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Maxime Denuc is a composer of electronic music based in Brussels. He co-founded Plapla Pinky, a duo known for their atypical approach to club music, which is somewhere between rave, Baroque and contemporary music. For some years now, his solo work has focused on church organs. In 2020, he released Solarium on the Belgian label Vlek, an organ-centric venture that draws on the emotional potency of sunrise to spawn an experience that is both musical and social. Two years later, he presented Nachthorn, a new LP for MIDI church organ. As well as composing, Maxime Denuc works in the performing arts and is involved in research. Maxime will be part of the upcoming Intonal Festival.

You’ve been on the music scene for more than two decades. Can you tell us about your background as well as those more than 20 years on the scene? 

I started with music when I was a child. I used to play the piano and I really liked it, but I wasn’t very assiduous. It was around the age of 15-16 that music began to play a bigger role in my life. It provided the perfect escape from the boredom of adolescence in the small town in the south-west of France where I lived, where everyday life consisted of hanging around bus stops and smoking cigarettes. Along with my friend Raphaël Hénard – with whom I would later form the duo Plapla Pinky – I discovered electronic music through the radio. I started creating things on my parents’ computer, using cracked software that a school supervisor had burnt onto a CD for me, notably Fast Tracker II. Raphaël and I played together in a number of bands before forming the duo Plapla Pinky in 2008, which performed all over the world for almost 10 years.  At the same time, I was making a lot of music for the performing arts, particularly contemporary dance and theatre. A few years ago, I got a bit bored with being a musician and took a break from the world of music to devote myself to academic research. Stepping aside gave me a lot and has allowed me to think about music a little differently today.

Your solo work has been increasingly focused on church organs, but you also experimented with historical music – Baroque music, etc – in your other project, Plapla Pinky. What led you to this?

Baroque music and early music in general have been at the centre of my practice for many years. They have been at the heart of the Plapla Pinky duo’s research, notably with Succession, a mixtape in which we reinterpreted Baroque music, and also with the Appel album, for which we experimented a lot with MIDI files of Bach and Rameau, looking for melodic patterns that we could repeat indefinitely without getting bored. In addition to our shared interest in this music, I was also studying musicology at the Sorbonne in Paris, where I discovered more about the history of Western classical music. I analysed many scores from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which greatly enriched my compositional techniques as a self-taught musician. 

It was also with Plapla Pinky that we began to use the organ and to seek links between this instrument and contemporary electronic music. 

Although I am still on the path we started on back then, I have the feeling that I have freed myself a little from the influence of early music. It is still present in my work, but perhaps in a less direct way. Similarly, I continue to work with these instruments not out of any real desire to defend organ culture, but because it has become very difficult for me to write purely electronic music. Working in the studio with synthesisers sometimes seems a bit bland to me after experimenting with the organ and the church. I hope that my interest in synthetic sounds will return soon. 

Does the spiritual aspect of working in churches inspire / interest you as well?

My primary interest in a church comes from its acoustic possibilities and, above all, from the instrument inside. I don’t have the feeling that my work has any real connection with spirituality. In fact, because I spend so much time in churches, I tend to lose sight of all the symbols that surround me and completely forget that I’m working in a place linked to religion. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that the space of a church influences the way I compose, particularly how I think about duration and the relationship between sounds.

Your solo album, Nachthorn, takes its name from one of the 78 stops that make up the main organ in St. Antonius Church in Düsseldorf. This instrument offers the possibility of controlling all its keyboards and timbres from a computer, making it a de facto synthesiser. Can you talk about recording your album on this instrument?

We recorded the album almost three years ago now. The time I spent working in this church was truly magical. Markus Hinz, the cantor, gave me a warm welcome and plenty of time to work on the instrument. This time was essential because the possibilities were endless. This record would never have been the same without such easy access. The recording session was also a fantastic experience. I was working with classical music sound engineer Harry Charlier. It was the first time I’d collaborated with a recording professional of that calibre. The mixing was done by Raphaël Hénard, my long-time partner, who sublimated the work that had been done.

The way you work with this instrument doesn’t result in “typical” organ music, but recontextualises it into something that we know more from techno clubs. The arpeggios are elevated, hypnotic, and heavenly, but in a profane way.  

Yes, by working with MIDI, I was trying to get as far away as possible from what organ music usually sounds like. So the main aim of the project was to compose music that an organist can’t produce with his hands and feet. Why make a computer play an acoustic instrument when a performer can do the same thing? I also like the precision of the machine’s pulse, and applying this rhythmic constraint to an age-old instrument like the organ has been very fruitful. The music produced seems like electronic music because it’s more or less constructed in the same way, but the fact that it’s generated acoustically creates something special.

Part of your work is also dedicated to research, which points to a more analytical and/or academic approach to creative work. Can you tell us more about this aspect of your work?

About ten years ago, I felt the need to learn. In fact, I’d been a professional musician since I was 18, but was mostly self-taught. I was too old for a music course at the conservatory, so I went to university, and I learnt a lot about the history of Western music there. After my three years of undergraduate studies, I wanted to continue my research, but more into the sociology of music, because I was interested in questions relating to listening, audiences and ways of presenting music. So I did a master’s degree at EHESS in Paris. My master’s thesis looked at the transversality of musical genres in two major music institutions in France and Belgium, and questioned the historical dichotomy between “serious” music and “popular” music. That was in 2019, and I think the music world has opened up quite a bit since then. I’ve put academic work on the back burner for a while now, but I still get a lot out of it, particularly in terms of methodology, or how it encourages me to read and research thoroughly before starting a project.

And lastly, what are you currently working on?

I’m currently preparing my concert for the Rewire festival in The Hague. It’s the first time I’ll be using the robots we’ve been developing over the past year with the Brussels-based engineers of Shakmat and Bots Conspiracy. With these tools, which I put on the keyboards, I can now play my scores on any church organ. I’ll also be playing at the Intonal festival in Malmö in April, and then I’ll be concentrating on an installation based on a portable organ that I’m working on with the Belgian artist Kris Verdonck. 

Interview by Lucia Udvardyova
Photo: Anne Leroy

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