Review

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

Robert Normandeau was born in Québec in 1955, studied composition and electroacoustics at Université Laval and Université de Montréal, and is currently finishing his PhD with Francis Dhomont and Marcelle Deschênes. He too has many awards to his credit — he has won competitions such as Bourges 1986, 1988; Phonurgia-Nova 1986, 1987; and Luigi Russolo 1989 — and has held various residencies. He notes that work with artists in other disciplines, visual performance and cinema, are very important to him. Of particular note is Normandeau’s expert recording and processing technique. There is often a hyper-reality to his recorded sounds that produces a tactile sensuality, often glossed in a field of reverberation.

Jeu (1989) (“Game” / “Play”) is based on different uses of the word game/play in both literal and metaphorical senses. The play is subtle, refined, hinting at profundity and always sensually intriguing. Sound objects from renaissance choral music to a fragment of Stockhausen’s Hymnen dance before the ear in ways obscure, titillating, and evocative. The clear is made meaningful, the significant appears disguised in the commonplace. But it is only a game, isn’t it?

Mémoires vives (1989) is a “fascination with requiems.” It is also a refined study in sampler, collage, and reverberation techniques. Source materials are exclusively from requiems from the Gregorian Mass of the Dead to the present, transformed and used in time slices of a few milliseconds to almost a second. Reverberation ranges from none to immense in duration, and from small room to echo of several seconds in the density domain. Much of this work is a sonic projection of memory types and functions.

It is clear from the sensitivity to pitch-type material that Normandeau’s background has included an intimate study of Western pitch structures. While there is no overt use of pitch relationships in the small amount of material that can be considered pitched, there is a strong intuitive feel to the potential of this parameter for the creation and articulation of form. (Note especially the quasi II7 [supertonic seventh chord] structure from the Fauré Requiem at about 13 min 50 sec.)

The earlier works on the CD flesh out the background to these two works. About Rumeurs (Place de Ransbeck) (1987), Normandeau writes that the piece “oscillates between pure sound and meaning, without ever resolving to one or the other,” while Matrechka (1986) (the nested Russian dolls) “takes the form of an unveiling, a journey where reality, of a certain form, gives place to another reality. It uses the theme… that art should never be mistaken for the object it represents.” Doors open and close, voices sing and chide, waves break, as Magritte wrote under his painting of a pipe, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe).”

Le cap de la tourmente (1985) was created for an exhibit of five holographic sculptures, each with its own sound track. The version presented on this CD is an electroacoustic concert version based on these five sound tracks in only one of any number of realizations. The sounds are frequency modulation type complexes in a slowly evolving, quasi-pitched expansive context.

Normandeau refers to his latest work as “acousmatic pieces,” and also variously as “cinema for the ear.” The cryptic French word “acousmatique” is not only a manner of sound projection (diffusion) through numerous loudspeakers, but also a relationship between the sound and its meaning.

Electroacoustics is only slowly coming to grips with the perceptual parameters of our field, and is now starting to develop an analytical vocabulary which begins to deal with sound as object, symbol, metaphorical object, and metaphor. If language is accepted as vocabulary and syntax in the service of a semantic (including the relationships of same), the acousmatic use of pre-existing sonic objects allows for the immediate creation, perception, and understanding of form(s). This is because the basic sonic object (vocabulary element) is a whole and complete object, not requiring hierarchical relationship(s) (syntax) to obtain meaning (semantic). The creation of a syntax is achieved through the transformation of these vocabulary elements.

Calon moves the sonic entity towards the interior, an exploration of inner spaces. Normandeau often transforms the play of sonic-light through the creation of new (external) perspectives of existing sonic objects, such as chords from medieval choral works carefully inserted within the sounds of a Paris metro train. Calon transforms psychological space partly through the liquid consubstantiation of text. Normandeau transforms perceptual space partly through calling the individual’s own perceptual models into question.

Much more could be written about the textural nature of these two composers, and acousmatics in general; for example, the tendency, or even the necessity, of a linear and sectional approach to composition. The sound objects themselves, frequently made up of grouped elements, are often so complex that they will not easily submit to simultaneous layering. There are times when their natural, gestural duration requires that the composer allow the listener time to integrate the sound into the interior sonic framework. This requirement brings the composer to writing in medium, and occasionally large, symphonic durations.

Each composer addresses the material and moves from a similar source type (concrete and digital transformations applied mostly to concrete, but occasionally electronic sources), but in different directions (in/out). The works on the Calon CD are presented in chronological order, and Calon leads the listener to the present. Normandeau reveals the history of the object, by moving from present to past.

Careful headphone listening reveals a small number of minor technical flaws, but these works were not created for headphone listening, or for that matter, for listening in two-channel stereo. In the various electroacoustic concerts in Montréal (there are more than three regular series accounting for more than 30 concerts per year), these works are presented in sound projection systems with a minimum of eight channels, and as many as 24 and more. Eight to sixteen-channel diffusion is typical. In simple stereo listening, some of the material is spatialized as simple panning, but during the process of spatial actualization or sound projection in performance, these simple stereo localizations may become intricate directional weavings and spinning.

Much of the work carries with it an acoustical perspective (reverberation and basic localization characteristics). The use of various venues and types of loudspeakers provides the composer with means for physically expanding and contracting the source of the perceived sounds during this process of spatial actualization. It is because of this that individuals who have access to multispeaker systems, either for their own use or more importantly for public presentation, should consider that a two-channel presentation of these works is parallel to (for example) a piano version of Stockhausen’s Gruppen.

The series continues with a third CD of works by Alain Thibault, a fourth CD of three-minute works by 25 young composers (Électro clips), and a fifth CD containing the computer and interactive works of Vancouver composer Daniel Scheidt. I recommend them most highly, one and all.

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

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