Interview with Sophie Griffon

Electronic musician and intervening artist. Interview by Mathias Segura, Cefedem Auvergne Rhône-Alpes, 31.05.2021.

Please introduce yourself and describe your profession.

My name is Sophie Griffon, I am an electronic musician and intervening artist. I am working, with another person, on a musical project of electronic music and cello, for which I am the main composer. The project is called ODALIE. As a composer, I also work a lot on musical composition for theatre companies, associations and digital art installations. I compose music for others. I work on dance performance, with choreographers. Finally, at the moment, I do a lot of sound recording for artistic projects. I was a radio host in the past, so I was already doing audio recording for the radio and now I’m mixing my two activities: sound recording and music creation, as well as working with children around electronic music.

How would you describe your current relationship with the Institutions of Higher Education in the Arts, what impact does this relationship have on you and what impact has it had? How do you see your relationship developing in the near future?

I have two regional or departmental conservatories degrees, one in electronic music and one in electro acoustic. I entered the ENM (National School of Music) of Villeurbanne because I wanted to be a real musician! I was afraid that if I did everything on my own and in a self-taught way, it wouldn’t be good. It’s a reality I think because when I auditioned, I proposed something very original but technically it was really bad. My teacher saw my qualities in terms of ideas, and I was lucky to have him to support, and especially to help me to develop all my music from a technical point of view. I started with a little bit of radio recording, and he taught me everything else. He taught me how to use a synthesizer module, which is my main instrument today. He taught me everything about synthesizers, about the software I use, Ableton Live. Therefore, I have a rather good relationship with the school in the sense that it is a conservatory but with a very strong contemporary music specificity. The ENM of Villeurbanne is a conservatory even though by its name one would say that it is a school of music.

Afterwards, I thought about going on to maybe get a teaching diploma but I quickly realized that I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to continue studying mainly because I was afraid of being bored and because I had many offers in cultural mediation very quickly, without having the diploma that went with it. Therefore, I find myself with people who have these diplomas and it’s going very well all the same. I even have the impression of having a more experimental approach that comes from the field. I also think that thanks to my experience in associations and a lot of voluntary work, I have built up enough knowledge. If I ever had to go back to school, it might be to perfect some things, but I don’t feel the need to.

Do you see yourself going back to school with a pedagogic role?

As a teacher then. I have students in private lessons at home. I have a small group of students. I think it’s going pretty well because they’ve been with me for a really long time. They are people who want to make progress in their projects. So I’ll teach them mixing techniques, compositional stuff, but I’ll always ask them what they’ve done and what they want to do, to really guide them towards their project.

I wouldn’t say no to a school, but it would have to be adapted to my profile. Because even though I went to music school, I’m terrible at harmony, I have no background in music theory. I learned everything on the job, and I don’t have a good foundation so I would need a pedagogical team that understands this.

From your point of view, in the present and the near future, what role do artists, art and creative work play in society? And what is the impact of artists, art and creative work on society?

 It is large. I think the artist has an extremely political role, even if his art is not political. You don’t necessarily have to be a punk to be political. I consider my art to be political. I started making music because I had a lot of ideas to express and not because I wanted to make music per se. I needed an art form to express the ideas I had. I had gone through years of activism that didn’t allow me to do things the way I wanted and during which I was very much in confrontation and opposition. Music allowed me to convey more positive political messages.

Today I feel very good where I am. For me, the artist has this kind of responsibility to go and help people to take a step aside. We offer a framework that is close to feelings and sensibility, through which we can move people.

The artist’s primary role in society is to ask questions and make people take steps away from their daily lives. They also have a role of entertainment, in the good sense of the word, to make people live intense emotions that will take them to unexpected places, to live experiences, emotional experiences. I think we have an extraordinary role.

From your point of view, with regard to the present and the near future, what role do artists, art and creation play in the economic sector? And what is the impact of artists, art and creation on the economic sector?

I have a great example of this but not in my own field of art. I find that science fiction writers provide something very interesting in economic terms. I read a lot of books written by Alain Damasio for example. He seems to foresee the future. Startups could open his books and get ideas on what will happen. Therefore, there is this big mix going on between economics and art, in terms of anticipating ideas. We might have more mental space to come up with ideas than other people. Someone searching for an idea for financial reasons only may not have the same mental space to find innovative ideas as artist do. In artistic creation also, if you take the financial and material angle directly, you don’t have good ideas as an artist. It’s better to let yourself be carried away by completely unrealizable ideas.

The framework limits you?

Yes. What is exceptional in our situation is to say that we can dream what we want, and we think about the framework afterwards. It leaves a lot of mental space. This is what science fiction writers do when they write the future. They ask themselves what might happen, and then draw on research so that it fits with reality but keeping a large mental space. They will pull reality in the direction they want. It’s very interesting for the economy to be inspired by that.

On the art and economy aspect, there are things that tickle me. It’s very complicated. When you’re an artist, you still have to make a living. So, you turn into an entrepreneurial artist very quickly. Last year precisely, I was awarded an artist-entrepreneur prize. As an artist you make the economy work. The cultural economy in France represents a lot of money.

On one hand, an artist will have to make a business plan out of necessity. On the other hand, I need to be careful because my creations have political messages so I can’t collaborate with anyone in the economy. As I also make digital art, there are very quickly links that can be made with big industrialists in this context, for example with synthesizers. I could make alliances as an artist with big companies, but that comes into question. My political message, even if it remains a bit hidden, means that I can’t associate with just anyone. I think it’s like that for all artists. There are artists who may have made mistakes in this respect. You can lose your soul quickly.

I had to do an installation for Focal, a brand of monitor speakers, with a graphic digital artist. I was to be on the sound and he on the graphic part. I wondered for a long time how I felt about working on a Focal advert and whether my ethics matched the brand. In the end, I accepted but the project didn’t happen because of Covid. I had accepted saying to myself that it was a French brand, that makes good speakers, that I had already bought, and ethically it seemed ok, but I had done my research.

I also work with a very famous artist called Oilac , who does a lot of projects. He has done ads for Apple, Samsung, etc. That made me wonder. But I love his work. I don’t know what I would have done if my video with him had been for Apple. But I have a Mac… it’s complicated.

From your point of view, with regard to the present and the near future, what role do artists, art and creation play in your field of expertise? And what is the impact of artists, art and creation on your field of expertise?

I can’t quite define my area of expertise. I think it’s sound. As an electronic musician, I’m more specialized in everything that’s multicast. There are artists who are making a lot of progress in multicasting : quadraphonic, dome sound. There is an association that is co-producer of my performance that is specialized in domecasting, with loudspeakers that go all the way to the center. You really feel immerged in the music. On that note, at the moment, the speaker manufacturers are inspired by the work of the artists. It is the uses that create the evolutions. The artists have this pioneering role to go and find, via their practice, via their work with sound and music, the technological tools that would be interesting to exploit in relation to immersive environments.

My field of expertise is related to all that is immersive, all that touches the senses, the sounds and the visuals that encompass you. At the moment, a lot of artists are questioning what immersion is, and what it is to be immersed in a work, why we do it. Technology is at the service of this and I find it exciting. I want to stay in this field. I think that my expertise domain could be more defined as everything that is immersive, that is anything that will touch feelings and move people.

There are many researchers who explain that the only way to make people’s consciousness evolve is by touching their heart. It is the heart that sets people in motion. Aurelien Barrau says this a lot. He realizes that even if he explains very concrete, very scientific things about ecological challenges, if people are not touched, they don’t change.

So, I only work on this and technology helps me a lot. You can make people feel something related to the love of nature, with beautiful images and sounds. By immersing people, you touch their hearts. You realize that many artists now work on this kind of theme, at least in my circle. The immersion is evolving thanks to the artists. I think that advertising will come and recuperate all this for itself, that’s for sure.

In your opinion, what are the most influential general trends and developments in society, the economy and the arts at present and in the near future?

Feminism and ecology, I think, are the main trends, as much in the economy as in society and in art. We are even having feminism washing so we have to go to the bottom of this. In terms of artistic creation it’s one of the main issues, I no longer count the number of performances on this subject. The same goes for ecology, I feel a kind of explosion of this subject these last years. Whether it’s in a positive, utopian sense, or in the sense of collapsology. These are the two main subjects.

The two that can also be very important when you try to make people feel things, as you said before, quoting Aurelien Barreau.

Yes exactly. This summer I will be doing a conference with a festival called Les Graines Electroniques, where I will be a musician. We’re doing a concert and in addition there will be a conference with a lecturer specialized in ecofeminism. It’s a mix between ecology and feminism. It’s very interesting but very violent for some men. It explains that the patriarchal system has participated in the destruction of nature, in part by not considering other species as equals but just as resources. Nature has been seen as a resource, and the possession of things is a value embedded in patriarchal society. I need to continue to read up on these issues.

How do you see your work changing in the next few years? What would be the main challenges, drivers of this evolution?

I have several things to say, but I will use “AADN” as an example because it is my main employer. We have a very interesting evolution at the moment: a form of horizontality in terms of decision making. We are moving towards more and more autonomy for each individual and co-construction. We also went from an association that works in digital arts to an association that is oriented towards low tech.

Before we were going to do sensational, beautiful images, crazy installations, and this year we continued to do that but with a very political perspective. My structure is moving towards that, less smoke and mirrors (as in the Fete des Lumieres where you make people dream a little) and much more background, reflections, etc. It’s very interesting. I like the in-between.

I like to make people dream, because it makes me dream too, and I like to plant little seeds. With my company, I take the same direction. That’s a bit of the evolution I feel: the horizontality and the fact that we invest ourselves because we feel that there is a need to, a responsibility even. There is even the need for a sense of responsibility. I felt it like that coming from the artistic director. Because they also all have children.I do several things at the same time, but I will use “AADN” as an example because it is my main employer.

We have a very interesting evolution at the moment: a form of horizontality in terms of decision making. We are moving towards more and more autonomy for each individual and co-construction.

What role can artists, Art Higher Education Institutes and the creative sector potentially play with regard to the trends, challenges and drivers mentioned earlier, or others?

For the artists I think I have already answered a lot, but as far as the Art Higher Education Institutes are concerned, there is still a lot to say. Education is the basis of everything. You are taught to be a citizen in the society. School is not only about knowledge and culture, but also about being a social being in the ecosystem of society. So, in the music sector, at the level of higher education, there is a huge role to be played by the teachers for example on awareness on feminism. I think that schools in general, are a bit the only place where you still have the space and the time to really discuss these subjects.

I think that regarding feminism in particular, it is essential to educate a whole generation of artists or people who are going to work in music schools about the fact that there is no equal opportunity in music and about the fact that there are statistics available on this subject and that if they are skeptical they can go check it out. I think that in schools we have a very important role on this subject. We should not end up with teachers who are not aware of these issues at all, for women musicians it’s really important.

I would love to see this mentioned much more in the conservatories. And above all, to evoke the fact that when entering the active life as a woman musician, the percentage of chance of giving up is enormous and requires a bit of a fight. You have to defend yourself to continue doing what you want to do. I would be very much in favor of talking about this in a much clearer way, based on figures that represent reality, and not having students going to the dogs without preparing them for this reality.

On ecology, Greenpeace had made a guide on how to defend your position during a family dinner with pro-nuclear people. I can imagine courses with a little guide on dealing with misogyny in the music business. That would be nice, not only for women, for everyone. A man can also react in an inappropriate situation to help things move forward. I think it’s at school that we have to learn that, because afterwards in the professional world, there are too many constraints, like having to take care of your image.

On ecology, I realize by working in primary schools, there is a lot of education on ecology nowadays, among the little ones, but there is a whole generation in between where we are a bit lost. Unless, you develop your awareness on your own. In the music world, there are organizations and associations that seek out artists to propose them things to do. An association called Music Declares Emergency explains that there is no music on a dead planet.

Conservatories don’t need to know everything, to have the resources in-house, etc. The main thing is to go outside to find resources on societal issues that they will have to consider at one time or another.

The same goes for technologies, there is no need to be trained internally, they can just make exchanges with structures that are specialized, by releasing budgets and opening the school to the outside and to reality. Not to be an educational microcosm, a bit sclerosed, where we are all the time among ourselves.

On technology, from your point of view, in what way could technology contribute to make art more accessible? What are the opportunities and risks?

Vast debate. I use technology all the time, especially for people on the theme of immersion. In this context, technology makes art more accessible, it’s even like magic for me. You can make magic with music, with visuals, via technology. That’s the whole principle of digital arts from my point of view.

But there are also big paradoxes, like for example the fact that I have an ecological posture, but I have a 3000 euros MacBook that was made by Chinese Kids. There are a lot of downsides. As an artist, it puts us in paradoxes that are sometimes difficult to manage.

For example, I was on a project that linked ecology and technology, and we had a lot of psychological paradoxes – like the fact that the solution was also the problem. We don’t know where to stand anymore. For example, let’s say you have to build an art installation, but you want to build it from scratch. Since we don’t have any more production in France of all the chips that are used to create installations, we find ourselves ordering the chips, for a project on ecology, in China. We have no choice. We are no longer sovereign of certain technologies in France. At this point, you have to tell yourself that your message is not where the chips come from, it’s “I’m going to learn to build something myself”. It is also possible to make recuperation, to take chips which have already been used, and thus to develop also competences, to be sovereign of my competences, and this is the message, not in the origin of the materials because otherwise you’ll become crazy. You can’t make a project flawless from the first to the last step.

It’s a risk to face questions that you can’t solve, materially. Even though philosophically you really want to solve them. You have to accept that you will not be able to be blameless. As soon as you work in digital art, you will have to use machines, use video projectors, electricity, etc. So even though I serve my message, which is to love one another and to love nature, I use technological tools like this because they make my message more accessible.

There is a video clip of Olafur Arnalds, who is my favorite composer, where he shoots grass in 4K. It’s beautiful and it’s just grass. It’s grass in slow motion that moves. I think it can make people realize the beauty of grass and make them want to protect it.

It makes me think of some advertising methods too

Sophie :
Yes, totally. The other concern with using technologies that are very immersive is that the advertisement industry will use it for itself too. That’s what I was mentioning earlier. That’s for sure. Artists are pioneers in the field of immersion and everyone can see these ideas on the internet. Therefore, people who want to make money and who have a capitalist wills have an interest to use the ideas of those who had humanist wills, to divert them from their first goal.

Alain Damasio is very good at explaining this too. In his books, there are a lot of technological uses too beautiful for art, it makes you want it to exist, which are then taken over by big multinationals that use them for advertising, data recovery, etc.

He also made a conference on Power and Strength where he explains that when I can do something, for example using my GPS to go somewhere, I have power, I have the power to go to this place because my tool, my GPS takes me there, but I don’t have the power anymore, that is to say the intelligence to know how to go to this place on my own. We must question ourselves individually on this, as well as in performances. Do we get people to do things or do we put them in a passive attitude but that allows them to see beautiful images and feel things? It’s complicated. We quickly come to tickle philosophical and sociological questions, which are a bit beyond me. I would like to work with researchers on this.

What new technologies do you think might be important in the future and how are they, or could they be, related to art?

I think the obvious thing right now is artificial intelligence. I don’t work on artificial intelligence, by choice. There are too many people doing artificial intelligence stuff. I’ve seen some really interesting installations, but it is a bit far from my personal questioning and from what I want to make people to feel.

But, for sure that it’s the technology that is questioning everyone on a societal level. There is also this story that comes up a lot in science fiction, that for example, if you read an article about the fact that an artificial intelligence is coming and you know about it but you didn’t do anything about it, when it comes, because it will save the world and it will have all the powers, it will punish you for not having done everything for it to come before. That’s an idea I would like to exploit.

Then, about the fact that artificial intelligence could compose music for us, I personally have already used several artificial intelligence tools, especially on Ableton Live. You give it your music and your way of composing and it is able to process this data to create a composition that is in your style. Therefore, everybody tells me that I won’t be able to make electronic music anymore because the artificial intelligence will compose for us. Clearly for me, if you are a composer and you think that a robot is able to do your work, it means you are not sufficiently mobile. I tell myself that it’s difficult to copy things that I do, not in the sense that it would be difficult to copy it identically, that’s possible, but to copy my moves, and the fact that I am constantly on the move this should not be possible. I evolve too fast. And if I can be copied, then it means that I have to question myself. It’s because I’m not in the thick of it.

It is sure that artificial intelligence will influence the creation of music. I can imagine for example that movie soundtracks, everything that is stock music for the cinema, that I am sure that robots will replace this work.

But it’s a pity that there are so many composers who try to copy perfectly what has already been done. Maybe this will leave more room for composers who searching for new things. I wonder, if you can be copied so easily, do you really have to keep doing this job? So, I’m not too worried about artificial intelligence.

Draw a picture of your work in twenty-five years, what would be the best and worst version? The utopian version and the dystopian version?

There are so many possible scenarios… I’ll start with the worst one. The worst and at the same time the best one too, it could be interesting: everybody is right, and the world is falling apart. There is no more electricity, so there is no more electronic music. I think I’ll become an art activist again. I would go back to some kind of concrete actions. I think I’ll do land art, because it’s fun. I would also do circle songs with my company. I think my structure would turn into a circle song and land art structure. I will do installations very close to people, things that move a little bit, a land art circus space but in a post-apocalyptic world because there would be no electricity. I think I will always do something very political, but with the means at hand. That would be the worst situation.

The best situation… it’s much harder. I like what I’m doing right now so I think I’ll continue in the same direction. I can see myself continuing to work on the same message but on many more installations. I feel the desire to go towards very sensory things. For example, I listen to podcasts called Emotion, which talk about emotions, senses, and emotions related to the senses. I could see myself working with researchers on notions of immersion through smell, that kind of thing. Working on all the senses that are very little exploited in society, so abandoning a bit the visual that is overexploited, and focus on the smell, the touch, and still maybe the hearing but in correlation with something else. I think that my company in twenty-five years will do installations on this kind of subjects, and maybe also a lot more experience-concerts to manage through music to bring people in very intimate places or in the public space. I imagine a lot of things. That would be cool. And I would have lots of money and lots of grants and I could do whatever I want.