Kevin Austin, Computer Music Journal, no. 15:1, March 1, 1991

From Quebec comes an important new compact disk label, called empreintes DIGITALes, for Canadian and international electroacoustic music. The venture is co-owned and directed by two young Canadian composers, Jean-François Denis and Claude Schryer. The semi-double entendre of the company name may be translated as “finger prints” or (loosely) “digital pressings.” This series of high-quality recordings of Canadian and Quebec electroacoustic activity joins a most welcome growing tide of electroacoustic CD production in this country

The first two releases in the series (now numbering four) are of Christian Calon, Ligne de vie: récits électriques (Life Line: electric tales), and Robert Normandeau, Lieux inouïs (Unheard-of Places). Each presentation comes with an extensive booklet of some 20 pages with photographs, quality graphics, and excellent program notes in both French and English. There is excellence throughout the production, materials, text, and sound.

A brief history of electroacoustic activity in Canada may be in order for those whose knowledge of activity here does not extend significantly beyond Hugh Le Caine’s justly touted impudent [Dripsody: An Etude for Variable Speed Recorder] of 1955, and knowledge of the important research and compositional works of Barry Truax.

Along with two major cultural groups working in the sonic arts, there are two major schools of esthetic/emotional thought, rather simplistically described as: “the sonic-object as metaphor” (the French influence of text and visual artsl, and “the sonic-object sound material” (the academic influence of material as self-referential language system-theoretically analyzable).

Probably some two-thirds of Canadian electroacoustic works fall quite clearly into one or the other of these categories divided on regional and linguistic lines: Quebec composition (francophone) leaning towards the metaphorical basis, and non-Quebec composers (anglophone) being in the second category.

Electroacoustic music in Canada dates back to the middle 1950’s with the pioneering work of the Canadian inventor/composer Hugh Le Caine and the founding of studios at the University of Toronto (1959) and McGill University (1964). A second wave of development, technological and esthetic, occurred in the mid1970’s. A younger generation of composers began to change the view of the electroacoustic studio away from that of being a sacred altar at which the adequately humble would be allowed to worship, towards an open, exploratory facility. Both Calon and Normandeau are products of this latter attitude and neither carries any of the esthetic or technical inhibitions occasionally found in the more formalistic works of some of the previous generation of composers and theorists.

These first two CDs from empreintes DIGITALes reflect and demonstrate two or more of the sides of electroacoustic activity in Quebec. The first thing to note, in terms of the material and the nature of the compositional processes, is the dominance of extended musique concrète techniques. The (metaphorical) razor blade is central to all of the works, but so is the metaphor. With titles like Mémoires vives (Vivid Memories or Volatile Memory) and Minuit (Midnight), these works are journeys through—or the articulations of—inner, outer, hidden, or even unheard-of (inouïs) places or spaces.

Christian Calon, born in Marseille in 1950, was self-educated. Possessed of a broad-ranging, sensitive, inquisitive, and philosophical mind, Calon writes, “I came to composition by the simplest path: through listening to the outer and inner natural phenomenons, and being surrounded by ideas and works.” In six years, he has composed only four major pieces, but they have won awards in competitions such as Bourges (1989), NEWCOMP (1988), and Luigi Russolo (1985).

Of his Portrait d’un visiteur (1985) (Portrait of a Visitor), the composer’s second major composition, Calon writes, “A metaphor. Take this person I used to know quite well… I stubbornly try to connect her familiar elements with the stream of new signs being displayed… All I know of my nature and that of the universe is incomplete: it is exactly as if I knew nothing.”

The sounds of Portrait… are largely reprocessed, sonically complex analog sources; largely of a glissando nature, pitch, spectrum, and envelope; slowly drawn out into long gradual gestures. While there is no text element per se, a textual base appears to reside behind the individual wavelike gestures, often invoking waves in the broadest sense, and eventually ocean waves. The introduction of the female voice with simple pitched material calls forth perceptions of an external world. As the piece evolves, there is the evocation of other spaces, perhaps more personal than of place.

Of La disparition (1988) (The Disappearance), the composer writes, “Rooted in this work lies the desire to hear those multiple and deep voices, that now belong to what we call History, rise together in one song. Through the sometimes violent embrace of sound materials, as distant and far away as our great music can be from the traditional music of other civilizations, one will recognize this vain desire to break the wall of silence, of the erasure, of the disappearance.”

Minuit (1989) (Midnight) has its extensive texts reproduced in the accompanying booklet, and among the three major sections (in mode, manner, and meaning), I vividly recall some of the emotional and metaphysical compulsions and invitations of works such as Gurre-Lieder, Pierrot Lunaire, and Erwartung.

The generation of a form within his work is dominated by text whether or not it is present or recognizable. Sound and sonic transformations attend to the call of transformed verbal meaning, or, at a more profound level, this verbal meaning is just one realization of a more fundamental human truth: boxes within boxes. Voice plays an openly dominant role in Calon’s work. It rises and transforms itself (though excellently controlled digital techniques) by and through the projection of inner and outer imagery in ways seen (as Calon carefully notes) in the works of Joyce, Baudelaire, Céline, and Artaud. This work repays many careful listenings.

… these works are journeys through — or the articulations of — inner, outer, hidden, or even unheard-of places or spaces.