Review

Patricia Lynn Dirks, Computer Music Journal, no. 29:2, June 1, 2005

Robert Normandeau (b. 1955) is a Canadian composer and has been an Associate Professor of Composition at the Université de Montréal since 1999. Over the past number of years, he has focused on creating acousmatic compositions, an approach that has been referred to as “cinema for the ear.” One of the most monumental visual images that marks the twentieth century has been pictures of earth taken from space. Mr. Normandeau has expressed these profound images through music and cinematic techniques in his multi-movement composition, Clair de terre.This collection contains three large-scale works, two of which were realized in the composer’s own studio. The remaining compositions demonstrate his success in writing works for the theater. This collection of finely crafted works is Mr. Normandeau’s fourth compact disc recording with empreintes DIGITALes.

Malina (2000) features the captivating flute-like sound of the shakuhachi as played by Claire Marchand. Mr. Normandeau uses the recorded material to form the basis of this 15-min composition. Over time, the beautiful samples are transformed into a display of intricacy, creating a contemplative, meditative sonic atmosphere. Malina, as a concert piece, was commissioned by IMEB (Institut internatonal de musique électroacoustique de Bourges), where the majority of the music was produced. The composition was originally written for a play of the same name, an adaptation of the Austrian novelist Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina. The composer makes use of silence and explores the creation of an atmosphere that attempts to reflect the poetic reading of the Bachmann novel. Thus the meditative qualities of the shakuhachi became the ideal expression of the author’s words. Mr. Normandeau takes the listener on a journey where one’s perception of time is altered and one’s sense of wonder enhanced by the subtle changes and rhythmic variance of processed effects. It is the imposing of rich sound samples upon these techniques and a complexity of overlapping rhythmic patterns that creates an array of possibilities throughout Malina.

The second work featured on this disc was also written for the theater. Erinyes (2001) was commissioned by the Sonorities Festival in Belfast with the support of the National Lottery of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. It was originally composed for the Sophocles’s Electra produced by Brigitte Haentjens in April 2000. Erinyes is based solely on the voice and opens with a woman uttering the simple utterance of a sigh, “ahh.” This single sound forms the basis of the 20-min composition. No specific text or words are used throughout the piece, thus an intricate soundscape emerges creating awe and excitement. Although it is a work void of language, Mr. Normandeau creates a fascinating composition through repetition, pitch shifting, and elongation of this minute sample. It is a beautiful use of the voice, expressive and provocative. I find this work reminiscent of Luciano Berio’s Thema: Omaggia a Joyce (1958), where a large-scale composition is created from the basic phonemes of language in an onomatopoeic writing technique effectively demonstrating the playfulness and richness of word sounds.

The featured composition on this collection, Clair de terre [Earthlight] (1999) is a 36-min work consisting of twelve movements ranging in duration from 0’30" to 6’12" each. This piece of music is a true tribute to the cinema and the techniques used in expressing visual images. Mr. Normandeau creates a musical description of these techniques within each movement, keeping the theme of the entire composition on that of space and our perceptions thereof. The basis of Clair de terre is best summarized by the composer himself in his liner notes: “Electroacoustic music was born just slightly more than fifty years ago, at about the same time the first photograph of the earth was taken. This had brought about a considerable change in how we (artists) make and how we (the audience) hear.”

The Ouverture [Overture] is the longest movement of the set. It encapsulates the entire work as a whole and sets the mood for the sonic ideas presented throughout the remaining movements. Cadre étroit (espace clos) [Narrow Frame (Close Space) ] deals with the exploration of close sounds, minute sounds not commonly heard, exposed in a riveting and stimulating movement. The next two pieces of the set, Couleurs primaires et secondaires [Primary and Secondary Colors] and Mobilité des plans [Camera Mobility], demonstrate basic electroacoustic techniques such as the Doppler effect, with a sample of an approaching train. Montage rythmique [Rhythmic Editing] displays samples that appear to be expanding over time to create rhythmic patterns that are later interjected and juxtaposed with one another; an exhilarating movement. Similar to Erinyes, the fifth movement, Montage métaphorique [Metaphoric Editing], again features the human voice, this time exploring a more frolicsome side of expression: laughter. Durée des plans [Duration of Shots] makes use of silence and segments of sounds, to give only a glimpse of a whole. Samples are presented long enough for recognition, heightening anticipation in the listener. This movement sets up a suspenseful atmosphere with the effective use of silence.

Mr. Normandeau’s placement of each movement is superb, for out of the silence emerges a sparking soundscape with Clarté (éblouissement) [Brightness (Dazzling)]. Here, shimmering reverberant sounds twinkle, in ever-changing random-like patterns, creating the expression of a glistening night sky. Cinematic techniques again come to light in Taille des plans [Proportion of Shots] where raw sounds are processed using granular synthesis focusing on the isolation of the minute sample as part of whole sound objects. Couleurs ternaires [Ternary Colors] features recordings of captivating birdsong, juxtaposed among heavy sounds of metal objects. Micro-montage is the shortest and most active of the movements, being only 30 seconds in length. Here, short, fast-paced snippets are placed in a grand collage that acts as an explosion of sounds that seem to blast off in the darkness. The silence creates a seamless segue into the next movement, Obscurité [Darkness], of this riveting and engaging set. Here the familiar sounds of an engine roaring followed in contrast by hollow, echoing sounds, produce a soundscape of an image or illusion of space that is cold and vast.

Rounding off the Clair de terre is the final movement, Cadre large (espace ouvert) [Wide Frame (Open Space) ]. It opens with the echoing of forlorn bagpipes in melodic lines contrasting with a rhythmic chant-like pulse. Each vastly different, these blend and exchange places between the foreground and background. Injections of mumbled voices and processed electronic chatter create the illusion of vastness leading up to the final presentation of the timpani signaling the end of all.

Mr. Normandeau’s electroacoustic compositions included on this compact disc are presented as truly cinematic works of art for the listening mind. Each track is full of rich sounds and vivid soundscapes that take the listener on journeys beyond our Earth. His intricate treatment of each sound and its placement in the sonic landscapes is truly inspiring and convincing. Clair de terre offers a refreshing and tantalizing listening experience sure to satisfy a variety of musical palettes.

… a refreshing and tantalizing listening experience sure to satisfy a variety of musical palettes.

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