The Opening of a Journey With An Laurence

Photo by Carlos Riobo

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An Laurence’s debut, Almost Touching, is a journey. The Montréal-based guitarist and composer brings together a number of composers to create countless new, expressive worlds in spaces that seem just out of reach. Almost Touching shows a graceful vulnerability that transforms these compositions into a powerful suite of emotive manifestations. 

The further I dug into Almost Touching and learned about An Laurence’s practice, the more I realized I had a lot of questions to ask her. And so I’m thrilled to present this interview. An’s debut will be released this Friday, May 20, via People Places Records. Pre-order it HERE. An Laurence can be reached via her website.

What are some of your earliest memories of music and sound? Are there any songs or other sounds, or even experiences with music/sound, that you had at an early age that have stayed with you and made a lasting impression?

Like many children, I loved to sing songs and sang to myself a lot. My first language is French, but I knew of the existence of this other language called “English,” so I would sing random syllables and be convinced I was singing in English. My father had a huge vinyl and CD collection. I remember he would play music and I would pretend to fall asleep to it so he’d carry me to my bed.

I have this memory of singing a very pretty Christmas song in elementary school. The teacher lent me her cassette player and a recording she made so I could practice along. I randomly met her again when I was about 20 years old in another city. She did remember me and said she wasn’t surprised to learn I was studying music, as she could tell I loved singing so much as a child. That song was unusually nostalgic for a Christmas song. I think I already had a preference for nostalgia.

Music became my way of coping with solitude quite early. I was a very shy kid with many insecurities, not many friends, and my dysfunctional family was starting to fall apart. One of the first bands I became obsessed with was Evanescence. Up until today, I connect more naturally with melancholic music, even if I do enjoy upbeat music too!

At some point you wanted to start playing yourself – what was the impetus for that and how did you first start learning? 

When I was 11 years old, I went to a theater summer camp, as my dream was to become an actress. At the end of the summer camp, the rock band played on stage, and I thought they were SO cool! They were older guys with black clothes, banging their heads with long hair. For some reason, I had set my mind on playing electric bass, but my parents told me I should learn guitar from my cousin, who was in a band. I started with acoustic guitar, but my goal really was to play electric guitar.

What drew you not only to guitar but to play in a classical style? One thing that I am so drawn to with your work is that there’s a familiarity to it on some level, but it really doesn’t sound like anyone else’s playing. It’s wonderful.

Thank you, I’m so glad you enjoyed the recording. Your words go directly to my heart! As I said, I wanted to play electric guitar, which I got to do. I played songs by bands like Blink-182, Billy Talent, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith.

I was planning to go to a pre-university school where I could pursue pop music as an electric guitarist, but I ended up going to another school so I could do a special program combining music and humanities. At that time, this school would let you study pop/jazz music only after you had completed a year of classical music training. I enjoyed classical music so much that I decided to not switch after my first year. As I’m writing all of this, I realize my guitar journey is one of coincidences. I didn’t decide to play classical guitar because I heard it and got inspired, it somehow got imposed on me and I got attached, haha!

I then went to university in classical performance. I already knew I wanted to play contemporary music, even though I had almost no idea what contemporary music was or sounded like. I was determined nonetheless to make this my goal after I had read the introduction of Nicolas Harnoncourt’s book Le discours musical while I was studying baroque music. He explains how historical music is a reflection of its own time from a social, political, and obviously cultural standpoint. As a classical music student who played exclusively pieces composed by people who lived hundreds of years ago, I was shocked by this obvious revelation, and thought to myself: “How can we know what’s happening now if we’re not even playing the music of our time?” I don’t know if I was getting it backward, but I was very motivated by this thought.

I was lucky enough to land in a school where contemporary and electroacoustic musics were valued. I met many brilliant minds who became recurrent collaborators, and whose company and help have been very important for my artistic development and my career.

Your debut album, Almost Touching, comes out next month and is remarkable in several ways. First, where was the idea of this album first born, and what was it that sparked it?

Thanks so much again, your compliment is very much appreciated! The idea for the album was born right after the concert project I did in 2019 titled “Émergences (” After coming home from performing it in Toronto, I had this intuition that kept telling me that even if I became the greatest, number one classical guitarist on the planet, it would still not be enough to keep me busy as a full-time contemporary performer. Was that intuition right, wrong? Anyways, it got me thinking.

Contemporary classical composers in North America or Europe, when they aren’t guitarists themselves, almost never write for guitar out of free will as they do for piano, string quartet, or voice. The contemporary solo or ensemble works for classical guitar that I’ve come across from non-guitarist composers were all written because they “had” to, for a commission, a specific performer, or a workshop. Pragmatically, it makes job opportunities for people like me scarce! I wondered why composers didn’t write more for classical guitar. Is it because the instrument sounds too soft? Because they aren’t taught to write for it in school like they are for winds or bowed strings? I thought, maybe that’s because they still haven’t heard enough powerful, soul-lifting pieces for classical guitar? This leads me to your next question…

It features many different living composers who have very distinct styles. How did you go about picking who you wanted to work with and the pieces to perform?

I wanted to create a recording project that would reunite pieces that had a long-lasting impact on me, works I felt were special. In doing so, I hoped for the listeners to discover classical guitar in a new light and for them to be 100% charmed. Which, in my logic, would lead to more composers being interested in classical guitar (eventually leading to more career opportunities for people like me, haha!).

The pieces by Amy (“Artificial Light”), Shelley (“Reconciling Duality”), and Arthur (“Nocturne”) were all written in contexts that weren’t related to my album. I heard Shelley’s piece in 2016 and asked her for the score right after the concert. I had incredible experiences listening to the guitar melting with the electronics in both Amy’s and Arthur’s pieces – they were extremely kind with me, giving me feedback for over a year, and allowing me into their worlds. The hidden track (*spoiler alert*) is also a very special piece for me. The first time I heard it, I wasn’t sure if I had been listening for 1 or 20 minutes. It really stretched time for me.

Kim’s piece (“Almost Touching”) was written in 2019 in a composition workshop context led by the Canadian Music Centre in Ontario. It was the first time Kim and I collaborated and we got paired by chance. We worked on the piece together and spoke about my concerns at the time, both regarding performance and my personal life. It was such a lucky pairing, as we’re still collaborating actively and supporting each other’s projects constantly (we have an album planned for next year as The Paramorph Collective!).

On top of that, I wanted to commission a composer to write a piece for me for guitar and voice. Before studying classical guitar intensively during university, I was singing and playing indie songs quite a lot. That’s a side of my musicality I strongly missed. I had already worked with Elischa before, so I knew he was an excellent composer familiar with the guitar, a skilled vocalist, and a very resourceful and highly inventive artist. More details on the question specifically about Elischa below!!!

The diversity in the arrangements and general sonic spaces for each of the pieces is impressive. There are so many different ideas and approaches, but you’ve pulled it together in this seamless, cohesive way. What were some of the biggest challenges from that standpoint and what surprised you the most about working with these pieces?

When I started gathering the pieces, I was selfish – I didn’t really think about how they’d go together side by side. I just wanted to have these pieces that I felt strongly about and that had a special meaning to me in one place. I remember staring at the list of pieces, struggling to identify common points. And one day, it came all of sudden. All the pieces I’ve reunited are expressing the search, the lack, or the desire for something that keeps escaping. I almost titled the album ‘Élusion’, which would have been a play on words with the french words “élusif” and “illusion.” I had this image of trying to catch a formless object in complete darkness, and as soon as you begin to understand what it is you are trying to catch, it changes form so you never truly understand what you’re chasing. It sounds very esoteric, but for me, it was very strong imagery representing how I felt about the pieces I had gathered.

Amy’s piece gives me the impression that the guitar is constantly running away from or after an overwhelming force. The guitar part is repeated twice, exactly the same way, so even if we’re running, we’re still back where we started. Interestingly enough, the electronics are made from Amy’s previous recordings of the same piece, which she was very dissatisfied with and “destroyed” digitally. It made me feel like I was playing with the disintegrated remnants of the past.

Kim’s piece was inspired by my own identity quest as a transnational adoptee. I was in the middle of an identity crisis when this piece was composed and was searching for a form of self I couldn’t find.

Elischa and I spent a lot of time talking about my dreams and our experience of desire. One of the first things he asked me to do for his piece was to write a “desire biography” detailing everything I remembered I ever wanted very badly. I also kept a dream journal for several months, from which certain parts of the composition are derived. Some of his dreams are also intertwined in the texture, along with many elements that are personal to him.

Shelley’s piece is, as the title suggests, a tentative to make two parts of one identity coexist, a search for a balanced self. Some parts are strictly written as a score, but some parts are all about improvisation, which I interpret as a negotiation for interior equilibrium.

Arthur’s piece was inspired by his mild insomnia, searching for sleep through the UK shipping forecast and the “beeps” of the radio. In his piece, we can hear the consciousness drifting to the unconscious, waking suddenly, drifting again.

Photo by Studio Valaquia

Beyond the guitar playing, there are various electronic elements and spoken word, the latter of which adds a different layer of vulnerability and intimacy. What is it about spoken word that you are drawn to and was having those elements as part of this album an important consideration when you were coming up with the composers and pieces you’d work with?

I love how poetry and spoken word can offer both clarity and confusion to the listener, keeping the artwork in a state of ambiguity. I enjoy narrating, giving life to words in a way that makes sense with what the music has to say. When layered with music, words are felt in a different way. I don’t always appreciate the combination of electronics with acoustic music; it obviously depends on how it’s composed, just like any type of instrumentation. Amy and Arthur both successfully used electronics to build convincing sonic worlds the guitar interacts with in a very thoughtful way. I do appreciate the possibilities electronics bring to acoustic performers!

I wouldn’t say I was intently searching for pieces with electronics or spoken word. Combining electronics with an acoustic instrument is nothing out of the ordinary or new in contemporary classical music. Kim uses a lot of poetry and text in her compositions, not only in “Almost Touching.” She suggested using spoken word when we were working together, and coincidently found excerpts from poems that were relevant to the discussions we had. As I was asking Elischa to write a piece for voice and guitar, I thought it was natural that there would be parts of spoken word and poetry.

Building on that, most of the vocal/spoken parts are in Elischa Kaminer’s piece which makes up the bulk of the album. I found it to be a particularly challenging yet engaging piece, especially in the way it jumps from guitar to spoken word to electronics. It’s incredible and it’s like this whole world unto itself. Can you tell me a little bit about what this piece means to you and what it’s like playing/performing it? And how did you come to work with Elischa anyway?

I met Elischa in 2017 when I worked with him and other musicians on a new piece of his. We got along pretty well, I loved his artistic process, his music, and how he engaged in collaboration. In 2019, I was going through my archives and stumbled across the recording of the ensemble piece we recorded back then, and the music brought me to tears. I decided to ask him for a commission the day after, and lucky me, he accepted! I asked for a 20-minute piece, but he gifted me a massive multi-movements masterpiece.

Prior to the composition, we talked about what I was preoccupied with, my obsessions, and my dreams, which Elischa gracefully weaved into his compositional process with his own thoughts. For instance, we spoke on several occasions about a friend I loved dearly but didn’t treat as he deserved, and never said goodbye to properly. Elischa materialized the apology I wanted to offer him in a powerful three minutes of music. I am extremely grateful to work with such a talented and caring artist.

The final version of “Chants d’amour” was a surprise to me. I recorded over 90 minutes of music, spoken word, and singing then handed him a whole bunch of recording clips. Within barely a month, he spent an insane amount of hours (during full lockdown in 2021) editing and mixing the whole thing. He added the 10-minute synthesizer intro, extended many parts, and pitch-shifted both my voice and my guitar… I had no idea he was planning any of this before hearing the final version, and I cried halfway through the first listen. I crafted the colors and he came back with a whole magnificent painting.

In addition to composition, Elischa also creates theater pieces. We are currently working on a solo performative, theatrical version that will be presented by the Music Gallery in Toronto a week after the album’s release, on May 28. I already performed a 30-minute version in October 2021, and it felt great to switch between guitar, speaking, and executing some choreographies Elischa created. I can’t wait for the full-hour version!

I also wanted to ask about your “Émergences (” project and how that came about? Are there any recordings of those performances? Works for flute and guitar are something I wish I heard more.

During my first year of undergrad, I heard a guitar piece composed by a woman composer for the first time. The realization that I had never played a piece by a woman, or anyone of another gender than man, struck me, and I was even more shocked that it took me so many years of music education to realize it. I thought it couldn’t stay like that, and started to actively research guitar pieces composed by women. I spoke about my thoughts with Sara Constant, whom I met in 2016, and who happened to share the same concern. After my graduation recital, I worked on producing a concert for which Sara and I would commission works for flute and guitar to emerging women composers from Montreal and Toronto, where we were each based. The program incorporated visuals, improvisation, electronics, and theatrics.

Two examples:

‘Points de rencontre’, by Gabrielle Harnois-Blouin

‘la désintégration de la culture’, by Thais Montanari

There exist quite a few classical flute/guitar duos. It works quite well since the guitar is a harmonic instrument, and the flute usually takes care of the melody. However, we didn’t choose to work together because of our instruments, but because of our common artistic and personal values. For our next concert in 2023, we’re actually presenting pieces using instruments as objects, and objects as instruments. We’re creating a sound installation performance that will be presented at a festival in 2023 as well. We’re fluent in our instruments, but we both aren’t instruments-exclusive artists.

In your bio, you mention that one of the things you address in your work is transnational identity. Can you talk a little bit about that and the ways it influences your work?

In 2017, I visited the incredible art exhibition “Moss” by Indigenous artist Skeena Reece. Her works addressed her indigenous identity from various angles through different mediums like video, photography, or installation. Her works impacted me so deeply that I felt compelled to look inside myself to search for the equivalent of what she was expressing. But I couldn’t find anything. It was a strongly disturbing moment. I felt that if I didn’t at least try to investigate this uneasiness, I would never be able to be an artist. I guess you can start to see how dramatic of a person I am, haha!

Like several hundreds of thousands of children born in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean in the second half of the 20th century and up until now, I’ve been separated from my birth family with close to no hope of reunion. We were cut not only from our family but from a whole community and culture. Most of us ended up being raised by well-off white families continents away from our original home, where we were taken care of quite well. Our identity drastically changed and we had to forget about our origins to a certain degree in order to integrate into the new family. The feeling of loss can stay dormant for long. In my case, it woke up because of Reece’s exhibition. For transnational or transracial adoptees, it’s not only about “finding the roots,” but it’s also about figuring out for ourselves if, and how, we want to revisit our origins, as we were estranged from our original home.

I started to investigate the feeling of belonging with a self-interview that transformed into an audio-visual installation. In 2021, I presented a story-telling performance and installation as a residency project in Montreal in which the stories of Chinese birth mothers and families who lost or relinquished a child during the family planning policy are told. It’s not a musical project, so I think many of my musician colleagues didn’t really understand it, haha! But many did and supported the project too, which I am very grateful for.

The branch of my art that allows me to engage with identity has developed in parallel to my music performance practice. But sometimes these two branches merge as they did for Kim’s piece, and for the performative installation Sara and I are cooking for 2023!

You also mention that you are an avid collaborator and how collaboration is an important component of your creative practice. What do you look for when beginning a new collaborative project? What do you love most about collaboration and how does it impact your own solo work?

I’m always looking to work with artists whose work I find inspiring and thoughtful, who are empathic, open-minded, generous, and caring to their peers and the artistic process. The way someone behaves with others is crucial for me when I choose a collaborator. Someone’s personality is reflected in the art they create, and the compatibility of personalities can make the difference between a wonderful collaboration, and one I’d wish to quit.

When we create, we reveal a part of our soul. Artistic collaboration is a way of connecting with others, and fellow artists are often wonderful beings to connect with and discover. To me, a successful collaboration is one where we are able to share a part of ourselves and show some level of vulnerability to one another. The public or the listener can sense when this kind of process happened in a genuine way between the artists. It’s when magic happens, it’s both beautiful and powerful.

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