“I work a lot with humour: keeping everything quite silly, and simple. When working with text, I enjoy finding language that doesn’t quite make sense. I enjoy the humour that comes out of finding something that’s just a bit off in both language and music.”Francesca Fargion
Francesca Fargion is a composer and performer from London, currently pursuing a M4C-funded PhD at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Her work centres around humour, surreal naivety, and failure as an aesthetic; she mainly writes music for herself and for The Fargions, a performance duo with her brother Giacomo. Francesca studied piano performance at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and Creative Practice at Goldsmith’s University; she has performed at London Contemporary Music Festival, Cafe OTO, Fest en Fest, and Kampnagel Hamburg, among others. Francesca spoke to PRXLUDES about her approach to manipulating text, Google Translate, iPhone predictive text, her use of humour and silliness in music, and her familial performance practice with The Fargions and with Burrows&Fargion.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hey Francesca! Thanks for joining me today — what have you been up to recently? I heard you’ve just come back from a residency in Wales?
Francesca Fargion: I’ve just come back from a mini-residency at Volcano Theatre Company in Swansea. There was a call-out for mini-commissions so I applied for it with a project proposal and they offered it to me — so I was there for two weeks, making a piece, and then performed it four times at the end. I’d done a little bit of preparation before I went, but it was basically made within that two-week residency. So I worked, literally, morning to 11pm… -laughs- I was filming myself doing runs of the piece at 11 o’clock at night looking like I was falling asleep. It was very full on. But it was fun, and I was happy with the piece.
That’s so intense. -laughs- What was the concept for the piece you worked on in Swansea?
It was called ‘The Singing Agony Aunt’. I collected loads of questions from historical examples of people writing in to agony aunts, and prepared musical answers independently. They were all very nonsensical answers, so I never literally responded to a question. To create my text, I worked with jumbling up articles from real agony aunts… I put it through a word shuffler online and reformulated the sentences, making new sentences out of the jumbled-up text. Then I had some more “magical” or philosophical responses. Some were more oracle-like [and] up for interpretation, I suppose. I also had some really stupid replies in which I used the beginnings of sentences, and erased everything else: “if I were you, I would… la la la” almost as if I was pretending to know what I was talking about, or had been called in for the job without being qualified. All of the responses were very nonsensical, and I also had some instrumental responses. I was basically a useless agony aunt. -laughs-
I love that idea of a “useless agony aunt” giving completely off-the-wall advice. -laughs- How did that translate into the performance?
The piece consisted of me reading out these problems on cards, and then becoming the “agony aunt” and responding to those questions. I separated the two “characters”: when reading the questions I used a pitch shifter to change my voice, and I put on a crown when I was the agony aunt. So, it was pretty bizarre. That was the set up of the piece, and I just worked on structuring it with varied answers… playing with keeping it interesting and unexpected for half an hour, basically. -laughs- It was also really fun, because I had a separate pile for audience questions that I inserted in. So, I would pick up audience “problems” — and they were intertwined in the piece. I liked that lots of the meaning in the responses can be imagined and interpreted by the audience — especially the instrumental answers.
Do you feel like the theatrical element is present in a lot of your work?
I feel like I do often have [an] extramusical image, I guess, with everything I’ve done. I suppose [‘The Singing Agony Aunt’] is the most theatrical thing I’ve done, although I was still just sitting at a table and I didn’t really move — I mean, I put on a crown… -laughs- I often find myself imagining visually what things would look like performed; the visual image of the performance, even if I’m not doing very much. Like, the thing me and Giac [The Fargions] that we did [at patchworks.xyz]: even though we’re not really “doing” anything, the image of us sitting at the table, alternating who’s singing the songs, and introducing each others’ songs. The way we’re presenting the songs is a kind of theatrical image for me. Because I often work with text — most things I’ve done have text — maybe there is [always] a theatrical element involved when there’s some kind of story or imagery behind created by the language. And then, how are you presenting that text? How are you delivering the text during performance?
So let’s talk a bit about how you’ve used text. You released an absolutely fantastic record called ‘Circe Songs’; what was your approach to presenting text with that album?
I often work with found text, and manipulate it to create something different. I never make up text out of thin air. I always need some kind of text to play with, in some way. The text for ‘Circe’ was from the ancient Greek Magical Papyri — it’s all ancient magical spells, because she’s a witch, she’s a sorceress. -laughs- So I was finding this material from this book of spells; I [sifted] through it, finding phrases that I liked, [and] finding things that can be taken and placed in a different context. For example, “make me invisible in the presence of any man”: obviously, you can imagine that meaning something quite different in an ancient Greek setting, [but] when I’m singing it, it tends to take on a different meaning.
I love searching for text. I find it really fun. I spend a lot of time searching [for] phrases that I like, and having that starting point gets my imagination going, and then I work on refining it. I’ve also worked a lot with processes, like using Google Translate — putting things through Google Translate several times and coming up with crappy translations, and sometimes sentences that are very far from the original. I often use these sentences to begin with, to spark ideas, and then intuitively write my own text from them. That’s an old favourite. -laughs-
God, I love doing that. Those kinds of things are so uncanny.
Yeah. I think I really enjoy the slightly nonsensical language that comes out of it. Like, putting things through Google Translate, basically fucking up a sentence [so] it’s “a bit” wrong… and creating a new meaning from it. I worked with re-translating some ABBA songs recently and, for example: “Mamma mia, here we go again” became “my mother is here again”. I like the kind of bizarre things that come out, and the new images that are created. It also inspires me hearing an absurd use of language. It makes the pieces a bit surreal. And it often makes me laugh, as well.
“It inspires me hearing an absurd use of language. It makes the pieces a bit surreal. And it often makes me laugh, as well.” Francesca Fargion, in conversation with PRXLUDESTweet
Is the humour of this absurdism or surrealism something you consciously try and create from the text you use?
I think I work a lot with humour: things being quite silly, and simple. When the language doesn’t quite make sense, that creates something a bit off. I enjoy the humour that comes out of finding something that’s just a bit off in both language and music, whether consciously or not. In [my piece] ‘3 Sisters’… all the text is generated from iPhone predictive text. I suppose the predictive text also creates this — it’s recognisable, because the computer is predicting sentences that it knows, but there’s an element of nonsensicalness [to it].
The minutiae of it, right?
Yeah. That’s a kind of similar feel that happens with Google Translate. I used Google Translate in ‘Three Romantic Songs’ — that was all taken from ‘Frauen-Liebe und Leben’, the Schumann song cycle — I picked out phrases that I liked and put them through Google Translate. -laughs- Literally, from German to shit English. Sometimes more than once back and forth, to mess it around a bit more.
Shit translations become a work of art in themselves, don’t they? I’m reminded of Pokémon Vietnamese Crystal…
I think that’s what I like. But also, I don’t think that I necessarily am making a point that it’s a “bad” translation, but it’s almost [that] I like the strange new things that come out of it. In my head, it’s still related to the source material, but sometimes it comes out with something very unrelated that inspire strange images for me.
Do you see this as relating to your compositional process — taking these surreal and uncanny elements and following them to see where it goes?
To be honest — even musically — I always work with found material, in some way, as a starting point. Pretty much everything I’ve done, I’ve had some kind of source material to begin with. All the melodies from ‘Circe Songs’ are from Italian folk music; even if it’s then become really far removed from it, they’ve been at the heart of it. So I think I do enjoy manipulating things — having a starting point and [turning] it into something completely different. Often messing with their original form, to create something that doesn’t sound quite right.
Does your use of these kind of surreal ideas have some sort of irony to them? I’m reminded of the piece you did for Seán Clancy and Andy Ingamells’ six-hour livestream…
Oh, ’Diary Songs’… the text [for that] is my 12-year-old diary. -laughs- All the harmony in that is from Beatles songs, [who] are a band that I’ve always been obsessed with. I don’t think I use it in an ironic way; I genuinely love that music, and I love that harmony. When I work with found material, it’s always material that means a lot to me, and [that] I really love — whether it’s Beatles chords, folk songs, or Schumann’s ‘Frauen-Liebe’ in ‘Three Romantic Songs’. I’m just always working with music that I really love.
To go on to your PhD research — does this manipulation of found elements feed into your research at Birmingham?
My research is about failure as an aesthetic. I’ve also been looking a lot at stupidity recently, and naivety; and so I think looking back, a lot of my work does embrace this childishness play [in] things. Even in ‘Circe’, there is a kind of naivety in the use of language, and even in the subject matter, in that it’s magical spells. I think everything has this simplicity, and childlike quality to it. The ‘Agony Aunt’ [piece]… a lot of it is really like play, pretending to ask myself a question and then answering it with a song. Those are the things at the moment that are feeding into [my] PhD.
I’ve also worked a lot with removal of material. Actually, the piece me and my brother are working on now — ‘Bass Songs’ — is a set of songs in which our only instrumentation is two bass guitars — and as of now, our only words are “au revoir, monsieur”, “au revoir, madame”, for like 20 minutes, half an hour. -laughs- There’s a kind of humour, and bizarre quality in the relentlessness, and limitation. But also the fact that we’re both on two bass guitars, which aren’t instruments that would necessarily go together… It’s very limited in the musical material it has to offer, it’s very [sonically] impoverished, it’s quite thin. But I think I’m enjoying working with that thinness — almost like there’s something missing from it. Oh, and I don’t play the bass guitar, so I can’t really do much with it either. -laughs-
Wait, hang on — you don’t play this instrument, and you’re using it in this set of songs?
And it’s the only instrument we have in the piece. -laughs-
That’s fascinating, though. It feels a bit like this piece could be seen as magnification as much as it is removal — is that something you agree with?
In some ways, yes. But in other ways, I think it is the fact that there’s something lacking that I’m enjoying working with — this sense that there’s something absent from them. A lot of the songs probably would work if there was actually a band playing them, but we’ve kind of removed the band and it’s only these two bass guitars trying to make a song that should be for a band. There’s something missing.
You could probably say the same of the lyrics, right?
Yeah, exactly. There’s something quite humourous [about it]. We were just listening to it now — we finish the first song, where that is all we say to each other — “au revoir, monsieur”, “au revoir, madame”, back and forth — and then the second song starts, there’s a kind of instrumental… and then we just say that again. It’s like, “oh no, this one as well?” -laughs- That stuff does tie in with the PhD, and the failure element, as well: the failure to be a proper set of songs, and the failure to be a full ‘band’, in the traditional sense.
So you’ve been having this collaboration with your brother Giacomo for quite a while, under the name The Fargions; how long have you two been collaborating?
I think [it’s] probably been about six years, although it’s become more of a thing within the last three years — maybe even since lockdown, when we did ‘Songs from a Warm Kitchen’. I think that’s when we really started working properly together. We’ve done various tracks together — one-off songs — using me at the piano, a kind of prepared piano, and [Giac] on electronics. But I feel like both of our practices have developed quite a lot, so now we’re able to put them together in a more successful way. Maybe we have a clearer identity of what we do ourselves, so we’re able to transfer and combine it in an interesting way.
It’s great working with Giac. We actually spend the whole time laughing together… not laughing at the work itself, but finding some hilarity in the creative process, and also the difficulties that come up for us. And because we share such similar tastes and understanding of music, we just trust each other’s judgements. We know where each other are coming from without having to say very much. So it’s kind of perfect, really.
I’m an only child, so I can’t speak for sibling collaborations; but I feel like you two in particular have quite a childlike charm performing together.
Maybe! I also think that although we work within quite different fields, we have very similar ideas in composition — we have a sense of how something feels, and we really share that. I suppose it also comes from [the fact that] we often work quite a lot with my dad, and we also value his opinion. He [Matteo Fargion] kind of mentors us with a lot of work that we do, so we’ve all got [quite] similar ideas about how we think about things, that in some ways have come from him, [and] the things that he’s taught us — and in my case, from working with my dad and Jonathan [Burrows] quite a lot. I suppose I was introduced to writing music through my dad and working with him in various pieces he has made, so it’s inevitable that I’m gonna share values.
I totally get that. I see you’ve performed a few of their pieces before…
I still am performing with them, quite a lot. We have a band together — me, Jonathan, and my dad — where we play music with an invited speaker who comes in, [usually] either a dancer or a theatre practitioner. Their lecture is set to music that my dad’s composed. So I’ve been doing a lot of those. And, I was a big part in their ’52 Portraits’ too. It’s really a family business. -laughs-
That’s interesting, because you’ve got such a strong background in performance — do you see yourself as predominantly a composer, performer, or some combination?
I think really both… I don’t think I have a huge interest, at the moment, in writing for other people, without myself being involved. So I suppose that suggests that I want to be the performer. I recently wrote a piece for the Fidelio Trio at Birmingham — they came [into] the conservatoire — and I really enjoyed it. I hadn’t really written much in that “concert music” setting, in which a composer is writing a piece for a piano trio… But I definitely think I prefer performing myself, as nice as it was. It was really good to hear other people playing my music, but I think what really excites me is being on stage, and being able to become absorbed in the character of the music that I’ve created. I think I often work with finding a distinct character in my music — and that can be amplified when I’m delivering it, myself. It’s not like I’m “acting” — or acting as a specific character — but I’m becoming the character of the music, if that makes sense. That all ties in as one thing: the music is for me to perform, and I know the way in which I will perform it. It’s the delivery that’s important — the tone I’ll sing it in, the way I sing it, is as important as the music itself [for me].
How do you feel that side of yourself — being a performing-composer — comes through in some of your more long-form compositional work?
I suppose ‘Circe’ is an album — an audio album — but in my mind, it’s very visual. Maybe because it’s got this magical backstory to it — because it’s about spells — a lot of imagery comes up for me, and did when I was writing it, of this colourful world of this person casting spells.
I wanted ‘Circe’ to be a live performance, but it kind of coincided with lockdown, which is why I decided to do it as an audio album. But I always had quite a strong image of all the performers moving about on stage, and it having an almost ritualistic visual element to it, as well. I would love to do a live version where I could experiment with that, as well. But yeah, I suppose I’m the “lead singer” — but I always did imagine it as a group thing, with all the other singers, other womens’ voices, all casting this spell together. [It’s] not just that they’re my backing band.
I get that. Like it’s this communal thing that’s greater than just your creative energy…
Yeah. We’re all creating this magic spell together.
I suppose the next, larger-scale thing I’ve done was the agony aunt piece that I’ve been working on. And similarly — that’s a piece for me. That’s not a piece for someone else to perform. Actually, a lot of the feedback from the audience was saying [that] I had a really distinct character, a very strange persona, that was this agony aunt. And that [very much] came from myself. I read a lot of fiction, and I always have quite strong fictional images of things, and so I created this strong characterisation of what this singing agony aunt would be. And then I became that singing agony aunt — in the way I sang, my facial expressions, the way I performed the music. In the texture of the music, the [sonic] quality of the music. That would be another thing — fiction, in general, is a big part of my work, but [through] imaginary worlds… Imagining a situation, or imagining a story to something, or [the] character of someone.
Do you feel like this personal angle as a performing composer has ended up feeding into your research, as well?
I think it’s becoming part of it. As I’m doing more creating, it’s feeding back into the PhD research. I think they’re in a conversation with one another. But all this work on silliness, childishness, play… That’s all feeding back into the PhD.
Check out more about Francesca and her work:
Check out Francesca’s collaborative projects, The Fargions and Burrows&Fargion:
- The Greek Magical Papyri, ed. Hans Dieter Betz, Uni. Chicago Press (1986)
- Robert Schumann – Frauenliebe und -leben, Op. 42 (1840)
- Vinesauce, [VineClassics] Vinny – Pokémon Vietnamese Crystal (Full Stream) (2013)
- Seán Clancy and Andy Ingamells – ‘This is About (an Intervention)’ (2021)