Michel Chion

Interview by Dan Warburton
Paris, June 6th 2008


I see you were a student at Nanterre at the end of the 1960s. Was that during the événements?

Yes, but I was in the Arts faculty, and I think all the interesting things were happening in Sociology. I had no real knowledge of politics at the time, but I certainly discovered politics in March 1968! I studied languages – French, Latin and Greek – at Nanterre and music at the Conservatoire in Versailles. Classical music, mostly, until 1969 when I signed up for a course in what was then known as "electroacoustic music", which was set up by the Groupe de Recherches Musicales for the Conservatoire in Paris. I'd already heard Pierre Henry's music and had some practical knowledge of how to do things, working with a tape recorder on my own, but I didn't study it properly until 1969.

Was Pierre Henry the gateway for you?

Yes. I'd heard Le Voyage as far back as 1963, at its first performance in Paris, but don't have any clear recollection of it. In October 1968 there was a big retrospective of his work, including the premiere of Apocalypse de Jean. I heard many different pieces, including the "Credo" from the Messe de Liverpool and La Noire à Soixante, and I was profoundly moved. But I already knew who Pierre Schaeffer was too, because I'd read a book by him.

What were your own first pieces like?

Small, simple pieces, sometimes using a prepared piano (my mother's old upright) to make different sounds. I still use some of those sounds in pieces today – there are many I have yet to use. The recordings I made in 1970 are still clear. Contrary to what people think, magnetic tape is very stable.

When did you join the GRM yourself?

In 1971, not as a student but as a member. My first job was to be Schaeffer's assistant for his classes at the Conservatoire. It was a very original class which didn't only focus on electroacoustic music, but all forms of music. I prepared his lessons, taught some of the classes, and set assignments for the students, which Schaeffer graded. Composition assignments, exercises in montage. The course was about music in general, including non-Western musics and music therapy, and I thought it was quite original. Schaeffer wanted it that way. He wanted students to ask questions on the music's background, its social origins and function. In class it was more a question of participating and debating. So I was his assistant for a year, and then someone else took over.

What led you to join the GRM in the first place?

I'd already read Schaeffer's Traité des Objets Musicaux, and found it more honest, direct and relevant than certain books by Boulez, which I thought avoided a lot of questions relating to perception. But Schaeffer's book was 700 pages long, so to make it more widely known I wrote a kind of abridged version called Guide des Objets Sonores. That's why I joined the GRM. Schaeffer's book still hasn't been translated into English, by the way, but mine has. It'll soon be available online too.

You referred to "electroacoustic music" a minute ago. What name do you prefer for this music?

Well, as you know, the terminology has changed. At the beginning of the 70s "electroacoustic" meant something on magnetic tape. But live electronic music already existed, and more and more composers started adding live instruments. Then you had people like Jean-Michel Jarre saying he was making electroacoustic music too, and people started thinking electroacoustic music had to be live. Anyone doing it on tape was kind of retarded. That was the ideology at IRCAM in the mid 70s, saying people who made music on magnetic tape (or later on a computer) were somehow lagging behind, or didn't understand that it could be done live. Well, I've always been of the opinion that there are things you can't do live, or rather, things you can do better on tape. It's like someone who doesn't understand that cinema is the art of fixing things, and tries to make a live film, with actors acting live in front of people and being filmed at the same time. Obviously that's absurd. In the same way I think there are many pieces of live electronic music that don't make sense. So after the mid 1970s, the terminology changed, and François Bayle came up with the idea that we should find a term specifically to describe music on tape. The problem for me was that he found a word – "acousmatic" – which was understood by only a handful of people in France and by nobody else in the world. When I mentioned acousmatic music outside France, nobody had a clue what I was talking about. They couldn't find the word in the dictionary. It didn't exist. You still can't find it in any French dictionary today. In the 1980s I suggested we return to the term "musique concrète", because it's known throughout the world. It's in all the dictionaries. Musique concrète, the art of fixed sounds – I wrote a book on the subject. I thought it was important that members of the public should understand what a work of musique concrète consisted of. So, yes, I still call it musique concrète, and that applies to François Bayle as well as Karlheinz Stockhausen.

So the old distinction between Elektronische Musik and musique concrète doesn't apply?

It was never more than a question of words. The Germans called it Elektronisches Musik at the time, but it was tape music all the same. Of course, calling it all musique concrète now is like a historical coup d'état after the fact, but I think we have to do it, because if we don't, people won't understand that we're talking about the same current of thought, called by different names in different countries. I like to remind people that what we call cinema wasn't called cinema for a long time – in the early days there were as many as 15 different names for it, terms which corresponded to the machines used, and so on. Until one day we decided to call it cinema, because we accepted that it was the same principle.

Did your love of cinema also begin during your student days, or later?

Oh, before. When I was 11 my dad used to take us to see films in original version. At the time most places showed versions dubbed into French, but there were a few small cinemas that used to show films in their original language. I remember seeing Hitchcock's North by Northwest in 1958 at a little cinema near Montparnasse, the Studio Parnasse, I think, and I loved it. Later, as a student, I had many opportunities to go to the cinema. As you know, there are plenty of them in Paris. I was living at my mother's in Vaucresson, west of town, and to get to the university I had to come into Paris, so I used to go to a cinema near the Gare Saint Lazare, the Studio Action on rue Buffault (which is no longer there), where they showed a lot of American films. I saw everything: westerns, old classics, horror films, science fiction. I like science fiction.

Were you also reading the Cahiers du Cinéma at the time?

No, I discovered the Cahiers much later, about 1977. The people writing for the Cahiers at the time had some interesting things to say, even if I didn't always agree with them myself, even if they trashed films I personally was very fond of. After all, what counts in criticism is saying something worthwhile. Just saying "this is very good" doesn't get you very far.

When did you begin writing about cinema yourself?

That started in about 1980, when I was 33. Pierre Schaeffer told me about an offer he'd had to lecture on sound in cinema at a film school, which at the time was called IDHEC, Institut de Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques (now called FEMIS). He declined, but told them Michel Chion could do it! I'd already written an article on the relationship between sound and image, so I agreed. It was right about that time that something very important happened, with the arrival of videotape. Prior to that, if you wanted to study a film it was difficult, because you had to borrow a copy of a print and sit in a cutting room for three days taking notes. But by 1980 video recorders had appeared, and you could record a film from the television. Which I did. The first thing I analysed was a film by Bresson I recorded from the television.

Which one?

Un condamné à mort s'est échappé, which is magnificent, and very good for showing off-screen sound. It's the story of a man in prison, and we hear the sounds as he hears the sounds. It's a real lesson in off-screen sound, and a very beautiful film.
So with a VCR you can stop the image, analyse the sound, listen to it alone or watch the image without it. Until then, few people had studied film like that. When I started, it was an area in which there were few books published, and most of those were by people coming from a technical or literary background. I'm one of only a few writers in France who came from a musical background, and I think you have to understand music to be able to talk about the use of sound in cinema. So I started writing articles and ended up at the Cahiers du Cinéma. I suppose I'm best known as a writer. But it all started because of Pierre Schaeffer.

I suppose you have a huge collection of videotapes – are you now replacing them by DVDs?

I'd need about six months to copy everything I have onto DVD. But I'm keeping the tapes, because when you teach it takes too long to use a DVD. You need five minutes to go through the menu each time and it drives me mad. Whereas with a videotape you can pause and rewind quickly.

Why did you choose to analyse that particular sequence with Melanie from The Birds?

Because it's a perfect illustration of the things I wanted to show. It's extraordinarily simple, just one children's song and five or six effects, but it's perfect. You know, Hitchcock took a long time to do it. Very often in his films there are sequences with music – diegetic, as we say – and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. I don't know to what extent that particular sequence in The Birds was scripted beforehand (Hitchcock was very detailed in his storyboards), but I'm sure the children's song was. In any case, I was interested in analysing the finished work, not so much in finding out how it came to be the way it was. It's the work that is analysed, not the intentions of the person making it, because as you know there are always several people involved in a film besides the director. Hitchcock had very clear ideas on sound, though. His use of sound in Rear Window is fantastic.

You've also published a book about David Lynch. I suppose you saw Eraserhead as soon as it came out?

I had some friends who came back from the States talking about this strange film they'd seen. They couldn't remember the title, and nobody had heard of Lynch then. When I was in New York in 1980 it was still playing as a cult film. I went to see it and thought it was great. In the early 90s I suggested doing a book on him for the Cahiers du Cinéma. They agreed to the idea. At the time he hadn't done that much. It's been revised twice since, and the latest version takes us up to Inland Empire.

Does your experience with the cinema affect the way you create your own music?

When I make music, I don't necessarily think of the cinema. I certainly don't try to copy the films I like.

Is there such a thing as "pure music" for you, or is it necessarily associated with an image?

Pure music exists for nobody; all music provokes physical sensations. I don't know if I'd call them images, as much as representations. There's rise and fall, things that are slow, quick.. People tell me there are images in my music. They hear a dog barking, and say it's an image. To which I'd say, if a dog barking is an image, tell me what kind of dog it is. A big dog, or a poodle or what? That word "image" mixes up many things. Music, for me, is like dance, it's a representation of physical sensations. Pure music is a recent cultural construct. In the last century, some people wanted music to be pure, but that's daft. Nothing is pure.

How was it in the GRM? Did you discuss each other's work? I remember Luc Ferrari telling me how his Presque Rien N°1 provoked something of a scandal within the group..

Ferrari had already left the group by the time I joined, I think. Yes, there were frequent meetings, and differences of opinion, for sure, but the important thing was that we discussed the issues together. My own music was considered too expressionist, baroque. Kitsch, even. I read that somewhere.. (laughs) Maybe they had a vision of music that was more formal than mine. I'd say my music was no more or less expressive than classical or Romantic music. Some people say they don't make music, but sound art, or installations, or whatever. I've always been happy to describe what I do as music and I like to be recognised by musicians. I'm happy when composers tell me they like my music. There's the idea of transmission, of affiliation; it makes me feel part of a tradition stretching back to Debussy and other composers I love.

What equipment did you have in the GRM studios back then?

There were big tape recorders, wonderful things, which are still working today. I wish I had one here. Filters, microphones, the usual things. By the end of the 70s they'd turned more towards digital, computers. But I'd left by then. I left in 1976.


Because I didn't agree with some aspects of their programming. They were too impressed by Boulez and wanted to show they could do the same thing.

Did you have any contacts with Boulez and the IRCAM people?

No, I didn't need them and they didn't need me. I think they've made some very bad decisions, both aesthetically and in terms of equipment. They've spent a huge amount of money on things I consider to be of little interest, particularly live electronic transformations, things like the 4X. I heard the first piece written for the 4X, Boulez's Répons, again recently and it sounded horrible. I think transforming sound electronically in real time is a bad idea. Of course it can be done, but why spend a fortune on a machine that makes horrible sounds? Someone playing an electric guitar is better. The instrument is already electric, it works, there's a mic and an amplifier and the sound is more beautiful. I didn't like the IRCAM aesthetic either. They didn't like musique concrète, tape music. So they never invited me. They did invite Pierre Henry once but I think it was a mistake. Anyway, I have no reason to work at IRCAM. I can work perfectly well at home with my tape recorders and ProTools.
Another reason why I left the GRM was that I thought they didn't affirm their own identity enough. Several people left before me too, because – well, I don't want to say anything against François Bayle, because I like him enormously, but I felt he didn't always recruit the right people. It wasn't a place where young composers could affirm themselves. So in 1976 I decided I didn't want to work there any more. Leaving was quite straightforward; I decided not to renew my contract. I didn't have a post as such, but a contract. These days the GRM has tenured posts, but not back then. So I said, if you want to commission a piece, fine, but I won't renew my contract. Anyway, if you're part of a group, it should be united, and if you don't agree you should leave.
Another problem for me was that the GRM people were almost ashamed of Pierre Schaeffer, as if he was somehow old school, past and gone, whereas in fact he was their identity. I think it was a mistake not to defend their Schaefferian origins.

How did you get on with Schaeffer, personally?

He was very simple. I always got on well with him. His direct students – François Bayle, Luc Ferrari and the like – were old enough to be his own sons, and their relationship with him was quite tense as a result. I was 37 years younger than him – he was born in 1910, I was born in 1947 – so the relationship was more relaxed. (It's the same for me; I get on very well with young composers today, people about 30 years old, now I'm 60!) He didn't like my music very much, but he saw that I knew his work well and that I was serious in what I was doing. And he recognised me as someone who knew how to write about music. Michel Chion writes well, ask him for a text, he'd say. So I became known as a writer on music. It was like, you're music's OK but you write very well! (laughs)

I know that story all too well!

It was like, you either make music or write about it. Well, that's stupid. I tell people, look at Debussy, Berlioz, Schumann. They all wrote very well. What's the problem?

Your music is often concerned with or inspired by text. Is that important for you, that ideas come from outside music, in a way?

When I write a Mass, for example, it's not about the text of the Mass as much as the whole ritual. It's more the idea of a libretto rather than a set text; the words are more part of the music. I also like the idea of characters. For me it's not the words themselves as much as the character of the person reading them. The more dramatic, theatrical side appeals to me. The classical pieces that made an impression on me were often religious pieces, like Verdi's Requiem. I saw Carlo Maria Giulini conduct that live in Orange in an open air concert and it really impressed me.

Was that what encouraged you to write a Requiem yourself?

Well, I wanted to make something that was adapted to musique concrète. I was fascinated by Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus (I still am), which I'd read when I was about 14. I used to read a lot as a kid, in boarding school. I didn't do sport, found it boring, so I read a lot. What fascinated me in that book were his descriptions of music that didn't exist, imaginary works by an imaginary composer. So with the Requiem I decided I wanted to create the sounds I'd dreamt when I read Mann's novel.

How do you work? Do ideas come quickly, or take time to develop? Do you plan pieces in detail in advance or let them evolve during the working process in the studio?

A bit of both. I create sounds, or take sounds I already have, and make a piece with them. They're like actors who say, make a film with me. It sometimes takes a long time to find a title or a story, a framework. Sometimes I work quickly, sometimes not. Recently, I've been trying to do at least an hour a day, trying to establish a rhythm. In the past it was more like two months a year. But I still get the impression I'm not composing fast enough, or I'm not making the best use of my time. What helps me to finish a piece is when someone imposes a deadline! I need a kind of carrot, if you like. When I don't have any specific deadlines to meet, I have several things on the go at the same time. That's fine. If people don't want my music, that's fine by me. I make it anyway. But it helps me finish pieces if there's a concert scheduled. Even if there are only 40 people there, they're there because they want to hear my music. As you know, the current way of thinking, especially in France, is that composers should work with dancers, or theatre or something else, because concerts are boring. Nowadays if you don't earn your living through your music you're not a real composer. So composers end up doing film soundtracks they're not interested in or writing ballet scores that bore them. It's just as well that I earn my living doing other things. I worked with dancers in the 80s and I didn't find them all that serious. They didn't pay much attention to the music. If I'd put the tape on backwards they probably wouldn't have noticed. At least when people pay to go to a concert they're there to listen.

What about writing film soundtracks? Wouldn't that appeal to you?

I tried, but it didn't interest me all that much. I ended up wanting to make the film myself, which I did a couple of times!

Your mentioning several projects on the go at the same time reminds me of Lionel Marchetti, who also works the same way.

Lionel's very creative. He manages to do all kinds of interesting things. The French musical establishment should make more room for composers like him. There should be whole concerts devoted to his music in Paris. I'd say maybe he's the best composer of his generation. I have enormous admiration for him.

How did you meet?

It was through Jérôme Noetinger, who sent me some of Lionel's music to listen to. Later with Jérôme and Lionel we did a piece together, Les 120 Jours.

How did you work together? Exchanging tapes and soundfiles?

The idea was to create a sort of common pot of sounds which everyone could dip into. We each did individual movements, but used each other's sounds. Then we spent three days together in the studio putting the piece together. It sort of grew.. it ended up lasting over two hours. It was a very satisfying experience, because we each came up with very different sounds, which gives the work great variety. A lot of musique concrète can be very monochromatic, it lacks colour.

Marchetti and Noetinger are also improvisers. Have you ever done any of that yourself?

A little, but I didn't enjoy it very much. I felt as if I was drowning in front of everybody. I have the impression that if I improvise I'll lose myself among the possibilities. I'd take ages deciding what to do. But that's just me. Lionel and Jérôme can do it very well.

Do you still find time to go to the cinema?

I've just finished a book on science fiction, so I've been renting lots of DVDs, and watching three sci-fi films a day. Things I've already seen and things I don't know. Yes, I try to see as many films as I can. As a lecturer in cinema it's more or less an obligation – but a very pleasant one! Of course, you can't see everything, but I think I get to see most of the important ones, even if it takes about six months to get round to them.

Tell us about your teaching programmes.

I work at a private school called ESEC, where I teach a course on the relationship between sound and image. I have the students for 20 hours, it's very concentrated. It's quite basic, I tell the story, go over the essentials and use examples like that sequence from The Birds. On the other hand, at the University Paris III I can decide my own programme. Sometimes I choose academic themes, like the history of the musical, sometimes I choose to explore particular issues. Next year I'll be lecturing on the question of scale in cinema. It's a very interesting subject, with all kinds of aesthetic and cultural implications.

How so?

For example, when you see a spaceship in a science fiction film made before 1980, you know it's a model. The spectator is following the story of course, but also wondering how big the model is. The charm of science fiction is trying to guess if the model is big or small. After 1980, with the advent of computer graphics, there's no scale anymore. It's just an image. It exists on a computer screen, but has no real size. I think it's fascinating to explore how the cinema approaches this question of scale. It connects to topology, and other arts, like painting and sculpture.

That reminds me of Henry Moore's comment on the crucial difference between size and scale.

Exactly. Sometimes you imagine a canvas is enormous and it turns out to be tiny. Think of Bosch's Garden Of Earthly Delights in the Prado in Madrid. It's only a few feet wide. And vice versa: I was struck recently when I went to see the exhibition of David Lynch's art work at the Fondation Cartier. Some of the pieces were enormous, some were tiny.
In cinema, size – the screen – remains the same, but scale changes. I like showing that it's a problem not confined to a particular genre of cinema. I think [James] Cameron's Titanic is a very good example: how did he manage, knowing that the public knew that this was not a real ship, but just computer graphics? There was no way he could construct it as decor, but he had to find a way to make people believe this was the Titanic. So he came up with the idea of the scientists diving to the seabed, and the old lady who says, I'm a hundred years old and I was there. She gives us the scale of the ship. For an hour, maybe an hour and a half, we see the ship and it's enormous, until it sinks and sends out distress flares. It's at that moment we have a shot taken from the sky above – and the ship is tiny in a vast ocean. It's a great shot, the mark of a great director. He knew that he couldn't show the Titanic from afar until that moment. It changes the whole scale of the film, and it's an existential change. We see how small people are. These are questions that concern us all, every human being is confronted by questions of scale. When we're young, everything is big, and as we grow up the world becomes smaller!
But in the digital world, there's no more scale. I see that at every level. For example, the first books I wrote were typeset. Using a large character was something significant, almost like a cry. The size of the letter was proportional to the force of the meaning, like in an old newspaper headline. "WAR DECLARED!" As if someone was crying out. Nowadays, with computers and word processors, people choose the size of characters according to how they look on a screen. If they type a text in Times New Roman 14 point it might be one thing on the screen but another entirely on paper. There's no such thing as "real size" any more. They don't have any real concrete scale any more. Not that I'm being reactionary or anything, but we're gradually losing the idea of scale, and we should rethink the question, because it's by the notion of scale that we situate ourselves.

This also ties in with your book on Jacques Tati. How did that come about?

Back in 1986 the Cahiers du Cinéma were preparing a series of books on filmmakers, and asked me who I'd like to write about. I suggested Fellini and Tati. A very poetic filmmaker. I remember I first went to see [Tati's] Mon Oncle when I was eleven years old. It was my grandfather who took me and my brother, thinking we'd find it funny. In fact we didn't laugh a lot, but what I really liked about it was that night fell, and you had the feeling you were breathing night air. It recalls happy memories of childhood holidays, watching the sun set. You also have that in Playtime, the cycle of day and night. I recently saw Playtime again on the big screen, and it was great. Like discovering the cinema all over again!
Recently I was trying to work out what it was that Tati, Tarkovsky, Fellini, Malick, Kubrick and other directors I like have in common, and I realised it was just that, the awareness of the cosmos. There are plenty of directors I admire but there's no day or night, or air, or wind. Some French films don't interest me at all. Godard doesn't interest me much, though I've analysed many of his films. Too rhetorical. Godard is someone who creates audiovisual paradoxes. The cult of paradox is a kind of snobisme. There are many major figures in literature who use paradox effectively, like Oscar Wilde, but others I don't like. Sasha Guitry's quite popular in France, but he doesn't do anything for me. Things like "it's because I'm honest I'm a thief". Paradoxes like that don't interest me. I don't care for that mechanical side to paradox. Whereas even people who understand nothing about Tarkovsky's films feel there's something real there, a feeling of childhood that's very strong. People the world over love Tarkovsky's cinema without understanding anything, because it's so mimetic.

Is it hard for you to enjoy a film, being so constantly aware of how it's done?

Oh, anyone who's dabbled in cinema or taken photographs has some kind of eye, some understanding of what's going on, but that doesn't stop you enjoying it. When I started writing about cinema, I was afraid I wouldn't enjoy films as much. I saw an enormous number of films, many before they were officially released, and I was worried I'd lose the pleasure, but I never have. It's still just as fascinating.
I try to watch without intention, which is difficult. When you're writing about a film, you have to try to let it speak. Not go looking for paradox, but let things come to you. When you've seen a film twenty-odd times you have to find ways of rediscovering it, like putting it on and doing something else at the same time. And things sort of crystallise – like in psychoanalysis, what they call écoute flottante. Let the signifiers emerge. You come across a shot you hadn't noticed before. You have to leave your intentions aside; when you watch a film with a specific intention, it dies. Sometimes what you find is yourself.

Do you respond to television in the same way?

Not really, because television programmes aren't works. Well, sometimes they are. There are more and more series now which you could describe as works, but I haven't had the time to watch them all, to be honest. So I don't write about television series. Except Twin Peaks of course, which I watched over and over again. Magnificent!

Tell us some more about your interview with Lynch.

I hadn't met him before, and I was impressed. I'd written a lot about him. I don't know if he read my book about him, and I didn't ask. When I was writing it they asked me if I wanted to meet him, and I said I didn't. Because I didn't want to know if he liked my book or not. I had that experience with Pierre Henry. In 1979, I was writing a book on Henry, so I went to meet him and we recorded a number of interviews. Everything was fine until he read the manuscript just before it went to the publishers. He didn't like it. Not because I'd said anything bad about him – quite the contrary – but because of the way I said nice things! He got quite aggressive towards me (he's well known for being not the nicest of guys) and it rather hurt me. I realised that an artist can quite easily dislike somebody who says complimentary things about him if they don't correspond to the image he has of himself. So I decided that the next time I wrote a book about a living artist I wouldn't meet him. I would write just about the work. I'm sure David Lynch is nice enough, but I don't want to know what he thinks about my book. I gave him a copy of the English translation. Whether he read it or not, or liked it or not, I don't know, and I don't want to know.

Did you have the same feeling yourself when Lionel Marchetti wrote a book about you?

Fortunately we get on very well. But when I read it afterwards I had quite a shock! I said, what, is that me? But I remembered the experience with Pierre Henry, and realised I had to accept what he had to say.

Go to: http://www.michelchion.com See also other interviews of related interest with Luc Ferrari , Peter Greenaway and Philip Samartzis.