Touched totally

Tobias Fischer, Tokafi, March 2, 2014

Composer Pierre Alexandre Tremblay is looking for human gestures in an electronic environment.

“I hate computers”, says Pierre Alexandre Tremblay. Quite a surprising statement for an artist who has made working at the cutting edge of electronics one of his main areas of interest, perhaps. And yet, it makes perfect sense in the bigger context of Tremblay’s body of work, which has ranged from contemporary composition to jazz as well as complex group improvisations and never sought to use electronic systems for their own sake, but foremost to amplify human emotion. Perhaps it is for this very reason that he considers his current teaching position as a professor of composition at Huddersfield University as “the best situation by far” and enjoys being kept on his toes by his students: Naturally, in the absence of any serious alternatives and the range of possibilities they’re offering, Tremblay doesn’t really hate computers. He’d just wish they weren’t necessary.

You once asserted that “writing for electronics requires the same knowledge as writing for orchestra”. I would be interested in what this says about your quality criteria for working with electronics. What qualifies a piece as a success and what, as you put it, as a ‘disaster’?

Wow! This is a very interesting question that needs a little unfolding. On a very visceral level, for a piece to be a success to me, it has to be a shared moment of grace, a sort of magical event where we loose ourself, where the music fills the space and the listeners transcend where they are and what is happening. A moment where we are touched totally, physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Now, this is a serious challenge, where many intuitions have to come to fruition… so as an answer to your question on a more concrete ground, for it to be a success, my piece has to satisfy 3 groups of people: a certain audience, the performer of the premiere, and myself.

For the audience, I say a ‘certain’ audience because I am aware of the limits of the music that I do: it is contemporary chamber music, which aims at expressing a full range of human experiences and emotions. Even if I include a wide range of places as valid for this music, i.e. a free jazz venue, a gallery or a quiet café, or a small concert hall: in fact, anywhere where people will stop talking and listen to the music when the piece starts, and that is small enough for the listener to feel the performer’s presence. This makes it quite remote from light entertainment… not that I snob any artistic experiences, including light entertainment: I require and enjoy non-cathartic music regularly too!

What I want to create for this audience is what I do when I go to other people’s gig. I want them engaged, challenged, questioned, shaken, and that makes me quite a romantic person. I also want them to go places… but I don’t want them to need a degree in music to get something out of my music! So, one way of democratising it is to go for a certain immediacy, without falling into the demagogic discourses of clichés. Another thing that I want my pieces to do is to be able to pass the test of a second listening, which means I need to give them enough subtlety to survive scrutiny… without betraying the idea of immediacy and democracy, but not falling into the trap of preciousness and inside jokes! To check if I strike this thin balance, I usually play work-in-progress to people around me whom I trust, some of them being musicians, some of them being music-lovers…

For the performer’s perspective, it is a matter of listening to what they say when I bring the early material to them. I think it is important that we (the composer and performer) form a team, and by commissioning me they already show an openness that I should reciprocate. Again, it’s not about bowing to a discourse of cheap seduction, but to try to engage with what they are looking for in my music, and in performance practice in general. I sincerely think that a given musical idea can be written or developed in many different ways, and adapting to suggestions usually means that the performer will own the piece more, yielding a much better performance, which is again to everyone’s advantage: the public, the performer and myself.

If I manage to fill all of the above, and that the piece has enough personality to have an identity, I will be happy. Never totally, there are always elements one wants to change, but there is a point where I need to let go and let the piece be. I learn more that way: some things sort themselves with time, others can be taken onboard in the next project.

Tell me about your studio, please.

I presume you mean the composition studio, which is one of four types of studio context in which I find myself regularly: my home-based composition studio, the recording studio, the mixing studio and the residency studio.

My home studio is a room in which I will have put a pair of loudspeakers symmetrically, dampen its acoustic, and calibrated its listening position. There will be my laptop in the middle, my bass guitar at hand, and a couple of data entry devices: usually a MIDI keyboard and an iPad. There will also be my little composition book, full of ideas and thoughts, a pair of headphones and my taiwan probably brewing oolong tea.

It is based around a computer, but I hate them. Nevertheless, they are the best tool to get to my intended results. I have a lot of music accessible at hand, and all the software I use, but I think that computers are an uninspiring tool. I therefore rely on my aforementioned composition book to have ideas, and I sit at the computer to render them. From listening to these rendering-in-progress, more ideas go into the book, so I never lack of stuff to do! I try to discipline myself to write regularly. It allows me to trash a lot of musical material. When my creativity is stuck, I like to do coding — Max and Supercollider, and C at times — to try new ideas, usually from the composition book!

What about the other two studios?

The recording and mixing studios are mostly at the university. I use the former for the workshop with the composers, and to record the final versions, and I use the latter to mix in multi-channel with high quality loudspeaker. I’m very lucky to have access to those.

Finally, when I have the chance to be in residency somewhere, I usually spend a lot of time on their analogue synthesisers. I am a big fan of modular analogue synths and there is in the last couple of decades a strong revival of interest in those. I don’t own one yet for a simple reason: I had the chance to work on some of the best vintage synths of the 60s and 70s so my quality threshold is above my monetary means!

Over the past few years, more and more electronic musicians are returning to more tactile production means. How important is physicality for you when composing and what are some of the interfaces that work best for you personally?

Embodiment, physical performance of sound design, and recognisable human gestures in recorded material, are at the basis of my music and of the music I enjoy, independent of style. And this has always always been: I was even accused by a canonical acousmatic composer to be too “instrumental” in my tape music!

I perform processing in a post-free-jazz setting on bass guitar and laptop, so these are my two main ways of manipulating sound. The bass is a very rich source, and I use real faders or virtual ones to control the laptop. I also have done some research of controlling granular synthesis with the bass, and it is quite interesting, if still in its infancy. I’m obviously not talking about a MIDI bass, but real expressive multi-dimensional manipulation: pitch, loudness, brilliance, noisiness, sharpness, etc.

Finally, I also use my voice quite a lot, mostly to sing an idea that I will render with other means after: sequencer, synths, processing, samples, automation of the DAW, etc. I find the voice allows to fix in a moment a nuanced multi-dimensional musical gesture, which I can then spy through repeated listening.

How important are new instruments and tools for the creation of new music?

I think that instruments do what they are told to. New music happens in the head of inquisitive musicians, whatever the instruments. New instruments can be a mixed blessing, as most music out of them usually sound like a feature demo at first. It usually takes a certain time for the artistic community to assimilate and digest the real potential of newer technology, and make it sing something else than the obvious. That said, I’ve got nothing against new instruments, or old. I have problems with pastiches and demos.

With regards to your position as a teacher at Huddersfield University, how, can universities avoid being alternative realities and how can they become more relevant to the life going on outside them?

I think that the walls of academia have never been more porous than now, and that elements of this new reality is great and some of it is dangerous.

Expecting immediate relevance is a dangerous goal. I think the Higgs boson is a good example: as a society, we need to leave some people to dream up ideas, and some of them will be fruitful in their own time. Short-term accountability to research implies short-sighted research, and this type goes nowhere except where we know it goes: places we know.

That said, there is a very interesting diversity of musical academic practice-based research in the UK, most of it from sources that were not long ago outside of the walls of the institutions: the new academic could be a combination of a noise artist, a curator, an improviser, a DIY circuit bender, a performance artist, a programmer, a post-acousmatic composer, a live coder, a new interface designer, etc. And all of that with or without the more traditionally academic musicology, be it historical, analytical, psychoacoustics, dsp engineering, etc. Actually, very few of these new academics only practice one discipline: the new academia is an interesting mesh of cross-discipline practices and practitioners, with strong links outside of the institution. It also provides a place where experiments can be held more freely, and that in turns feeds back in the community.

A good example of such fluid back and forth process is the convolution reverberation of the latest Ableton Live application, which was built with tools Alex Harker and I developed for some mixed music pieces on my album. The tools were not designed for reverberation, but for manipulation of impulse responses in order to solve two live sound quality problems in chamber mixed music. The methodological research we carried out, as well as the tools we designed, allowed a tailored design of the Ableton reverb; moreover, some feedback and request from their perspective fed directly back in our research.

But there is always a danger of ghettoisation. In order to avoid this for my students, and not to make of the university a cocoon completely isolated from its society, I ask them to try it all — not to love it all — and to approach what they love and do outside of the walls of the uni in the same inquisitive way. I want them to digest it all in new musical proposals: not mere collages, but a real hybridisation.

How important is the audience in your concepts of music and what role does it play in creating the music in conjunction with the composer and the performers?

As mentioned above, a “certain” audience is at the centre stage of my quality control. This answer is not as straightforward as it seems though: what is ‘the audience’? Is it my friends? My fellow musicians? The contemporary music concert goer crowd? The free-jazz one?

I find this question, which I continuously ask myself, to be extremely vague, and my answer tends to vary around this: I consider my public, present and maybe future, as my judge. It is made of those who dare to engage with active listening, at home or live. It is not a large group of people, but it shares this curious inclusive approach to the musical experience, as rich as all human experiences themselves. That way, I hope I make sure it is as wide as possible, without falling in demagogic traps.