Tone Glow 122: Danielle Boutet
An interview with the Canadian artist about Montréal's lesbian arts movement during the 1980s, her current work as a theoretician and professor, and her self-released 1985 album 'Piéces'
Danielle Boutet is a Canadian artist and professor who was born in Québec City. After moving to Montréal in 1976, she became involved with the feminist and lesbian arts scene in the area, sharing space inside a former school building alongside various progressive-minded lesbians. It was during this time that she worked as a choir director and worked on Pièces (1985), which is being reissued on vinyl by Freedom to Spend. This debut album, originally self-released on cassette, was made possible with the introduction of the Yamaha DX7 and the Tascam 4-track Portastudio onto the market. With these tools, she found herself enamored with the possibilities of music at her fingertips. The resulting 11 tracks on Pièces are intimate, down-home electronic compositions featuring marimba, vibraphone, guitar, voice, and synthesizer. While largely instrumental, the album does feature some text from Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics (1975), which she now sees as relevant to her own interests today as a professor at the Université du Québec à Rimouski, where she teaches the study of practice and gives methodology seminars. Joshua Minsoo Kim spoke with Boutet on January 14th, 2024 via Zoom to discuss her upbringing, her philosophy of artistic practice, and the inspirations behind her album Pièces.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: You were born in Québec City, what sort of things come to mind when you think about growing up there?
Danielle Boutet: (chuckles). Well, you have to understand that I was born in 1956. That’s kind of a long time ago. In the 1950s, the Québec province was a pretty backwards Catholic state. But soon enough, in the 1960s, it became a progressive place—somewhat reminiscent of the Scandinavian countries. It was this huge opening of society, and it coincided with me being a teenager. Later, when I was in my teens—when I was 17 or 18—I became interested in music composition and artmaking. I went to study music composition in Montréal and then it was in the 1980s when I recorded Piéces. The album wasn’t directly related to the lesbian scene but I was part of it so it got addressed to that group, and it was known throughout that community.
You said the 1960s was when Québec became more progressive. What sort of things do you recognize were changing in the province that shaped who you became?
It was moving from a religious, Catholic society to an open one. It’s one that you can associate with the 1960s, with rock and folk and prog music. There was a confluence of a lot of different things. Society was associating it with the baby boom, but there was a technological situation with the arts. I’m thinking about how Sgt. Pepper’s (1967) was recorded on a 4-track, and then a few years later you had Dark Side of the Moon (1973). The innovation in terms of music was tremendous, really. We went from listening to music to listening to sound itself. With stereophonic recordings and headphones… these were all new things. I’m always reminded of this huge development in terms of how we see and listen to music. We saw that with conceptual art, too. It was an interesting place to be as a young artist.
Were there any formative experiences for you?
As kids, we were listening to music on a small turntable, it was a compact little thing. I remember listening to “Hey Jude” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” And then one Christmas, our parents brought a hi-fi system and that’s when I put Led Zeppelin on my headphones. I remember it. It was a totally game-changing situation for me.
Do you remember which record it was?
It was the second one. The one with “Whole Lotta Love.”
How many siblings did you have?
I was the second—I have an older brother. And then I have younger siblings who were not necessarily part of that moment because they were younger.
Were your parents interested in fostering an environment where you could really appreciate art?
The answer is yes but my parents were conservative at the beginning. They would go to church and they were very serious in their engagement with that. But they were extremely open in terms of allowing us to follow our own road. I remember a few things that didn’t sit well with them, but for the most part they were really embracing this notion that the world was changing. My mom was aware that we were growing up in this new environment. And she would say those things.
That’s a fascinating thing for a parent to say to a child.
Yeah, it’s remarkable.
Do you mind talking about your parents? What kind of people were they?
My father was a school teacher and a school principal. He was in the primary school system—he was a real dreamer. My mother was very, very bright. So intelligent. She had this sense of human relations that was really developed. She had this ability to listen. We were middle class; we had a bungalow in the suburbs of Québec City.
Do you see any similarities between your parents and yourself?
Hmm. My mother died when I was 32. When I see the whole development of my professional life, I think about how she was not part of it; I often regret that she could not be a witness to that. We were quite far apart when I was young, and that was because I was a lesbian and she was more conservative… I mean, it was fine between us, but it was not something we could entirely share. I understand now that this part of what I’m doing now in my work as a theoretician, and what I do at the university—she would really dig that.
You had this exposure to music at the University of Montréal. What led you to know that this was something you wanted to pursue? Was it natural for you or was it something you just committed to doing one day?
It felt really, really natural. And it’s because of these sonic experiences. I always knew that this is what I wanted to be doing, but I was not a very talented musician. I was not naturally talented; I had to work hard. So I didn’t entirely believe in myself, but eventually I realized I could apply to music school. Prior to that, I was aiming for writing or maybe cinema. But at some point I realized, “Oh hey, I can try this.” And they accepted me and I went there. It helped me to believe in myself, but I was and I still am a solitary artist. I like to work by myself. I was always consumed by my own projects.
When did you become a part of this lesbian arts scene? Can you talk to me about that?
It was from 1982 or 1983 through the beginning of the 1990s. That follows very closely the evolution related to the 1980s identity movements. The women’s music scene throughout North America was very strong. We had a lot of connections with the singers, I’m thinking about Cris Williamson and people like that. There was the Womyn's Music Festival, which was a yearly event in the summer in Michigan. It was really, really popular—only women, mostly lesbians.
It was very inspiring and something I don’t think people realized is that in the 1980s, the lesbian communities were separatist. We were not interested in claiming rights for marriage and things like that. We were not interested in being integrated into a patriarchal society. We were more interested in dismantling these oppressions. It’s a completely different movement than what we see now. It was a highly political movement, of course, but the arts were very important. They were an affirmation. We had a sense that we were creating a new culture, which was maybe a bit dreamy (laughs).
Can you speak more about the arts being an affirmation for your identity as a lesbian?
I don’t know if I have much to say about that, but I got to Montréal in 1976. I made friends with other lesbians and it felt very natural, and there were some collectives who were working on performances. I was a member of a group that was trying to do salons where women could come and present things. It was very lively and the mission was to help foster the development of lesbian culture.
As for myself, there was a dichotomy. I was very comfortable in that community, and I was really happy to be there, but I never saw my music as “lesbian music.” I mean, I don’t know what “lesbian music” is. At the time, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was mostly singers and what made their music lesbian was the lyrics. And I was not necessarily writing those kinds of lyrics, and I didn’t have that many lyrics in my music anyway. So I never entirely understood how lesbian my music was. I was seeing myself, and I still do, as a progressive French composer rather than a lesbian musician.
It’s interesting to hear this. I’m thinking about how identity politics get wielded in this crass manner. I’ve gotten press emails where the subject line will mention if an artist is queer, for example, and then I talk with the artist personally and they don’t necessarily like that their music is positioned as such. Or, rather, they may not want to be understood as a primarily queer artist, but they know that having this as a primary focus of the press can help make them more marketable.
Yes, I agree with that completely.
You mentioned this performing arts group. What sort of things did you do with them? Were there specific things that you did that helped you stretch yourself? Were there things you wouldn’t have been able to do if it weren’t for them?
We had a space that was used by several groups. It was an old primary school that was no longer used as such, and we rented it and had this collective of collectives. There was a lesbian choir, for whom I was the director, incidentally. There were visual artists who had a workshop there and my group had a leader who was very much into innovative performance. There was this synergy that happened with technology and the prevailing spirit. We had to make money to fund the school—the space—so we did benefit concerts twice or three times a year. I was friends with a theater director, her name was Suzanne [Boisvert], and she was in charge of putting together cabaret-type shows. We would work on these together. It was really stimulating and interesting.
Can you speak more about the lesbian arts movement and how you feel like it differs from the movements today?
The collective lesbian project of the time was very separatist and affirmative. It was not in the sense of civil rights. We were radical feminists, absolutely—we were radical lesbians. We were not seeing ourselves as being included in the larger society. And then until the end of the 1990s, I guess, is when Canada got gay marriage… that felt at odds with how I was wanting my group to develop. Right now, the discourse is very strongly integrative. It’s about asking the larger society to understand us. There is this sense that society should embrace our identity and way of life, which was contrary to how we were seeing things at the time.
Is there anything you miss about that scene from the 1980s?
Well, I miss my friends. I’m somewhere else now, and because it was a community, it was easy to make friends. I still have a lot of friends from that time, but now I’m no longer in a lesbian community. And it’s because there is no community—I live in a small town now. Well, there are young queer people, but I wouldn’t be part of it because I’m old. It was a moment and we lived it. We made the best of it and then we had to do something else after that.
I wanted to talk about your album Piéces. It was a self-released project. How did that come about?
As I said earlier, I’m a very solitary artist. It’s just who I am. At the time, I was imagining ways of recording and I was not that interested in being a performer on stage. I’ve never been a good enough instrumentalist to do that, anyway. I was more like a composer. All of a sudden, the 4-track Portastudio came onto the market. And synthesizers became more accessible. I bought a DX7, and it felt like I had infinite possibilities. That’s how I got into making that album.
You mentioned that you were a solitary artist but you have Sylvie Gagnon on the album.
She was my girlfriend at the time. She’s a guitarist and she was also much more knowledgeable about machines because she’s an engineer. She had the background and helped me a lot with the recording.
We were talking about lyrics before and how you didn’t feel like your music was a part of the lesbian arts movement. I get it because your lyrics are about—
Right. They’re about life and death and cycles. What was going on in your life when you were writing these songs?
I was listening to the album earlier this weekend and I was thinking about the lyrics. They still resemble who I am now. At the time, I was going through turmoil with relationships, (through laughter) there were breakups. I did write some songs about that but I didn’t record them.
What do you mean that you’re the same person now?
In the lyrics, there’s something almost mystical there. And I’m still like that—that’s the part of me that’s developed into what I’m doing now in my research.
You quote from The Tao of Physics (1975).
Yes. I remember getting that book and reading it. I was very impressed by what it was saying. At the time, I was interested in understanding quantum physics and what it meant. It felt like something really important to me, and I know it is important now. I think I was reading it and I heard the text said, in the way it’s said, through music. It’s something I’ve explored a lot throughout my time; spoken word in music has always been with me. There are other songs that are not on the album that use it too.
Of course there’s a lot of French-language music that incorporates that. What was it like for you to have made this music where you have spoken word and then others, like “14e siècle,” where there’s singing. How do you decide when you want to use one over the other?
I didn’t compose an album. I composed individual pieces, and they’re related because they were made during the same time in my life. At the time, I felt they were very separate pieces but hearing it now, I see how they are connected. If I felt that I was making an album, I don’t think I would have mixed spoken-word pieces with songs.
Did you perform these songs lives at all?
I did, sometimes. Some versions were performed on stage. “En attendant l’aube” was performed a couple of times, as well as “Le tournant des temps.” It was too complicated for the others.
What sort of music were you listening to at the time that inspired you to make this music?
I was interested in classical music, mostly chamber music. I wasn’t that into listening to orchestral music, though. Also a lot of prog rock and prog folk. King Crimson, Genesis. I like complicated music, and these days I like the minimalists and the post-minimalists. And there were times when I was not listening to music. In the 2000s, I had this renewed interest in music and I got into Steven Wilson and his work with Porcupine Tree. Those kinds of people. And now I’m interested in Nils Frahm. I also like Ryuichi Sakamoto a lot, both his classical music and his work with Yellow Magic Orchestra.
On the cover for the album, there’s a photo of you. Where was that taken?
It was some apartment that was for rent. And today, I am in the house I have been living in with my partner until she died three years ago, so it’s my house now. It’s not a huge house but it’s big for one person. Where I’m at right now is my office. My music studio is upstairs.
Do you still make a lot of music?
Not a lot because my work at the university is very intense. But yes, I do. A few years ago I made a long piece that’s an hour long and in twelve parts. It’s called “Le monastère,” or “The Monastery.” It’s a very mystical piece and it’s spoken word that is told by a friend of mine—Suzanne, who I mentioned earlier. It’s a long monologue from a person who is somewhere between life and not-life. It’s about looking at life and reminiscing; it’s strange and mystical and there’s one hour of music around that. The best way to describe it as this new phrase, “podcast.” I have another short story that I’m trying to turn into a podcast.
Is it like a radio play?
A radio drama is more like theater, right? A podcast is not like theater, it’s more like a monologue, so I would say there’s a difference in that sense. I know there are artists who explore podcasts as a form, so I’m interested in that.
So you’re a university professor. What are you specifically researching?
In the 1990s, after my time with the lesbian community I was hired at Goddard College in Vermont, and it’s a progressive school. I got really interested in pedagogy and the philosophy of education there. We were interested in knowing students—who they are and how they live. It’s not just about putting things in people’s minds, it’s about finding ways to access the topics they’re interested in. More than anything else, we teach them how to learn. We teach them about how the human being is an integrated whole.
This philosophy is really close to my own thinking. I worked there for 17 years. I veered towards the visual arts at the time and I got a Master of Fine Arts at Concordia University—it was in Open Media. And then I was hired here in Rimouski, which is a smaller town. What we’re teaching is hard to say. It’s a way of teaching the humanities that is across disciplines. It’s not something you can pinpoint on a map; it’s something that runs throughout the human experience. That fits with who I am; it aims towards justice and self-development and all of this.
I love my work, I love my students, and I love what we do. Each day I’m thinking, “Oh it’s incredible that this exists and that I’m part of this project.” Even now, I have some younger colleagues and I know I have something to transmit, which is incredible. To have young colleagues who are interested in listening to you is an absolute privilege. I created a lot of arts programs and I’m working on this as part of my research. There is a level of freedom in what I do, which I think is rare. It’s incredibly precious.
What are you specifically researching?
I’m interested in the arts as a way of knowing. If we were to value this knowledge in the way we do objective, scientific knowledge, society would be entirely different. Arts knowledge is a knowledge of interiority and relationships. It’s about the relationships we have with each other and the world, with the non-human world and non-human beings. Poetry is all about that, about giving voice to the non-human. I see that there’s something related to ecology in this sense. If we were to use the arts and our imagination and all our expressive tools to be with the world, it would be a completely different Earth. So that’s what I’m working on; I’m trying to define what that is, and I’m making links with other things like alchemy, ancient knowledge, and Indigenous knowledge.
Do you mind sharing something about your partner? In what ways did they shape your life?
We were together for 23 years. She was a homeopath and also a very good painter. We shared a lot. She was born in France and from her mother’s side, they were German Jews. Her grandparents came to France in the 1930s to escape the Nazis. So my partner had a very rich experience from Europe; there was this convergence of Jewishness and Christianity, medicine and homeopathy and art.
What was her name?
Is there anything you wanted to talk about that we didn’t get to today?
No, certainly not. I think you asked a lot of questions. You brought me to places and topics that I never thought we would touch on. I really enjoyed this conversation. You’re amazing. I noticed that we didn’t talk so much about the music.
That’s sort of by design, yeah. I find it a lot more meaningful to talk with an artist in a way where I get to understand who they are from these other types of conversations, and from there you can better understand the music itself. It’s a lot better to think about every artist as a regular person, and to understand them in that way.
I was struggling to explain what we do at the university but it starts with this same intuition that you have. The person—the individual person—is an incredible wealth of knowledge on what it means to be a human being. I created a program called The Study of Artistic Practice and the students are always surprised that we’re not making art in those classes but that we’re talking about ourselves. I have questions and exercises where they can touch on the deep ways of being that they have. Being interested in artists in this way is related to this thread that I’m following with artistic knowledge, which is not so much about theory but the phenomenology of how something manifests in a person’s life. I’m not interested in these generalizations that we read about all the time, which feel meaningless.
Have you written books about this topic?
Yes, I actually had a book released last year called L’ intelligence de l’art but it’s in French.
Keep me updated if that ever gets translated into English.
Ah, yes. Thank you.
There’s a question I always end my interviews with and I wanted to ask it to you. What’s one thing you love about yourself?
I think I would say that it’s my imagination. I would say that I have a lot of it.
Danielle Boutet’s Piéces is out via Freedom to Spend on February 16th, 2024. The album can be purchased at the label’s website and at Bandcamp. Her book, L’ intelligence de l’art, can be found at the Presses de l'Université du Québec website.
Thank you for reading the 122nd issue of Tone Glow. Shout out to the dreamers.
If you appreciate what we do, please consider donating via Ko-fi or becoming a Patreon patron. Tone Glow is dedicated to forever providing its content for free, but please know that all our writers are paid for the work they do. All donations will be used for paying writers, and if we get enough money, Tone Glow will be able to publish issues more frequently.