The Sacred Calendar: an interview with Flint Glass and Empusae

Tzolk'in

“The Maya believed that each day of the Tzol’kin had a character that influenced events. The Maya had a shaman-priest, whose name meant day keeper, that read the Tzol’kin to predict the future. When a child was born, the day keeper would interpret the Tzol’kin cycle to predict the baby’s destiny. (…) In the Maya highlands, babies were even named after the day they were born on.”
– from Wikipedia.org

Inspired by the sacred calendar of the ancient Maya civilization, Tzolk’in is a musical project born of a collaboration between the French project Flint Glass and the Belgian project Empusae. The result of the efforts of these talented musicians was an extremely interesting and rich soundtrack album, released in late 2004 in the label Divine Comedy Records.

C.B. – To start with, how did the idea for this collaboration come about? Did you have any history of previous musical collaborative efforts?

Flint Glass/Empusae – We planned to work on a track together for an eventual compilation. The collaboration went so well that we decided to work on a whole album together. We were both very enthusiastic about each other’s music, so that we HAD to do some more stuff together!

C.B. – Was this project result of some coincidence or do you share a common interest in Mayan culture and this was an opportunity to create something from that interest?
And, of course, why the precise choice of the ancient Mayan ceremonial calendar, Tzolk’in, as theme for the musical project?

F.G./E. – We both share our interests in mythologies of the world. The Mayan mythology is a very rich and intriguing one. Its people and civilization were so elaborated and innovating, that it wasn’t difficult at all to dig for inspiration for our project…

E. – To work around the Tzolk’in calendar was Gwenn’s initiative. Its information and resources are not that common to find, I had never heard of it until Gwenn mentioned it, so I started looking on the internet, because it was not mentioned in any books I read.
This makes it more mysterious and interesting, of course!

C.B. – What kind of research (historical, anthropological and even esoteric) was needed during the conception of this musical project? Are there any particular sources of information you’d recommend for people interested in learning more about the Tzolk’in?

E. – The Internet was for me the richest source of information for this ritual calendar. We read as much as we could to have a certain image and ambiance of that period, the people and their beliefs and thus ritual meaning of the calendar, to have that ambiance in our minds while composing the tracks. So if you want to know more about Tzolk’in: just type it in a search engine and start digging!

F.G. – I have a book from long time on Mayan art and civilization. For several years, I had wanted to work on an album on this subject, because this period of pre-Colombian history impassions me.

Tzolk'inC.B. – With the little time I had, I briefly researched the historical spiritual meaning of the Tzolk’in glyphs after which the tracks in the album are named.
Is there an association between the music tracks and the glyphs beyond artistic choices? And, if so, is the order of the different tracks relevant and supposed to have a symbolic meaning?

F.G./E. – The choice of the glyphs had been made more to fortify the ambiance of the tracks than it has a ritual meaning. Each glyph has his own meaning of course, which inspired us to compose the tracks, but there’s no higher or theological purpose behind it.

C.B. – I must confess some curiosity about your creative process in “Tzolk’in”. Seeing that you were in two different countries (France and Belgium), how did you exchange ideas and overall coordinate efforts for the creation of the music?

F.G./E. -We don’t live that far from each other, only 2 hours of train between Paris and Gent, so we were able to meet from time to time. Otherwise we just exchanged sources and progresses to each other by mail. So we weren’t physically together in a studio all the time. But we kept contact by e-mail or phone on a regular basis.

C.B. – Given some of the limitations associated with electronic music and some of the conditions of a one-shot collaboration, how “static” is Tzolk’in when being performed live, i.e., how much room is there for spontaneous improvisation and sound exploration?

F.G./E. -The live performances aren’t that definitive yet, as we’re still looking for the best way to perform. It isn’t static in the way that I play live percussions on stage and Gwenn triggers rhythms and soundscapes above the basis tracks. We have the same problem with Empusae and Flint Glass: we’d need between 10 and 20 musicians on stage to perform everything live.
And of course we have atmospheric visuals to accompany our performance.

C.B. – Are there any ideas for further collaborative efforts between you? If so, will these be a continuation of Tzolk’in or an exploration of other themes (under different name)?

F.G./E. – We know that another collaboration will follow, but first we have to focus on our own projects. We’re not sure yet what the theme(s) will be… but we’re surely taking inspiration and influences (not only musically) from each other until the time comes.

C.B. – Since Tzolk’in is the result of a collaboration between two established acts from the experimental and dark ambient genres, could you also tell us something about your main musical projects, Flint Glass and Empusae?

E. – Empusae is my solo-project for 10 years now. The purpose is to create soundtrack for anybody’s personal fantasies. I write the music, the listener places it in his/her own world; sometimes it is appropriate to one’s mind, sometimes not….. But it has the intention to be very personal for everybody. I can’t put a label on the style… it’s electronic, atmospheric, rhythmic… and a bit macabre. I have a few albums released on different labels so far. My next album will be released very soon… where and when isn’t fixed yet. But the info will be online as soon as it is fixed: www.empusae.com

F.G. – With Flint Glass, I’m trying to make the listener travel through a cinematographic universe built up around dreamlike/nightmarish atmospheres. But there’s no particular message to be spread to the public; it’s pure emotion! I have worked on a lot of remixes and tracks for compilations this last 2 years, but now I began a new project album in collaboration with Telephérique on the theme of the “information overload”.
I’m also working on a new Flint Glass album that I hope to finalize this year. All info on www.flint-glass.com

Tzolk'in

C.B. – What kind of musical training do you have? Would you say this training (or lack of it) was important in shaping your music creation?

E. – I did a few years of classical music theory and piano. I know that it shaped my musical creations… but it’s difficult to tell in what way, as the fact that I listen to all kind of music also influences me a lot, probably even more then my training.

F.G. -When younger, I’ve played bass guitar in some new-wave bands, before joining Stadium (that was a kind of pop noise musical experiment).
I’ve always been into very different kinds of music, as an adolescent I was fond of new-wave bands like The Cure (first albums), Joy Division or Bauhaus, and I think the melancholy of their music still has a strong influence on my own work.

C.B. – What sources of inspiration (from music to other arts: literature, cinema…) would you say strongly influenced the development of your music?

E. – That’s the most difficult question of all I think. Everything I encounter inspires me. But I guess my passions and interests have more influence, so I would say my obsession to try to find and recognize atmospheres in anything I encounter.
F.G. -It is a bit the same thing for me! I listen to a lot of experimental music, that is electronic music or post-rock. I like French Film Noir very much, like those of Alain Corneau or Claude Chabrol for example. Also films and books of science-fiction by authors like Maurice Dantec, H.P. Lovecraft, who I think also inspire me while being often plunged in these parallel universes…

C.B. – What have you been listening to as of late?

E. – A lot of ambient, movie soundtracks, IDM, experimental, classical music, I discover labels, projects and musical styles everyday… I don’t restrict myself as I know I’ll regret that!

F.G. – I listen to too many things to be able to quote only some of them. Now I have the chance with my label to be able to exchange many discs and thus to listen to new albums everyday.

Tzolk'inC.B. – What’s your personal perspective of the current state of the francophone electronic music scene? Was there really a boom of labels and electronic bands in the past few years or were they already there and have just been growing in notoriety and gaining exposure abroad?

E. – From my perspective I have that impression indeed. People are starting to get interested in the francophone electronic scene. I know they existed long before that, but it’s cumulative I think. So I guess you could define that as a bomb!
But as I am Flemish I’m not that aware of that scene… :-D

F.G. – Yes, the French scene is terribly exciting today! There are excellent new labels that offer a wide range of different productions. I’m glad such French projects have gained exposure abroad, all the more so as we are in very good terms with many of them, from labels like Divine Comedy, M-Tronic, Kubernoise, Axess code, Parametric or YB70, with whom we collaborate on the organization of concerts, festivals or exchanges of remixes between our artists.

C.B. – I’ve found out that some of the electronic music being made by experimental electronic projects is actually quite accessible and enjoyable by more “mainstream” audience (talking about some friends and workmates here). Have you tried taking your music (solo projects or the Tzolk’in project) into a greater audience beyond the specialized one? If so, what has the response been like?

E. – I discovered that a lot of “mainstream” people really dig Empusae and Tzolk’in. I think it’s because the music isn’t “uneasy listening” and for Empusae; people can place the music in their own feelings… so the music isn’t that far from their minds… and thus taste.

F.G. – At our last concert in Strasbourg, we were astonished to see that our set had success with a part of the audience which does not come at all from our musical style. I think that people are increasingly curious to discover different things and that they don’t remain locked up any more in a particular style. But it would be out of the question for me to change anything in my compositions with the aim of pleasing a broader public. It would be like selling my heart to the devil! ;-)

C.B. – Even if only occasional, is there any manifest interest, from more mainstream media, in giving coverage or spotlighting these kinds of electronic music in France or Belgium?

F.G./E. – Not really in Belgium or in France… it stays underground, so it’s labeled as difficult, evil, dangerous, “music for elite” and so on. There are some bigger radio stations who dare to play some underground, but only at night and very selective… it’s not open minded at all.
On the other hand I have the feeling that even major labels dare to take the risk to release something “not conventional” enough to please every listener on the air. And that’s getting more and more response from unexpected listeners. But it takes time to evolve.

C.B. – The ubiquitous question nowadays is: from your point of view as musicians and label owner, what are your views and positions on the issues of file-sharing and online music sales?

E. – As it is a cliché (but not unimportant) question, I’ll give you a cliché answer: copying and downloading music is showing disrespect for the musician. Although I understand the phenomenon, that a CD isn’t cheap on its own and getting it for free could be tempting, I don’t think giving money to something you really liked and knowing that it helps the artist and thus the industry who makes it able to be available, is a strange phenomenon also… but of course it has goods sides also, a lot of music gets to people who otherwise might never have heard of it…

F.G. – The problem also is, the rising generation and in particular the teenagers today. With the development of the MP3 players, the work of composition of the artists is not recognized any more. The music became something free. Why pay when one can have something for free?
It is very a selfish thought, and they don’t think at all about the work behind… I do not see what one can do against that phenomenon, and I think that in 20 years, the music will be “dématerialisée” and only on sale on Internet. Only luxurious and original packaging for music fans and collectors will be published…

C.B. – Gwenn, in addition to being a musician, you are also the person behind Brume Records. Despite it being a label geared towards a particular type of audience, how do you view the global music business at the moment? What do you feel will be future of music publishing?

F.G. – With my label, I don’t have a strict hot line like some labels with very similar genre and projects, but seek more to dissociate us by the diversity of our productions by signing talents artists in different musical genres… if an artist’s works persuades me, I am not worried to know if it corresponds to a particular kind of music. Such as for example Oil 10, rather electro which has nothing in common with L’Église Du Mouvement Péristaltique Inversé which is a project much more experimental whose style approaches post-rock. Or OTX (electronica cinematographic) which is at far away from De Mange Machine which is even more experimental with its collages, home made acoustic sounds and its particular universe… What interests me is to produce albums which I like, as simple as that! I do not like the term “labels”.
From a few years, the price of CD production has dropped considerably. There are more and more new labels which are being born. It is very interesting because that makes it possible to discover many talented artists. But that has a pervert side, namely that the distributors are submerged more and more by the number of productions while the market is in crisis with the MP3 downloading. Several big underground music distributors in France have closed last years.
I think that the future will go towards paying to download music and that the independent labels will have to announce imagination to propose original packaging to combine the object and its contents….

C.B. – To close in a bit of a light note and because you’re part of the “Franco-Belgian world”… what are your favourite bande-dessinées? ;-)

E. – All the works of Daniel Hulet!!!

F.G. – Hugo Pratt and his albums rock my sleepless nights!

Relevant links

Tzolk’in

— interview by Miguel de Sousa, images and photos courtesy of the artists (January 2005)