Review

Eric Cook, Splendid E-Zine, June 25, 2001

Canadian composer Robert Normandeau comes from a distinctly academic background, with degrees in Electroacoustic Composition, a fistful of international “contemporary music” prizes and a CV filled with commissions and residencies. But Normandeau is also no stranger to crossing the invisible membrane between the world of university appointments and composer conferences and the more challenging side of pop culture electronic music, getting involved with Asphodel Records’ Recombinant festival some years back and now releasing this collection of “acoustimatic” compositions on the Rephlex label. Perhaps that’s because Normandeau seems to have mastered a challenging feat — combining truly exploratory sound manipulation, creation and compositional structures into works that are still engaging outside of their theoretical frameworks. In other words, they’re actually interesting to listen to.

Sonars collects six works, spanning fourteen years, from 1985 to 1999. Despite the wide time frame in which Normandeau created these compositions, the CD is surprisingly coherent and unified. Each piece is a seamless continuum between dramatically artificial and dislocated organic sources. You’re continually confronted with roiling cascades of chiming synthetics — sounds that seem entirely unnatural at first listen. With closer attention, the layers of artificiality and resynthesis are peeled away, revealing the source material (in many of these pieces, wordless vocalizations and mouth sounds). Carefully calculated, this play between the natural and the synthetic draws you deeper into each piece, inviting you to listen and analyze each fragment. The earlier works on this collection seem more self-consciously dramatic (Le cap de la tourmente, for example). While this is not necessarily disappointing, they’re not as subtle, layered or perhaps internally referential as some of the more recent pieces. 1999’s Ellipse is especially satisfying, creating a mysterious soundscape of half-defined scraping and scratching, suggesting strings, contact microphones, late night movement in your walls…

Each piece is nonlinear, self-sustaining and self-propelling — they’re consistent in their sonic language, and attentive listeners will hear and sense the progression and development in the composition without Normandeau ever stooping to draw an explict line from one to the next. These aren’t simple works, however, and they’ll not be for everyone. Normandeau doesn’t entirely shy away from rhythmic construction like some in academic electroacoustic music, but listeners seeking the more explictly beat-oriented material of Rephlex, or more traditional song structures, will be left scratching their heads. Dispense with those expectations and you’ll be richly rewarded by Normandeau’s universe of familiar yet foreign tones — a “cinema for the ear” which will lead you down unexpected paths.

… a “cinema for the ear” which will lead you down unexpected paths.

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