You may know Nicolas Godin as half of Air, the French lounge electronica duo who have created countless albums of sublime, sexy, and wistful pop, retro futurist works that summoned worlds of lost love, endless summers, and first crushes. After seven albums with Air, Godin has decided to take a small break from the project to pursue his personal obsession - reimagining the music of Johan Sebastain Bach through the practices of the late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould - a composer known for his use of counterpoint (a musical technique we'll get into in a bit...). The result is Contrepoint, Godin's first solo album, a collection of songs that take Bach compositions as a starting point, then spiral out into sprawls of intricate electronic beauty. The album both sounds like Air, and something quite different, classical and accessible, and a fascinating new turn in Godin's career. We phoned him to talk through this musical evolution..
So, we’re going to talk about the new album today. I was just looking at one of the statements you made in the press release and it says that you wanted to go back into the classical world, which to me suggests that you came from the Classical world in the first place. Is that correct?
Well, a lot of the things that I know about the Classical world, I knew because I learnt it through classical track composers. All these great soundtrack producers are vested in classical music, so I learnt a lot of tricks whilst listening to their music and I was getting older I wanted to go deeper and down to the source. So that’s why I had to stop a little while and get into the real material.
For you, has there been a big difference between composing in this way and composing say, for a soundtrack?
Yeah, it’s one degree more you know. There’s pop music and electronic and then you have the classical world, in that order. The music is more complex. You have to really understand the language and grammar of it. Sometimes you just need two bars of a classical track to make a pop song. I think it’s also about, the more you do music the more you find your limits.
Are there any particular tracks in the album that you can point too and say that you felt you were really beginning to learn a new language?
Well, I think basically most of them. This is because that’s the whole point of the project. They’re all different to one another and they explore different things. I could have made about 40 or 50 songs if I’d learnt everything that I wanted to learn.
In translation, the albums title is Counterpoint and that’s something that you’ve talked about as an important theory to the album. I’m not 100% sure I understand the idea of Counterpoint, can you explain?
Well, this is a funny thing that you learn when you go back to classical music having come from the pop music world. You sing a melody and you play the chords underneath. Counterpoint is just about melodies that work together and that meld together to become a song.
So is it the idea of musical passages that don’t immediately suggest themselves as going together, but then, when you put them alongside each other they create a new shape in working against one another?
Exactly, there’s not one priority to the other one. They work together and are all equal. When they go together they may make a strange chord, but what you do when you learn guitar, is you just play chords. But in the classical world and the counterpoint world, the melodies are all the same when they’re mixed together.
Do you think learning more about Counterpoint has made your brain work differently?
Yeah, I think so. I’m fighting against Alzheimer’s I guess!
Yeah, it’s interesting because to me it seems as though you’re teaching yourself to recognise a different architecture in some way.
It’s very complex and it’s new training for your brain and it’s a new vision of thinking. You have to forget all your habits in your world. It’s very funny. It’s a part of your brain that you’d never normally explore and it’s not just working the same old tricks.
The artist Glenn Gould has been talked about as a real pioneer of this and I don’t really know too much about him. So, if someone wanted to explore his work where would they start?
I would say his last record. It’s a composition of all of his life as a musician. His last piece is actually the same as his first record. So it’s a big loop and this album is a good example of what he achieved as a musician.
What do you think it was that he achieved as a musician?
He found a new way to play with things that already existed. The conclusion is that everything has been made already, so how can you make new things with this? It’s like trying to make a square cycle, you know? It’s something possible to do. Making something new out of something that has already been done. That’s what he managed to do and that’s a great inspiration for me.
How much did you stick to the original Bach compositions when you were making yours?
Everything has a different story, so some of them are pretty alike because there is something in the score that I wanted to show to everybody and the different aspects of Bach music, so I didn’t have to change notes really. Sometimes the old music, when you transpose it into the modern world, it doesn’t quite work, so you have to change a lot of things and also parts of the score don’t work too well with a modern keyboard, so I was cutting them in the score and I had too melt different parts of the score together. Every song has a different story and a different method, so I didn’t use the same rules for all the tracks.
What do you think the use of synthetic instruments bring to the pieces?
I think it brings something in the original pieces that is only understood by people that know classical Bach music. I think people that weren’t so familiar with Bach, or just Classical music, would miss it. I used modern songs to point to these important things that I saw in the original score and that I thought people wouldn’t get in the original track.
I’m interested to hear if you took any inspiration from anyone like Wendy Carlos or Tomita?
Yeah. Wendy Carlos is a big influence and I know for sure that Glenn Gould really liked the work of Carlos because of the way she used sequences and the Moog sound. It’s the same idea as I said before. You work the melodies together and gain a perfect understanding from them, you know. The machines can show the perfect articulation between Bach melodies, you know. It’s something you can feel with human playing.
So you think the machine can give the perfect interpretation of what Bach was about?
Some of the tracks, yes. When you read the score, it works perfectly. When you play as a human being, you kill the perfection of it as some human movements will never be perfect. Sometimes the motions help to play the score that is written, it’s amazing.
That’s interesting, because when the pieces were written, they were written knowing that there would be a human imperfection. Do you think that they were written with the desire for there not to be any human imperfection?
Yeah, because when you hear a piece of Classical music it’s hard because you hear the composer and then you hear the player and sometimes, you just want to hear the composer. That’s when you need the machines to play.
Okay, that’s interesting.
It’s great to hear someone make classical music though because sometimes you really like their spin on it and their personality, but sometimes you don’t care for this and you prefer the original composer.
Although as a producer, you’ll have made choices to do with the timbre of the sounds and the tones that you’re using, which I guess is then also bringing in an element of humanity, but just using machines to recreate this and you haven’t been completely removed from the process yet.
Yes, that’s very true. We need to move on though and imagine a machine that can fix this issue and it’s great to think of a machine that could do this.
Do you think there would be a film in that? Perhaps you could soundtrack a film about the perfect composer.
The perfect machine. But then maybe humanity would come to an end. Who knows? You could have Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the machine...
Yeah could do!
Are you planning on performing any of this album live?
Yeah, I’m working on that. There are a lot of sounds on the record though and I’d need a lot of musicians to do that. But I’d need to start small you know. I’d start with 4 or 5 people on stage and then the more that the project grew I’d add more musicians. My goal one day is to play with a whole orchestra.
I feel that for you, this is very much when someone learns a new language and it changes their perception of music. Having done so, do you think that you’re going to be able to return to Air at any point?
Basically, with Air I need to have a really good idea to be able to make a whole album. We’re reaching that point in our career where we make great albums and if we make a new album I want to make sure that it is greater than any of our old ones. So for that, we need a great concept. But at the moment, the door is open. We don’t want to stop making music together though, so there will be a record at some point.
Okay, so people don’t need to panic and start thinking that this is the end of Air then?
No. I’d work really hard to make sure that both things work.
Nicolas Godin - Contrepoint is released on 17th September.