Steve Benner, SAN Diffusion, March 1, 2000

This latest CD from empreintes DIGITALes of recent works by the talented Canadian composer Robert Normandeau is a most welcome addition to their electroacoustic music catalogue. It includes two prize winning pieces: Le renard et la rose (Golden Nica award winner at 1996 Prix Ars Electronica) and Figures de rhétorique (1st Prize for mixed music at the 1998 International Musica Nova competition), as well as two other works that haven’t won any awards — yet!

Le renard et la rose was a 1995 ICMC commission, and continues Normandeau’s cycle of works inspired by vocal onomatopoeia which began with Spleen in 1991. The later work is very much a continuation of the earlier: both are works for tape alone and use processed vocal elements to build pulsing rhythmic and sonic structures which speak directly of human emotions in a way that recognisable words never could. By contrast, Figures de rhétorique (1997) is a purely abstract musical discourse for tape and piano — and the composer is at pains to point out that this is primarily a tape work with part for piano, rather than the other way around — commissioned by Jacques Drouin, the pianist in the current recording. As always, Normandeau’s approach is an acousmatic one, with his sonic materials carefully honed and arranged to present as much of their inner meaning to the listener as possible. The ‘figures of speech’ of the title determine the relationship not only of the sounds to one another within the tape part, but also the discourse between tape and piano throughout the unfolding of the work’s four movements.

The longest of the works on this CD is the 19-minute tape work Venture (1998), constructed entirely out of material derived from fragments of progressive rock music of the late 1960s and 70s. This is, however, no excursion into the realm of plunderphonics, but a very personal homage to the profound influence which that musical genre had on an entire generation. As a clever touch, considering its importance as an inspiration to many popular musicians of those years, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition also features throughout the work. It also inspired the structure of Venture, with an ever-present movement, Tunnel, linking the work’s other movements in the manner of Mussorgsky’s Promenade. While Venture may evoke the spirit of progressive rock, as presented, very little of the source material is recognisable (although I did detect some clear Pink Floyd in a couple of places, in addition to the Mussorgsky) and its sound world remains pure Normandeau, suggesting that the work is as much autobiographical as musico-historical. Being of Normandeau’s generation myself, I found it to be an intensely moving work, providing a powerful reminder of the aspirations of 1970’s youth from a late 1990s musical perspective.

The closing work on the CD, Ellipse (1999), represents a return to more abstracted musical form. Another tape work, this time constructed entirely from guitar sounds, Ellipse continues to explore the ‘figures of speech’ analogy of the earlier Figures de rhétorique. Originally commissioned by Arturo Parra to form the tape part of a work for tape and guitar, Ellipse took a different direction from that work (L’envers du temps) to emerge as a solo tape piece, representing the composer’s half of the intended musical dialogue: as the ellipsis of the title, “omitting… elements of meaning,… allowing the interlocutor, the listener, to fill in the blanks.”

It is good to see empreintes DIGITALes continuing to fill in the blanks…

… a most welcome addition…