It’s not unusual to hear people talk about recordings that take you on a journey, usually in the context of sounds that are tropical, uplifting, or expansively — and expensively—produced. Jonty Harrison’s Sorties, however, doesn’t so much lead you through a sonic landscape as buridle you, blindfolded and confused, into the back of a car, destination unknown.
A series of linked soundscape vignettes, this 15-minute piece begins placidly enough, perhaps any ordinary urban street. Heels click against the pavement; cars - thrum by on what sounds like wet asphalt; children’s voices clatter from the reflective shop windows nearby; an indistinct bass line wafts from a second-floor studio. But then the mood changes: the squealing of subway brakes leads to a minor scuffle, after witch a door slams shut and the ambient noises fade to black. But the work is far from being over. Keys rattle against locks, tumblers turn, an oddly musical creak — electronically processed saxophone? — signifies the opening of another door.
In this new world, it’s raining; thunder booms, and then the downpour stops as the listener kicks along a shingle beach, waves plashing nearby, before being pulled through yet another door into a leafy garden of birdsong; in the distance, a puzzled child cries “Mommy! There’s a shoe!”
What domestic or criminal drama is being played out here remains unexplained, as the listener is quickly taken away from this pastoral scene. A buzzing fly morphs into droning industrial noise and then into a silvery synthesized chord, which in turn becomes the noise of a passing bus as the initial street reappears, this tune overlaid with a mesh of clicking and whirring. The piece continues for another minute or so until, finally, ominous low pulses signal its uneasy end.
Sorties a title intended to be read for both its English and French meanings — is taken from Évidence matérielle, Harrison’s new CD on the Montréal-based empreintes DIGITALes label, and in the liner notes the composer explains that “the dominant sound image of the work is that of leaving (exiting, escaping, fleeing) an interior space for an exterior one, only to find that one is mysteriously and inevitably trapped once again in another ‘interior’.”
Be that as it may, when one listens to this work on headphones, in a darkened room, it’s hard to detect that the listener has any hope of escape. Harrison’s sonic images have such presence that one really does seem kidnapped, swept away in the composer’s design, and although the feeling is not always-comfortable it’s as gripping as a pair of handcuffs.
Sorties is an extraordinay piece, as are most of the other works collected on Évidence matérielle. The glorious, metallic physicality of Klang; the fractured yet evocative images of Splintering the appropriately transparent liquidity of Streams: all use a supposedly cool medium — electronic music - to paint warm portraits of human experience. Only Surface Tension fails to cohere: it’s an attempt to make music by sampling and manipulating the sounds of discarded packing materials and other rubbish, but those noises are too amorphous and its structure too indistinct to be fully involving.
Harrison’s compositions are typical of those featured on empreintes DIGITALes, which with 58 titles in its catalogue is perhaps the world’s leading record label dedicated to electroacoustic music. Its productions run the gamut from “environmental” sounds made up of electronically manipulated field recordings to the purely digital concoctions of the recording studio, and its roster includes such Vancouver composers as Sergio Barroso, Paul Dolden, and Hildegard Westerkamp. Vancouver and Montréal are both hotbeds of this kind of work, but an indication of empreintes DIGITALes’ status in the world at large is that only one Canadian composer is represented in its four new releases. Accompanying Harrison’s CD are albums by his student and fellow Englishman Adrian Moore and New Zealand’s Denis Smalley, in addition to one from Montréal’s Louis Dufort.
Space precludes full reviews of these, but it’s probably fair that all four composers share a common aesthetics - although whether that is the result of a shared philosophical outlook or something forced on them by the technology they’re working with is hard to say. Whatever the case, if you’re looking for drama Dufort is your man; his dynamic range is greater and his sounds harsher than those used by his English and Kiwi counterparts. But, like them, he’s interested in building long, flowing compositions from small sound sources. By compressing, stretching, and twisting familiar noises, and by the steady aecumulation of sonic detail, all four make music that is transporting — even if, as in Harrison’s Sorties, the journey isn’t always fun.