Gilles Gobeil is a well-known composer of the more refined, aristocratic type of electroacoustics that we have become accustomed to through the French and the Canadians in particular: intellectual, philosophical high-brow sound art that is truly enjoyable on many levels, of which one do not tire. Receiving these high class CDs from time to time is like enjoying a membership in an exclusive men’s club of 19th century London. It’s exciting but comfortable, daring but rather safe. I like it very much, the same way I like to go hiking in Lapland, staying nights in the huts, enjoying the company of fellow nature lovers and hardship flirters from all over Europe who don’t want to risk their lives unnecessarily, but enjoy an occasional glacier, despite the hidden cracks and crevasses…
On this DVD-Audio Gilles Gobeil excels in his interest in the ondes Martenot; the old electronic instrument. The Ondes Martenot is briefly described thus at the Electronic Music Foundation site: “Designed and built in 1928 in France by Maurice Martenot, the ondes Martenot (Martenot Waves) was used by Olivier Messiaen, Darius Milhaud, Edgar Varèse, Pierre Boulez, and other well-known composers. In its most recognizable form, it was a keyboard instrument with some unusual performance features, among them a finger-ring attached to a ribbon that could be pulled to achieve portamento and other pitch-bending effects, a lever located under the keyboard to control timbral change, and a loudness controller to the left of the keyboard.”
Jeff Snyder, Assistant Director of the Music Technology Program at Lebanon Valley College of Pennsylvania, has written the following narrative about the development and functionality of this early electronic instrument: “At the end of World War I, Maurice Martenot (1898-1980), a sergeant in charge of a wireless station, noticed the purity of vibrations produced by radio tubes (a recent invention). This led to a series of investigations in sound and electronics. He presented his new musical instrument to the public in May of 1928 at the Paris Opera. This was the first concert with an electronic instrument. He called his invention the Ondes Martenot. It was monophonic with low note priority. The early Martenot was played two ways: 1. At the keyboard (7 octaves). The speaker was separate. The player’s right hand played the keyboard while the left hand controlled dynamics and timbre by manipulating switches that controlled filters. The keyboard allowed lateral movement of the keys allowing the player to have vibrato by wiggling his finger. 2. The ‘speaking’ play. A ribbon (also 7 octaves) allowed inflections like a voice or stringed instrument. It allowed for a wide glissando where the player moved a finger ring attached to the metal ribbon, which controlled the frequency. The left hand functioned the same as the keyboard mode. The left hand controlled a key, which served the same as the bow of a violinist or the breath of a wind player. With a touch of the finger, the player controlled the intensity ranging from PPP to FFF. It also controlled the attack. The left hand also controlled the loudspeaker buttons, timbre, harmonics, etc. There was also a knee lever, which could be used instead, freeing the left hand to join the right. The Martenot was intended to become a member of the orchestral family, not to be used to create a new type of music. The tone was glass like. In 1938, Martenot, then a professor at the Paris Conservatory, built a special Martenot to be used for microtonal Hindustani music. Hundreds of symphonic works, operas, ballets, film scores, and other works were composed for the Martenot by composers such as Messiaen, Milhaud, Varèse, Boulez, Honegger and others. The Theremin is similar in the way it produced tone. It is amazing how present day synthesizers have many of the controller functions of the Martenot: ribbons, switches, knee levers - and supposedly Kurzweil is coming out with a keyboard that has a ring.”
Gilles Gobeil has collaborated with famous Ondes Martenot player Suzanne Binet-Audet in all the works presented on this DVD-Audio. Suzanne Binet-Audet has in fact studied the instrument and its musical implications with the inventor of the instrument, Maurice Martenot.
The first piece is Voix blanche from 1988-89, with the subtitle “À la mémoire de Serge Garant.” As is also stated in the booklet — i.e., the foldout hard-paper Jean-François Denis cover! -, this work has been heard before, premiered in 1988 at the Salle Claude-Champagne in Montréal, and on presented on CD back in 1989, on Cultures électroniques 4 as 2e Prix de la Musique électroacoustique mixte, but this particular version was realized by the composer as late as 2004 and mixed in its final form in January of 2005. Besides, it has never been heard in such a good-sounding shape before!
The beginning is pastoral, fresh with green plants and densely wooded forests, hiding many a secret existence: those specks of light dancing over the rocks in the meadow! The music wakes up in this natural bliss, its heart thumping, the score suddenly fresh with oxygen and dew! The very first bar of the music makes a wide gesture, opening our eyes to the scenery, which is half real, half myth: enchanted! The electronic music bends slightly downwards from its upward beginning, leveling out, short and well-marked bird chirps measuring time, while the Ondes Martenot — thin and elastic — rises slowly in a glissando, upwards, slowly upwards, as the electronic motion down under begins to circle like the current of water that disappears down the drain. Gobeil’s music grows granular, like the surface of the sun throw sooty glasses; that boiling motion of prickly elements — but in Gobeil’s world this property is cold, icy — more like myriads of distant stars… and in the following development I can no longer distinguish Martenot from Gobeil, so to say. It all comes together in a vibrant, soaring elasticity of audio, venomously beautiful, dangerously pleasant! I hear surfaces tilting, I see the dust sounds of gold, I piggyback off on the circumstances! I feel ballets in here, see motions around the premises, hands making signs, feet circling over a wooden floor; I hear the intermittent friction of ballet shoes and planks; a wheezing grayness, gravity focused through an act of utter equilibrium, all the way into the central star, gathering momentum way out from the most distant planets: the gyro of the solar system; the ultimate prayer wheel!
Gobeil and Suzanne Binet-Audet shape the moment wonderfully, at times merging so crazily that they become one and indistinguishable from each other, only to pry lapsing durations open in disparate tendencies, torque and pull straining space and perception ominously, only a distant murmur rising under the horizon like the wasted songs of renounced gods as time runs towards the vanishing point… The White Voice!
The second work is Là où vont les nuages… from 1990-91, dedicated to Suzanne Binet-Audet. This time the Ondes Martenot is linked to a MIDI converter, opening the utilization of synthesizer, sampler and a sound processing unit to Binet-Audet. This work has been released on an earlier empreintes DIGITALes CD, but as was the case with Voix blanche is the case with Là où vont les nuages…; a contemporary makeover by the composer, who had it overhauled in 2004 and re-recorded in early 2005, collaboratively mixed by Gilles Gobeil and Suzanne Binet-Audet. Here is the result, for our ears only.
It staggers and winds through its beginnings, through a sonic deliverance that could have been filtered out of a steel factory havoc, reduced and radicalized into a swelling motion that reminds me some of the shaman realms of Rolf Enström’s Tjidtjag & Tjidtjaggaise; a mysterious widening of space and time — and I can’t refrain, either, from making an analogy to Stockhausen’s Sirius space ships gearing up! The sound is rich an sort of waiting — but there are audible footsteps in there, and a panting breath, for a while — so the human touch is there! There is lots of motion about this music; nothing stands still or stops, or if it does, something else moves on; you’re not completely left motionless at any time — but the sounds thin out drastically here and there; breaks that are slapped in the face by singular gold-crusted percussion beats. Several percussive layers are strewn about, achieving tearing, bent-away sensations — until water factory echoes put you right back into Tarkovsky’s Stalker, entering the Zone… Lone and distantly howling sounds are broken up by close and loud alarm clocks. A blind motion forces itself through the vicinity like a train without an engineer. These violent sounds are relieved by distant, meditative foghorns, and then you’re back with Stalker again… with Eduard Artemiev.
Là où vont les nuages… consists of a complex mix of impressions, but it never gets out of hand. It’s a merger of musique concrète and electronic music, perhaps a little too much on the wild side for my taste, but damn interesting and often surprising.
The last work is La perle et l’oubli, the one new work on this CD, achieved in 1999 — 2002. Still, this is a later mix, made by Gobeil in 2005. Gobeil says that this is “a personal interpretation of a Gnostic text from the 2nd century, entitled Hymn of the Pearl, attributed to Bardesanes”, who lived 152-222 Anno Domini.
A high-pitch swirl, a motion deep inside a blue sky — and a shower of gravel passing a barrel of steel, barely touching it, but making enough of a contact to raise a whisper out of gravel and steel, a passing shadow out of matter… The flapping of dark wings or the tails of a coat flying in the wind; an anatomy flexing by, a densification of matter on the move: a person out of the 18th century gliding by in a flash, gone like the improbability of its manifestation… Sudden showers of meteorites pass in silence; not a ripple… A murmur in the night; an ocean turning over in a dream, grunting. The idea of something lighting up inside a brain and dying away… and then: a stirring motion, a vibrating trill, a sound too organized not to be a sign of intelligent life: a message passing from brain to brain, from world to world… as the subway train blows by in a gush of warm air, screeching for help! A choir of wide open mouths behind the barricades are sensed more than heard; a tolling of silent bells, teeth slowly closing the only escape, swallowing the words which were so cleverly lined-up, drowning the messages in saliva and crushing them in intestinal crunches…
Gobeil and Binet-Audet play hide-and-seek amongst colored silences, soft walls of under-the-breath timbres that are scratched by all but imperceptible razor sharp Martenot incisions… blood gushing out of inaudible openings in the night…
An explosion! … and crowds stirring inside an oil painting: maroon melodies tenderly brought about: Binet-Audet’s Masses and Motets out of the 15th century moving like black balcony curtains with figures sewn in silver threads… infants dying in the cold Medieval winters of Europe, while the living have to go on breathing, prisoners harnessed by this relentless in- and exhaling; this curse of life in the flesh.
This musical collaboration between Gilles Gobeil and Suzanne Binet-Audet is extraordinarily successful, visionary, imaginative, enchanting… yes, artistically liberating and both refined and defined in a solid surge of senseless serenity of flesh and spirit; a dance macabre of matter and an interstellar ballet of the soul, winding down into the slow and receding dark thoughts of a decaying mankind at the end of the universe…