Her work is made up of moments. Each moment is intense and transparent but contained within a clearly audible narrative arc. — Musicworks, Canada
Summer. July 9 — September 9, 1999. 20,000 km on Canadian roads and trails. From Montréal across the Prairies to the North-Western Arctic, down to the Pacific and back through the Badlands. The Mercury minivan took the road, loaded with recording equipment, tools, DAT cassettes, tent, Coleman burner, sleeping bags and cooking apparatus, spare tires, beer and camera, boots, books and maps.
2 × CD (326 006/007)
- 1Le petit homme dans l’oreille [The Little Man in The Ear] (2000), 56:44fixed medium
- 1Austin, MB, 2:00
- 3Stampede, 2:29
- 4Yellowhead, 2:52
- 5Mike, 2:34
- 6Bear Stories, 4:38
- 7’Ksan, 3:06
- 8Sweet Potatoes, 2:39
- 966° 33’ N, 1:40
- 10Pink Mountain, 2:46
- 11Cathedral, 4:57
- 12Wawa Junction, 1:29
- 13NW Passage, 3:18
- 14Mechanics, 5:35
- 15Km 0, 4:28
- 16Redberry, 1:16
- 17Ouimet Canyon, 1:55
- 18Spirit Sands, 1:53
- 19Prairies, 5:05
- Label: 326music
- 326 006/007
- Total duration: 108:44
- 126 mm × 141 mm × 12 mm
- 115 g
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I first discovered the work of Chantal Dumas four years ago. When I heard her sound compositions broadcast on radio, they grabbed my ears and haven’t let go since. I’ve always been interested in the places where radio documentary becomes art, where music becomes drama, and where sound becomes story. Dumas’s work is a blend of all these art forms, and through them she has been able to breathe new life into the medium of radio.
Though her work is firmly rooted in narrative, she also leaves much of the interpretation to the listener. Her works contain enough identifiable sounds to give a sense of the intended story, but the compositional style is ambiguous enough to allow the listener to let the story be what s/he wants it to be. When I listen to Dumas’s work, I am given a balance of freedom and structure that lets my ears roam. Her compositional materials are sounds from real world sources - the tapping feet of dancers, ice being scraped off a windshield during the ice storm of january 1998. Sometimes thesc sounds are combined with improvisations of singers and musicians, sometimes not. The sound of a train, a wild goose, clips of people speaking to each other in conversation, these are usually the materials of radio drama and documentary. Also notable about her work is the sense of movement. The sounds are in constant motion, dancing from one speaker to another, from foreground to background and back again.
For more than twenty years I’ve been interested in the creative possibilities of radio, but I have lamented that the airwaves are usually used in pre-formatted, unimaginative ways. Part of the reason for this is economic. In recent years, the broadcast outlets for radiophonic art have declined dramatically. There have never been many radio stations where artists have been able to stretch their creativity. A recent shift in programming philosophy has reduced such opportunities at Canada’s national radio service, in both the French (Radio-Canada) and English (CBC) divisions: audio art has shown up in small sound bursts, but with no regular time allotted to it in the schedules. The international situation is equary discouraging. Even in Europe, where there has historically been greater acceptance of art-based sound, radio services are beconiing more conservative.
It is all the more important, then, to celebrate the audio and radiophonic art that does exist. For me, Dumas’s sound is a shimmering light in a grey soundscape. Her work exists on CD, in sound installations, in performance, online, on community radio, and on the air-waves of the national broadcasters.
Her primary artistic background is in music. She played piano as a child, and later graduated from Université Laval with a Bachelor of music in 1981. When I interviewed her for this article she told me that the year 1984, when she arrived in Montréal from Quebec City, marked a major turning point in her life. The following years (1984-1989) revealed a whole new world of possibilities to her: “I discovered everything at that moment: new music, electroacoustic music, radio art, the avant-garde. It was a very active period. I hardly slept. I was doing radio and a bit of comniunity TV, I had a full time job at a multi-ethnic community radio station, and I was going to concerts and listening to everything I could, going to exhibitions, following arts activities of all kinds. At the same, time I was discovering through radio the multiculturalism of Montréal, the social and community milieu, and the day-to-day reality of a radio station.“
Dumas gradually developed a clear sense of what she wanted to create, and which medium she would embrace. Her work today is both radio and not radio, music and not music. It includes clarity and ambiguity, is linear and non-linear. It exists in time, but is also timeless. Her work is made up of moments. Each moment is intense and transparent but contained within a clearly audible narrative arc. You can step into Dumas’s works at any point and still feel that you’ve had a complete experience. Whether you choose to stay for a moment, or stay for the duration of an entire work, you hear a subjective, intense audio narrative. The sound images are developed in a poetic way and the interpretations of those images can be highly personal.
Although Dumas acknowledges that her musical background shapes and influences her work, she is concerned more with finding the appropriate medium to express what she wants to say, rather than with developing an identifiable musical voice. Categorizations of style and medium do not interest her. “The place where I see my radiophonic work is in between categories and genres. Interstices arc spaces of freedom, fields of possible exploration.” The rhythm she hears in everyday sounds is only one part of the musicality she brings to the compositional experience: “I listen to sound in an analytic musical way (to pitch, speed, texture, etc.) rather than for its referential sense. This is one way I like to use day-to-day sounds in my pieces. I think of a piece in terms of fiction, and I think of the structure, the composition, and the organization of sound materials in terms of rhythm, timbre, melody and musical sentences.”
She also works with musicians when she is creating new pieces, usually involving them in the compositional process: “I work with musicians who are open-minded and who do improvisation. I sometimes ask them for something specific. For example, in the case of one of my works, In the Pale Grey Days, I wanted specific musical quotations related to the jazz scene in the ‘40s in New York City. So I asked trombonist Tom Walsh to propose some music. He suggested JJ Johnson, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk. After that, he played at my request a passage from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and interpreted a duet version of Gershwin’s song They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
Another demonstration of her method of working with musicians can be found in Le parfum de femmes — Das Perfüme der Frauen, a three-movenient suite created in 1996-97. It was composed while Dumas was living in Germany, and it explores the theme of immigration, belonging, and alienation. It began as a radio-art project for the SFB radio and Deutschlandradio Berlin, and in 2000 it was published on CD. It was also broadcast throughout Europe and received two international awards, ArsAcustica of Ear’97 International Electroacoustic Competition in Hungary and the 1997 internatioal Phonurgia Nova Award (France).
Le parfum de femmes — Das Perfüme der Frauen is a blend of narrative elements, found sound (both natural and processed), and instrumental sound. Dumas worked with three musicians in creating the piece, encouraging them to use improvisation to bring their own experience to the work. Her working process is highly collaborative; musicians who are inventive and flexible and who do not need to rely on written music are ideal collaborators. Dumas worked with vocalist Shelley Hirsch for this piece. She began the recording session by suggesting words, colours, and tempo: “I had this idea I would like to have the voice of the wind which to me is connected with the idea of influences, even illusions, that lead people to move to one country instead of another. Hirsch created vocal improvisations related to the wind and also contributed a large range of possibilities, qualities of voice, that she associated with my request for certain ethnic musical colorations. I said I’d like her to create music that was short, happy, or dark, or playful. Or I would suggest a colour. Then she did an improvisation, and I recorded it.”
Hirsch worked with Dumas for only two hours. They were able to work quickly because Dumas already knew Hirsch’s style, and knew what she wanted to achieve during their recording session. Dumas also knew that Hirsch was flexible and accustomed to improvisation. After the sound material was recorded, Dumas was free to do what she wanted with it. At that stage, musicians are no longer involved in the composition process. So in that sense, could she not be considered a composer? She says no. “I never think of myself in that way. I always think of my compositions in terms of narrative and atmosphere. Music is there, I dont say no to that, but I think of a piece more the way one would think about a film - in terms of sequences, narrative lines, characters, texts, sound images, and musical themes. For sure, my background in music is there and my productions will always have a musical quality. I hope it will always be there!”
If Dumas’s work is not music, what is it? Dumas acknowledges that categorization is a problem in a culture which likes to fit art into neatly defined little boxes. “Its not documentary and it’s not drama. Radiophonic art or acousmatic art might fit.” she reflects. “My production is part of a large category called sound art. Some projects are radio art (in a narrative form), some others are music, and recendy I began to explore sound installation. Most of the time this question of categorization refers to the ‘product’ and its mode of ‘presentation’ rather than to the intrinsic nature of the work.”
The 1980s was a fertile time in the development of community radio. New regulations encouraged the growth of volunteer programs, and local radio stations were springing up everywhere. This provided an opportunity for hundreds of people to volunteer to produce radio shows on all kinds of subjects. Dumas was one of the people who took to the airwaves, Her first experience in radio was at the Montréal community radio station CINQ FM Radio Centre-Ville, where she worked on an arts magazine program, doing visual art reviews and interviews with artists. Though not a visual artist herself, she knew many painters and artists in the visual arts scene. She had not yet thought of creating artwork for radio, but she immediately understood that this was an exciting new medium through which she could express herself.
The first radio-art production she took part in at CINQ FM was Où allez-vous, madame? (“Where Are You Going, Mrs?”) which was based ou the children’s game, Snakes and Ladders. She describes the work as “open fiction.” She was part of a core group of ten people who collaboratively created a script, developed the text, added some music, and recorded a series of capsules which offered many possible paths inside the same story. Some of these were broadcast, after which the phone lines were opened for listeners to call in and decide which of the paths to follow next.
At the same time, she discovered the radio work of French composer Luc Ferrari. “The first pieces I heard by Ferrari were his musiques anecdotiques. Some of his pieces deal directly with the action of composing and dealing with the technology of the studio, as does his Dialogue ordinaire avec la machine or Trois fables pour bande doucement philosophiques (1984). His Presque Rien ou Le lever du jour au bord de la mer (1967-70), is what he calls his first minimalist composition, which was followed by Presque rien no 2, ainsi continue la nuit dans ma tête multiple (1977). I appreciated the strong sense of narrative in these pieces, along with the musical expression, and the fact that the presence of the composer is palpable in the music. They are wonderful pieces, very inspired. Et si toute entière maintenant (1986-87) is a symphonic tale, which tells about a journey of a crew and a woman on their way to the North on an ice-breaker. Is it a question of love, or cold? With Ferrari, there is always some ambiguity.
“This was the first time I had heard Hörspiel (literally,“game for the ear”), a form of radio art developed in Germany after the war. In discovering this genre, I met a sensibility that I really connected to. I understood the potential of the mix of text, music and sound. Ferrari is really free as an artist. He has explored many genres - radio and television documentary, radio art, pure music, theatre pieces - and continues to move from one genre to the other. In fact, he chooses the form he feels is the right one to express the idea of the moment.
“Duririg my residency in Europe I discovered a tradition of radio art that has been decisive in the development of my radiophonic approach. While I lived in Marseilles I listened to France-Culture radio, which had a regular five-day-a-week broadcast, “Les nuits magnétiques”, presenting documentaries with an extremely broad mandate. I listened to anything: the displacement of sheep in the fields, the autobiography of a well-known burglar (Papillon, in his own voice), recordings related to ethnopsychiatry.
“In Berlin, I became directly involved in radio production. In Germany there is a comniunity and economic context which supports art related to radio. Many new pieces are produced in radio studios every year - even with the reduced funding available today it is still a thriving community in comparison to Canada. In 1995, in Berlin, I found an active radiophomc milieu which supported conferences, festivals, and competitions. Even a small local theatre schedules its own Hörspiele events.”
Dumas’s latest CD release, Radio Roadmovies, was created in collaboration with composer Christian Calon. The project began as a trip with microphone and camera across Canada and up to the Arctic. Two radio-art pieces resulted jointly commissioned by Radio-Canada and DeutschlandRadio. A two-CD set and a website installation documenting the journey were also produced. In November, Dumas, Calon and media artist Don Sinclair premiered a web version of Radio Roadmovies during Soundplay, an annual festival produced in Toronto by New Adventures in Sound Art.
Dumas describes the long journey that she and Calon made. “What was really exciting was that the journey wasn’t really planned. We wanted to cross the country and look closely at the Canadian reality and feel the immensity of the territory after seven years of living in Europe, we really needed it. We wanted to escape from the cities because we spend so much time there. At one point in the trip, we decided to head north and try to reach the Arctic Circle, which was going to add another five thousand kilometres. We drove so far, it was incredible. Each time we stopped we asked ‘What does it sound like here? Is there something different, and in which way is it different?’ We developed a critical way of listening, and because we did so much listening and recording, we know which things sound different in each place. And, you know, if youre in a city in North America, all the cities sound the same. We were really looking for something else.”
“One of the main questions we had when we began this journey was how to cornmunicate in sound. For example, how do you communicate the 360 degrees of blue sky in the Prairies, the geographic accidents, how do you communicate the sensation of this journey? Rapidly we concluded that sound has its own reality, separate from our physical presence in an environment.”
The first of the two CDs is a subjective interpretation of the sounds encountered on the trip. Dumas and Calon call this part of the work Le petit homme dans l’oreille (“The Little Man in the Ear”). The title was inspired by a totem pole at the University of British Coluilibia’s Museum of anthropology. On this particular totem pole one could see a little man looking out of a bears head. Dumas says “It could have different meanings. According to a German expression it means you are crazy. For me, it means that there is always a part of us which is listening. I liked both these interpretations.”
The second CD is called Surface Documents [Documents de surface], and consists of field recordings presented without interpretation, processing, or alteration. The journey, Dumas says, “wasn’t necessarily planned, but we had nice surprises. Like one place where we heard some incredible birds, and tip until then we hadn’t known that these sounds existed. And the Prairies were incredible, not so much for the sound, but for the openness.”
The resulting CDs present a wide range of sounds, rhythms, timbres, and voices. We hear a foghorn near Tofino, B.C.; the wind in a cornfield; voices talking about heavy fog on the Dempster Highway heading up to Inuvik, N.W.T.; pork chops frying. Throughout Radio Roadmovies we hear sounds that are both epic and ordinary. “There is not just one way to see things or to listen,” Dumas points out. “The two pieces are mirrors to each other. The little man… is active. As listeners we are part of the journey; we feel the spaces change. … Documents is a contemplative piece. Even if the sound material is recognizable the construction brings the listener to another level of listening which is musical. I think having two different productions gave us the possibility to have another point of view. This is what we wanted.”
The Radio Roadmovies installation is an example of the kind of work that Dumas is hoping to do more of in the future. While she wants to continue producing radiophonic art, she is also planning to do more sound installation. Dumas says she thinks of sound in photographic terms, and thinks of her recordings as sound images. Though she will be developing new sets of skills when she works with other media, Dumas already has a strong base of knowledge, and has been influenced by cinema and photography. “I really appreciate photography. If you look at a photo, you can see a connection with social issues, you can see something about how the photo is constructed. At the same time, it can be very alive. I think this influenced me in terms of how to create something fictional with realistic material, how to create more than an atmosphere.”
In the summer of 2004 she accepted an opportunity to work on a project combining sound and text (presented in the form of graffiti). She had answered an Internet call for proposals to participate in an art project in Shanghai, and was selected to work with visual artists from China, Europe, and Australia in a project called Matchmaking at Suzhou Creek, an event organized by the Eastlink Gallery in Shanghai. Before her departure she interviewed Montréal residents of different ages, asking about their main concerns of the moment, and whether they are concerned about globalization or not. She combined the interviews with sounds recorded on Montréal bridges and used the bridge as a metaphor for the piece. As stated in the project description Dumas sent to Eastlink Gallery:
Under the Bridge, the two rivers (the St. Lawrence and the Huangpu) flow join, cross, pour one into the other, and mix their waters. Metaphorically, it is the unconscious of the two people that meet, the stream of thought mixed in the energy of the current of these two powerful waters. Those are the desires, the realizations, the culture, the fear, the force, the apprehension, the past, the present, the future, the freedom, the peace, the work, the family, the honour.
Once in Shanghai, Dumas posed the same questions to people who lived there, working through a translator. ““I wanted to know how we feel about globalization as individuals. Do we feel a part of it? The position of East and West about this question is very different. Chinese people see globalization in a very positive way. It is, for them, the opportunity to reach the same standard of living that we have in the West, and they really want to take as much as they can from the new economy which globahzation brings with it.”
Taking excerpts from these interviews, she worked with four visual artists. In pastel, chalk, and spray paint, they transcribed quotations from the interviews on the walls of the grey, colourless passageway leading to a water tower. As people stopped to read the walls, they were surrounded by Dumas’s soundwork. The visual and audio materials were thus linked by the experience of the visitor to the passageway.
Dumas is now completing several projects including another radio piece. The theme of some of her work is now moving towards more overtly socially conscious subjects, but she is also expanding into other types of sound practice. She is movmg outside the studio to find different forms, different ways of presenting her work. She collaborates with the poet, performer, and novelist Geneviève Letarte. She is working on another project about transcription, relating dance to sound, which deals with the process of creation and raises fundamental aesthetic questions. On this project she is working with writer Chantal Neveu, musicians Martin Tétreault (turntables) and André Leroux (saxophone), and four dancers who use their voices, giving body to the text. She is also collaborating with Emmanuel Madan and Anna Friz, both well-known audio and radio artists from Montréal. And she is pursuing her interest in improvisation: “What I like in improvisation is that the position of the improviser contrasts so much with the position of the studio artist. Improvisation is physical and has to deal with the present moment. I also like the fact that these moments are shared with artists involved in radio. And its fun and alive.”
In many ways, this brings Chantal Dumas’s work back to the place where she started. Her earliest works in radio were experiments with the medium, later evolving into carefully constructed, meticulously planned studio works. Another experimental phase has begun. It is hard to imagine what a Chantal Dumas artwork will look and sound like in ten years. If she enters into the next phase of her artistic life with as much imagination, technical excellence and conceptual brilliance as she has shown so far, exciting new things we’ve not yet heard or seen are sure to emerge.
Victoria Fenner is a Canadian audio artist who has spent the past two decades exploring the medium of sound. Her interest in audio art began in 1982, at Vancouver Cooperative Radio where she produced the Newsounds Gallery, an exploration of the artistic possibilities of radio. Since that time, she has produced many pieces of her own, and has curated the nationally distributed Canadian audio-art radio series Radiant Dissonance. She is also the creator of many audio art events and workshops.
The myth of the open road is still a potent one in North America. The classic American road trip as immortalized by everyone from Kerouac to whoever wrote Thelma and Louise represents an escape from social expectations and restrictions into the flow of the immediate, nomadic life full of adventure, danger, and possibly transcendence. Road movies conjure images from Super-8 films, hastily shot in the green light of nighttime truckstops or at eccentric landmarks like the worid’s largest western boot. Though inspired by these tales, extensive travels in Canada have a distinctly different flavour from the discoveries and disappointments of this mobile American dream. Fewer roads, smaller roads (even the mighty Trans Canada is only three lanes wide in parts of the Prairies), fewer people. Nonhuman characters take precedence - we note birds, insects, animals; and the weather looms large. Mountain and plain, ocean and stream, wind in the grass, thunder in the afternoon. Of course there are memorable people encountered along the way, particularly if hitchhiking, but outside of cities, people do not dominate the landscape to the same extent as south of the border.
Veteran Montréal sound artists Christian Calon and Chantal Dumas spent two months on the road from Montreai west to the Pacific and north to the Arctic Circle in the Yukon in the summer of 1999. They stuffed their minivan with “recording equipment, tools, DAT cassettes, tent, Coleman burner, sleeping bags and cooking apparatus, spare tires, beer and camera, boots, and maps,” and set off to hear what they could hear. The results are newly available in a double CD set, the first entitled Le petit homme dans l’oreille, the second Documents de surface. Each was originally produced for Radio-Canada and Deutschland Radio respectively, and though episodic, they also flow as complete pieces. Le petit homme dans l’oreille functions as an audio travelogue with particular narratives of place, while Documents de surface unites sound material from very different places under themes of waterways, trains, prairie wind, and wilderness night. With nods to electroacoustic composition and rural radio, Radio Roadmovies invite the listener away from cities and suburbs to the less populated areas on the map. These are captivating testaments to summer on the land, of tape rolling while on the highway, and of time spent motionless, crouched in forest and fen, with ears and microphones pricked.
The most notable feature of these works is the clarity and richness of the field recordings. Though theywere designed for the fickle fidelity of radio, Calon and Dumas’s works stand up to intent headphone listening. Ravens, trains, rain, ocean; these ail present unique challenges to the recordist and composer, but it is especially difficult to convey the aural complexity of the wind without it degenerating into white noise. Calon and Dumas are fond of wind and excel at capturing it: Le petit homme… begins with a rush of wind in the trees in Manitoba, and by the end of the piece we have returned to the prairies where the Saskatoon wind in the cornfields sounds more like an earthquake, like the creaking of cornstalks magnified to what might be apprehended by a beetle digging in the earth beside so giant a plant. Other gems include an especially haunting train and its whistle as heard in the distance from within a cedar forest, and frogs chirping on the Magdalene Islands.
Calon and Dumas take liberties with Le petit homme… to include themselves in the recording, so we really do feel that we’re along for the ride with them. Calon takes on the role of the little man with his introductory “broadcast” from the tent of the “princess of the stars,” where the princess (Dumas) has just awakened at the stampede in Austin, Manitoba. Sometimes Dumas is the little man, introducing us to the Pacific Ocean and mile zero of the Trans-Canada highway. We can easily imagine ourselves squeezed into the van, lumbering up the Dempster highway north of Dawson City to the Arctic Circle, with friends playing recorder and singing songs about sweet potatoes, while the landscape outside is shrouded in fog. Our hosts take us from vast open spaces to the intimacy of tents and camping, of sleeping bags zipping up and pork chops sizzling on the stove. With Le petit homme… Calon and Dumas also indulge in processing and editing to accentuate the activities recorded, such as the looped and equalized stamped announcer’s voice, a looping conversation about bears, or a collage of radio overheard on the road to Inuvik. The end of the piece is ominous and sudden: night by a lake plagued by mosquitoes, Dumas curses and flails about, shutting off the tape. Oh yeah, the unromantic reality of camping in Canada includes the infernal bugs.
Working with field recordings always leads to the dilemma of how much to process or meddle with the material, especially with extremely clear and detailed stereo recordings such as these. Much as I enjoyed many of the compositional and editing choices on Le petit homme…, by the end, I was also hungry to hear longer stretches of material without self referentiality, and so the more abstract treatment on Documents de surface was a very satisfying second course.
Documents… is devoid of human voices, being instead a phenomenology of non-human actors such as animals, machines, ocean, and weather. Cows in a field groan like constipated old codgers, a raven croaks and caws, a loon calls, a dog barks on a First Nations reserve, frogs thrum in the wetlands. The train returns again and again, finally grinding to a halt on the tracks in front of us. These voices, some rendered so cliché by Heritage Canada ads and the tourism industry, nonetheless speak to history and reflect on the passage of time, both in historical and circadian terms. A herd of buffalo gallop past only to be replaced by the train - a telling collage when we remember that the buffalo were exterminated from the prairies in part by hunters paid to shoot at the stampeding herds from the train. A tumultuous thunderstorm subsides and the frogs chorus anew. Rhythms emerge from two months of material that are subtle and vast.
Le petit homme dans l’oreille and Documents de surface are both humorous and contemplative. As a double CD set, Radio Roadmovies comprises two different but complementary approaches to soundscape work that showcase Calon and Dumas’s considerable aural and poetic talents. Le petit homme dans l’oreille won the Phonurgia Nova prize in 2001.
[…] l’électroacousticien Christian Calon et l’artiste sonore Chantal Dumas font paraître sous étiquette 326music un album double intitulé Radio Roadmovies, qui rend compte de leur périple à travers le Canada «de Montréal au Cercle Arctique à travers les Prairies». Le premier disque fait entendre Le petit homme dans l’oreille, un «carnet de voyage narratif» qui s’est mérité le Grand Prix du documentaire Phonurgia Nova 2001. Bribes de conversations, musiques et sons divers, glanés tout au long du voyage, subissent un montage pour le moins créatif qui donne à ce «documentaire» des allures surréalistes. Le deuxième disque contient une œuvre intitulée Documents de surface, qui n’offre aucun dialogue, mais présente plutôt les sons (bruissements d’insectes, murmures de cours d’eau, etc.) à l’état brut. Un paysage sonore moins directif que le premier, dans lequel on peut se glisser à notre guise pour inventer notre propre scénario. Grande qualité au niveau de la prise de son. […]
Voici un double disque sur la captation et la restitution de sons de l’environnement. Deux propos qui partent du même argument: une montée de Montréal au cercle arctique (Yukon) à travers les prairies, puis descente vers le Pacifique, et retour vers les Badlands. Il n’est pas si fréquent d’entendre ces deux musiciens composer ensemble, et c’est une réussite! Le titre Radio Roadmovies invite à se poser la question de l’appartenance de cette œuvre au genre radiophonique, genre en mouvant, aux définitions et pratiques multiples, et de ce fait très ouvert à l’expérimentation.
Même si Chantal Dumas et Christian Calon se «permettent de modifier la matière originale, souvent, les matériaux sont présentés avec un minimum de transformation», disent-ils dans les «liner-notes». Ce travail de transformation minimale met en valeur la transformation due à la captation par micros, et de l’écoute hors du contexte; et il s’agit de transformations extrêmement importantes.
Documents de surface et Le petit homme dans l’oreille pointent deux attitudes d’écoute et de fabrication distincte, l’une est tentée par l’objectivation et l’autre par ce qu’on nomme poésie au sens de subjectivité dominante. Radio Roadmovies réunit dans un même objet deux pellicules: l’une dans le sillon de Rouch et l’autre dans la veine de Rhomer, elles racontent deux histoires en écho. La précision des acoustiques (intérieur voiture, réverbération du lieu, larges espaces extérieurs, échos naturels, corbeau isolé, voix dans un haut-parleur… ), la masse des sons dans le spectre sonore (vent grondant ou criquets) est remarquable. A certains moments, le micro creuse l’intime, ou bien révèle le poids abstrait d’une figure de sons (passage d’un camion, frémissement d’insectes, ligne de grillons, vent à la fenêtre). La captation sonore et le rendu peuvent devenir extrêmement sensuels. Le petit homme dans l’oreille se distingue par une sorte de trace-trame continue. Trace des auteurs, trame du réel; ici l’acte de mixage est très savamment calibré et le sampling crée un léger trouble là où on attend un ensevelissement sonore. Continuum d’intensité, minimalisme oujet présence assurant une mise à distance du monde? Mélodies de la présence sur fond atmosphérique donnent cette couleur indéfinissable. Ce doux fondu des sons-voix-monde nous éloignent d’une certaine esthétique où l’intensité qualifie la présence, où la rupture fait jaillir des brèches du silence: est-ce une mort organique pour une vie abstraite ce qui relierait d’autant plus ces deux volumes? Dans Le petit homme dans l’oreille, on entend une respiration perpétuelle, celle du désir, de l’écoute, de la technique: «My batteries are over». Il y a comme un flouage entre le réel, la fiction et l’autofiction. Documents de surface nous emmène plus loin d’un «réel», plus proche de la «surface du son». Ces épures d’un train la nuit ou d’une corne de brume sur le Pacifique nous révèlent l’abstraction de l’image. La référence au dessin est tentante, le son est terriblement bien ourlé. Nous voici comme face à une esquisse ou un lavis qui force à faire apparaître du son, ce que ces deux compositeurs de la matière veulent bien nous y faire entendre. Ensuite, l’écoute permet toutes les digressions mentales - métaphysiques et banales. Derrière la plastique, on sent les musiciens jouant du rythmique ou de l’étal, du vif et du lent, etc.
Si l’écoute tient si longtemps dans ces deux longues formes (respectivement 57 et 52 minutes), c’est par la force de la forme, de la composition construite sur des critères sonores abstraits.
Surely it’s some sort of serendipitous combination of Canadian grant money and Splendid’s strong north-of-the-border label ties, but a dramatic preponderance of the most interesting experimental/electronic/noise-based work I’ve heard over my three-year tenure here has come from Montréal. Perhaps francophone Canadians, reacting to their province’s uneasy relationship with the rest of Canada, have converted discomfort into art. Perhaps it’s just something in the water. In any case, from the post-rock stylings of the Constellation roster to the very strangest soundscapes that issue from the empreintes DIGITALes folks, the work that comes out of this region is so intriguing as to make other areas’ artists seem deficient in both vision and their willingness to venture forth, assuming the audience will follow.
Still, that public funding thing alluded to above can’t be overemphasized. In this case, two talented young artists/documentarians set out on a several-month-long trek across a wide swath of Canada, recording anything that piqued their interest. The result is this stunning two-disc set of field recordings and manipulated aural scenes, each of which conveys both a sense of narrative and a sense of the multifaceted nature of a geographically huge nation’s life. While each is a coherent artistic statement on its own, the two together are so complementary that it’s hard to imagine the one without the other.
The first disc, “The Little Man In The Ear” (or, more mellifluously, Le Petit homme dans l’oreille), is the more manipulated-sounding of the two; the artists’ fingerprints are deliberately left all over certain sections, while others seem untouched from their original recordings. The prime example of the former comes during a visit to a carriage race: the announcer’s voice is sampled and manipulated as heavily as in any techno track, albeit sans the driving beat. As it swirls from one speaker to the other, the race’s sense of circular motion is recaptured and reimagined in the listener’s ear. It’s quite a trick, and a virtuoso production performance. At other points, sounds that had previously been presented in close to what I assume was their natural setting are subtly reintroduced in such a way as to give the listener both a sense of ongoing travel, and of the interconnectedness of things. For example, a track that begins with crickets chirping fades into people walking across gravel and eventually incorporates a barely-discernible conversation, then picks up each of the two previously added sounds once again, making you feel as if you’ve traveled some distance to visit with the speaking men, who have then graciously walked back with you to your point of origin.
The latter disc, “Surface Documents” [Documents de surface], is approached somewhat differently. While the first disc appears to have been designed to be played on a radio program, the second seems more like a collection of compelling sounds that didn’t quite fit into the theme of the first. Therefore, this disc acts more as a roving, narrative-free travelogue that glances over the entire map, chooses a theme, and then touches down everywhere that that theme might apply. For example, one of the longer sections intermixes the sounds of water interacting with various surfaces at various volumes, blending the sounds of waterways that may have been thousands of miles apart into a single beautiful piece.
If you can’t afford to take a few months and explore the backroads of Canada, I suggest that you take a couple of hours and let two people who clearly know their way around clue you in to the way life sounds in their country.
This is one of those things that fall out of the sky and you have no idea who or what it is about. One Chantal Dumas and one Christian Calon made a trip through Canada, and this double CD is the sort of Hörspiel about it. Recording natural elements on their trip, as well as say rain falling on the tent but also them speaking about places they visit (not always as a clear narration) or the meeting of people, like ‘the chiefs in the Gitskan village of Kispiox’. It’s hard to say wether a lot of post-processing took place. There are moments in there in which I think all the sounds are as they are, but in some cases there might be also some sort of post-processing. Not that’s really important at all, because it’s a fascinating journey to hear. You could wonder if it’s something you’ll find spinning a lot, but in all it’s a captivating recording. On the second CD Documents de surface (Surface Documents) nine tracks are presented of sounds as they actually were but then presented in collage form. Grouped together are various wind sounds or water systems. Here no talking but instead pure soundscapes, which are quite delicate and nice. The narrative aspect is all gone here, but on the other hand I can imagine people playing this disc more often. Quite a surprise this double pack, in a very nice digipack.
Composers Christian Calon and Chantal Dumas share interests in electroacoustic music using field recordings at its basis. But here, they also share a 2-month trip across Canada, from Montréal to Vancouver, by way of the Great White North (they reached the Arctic Circle in Yukon) and a return home through the Badlands. Radio Roadmovies is a 2-CD set presenting two hour-long works conceived for the radio (Radio-Canada and DeutschlandRadio Berlin). Le Petit homme dans l’oreille (The Little Man in the Ear) (2000), (Phonurgia Nova Award in 2001) is a fragmented travel diary, filled with people, places and events. The two composers, often addressing the microphone to describe and comment, are joined by a cast of fellow travellers and locals, from children shouting their names at Ouimet Canyon to Native American chiefs greeting them with a song. The work takes the form of a series of snapshots segued through complementing or contrasting sonic elements, instead of following a chronological or geographical logic. The composers’ touch is mostly limited to choosing and editing the recordings, although some sections are heavily — and obviously — treated, like the stampede caller’s heated description of the race turned into a sampled rap. The human factor is through the roof in this bilingual account. Either you will like the various characters or you will be annoyed by their chatter. The second disc is a completely different affair. Culled from the same field recordings, Documents de surface (Surface Documents) (2002) excludes human voices to focus solely on environmental sounds. The work is a gripping display of nature (wind, water) and man (trains, boats) at work. Here, the composers work seamless dissolves between locations to put together theme-related pieces. Côté Pacifique, with its foghorns, trains and crashing waves, is the most striking. Urban listeners will be astounded by the richness of these nature recordings and the elegance of their organization. Rural listeners (like this reviewer) should listen with all windows open, and let real and recorded sounds intermingle, just so you can’t say where that train is coming from.
The idea of a Canadian road movie may conjure up perversely disturbing images of defensive driving, speed limits rigidly observed and perfectly nice people encountered along the way. For the most part, that’s what Calon and Dumas deliver in these two pieces realised for Radio Canada’s L’Espace du son and Deutschland Radio in Berlin.
Made for the former, Le petit homme dans l’oreille presents its found materials with a minimum of manipulation. Wind, birds, snatches of conversation, background ambience from a threshermen’s reunion and stampede in Manitoba contribuate to a gently bucolic cross-country journey. At times the spirit of R Murray Schafer’s prolific music is invoqued but without his ambitious grandiloquence. The key emphasis here is on the human trace in the lanscape. An awesome landscape acoustic, stirred with breaths of air and occasional bird twitters, is suddenly transformed by the Doppler wail of a freight train, human voices are caught either in the boxy acoustic of a camper van or in the delicious echo of the Ouimet Canyon.
And so it goes, gentle and strangely uninvolving, like a long distance journey when fatigue and a drift of attention eases the miles by in affectless boredom. On Documents de surface, the human archaeology is minimal, replaced by animal and weather sounds. Canadian Pacific still puts in an appearance, but the action is more operatic with long naturalistic recitatives intersperced with choric effetcs from trees and watercourses and odd dramatic aria provided by birds.
As a radio experience, these are doutless compelling pieces. They’re more troublesome on CD. They could have done with some visual enhancement, possibly a CD-ROM of location photography or a virtual map of relevant routes.