It’s been a while since I’ve contributed to my on again/off again examination of the wonderful empreintes DIGITALes label. I’m going to dig deep into their catalog and talk about this stellar release from 2008. Ned Bouhalassa’s Gratte-cité is one of those releases that evokes, not only a long passage of time but also a vast soundscape, creating an unparalleled cinéma pour l’oreille. This sense of “the epic” is familiar to me because there are other releases on empreintes DIGITALes that deliver in the same way. I’m thinking specifically of the Gilles Gobeil / René Lussier release Le contrat and Arturo Parra’s Parr(A)cousmatique which I’ve also written about. It’s this boundless, infinitely expansive journey through environments both physical and metaphysical, rooted in both real time and a temporal otherworld that elevates Gratte-cité to such a compelling listen.
Full disclosure: When I first heard this, I was less than enamored… and I know why. The beats.
Full disclosure (addendum): Now… when I listen, I’m completely enamored… and I know why. The beats.
Bouhalassa has done something that I’m sure has been done before but… not in such a seamless, organic way. He married both live and electronic drum n’ bass elements to the Acousmatic world. And this marriage wins the “Power Couple” award usurping Brad and Angelina!
I’ll return to the beats in a bit but a little about Bouhalassa first. It appears that he has his feet in two worlds, not only working in the Acousmatic space but also creating music for film, television, and video. I’ve looked around and it seems his Acousmatic work is limited to this release and 1998’s Aérosol (also on empreintes DIGITALes). A quick search on YouTube reveals several short videos ranging from synth demos to short films and documentaries in which he created the soundtrack. Much of this newer music has a retro “synthwave” vibe to it, a vibe that also pokes its head out on Gratte-cité and not in a small way. (BTW, since I mentioned “synthwave”, the fact that there is even an element of it on this release really adds to its appeal when it’s mixed into the final mélange.)
Unfortunately, I can’t link you to any of the works on this album in their entirety but, like all empreintes DIGITALes releases, you can sample a healthy segment of each piece on their dedicated webpage. But, to really experience this album… a single listen straight through is the way to go. It’s long, about 76 minutes but, most good journeys are.
Gratte-cité (Cityscraper) can be looked at as the Acousmatic world’s version of a David Lean movie… it’s that big! Bouhalassa says:
In preparing the sonic materials for these pieces, I selected, like a DJ, what I liked out of my large collection of recordings, though in my case, these are recordings of city soundscapes. I then imagined a fantasy, where a gigantic vinyl record’s grooves are replaced by the jagged outline of skyscrapers, and I, a giant, drop an impossibly-large needle and begin to ‘play’ the city.
The first piece, The Lighthouse kicks things off in an ominous fashion. Horse hooves on cobblestone streets, old-timey music, faint human presence, and movement of sound to and fro from within the headspace all mingle with an unsettling drone. It all comes together to form a darkened city street, a place in the old world perhaps. The movement, the sound gestures all point claustrophobically inward… until they don’t! Enter the electronic beats… and enter they do in a grand, chest-thumping peacock strut that made me smile.
I remember on my first listen to this album not too long ago I didn’t smile. I was so taken aback by this overt display of “techno dance music” that so rudely interrupted my perfect symbiosis of loudspeaker / brain-infused dreaming I may have audibly uttered, “What is this shit”. But, as my full disclosure above intimates… I now have arrived at the realization of how bloody brilliant this move was. These rhythm blasts, both electronic and human-made (courtesy of Christian Olsen) are surgically dropped in at strategic places for what seems like the sole purpose to disrupt.
Disrupt? Yes, but disrupt what. Surely the answer to that will have as many different responses as there are listeners. One thing for sure though, these events create drama… and drama in Acousmatic music is or should be a prime goal.
The beats, which I now consider so important to this album are scattered across its entirety. They appear, they disrupt, they vanish… never wearing out their welcome, and they are beautiful!
The centerpiece of this album is the 34-minute Urban Cuts, a crazy patchwork of places, times, visions, and emotions. This is the piece that best demonstrates what he means by “playing the city”.
Bouhalassa “plays” three cities, Montréal, Las Vegas, and Berlin. The piece has no natural separation between places, but the listener can determine the change of locale by the natural, organic vibe change from what preceded it. Montréal and Berlin both display their urban plumage, moving from frenetic to serene, dark to light in a blink of an eye. It’s the Las Vegas middle section though that is the most compelling for me.
Bouhalassa achieves an extremely accurate sonic representation of the mystical solitude of desert life in stark contrast to the hedonistic frenzy of a casino. That being said, it’s possible for the listener to be transported to any number of places depending on… the listener. In the middle of this lengthy segment, the poet Fortner Anderson infuses the soundscape with lines from his poem, Vegas. His delivery is cold, with a sense of pathos, tension, and dread… doing an excellent job augmenting the already vivid pictures in this sonic epic.
This piece, as in all the others has the beats as well as a “just under the surface” bed of long tone, shifting, electronic, and futuristic synthwave layers. The addition of well-placed cello (by Delphine Measroch) is a nice touch as well. If Vangelis didn’t do such a great job with the soundtrack to Blade Runner, Urban Cuts would be a very able substitute.
The 16-minute mOrpheus also begins in a very 80’s synthwave fashion but eventually dissolves into a lonely, deserted sound world with some sparse, sustained Piano chords. The ear traveler is then ported over to a robotic, Kraftwerk-ish place for further examinations by whatever manner of nefarious beings who created this cold, sterile place. Outside there is panic and chaos but here, in this place… there is nothing but the warm, secure feeling of skin against the stainless-steel table on which you lie on. This piece has less of the organic natural world, with the synthetic sucking up all the atmosphere. Of course, your mileage will vary based on your own David Lean epic.
Unlike mOrpheus, Impulse, at 14 minutes begins with, what I consider… classic Acousmatic sound. This would fit well in the Francis Dhomont, Beatriz Ferreyra, or Denis Dufour zone. Sounds moving through space leaving the mind just enough time to get a fix on them before they are gone. More beats of the drum ’n’ bass variety eventually do kick in but don’t last long… giving way to all sorts of non-rhythmic, synthetic as well as organic atmospheres. With this in mind, Impulse may be the most evocative piece on the album, leaving the mind free to spin whatever image(s) it can generate.
The final piece, Songe errant is the shortest, at just under 6 minutes. Beats and synths cavort in a synthetic playground until night falls and the natural sound of “the world” takes over, and all is well.
The empreintes DIGITALes label has an extremely deep roster of great releases and I hope to be a bit more consistent in my coverage moving forward. Bouhalassa’s Gratte-cité is a very worthy addition to a long lineage of unique, adventurous sound explorers and comes VERY highly recommended. I should mention that you can grab a high-res download off the electrocd site. It was this format that I based this write-up on. Additionally, the physical product is available as a DVD-Audio with advanced resolution and 5.1 surround sound. I have this and, do I even need to say how incredible it sounds? This is a great release from the label’s back catalog!