How Do You Spell Holiday?

Sweet Emotion: in conversation with Erin Gee

Erin Gee is overflowing with enthusiasm.

The artist, electroacoustic musician, and academic has invited me around on a swelteringly steamy summer afternoon to her relatively shaded backyard to tell me over a cool beverage about her work, particularly a forthcoming performance, entitled Affect Flow, which Gee and collaborators — both real and robotic — will present at this year’s Mutek festival in August.

“I’m so full of things to talk about right now,” Gee exclaims, before quickly doubling back. “I’ll have to turn off the academia and turn up the passion.”

Immediately, Gee third-guesses herself: “Maybe they’re married sometimes.”

Gee speaks in a characteristically deliberate scholarly pitch, punctuated incongruously with folksy snort-laughs that betray her quirky intelligence and wit. Gee is currently finishing a doctorate in composition et création sonore at Université de Montréal’s Music department, having relocated from Saskatchewan years ago to complete an MFA at Concordia and steep herself in this city’s cultural scenes.

“I’ve been productive artistically, but in the meantime, I’m getting a doctorate,” Gee chuckles. “It’s something that has really spurred my creativity and got me going. I’m not much of a big city girl; I was just passionate about learning to work with robotics.”

Gee’s robotic passions were rewarded after a fortuitous meeting in Sydney, Australia, with the neurophysiologist Vaughan Macefield, a researcher who creates robotic biofeedback sensors that measure human factors like heart rate, respiration, skin conductance, blood pressure, and neural activity.

Gee recalls that Macefield “just kind of said, ‘I don’t know, I think my work is fascinating, and it would be cool to see what an artist could do with it.’” She then had “a flash, imagining a piano that you could play with these things,” and embarked upon a multiyear research creation project to design biosensing robots that behaved something like a distributed wind chime.

“It was in a diatonic scale,” Gee explains of that work, “and basically, little hammers would strike little bells, and the parameters from an emotional person would control musical parameters like speed, timbre, the mode that the sound was playing in, the density of the notes. So you would end up with this abstract interior portrait of people.”

Though the musical product was not as simple as, say, hearing saccharine strings coming from a sad subject, or mouth harps and slide whistles emitting from someone more cheerful.

“When I first started making this work,” Gee divulges, “I really thought I could have some Holy Grail of interior musical emotional being. What I instead learned was that everyone’s interior world is really different. Even if, to a certain degree, Hollywood has already imprinted upon us what happiness and sadness sound like, what it feels like is totally different inside all of us. Anger, fear, surprise — these manifest physiologically very differently in us depending on how we were raised. This plays into gender, class, trauma — all kinds of things. So I was a bit bummed out because it’s really common for us to expect technology to reveal nature’s secrets. And you open up the Black Box and discover it’s Black Boxes all the way down.”

Gee later transferred her robotic technology into portable synthesizers, called Biosynths, and began working with a choir of young kids to make music. “I told myself, you just made a fleet of robots, you can work with children,” she laughs.

Gee soon discovered that the aesthetics of the technology were equally important to functionality in shaping its user’s attitudes. “You almost have to think of it as a collaboration when you’re working with robotics as much as with humans,” Gee says. “It’s a very different game than just making the device and making it work. And so the kids, unfortunately, were probably my toughest critics, but also my first customers. I learned a lot from them and hopefully they learned a lot from me.”

Affect Flow, Gee’s forthcoming Mutek performance, combines her user-friendly biosensing robotic technologies with the more avant-garde, and adult, practice of autonomous sensory meridian response — commonly abbreviated as ASMR — into something Gee calls ‘ASMRtronica.’

ASMR consists primarily of exceedingly sensuous and lushly recorded sounds like whispering, clicking, crunching, pouring liquids, and the like. Its objective is to produce the tingling sensation associated with pleasurable affective experience — if not pleasurable, then sensorially authentic.

And herein lies the paradoxical rub: its effects may decidedly be real, but ASMR is entirely synthetic: “ASMR is this hyper intimate, hyper personal, but really artificial practice of doing these gestures,” Gee explains.

“It’s closely related to hypnosis, but faux hypnosis. It combines hypnosis with social media feeds. It’s using these emotional hacks to push your body’s buttons. And I realized that this was the opposite of what I was trying to do: Instead of using emotions to push the mechanical buttons, now we are using emotions and gestures to push our physiological buttons. For me, ASMR became like this hinge. I had to get into it and understand it more, to inhabit this space in a way I knew I could as an artist.”

Under Gee’s direction, Affect Flow features an ensemble wearing biofeedback sensors corresponding to hardware synthesizers. “I’ll have ten people that make this ambient wash of sound,” she describes, “or there might be these brief moments when everybody is physiologically synced. So the audience can tune in or tune out of that perception of their bodies. People will experience at first a very polished ASMRtronica roleplay. And then,” Gee snorts, “it’s going to get a bit weird.”

“I’ll be leading everyone in emotional meditations that will mess with you a little. If you want. What I like about this is, you can choose. It’s all about consent. You can go on a journey with me, or just watch it. No one’s even going to know. The people in the biosensors — I call them ‘surrogates’ — because it’s through their bodies that you’ll get an overall portrait of the mood in the room.”

Again, Gee guffaws: “Our bodies are talking, you know?”◼︎

Erin Gee, photographed for NicheMTL with Pastel and Camélia, performs 24 August 2023 as part of Mutek’s Play 1 programme.

How Do You Spell Holiday?

Use Your Illusion: in conversation with Joni Void

Jean Néant — who records and performs as Joni Void — and I have just received a guided tour of the Museum of Illusions, a new, social media meme-ready attraction in Old Montreal, and are sat now upon a park bench on Rue le Royer, the block-long pedestrian strip that serves as a sort of replica of somewhere in France.

It’s an abundance of touristic activity.

But it is not like France, Néant tells me, hailing from that country. It is no less spectacular. But it is very much like Montreal, the extraordinary international city that Néant chose as his creative home.

Montreal’s DIY scene drew Néant out from being a bedroom producer in the late aughts to performing solo onstage; releasing recordings via the revered Constellation Records label, the most recent of which is entitled Everyday Is The Song; collaborating with the likes of Mardi Spaghetti, the city’s improvised music series, and experimental harpist Sarah Pagé; and mounting his own events, first at the now-defunct loft space called La Plante, where Néant lived for two years, and since 2018 under the aegis Everyday Ago.

“When I was in France,” says Néant, “I was a bedroom producer never thinking I would play live. I thought there was no point because I was just on my laptop. The idea of being a part of a scene and a community for me was online. But moving to Montreal and going to the Plante and all these DIY venues and house shows, all these artists were just playing with computers onstage and it wasn’t an issue. The music was good and people were having a blast.”

Joni Void is performing a handful of live dates in Montreal before embarking on a tour of Japan in July. The trip was originally slated for 2020 but was cancelled, as Néant quips, “for reasons that might be apparent. So here we are, three years later.”

Following the fallout from the pandemic, Néant is looking forward to returning to Japan, where they toured in 2019. “I never had a trip that went so easy and smooth,” Néant says of that experience. “All the acts we played with were next-level. I’m very lucky.”

“I was a bedroom producer never thinking I would play live.” Louise Callier for NicheMTL

Néant became a resident at La Plante in 2015 and shortly thereafter met a group of likeminded people that formed around a love of avant-garde, experimental music. “I just kind of moved in,” says Néant, “and my friends put together a show that had Sarah Pagé and Markus Floats, who would later release on Constellation.”

It was at this event that Néant conceived of collaborating with Pagé as the duo known now as Page Vide. Néant and Pagé hit it off immediately — “especially” deadpans Néant, “when I helped her carry her harp down the narrow stairs of La Plante. Goddamn, that was a challenge. That was like foreshadowing. Like, wow I will be doing that a lot. That harp knows me now.”

Page Vide are currently working on their first album, Néant says, having finished three tracks, with six more in the works. The duo performs at Suoni per il popolo on June 23rd and at Mutek on August 27th. The autodidact Néant couldn’t be more of a foil for Pagé, a classically trained and supremely disciplined instrumentalist who visits Japan for months at a time for Koto lessons. “I’m as self-taught as you can be,” he proclaims.

Néant began making music in his mid-teens after discovering GarageBand on the family computer, and downloading the stems that more and more artists were making available to encourage engagement with their audience.

“My friends were making mashups,” Néant recalls. “Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails at the time were allowing their multitracks to be remixed. They had their songs online and you could just download the tracks and create your own remixes.”

This participatory activity actually encouraged an entire generation, including Néant, to turn their parents’ bureaucratic, number crunching machines into makeshift music studios.

Néant launched a project called Johnny Ripper, sampling, distorting, and reconstructing snippets of popular songs into psychedelic sonic collage existing somewhere between Girl Talk and Tim Hecker’s Radio Amor. Johnny Ripper caught the ear of Constellation, which encouraged him to derive less and produce more: “I do have a singular style but it acknowledges its sources.”

“I call my music ‘cinema-tek / camera-tronica’ which is not a genre but a way of explaining that I make cinematic electronic music.” Louise Callier for NicheMTL

Néant confesses that he endured an identity crisis and found inspiration in the work of Delia Derbyshire, diving deeply into her music and interviews.

“It’s all this magnetic tape that she would cut up and pitch all these things that you do with a click now on a computer,” says Néant. “To feel like that’s the way she was thinking of sound and music and all that is the way I make music. I make music like I would use a camera, basically. I call my music ‘cinema-tek / camera-tronica’ which is not a genre but a way of explaining that I make cinematic electronic music. It’s made through an intense editing process.”

Everyday Is The Song reveals a montage-like structure — as does Néant’s discussion, jump cutting at times across subjects that seem unrelated but eventually come around. We talk about Néant’s love of optical illusions, “Mise en abyme” being the title of Joni Void’s 2019 album. We talk about how the pandemic reshaped Montreal’s more niche scenes and their slow but steady return. “I’m seeing more events with ‘DM for address,’” Néant notes. “I don’t want to be like ‘nature is healing,’ but there’s definitely a new circuit that is forming.”

It is a beautiful late spring day and a chorus of birds nestles into a nearby bush, twittering up a cacophony of bright birdsong. “My favourite birds are crows,” Néant suddenly declares.

“There’s a park in Japan where there’s a shitload of crows and I always figured I would go one day with a lot of coins, and a lot of food, just be friends with all the crows in the park, and if ever I have issues in life, I’d just have my army of crows.”◼︎

Everyday Is The Song is released via Constellation Records

Jean Néant photographed at the Montreal Museum of Illusions by Louise Callier for NicheMTL