In the press
David Olds, The WholeNote, September 29, 2014These sounds are big, bold, brash and often abrasive, and listening is not recommended for the timid.
David Olds, The WholeNote, no. 9:5, February 1, 2004… this independent Montréal label is […] the most important catalogue of international electroacoustic artists.
David Olds, The WholeNote, no. 7:6, March 1, 2002… insight into one of Canada’s most creative minds.
David Olds, The WholeNote, no. 7:6, March 1, 2002Coulombe Saint-Marcoux made significant contributions in a variety of areas…
David Olds, SOUNDNotes, October 1, 1992… a must-have for anyone with a serious interest in the electroacoustic arts.
David Olds, SOUNDNotes, September 1, 1992… original, internationally successful works…
I have not often experienced epiphanies in this life. The first I remember was as a teenager on a family holiday which took us to Washington, D.C. and included a visit to the National Gallery of Art where, wandering off on my own, I turned a corner and found myself face to face with Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper. That was a profoundly moving moment and all at once I understood what was meant by the term masterpiece. That would have been in the late 1960s. The next came in 1984 while attending the finals of the CBC National Radio Competition for Young Composers. That year the only prize awarded in the electronic music category went to Paul Dolden for The Melting Voice Through Mazes Running. Although this extremely dense and dynamically intense work drove a number of people from the hall with fingers plugging their ears, I was enraptured by its visceral power. It was that work which inspired me to commission radiophonic works for my program Transfigured Night (1984-1991) at CKLN-FM. With the assistance of the Ontario Arts Council and later the Canada Council I was able to commission a dozen composers, beginning with Dolden who produced Caught in an Octagon of Unaccustomed Light which went on to win the Third Prize of the Luigi Russolo International Competition (Varese, Italy 1988).
Some 30 years later Dolden is still at it, honing his technique which involves recording and layering hundreds of tracks of instrumental and vocal sounds, and more recently including field recordings — cicadas, grasshoppers and crickets in the current instance — to create works of vast sonic complexity. The predominantly acoustic nature of the sound sources — although there is an extended electric guitar solo included here — is integral to his process which, while using technology to stack the layers, does not manipulate the samples electronically thereby leaving the purity of sound intact. In essence Dolden, who plays most of the instruments himself, creates and conducts a vast orchestra which could not exist in the everyday world.
Paul Dolden’s latest release, Who Has the Biggest Sound? (Starkland ST-220 starkland.com), includes two titles. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek, or at least playfully self-referential, title track which includes a narrator (Dolden) asking questions such as “Who can play the fastest? Who has the dreamiest melodies? Who can talk faster: crickets or man?” was co-commissioned by Réseaux des arts médiatiques (Montreal) and Diapason Gallery (New York). Although the narration seems a little condescending and self-indulgent, the layered textures that constitute the bulk of the composition are incredible to behold, or more accurately, behear.
The companion piece, The Un-Tempered Orchestra, commissioned by the Sinus Ton Festival (Germany), takes Bach’s exploration of the equal-tempered tuning system in the Well-Tempered Klavier as its point of departure. Whereas Bach demonstrated the viability of the then new symmetrical division of the octave into 12 equal steps, Dolden’s intention is to establish a “non-symmetrical building which uses non-tempered tuning systems, many of which have no octaves […] to create a new musical space within which Western and non-Western musical practices can co-exist […] a big modern multi-cultural family.” He goes on to say “In order to construct this house, first I wrote simple diatonic melodies and chord progressions. Then I recorded Eastern and Western performers reading these lines in their native dialect or tuning system. With the aid of new technologies I edited all these performances to fit under one symmetrical roof. […] Specifically we see our current Western [style] of playing reflected back to us and distorted by ancient musical tuning systems. By combining different musical languages and styles we invert time: what is old becomes new and vice versa. Please enjoy these moments of musical transcendence.” I know I did, but buyer beware. These sounds are big, bold, brash and often abrasive, and listening is not recommended for the timid.
Åke Parmerud’s Jeu d’ombres provided a strong reminder to me that this independent Montréal label is not just the most significant producer of Canadian electroacoustic recordings, but also has the most important catalogue of international electroacoustic artists. Swedish composer Åke Parmerud has been working in the field since the 1970’s and is recognized as a master of the genre. This current disc, with offerings from 1986 through 1999, provides an excellent introduction to his work. Of particular note are the mixed works: Strings & Shadows for harp and tape with Sofia Asunción Claro and Retur with the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet. I also enjoyed comparing Parmerud’s 1988 Stringquartett, a tape composition based on the manipulation of recorded string sounds, with Canadian Yves Daoust’s earlier Quatuor, which uses many of the same techniques. This latter work is, of course, also available from empreintes DIGITALes, on Daoust’s Anecdotes.
Canada has long been regarded as a breeding ground for electronic and electroacoustic activity. One reason for this was the creative genius of artistically inclined scientific inventor Hugh Le Caine (1914-1977).
Thanks to his invaluable contributions in the fields of radar and atomic physics Le Caine was given free rein to explore and develop his ideas regarding musical instrument design at the National Research Council. He developed a variety of instruments and devices incorporating technology several decades ahead of its time. Among his achievements were the “electronic sackbut,” one of the very first analog synthesizers, the “special purpose tape recorder” which allowed pitch alteration and incorporated primitive multi-tracking techniques, and the “touch sensitive keyboard” which enabled a performer to manipulate the notes on an electronic keyboard in ways that have only recently become commercially available. Gayle Young, who literally “wrote the book” on Hugh Le Caine (a biography entitled The Sackbut Blues) has produced a compact disc of incredible historic import. This document presents not only the technological achievements of this ingenious Canadian inventor, but also captures his sense of humour. While Le Caine did not consider himself a “composer” as such, he did have a background in music and the creative drive to use his training to create some exquisite “exercises” to show off his machines. And he created at least one “classic” of the electroacoustic genre, Dripsody, constructed entirely from the manipulated and transfigured sounds of a single drop of water. This CD provides not only an important piece of Canadian history, but also gives an insight into one of Canada’s most creative minds.
Perhaps more artistically creative than the scientific genius Hugh Le Caine, Quebec composer Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux (1938-1985) was another Canadian pioneer in the field of electroacoustic music. In 1968, at the suggestion of Iannis Xenakis, she went off to Paris to study at the Groupe de recherches musicales and also attended classes with Pierre Schaeffer, one of the original exponents of “musique concrète.” Returning to Montréal in 1971 she worked with colleagues Otto Joachim and Gilles Tremblay to establish an electroacoustic studio at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal where over the next fifteen years she created an impressive body of work. Coulombe Saint-Marcoux made significant contributions in a variety of areas: exploration of the voice as an instrument; the integration of electroacoustics with other artistic disciplines; reflection on the role of women composers; and experimentation with spatial trajectories to make the movement of sound more palpable to the listener.
Although many of her compositions include live performance with pre-recorded tape, the disc Impulsion focuses on the purely electroacoustic aspects of Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux’s compositional activity. It is a fitting tribute that this important historic document should be released by the Canadian success story empreintes DIGITALes, a Montréal label that twelve years after its founding boasts 65 titles in its catalog, featuring 76 composers and a total of 344 electroacoustic compositions. One suspects that none of this could have been achieved without the groundwork laid by the likes of Hugh Le Caine and Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux.
This release, the seventh from empreintes DIGITALes, is obviously a labour of love. Put out to coincide with the 65th birthday of composer Francis Dhomont, these two discs include more than 150 minutes of music (although music is a term that Dhomont disdains when applied to his “acousmatic” art). They are accompanied by a bilingual 216-page book of program notes, graphic representation of scores, catalogues of works and writings, an extended biographical essay, a definition of the term acousmatic and, most notably, 67 tributes by Dhomont’s colleagues. Somewhat daunting in its scope, this project makes abundantly clear just how large a presence Dhomont projects in his adopted home of Quebec.
A Frenchman by birth, he has been active in electroacoustic composition for more than 30 years. He has been teaching at l’Université de Montréal since 1980 and has been very influential in the development of electroacoustic technique and excellence in Quebec since then.
Mouvances~Métaphores [now out of print but reissued as IMED 9607 and IMED 9607] presents his work of the past decade, and the seven works recorded here give a good picture of the breadth of possibility within the world of musique concrète and acousmatic art. Dhomont’s sonic landscapes provide numerous landmarks for the explorer, with the recognizable sounds of trains and nightingales to reassure us as we wander through corridors and countrysides of unknown terrain. In Chiaroscuro, in tribute to the composers associated with the Évenements du Neuf concert-series in Montréal, we hear traces of compositions by John Rea, Denis Gougeon, José Evangelista and Claude Vivier. For the most part, however, we are unaware of the origins of the material, which Dhomont crafts through a variety of studio techniques into a compelling aural banquet.
The first disc in the set, Cycle de l’errance (“Cycle of Wanderings”) [IMED 9607], consists of a triptych composed between 1982 and 1989. The individual pieces (Points de fuite, … mourir un peu and Espace / Escape) are interrelated and provide a sonic treatise of Dhomont’s preoccupation with sound and its placement in space.
The second disc [Les dérives du signe (“The Drift of the Sign”), IMED 9608], while presented as a cycle as well, seems a much more arbitrary grouping, joined for convenience rather than by initial design. I wonder — given the historical focus of the accompanying words — whether we would not have been better served by the inclusion of an earlier work by this pioneer, especially when we consider that several of the pieces here have been previously available on CD.
This collection is an excellent introduction to the French school of acousmatic composition for the uninitiated, and a must-have for anyone with a serious interest in the electroacoustic arts.
With this release, the DIFFUSION i MéDIA company, which has been so successful with its empreintes DIGITALes line of CDs, launches a new label: SONARt. Dedicated to the proliferation of “invisible musics,” SONARt will focus on radiophonic works specific to the broadcast medium. This first release includes two well paired works by successful Quebec composers: Atlantide, by Michel-Georges Brégent and Golgot(h)a by Walter Boudreau. The two works are similar in scope and approach, and have both experienced some international success.
Composed in 1985, Atlantide is divided into seven sections that use a variety of musical approaches and languages to explore the tale of the lost city of Atlantis. From vocal soloists and childrents choir, through contemporary strings and winds, to saxophone quartet and baroque ensemble, with abundant use of computer synthesis and manipulation, Atlantide moves through a plethora of modes and moods in its submarine explorations. It is quite an effective work, and the 1985 jury of the Prix Italia (an international competition for radiophonic works) awarded it a First Mention and the Special Jury Prize.
Like Atlantide, Golgot(h)a was commissioned by Société Radio-Canada and was produced in its studios by a cast of dozens. It is a 1990 composition and, like its companion piece, it is roughly a half-hour in length. The original text is by Raôul Duguay and — in a bizarre fashion — is an account of the crucifixion of Christ. Personally, I find the computer treatment of Duguay’s voice unnecessarily unpleasant and some of the text, such as the recurring “photocopy” inexplicable. Overall, however, this is a successful piece that makes skilful and interesting use of a choral response by the 16th-century Spanish composer Luis de Vittoria, upon which all of the music is based. This work was the 1991 winner of the Grand Prix Paul Gilson, awarded by the Community of French-Language Public Radio.
This CD is an interesting and important release for the fledgling SONARt label, and it is especially encouraging to see SONARt pick up some of the slack left by current CBC/SRC recording policies. One can only wonder at the lack of vision at the “Corporation,” which endlessly releases standard and middle-ofthe-road modern repertoire on its own labels and then ends up leasing out original, internationally successful works to tiny labels. Thank goodness for the foresight and dedication of the people at DIFFUSION i MéDIA.