Lauren: Johana, to be attentive to your sound work—whether in the form of performance or recording—means being attentive to a number of personalities that dwell together in the same spacetime. Personalities that come to life solely through their voices. These voices can be spoken, sung, or shouted. They can be smooth or grating, articulate or guttural. They are all unique and complex, and they are all the result of the same vocal organ: yours. You are a talented mimic. Could you tell us a little about your career and perhaps explain how you came to practice this art of vocal mimicry?
Johana: When I began studying in the School of Fine Arts in Lyon in 2010, I wanted to work on animated films… I quickly laid my pencil to one side in order to focus on the microphone as it seemed much more spontaneous to me. I always liked playing with my voice, imitating my favorite cartoons to make my friends laugh. I ended up using this hobby as part of my artistic research, discovering that it was possible to work with it as a medium thanks to artists like Anne de Sterk and Louise Lawler. The first performance where I played a number of voices was Vox that took place in a workshop with Anne Kawala. I performed sitting at a desk in front of an audience, and I addressed a series of improvisations to them, a sequence of speeches and silences. I embodied a number of characters: an actress, Simone Hérault of SNCF fame, known for announcing information to passengers, a teacher, and a fake version of myself. The end of one story flows into the beginning of the next. I pursued this research around my voice in the post-graduate program at Bourges. I developed a performative and radiophonic vocal practice. I enjoy playing with different aspects of my voice, pretending to be someone else. This stimulates a collective imagination, it is a voice that we may have heard in films or on the radio. These are not new voices. I have a catalogue of voices committed to memory that I reuse. For example, I’ll listen to an interview with Jeanne Moreau from the 1970s on the website of the INA and try to reproduce it. I try to imitate her voice, to copy it, trying to find the intonation of that period, the rhythm, the timbre, the peaks, the tone. To sum up, it means reproducing what we call prosody, in other words, the pronunciation of a person which, to some extent, is the signature of their speech, their discourse, discourse with value in terms of sound and music. It’s about all of the different aspects of the speaking voice, beyond the meaning of words, that are ultimately just as striking. But I am not trying to embody Jeanne Moreau. She is one of a number of models that I use to develop anonymous future personalities for my performances. I’m not trying to be Nicolas Canteloup [laughs].
Lauren: If prosody is everything to do with the appearances of a voice, your work could be compared to mimicry: you borrow from existing prosodies and recreate them as faithfully as possible. From a semiological point of view, you articulate syllables and the listener perceives the acoustic impressions. Yet you refuse meaning, you break the chain of meaning, only keeping phonemes which, placed end-to-end, no longer transmit any kind of signifier. Could you elaborate a little about your choice to banish meaning and only retain appearance?
Johana: The voice is a powerful indicator of the nature of individuals and the context from which they speak. It can provide information on gender, sex, social status, geographical situation, and/or personality. It can describe a physique, a size, a weight, a profession. It can betray a state of health, an emotional and affective state. The voice tells a story about the person speaking and can tell us just as much as their speech. As personal as they may seem to be, our voices are constructed through mimicry. Our ways of speaking emerge from a repertoire, just as much as our vocabulary is made up of words written by others as part of a social compromise. This idea of appearance gave rise to a series of performances where I was interested in the format of public speaking: Idiom—Modulation d’un lapsus (2017), Shame/e (2018), and even Naotorynloxiol (2016). I focused my attention specifically on the structure of speech, on the gestures that can accompany it, beyond the content of the speech itself. Without seeking to formulate the absurd, I speak to the audience in a “muddled” language: a fake English reinforced by a prosody specific to the English language. I wrote the texts for these performances in an invented language. A language where the mimicked prosody combined with gestures encourages us to believe that something is true. In a way, this simulacrum allows me to emphasize, to reveal the mechanisms of the power of language, of diction. How can the intonation of a voice have power over the person listening? How can it manipulate and dominate them?
Lauren: In his book Man, Play, and Games, Roger Caillois identifies four categories of games that humans engage in. Mimicry is one of the categories. It covers all of the activities where the human plays at becoming an illusory character: “One is thus confronted with a diverse series of manifestations, the common element of which is that the subject makes believe or makes others believe that he is someone other than himself.” He goes on: “He forgets, disguises, or temporarily sheds his personality in order to feign another.” Would you agree that in your work, when you are faced with an audience, you always perform behind a mask? Have you ever considered voices as masks?
Johana: Of course, the idea that the voice can be worn like a stage costume emerged alongside my very earliest performances. It was impossible for me to go onstage without shielding myself behind a more or less constructed voice. To be honest, even the most natural-seeming voice is calculated. I actually hate hearing my voice recorded without my permission, this voice that I have no control over. As soon as I know that an audience is listening to me, the voice-making machine switches on. It is a constant game. When I see a microphone, I immediately want to play at being someone else. I would say that the vocal mask is audible but perhaps invisible, imperceptible for someone who doesn’t know me. It can take a while for the audience to understand the trick, and maybe they never actually realize what’s going on. I often performed my pieces with neither costume nor scene, not only because that seemed to me to sacralize the intervention, shifting it towards an overly theatrical form, I felt that people had expectations before ever saying a word, and that things were thus more fragile, and also because I liked, and still like, this longer or shorter period before the audience catches on, also being a moment when everything is hanging by a thread, where I am aware that everything could collapse completely if I lose confidence in my performance. A moment filled with adrenaline, control, and measuring, in the progression of my incarnations.
Lauren: This thrill of being masked, of changing personality in a same spacetime is quite orgiastic and dizzying. Could you tell us more about the references that nourish your thinking and your work?
Johana: Well, in addition to one-man shows and well-known figures like Michel Courtemanche and Jim Carrey, I completely assume the fact of being nourished by different, heterogeneous sources, that could seem incompatible on first glance. For example, I can watch and analyze cartoons—the absurdity of Warner Bros. or the insolence of Tex Avery—and just as happily dive into the poetry of the films of Jan Svankmajer where often little is said. I can take inspiration from the experimental electro-acoustic music of Maja Ratkje, Anna Holmer, Meredith Monk, and Michel Bokanowski, or from the vocal process of Mariah Carey and other pop divas with nineties-sounding melodies. But I was raised on milk, TV, and VHS, with the particularity of the 1990s being that French dubbing was very rich and had a great reputation, particularly when it came to animated films. But, if I had to choose one name that has brought me so much, motivated me greatly, and followed me all through my time in art school, even now, with work that is the perfect combination of poetry, humor, and the absurd, with impeccable writing and editing, and an incredible accuracy, it would have to be Anne de Sterk. In a number of pieces she plays with the multiplication of herself, without necessarily transforming her voice, with everything playing out in micro-variations of the voice and the intonations, which the listener needs in order to identify each character and become caught up in the author’s wild folly. To tell the truth, I think she provided a form of renewal to sound arts at the turn of the millennium, particularly with her signature humor. I have rarely heard sound pieces in the field of contemporary art that are so effortlessly funny and accurate. Simply wonderful.
Lauren: Another point that I would like to speak with you about is the working economy that you have established over the last few years. In parallel to your performances where it is easy to observe your vocal technicality and rigorous training, you develop a work of sound composition. I am thinking of your piece N00b (2021) which was selected for the Phonurgia Nova Awards, and Halruaa (2018). You develop both of these practices in your studio. A studio that has the particularity of being a professional sound studio in which you spend a lot of time on a daily basis. Could you tell us a little more about this space and explain how it contributes to your creative process?
Johana: Yes, I’m lucky to have a shared sound studio at home, where I spent a lot of my time thinking, testing, and experimenting with ideas that I mostly record so that I can listen to and refine them. I need the recording step so that I can have both the experience of performer and listener—listening is a very different experience. Also this allows me to create connections between performative pieces and sound compositions as I often reinject what I have produced in one, into the other. Sometimes we can find tips of the hat to the same text in two performances produced four years apart, that are then reinjected into a radiophonic fiction in the form of a sound background of an interior scene. A kind of mise en abyme. I like this idea of reuse. My texts are often devoid of any initial meaning, I can reinterpret them differently and give them a new color, a new life, in a totally new context. And having integrated the gymnastics of diction, all that remains to me is to focus on the pleasure of interpretation. This sound studio also hosts the material of four different people with highly diverse practices, which is an unheard-of playground for composing. Frankly, sometimes I don’t even waste time getting dressed…
Lauren: During our previous meeting, we spoke about your vocal and performative activities. Now I’d like to speak about your relationship with music. In 2021 you recorded and released your first album Otium on your own label Silo, in collaboration with violinist Anaïs Ponty, a project for a duo, with your voice accompanying her musical instrument. This time you engage with a different vocal range. You sing…
Johana: Yes, that’s right. The singing practice came later in my work. It was something that I wanted to develop but that I hadn’t done up until that point. I was always interested in music, trying it out at times but never looking to make it public. I was already hovering on the edge of a number of disciplines: theater, radio, and performance. This collaboration with a violinist was an opportunity for me to make the leap and start experimenting with vocals, this time singing. Otium is an album that was created in the context of the Silo residency in September 2018, based on a week of improvisation with Anaïs. I was focused on the idea of finding an illusory relationship between my voice and the violin. This instrument has quite a few sounds that can be similar to the voice. So we experimented with a game of back and forth: I tried to imitate the instrument and the violinist tried to imitate my voice. We were constantly changing places, dialoguing, harmonizing or not at all, with dissonance being just as important. The space of the residency—a concrete silo—also contributed to the deceit, with its reverberation amplifying the confusion between voice and violin, troubling one’s ear even further.
You’re currently working on the creation of two new albums. The first is a follow up to your performance TU-A-DI-KEL-AVÉ-DI-KE-JAVÉ-DI-OUI (2020). Could you tell us a little more about this performance that has led to you releasing a record?
Johana: In 2020 I was invited to perform as part of a festival of experimental cinema in Paris called the Festival des Cinémas Différents. That same year the festival proposed a program around the theme Dialects, cacolects, and the atypical use of speech, along with an extensive video archive consisting of short films, artists’ videos, etc. Their invitation consisted of proposing a performative format that dialogue with these archives. So I proposed a forty-minute performance based on five videos by five different authors with which I engaged in a spoken or sung dialogue. By reusing things in this way, I was able to reconfigure the work; either by removing the sound, by proposing a new soundtrack, by playing with subtitles, etc. I wanted to work with the codes of cinema, the codes related to the screening of a film: play, pause, stop, the credits, the voice-over, dubbing. Following this performance, I decided to rework it so that it could exist in a shorter, concert format. I removed all of the spoken parts, only keeping the parts that were sung. Well … sung … sometimes sung, sometimes shouted, sometimes barked. Anyway, I held on to the desire to open up the field of the sung voice by pursuing a more experimental approach.
Lauren: To sum up, you began this project with an audiovisual performance, then you decided to transform it into a concert, much more musical in nature but still performed. Now you’ve pursed a third stage in your creative process in the form of an album with the label Standard In-Fi with a release planned for Autumn 2023. Is that right?
Johana: This emerged from an encounter with Jérémie Sauvage who ran the label Standard In-fi and who came to see the performance. We started to discuss the autonomy of the distribution of this performance. Could it be broken up into pieces and potentially function without me or the images? I really like the experimental music scene and I’d like to be more a part of it. It was an opportunity to try a typically musical format, with tracks, and track times, etc. But I did want to hang on to the notion of writing of a tale through the transitions between tracks. This will be the next step in my musical research.
Lauren : In parallel to this project, you worked on a second album project, Kolokoksta. This time it’s not a performance adapted as an album but rather a space opera…
Johana: It’s a project based on the first musical recordings that I made but that I never played publicly. So there is a much more dated aspect that I wanted people to be able to hear one day in a more consequential format, with a real desire to create an object whose sound universe belonged to that of cinema. During a residency that I did in the Lavoir Numérique in Gentilly in spring 2022, I was able to develop and finalize this project for a space opera in a spatialized from thanks to access that I had to a cinema space and its 5.1 Dolby sound system. I really like the idea that people settle in like in a cinema, but without images, with only sound and mental images. It’s work that could be considered to be music, but also sound design. I use the specific codes of science-fiction movies from the 1960s to today. When I say codes, it could be in terms of narration, but also the noises used. I play sounds specific to this genre, recreating them based on fantasies, on a collective memory, that we all have. For example, cinema space ships with their heavy metallic sound, how could I reproduce that with my voice? So I saw myself not only reproducing the voices of all kinds of creatures, space ships, etc., but also manipulating objects and synthesizers to recreate a plausible imaginary universe. A truly first attempt at being a sound-effect engineer.
Lauren: This reminds me of a documentary, Making Waves—the Art of Cinematic Sound (2019) by Midge Costin. It presented the pioneers of sound design in American cinema. We discover the work of Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, and Gary Rydstrom among others. Rather unknown figures for the most part, who nevertheless contributed greatly to the worldwide success of the films on which they worked, working on the soundtracks of films by directors like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola. The documentary reveals the mechanisms, machines, and tricks used by these designers to achieve various sound effects. Similarly, you use both analog and digital machines. Machines that help you to use your voice to imitate a particular sound. Your space opera is the encounter between the spoken voice, the sung voice, but also a voice that tends to imitate the sound of machines…
Johana: Yes, that’s right. It’s a much more extensive project in terms of vocal research. We move away from the desire to create a realistic imitation. I was also able to work on much more fantastic and cartoonesque characters. And yes, what also allowed me to open up other possibilities was the use of machines. Working with effects pedals and synthesizers allowed me to develop a vocabulary that refers to the object rather than the human. I was able to use reverberation to create artificial spaces for example, where one’s relationship with the voice is completely modified with an even stronger reference to cinema.
Lauren: This space opera was initially meant to be listened to on a 5.1 sound system, an all-enveloping sound system specific to the cinema space. But now you’re thinking about its potential autonomy in the form of a stereophonic album.
Johana: Yes, I’m considering proposing a stereophonic format, quite aware that very few people have access to a 5.1 system at home… Once again, I wanted the piece to be able to exist without my presence, without it being a question of having it performed, especially as its writing is much more complex; there are multiple layers in this composition. More than anything else I wanted to write a narrative that could be a film to be listened to. A film whose image would exist exclusively in terms of sound and the mind. Yes, that’s it, I fantasized about making a film … to make a film in the context of my economy, my means, my sound resources. Someone once told me that a film’s soundtrack is responsible for 80% of its success. I agree. I would like to place the sound experience of a film above that of the image.
Lauren: This desire to make a film for the ear brings to mind Walter Ruttmann’s Wochenende (Weekend). A film made exclusively with sound that has been described as “cinema for the ear” which evokes the weekend of a laborer in 1930. A film that runs for 11 minutes that was both projected in cinemas and broadcast on the radio. I’m also thinking of iconoclastic films such as L’anticoncept (1951) by Gil Joseph Wolman, Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952) by Guy Debord, and even—more recently—of Branca de Neve (2000) by João César Monteiro, that also made their way into cinemas. I can see a number of connections between these references and your space opera project. You have also decided to remove the visual image in favor of the sound experience, while continuing to maintain a system of distribution specific to cinema of the 21st century.
Johana: Yes, in our 21st century we have access to cinemas with immersive sound systems. It was a challenge for me to divert and disrupt this system in order to make my own film. A science-fiction film made up only of sound, dedicated to the ear. This set-up also offers the possibility of a collective listening, and I like this idea of a number of people sharing the same film, whose visual construction would be unique to each individual. I have sometimes received feedback of sensations and universes that are completely different from what I initially had in mind. Despite the narrative and sound codes specific to the science-fiction genre, I realize to what extent sound has a quite real, independent power when it comes to the fabrication of our imaginations.
(1).Callois, Roger, Les jeux et les hommes, France, éd. Gallimard, 2009.
For more informations: Johana Beaussart
On y était, au jardin des bambous,
Johana Beaussart et Lauren Tortil, 2023