Normandeau is a master of sonic allusion and metaphor, and these acousmatic works offer a powerful listen. Le renard et la rose will be known to many in the ICMA world, since it was commissioned for ICMC 1995 in Banff, and has received many performances since. It’s a piece of extraordinary depth, in which human speech sounds are woven into a multi-layered tapestry of meaning and movement. Opening with irresistible sounds of laughter and exuberance, it expands outwards to occupy and play in space. Like Spleen, a related work, it harnesses the force of onomatopoeia and rejoices in the primitive vigour of a rhythmic beat. Listening to this work in concert was fascinating, but over headphones there’s perhaps an even greater sense of being immersed in the spattering, ‘animal’ activity of a community of sounds, that are at once both clean and dark, joyful and ominous.
Figures de rhétorique is an enigmatic re-interpretation of the piano and tape genre - or rather, in this case, tape and piano - in which the pianist ‘makes’ his performance in relation to the tape part, itself derived from piano timbres. The work is constructed by employing sonic metaphors related to precise figures of meaning in rhetoric. Though it is impossible (for this listener at least) to embark on aural butterfly-catching, to pin these metaphors down, one doesn’t need to in order to appreciate the dramatic variety of the gestures, most notably in the tape part. Whilst the pitch content tends to anchor itself to a single centre, the variety of gestural motion and interaction provides a means of going on.
Venture is a large-scale work inspired by Normandeau’s formative experience of listening to progressive rock, and uses samples of the same as its material. Like much of his work the piece is in interlinked movements that each refer to what Normandeau calls different ‘states of existence’. It’s a work of symphonic ambition - an ambition it shares, of course, with much progressive rock of the 70s - and has a clear ‘emotional’ trajectory that carries the listener from one sound-world to another. Fragments of Pictures from an Exhibition are interwoven within it, and the tantalising glimpses become more explicit as the work progresses. And, of course, it ends with a nice big string-synth chord. Music about music is difficult to bring off, but this piece works, I think, at a deeper level - as a quite personal journey into the roots of one person’s musical ‘psyche’.
Ellipse, the final piece on the CD, is a wonderfully tactile and effervescent exploration of guitar timbres. The tightening of strings, the sound of the tuning peg straining against the neck - and then when we think we know where we are the sounds explode into pointillistic cloud of splinters, plucked strings, knocks and whirrs. This is a piece in which the material is the materiality of an object - wood, gut, fingers against strings. For this listener it was a sonic equivalent of watching as a miniature camera shoots around inside the guitar, revealing the previously known as an unknown new world with surprising dimensions, and then flying out into space - viewing the same object from a global perspective.
As Normandeau points out in his notes, all the pieces on the CD have dedications to specific people (in the case of Figures, the pianist Jacques Drouin, who features as performer on the CD). Figures are bodies, and Normandeau interprets this notion in various ways. To my ears, a touch of humanity figures highly.