Albertine Diaries

Michel Risse: A Sonorous Stroll in Manhattan

Every month, France-Amérique talks to a resident at Villa Albertine, the cultural institution from the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, which offers an annual program of 60 artistic and cultural residencies in the United States. The August issue featured composer Michel Risse. In his role as art director of the Décor Sonore performing arts group, he spent three weeks in Manhattan in May considering an acoustic installation. With his ears wide open, he takes us with him on a sonorous stroll through the city.
© Michel Risse

I was about ten when Jules Verne taught me the motto of the State of New York: Excelsior. I can’t remember if it was while reading Five Weeks in a Balloon, Robur the Conqueror, or From the Earth to the Moon. The actual book matters little; all these scientific adventure stories express the same desire to “go ever higher,” a command that literally drives New York City.

But New York City is not just extremely high. In French we would say that it is also very fort. Now, in this case I don’t mean “strong,” but rather “loud”! I realize that this word doesn’t exist in French. We could say bruyant, but it doesn’t translate the idea of power, of overabundant sound, of the limitless energy that must be spent. New Yorkers aren’t “noisy,” they’re “loud.” They talk loudly, they drive loudly. Their AC units don’t just cool the air indoors; they also have to be so loud that you can hear them from outside, as if they had to immerse the whole city in the same reassuring, electric blast of air.

Michel Risse. © Gilles Hirgorom/H et M Studio

I was the one who had left the concert halls, theaters, and galleries because there was no longer enough free space inside for my work. As a result, I was looking for my place as a sound artist in this stifling atmosphere. I set out to listen to the air in the places that had inspired my illustrious predecessors, Edgar Varèse, Moondog, John Cage, and Max Neuhaus. What did they hear? And how did the things that they heard in New York permeate their production? Walking the streets of Manhattan, I couldn’t help but think of our latest “acoustic gardening” project, entitled The Cloudspeakers. An installation using loudspeakers hidden in high places to play imaginary and slightly unusual sounds which would seem to flee down the avenues, seep from the building facades, and melt into the existing soundscape.

As I walked towards the water, near Battery Park, I discovered a playground that inspired several experiments in situ. My colleagues Léa and Renaud joined me there with Leese Walker and four other members of the Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble, a soundpainting group that improvises performances in public spaces. Not far from there stands the September 11 Memorial, the most extraordinary monument to the dead ever heard. As you near these two bottomless pools bearing the engraved names of the victims, you become immersed in the sound of waterfalls, a sound that swallows up the commotion of the city and takes you with it into an abyss of remembrance.

I then climbed to the top of One World Trade Center, a new tower that now overlooks every other skyscraper in the Financial District. This is the ideal summit from which to flood Lower Manhattan with a thousand sonorous reflections tinged with my own interpretation, glinting off every surface as they meld with the sounds of the city. I see an invisible monument, a lighthouse of sound in dialogue with the Statue of Liberty below. A new gift from France, more than a century after Bartholdi. I too find myself swept up in the hubris of New York City. Excelsior!


Article published in the August 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.