It was an interesting surprise to receive this issue for reviewing from Empreintes DIGITALes on a high-quality dvd audio, since I got this set from the composer a few years ago, in an earlier guise on a home-burnt cdr. I provide my text for this earlier version here in extenso, albeit with a few omissions of statements that have fallen for the axe of time, and with a few additions brought on by the reviewer’s hopefully extended experience and the revisions I believe the composer will have rendered his works in those years between 2001 and 2009. The pieces were presented in a different order in the earlier, private version as well, but here they are seen as they come on the audio dvd.
I usually don’t take much notice of a composer’s detailed descriptions or explanations of their works, or at least try not to let them color my own impressions too much, and I don’t do it here either — but I regard Bassal’s experience of the sounds as one possible experience out of innumerable variations. This goes for all art, or anything at all, really.
Intro from Bassal’s homepage in the early 2000s:
While studying music in Montréal at Concordia University in the late 70s, Dominique Bassal discovered (with a little help from Kevin Austin) a personal resonance with the aesthetics and techniques of electroacoustic music. He was especially interested in the ’concert of loudspeakers’ idea of sound diffusion, which frees a composer from non-musical, often histrionic, expectancies linked to a staged instrumental performance.
His long Road to Damascus (lasting 20 years) through the universe of commercial music production provided a strong technical background while allowing him, since 1999, to devote himself almost exclusively to electroacoustic composition. An award winner in the 2002 electroacoustic competition JTTP (Jeu de Temps / Time Play), he then became a jury member for the same competition in 2003, 2004 and 2005. His document The Practice of Mastering in Electroacoustics has been published in the CEC electronic magazine, eContact! 6.3, as well as on the Mac Music Website.
Browsing the liner notes it is obvious that Monsieur Bassal is a serious gentleman, not quite satisfied with the commonplace lingo of the art of liners! I like that! There’s always so much more, if you just stop to ponder, give yourself the opportunity to sweep below the reflecting upper layers of what seems to be, to find out what… might be! We will see if Bassal’s sound art is on the level with the composer’s verbal brilliance. I’m providing Bassal’s notes in connection with my thoughts on the works.
Track 1. Rites d’oiseaux pensants (2001, 2008) [14:40]
Bassal, from the earlier presentation:
A tropical atmospheric allegory, loosely inspired — after the fact — from a distant sci-fi work by Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker, in which a telepathic community of small winged beings represents, after the pathetic failure of mankind, the quintessence of creation.
The introduction to this piece is a radio foreshadowing, and thus lamenting — the main theme. In between there is along spatial drift, made of concentric waves. This portion represents the icy traversal of a temporal vortex over millions of years. The emergence into an ideal future is destabilizing: this is a feverish, vaguely oriental delirium, at odds with the serene image one has of perfect utopia. Radical disorientation, possibly mocking and insulting, confirmed by an ending which unites biological jumble and mathematical cruelty: severed from his foundations, stripped of edifying content, the listener is abandoned, all his dreams ignored, on a rocky shore…
A language spoken in long and winding, jellylike serpentines, is overheard in an eavesdropping manner, as if through a wall, or rather from inside a large clay pot, in which you hide with all your life, i.e. a body full of memories of the outdoors, the open spaces of your past, now confined within this sphere of clay, only your stubborn desire for survival to sustain you — and hide you from those alien fingers of lingering linguistics that creep across the outer rim of your vessel… ready to pull your mind, your sense of I, out of your immediacy, to disperse it among the stars, neutrino for neutrino, string for string — a seriously fragmented existence… or maybe just a way to become one with the All, in a homeopathic sense…
The music talk-winds its way in glowing evening clouds, under which sharp, piercing silver seeps in, severing your eardrums… as railway crossings fly by in red shift swings, the planet jagged with up-turned rails pointing into space in rising curves, as if the interior of this celestial body has exploded violently…
A gliding mass of sound, thick as an Alaskan mudflow in the wake of a gigantic quake, piles up and collapses, again and again, as the planet remodels its appearance.
The moment wears steel-beads that jingle as the world goes down into the star-crushing machine at the edge of the horizon of events, and everything you hear hereafter in the here-after is just recollections, remembrances — because the misunderstanding you called time has stopped…
Track 2: Noyade-en-Magma (2001, 2008) [10:00]
Bassal’s words about this piece, from the early century introduction:
At first, the goal was to use only high quality electroacoustic material designed through my experience in mastering and audio production. I worked without any pre-established formal structure, but rather more exclusively from prepared sound blocks. The blocks were then rearranged as ’compositions’. Eclectic arrangements of these blocks would follow specific criteria of acceptance or refusal. Some of these criteria are ’production-minded’: richness, fluidity and variety of frequency content, integrity of transients and dynamics, balanced spatial organization, general sensation of ease and clarity. Other criteria are ’listener-minded’: triggering of fascination, maintenance of focus, dialogue between established climates and elements of surprise, etc.
The sound immediately forms samurai swords that cut past your face diagonally in blinding stellar reflections off of the cutting edges. This is sharp dude audio; brilliance and delicacy at work; at masterwork! This is a modern electroacoustician at its best, all in a deeply French tradition; shadings and nuances out of the GRM, out of the GMVL and Studio Celia. Inside the glaring utterances of sonic tools a modality is sensed — until a mimicry of growling netherworld cats gather round in fluffy, warm anatomies, whiskers tickling your cheeks, your nose, your forehead.
A long, sweeping sonicity embraces small, close-up involuntarities that screw by and shoot off like tumbling Van Allen paraphernalia into timelessness.
I feel like something turned upside down and in and out and read from right to left in a bewildering hall-of-mirrors frame of mind. I’m riding the artist’s brush. I’m contaminated into his painting. I’m lost in an imagined world of oil, bound for crackles 400 planetary years from now.
Track 3. L’inénarrable Nout (2002, 2009) [18:53]
Bassal, from his first presentation of 2002:
Nout is the goddess of the night in the Egyptian mythology. This piece metaphorically describes one single night, lived in an awakened state, gazing at the stars, which are in fact painted on Nout’s naked, dark body. But it is also a deep sleeping experience, complete with moments of euphoria, astral travel and confused, recurring dreams (at 4:09 and 15:05). The last 45 seconds are either a sudden sunrise in front of the observer, or the awakening of a parallel self
Bassal enters my listening in embellished, dark nuances, softly but ominously bending my world into a state of curving time. The darkness of the audio’s rock bottom allows for grainy, glittering clouds of screws and bolts to dance at a distance, sometimes closing in, little needle points of pain traveling your face; tiny incisions opening the skin for ruby-colored droplets of blood: within/without in a cloudscape of threats and promises. There’s no promise without a threat. The promise and threat is an alien one, if alien is possible as a concept. Alien is just a lack of knowledge, of course, since the universe is our home, and since we are the universe, it’s sensing fingertip intelligence, pondering itself. Not only is the Earth — GAIA — a being in itself… but the Universe is a being. The Universe isn’t alien. The Universe is everything that is, perhaps considering the innumerable universes it is a part of! That’s not bad! But is it expanding?
Bassal’s piece dissolves into my senses like good medicine, a cure for spiritual indigestion, seeping into my veins and finally into the magnificent worlds of my cells, lighting them up from within in a purple hue that isn’t uncomfortable, changing me in some little but significant way. The dynamics of living at work!
As the music moves on — not in a linear way, it seems — smaller sounds are allotted more attention, moving up trajectories of hidden dimensions in whispering glissandi, in the dancing movements of an artist’s brush in a Paris loft, tooth-ache whining and jingling along the beltway, traveling faster and faster around existence as such, which itself bores deeper, ever deeper into an inner world that proves emptier and emptier; life as a white hole!
Track 4: Mont des Borgnes (2001, 2009) [12:52]
Bassal from his words of 2001:
This is a highly critical representation of a religious/cultist experience. The piece begins with missionary zeal: a hard and cold technological context, marked with silliness and superficiality (0:00 to 1:16). But the serenity of the newborn convert is short-lived (1:17 to around 4:00): he now has to climb a huge sacred mountain, soon accompanied by caricatured, preposterous chanting, beginning at 6:40. As he approaches the end of his pilgrimage, he begins to see, around 9:00 that, masked by a grotesque Ersatz of mysticism there lies a deeply corrupt, decomposed and cynical ”operation”. Kicked out at 10:29 by the community for his clear-sightedness, the lost soul now must return to his solitude, feeling more cold and helpless than ever.
The beginning of this work is quite traditional, if you think of French electroacoustics from the late 1980s; a full measure of cranky spoils of Day falling on tilted planes in a geometrical world of mathematical hypothesis; clear, Photoshopped visions of steel and marmalade, jelly and phosphorus! The screws and bolts of a Cagean preparation break loose and sail through the mind like dissociated thoughts of turned-away souls in Greystone Hospital, which Allen Ginsberg can tell you about in Kaddish.
When the falling is over, a revolving, slowly turning might render life inaccessible, hard to handle, albeit with the beauty of solid loss and true despair. The sense of motion is dizzying, but it is tough to understand whether it is you or the giant, purple sphere that is in motion. The grating of a train breaking to a halt at a station in your memory pierces your head — as Bassal slowly melts down into an early La Monte Young drone of simple, layered overtone beauty that washes your pride and fear away, leaving a pure light of appreciation and bold gratitude in your midst, where the swarms of pettiness used to reign. Free at last, God Almighty, I’m free at last! [M L K] (Are birds free of the chains of the skyway?) [B D] The bliss is deafening, tremendous, like an ice cream Abrams tank with chocolate layering slowly exploding on Christmas morn.
The shuffling soaring and wheezing of swarms of bees round up the stray s, and as the music comes to its conclusion, so do you, your thoughts all resting in one of the letters of the word GLIMPSING within brackets on page 92 of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. (ISBN 0-19-500223-7)