Open Secrets

Félicia Atkinson.

I FIND IT USEFUL to think of Félicia Atkinson’s music—soaked through as it is with traces of places she has been and imagined—as a series of landscapes. This is an approach that’s more or less in line with how one might listen to most ambient music, which is what Atkinson’s music sort of is. While it’s not difficult to be absorbed, transported by the elegant melodic terrain the French artist-composer-poet constructs from a mix of analog and computer-generated sounds (piano, Wurlitzer, a digital gamelan), the trail through these spaces can be elusive. Should we let Atkinson’s voice, an interjection that is often heard at a near-whisper, be our guide? Doing so probably won’t clarify our path. In an essay from 2019, “On the Patio: The Voice, Doubt, Perspective and Immersion,” she wrote: “Maybe the voice is a key that can open and close listening, but it can also be a twofold space, now internal, now external—a patio where time stretches out and draws itself in like a cat lounging in the sun.”

On The Flower and the Vessel (2019), released July 5 on Shelter Press, the label and publishing imprint she runs with her partner Bartolomé Sanson, Atkinson casts her voice in a refractory role. The record deals, loosely, with distance and various forms of creation, not least of all childbirth, but these are less her subjects than the facts surrounding the album’s production, during which Atkinson was pregnant and on tour. Whereas 2017’s LP Hand in Hand and 2018’s Coyotes were inspired by her yearly visits to the deserts of the American Southwest, The Flower and the Vessel is a bit trickier to pin down, its place of origin more an intermediary space than a destination. While the musical components of the records are timeless—the Fender Rhodes, the midcentury electroacoustic textures—there’s something hyper-contemporary about its structure. Atkinson’s approach is citational and seemingly impromptu, informed by the jerky flows of information one encounters in the everyday. The Flower and the Vessel is dense with half-digested citations from Atkinson’s omnivorous cultural diet (magazine interviews, books about stones, Eric Rohmer, ikebana, the words of a number of women writers and painters) and utilizes ad-hoc music-making technologies like recording herself whispering using her phone.

Which is to say that the casual, lived-in compositions that constitute this album wander, developing their own internal logics. Instead of trance-like meditation, The Flower and the Vessel invites slow listening, requesting our patience as details meander in and out of earshot over the course of its eleven tracks. A brief opening monologue, delivered by Atkinson, like nearly all of the vocal tracks used on this record, expands, in French, upon her thoughts on the voice as a link between inside and outside. The following track is called “Moderato Cantabile,” presumably after the 1958 Marguerite Duras novel—cantabile also being a term for an instrumental that resembles human singing. Voice enters this composition solely in the form of computer-modulated groans near the end. It is otherwise made up of a lovely, melancholic piano matched against charged metallic textures that flicker and buzz like cicadas—mostly vibe, in a muggy summer’s night kind of way. The songs that immediately proceed from it take iterations of this ambience and build into it visual and literary citations: “Shirley to Shirley,” with Atkinson reading sections of a 2004 interview between Shirley Jaffe and Shirley Kaneda in a half-legible processed monotone, and “Un Ovale Vert,” with rippling tones interlaced with bilingual lyrics drawn from David Antin’s poetry and Atkinson’s descriptions of her own (visual) artwork.

Atkinson’s methods of weaving the spoken voice into a musical score vary greatly in the degree to which language itself is made available to the listener, whether their first language is French or English. The artist has stated her ambivalence toward her listeners’ comprehension—her grasp of the English texts she, as a native French speaker, might read aloud, after all, has its own limitations. Poetics as a compositional goal comes in and out of focus, sometimes met or superseded by an emphasis on the sculptural. Layers of speech on a track like “Open/Oeuvre” come to resemble the instrumentation—in this case, the delicately cresting waves of cymbal—against which they’re matched. In these moments Atkinson’s voice becomes pure texture, acting much like the soft, sometimes-chaotic pulses of sound that run beneath most of these pieces. As evidenced by her use of found sound and of the grain of recorded voice, musique concrète—the works Pierre Schaeffer and Luc Ferrari produced in midcentury France by recording their surroundings—is elemental to Atkinson’s approach. If we’re talking canonical experimental forebears, traces of Robert Ashley’s spoken librettos and mystical ambience can be heard here as well. (I also think of the literary essay films made by Renée Green or Lisa Tan, both of whom use methods of image collage and personal-intellectual associative chains.) By running these two traditions into one another, Atkinson creates a sort of sonic subduction zone, in which fragments of her ideas and narratives come to be kept like secrets. On the weighty “Joan,” for example, she reads pieces of a dialogue between two men contemplating a fire. The interchange is drawn from a science-fiction novel Atkinson has been working on, the broader futuristic content of which lingers around this composition but goes unshared. She may be whispering directly into our ears, but not everything here belongs to the listener.

Maybe that secret-keeping quality is responsible for the sometimes-unsettling effect of her music, which, for all of its whimsy, can slide into genuinely dark territory. Take the adult and child voices tracked over a wheezing soundscape on “You Have To Have Eyes,” which repeat that phrase in a muttered, off-kilter chorus: The declarative’s insistence takes on a horror-film quality. But the other side of this embrace of the undisclosed or unknown—the space opened up when the voice refracts time, space, and narrative—is a sort of everyday magic. One can listen to her music several different ways: with a desire to translate and trace the trains of thought Atkinson unleashes or, simply, to melt into the sound itself, carried away by a pathos-laden marimba line or the craggy Stephen O’Malley guest guitar on “Des Pierres,” the nineteen-minute burner of an album closer. If there is a devotional heart to Atkinson’s practice, and I think there is, it’s the act of making itself, and the little forms of transfiguration that occur when your creation moves in the world, changed through relation. Hence the slipperiness of place. We are, as The Flower and the Vessel’s opening monologue says, constantly transported between interiors and exteriors—of self, of meaning, of physical space. Lofty and weird as it appears in this work, that movement is derived from actions as simple as reading, looking, hearing, speaking. Atkinson’s version of art music, informal and deeply serious all the same, feels close because it is woven from life.