Dominique Bassal

Composer Profile: Dominique Bassal

David Leone, Musica Kaleidoskopea, July 25, 2014

Composer and sound engineer Dominique Bassal studied electroacoustic music at a time where that discipline was at the cutting edge of audio technology. He started working in commercial music production as an arranger, producer, and studio manager, where he applied avant-garde techniques to the world of pop music, narrow and conservative at the time. However, starting in the mid-1980s, positions shifted, the music industry taking the lead in assimilating technological progress. When Bassal came back to electroacoustic in 2001, he found himself able to share the knowledge and know-how of the industry with a discipline enfeebled by years of inadequate financing and academic isolation.

Since then, Bassal has gained recognition within the global electroacoustic community for his passionate commitment to increase the professional aspect of electroacoustic music production. He is the author of the unique and innovative document The Practice of Mastering in Electroacoustics (December 2002) and its online extension Mastering in Electroacoustics: State of Affairs (eContact 9.3, April 2007; English version: November 2007). Bassal has been empreintes DIGITALes’ mastering engineer since 2004; he has mastered a significant number of the label’s CD-Audio’s and DVD-Audio’s. He has also presented his research work in seminars all across Canada and the UK.

Winner of the 2002 edition of Jeu de temps / Times Play, Bassal has been a jury for this competition since 2003. His works have been performed in various settings, such as the ÉuCuE concert series (Concordia University, Montréal), the 3rd Festival Musica Acusmatica (Cagliari, Sardinia), and more recently in Manchester, Keele, Birmingham, and Bangor.

Bassal’s music is the result of two separate artistic processes, one qualitative and the other proceeding from aesthetics.

The qualitative aspect of his work submits the generation and organization of sound materials to production standards inherited from his background in audio production and mastering. A part of these standards are production-oriented and aimed at achieving a general feeling of auditive comfort: rich spectral content, integrity of transients, balanced spatialization, and, most importantly, transparent layers without compromising on density. The other part of these standards are reception-oriented and revolve around the concept of narrative dynamism: visually evocative vocabulary freed from the conceptual diktat, conscious use of the spectacular and the fascinating, maintaining interest, balancing comfortable narrative episodes and elements of surprise…

The esthetic aspect of Bassal’s artistic process is based on polyphonic ambiences — arrangement of intense spaces that can be cold and relentless, tense and disquieting, or strange and luxuriant. And no compromise whatsoever content-wise: no message of serenity or resignation, no praise for any tangible or “spiritual” power, no toning down the description of a world where cynicism and cruelty seem rampant on a cosmic scale.

The questions

What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

I have several “first memories,” the conflicting nature of which is most likely central to my intellectual development regarding music.

I come from a family of Levantine businessmen and industrialists, that had gradually moved to Egypt between 1850 and 1920. Their least concern was certainly music. However, one day – I must have been three or four years old – I entered the living room, normally forbidden to the children, and I heard an English-speaking singer on the radio – probably Elvis – whose voice caused me to “glow” inside.

A few years later, after we emigrated to Québec, and in a context in which the music of The Beatles was still considered scandalous, my parents did not hesitate to have us children imitate for visitors the “primitive” dance performed by the mop-topped young band. Hearing on the radio (it may have been A Hard Day’s Night or perhaps it was Help!) I pathetically attempted to feign the same contempt for the song expressed by the adults, but deep down, I found it very exciting. However, as a child of eight years old, freedom of expression is somewhat of an illusion.

My parents then bought a turntable and since no one else used it, I installed it in my room. I would let it play constantly, night after night, but the only records available at home were a box of the nine Beethoven symphonies conducted by René Leibovitz, whose lightness and clarity must have had a profound influence, although subconsciously, on me.

At 14, I felt the need to run with the pack, and I absolutely had to be “cool”. So, I bought Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but my disappointment was intense. I could not bear the indulgence in squealing sounds, the out-of-tune guitars, and the whole sound seemed to me disjointed and unsophisticated on this record. Leibovitz had done its work. After hearing several more disappointing records, I finally managed to enjoy the sound of the eponymous album by The Doors, which was more professionally produced and this allowed me to forget Beethoven for some years.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work? Has this changed over time?

Composers? Not really. I could cite Parmegiani, but the truth is that the musicians who really influenced me have been complete unknowns; anonymous geniuses no one has heard of, trying their luck in the world of popular music. These are phenomenal talents, outlandish, whose strange and intensely original character is almost always an insurmountable obstacle to success. While the kind that rises to the top is the pleasant, conservative, somewhat moronic and intensely histrionic type. In actuality, there is a ruthless filter, quite absurd, that is imposed by the complete venality of the people responsible for the production and distribution of popular music, and it guarantees increasing mediocrity of the genre.

Musical talent is distributed very democratically in the human race, so that the “high birth” does not guarantee anything in this regard. Which implies that, in the refined world of the recording studios, and among the avant-garde in which I later was seriously involved, I always felt a pathetic lack of real talent…

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process? What other technology, if any, do you use?

The computer was, for me, a real liberator: I could finally, in avant-garde, try to compensate, alone – and without having to flatter, reassure or pretend to “feel” with anyone – for the deficit mentioned above… at least in theory. In practice, it was not until after 2005 that real Hi-Fi technology appeared in digital audio and sufficiently powerful virtual instruments were available to achieve my aspirations.

Of course, there is no option for me to compose every day: it is economically impossible. I subsidize my composing by mastering for labels, among others, vanguard – again, thanks to Mr Leibovitz.

Please describe a recent work and provide a link to an audio clip.

My new album, Poupées mathématiques (2014) is presented as a music-only Blu-ray, in hi-definition 7.1, 5.1 and stereo mixes (96 kHz/24-bit, lossless DTS-HD Master Audio encoding); in terms of accessibility and playback quality, this format is currently unmatched for electroacoustic music.

Poupées mathématiques also marks the beginning of a true desire to experiment with ways out of the “acousmatic cul-de-sac.” Sound quality alone will not make listeners forget about decades of opacity abuse. The time-tested recipe are well known: texts consisting of love prayers, middle-class melancholy, personal exaltation; prehistoric dance rhythms, and harmonic combinations that were almost all pioneered in the 16th century. These antiquated resources, from which “approved” music genres keep drawing limitlessly, are incompatible with the basic – and still valid – acousmatic statement, which is to refuse imposed reality and to build utopian, fascinating, and paradoxical ambiences.

Without these recipes, can we interest musically the contemporary human brain, perhaps the most heavily formatted brain of all time? Can we recycle these ancient pressure points, if only to openly reveal their bloated absurdity, their brainless sentimentalism, their cynical authoritarianism, their elemental moralism? Is it possible to reconcile audiences with the notion of avant-garde creativity freed from “rebel” sonic attitudes? The challenge of Poupées mathématiques can be summed up very briefly: to make the only artistic project worth undertaking clearer and more relevant, the project of lighting the way to the end of mindlessness.

Is it possible to reconcile audiences with the notion of avant-garde creativity freed from “rebel” sonic attitudes?