Found Sound

Andrew Jones, Montreal Mirror, no. 6:20, November 1, 1990

It’s tough to get modern composers to think small. Encapsulating a grand artistic statement in the space of two minutes and 45 seconds is usually Phil Spector’s bag. Yet a new CD from the Montréal-based DIFFUSION i MéDIA label does precisely that Électro clips invites 25 North American electroacoustic composers to contribute a miniature electroacoustic work, three minutes or less.

“We simply asked composers to make a three-minute tape work, not 3:45, not 3:20, but three minutes exactly,” says Jean-François Denis, who, along with fellow composer Claude Schryer, is DIFFUSION i MéDIA. “The main idea was to set a challenge to composers. Electroacoustic works are usually 10 to 20 minutes long. Forcing them to do it in three minutes, and make sense, was a challenge. And they all told us so.”

The sounds that become music range from the simple to the complex. John Oswald’s gentle Bell Speeds is a straight recording of a bell in eight octaves, while Daniel Scheidt’s anarchic What If has an interactive software program that listens to itself, rather than a live performer. The source material can be environmental or empirical. Claude Schryer’s Les oiseaux de Bullion is built up from unaltered and unprocessed nature sounds, and Christian Calon & Schryer’s Prochaine station is a ride through the Montréal Metro, while Bruno Degazio Nino Rota-like Humoresque 901534 is composed with the aid of fractal geometry.

This is not to say these electroacoustic miniatures sound like a bunch of professors sitting around in skinny ties firing funny sounds at each other. Zack Settel’s dada Skweeit-Chupp is a side-splitting processed voice-percussion duet. Mexican Javier Álvarez deconstructs the mambo musique actuelle style in Mambo à la Braque. And Stéphane Roy’s sensual Résonances d’arabesques, while created entirely on digital interactive hardware and software, shifts and shimmers with an unusually sensitive touch. Two of the most powerful works, John Oliver’s striking dirge for Guatemala, Marimba Dismembered, and the closing, sombre Bajanoom, by respected composer Charles Amirkhanian, evoke moods that stay with the listener long after the song has evaporated.

“We were borrowing from the pop music format, trying to make the music very condensed,” says Denis. “We were trying to democratize electroacoustic music so that more radio stations will play it, more people will hear it. You don’t even hear it on Brave New Waves.”

Listening to Électro clips’s big chunk of electroacoustic miniatures may seem a daunting task to some. Denis and Schryer recommend the listener choose the track sequence at home. “For Claude and I, putting together an compilation of 25 artists was a big enough problem,“ he says. “Finding a running order was worse. We listened to the pieces, came up with one sequence, which is the one you hear on the CD. But it is only one way of hearing it. With programmable CD players, you can create your own sequences at home. The booklet that comes with the CD is 25 separate pages. A booklet that is stapled would freeze an order of listening.”

Électro clips is illustrated by Quebec photographer Joanne Tremblay in much the same way the music was composed — in the dark. “It was the same idea — try to stimulate an artist to do something unusual,” Denis says. “We asked her to shoot 25 polaroids, no subject matter, no constraints.”

Électro clips was an expensive project. DIFFUSION i MéDIA’s first four releases were funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, but this one wasn’t. Schryer and Denis invested money they didn’t have, and the 24 artists waived an up-front payment. DIFFUSION i MéDIA will launch Électro clips with a free live performance of the composers manipulating their taped works on a new, 40-speaker sound system installed at Bar-Théâtre Les Loges.

According to Denis, sales are going well for the company’s small catalogue, yet it’s difficult to gauge as theirs is the first to specialize in electroacoustic music in Canada. “We’re like missionaries in a way.”