Out of Montréal’s electroacoustic/acousmatic spearhead in sound art, empeintes DIGITALes, comes Chantal Dumas’ debut, Oscillations planétaires [Planetary Oscillations]. With a press kit that reads like a science textbook, the album explores some of Earth’s more intimate phenomena. Some of these oscillations are familiar: quakes and geysers. Other naturally occurring geo-drama such as Earth Tides and Geomagnetism have a more educational resonance. Since its radio premiere in July and concert premiere in December (both 2018), the commissioned work was revised in August of this year.
Each of the nine tracks accepts a title and conception of a geological process. Several address plate tectonics. Instead of an expected dominating sub bass and thundering drone, the frequency-blending often includes higher ranges. Formation de montagnes for example sounds reminiscent of a vintage sci-fi movie soundtrack. Marée crustale sweeps with delicious stereo panning as minimalist dynamics translate the briny shiftiness. Some of the work (which features Ida Toninato on baritone saxophone) is more easily conceptualized. There are obvious sonorous tidal and bubbly references.
Contributions come also from Daniel Áñez (piano on Dorsale médio-atlantique) and Claire Marchand who contributes flute on Geysers. Christian Olsen adds sparse, yet powerful drum kit performance on Dorsale médio-atlantique and Ondes sismiques. Fiona Ann Darbyshire contributed as scientific advisor. The predominant presence of electroacoustic effects, which define the album, are none more prevalent than during Magnétisme terrestre. Desired or not, the overall take-away affect of the album is a concrete eco-consciousness. There isn’t an ounce of proselytism herein. With subtleties and cool thematic structures Oscillations planétaires offers a grounds for legit conceptualization of ‘secrets of the deep,’ daftly demystified.
Commissioned by Deutschlandfunk Kultur in 2017 and broadcast first in July 2018, Oscillations planétaires evokes the larger geological cycles of planet Earth, from the eruptions of geysers and volcanoes to the motion of the tides and onwards to the formation of mountain ranges and the tectonic movements of the continental plates themselves.
Chantal Dumas uses both conventional instrumentation, synthesizers and other electronics over the course of just under an hour and nine movements to represent her impressions and elucidations of an entire planet-wide ecosystem in motion. So while there is much that directly connects to the sounds of land masses at their most active, much of Oscillations planétaires is necessarily impressionistic, the electronics wavering their metaphorical constructions in pulsating loops and babbling tones, their own low-frequency oscillations unable to run quite at geological rates.
The way in which the plates crumble and crash on Convection mantellique is particularly striking, where magma bubbles and boils below like the liquid musculature rippling beneath the subsurface, and the Geysers spurt and hubble under the huffing and skittering sounds of Claire Marchand ‘s flute, sputtering and rustling like eddies of superheated steam waiting to burst free. This it does, with ominous drama and a wetly resonant force, and the way which the soundscape is constructed is at once breathtaking and invigorating. Meanwhile, Formation de montagnes seems to build the high peaks from electronic modulations, its rippling beeps and rolling drones combining like the machinery that The Radiophonic Workshop might have used to represent Slartibartfast‘s fjordal constructions in the original broadcast of The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
Dumas lets the music sway and unfold, introducing searing banks of filtered waves and the occasional hint of a human chorale wafting on the swarming reverberations as formants drift lazily into the melded sonorities of Marée crustale, and the terminal sussurus of Plaque antarctique de loin en loin is plaintively mournful, marking the part of the planet’s surface undergoing perhaps its most shocking and profound moment of humanity-induced change.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Magnétisme terrestre offers the best opportunity for her to let the synthesizers do their electrical thing, tickling streams of oscillator burble and radio static hum weave in and out of a continuous magnetic storm that flickers like a fading fluorescent tube. Likewise, though the doomiest moment might well be expected on Ondes sismiques, instead Christian Olsen roughs up his drums, rolling thunderously as the ground shakes and a wailing warning sounds as the shape and face of the Earth’s foundations are rearranged.
Daniel Áñez (un)prepares and repurposes his piano while Olsen caresses and flutters at his drumkit to plumb the depths of the Dorsale médio-atlantique, the dark and relatively unexplored waters and its pigmentless denizens glimpsed in the fluid tapping of the keys and the counterpointed percussion. It feels suitably horizonless, up and down rendered at different scales, heaving with anticipation as much as hinting at the vastness lurking beyond visible distances, though any threat is perhaps illusory this far down in the uncaring deeps, waters rushing and lapping at the senses as an interface between land and sea is finally achieved.
As evocations of the grandeur of terrestrial existence goes, Oscillations planétaires is rather remarkably successful, its balance between simulation and abstract allusion finely judged. This is not so much an ambient soundtrack as it is a startling paean to a world that will nevertheless endure, no matter how much relatively puny humanity might have realised belatedly that it has effected an apparently unstoppable series of environmental catastrophes on its only home. But Earth will abide, even if its bipedal surface-dwellers may not do so for much longer in the style to which they had recently liked to become accustomed. The Oscillations planétaires will continue for another aeon or so; though entropy will inevitably claim the solar system too one day.
For every new release by Empreintes Digitales one can find biographical notes and information on the pieces on the cover. They have been using the same carton sleeve for many years now. I learned from the cover here that Justel is from Argentina and she lives in France, where she teaches ‘new composition techniques’ and electroacoustic music. Over the years several of her pieces have won prestigious prizes. It seems, perhaps, the sort of career that many composers featured on this label. There are seven pieces on this CD, the oldest from 2001 and the most recent from 2017. These pieces are a fine showcase of her interests in working with electroacoustic sounds. In such a piece as Marelle ou Les instants de la vie, these sounds a very much obscured and unknown to the listener, whereas in La radio, ça détend, there is short and vivid cut-up of radio sounds. In L she uses quotes from Serres, Eco, von Franz and in Purzelbäume, she works with a tango rhythm and sound, which has a beautiful estranging effect. It is a brief piece, but it works well for me. I didn’t understand why she used the computer warning sounds in two different pieces, as the first time it is quite refreshing to hear it on such an otherwise serious release, but the second time, you think, ‘oh, again?’ even when it is only once in a twelve-minute piece of music. I really enjoyed a few pieces, such as the aforementioned Purzelbäume, the quiet intensity of of the opening piece, Cercles et surfaces, the radio piece, the classic electroacoustic approach of Tapage nocturne, but was less fond of the title piece (the last one of this release, or L; perhaps because of all the French in this piece, which didn’t made it very easy for me. As an introduction to Elsa Justel, this is certainly a great CD.