Originally published in Arthur No. 20 (Jan. 2006)
UNDER A BLANKET
Amidst the culled samples and loops of antique instruments, where in Colleen‘s music is Cécile Schott?
By John Adamian
Lockstep rhythms, heartstring-tugging melodies and overpowering volume can bring the masses together. People talk a lot about the communal and social nature of music. The language we use reinforces the connection: “groups” and “bands” play in front of “crowds.” But some music—like that of the contemporary French musician/composer Cécile Schott, who records under the name Colleen—is intensely solitary, almost private. Not in the candid, pulled-from-the-diary, confessional sense, but in the I’m-alone-inside-my-head sense, holed up in a zone between headphones. In Colleen’s music there are no words, and computers and effects create its blanketing layered feel. It’s the music not of crowds, but of solitude.
My wife and I just had our first baby, Bernadette, a few months ago. Ever since we brought her home from the hospital we’ve had a lot of music in rotation in the CD changer. We’ve tried Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the Rolling Stones, Nina Simone, Raymond Scott, some old Brill Building pop, Vashti Bunyan, the Louvin Brothers, Art Blakey, Gary Higgins, new ones by the Clientele and Broken Social Scene, and lots more. A few records seem to go over well with the baby—a field recording of the Bayaka, forest people from the Congo, a couple of Glenn Gould playing J. S. Bach, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, two Elizabethan composers, and two discs by Colleen. The mix is pretty seamless and it creates a sufficiently womblike atmosphere for all of us, but Bernadette clearly prefers the Colleen discs.
Colleen’s first record, 2003’s haunting Everyone Alive Wants Answers, is made up entirely of looped and layered samples, snippets culled from her record collection; the music creates a cocoon from thrums and furious zithers. It might seem simply soothing at first, until it casts its menacing shadow. For her followup, this year’s equally captivating The Golden Morning Breaks, Colleen (who had previously played only guitar) decided to abandon her method of using reprocessed bits from preexisting recordings and play all of the instruments (cello, music box, gamelan, melodica, etc.) herself. She then, in effect, sampled herself.
If Colleen’s music feels hermetic, of its own world, it’s not entirely coincidental. Schott, 29, works and performs almost exclusively by herself. She shuns collaboration. She doesn’t see herself as fitting in with a group of like-minded musicians. And maybe she’s right. Working for months at a stretch on her recordings, Schott prefers not to let anyone hear her work until she’s entirely through with it. She doesn’t exactly reveal herself through the music of Colleen as much as she loses herself in it. She avoids traditional touring because of the frantic travel from one city to the next without time to soak anything up.
I spoke with Schott twice by phone about her work, once from her apartment in Paris and once just after a soundcheck for a show at a London museum.
As a part-time English teacher at a high school in the suburbs outside Paris, Schott isn’t a recluse, but she cultivates a kind of scholastic quietude that seems almost monastic, especially today. It was only relatively recently that Schott’s pupils and colleagues found out about her other career as a musician, and she didn’t necessarily want them to. “Somehow I felt that this wasn’t something that I wanted my pupils to know about,” she says. Schott appears inclined to maintain a distance between herself and the world. Even her stage name seems to be another buffering layer, but she says it’s more elaborate than that.
“Basically I have a problem with words in music. I think it’s hard to have good lyrics and sing them meaningfully. I have the same problem with song titles and even band names. I’ve always found it embarrassing to have to find a name, and I wouldn’t want to use my own name because I think it’s quite boring, and so I wanted something simple. I had this phonetics dictionary—I knew the name Colleen, so I’m not actually referring to the names of people, but the noun, the Irish word meaning ‘young girl,’ like the Scottish word ‘lass.’ I like the look of the word and the sound. The name itself is full of curves with the C and the O, and there’s also repetition with the double L and the E, so I thought it kind of looked like my music. Also if you say it in French, colline is the word for hill. Again that sounded really nice, this image of natural curves.”
Natural curves sounds about right. Colleen’s music has a kind of organic undulating quality to it. It’s music that maps out a certain slow welling up, an ebb and flow, a liquid flux that requires time and patience to take in. Plucked on strings or tapped on chimes, gracefully simple patterns course, separate and reconnect. The elegance is in the unfolding.
With its music-box plinkings, plangent strings and percolating drones, Colleen’s work is often labeled as ambient, but she resists the tag. “I don’t really like the word ambient. Somehow it seems pejorative. Like you put it in the background, and it’s like a nice wash of sounds, and I don’t think my music is.” When asked how she imagines her ideal fans listening to her music, Schott replies: “In bed under a blanket. Hopefully they wouldn’t fall asleep before the end of the record.”
On her website Schott writes enthusiastically about the five years she spent reading Marcel Proust’s A la Rechere du Temps Perdu, the enormous cookies-and-memories work commonly known in English as A Remembrance of Things Past. Proust, who famously holed up in his bedroom to finish his novel, was pretty fond of his personal time, too. The book starts with an extended meditation about lying awake in bed. It’s something Schott can relate to.
“Being alone in your room, listening to music in your bed, you have to have time for that. I have a feeling at the moment that time is the most precious commodity, and that everyone is running around, myself included. I think to listen to my music, you definitely need lots of time, and the bedroom thing, listening on your own, is kind of a symbol of having to find time in your own life to do this sort of thing.”
Schott relishes free time not for indolence or leisure, but because she’s trying to accomplish so much. Now, as she begins work on her third record, Schott has set a few humble goals for herself. She’s teaching herself piano, studying a bit of music theory, taking up the clarinet and planning to begin lessons on the viola de gamba, a 17th century ancestor of the cello.
We have the eclecticism of the lending libraries of Paris to thank for Colleen’s hypnotic music. Born and raised in Montargis, a small town south of Paris, Schott came to music relatively late. “I had no musical background whatsoever. My parents weren’t really into music.” In high school she played guitar in what she describes as a noise-pop band. She then studied English at the university in Dijon, before going off to England for two years, where she worked odd jobs in Winchester, Manchester and Liverpool. In 1999 Schott came to Paris to get her teaching certificate, and there she started exploring the vast musical holdings at the city’s libraries. There she discovered the music of Elizabethan composer John Dowland (“I just liked the idea of guys playing the lute,” she says), the tumbling glassy phrasing of the West African kora, the clangor of Indonesian gamelan, the freedom of jazz and other music whose spirit infuses her work (though she shied away from using the material as a musical source because she felt she couldn’t improve on it). The transition from guitar player to sample cobbler and back to performer on exotic and rare instruments was a roundabout one.
“It was a long development,” she says. “After I stopped playing in this noisy pop band, I got a four-track tape recorder and tried to make stuff on my own, but I had nothing other than a guitar. I would bang on things. I would definitely try to make ‘experimental music’ with just the guitar and not even one single pedal, so it was really hard, and I got really discouraged.”
Then a friend gave her a computer with some music-editing software, and Schott had a revelation listening to the extensive stacks of music she’d borrowed from the libraries. “I thought, that’s what I need to create my music from other people’s music, but it’s going to be mine, and I’m going to be independent, and I won’t have any problems with gear, and it’s going to be easy. All I need is CDs, and all I need to do is look for the sounds and assemble them.'”
Sounds easy enough. And it’s a familiar line of thought for just about anyone with a musical idea in their head, a CD collection and a computer. But Schott did it.
On Everyone Alive Wants Answers, insect sounds flutter in the background while what sounds like the superhuman hammering of a dulcimer floats by. An arterial pulse churns behind the sound of a child’s voice further buried under a wisp of bowed strings. “Babies” sounds like the inside of a giant wind chime. Airy skeletal samples are gathered into cycling patterns on “Your Heart on Your Sleeve.” A marching, Sun-Ra-worthy boinging Moog sound peoples “Long Live Mice in the Metro.” Sounds emerge and recede.
“I’m okay with things sounding a bit—’Oh where is this coming from?’ Maybe it gives you the feeling of some natural thing rising,” says Schott. There’s no singing, no drums. But the songs, many of which clock in at under four minutes, have a subtle rhythm and hummable melody.
The success of her computer-pastiche music created a new challenge for Schott: how to make her music for a live audience. Initially, Colleen embraced the switch from sampling records to generating her own sounds using acoustic instruments (the technique she used on The Golden Morning Breaks) because she didn’t want to be a laptop auteur. Not on stage at least.
“I’ve actually never been able to perform the older material,” she admits. “I decided to go back to playing instruments because I wanted to do live shows, but I didn’t want to bring a laptop. Originally the main impulse was because I thought there’s no way I’m going on stage with a computer and pretending to do something when I’m not. To me it’s more a question of whether the person is really doing something live, because that’s what it’s supposed to be. I’m not saying that all people who perform with laptops donít do anything, but from what I know, a lot of them are just going to press play and do a couple of things. But I wouldn’t call that a live show, and I’d be bored on stage if I had to do it.”
Despite the drastic change in approach between her first and second recordings, the results are surprisingly similar, and they demonstrate a single-minded vision working its way through both efforts. With Colleen playing all of the instruments herself, on The Golden Morning Breaks (which takes its name from a Dowland piece) the music gained a warm glow. In addition to cello and guitar, Colleen’s instrumental arsenal grew to include toy gamelan and a rare instrument called a glass harmonican. “It’s not mine, unfortunately,” says Schott. “It belongs to a friend of mine who used to sell antiques. He used to sell mechanical instruments mostly. This isn’t mechanical. It’s kind of like a glockenspiel, but it has glass blades and some small beaters made of tortoise shell and cork at the end. It’s from the early 19th century, just amazing.”
Now, if she wants to do a gig, she just has to figure out how to lug her gear. “I do everything on my own, so mostly I need a cello and a guitar, and now I have a clarinet, and I have a melodica. I have music boxes. If I play and someone can help me carry stuff, then I try to bring some more stuff. I have guitar pedals. Mainly sampling pedals, and I sample myself live, that’s basically how it works.”
Schott stresses that she’s not a specialist in any of the subjects that fascinate her, whether it’s baroque musical practice, composer Pauline Oliveros’s idea of Deep Listening, music theory, or the non-Western traditions that inspire her. Intuition characterizes Schott’s mode of composition. Sometimes spending months on a single track, Colleen works and composes in a kind of isolation, but solitude allows for practice and study as well.
“It’s not that I want to be a solo performer for the sake of being a solo performer, but I love learning things, and I would rather learn something and at first make pathetic sounds rather than leave it to someone who can do it better than me, because then it’s them and it’s not me; I’m the one who enjoys the pleasure of learning,” she says. “Also I do find it very hard to work with other people. Often in the world of music, people seem to expect it to be very natural and easy to collaborate, but I think that in any human interaction there’s going to be—not necessarily trouble, but compromise and adjusting to each other.”
For me, Colleen’s story brings on a nod of recognition and the spark of inspiration. Having played for years in a noisy-pop band, spent more than a decade trying to teach myself piano, gone back to school to study and perform non-Western music, wanting nothing more than vast stretches of days in which to read and practice, Schott’s attempt to carve out enough time to fuse all these threads sounds familiar. By making deep music from an eclectic record collection, tinkering with recorded loops of oneself, and insisting on the importance of solitude and study, Schott strikes me as being both a quiet revolutionary and entirely of the times. Maybe that’s why her music seems right at home in my life.