so you wanna get into... éric la casa

"I am very active when I record and so am constantly listening to all sounds as part of a music in motion... a living music."

(image of éric la casa in a big grey room via his bandcamp)

welcome to issue #31 of “tusk is better than rumours,” a newsletter featuring primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians. artist primers are published every other monday, and on off-weeks i publish a variety of articles ranging from label and genre primers to interviews to guest writers.

this week we have… not an overview, or a guide (he’s just got too many albums), but let’s say an introduction to field recordist éric la casa, a wizard with a microphone who transforms ordinary spaces into strange aural sculptures.

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[Official Announcement: when i started this newsletter in january the plan was to publish an artist primer every other week and sometimes, on off-weeks, post an interview or guest writer or something else. then the whole quarantine thing started and i was stuck at home and it turned into a weekly thing. BUT now my day job is starting up again so, to the dismay of a few of you and the delight of many more, i’m going to switch back to bi-weekly posts. this will allow me time to make the artist primers much more thorough, so look forward to more links to outside sources and bit of primary source research. i’ll still post the occasional off-week issue but they’ll be far less frequent than they have been.]

alright after this one i’ll take a break from writing about field recording for a while but you can imagine this as the third part in a trilogy that also includes jana winderen and kate carr. whereas winderen travels to far-off and sometimes dangerous places to record sounds few people could hear otherwise, and carr tackles different subjects via sound in an essayistic fashion, éric la casa simply turns his attention to normal, everyday, mundane sounds. he goes downtown, goes to the museum, rides the escalator, rides the elevator, hangs out in a parking lot.

but la casa’s larger project is an unsettling of the boundaries between field recording and live improvisation. often he collaborates with musicians like jean-luc guionnet, seijiro murayama, and dan warburton, recording them in public spaces or mixing their pre-recorded improvisations with his own field recordings. by taking these sessions into the public (or sometimes other people’s homes), he and his collaborators invite the unexpected, interacting with their surroundings in order to get responses from people nearby while responding themselves to what is happening around them. all of this is done in the name of generating an audio document, produced within formal constraints of time, place, and method but unpredictable in its content.

the thing that prevents all of this from sounding like a self-indulgent mess, which it could easily do, is la casa’s skill with the microphone. in order to pull off some of this stuff—an improvised concert in the paris metro, vocal workouts in a windy park, a saxophone in a building under construction—you have to know what your microphones can do. more than that, your collaborators have to know that you know what your microphones can do, because otherwise it’s just so much lost time. the fact that he keeps producing collaborative work of such ingenuity, and in such taxing environments, says all you need to know about his reputation among musicians.

la casa simply has too many releases. i count 52 on his bandcamp alone, and that doesn’t include some releases for other labels. so rather than a comprehensive listing, i’ve decided to choose 10 releases that a) are among his best and b) are representative of some aspect of his work. in reverse-chronological order:

Intérieurs (Swarming, 2020)

la casa’s latest album is luckily also a great one to introduce new listeners to, and one that is very “of the moment” (if “the moment” for you still=quarantine). its three tracks were recorded in his apartment, in an artist’s workshop, and in a museum. like most of la casa’s work, it is a sculpture of common sound, using the microphone itself as an instrument. in the first track, for example, he walks from room to room, saying the name of each one and then recording the ambient noise. what sounds at first like the world’s most boring french learner’s tape, though, soon evolves into a dynamic soundspace full of feedback and reverb as the apartment’s quietude is transformed through the microphone’s natural distortion and (i think) later editing. similarly, “atelier” begins with the sounds of workshop tools being moved around until the whole track seems to go underwater, and “musée” features la casa moving about an eerily quiet museum that becomes stranger and noisier as static builds. this neatly demonstrates his modus operandi, which is to use natural sounds as raw material for later manipulation; the microphone is not a neutral observer but a tool to be used, like a chisel, with a concrete goal in mind.

Paris Quotidien (Swarming, 2017)

this album is similar to Intérieurs, but at the same time very, very different. whereas that album is about closed-off interiors shaped by microphones, this one is about wide open exteriors with the microphones left on and idle (except for the last track, which does feature a lot of electronic frequencies). la casa opened his windows in the 19th arrondissement of paris (far from the center) to create a document of the sounds of the city that are not usually recorded. there is an amazing array of sounds here, from construction noises to birdsong to traffic. one of the primary uses of a recording like this is to become more aware of your own sonic environment. i lived briefly in a flat in spain that abutted a music school, a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, and a 13th-century cathedral, so that my degree zero of listening featured piano practices and excited conversations and wedding bells. i had never realized until then how aesthetically impoverished my usual surroundings are: the air conditioner, neighbors’ tvs, sometimes a siren. for most of us this audial information is simply filtered out of our consciousness, ignored until a new noises intrudes, but just like a beautiful view, an interesting set of background sounds can enrich your environment. if you don’t live in paris, at least this album can make you appreciate the atmosphere of your own home—for me, the air conditioner and tvs and sirens are often drowned out by a chorus of humming cicadas or a plaintive train whistle, which is worth training yourself to hear.

Parazoan Mapping (with Taku Unami) (Erstwhile, 2015)

this album, la casa’s only for the great erstwhile label, made with the great taku unami, is a hard nut to crack. it’s difficult to tell what’s happening just by listening, and i’m not aware of any official liner notes or press releases explaining in detail how it was made, but i was able to find two instances of la casa reaching out to reviewers derek walmsley and brian olewnick to shed some light on the process. the general idea is to explore the relationship between man and machine by degrees, first with machines that were programmed by unami to make rhythmic sounds, then with machines that are directly controlled by humans, then with humans who themselves make rhythmic sounds. there are a lot of machinic sounds, obviously, with levers clicking and motors whirring and vents humming. it’s not always clear which machines are machine-controlled via unami’s programming and which are manually manipulated, though one would guess that the frantic chugging that begins track 2 is purely automated and the clicking and clacking of a switch that begins track 3 is human-controlled. by track 5 humans are clearly the focus, though, and various rhythmic human-made sounds take center stage (chopping vegetables in track 7, dribbling basketballs in track 9, crowd cheering in track 11). then, back to the machines, as track 15 ends with a mysterious contraption humming and squeaking. this is one to puzzle over, as the sources for all of these sounds are just familiar enough to beg for identification, just unfamiliar enough to deny it.

Home: Handover (with Jean-Luc Guionnet) (Potlatch, 2014)

okay this one is a lot, so bear with me: la casa and his longtime collaborator jean-luc guionnet were invited to glasgow’s uninstal festival to create a sound work based on interviews with several of the city’s residents in their homes. they visited four glaswegians and recorded a “one shot” (continuous) take that consisted of la casa, guionnet, and the resident walking about the apartment while the resident talked about their favorite room, played their favorite song, recorded themselves, and answered pre-written questions. you can read through the rules of that encounter on this site by scrolling down to the “house booklet” pdf. THEN they used that recording as the basis of a live concert by aileen campbell, gael leveugle, lucio capece, neil davidson, and seijiro murayama. THEN keith beattie used the recordings for his own reworkings at his house. THEN la casa and guionnet took all three of the resulting recordings and mixed them together. these four steps (apartment, concert, home, synthesis), at 15 minutes each, were then repeated four times for four different folks.

the result is four hour-long explorations of sound as it happened live, as it was interpreted musically, as it was interpreted by another person in their house, and then as all of this was remixed, which sounds like it could be an extravagant mess but is actually incredibly compelling. on the one hand, these interactions are completely natural: they feature unrehearsed monologues, family members doing their own thing in the background, unplanned events interrupting the recording. on the other, they are wildly unnatural: there are strangers in my house, i’m being recorded, untold numbers of strangers will be listening in. this tension is then multiplied as more and more musicians take the raw material and create from it in different modes. absolutely nobody knows what will result from their actions, from the subject of the interview to the concert musicians to beattie and finally back again to la casa and guionnet. this creates a complex document that’s part audio vérité, part field recording, part improv, part improvised music, part remix and part reimagining.

Paris : Public Spaces (with Seijiro Murayama) (Ftarri, 2014)

we go from closed interiors (Intérieurs) to open interiors (Paris Quotidien) to the streets of paris themselves. here, la casa collaborates with percussionist seijiro murayama, who accompanies him to various public locations and makes improvised vocals (sometimes just mouth-sounds) based on what is occurring there. i read multiple reviews that remark that murayama’s vocal improvisations are hardly noticeable, but my experience is the opposite—in every track, he’s burbling or humming or sucking in air or breathing into the microphone. it’s not distracting or unpleasant—in fact, his participation is what distinguishes this from any common field recording of a public place—but he’s certainly there. and like much of la casa’s work, his presence is part of his larger project to blur the lines between field recording and improvisation. you could call these tracks impromptu live recordings of unannounced improv vocal concerts for an audience of one.

Chantier 1 (with Pascal Battus / Bertrand Gauguet) (Another Timbre, 2012)

chantier means “construction site” in french, and this is the first in a series of improvisations that took place in buildings under construction. the main thing to know is that the construction workers were there, working. imagine operating a buzzsaw and there behind you is bertrand gauguet playing the saxophone. obviously this is a situation that can cause a lot of tension, and the real interest here lies in the ways that the musicians and workers interact. as gauguet says, “Our relationship with the workforce was sincere but minimal because most of them were doing their regular jobs. As one of them said to another (who was watching and listening to us): ‘go back to work.’” some workers knew what was happening and some didn’t; some had it explained to them as it was happening. such was the case with a kurdish worker who, upon hearing that they were making a recording, played his own recording of a kurdish shepherd playing a kaval flute. as in Home:Handover, we get a sense of the mundane sounds of other people’s lives, though here it is in a workplace rather than a domestic space. and here as there, what is the subject’s everyday experience is a revelation to the listener, in turn suggesting that the listener’s own soundworld can be interesting in itself if heard with fresh ears.

Supersedure (with Seijiro Murayama) (Hibari, 2009)

this is la casa’s first collaboration with seijiro murayama. murayama is known for improvising with a snare drum, so this is perhaps more indicative of his other work. he drums, yes, but he also elicits shudders and taps and echoes and buzzes from the snare. la casa, for his part, provides field recordings and mixes the two together into a beguiling shape. at times the two complement one another to the point that it’s difficult to tell them apart—is that rain or a gentle tapping on the snare drum? perhaps rain on the snare drum itself? at others, they diverge in surprising ways, with sudden traffic noises, alarms, people chanting, and subway announcements, yet maintain a sense of momentum and rhythm. though la casa does not create rhythms in postproduction, murayama’s drumming emphasizes the natural rhythms that do make it through, and after hearing them here you’ll be more likely to hear them in the rest of la casa’s work, from the machinic pulses in Protozoan Mapping to the skitch-skitch of skates in Slapshot.

Slapshot (with Jean-Luc Guionnet) (Self-released, 2007)

speaking of which… long before jean-philippe gross recorded a curling match, la casa joined up with guionnet to record a hockey practice. by using a variety of microphones, from contact mics on the ice itself to condenser mics meant to capture the atmosphere of the entire rink, the pair recorded and organized sounds from drills and a practice match. the idea was to capture the sounds of a sport with a distinct “signature,” and while the squeaky shoes and thudding balls on a basketball court (see Parazoan Mapping track 9) or the thwack of a tennis ball also provide interesting sounds, they chose hockey because each movement has its distinct sound. the scraping of skates on ice as the players glide, the sharp sssshk as they brake, the echoey shouts of the coaches, the percussive slap of the slapshot itself, and the bassy thuds of bodies against the boards—all these sounds contain enough information to keep the listener on the border between narrative and pure sound.

Les Oscillations (Fringes, 2005)

the idea behind this release is a simple one, though it has complex results. la casa took the same set of sounds, recorded from 1995 to 2003, and organized them in a mirrored order across two tracks such that Part 1 goes “A, B, C, D… X, Y,Z” and Part 2 goes “Z, Y, X… D, C, B, A.” as a listener, it’s nearly impossible to tell that the piece was composed in such a way because each section transitions into the next seamlessly. you may recognize a small snippet, but the context is so different as you move from A-Z, versus Z-A, that your brain processes the sounds themselves differently. perhaps an intrepid listener with o’rourkian ears could create a timeline that matches the sections of each track at their respective timestamps. myself, i’m o.k. with listening to the field recordings themselves, which are of common enough sound sources (water, wind, aircraft) but meticulously recorded.

Metro Pré Saint​-​Gervais (with Jean-Luc Guionnet on sax + Dan Warburton on violin) (Chloë, 2002)

this is a classic of la casa’s microphone work, though guionnet and dan warburton get equal credit for their intuitive and sympathetic playing. if you’ve made it this far down the list you know the drill by now: a public location is the setting for live instrumental improvisation, with unfolding events affecting and informing the proceedings. this method of working is not a surprise at the bottom of this reverse-chronological list, but it was quite new in 2002. field recordings and busking and field recordings of busking were certainly common, but what amounts to a moving (in both senses) improvised concert, professionally recorded, was much rarer. it was a great foreshadowing of la casa’s future work and remains an essential document for fans of improvised music, field recording, and technical microphone work.

Odds and Ends: Abdul Wadud, By Myself (1977)

last week i premiered a new recurring segment, “odds and ends,” in which i recommend a relatively obscure record that doesn’t fit into the newsletter’s overall theme of folks with large discographies. this second installment is about the cellist abdul wadud’s only solo album:

abdul wadud is a cellist who is best known for his work from the late ‘70s through the early ‘90s with jazz stars like julius hemphill and arthur blythe. this is his only solo record, which is out of print and sells for ridiculous prices. but for the time being it’s available on youtube, so convert it to mp3 while you can. it’s an amazing piece of work, beautifully melodic while remaining unpredictable from moment to moment. in this interview from 2016, wadud talks about picking up the cello again and at least doesn’t say no to recording new material. reissue labels, take note: getting this back in circulation would certainly help him get the recognition he needs for a comeback.

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