Electro-acoustic music is an acquired taste, falling under the same banner as musique concrète and the lesser-used acousmatics. For 20 years, Montréal’s empreintes DIGITALis has been releasing a steady stream of this intricate, fascinating music, bringing award-winning compositions to the attention of larger audiences. But when we write larger, we still don’t mean large. There’s little of the mainstream in this brand of music, not even the hint of a hit.
So who exactly listens to this electro-acoustic music? (Reviewer raises hand.). Okay, who else? The answer is simple: those who enjoy textures as much as melodies. Consider for example Ondiésop, the opening track on Sophie Delafontaine’s Accord ouvert. The sources include a reverberant bell, modified voice, seagulls, waves, and snatches of French song. The Swiss composer “likes to recover, recycle and renew her sonic materials.” Call her a collector of sound. Delafontaine is also a dancer, and her music relates well to contemporary choreography, inundated with impression and allusion. But while Ondiésop prefers sound to instrument, Respire marche pars va-t-en introduces a thrill of strings followed by a narrow electronic mirror of military drums. At 4:50 (approximately midway) a surging chord is toppled with dissonance, and then dialogue. An ice cream truck passes quickly before the rain begins to fall. Yet even the rain is subject to the artist’s manipulation; she uses it as instrument, unleashing it only for moments at a time like a benevolent goddess taking the clouds for a walk.
In order to appreciate electro-acoustics, one must lay aside all preconceptions. These albums unfold like books whose jackets lack descriptions. One turns the next page, unaware of what one will encounter. But it’s not just the thrill of discovery; when Delafontaine begins to wind children’s toys on Ressort spiral, she exposes the fun side of acousmatics. A clock ticks, doubles, stops, and finally, at 6:33, rings. It’s time to get up! No, wait ~ she is up. Where others hear only the sounds of everyday life, blending into the blasé, she hears symphonies. In Creux-du-Van, she enters the soft night, repurposing the cries of crickets and even taming the wind. The sixth minute sounds like the spring thaw, fragments of ice jostling each other, growing more agitated as they melt. An in the end, all dissolves into lonely whistles of air. These recycled sounds have indeed been made new; when the album ends and we reenter our own acoustic environments, we do so with new ears.