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Debut solo release by the Montréal composer and sound artist Chantal Dumas is Oscillations planétaires, and it turns out to be electro-acoustic music themed on various geological phenomena of planet earth. On her annotations, Dumas discourses with a certain amount of authority as she sets out brief encyclopedia entries regarding earthquakes, the shifting of tectonic plates, the formation of mountain ranges, and geysers, as well less tangible things like seismic waves and the magnetic field of the earth. The music, structured in nine episodes across a 49:21 symphony, is intended to “evoke geology”. I’ve long thought this to be a popular trope in the field of electro-acoustic composition, for instance parts of Parmegiani’s La création du monde from 1986, or Tremblement de terre trés doux which François Bayle composed in 1978 (although the latter might be more of a simple landscape narrative than a journey to the centre of the earth). Dumas certainly succeeds in conveying the sense of the earth groaning to itself as it stretches its body in preparation for another day, and although the music is largely very abstract, it also feels generally rather prosaic and descriptive, with none of the imaginative leaps that Parmegiani brought to the task. However, it’s much more eventful and packed with more volume than some of the understated pieces we normally get from this Canadian label.
Musique concrète is a style of experimental music that is composed using recorded sounds.
Musique concrète originally dates from the late 1940s. Pierre Schaeffer and colleagues working for France’s public radio station, Radiodiffusion française (RDF) experimented with sound effects and other ‘real’ sounds recorded on disc. They played sounds forwards and backwards, changing their length, pitch and volume. The finished compositions were montages of sound. These experiments paved the way for the use of technology as part of the composing process, such as the use of samples and loops. Since then, this type of composition has moved from working with discs, to magnetic tape, to electronic sound files.
This is the first solo album from Chantal Dumas, released on empreintes DIGITALes, a Montréal label ’widely considered as the world leader in electroacoustics / acousmatics’ — though I’ll admit that it’s not a name known to me. Oscillations planétaires consists of nine electroacoustic pieces built around the interesting premise that the Earth contains ’undulatory motions of extremely varied temporal scales,’ contrasting, for example, imperceivable geological shifts with the daily movements of tides. This is an interesting, provocative idea but ultimately these things stand or fall, for me, on the quality of the sounds attached; Dumas does not disappoint.
In the spirit of the ‘temporal scales’ I mentioned, the first track, Tremblements de terre; Plaque antarctique; Subduction; Fosse océanique, begins with wind-like sounds and low end judders, before seismic reverberations erupt cavernously. Amidst the more ‘traditional’ electroacoustic sounds, it’s notable that a ambient-esque patch flickers in and out of the piece, before ending with cascading downward shimmers. The following track is somewhat of a reversal of the first, with long ascending drones; as Convection mantellique progresses it almost sounds like a processed recording of a warehouse, with circling vehicles, alarm sounds, and general hubbub, all laid on an eerie droning underbelly. Geysers begins with sea sounds, complete with something that sounds like seagulls, though all processed and spatially disrupted; this environment is then punctured by attacking percussive sounds, and what might be whale breath, indeed the track draws attention to the comparable cadences of breath and tide. From whales we turn to the insect chirruping of the fourth piece, which builds into a dense, expansive drone that is reminiscent of early Tangerine Dream and their ilk — complete with a suitable synth solo from Dumas. Whilst Marée crustale returns to the sea, with the sound of waves (also interrupted by electro thuds, as with Geysers) building into an almost orchestral lushness from more ambient pads; Magnétisme terrestre presents more recognisably electroacoustic fare, with a constantly shifting array of electronic sounds showing Dumas’ careful attention to detail — in particular some exquisite moments that sound like tape saturation, spilling and decaying. The next two pieces, Dorsale médio-atlantique and Ondes sismiques,’ jolt the listener. Although examination of the press release reveals that Oscillations planétaires was conceived with help from a small group of acoustic musicians, utilising baritone saxophone, flute, piano, and drums, it is with the opening of Dorsale médio-atlantique that we first hear any recognisable contributions from them — even though the saxophone and flute had been previously deployed. Thus the piece begins with an encroaching piano line, before being joined by cymbals and drones in an ecstatic, if at times tempestuous, crescendo, breaking down into more disjointed interactions that contrast tidal sounds with cymbal washes. Ondes sismiques brings the drums to the fore, with processed, dulled rhythms and kinetic snares, interspersed with what sounds like animal noises being stretched and prised apart.
The final track, Plaque antarctique de loin en loin acts as a short summarising coda to the album, again harking at ambient tones and atmospheres, and perhaps provides a neat sketch of the strength of Oscillations planétaires. This quality, in my eyes, is that the album successfully fuses electroacoustic approaches with a popular notion of ‘ambient music,’ to the extent of even using sounds that are recognisably akin to synth pads or patches. This is perhaps unusual in the ‘hard-boiled’ environment of academic electroacoustic, but it has the wonderful effect of making Oscillations planétaires feel incredibly accessible. Listeners who enjoy ambient music or 1970s synth works, but might run a mile from austere electroacoustic pieces, will find here a welcoming gateway that might encourage them to explore that austerity. This is not to suggest in any way that Dumas’ work is not rigorous or engaging; the temporal themes behind the release are engaged with, present sonically, and rooted with the use of field recordings; there is constant attention to detail, and repeated sounds and ideas give a true sense of coherency to the album. Oscillations planétaires offers a lot to the listener, on many different levels.