Artists Andrew Jones

Andrew Jones

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Electroacoustic Music Flourishes: Quebec a Hothouse for Diverse Pool of Styles, Talent

Andrew Jones, The Gazette, June 18, 1994

In the early-music debate currently all the rage in the classical world, learned musicologists are asking themselves how Mozart’s music should sound played on period instruments instead of modern ones.

If we reverse the concept, however, we arrive at an even more interesting question: What would Béla Bartók’s music have sounded like if he had had access to a modern recording studio?

The result would probably sound a lot like electroacoustic music.

Electroacoustic music is an abstract compositional form that was born in the recording studios of France’s national radio network during the 1940s.

Composers like Pierre Schaeffer realized that everyday sounds — a ticking clock, thunderstorms or even crashing Concordes — could be recorded and organized into “music” through tape techniques, in much the same way that Béla Bartók wove the folk music he recorded on wax discs into his own compositions.

Bad reputation

Like Bartók, electroacoustic music is a highly structured, tactile music reflecting the texture and rhythm of everyday sounds in our acoustic environment, only the recording studio is the main instrument rather than the piano or violin. Many of the techniques pioneered in electroacoustic music are commonplace in today’s urban pop music, from the sampling and sound collages of hip-hop DJs like Hank Shocklee to the inventive remixing of dub reggae.

Yet for years electroacoustic music itself has suffered a reputation as New Age’s inner-city cousin: a tedious, chaotic collision of found sound and synthesizer squawking that did no more to put our acoustic environment into perspective than a ride uptown on the subway.

Alain Thibault is trying to change all that. A composer in his own right, Thibault is also artistic director of Quebec’s flagship electroacoustic organization, the Association pour la création et la recherche électroacoustiques du Québec (ACREQ), which celebrates 15 years at the vanguard of new music exploration tomorrow at Redpath Hall.

The 37-year-old Quebec City native believes that to reach new audiences, electroacoustic music needs to come out of the studio.

”I have no interest in being a purist,” says Thibault. “More and more we see a crossover between musical genres, and what I’ve been trying to do with ACREQ is get electroacoustic music out of the contemporary music closet. I want to make it more alive, more accessible, without any artistic compromise.”

With this in mind, Thibault designed ACREQ’s current season as a multi-media affair.

Recital well received

The Dangerous Kitchen, an electroacoustic homage of Frank Zappa’s work that Thibault and Walter Boudreau staged last October, was an unqualified success. Electro Radio Days, broadcast in December, was an intriguing crosscountry checkup of radiophonic art. And there is still a buzz in the air about last month’s well-received recital by the hip Kronos Quartet.

The 15th-anniversary celebrations will feature performances both inside and outside Redpath Hall by a baker’s dozen of Québec composers who got their start with ACREQ, including Yves Daoust, Jean Piché and Bruce Pennycook. Many of the works involve pairing a live performer, such as a guitarist, pianist, harmonica player or dancer, with a computer.

”I’m interested in electroacoustic music that involves live performance,” says Thibault. “We now have the technology for extraordinary interaction; the tools are so much more sophisticated. But I don’t believe in putting the performer behind the technology. The lights should be on the performers, not the speakers.”

The wide scope of styles and influences that ACREQ has showcased over the years is a reflection of the diverse pool of electroacoustic talent that has settled in Quebec. While the music has long flourished in Canada, Québec has proven to be its hothouse.

Part of this has to do with the high quality of musical education here. McGill, Université de Montréal and Concordia all have state-of-the-art recording studios and new music departments. On the air, both the English and French CBC support the music through programs such as Brave New Waves, Two New Hours, Musique actuelle, and Chants Magnétiques.

”There is something that is very unique to Québec,” says Jean-François Denis, composer and major domo of empreintes DIGITALes, a record label devoted to the genre. “We take pretentious music out of the concert hall and put it into people’s hands in bars, on the radio, on the street. By doing that it becomes much more accessible. Heard this way, electroacoustic music can be as fun to listen to as musique actuelle.”

Denis has released 16 full-length CDs so far, and his catalogue encompasses composers drawn to both the American and European schools of electroacoustic thought. The former is influenced by technology and minimalism, the latter is more esoteric and dreamlike. The goal ot both schools, however, remains the same: to open our ears to the world of music we often tune out.

Music think tank

“Electroacoustics is an innovative medium,” says composer Claude Schryer of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community, a new music think-tank with its headquarters in Montréal.

“It has the possibility to tell us how to better hear our world. It can tell you how acoustic environments work, how they affect you, how you can improve them, how important silence is.

”The whole spectrum is exciting when you think about it.”

It has the possibility to tell us how to better hear our world.

Mr. Sandman

Andrew Jones, Montreal Mirror, no. 9:29, December 16, 1993

SONGWRITERS LOVINGLY CALL their dreams muses — a vocabulary to translate the compositional process. Hip artists, such as Brian Eno and Suzanne Vega, have gone so far as to say they have even heard entire songs handed down to them while they slept.

Dreams have long fascinated composer Serge Arcuri. Yet he could never quite bring their surreal, unearthly power to the stage with orchesiral instruments that were hundreds of years old. “Dreams, like myths, express themselves in a symbolic language, communication both obscure and universal,” Arcuri writes in the liner notes to his debut CD for empreintes DIGITALes, Les méandres du rêve. “At the heart of the night, brandished against this apparent death that is sleep, the dream world is more a product of senses and seduction than one of speech.”

The breakthrough for the 39-year-old native of Beauharnois was hearing electroacoustic music. This oft-misunderstood branch ofthe musical tree was born in 1949 when Pierre Schaeffer started using a tape recorder to bulk erase the musical past and record over it the music of the future, “musique concrète.” Forged and sculpted in the multi-track recording studio with both live and synthetic sound sources, electroacoustic music has always been headphone fodder, music for our personal headspace. Like dreams, electroacoustic music offers a hot-wired short cut to the subconscious, the topology of sounds triggering something different in every listener, a soundtrack to films and visuals limited only by our imaginations.

“I like the ease with which electroacoustic music can transport yourself into many different acoustic surroundings,” says Arcuri. “That’s much more diffcult to do in a concert hall. But on the other hand, I don’t like excluding instruments. I like to have a mix of electroacoustics and live instruments, so the work is somewhere between reality of the concert stage and the ‘inouïe’.”

Arcuri studied with Yves Daoust at Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal, and has an impressive list of commissioned works to his name from the SMCQ, ACREQ, CBC and The Vancouver New Music Society. It’s not difficult to understand why: Arcuri’s work avoids the studied aridity of most “musique concrète.” It’s dazzling, texturally ravishing, and propulsive, recalling the recent pop-oriented work of John Adams on Hoodoo Zephyr — only minus the minimalist pulse.

Les méandres du rêve (Dreams’ Meanders) was a long-term project begun in 1982 with Arcuri’s first electroacoustic piece Errances. Arcuri tried to keep a diary of dreams and incorporate them into the pieces as they were written, but found his dreams weren’t up to the quality of the project, so he decided to stick to themes rather than specifics. Indeed, most of the pieces here work on a visceral rather than literal level. Murmure, for example, revisits tribal myths about the origins of life and the big bang through processed and sampled breath sounds.

La porte des sables, for oboe, English horn, MIDI percussion and tape, is inspired by the fables of Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun’s novel The Sand Child. The music, while bereft of the quarter tones that permeate most Arabic music, evokes the serene, still mood of the desert through the arabesques of the horn playing. “Reading Jalloun opened my ears,” says Arcuri. “The idea of each door leading you deeper into myth, deeper into the unconscious.”

Arcuri has had the good fortune to work with intuitive and passionate soloists such as oboist Lawrence Cherney, harpist Erica Goodman, French homplayer Francis Ouellet and percussionist Trevor Tureski. “More and more instrumentalists are interested in working with electroacoustics,” Arcuri explains. “After all, these pieces were written to be included in someone’s repertory and to be easily played. I like to have open rhythm sections for the player to roam. I don’t like to be a metronome.”

Electroacoustic culture shocks rock Corazón Road

Andrew Jones, Montreal Mirror, no. 9:3, June 17, 1993

“It’s a mix of two cultures, but not a fair one, because one is over the other,” explains a disembodied Mexican voice in Juan et Cecilio. “In this case, it’s the European culture over ours.” The point raised is as old as Columbus, but it takes on a new significance considering the voice (Juan or Cecilio?) was captured , sampled, and spliced into a new electroacoustic work, Corazón Road, by the French electroacoustic duo, Kristoff K.Roll.

When David Byrne and Brian Eno sample a Southern preacher, a muezzin signing the Koran and other ethnic sources in their landmark 1980 recording My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the juxtaposition of the bush and the ivory tower opened up a theoretical can of worms previously untouched in the annals of pop music. This was no longer a matter of Elvis copying R&B singners. It sparked an ongoing discussion about the ethics of blatantly appropriating the music of indigenous cultures to serve western compositionals ends.

Byrne and Eno’s methods seem crude, almost passé, given today’s consumer eclectism and studio technology. Everyone from the high-profile WOMAD organization in England — who record Qawwali signer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with western studio musicians — to the little-known Italian composers Roberto Musci and Giovanni Venosta — who deftly dovetailed Ravel with choral singing from Zimbabwe on their record for the ReR Megacorp label — freely partake on the wealth of indigenous world music available to them, creating new forms of music that inevitably decontextualise the original sources in the process.

Kristoff K.Roll’s Corazón Road is neither an exemple of ethnological forgery nor a subjective soundtrack. Shooting for, as they put it, “The poetry of everyday life,” Carole Rieussec and Jean-Christophe Camps began reaserch for their sprawling work during a trip to Mexico City in 1990. Ovr the next year, they made a circuitous path through Central America, recording everything from a New Year’s celebration in Guatemala City to cascading waterfalls to a morning stroll in Uxmal to young rappers in Belize. Hours of field recordings and notes resulted in a work in three “tableaux” with interludes.

Corazón Road is the latest adventurous release for SONARt, a subsidiary of Montréal’s flagship electroacoustic label, empreintes DIGITALes. Where empreintes DIGITALes concentrates on textbook electroacoustic works, having released works by Francis Dhomont, Alain Thibault, Robert Normandeau, Daniel Scheidt, SONARt borders more on “musique actuelle.” Their first release was Michel-Georges Brégent’s radiophonic creation, Atlantide, followed by Alain Thibault’s science-fiction opera for folo soprano, Ne blâmez jamais les bédoins.

Corazón Road opens with an electroacoustically-derived pulse, a heartbeat with samples of children laughter, religious ritual, circus hurlyburly and rustling papers mixed in with the beating sounds. Troughout the recourding, the present intrudes on the past. A deep cultural rift runs through the idyllic countryside in Aqui en Yucatan. You can hear it in samples of a carnival’s calliopes and laughter, kids selling Coke and in the bullhorns of police directing the bus ride to Belize.

A few young rappers in Belize City have their raw rimes distorted and treated, a document of life in a large port charged with the tense atmosphere of films like A touch of Evil and Under the Volcano. A collage of hip-hop and reggae blaring from a radio gives way to recordings of the river and muted airplanes motors in Guatemala, wich employs repetitive voice loops like Zoviet France. Corazón Road ends where it began: with the primordial pulse of the sea as the waves crash against Pacific coastlines.

The sonic topology of Corazón Road triggers the other senses. You can hear, smell and taste the cofee, cigarettes, oranges, firecrakers and saltwater breezes. Troughout the work the liquid, shifting sonorities conjure up that curious sense of suspended time and dislocation we feel when we are in the grip of a totally unfamiliar place far from our home.Think of it as the soundtrack Godfrey Reggio should have had for the powerful images of the Third world in his film Powwaqatsi, instead of Philip Glass’s static minimalism. Corazón Road functions much like a mnemonic device: It has the power to evoke, yet leaves the listener to fill in the rest.

The sonic topology of Corazón Road triggers the other senses.


Andrew Jones, Montreal Mirror, no. 8:38, March 4, 1993

A chamber opera for solo soprano with a cast that includes Santa Claus and Stalin, René-Daniel DuboisNe blâmez jamais les bédouins is the first recorded effort of Chants Libres, a Québécois group dedicated to contemporary opera. Alain Thibault’s remarkable and schizophrenic musical score draws on both Burroughs’s cut-up method and Raymond Queneau’s mathematical wordplay, diftly juggling linear and vertical story lines that soprano Pauline Vaillancourt carves poetry from in her tour-de-force performance. Bracing and original.

… tour-de-force performance. Bracing and original.

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