‘Electroacoustic music’ is a term encompassing an array of music that utilizes recorded sound (traditionally magnetic tape) as an instrument. It can be divided into two broad categories: music which utilizes tape and performers, such as compositions for orchestra and tape, or live interactive music for performer and tape [mixed music], and the more traditional ‘tape music’ based entirely on recorded sound. Tape music did not appear until after World War II (though it had antecedents in Dada and Futurism) when tape recorders became widely available, and were ‘invented’ in France by Pierre Schaeffer (though a few isolated composers ‘discovered’ the process on their own soon after). Schaeffer’s collages of found sound and manipulated tones represented a radical break from contemporary ideas of ‘music’ (in fact he coined a term “musique concrète” to describe his work). They were meant to be heard as abstract sound art, without predetermined notions that sounds necessarily have to be ‘connected’ to the objects that produced them-any ‘meaning’ being assigned by the listener. Musique concrète provided the foundation later for the tape music of serialist composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, and eventually stimulated the evolution of electronic music itself.
Tape music has often gotten an undeserved bad rap in this country. Self-consciously hip, mainstream music journalists write it off as an ‘academic’ exercise for university eggheads (even though Schaeffer himself was never trained as a composer or musician), and conservative NPR programmers either ignore it altogether or regard it (along with most ‘weird’ 20th century music) as beyond the pale. Hence most folks have had very little exposure to electroacoustic music, and recordings have been virtually impossible to obtain in this country until recently.
Montréal-based label empreintes DIGITALes is among the first North American labels to actively distribute and promote electroacoustic music exclusively, and their recent Miniatures concrètes CD (reviewed below) is a good sampler of modern musique concrète. Other more widely available (barely) electroacoustic music releases of late include Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontakte (ecstatic peace!), The Storm of Drones 3-CD compilation on Sombient/Asphodel (which includes one disc of empreintes DIGITALes artists), and the Testament compilation CD on RRR.
Writing reviews of ‘underground’ music is sometimes a tricky thing. One has to keep in mind that even though someone is a household name in my household, it doesn’t mean that their name is likely to be dropped real often down at the local ‘Pump and Pantry’. I recall Bouhalassa’s name from an appearance on that rather okay Swarm of Drones compilation (Asphodel) from a couple of years back and at the time just figured he was probably Naut Humon’s cousin or a one-time roadie for Rhythm and Noise (or both). When this appeared in the mailbox recently, I was a bit surprised to find out he was an award-winning, up-and-coming sound artists who studied under musique concrète big-leaguer Francis Dhomont, and has been an active promoter of electroacoustic music since 1987. Go figure. Aérosol is an introduction to Bouhalassa’s works from 1990-1998, and reveals him as a very accomplished soundcrafter doing a pretty fine job of making what the French call ‘contemporary music’ sound a bit more contemporary.
When played as a backdrop, most of the music on Aérosol sounds structurally similar to your typical Pierre Schaeffer / Pierre Henry ‘good time oldie’ cut-and-paste tape music regularly pumped into restaurants and bank lobbies throughout the Midwest. But Bouhalassa’s music stands apart from his forbears due to his remarkably diverse and interesting sound palette, which draws heavily on non-traditional and even (gasp!) non-French sources for inspiration. The unintentionally funny liner notes paint him as an overly hip, quasi-nihilist rebel who ‘wigs out’ to Nirvana and Sonic Youth. He also states his love for techno, which he listens to daily, and often dances to until the early hours of the morning (fuckin’ raver), and is photographed hilariously (to me, anyway) in front of some seeming computer-generated montage, shaven headed, peering pensively to the side, looking like any of the myriad of anonymous techno-crats who litter the pages of The Wire these days. Despite the mild ‘hype’, Bouhalassa manages to pull off a pretty amazing feat that some of his new hip acousmatic youth counterparts (e.g. Alain Thibault) do not: to create music with the upbeat energy and vitality of techno and other ‘underground’ musics in a way that involves, rather than pummels, the listener while maintaining a grasp of the traditional style (and spirit) of musique concrète.
The standout ten-minute opening track pretty much sums up Bouhalassa’s style. Jets is an ever-changing, active yet never overly ‘busy’ sound landscape filled with seemingly familiar sounds assembled into a seamless, flowing whole, while maintaining the integrity of its individual elements (yeah, kinda like musique concrète, dude!). A large share of the sound sources for Jets are ‘musical’ and manage to faintly recall every kind of electronic music ever invented, from kosmische tone-float to post-industrial speaker damage. Everytime I hear this, I spot 10 or 20 little sound bits that I think I’ve heard before, on an old Pink Floyd album, early Tangerine Dream, the first This Heat, or anything in the Soleilmoon mailorder catalog, yet when I try to pin those bits down on the next listen, they always seem to elude me. A good share of the sound material Bouhalassa uses is electronic in an up-front, digital and very ‘there’ way (like much techno), but these bits are often embedded in a subtle, yet equally interesting background of lower-end sounds. This disc sounds great (and completely different) on crappy computer speakers as well as expensive headphones, and like most great sound art, sounds slightly different on each listen (it is especially rewarding when played loudly). Bouhalassa always keeps his pieces moving, never allowing them to stagnate or slip into predictability, but all the while he is very patient, allowing his ideas to unfold gradually while maintaining a sense of spontaneity. Its hard for me to describe the overall effect of Jets other than to tag it as a sonic roller-coaster ride, an overworn term that pretty well sums up the effect of most of my favorite tape music.
The next three pieces are similar to Jets, with a few differences in sound material and style. Constamment (autoportrait) is the longest piece and also Bouhalassa’s most overtly ‘techno’ work. It begins in a somewhat restrained, yet colorful way, and then infuses a very unobtrusive illbient backbeat element as a backdrop, which appears and disappears as needed. Attractions follows, which utilizes processed acoustic sound sources, making it the most recognizably musique concrète piece on the album. It opens with the sound of breaking glass, a good old tape music cliché that indicates something of a subtle sense of humor (always welcome in this genre) before moving on to more unfamiliar ground. Where as Attractions uses more traditional methodology to collage sounds, the following piece Move 1 uses MIDI technology to achieve the same ends, but is good nonetheless. Bouhalassa’s use of computer greatly expands the array of sound material available from very limited sources, and I can but hope this work will stand as an example to the legions of MIDI-heads who crank out cratefuls of dull ‘fiddle-dee-dee’ music and fail to take advantage of (or even interest in) the full range of sonics available. Move 1 also contains my favorite sound ‘bit’, a densely layered insect swarm that recalls David Dunn’s excellent ‘Chaos and the Emergent Mind of the Pond’ on the Angels and Insects CD, on Nonsequitur.
The final piece Bouffée délirante is an early piece from 1990 that sounds quite a bit different; an overt attempt at ‘cinema for the ear’ which is not quite as sonically rich as the other pieces, but still a good and very interesting example of an artist ‘groping for a sound’ as Mr. Moon would put it. It relies heavily on the ‘jump cut’, an abrupt edit used to good effect on most of the pieces on this disc, which here tends to come off a bit jarring. Still I’m willing to cut him some slack and recommend Aérosol as a fine point of entry for those acolytes of electronic music who have some interest in exploring electroacoustic territory. Yet another in the uniformly excellent ‘budget series’ from this fine label.