Artists Kevin Austin

Kevin Austin

London (England, UK), 1948

Residence: Montréal (Québec)

  • Composer

On the web


Various artists
CEC-PeP / PEP 001 / 1997


Various artists
Radio-Canada / ACM 37 / 1990
  • Out of print

Articles written

  • Kevin Austin, Computer Music Journal, no. 15:3, September 1, 1991
    Few releases are so integrated in medium and message.
  • Kevin Austin, Computer Music Journal, no. 15:1, March 1, 1991
    … these works are journeys through — or the articulations of — inner, outer, hidden, or even unheard-of places or spaces.
  • Kevin Austin, Computer Music Journal, no. 15:1, March 1, 1991
    … these works are journeys through — or the articulations of — inner, outer, hidden, or even unheard-of places or spaces.


Kevin Austin, Computer Music Journal, no. 15:3, September 1, 1991

Few releases are so integrated in medium and message. Most CDs concinue the tradition of simply being a medium for the storage and transport of sonic artifacts, sound recording being the twentieth-century equivalent of the Guidonian hand. Like the unjustly neglected Nonesuch recording commissions from the mid-1960s most of the works included on the Électro clips release were created explicitly for the recording medium.

Électro clips is the fourth CD from the Montréal-based label empreintes DIGITALes. It consists of 25 commissioned 3-minute works by 24 North American composers. The release, timed to coincide wich New Music America held in Montrcal in November 1990, carries on a centuries-old tradition of asking composers to write within predefined constraints for a specific occasion or event.

Coproducers Jean-François Denis and Claude Schryer desired to merge the 3-minute popular song form with the concept of the vidco clip. The invited composers embraced this task to varying degrees. I find the most interesting works on the CD to be those written with that goal as the original inspirational seed, rather than those that are reworks of longer, preexisting compositions.

Like most labels specializing in electroacoustic music, empreintes DIGITALes continues to lace the daunting challenge of distribution, the costs, and its vagaries. To reach as wide an audience as possible, the recording is accompanied by a 58-page booklet that is trilingually French, English, and Spanish. It includes biographies of the composers, program notes, and a series of 25 photographs commissioned from the Quebec City photographer Joanne Tremblay.

Thirteen of the composers represented were born in the 1950s, and five of them in the 1960s. Eleven live in Montréal, four in Toronto, four in Vancouver. Four are from the United States, and one is from Mexico. The compositional and electroacoustic orientations are the polyglot that is rather characteristic of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community. This is part of this collection’s charm and strength, and a great part of its beauty.

As an educational tool, this CD could be a major resource. The 3-minute constraint provides a balancing framework for the study of compositional styles and schools and the works provide excellent examples for analysis.

Using the analytic hierarchy from linguistics — morpheme, vocabulary element, syntax, and semantic — these compositions can be parsed and described at each level. The following should clarify how I am applying these terms to music. By “sonic morpheme,” I mean the lowest level and smallest sonic unit; an indivisible instance of sound, that which constitutes a particular timbre’s integrity. “Vocabulary” is the set of sound sources that populate a given composition; the “orchestra.” This set may consist of one source or multiple sources (uni- or multi-family), and may include members that combine attributes of more than one source (cross-families). The term “syntax” can be applied to various units of music composition, just as it is when applied to natural language. Note-to-note transitions, phrase, section, and whole-composition structures all have a syntactic element. So, there is micro-syntax and macro-syntax. Both concern the application of transformations, transitions, constraints and procedures. Electroacoustic music often uses syntactic plans such as collage, layering and continuous transformation. “Semantics” (or what the composition “means”) may simply be the result of all the previous levels of organization. This might be the case in pure music. The semantic level is perhaps more distinct in program or other music that is based on metaphor, direct source quotation of text-sound or life-sound, or other extra-musical (personal, emotional, social, or political) statements. Each of the pieces presented exists on all of these levels, with some of them resting more solidly and completely on some subset of levels.

John Oswald’s Bell Speeds, a sampled bell played at numerous octaves, resides heavily in the area of vocabulary (Simple, uni-family, predictable within the sampled-instrumental model). Syntactically and macro-structurally this work is uncomplicated, producing a memorable sonic identity with a relatively low semantic complexity John would probably point out that this structuralist approach completely fails to hear the piece (see Konybski, above). Tamed structuralism appears in the self-replicating algonthmic composition What If by Daniel Scheidt, and the tonally fractal piece by Bruno Degazio entitled Humoresque 901534.

Political statements form the basis of several of the compositions, making them semantically deep. Examples include Charles Amirkhanian’s Bajanoom (“Separation”) and John Oliver’s Marimba Dismembered. The latter contrasts and compares the violent confrontation of the Guatemalan Mayans over land claims, to the native resentment with Quebec’s nonresponse to the Canadian constitutional accord (Meach Lake). Social injustice is the fœtus in Yves Daoust’s Mi bémol and Christian Calon’s Temps incertains.

There are numerous, multilevel continua for sonic, æsthetic, and pedagogical exploration, including the problem of sonic identity, both internally within each work and across all 25 of the compositions. The obviousness of sound processing is one of the criticisms frequently hurled at electroacoustic music. Histoncally the indiscriminate slathering of sounds with reverberation has been one of this genre’s weaknesses. Several of the works on this CD have stimulated lively discussion as to whether the processing is integral or mearly decorative. This leads back to the question of sonic identity and the special case of quotation.

Quotation, in its broadest sense, is present in just about all of the pieces on this collection, from the sonic “objet réalité” tradition of musique concrète in Yves Daoust’s Mi bémol. to the quotation of traditional instrumental sources found in Craig Harris’s wonderful piano in Somewhere between.

Quotation may be clear or hidden, sonically and metaphorically. Francis Dhomont’s masterful epithet Qui est-là? retrospectively examines his own work and the works of those who influenced him. It ends with an original quotation about the unknowability of the self by others, and of others by the self.

The use of text in more than half of the pieces is clearly a type of quotation. In both Amnon Wolman’s Man-Bridge and Robert Normandeau’s sampled child’s voice in Bédé. text is used to convey information at all levels of organization, from the sonic morpheme to the complete semantic statement. In some cases, speech rhythms are preserved and the utterance is completely stripped away. Several compositions make an indirect reference to such rhythms, not in an obvious fashion, but rather as a profound underpinning for their macro — and micro — structure. Such is the case in Jean-François Denis’s Point-virgule, Martin Gotfrit’s The Machine’s Four Humours, John Oliver’s Marimba Dismembered and, in a completely unvoiced work, Simulant by the Toronto composer and sound-poet Richard Truhlar.

Some of the works on the CD obtain meaning through their reference to other media, easily recognized musical styles, or readily identifiable experiences. A few examples include the comical, horror-film qualities of Roxanne Turcotte’s Miniserie, Javier Álvarez’s Mambo à la Braque with its upbeat, boogie-woogie jazz references, and Breathing Room by Hildegard Westerkamp, with its peaceful life-force evocations.

At a practical level, an adventurous, independent producer today must explore the potential audience and consider how and where the product will be used. Possible applications for Électro clips run the gamut from personal entertainment, to radio and concert presentations, educational uses, and as material for integration with other media (e.g., dance, film, or theater).

Possibly the most commercially viable application of this material is in radio, where there are plenty of 3-minute slots calling for interesting diversity. Within an academic environment, Électro clips will prove itself of great value. Discussions of style and electroacoustic languages can be pointedly illustrated because of the diversity of the materials and the brevity of the works.

Concert venues with multiple speaker systems (8 to 16 or more not being unusual in Montréal) can reveal a hidden dimension in many of the works. Those pieces with collaged, environmental realities benefit enormously from the articulation of space. A brief list of the works in this category includes Dan Lander’s I’m looking at my hand, Christian Calon’s Temps incertains, Claude Schryer’s Les oiseaux de Bullion, and the Calon/Schryer collaboration Prochaine station. Works such as these really depend on the spacial parameter, not only with respect to acoustics, but also in terms of their extramusical content. Multiple speaker facilities can make the difference between an intimate and an aloof performance.

Few releases are so integrated in medium and message.


Kevin Austin, Computer Music Journal, no. 15:1, March 1, 1991

From Quebec comes an important new compact disk label, called empreintes DIGITALes, for Canadian and international electroacoustic music. The venture is co-owned and directed by two young Canadian composers, Jean-François Denis and Claude Schryer. The semi-double entendre of the company name may be translated as “finger prints” or (loosely) “digital pressings.” This series of high-quality recordings of Canadian and Quebec electroacoustic activity joins a most welcome growing tide of electroacoustic CD production in this country

The first two releases in the series (now numbering four) are of Christian Calon, Ligne de vie: récits électriques (Life Line: electric tales), and Robert Normandeau, Lieux inouïs (Unheard-of Places). Each presentation comes with an extensive booklet of some 20 pages with photographs, quality graphics, and excellent program notes in both French and English. There is excellence throughout the production, materials, text, and sound.

A brief history of electroacoustic activity in Canada may be in order for those whose knowledge of activity here does not extend significantly beyond Hugh Le Caine’s justly touted impudent Dripsody of 1955, and knowledge of the important research and compositional works of Barry Truax.

Along with two major cultural groups working in the sonic arts, there are two major schools of esthetic/emotional thought, rather simplistically described as: “the sonic-object as metaphor” (the French influence of text and visual artsl, and “the sonic-object sound material” (the academic influence of material as self-referential language system-theoretically analyzable).

Probably some two-thirds of Canadian electroacoustic works fall quite clearly into one or the other of these categories divided on regional and linguistic lines: Quebec composition (francophone) leaning towards the metaphorical basis, and non-Quebec composers (anglophone) being in the second category.

Electroacoustic music in Canada dates back to the middle 1950’s with the pioneering work of the Canadian inventor/composer Hugh Le Caine and the founding of studios at the University of Toronto (1959) and McGill University (1964). A second wave of development, technological and esthetic, occurred in the mid1970’s. A younger generation of composers began to change the view of the electroacoustic studio away from that of being a sacred altar at which the adequately humble would be allowed to worship, towards an open, exploratory facility. Both Calon and Normandeau are products of this latter attitude and neither carries any of the esthetic or technical inhibitions occasionally found in the more formalistic works of some of the previous generation of composers and theorists.

These first two CDs from empreintes DIGITALes reflect and demonstrate two or more of the sides of electroacoustic activity in Quebec. The first thing to note, in terms of the material and the nature of the compositional processes, is the dominance of extended musique concrète techniques. The (metaphorical) razor blade is central to all of the works, but so is the metaphor. With titles like Memoires vives (Vivid Memories or Volatile Memory) and Minuit (Midnight), these works are journeys through—or the articulations of—inner, outer, hidden, or even unheard-of (inouis) places or spaces.

Christian Calon, born in Marseille in 1950, was self-educated. Possessed of a broad-ranging, sensitive, inquisitive, and philosophical mind, Calon writes, “I came to composition by the simplest path: through listening to the outer and inner natural phenomenons, and being surrounded by ideas and works.” In six years, he has composed only four major pieces, but they have won awards in competitions such as Bourges (1989), NEWCOMP (1988), and Luigi Russolo (1985).

Of his Portrait d’un visiteur (1985) (Portrait of a Visitor), the composer’s second major composition, Calon writes, “A metaphor. Take this person I used to know quite well… I stubbornly try to connect her familiar elements with the stream of new signs being displayed… All I know of my nature and that of the universe is incomplete: it is exactly as if I knew nothing.”

The sounds of Portrait… are largely reprocessed, sonically complex analog sources; largely of a glissando nature, pitch, spectrum, and envelope; slowly drawn out into long gradual gestures. While there is no text element per se, a textual base appears to reside behind the individual wavelike gestures, often invoking waves in the broadest sense, and eventually ocean waves. The introduction of the female voice with simple pitched material calls forth perceptions of an external world. As the piece evolves, there is the evocation of other spaces, perhaps more personal than of place.

Of La disparition (1988) (The Disappearance), the composer writes, “Rooted in this work lies the desire to hear those multiple and deep voices, that now belong to what we call History, rise together in one song. Through the sometimes violent embrace of sound materials, as distant and far away as our great music can be from the traditional music of other civilizations, one will recognize this vain desire to break the wall of silence, of the erasure, of the disappearance.”

Minuit (1989) (Midnight) has its extensive texts reproduced in the accompanying booklet, and among the three major sections (in mode, manner, and meaning), I vividly recall some of the emotional and metaphysical compulsions and invitations of works such as Gurre Lieder, Pierrot Lunaire, and Erwartung.

The generation of a form within his work is dominated by text whether or not it is present or recognizable. Sound and sonic transformations attend to the call of transformed verbal meaning, or, at a more profound level, this verbal meaning is just one realization of a more fundamental human truth: boxes within boxes. Voice plays an openly dominant role in Calon’s work. It rises and transforms itself (though excellently controlled digital techniques) by and through the projection of inner and outer imagery in ways seen (as Calon carefully notes) in the works of Joyce, Baudelaire, Céline, and Artaud. This work repays many careful listenings.

… these works are journeys through — or the articulations of — inner, outer, hidden, or even unheard-of places or spaces.


Kevin Austin, Computer Music Journal, no. 15:1, March 1, 1991

Robert Normandeau was born in Québec in 1955, studied composition and electroacoustics at Université Laval and Université de Montréal, and is currently finishing his PhD with Francis Dhomont and Marcelle Deschênes. He too has many awards to his credit — he has won competitions such as Bourges 1986, 1988; Phonurgia-Nova 1986, 1987; and Luigi Russolo 1989 — and has held various residencies. He notes that work with artists in other disciplines, visual performance and cinema, are very important to him. Of particular note is Normandeau’s expert recording and processing technique. There is often a hyper-reality to his recorded sounds that produces a tactile sensuality, often glossed in a field of reverberation.

Jeu (1989) (“Game” / “Play”) is based on different uses of the word game/play in both literal and metaphorical senses. The play is subtle, refined, hinting at profundity and always sensually intriguing. Sound objects from renaissance choral music to a fragment of Stockhausen’s Hymnen dance before the ear in ways obscure, titillating, and evocative. The clear is made meaningful, the significant appears disguised in the commonplace. But it is only a game, isn’t it?

Mémoires vives (1989) is a “fascination with requiems.” It is also a refined study in sampler, collage, and reverberation techniques. Source materials are exclusively from requiems from the Gregorian Mass of the Dead to the present, transformed and used in time slices of a few milliseconds to almost a second. Reverberation ranges from none to immense in duration, and from small room to echo of several seconds in the density domain. Much of this work is a sonic projection of memory types and functions.

It is clear from the sensitivity to pitch-type material that Normandeau’s background has included an intimate study of Western pitch structures. While there is no overt use of pitch relationships in the small amount of material that can be considered pitched, there is a strong intuitive feel to the potential of this parameter for the creation and articulation of form. (Note especially the quasi II7 [supertonic seventh chord] structure from the Fauré Requiem at about 13 min 50 sec.)

The earlier works on the CD flesh out the background to these two works. About Rumeurs (Place de Ransbeck) (1987), Normandeau writes that the piece “oscillates between pure sound and meaning, without ever resolving to one or the other,” while Matrechka (1986) (the nested Russian dolls) “takes the form of an unveiling, a journey where reality, of a certain form, gives place to another reality. It uses the theme… that art should never be mistaken for the object it represents.” Doors open and close, voices sing and chide, waves break, as Magritte wrote under his painting of a pipe, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe).”

Le cap de la tourmente (1985) was created for an exhibit of five holographic sculptures, each with its own sound track. The version presented on this CD is an electroacoustic concert version based on these five sound tracks in only one of any number of realizations. The sounds are frequency modulation type complexes in a slowly evolving, quasi-pitched expansive context.

Normandeau refers to his latest work as “acousmatic pieces,” and also variously as “cinema for the ear.” The cryptic French word “acousmatique” is not only a manner of sound projection (diffusion) through numerous loudspeakers, but also a relationship between the sound and its meaning.

Electroacoustics is only slowly coming to grips with the perceptual parameters of our field, and is now starting to develop an analytical vocabulary which begins to deal with sound as object, symbol, metaphorical object, and metaphor. If language is accepted as vocabulary and syntax in the service of a semantic (including the relationships of same), the acousmatic use of pre-existing sonic objects allows for the immediate creation, perception, and understanding of form(s). This is because the basic sonic object (vocabulary element) is a whole and complete object, not requiring hierarchical relationship(s) (syntax) to obtain meaning (semantic). The creation of a syntax is achieved through the transformation of these vocabulary elements.

Calon moves the sonic entity towards the interior, an exploration of inner spaces. Normandeau often transforms the play of sonic-light through the creation of new (external) perspectives of existing sonic objects, such as chords from medieval choral works carefully inserted within the sounds of a Paris metro train. Calon transforms psychological space partly through the liquid consubstantiation of text. Normandeau transforms perceptual space partly through calling the individual’s own perceptual models into question.

Much more could be written about the textural nature of these two composers, and acousmatics in general; for example, the tendency, or even the necessity, of a linear and sectional approach to composition. The sound objects themselves, frequently made up of grouped elements, are often so complex that they will not easily submit to simultaneous layering. There are times when their natural, gestural duration requires that the composer allow the listener time to integrate the sound into the interior sonic framework. This requirement brings the composer to writing in medium, and occasionally large, symphonic durations.

Each composer addresses the material and moves from a similar source type (concrete and digital transformations applied mostly to concrete, but occasionally electronic sources), but in different directions (in/out). The works on the Calon CD are presented in chronological order, and Calon leads the listener to the present. Normandeau reveals the history of the object, by moving from present to past.

Careful headphone listening reveals a small number of minor technical flaws, but these works were not created for headphone listening, or for that matter, for listening in two-channel stereo. In the various electroacoustic concerts in Montréal (there are more than three regular series accounting for more than 30 concerts per year), these works are presented in sound projection systems with a minimum of eight channels, and as many as 24 and more. Eight to sixteen-channel diffusion is typical. In simple stereo listening, some of the material is spatialized as simple panning, but during the process of spatial actualization or sound projection in performance, these simple stereo localizations may become intricate directional weavings and spinning.

Much of the work carries with it an acoustical perspective (reverberation and basic localization characteristics). The use of various venues and types of loudspeakers provides the composer with means for physically expanding and contracting the source of the perceived sounds during this process of spatial actualization. It is because of this that individuals who have access to multispeaker systems, either for their own use or more importantly for public presentation, should consider that a two-channel presentation of these works is parallel to (for example) a piano version of Stockhausen’s Gruppen.

The series continues with a third CD of works by Alain Thibault, a fourth CD of three-minute works by 25 young composers (Électro clips), and a fifth CD containing the computer and interactive works of Vancouver composer Daniel Scheidt. I recommend them most highly, one and all.

… these works are journeys through — or the articulations of — inner, outer, hidden, or even unheard-of places or spaces.


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