, of familiarity, feels like a hugely important part of the process. I doubted my voice, for example, right up to the end of making ‘After Masterpieces’. The music was finished and I was trying to re-do all the recitals, and I was really doubting the whole thing until I got past that threshold.

E.B.: As far as I know, you had been making ‘After Masterpieces’ for a long period of time.

R.C.: Yes! A long period, but not concentrated – it was very dispersed.

E.B.: How do you actually write? Do you imagine when writing poems? Do you think if it could be incorporated to a music narrative? If it could, would this process be different from one when you write just for reading – a normal poem? If this poem could be a part of your music pieces in the future…

R.C.: I think, with ‘After Masterpieces’, I was essentially taking pieces that I had started writing as poems, in some cases as much a 10 years ago, and looking for ways to set them to music…

E.B.: Did you change them in the process? According to music…

R.C.: It’s a difficult question actually. In my memory, it feels like the poems existed, and I worked on those independently, while the music was kind of floating around elsewhere. When the poems started to feel close to completion, when I sensed I’d only be making very small changes, I began putting the words together with musical ideas that were there. But really, as you asked that question, I knew it would be hard to answer clearly… Which means, I think, that it was different for each piece because it was so dispersed. It’s hard to remember, particularly as it was never a defined process. Essentially I stick to an instinctive approach. Always using intuition as a stating point, always starting to write without any specific thematic concepts laid out in advance. Starting with images, ideas, observations – almost like stream of consciousness, until groupings of words combine to build broader contexts. And then the thematic concept takes shape and emerges out of that. So in that sense, it’s almost like trusting yourself that the thematic threads will come together later and just beginning the work with intuition. The right music might present itself at those moments of inception, or might only start being made after the poem’s completion. So it’s difficult for me to clarify a consistent approach in practice, but the defining and constant aspect seems to be the intuition and instinct from which both the words and music begin.

Rupert Clervaux in Moscow
Rupert Clervaux in Moscow

E.B.: So, well, are you working on something the same way as on ‘After Masterpieces’? Would something of it be released in the future?

R.C.: Yes! The piece that I sent you and Katya, called ’California’, is part of a new body of text. I have about seven or eight pieces, roughly of the same length, and that’s the one that feels closest to being finished at the moment. Eventually these will constitute the follow-up to ‘After Masterpieces’ – not as a sequel, but it will be my next substantial solo release. Currently the idea is that it will be a book and only some of the text will be put to music. On ‘After Masterpieces’ there is a lot of music and not so much text. This one will be the opposite. So, maybe a shorter album this time… maybe under an hour?!

E.B.: To continue speak on the relationships between language and music, between poetry and music, we can trace a long tradition of it which exists, as far as we know, not only in the Medieval Literature. Poem starting with some musical part… So I want you to describe your own tradition of that kind of way. Why did you decide to do that and who, somehow, affected you to do that? I don’t mean a list of your favorite poets because I know you have a lot of them, you know History of Literature and History of Philosophy very well. I mean more specific figures and practices which are important to you. And it could both poets and musicians.

R.C.: To answer the first part of the question – my motivation to combine music and poetry was really born out of a sense of frustration.  For years I was in a band called Sian Alice Group, which I started with two very close friends, and although I was writing the lyrics for the songs I wasn’t singing them. I’m a horrible singer! At the time it hadn’t really occurred to me that I could simply recite the words with music as I do now… hearing my words coming to life as part of a collaboration with other musicians was also very rewarding. But perhaps there was something safe about those words being entwined with melody and embedded in the music – they were under less direct scrutiny. After seven great years of recording and touring that band broke up. I realise now that a large part of that was how defensive I was about other people writing the words – I wasn’t willing to collaborate on that, which created a tension that couldn’t last. After it ended, I took a long time to step back. I didn’t do anything on my own for a long time, focussing instead on offers to do drum and percussion collaborations with other musicians. The frustration emerged because, on the one hand, I loved reading and writing, and wanted to, as I said earlier, think of myself as a poet; but I was essentially established, to some degree, as a musician. At that time it felt like I had to focus on one or another. If I was doing a lot of music, I felt I wasn’t spending enough time reading or writing, and vice versa. I felt like I was either neglecting the course I wanted to pursue most, or the one on which I’d already covered some ground. From where I am now, it seems ridiculous to think of them as separate! But that’s how it was for me… And that’s how my Zibaldone project (under the alias, CVX) started – from an essentially crude approach to ending that frustration and making music and reading part of the same process. Using excerpts from books, reciting other people’s poems, ripping YouTube audio of poets or philosophers speaking – all these things became a patchwork of fast source material for making musical sketches. That project was, and still is, like a notebook, a testing ground, for ways to combine writing and music in ways that feel natural to me.
To turn to your second question – as you say, my work is always openly shaped by its numerous and varied influences, far too many to suggest any particularly over-arching figures. But something that seems pertinent to this formative period is that, at the time, I was immersed in studying Pre-Socratic philosophy. And learning about this type of exposition which is entirely unspecialised, this germination of broad critical thinking, felt very important. There’s a simplicity in this moment when all modes of thought, all kinds of practice, are essentially combined––so science, philosophy, poetry and, to some extent, music are not separate domains. Those definitions would have made no sense at all to someone in the 5th or 6th century BCE – for them it was simply the unified expression of an inquisitive response to the world and its stimuli. So, in that sense, this kind of method helped me blur the lines between the different disciplines I was interested in. And I think it’s also important, in fact, that these thinkers are referred to collectively as ‘Pre-Socratic’ – they are defined by the fact that the towering figures of Plato and Socrates come after them. To my mind this is a great and effective negation that highlights the stark contrasts between Plato and Heraclitus or Xenophanes for example. If, as Whitehead says, all of Western Philosophy is footnotes to Plato, then the poets who aren’t welcome in his Republic had better look elsewhere for inspiration!
And I think you find exactly that in the raw immediacy of the Pre-Socratics. There are clues which suggest new ways to unite long separated practices and discourses, appreciating though that that kind of fluidity is very hard to attain in a modern and complex world.  I’ve always liked a quote from Pierre Joris in relation to this. He’s a poet himself, and also a translator of Paul Celan, who said that poets are ‘the last scientists of the whole, to whom all data whatsoever are of use.’ Inherent in this is the sense that it might be an impossible task, to process all that data meaningfully, to channel the Pre-Socratics in a meaningful way in the 21st century – bet even as an unattainable goal I think the effort is worthwhile in itself.

E.B.: You have a lot of allusions and connections to antiquity and sculpture. Do you perceive it as the Golden Era?

R.C.: I see it more as an unassailable chronological reality, whatever the interpretation or reading of specific events.  So I wouldn’t necessarily say it was the Golden Era, although a mild-obsession with Pre-Socratic philosophy may imply that. I have a desire to understand the epistemic shifts which project from that time and beyond into ours, and will project further on into the future… I’m using an image in what I’m working on now to express this – that if you turn away from history, it will cast the same shadow across your back as it would on your face. It’s simply there, whether you chose to address it or not, exerting its manifest influence. Then of course, addressing it allows for interpretations, re-interpretations and so on. On a personal level it allowed me to make the aesthetic assertions that I did in ‘After Masterpieces’ for instance. But in a broader and far more essential way, post-colonial theory is the best example – prising open unseen areas, illuminating them and recasting the role these discoveries have in contemporary discourse. As Dee Brown puts it beautifully in the preface to ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’, the history of American western expansion was told for hundreds of years from a west-facing perspective, but is radically rewritten by its overdue appraisal by the historian who faces east. Underlying all of this is the simple fact that, for better or worse, things have changed as the result of things existing – how we interpret these chains of events is crucial to our understanding of the contemporary, and our imaginative possibilities of the future.

E.B.: Yes, you’ve mentioned some kind of postcolonial practices and postcolonial points of view so that I remembered the distinction like the Western culture – which is a culture of writing – and the culture – which is about orality, voices, sounds. And do you involve some kind of process to merge these two ways of human expression? I’ve only just thought about it but maybe it’s also about the political and social expression? What do you think about what I’m thinking about?

R.C.: I’m thinking about it now for the first time also! There could be something in it – I mean, I’m sure you and I could speak for a long time about politics, as we have about other things, and I suppose that this could inform new ways of writing for me…  It’s odd now to realise that I don’t even write about politics that much, except quite indirectly – usually in support of an anarchist temperament. In a way, I’m waiting for the moment when that changes, for the time that the quite specific political ideas and affiliations I have will express themselves more directly. For now I feel as though I’m primarily a student, learning from others about political expression in art. And there are some poets particularly who have been great teachers and have profoundly affected my thinking.

E.B.: Who are these poets?

R.C.: Well, I suppose ‘Omeros’ by Derek Walcott was a fitting first voyage in this respect! Moss is one, to stay focussed on the American example, and Jay Wright is another. And Juliana Huxtable. They’re all complex and deeply enthralling. In the new material I’m working on there’s a piece called ‘Reading Thylias Moss’ – and it’s really about the sensation of being poetically drawn into the world of someone whose life and cultural experience is dramatically different from your own. Inherent in great literature is a kind of generosity on the part the writer. And to accept the generosity of the writer’s expression, the reader simply has to give the poem the attention it might deserve. This is the small interaction from which literature derives its huge transformative potential. Speaking of freedom, or equality of any kind, social media is alive with bold statements and assertions – for the spread of awareness, this has huge benefits in terms of speed and quantity of transmission, but inherent in the format is is also the inescapable potential for hypocrisy, misinformation, misplaced shaming and contradiction. So, alongside works of non-fiction of course, I wanted to follow the words of great poets like these – and, through that interaction, to expand my awareness of other life experiences, to appreciate the spaces that they’ve prised open.

E.B.: You said that your huge poem would be titled ‘California’. And why are you so connected to America? What’s the idea behind it?

R.C.: That’s actually the name of just one section – most of the sections are named after the place where a memory sparks off a process of thinking which then becomes the text.

E.B.: Like Proust… It’s about not only that time is main but also it’s about that space is main as well. These places somehow provide some kinds of feelings, movement for poetry and music. And is your way of living important to your work? As I know, you live both in the U.K. and on Mallorca. How does it change and affect your writing and artistic practices in general?

R.C.: With what’s happening in the world now, this all might need to change soon! But for a long time, an important factor in my life and work has been living without a stable home, almost like a drifter – on tour, looking after people’s houses, staying with friends in different places, sleeping at my studio when necessary. As you mentioned, a couple of years ago I starting renting a ‘home’ in Mallorca, but I’m not actually there that much! I think an affect of this lifestyle, artistically speaking, is that, despite my obvious interest in history, movement through space inspires me more than inexorable movement through time. I like to think of making myself elusive to time, of moving sideways.  And it’s always an inspiration – that type of unfamiliarity which gets my imagination going, almost automatically. If I go to new place, discovering new things and meeting people – I’m sure you could see how excited I was to be in Moscow – it feels transient and unpredictable. There’s a kind of compressed energy that seems to unfold itself when I come to write or make music. And this sense of being from the outside, or always between places perhaps, gives me the narrative standpoint that feels natural, favouring expression over self-expression – somewhere between just-being-there, as a first person observer, and being almost-not-there… like a ghost.

E.B.: I’m sorry I interrupted you when you were describing your book with that idea of places. Could you say about it more?

R.C.: It came about simply because I was using geographical working titles for the text files on my laptop; so, one was called ‘California’, another ‘Catalonia’, another ‘Mallorca’ and so on… the titles just stuck and then became a way to conceive of additional sections. Then as well as the ‘located’ texts there are also parts which could be best described as poetic criticism. There’s the piece about Thylias Moss I referred to, and one about Anna Homler for example. As I’m slowly writing more, this alternation between ‘people and places’ seems to be becoming a defining feature.

E.B.: You’ve already mentioned your fascination about fragments of the past and, as we know from Modern and even Postmodern Literature, Postmodern Music, fragments became the most important structural parts of the huge artistic expression. Why do you think we’re so fascinated with this form, the fragments?

R.C.: For me the intrigue and allure of the fragment goes back, once again, to the Pre-Socratics – all the way back to Anaximander, of whom we have just one small sequence of words passed down. Reading these talismanic utterances, tantalisingly brief and incomplete, draws out your interpretive imagination. To my mind, Kahn on Heraclitus and Pythagoras, Coxon (whose son John I actually played in About Group with) on Parmenides – these have to be among the great feats of hermeneutic scholarship. I think René Char describes this perfectly when he says ‘only traces make me dream.’ And traces, by their very nature, are ambiguous, impressionistic… in this way, I think the fragment is naturally appealing to the postmodern temperament. Particularly in literary theory, for example, in which the ‘reading’, the interpretation, takes on as much importance as the initial text. Leading on from this is the epistemological twist which I refer to in ‘Her Fingers of Pink Light’ – here the fragment re-emerges as the limit of human psychological and physiological capabilities in an era of hyper-specialisation, digital archives and super-computers. This traces that survive from ancient times exist despite the disappearance of the complete whole, whereas the modern fragment exists as the the only appreciable part of a vast, complex and unnavigable whole. One is defined by its scarcity, by its fragility, the other is defined by the sheer abundance of information that underlies it.

E.B.: Returning to fascination of the past, ‘After Masterpieces’, in a general way, addresses to the past of our culture, the culture of the past. Why is this tension so important for the Western civilization? Why are we so obsessed over the past?

R.C.: This is such a big question! I’ll have to think off-the-cuff to give a short answer… I think we still struggle to use the information we have wisely, and, ultimately, the past is the ground from which our conception and imagination of the future arises – whether we seek to preserve a tradition, revise a system, or create a revolution. And this works aesthetically as a well as politically… T.S Eliot’s essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ springs to mind, in which the claim to artistic originality ex nihilo is seen as bogus – on the contrary, the only way to be original, or to supersede an existing dogma, is to be steeped in those paths of influence that have invariably shaped the contemporary. But I think a fascination with the past – probably for you and me both – predates even thinking about it. On a more personal, emotional level, I remember first reading The Odyssey, when I was a child – in Book One, Athena comes to visit Telémakhos, and at the moment she departs he realises that she must have been a god sent to him. The lines had a stunning immediacy which raised the hairs on the back of my neck – like listening to certain very potent moments in music – and I was completely captivated. It was a physical and emotional response to the poetry. It wasn’t contextual at that point – I was yet to learn about the historical events that surround Homer’s epics, or the scholarly debates that frame our appreciation of them now, for example… but I was definitely drawn into a fascination with distant times and places.
This immediacy, and simplicity, also presents itself has a way to examine aspects of human existence and human interaction with with the world that may now be shrouded in layers of complexity. Simone Weil’s brilliant critique of The Iliad – in which power is seen as equally damaging and distorting for those who wield it, as it is for those who bear its brunt – is a perfect example. Going back to these mythological stories, she finds them grappling with issues of power relations and use of force that inform her evaluation of the power struggles of her time. And speaking of more recent events – I can’t talk about history without talking about Svetlana Alexievich. She is of course very well known in Russia, but I only discovered her a few years ago when Second-hand Time was translated into English. Her contribution to the method of retelling the past is a revelation and impossible to overstate… suddenly, the events that I learned about from dry text books at school lurch into life from her collages of lived experience. You get a sense of history felt and seen from ground level, from different angles, ambiguous and messy. After reading her books, I can’t help myself imaging other events seen through her multi-vocal prisms…

E.B.: You mentioned you describe yourself not as a poet, not as a musician. I want to make some connections with this fascination with the fragments of the past and some musical fragments. How do you connect them? Are they connected when you’re composing something? What is, in a huge way, a sound fragment for you?

R.C.: Something I frequently do when making music is build my own sample instruments. Not to meticulously create a ‘virtual’ instrument, but more as a creative tool… on ‘In Shadowlands of Like and Likeness’ for example, I sampled excerpts of some particular piano pieces that were relevant to the text. Rather than individual notes, I would take a short phrase, three or four notes, and would then spread that phrase across the keyboard so its pitch and duration changes. In this way, the fragment of music creates unique melodic and rhythmic possibilities. So, it’s not a simulation, but a manipulation and interpretation of something that exists already. The same piece also begins with a drum section which I recycled from a Sian Alice Group track that was never released. Using certain effects and techniques I tried to give it the impression of being a kind of degraded and eroded audio ‘relic’, with the ghostlike vocal, audible but indiscernible   behind the shifting rhythms.  And this, I suppose, is a good example of intuition in the process of joining the text and the music. The text naturally lead to musical ideas and experiments that were structurally consistent, or complimentary.

E.B.: Maybe you could somehow conceptualize not only your practices but in general. What is a sound for you when you’re not composing? In your personal experience, in a, maybe, phenomenological way… How did you encounter with the sound for the first time and why are you still encountering with the sound?

R.C.: For me, sound is always primarily a physical thing. Something sent and received physically. In a way, this was the thing that created the frustration that I had before. I would naturally associate sound with the body – and poetry, philosophy to the mind, obviously – but in such a way that was too prescriptive. I think that’s why the first sounds that excited me where rhythmical and percussive. Drums, pots, pans! There is such a strong physical element in making those sounds – you can break a sweat and exhaust yourself while making them. That’s why I started playing the drums. And the seed of that feeling still remains – I get that musical excitement when there’s an immediate physiological connection with the sound. A long time ago I read a very inspiring passage about the work of the dance theorist Rudolf Laban. It talked about some tribes of sub-Saharan Africa which use what he describes as ‘rhythmic drum telegraphy.’ Essentially they use drums to communicate across distances, and most westerners who had tried to understand it made the assumption that it was a kind of structured system of different types of hits, something like Morse Code… but in fact, the arrangement or pattern is irrelevant. The listener simply has to imagine the bodily movements and the facial expression of the person making the sound, and that picture conveys the meaning of the message. I always try to have this in mind when working on music, and more specifically evaluating the patterns I’m playing around – it’s an intriguing and beautiful way to communicate…

E.B.: Which connects sound, language and imagination…

R.C.: Exactly. That’s what I thought when I read it…

Interviewer – Evgeny Bylina

Rupert Clervaux – is an experimental musician, audio-engineer and writer and DJ, based in London and Mallorca. He was a founder member of Sian Alice Group (2007-2012) , and since then has collaborated on numerous projects with, amongst others, Beatrice Dillon, Ben Vince, Spring Heel Jack, About Group and the Radiophonic Workshop. Working as his CVX alter-ego, he released the first two instalments of his ‘Zibaldone of CVX’ series in 2017 (on Laura Lies In), and the third in 2018 (on Berceuse Heroique).

May 2019 brought the release of ‘After Masterpieces’––his first solo-LP, and also the first LP to be released on the influential electronic label Whities. The record is a collection of six poems set to music, and features two collaborations with American experimental artist and singer Anna Homler.

Extensive international touring and live performances in support of these projects have seen Rupert appear at All Tomorrow’s Parties (UK/USA), MONA FOMA in Tasmania, Rewire Festival in The Hague, SXSW, London's Southbank Centre, the Lisson Gallery and Cafe Oto to name a few. His diverse and thematic DJ mixes can be heard on his regular LYL Radio slot, and his mastering credits over the past decade include releases by a wealth of acclaimed experimental, electronic and improvisational artists.