Richard Chartier: “Grinding nostalgia into fairy dust”


A couple of weeks ago Cyclic editor Bob Baker Fish sent me Leaving Everything to be Desired, the latest work of Richard Chartier’s Pinkcourtesyphone, out for Room40. He suggested that I take a couple of days to ‘let it sink in’, before I write about it. Well, it turned out that it was me sinking into the album… A long and lovely email exchange with Richard helped me to put some of my thoughts and feelings back together, so here we are, talking about his minimalist and micro sound aesthetic, and how it intersects with his alter ego Pinkcourtesyphone and its emotional, musical and ambiguously referential universe.

Cyclic Defrost: I was really taken by the album at an emotional level, and I could not really pin down exactly why. I felt somehow lost and at the same time taken by the hand, if this makes sense… I found it cinematic, melancholic, but also romantic and dreamy; I spotted some referential elements, but I could not pin down to what they were referring, they seemed beautifully personal and made the listening experience very intimate. So, instead of rationalising too much, I would like to start by asking if you could tell me something about the project, your perspective, and where it fits in the context of Pinkcourtesyphone.

Richard Chartier: I try not to define Pinkcourtesyphone too distinctly. It’s quite amorphous by design, music that slips in and out of consciousness. Pinkcourtesyphone operates like a syrup-y dream, striving to be both elegant and detached. Each album has had defined theme. I come up with a little blurb around each album. Leaving Everything To Be Desired is a toss-up between ‘grinding nostalgia into fairy dust’ and “further back and slower”… sometimes, as in the case of this album, the theme may not be realized until I have it all in place, deciding what goes where, what story it tells… or if it’s just the essence of a mood. For example, the previous album for Room40, Indelicate Slices was ‘negative mood music’ and was a reaction to the coming darkness. Perhaps this one is ‘restlessness vs hopelessness’? I find myself between those two states these days. The isolation of self-realization?

Cyclic Defrost: I have indeed a question about the role of emotions in the creative process: how/when do emotions enter the creation, and how do they intersect with the work on sound, its materiality and its minimalist reduction that you are so well known for?

The Pinkcourtesyphone works are quite separate from the solo work / installation work under my own name. It’s far more musical and uses a lot of references, samples, coded language, double meanings. Emotion is a big part of Pinkcourtesyphone, sometimes the emotion is just implied by referential musical patterns/cues we have come to associate with cinema, for example the swelling of strings, a lilting few notes. Pinkcourtesyphone takes into consideration my cinematic/sonic/visual obsessions growing up, especially as a gay individual and pieces together bits and parts of that experience.

Cyclic Defrost: I did in fact experienced Leaving Everything to be Desired as ‘cinematic’ in a very intimate sense (the line ‘grinding nostalgia into fairy dust’ really touches a cord…). I projected my own references onto that feeling of course, but I would like to know more about yours. In an old interview you mentioned Fassbinder, and that was a reference that certainly overlaps with mine. What else? What kind of world do these links build for you?

Richard Chartier: I expect that every listener to every piece I create will experience in their own way and project their own references. It’s unfair for any artist to demand what the experience must be. I prefer to keep the references and meanings a puzzle. One of my favorite quotes since high school actually is by photographer Robert Doisneau: ‘To suggest is to create; to describe is to destroy.’ Fassbinder and Douglas Sirk films are big influences, but its more about the characters and single lines that resonate their way into a Pinkcourtesyphone piece.

Cyclic Defrost: Ok, I am happy with keeping the puzzle a puzzle… as a listener, I can however share that I kept remembering images from Robert Altman’s Three Women, which I saw only once and a long time ago… very strange.

Richard Chartier: That is also a very good reference point. I love that film. It’s on my ‘need to rewatch’ list. Shelly Duvall is incredible.

Cyclic Defrost: I have a question about duration. Despite the relatively short length of the tracks, the temporal experience for me has been remarkably extended and deep. Given that you worked with different formats, I was wondering about your thoughts on duration, and how you work with it.

Richard Chartier: With this album I made a very conscious decision to compress pieces. I wanted to make these tight pieces that feel much longer than they are. Many Pinkcourtesyphone pieces are far more extended, really deep enveloping spaces. Then there are the centerpieces on this album: a moth seems a monster (for E.Kitt) and the shock of each moment of still being alone. I feel I am gravitating towards making shorter pieces these days. Perhaps because my work shifts time for many listeners and now time is so confusing already. I find it harder and harder to focus on making 1 hour / 2 hour type pieces. Also listening to these shorter pieces over and over while in production its more interesting to obsess on EVEN smaller details.

Cyclic Defrost: Well, we cannot avoid touching on the state of semi-isolation we live in. You implicitly mentioned it, I guess, as a mood of restlessness vs hopelessness. But you also touched on it when talking about length and duration; I feel that our isolation days turned into an expanded durational piece, a sort of suspension and/or confusion. I would love to hear more about this from you, in particular in relation to your focus on the shifting experience of time during listening. Are shorter pieces also a way to re-focus that experience? In what other ways is your work changing due to the situation?

Richard Chartier: I find myself recently listening to the same album over and over during the day. There is a strange stasis /relationship to time that has shifted or just melted. Isolation certainly has been quite a ‘durational piece’. I feel like my life is measured out by meals with my husband. There is a sigh of relief when I am pulled away from the information flow or just the glowing screen (of any type). Another thing I have noticed is that I have not used my ipod since March. Normally I would always be listening to music on walks, now just in silence. But at home I have found I have just done much more listening. I am not sure if shorter pieces are a way for me to re-focus. It’s just an intention I had set for myself.

Before all of this my week was punctuated/compartmentalized by going to volunteer with cats at our local animal shelter which has since closed to the public. We have not been allowed to go back. That really gave my ‘work at home’ schedule a framework. Now I, more often than not, think it’s a day earlier or later than it is. But, how has this changed my work… that remains to be seen / heard.

Cyclic Defrost: One more on duration (sorry, it is really close to my heart). I was wondering if/how experiencing repetition, duration and deep listening are for you also a strategy when you compose/sculpt a piece, a part of your creative workflow, so to speak. I guess that you would spend extended amount of time working on a specific sound, or refining a particular architecture, in particular in your solo projects, so I am wondering if you can reflect on this.

Richard Chartier: Sound is going to affect everyone differently so it’s not my intent to have an all-encompassing ‘this is what it will do to listeners’ directive. I only know how something affects me. I don’t intend or have the desire to manipulate. My work takes a long time for me to compose and be satisfied or able to say ‘ok this is ready’… some things come together quickly in terms of basic structure/content but then I have to let them steep or walk away from them. Most recently I was working on 3 solo records that had been morphing for several years each. I am sure the details I focus on, the minutiae are much more present for me having listened to them over and over and over again than they may be to the listener. Having said all this, I did recently trash a whole album except for 3 sounds. These things happen. You have to be able to edit yourself. Pinkcourtesyphone offers me an outlet for more emotive explorations and its more ‘fun’, open to mistakes, brokenness, a different frame of mind.

Cyclic Defrost: The interplay between perception of duration and track length is amazing. But Pinkcourtesyphone is also about its musical, melodic elements, and even voice. In Elaborate Patio Dining, for example, you have a beautiful piano theme that fades half way through the track. In The Shock of Each Moment of Still Being Alone you develop a repetitive voice loop, that each time for me shifts from thriller to a gentle irony; in Leaving Everything to be Desired you end with a male voice speaking in German. I experienced these as crucial moments of embodiment, emotional anchors so to speak. Can you tell us more about the interplay between these and the rest of the architecture?

Richard Chartier: The spoken words that are selected for Pinkcourtesyphone are very specific. In The Shock of Each Moment of Still Being Alone, the loop is intended to become something of repeated until you forget it’s there or which word it started on. Most Pinkcourtesyphone pieces that have a spoken word sample are singular instances or punctuations to a theme or mood. There are a few where they become this loop that just dissolves into a haze: Wistful Wishful Wanton, Petraglyph (for Ranier), Perfunctory Attachments, 62,000 Valentines (for T.Hunter). There is a skeleton or ghost rhythm that the composition hangs off of, sometimes it’s not even in the final piece. I think this is how Pinkcourtesyphone links to my solo work. The album Description of Problem (2014) was my first attempt to combine sung vocals with collaborators AGF, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Kid Congo Powers, and Evelina Domnitch. One of these days I will actually come through with my long-proposed project with Tropic of Cancer, DVA Damas, and Alison Wolfe (Bratmobile) on vocals.

Cyclic Defrost: I am asking about ‘melody’ also because I really enjoyed the dialogue in your past work with Gwyneth Wentink; I thought it was very sensitive, and open to the specificities of the instrument etc.

Richard Chartier: The collaborations with Gwyneth Wentink, an extraordinary harpist, were different on each of the two releases in terms of process. we met at a cocktail party at William Basinski’s home. We chatted most of the night. The harp, to me anyway, is a very distinct instrument. It’s always going to be a harp. I am fascinated by it, the sound, the elegance of how one plays it. delicate yet gigantic and lumbering piece of equipment.

The first one Elision in 2016 was a ‘you send me an improvisational recording and I will manipulate it’ type of thing. When I sent back the first round I remember Gwyneth being a little shocked because I was making the harp sound and do things that were considered ‘incorrect’ in terms of classical playing. Her melodies became the central core of the piece. With the second one, when she had no mirror … she watched her shadow (2019) was the opposite, I sent her a core to play over, and then back and forth. A good collaboration if one where you become fused in a piece, obviously with these you can tell who is playing the harp, but it’s that fusion of 2 into 1 voice. It’s funny, people have a strong emotional reaction to these two releases. Usually very positive. I will say I got several ‘I don’t like harps’ and ‘no one likes harps’ from labels.

Cyclic Defrost: I do like harps. One more question, about the design of the Pinkcourtesyphone projects. You mentioned in interviews that you have a background in visual arts and you work as a designer; Pinkcourtesyphone looks, feels and sounds like a beautiful and very coherent concept, also in its evocative aspects: could you tell us something about the visual design ideas behind it?

Richard Chartier: Bottom line… it’s pink. It’s not a happy pink, it’s a woozy medicinal pink perhaps. Pink rooms are supposed to make people anxious. There is a lot of anxiety, or clouded washed over anxiety, in Pinkcourtesyphone. There’s also the rudimentary pink as a supposed ‘negative’ in society, gay, feminine… which of course is all bullshit. Like in the musical pieces themselves, the images used are all clues or plays on words / double meanings of titles or even extracted from films from which a particular key sample is absorbed. Again, a puzzle.

Cyclic Defrost: Maybe as concluding points, I should ask you about your well-established collaboration with Room40; how it came into being and how you see it developing. And, in general… what is next. I am aware that border closures, general crisis and visa costs to come to the US will make travel and live performances quite problematic, so I can only leave it as an open question, I guess.

Richard Chartier: I don’t remember how it started. I knew and loved Lawrence’s work, he brought me to Australia for a tour in 2006 which was lovely experience and I got to fulfil a dream since childhood, hugging a koala. In Lawrence, I, and many other artists I suppose, see a smart creative and caring partner / caretaker that facilitates the best in our work. He is a champion for ‘experimental’ music in whatever form it may come in.

Right as everything shut down, I was to go to Paris to perform at INA/GRM Radio France and do a few dates in the Netherlands, see many friends. The avalanche of it all was and still is overwhelming. now California is on fire. Where to next? who knows. The future has more limitations than ever right now. Goals: stay healthy, stay safe, stay sane, stay creative.

Time to say goodbye. Richard leaves me with news about the latest from his famous LINE label: Emile Bojesen; Tomoko Hojo and Rahel Kraft; Edoardo Cammisa. More worlds to sink into, but in the meantime, yes: stay healthy, stay safe, stay sane, stay creative.

Leaving Everything to Be Desired is out now on Room40. You can find it here.


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