In the early-music debate currently all the rage in the classical world, learned musicologists are asking themselves how Mozart’s music should sound played on period instruments instead of modern ones.
If we reverse the concept, however, we arrive at an even more interesting question: What would Béla Bartók’s music have sounded like if he had had access to a modern recording studio?
The result would probably sound a lot like electroacoustic music.
Electroacoustic music is an abstract compositional form that was born in the recording studios of France’s national radio network during the 1940s.
Composers like Pierre Schaeffer realized that everyday sounds — a ticking clock, thunderstorms or even crashing Concordes — could be recorded and organized into “music” through tape techniques, in much the same way that Béla Bartók wove the folk music he recorded on wax discs into his own compositions.
Like Bartók, electroacoustic music is a highly structured, tactile music reflecting the texture and rhythm of everyday sounds in our acoustic environment, only the recording studio is the main instrument rather than the piano or violin. Many of the techniques pioneered in electroacoustic music are commonplace in today’s urban pop music, from the sampling and sound collages of hip-hop DJs like Hank Shocklee to the inventive remixing of dub reggae.
Yet for years electroacoustic music itself has suffered a reputation as New Age’s inner-city cousin: a tedious, chaotic collision of found sound and synthesizer squawking that did no more to put our acoustic environment into perspective than a ride uptown on the subway.
Alain Thibault is trying to change all that. A composer in his own right, Thibault is also artistic director of Quebec’s flagship electroacoustic organization, the Association pour la création et la recherche électroacoustiques du Québec (ACREQ), which celebrates 15 years at the vanguard of new music exploration tomorrow at Redpath Hall.
The 37-year-old Quebec City native believes that to reach new audiences, electroacoustic music needs to come out of the studio.
”I have no interest in being a purist,” says Thibault. “More and more we see a crossover between musical genres, and what I’ve been trying to do with ACREQ is get electroacoustic music out of the contemporary music closet. I want to make it more alive, more accessible, without any artistic compromise.”
With this in mind, Thibault designed ACREQ’s current season as a multi-media affair.
Recital well received
The Dangerous Kitchen, an electroacoustic homage of Frank Zappa’s work that Thibault and Walter Boudreau staged last October, was an unqualified success. Electro Radio Days, broadcast in December, was an intriguing crosscountry checkup of radiophonic art. And there is still a buzz in the air about last month’s well-received recital by the hip Kronos Quartet.
The 15th-anniversary celebrations will feature performances both inside and outside Redpath Hall by a baker’s dozen of Québec composers who got their start with ACREQ, including Yves Daoust, Jean Piché and Bruce Pennycook. Many of the works involve pairing a live performer, such as a guitarist, pianist, harmonica player or dancer, with a computer.
”I’m interested in electroacoustic music that involves live performance,” says Thibault. “We now have the technology for extraordinary interaction; the tools are so much more sophisticated. But I don’t believe in putting the performer behind the technology. The lights should be on the performers, not the speakers.”
The wide scope of styles and influences that ACREQ has showcased over the years is a reflection of the diverse pool of electroacoustic talent that has settled in Quebec. While the music has long flourished in Canada, Québec has proven to be its hothouse.
Part of this has to do with the high quality of musical education here. McGill, Université de Montréal and Concordia all have state-of-the-art recording studios and new music departments. On the air, both the English and French CBC support the music through programs such as Brave New Waves, Two New Hours, Musique actuelle, and Chants Magnétiques.
”There is something that is very unique to Québec,” says Jean-François Denis, composer and major domo of empreintes DIGITALes, a record label devoted to the genre. “We take pretentious music out of the concert hall and put it into people’s hands in bars, on the radio, on the street. By doing that it becomes much more accessible. Heard this way, electroacoustic music can be as fun to listen to as musique actuelle.”
Denis has released 16 full-length CDs so far, and his catalogue encompasses composers drawn to both the American and European schools of electroacoustic thought. The former is influenced by technology and minimalism, the latter is more esoteric and dreamlike. The goal ot both schools, however, remains the same: to open our ears to the world of music we often tune out.
Music think tank
“Electroacoustics is an innovative medium,” says composer Claude Schryer of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community, a new music think-tank with its headquarters in Montréal.
“It has the possibility to tell us how to better hear our world. It can tell you how acoustic environments work, how they affect you, how you can improve them, how important silence is.
”The whole spectrum is exciting when you think about it.”