Jonty Harrison

An Itinerary Through Northern Europe

François Couture, electrocd.com, February 9, 2004

This is a casual listening path, an invitation to travel — not a guided tour per se, more of an itinerary, akin to Romantic-era travel literature. So this will be a listening itinerary, an invitation to discover a highly subjective selection of electroacoustic composers from a specific corner of the world. Our destination: Northern Europe.

France reigns over European electroacoustic music like a despotic queen. The persisting influence of Pierre Schaeffer’s work — even more than 50 years after the invention of what he has called “musique concrète” — and the gravitational pull of the Ina-GRM tend to hide from the rest of the world the work being accomplished elsewhere in Europe.

So let’s start our journey in one of France’s neighbors, Belgium. The country owes much of its electroacoustic activity to Annette Vande Gorne, the indefatigable animator of the Musiques & Recherches center. Her music displays a strong sense of serenity, something rare in the field of tape music. Tao, a cycle about the five base elements (air, earth, metal, fire and water), remains a classic. In it she explores every possible transformation of the sounds associated to these elements with an uncommon level of artistry and poetry. A student of Vande Gorne, Stephan Dunkelman has picked up on her grace, a grace he transmutes into movement. Often the result of a collaboration with choreographers, his works are driven by an inner force that substitutes the sensuality of movement to Vande Gorne’s philosophical — almost mystical — depth. His pieces Rituellipses and Thru, Above and Between, released on the album Rhizomes, deserve your attention.

A jump across the Northern Sea and we set foot on English ground. Birmingham has become an important creative node in electroacoustic music, thanks to the work of composer Jonty Harrsison and his Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre (better known as BEAST), a laboratory for experimentation and sound diffusion that has helped many talented composers in developing their art. Harrison’s music is an essential listen. His piece Klang (released on Évidence matérielle) ranks among the best-known electroacoustic works of the last 25 years. His precise sound constructions and his distinctive way of compressing sound matter into streams of energy put him up there with Pierre Henry, Francis Dhomont and Bernard Bernard Parmegiani. One can follow the traces of his techniques into the works of Adrian Moore, one of his students, especially in the latter’s fondness for putting simple sound sources (marker on a white board, tin foil) through complex transformations. Sieve, from the album Traces, uses a catchy playfulness to make this transformative process transparent.

Denis Smalley was born and raised in New Zealand, but he has been living in the UK since the mid-‘70s. His contributions to the acousmatic corpus and to the development of sound diffusion make him not only the contemporary but in a sense the acolyte of Harrison. Furthermore, the two composers share a similar interest in form and in the choreographed displacement of abstract sound objects through space and time. Wind Chimes (on Impacts intérieurs) and Base Metals (on Sources/Scènes) are good illustrations of the slightly cold yet fascinating beauty of his music. John Young, one of his students — and another New-Zealander who studied and now teaches in England), follows a similar approach, although he replaces Smalley’s elemental sound sources with more emotionally charged images. The works featured on his CD La limite du bruit offer to the listener several occasions to dive into his or her own memories, the sound of a squeaky swing or a creaky door turning into avatars of Proust’s madeleine. Time, Motion and Memory is a choice cut.

Scandinavian electroacoustic music is still too largely ignored on our side of the Atlantic, but empreintes DIGITALes’ catalog allows us to make a short stop to round up our peregrinations. Natasha Barrett has studied with Harrison and Smalley and has been involved in BEAST, but since 1998 she has elected Norway as her base camp. There, she has stepped away from the style of her teachers and has sought inspiration in the Nordic cold. Her Three Fictions, released on Isostasie, deserve many listens. And let me bring this listening path to an end with one of the key composers in electroacoustic music today, the Swedish Åke Parmerud, whose Renaissance (on Jeu d’ombres) pays tribute to the analog synthesizer without resorting to nostalgic tricks.

Trois aspects du bonheur

François Tousignant, Le Devoir, May 19, 2001

Il faut bien que je vous parle de ce disque pour deux choses. La première s’impose: la beauté de la musique. Jonty Harrison est un très grand compositeur et cette sorte de portrait nous emmène dans tellement d’univers variés qu’on s’étonne de la puissance d’imagination dont est capable l’espèce humaine. Ici, le critique a tout dit et laisse la place à votre bon vouloir d’entendre en vous le recommandant à tout le moins chaudement, même aux rébarbatifs à l’acousmatique.

La seconde est une vraie farce, de celles qu’on ne commet qu’avec la plus complète sincérité. J’ose donc ici une sorte d’impudique confidence. En entendant Klang (œuvre magnifique), je n’ai pu m’empêcher de penser à des cloches japonaises du temple. Je maintiens: c’en est vraiment le son. Mais une amie m’a dit se retrouver dans sa cuisine et ses casseroles en entendant cela. Quelle honte: je croyais à plus de noblesse et pourtant oui: ce sont des casseroles: je fus berné et m’en confesse sans modestie.

Jamais batterie de cuisine ne fut si résonnante et riche de potentialité. Et, effectivement, la poésie sonore s’enrichit de cette vision qui trouve sa source dans le hasard du quotidien; Cage avait raison de dire que la musique, dans le fond est plus dans l’oreille de celui qui écoute que dans celle de celui la fait. Il y a toujours un impondérable quelque part que l’artiste transforme et qui — Jonty Harrison — devient révélateur. On voudrait bien des mots pour dire cela. Heureusement il y a mieux, à savoir la musique. C’est plus que suffisant.

… un très grand compositeur… on s’étonne de la puissance d’imagination dont est capable l’espèce humaine.

Evidence Often Extraordinary

Alexander Varty, The Georgia Straight, April 1, 2001

It’s not unusual to hear people talk about recordings that take you on a journey, usually in the context of sounds that are tropical, uplifting, or expansively — and expensively—produced. Jonty Harrison’s Sorties, however, doesn’t so much lead you through a sonic landscape as buridle you, blindfolded and confused, into the back of a car, destination unknown.

A series of linked soundscape vignettes, this 15-minute piece begins placidly enough, perhaps any ordinary urban street. Heels click against the pavement; cars - thrum by on what sounds like wet asphalt; children’s voices clatter from the reflective shop windows nearby; an indistinct bass line wafts from a second-floor studio. But then the mood changes: the squealing of subway brakes leads to a minor scuffle, after witch a door slams shut and the ambient noises fade to black. But the work is far from being over. Keys rattle against locks, tumblers turn, an oddly musical creak — electronically processed saxophone? — signifies the opening of another door.

In this new world, it’s raining; thunder booms, and then the downpour stops as the listener kicks along a shingle beach, waves plashing nearby, before being pulled through yet another door into a leafy garden of birdsong; in the distance, a puzzled child cries “Mommy! There’s a shoe!

What domestic or criminal drama is being played out here remains unexplained, as the listener is quickly taken away from this pastoral scene. A buzzing fly morphs into droning industrial noise and then into a silvery synthesized chord, which in turn becomes the noise of a passing bus as the initial street reappears, this tune overlaid with a mesh of clicking and whirring. The piece continues for another minute or so until, finally, ominous low pulses signal its uneasy end.

Sorties a title intended to be read for both its English and French meanings — is taken from Évidence matérielle, Harrison’s new CD on the Montréal-based empreintes DIGITALes label, and in the liner notes the composer explains that “the dominant sound image of the work is that of leaving (exiting, escaping, fleeing) an interior space for an exterior one, only to find that one is mysteriously and inevitably trapped once again in another ‘interior’.”

Be that as it may, when one listens to this work on headphones, in a darkened room, it’s hard to detect that the listener has any hope of escape. Harrison’s sonic images have such presence that one really does seem kidnapped, swept away in the composer’s design, and although the feeling is not always-comfortable it’s as gripping as a pair of handcuffs.

Sorties is an extraordinay piece, as are most of the other works collected on Évidence matérielle. The glorious, metallic physicality of Klang; the fractured yet evocative images of Splintering the appropriately transparent liquidity of Streams: all use a supposedly cool medium — electronic music - to paint warm portraits of human experience. Only Surface Tension fails to cohere: it’s an attempt to make music by sampling and manipulating the sounds of discarded packing materials and other rubbish, but those noises are too amorphous and its structure too indistinct to be fully involving.

Harrison’s compositions are typical of those featured on empreintes DIGITALes, which with 58 titles in its catalogue is perhaps the world’s leading record label dedicated to electroacoustic music. Its productions run the gamut from “environmental” sounds made up of electronically manipulated field recordings to the purely digital concoctions of the recording studio, and its roster includes such Vancouver composers as Sergio Barroso, Paul Dolden, and Hildegard Westerkamp. Vancouver and Montréal are both hotbeds of this kind of work, but an indication of empreintes DIGITALes’ status in the world at large is that only one Canadian composer is represented in its four new releases. Accompanying Harrison’s CD are albums by his student and fellow Englishman Adrian Moore and New Zealand’s Denis Smalley, in addition to one from Montréal’s Louis Dufort.

Space precludes full reviews of these, but it’s probably fair that all four composers share a common aesthetics - although whether that is the result of a shared philosophical outlook or something forced on them by the technology they’re working with is hard to say. Whatever the case, if you’re looking for drama Dufort is your man; his dynamic range is greater and his sounds harsher than those used by his English and Kiwi counterparts. But, like them, he’s interested in building long, flowing compositions from small sound sources. By compressing, stretching, and twisting familiar noises, and by the steady aecumulation of sonic detail, all four make music that is transporting — even if, as in Harrison’s Sorties, the journey isn’t always fun.

… one really does seem kidnapped, swept away in the composer’s design…


André Mayer, Musicworks, no. 71, June 1, 1998

Articles indéfinis is not as varied a collection as Contes de la memoire, but it still amply displays Harrison’s importance. The disc begins with Pair / Impair, recorded in 1978, a manic depressive composition in which Harrison sought to reconcile dynamics and stasis. The electronic and acoustic tones on Pair / Impair still seem otherwordly over twenty years later.

The centrepiece of Articles indéfinis is … et ainsi de suite… (1992), an eleven-part suite of musique concrète. Harrison utilized wine glasses as his raw texture, then time-stretched and digitally manipulated the sounds to create a mesmerizing sonic canvas. The final piece, Hot Air (1995), is notable because it is a study of air — children’s balloons were merely a starting point for a complex exploration of the dynamics of breath and the energy needed to achieve it. The result essentially offers a wordless philosophical discussion on the concepts of air and heat.

Appleton and Harrison’s work can be truly held up as visionary; their influence can be heard in modern electronic bands such as Germany’s Mouse on Mars and Britain’s Autechre, which have taken raw, sometimes unpalatable sound experiments and forged engaging and more commercially viable equivalents.

Appleton and Harrison’s work can be truly held up as visionary

C’est le temps des récoltes

François Tousignant, Le Devoir, October 19, 1996

Amateurs de découvertes, vous allez être servis. L’insolite, l’original et le neuf sont ici au rendez-vous avec la plus grande efficacité et l’art dans ce qu’il a de plus attirant et gratifiant. Le Britannique Jonty Harrison nous emmène en voyage comme seul sait le faire un électroacousticien de haute-voltige. Murmures de cloches, bulles synthétiques, dialogues des sons de tout genres se répercutant d’un haut-parleur à l’autre, sont les artifices de son langage. C’est le degré un de la séduction, celui qui force la deuxième écoute. Alors, on entre dans un univers qui titille le cerveau, chatouille l’oreille, fascine le cœur et ravit l’auditeur.

Naturellement, il ne s’agit pas de musique d’atmosphère; il est question de sonorités mises en forme (et parfois déformées, quel bonheur) dans ce qu’elles ont de plus subtil et ténu. Le compositeur s’intéresse à une texture, à une couleur, la manipule, la fait voyager, lui associe quelques objets sonores qui la mettent en relief, lui font parcourir un itinéraire original et qui révèle un sens à la fois ludique et intelligent.

… et ainsi de suite… en est un bel exemple; pendant les vingt minutes de cette «suite», aucun moment d’ennui ni méme de lassitude. Si vous voulez apprivoiser la musique sur bande, c’est par là qu’il vous faut commencer. Harrison n’agresse pas, il séduit, et le charme britannique est irrésistible, vous le savez bien.

L’univers sonore est volontairement restreint. Cela permet de se repérer plus facilement et surtout de suivre le processus ou, plus justement, la surprise dans l’évolution des processus. Il ne faut pas confondre cette notion avec celle de procédé. Le procédé ennuie par sa répétitivité et la prévisibilité même avec laquelle un événement qui se voudrait surprise; le processus, lui, permet d’établir un réseau et de s’en écarter pour créer la véritable surprise, même nuancée et fine, et stimuler l’attention, donc, en musique, l’émotion.

Cette petite collection de perles rares arrive comme un bain de fraîcheur dans un univers qui parfois semble uniformément morne. C’est qu’au lieu de faire une démonstration savante de son esthétique, le compositeur s’adresse d’abord au côté inquisiteur de l’oreille, l’oreille qui cherche, curieuse. Et qui trouve! C’est cela le plus beau.

Petite anecdote cocasse et humoristique: on indique que ce disque est «produit au Québec, made in Canada». Comprenne ce qu’il veut qui le pourra.

L’insolite, l’original et le neuf sont ici au rendez-vous avec la plus grande efficacité et l’art dans ce qu’il a de plus attirant et gratifiant.