Robert Normandeau’s Mélancolie (IMED 21174) contains five recent compositions from 2013 up to 2021, although the dates for each of them indicate that he spends many years burnishing these works before bringing them to a state of completion. This particular release showcases his “cinema of the ear” aesthetic, a principle he has long adhered to, referring to the way that meaning/content play as important a role in his work as the sounds he makes.
As to that sound, all five pieces here were originally played back in “a dome of loudspeakers”, an image that suggest an ideal performance space that affords that truly “immersive” experience that Normandeau seeks. The music here does indeed seem to aim for that all-encompassing blanket of sound, a close-knit fabric which envelops the listener. Although he’s a maestro of digital processing, it’s true that Le ravissement here did start life as a conventional string quartet and solo singers, but after he’s finished his interventions the individual voicings of these instruments are subsumed within the larger ocean. He’s playing on the meaning of the word “rapture” to mean both a transcendent spiritual experience, and a “ravishing” with its connotations of plundering (and of rape, unfortunately); Normandeau uses these terms to express the way he is stretching “time and spectra” to the limit, through a method he likens to laminage, a specific term used in plastic manufacture.
Even more profound are the changes wrought in Melancholia, which was completely derived from the sounds made by the bandoneon (a member of the concertina family), yet what results is a largely alien, unrecognisable grey landscape filled with the shadows of sorrow and painful longing. Savour the brief passages where the bandoneon’s chords are overdubbed and treated until they resemble a grief-stricken church organ playing a funeral hymn. Tunnel azur is the most conspicuous example of the “cinema of the ear” notion, packed with audio content including sounds derived from recordings of trains, tunnels, crowds, and workers, and suggesting a fragmented narrative structured around the opposing ideas of “day and night”; Normandeau evidently likes the idea of being in a dark tunnel when the sky outside is bright blue. Perhaps surprisingly, Tunnel azur doesn’t attempt to suggest forward movement or speed, but is much more contemplative in nature, suggesting a trip to the underworld where we can enjoy the grim vistas from the safety of a passenger seat. The density and complexity is deepened by the use of an octobass, and a Mahler quote — or rather, an allusion to Normandeau’s memory of seeing Kent Nagano conducting Mahler. Of such nuances is this composer’s work woven.