Portail is released on the Empreintes Digitales label, which means you’re about to embark on some mind-boggling electroacoustic soundscapes. Such is definitely the case on this release, even though the music presented here may be somewhat more accessible than other releases on the label.
Denis Smalley (b. 1946) is a veteran of the electroacoustic music scene. He studied in Olivier Messiaen’s composition class in Paris and took the electroacoustic music course run by the GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales). Initially, he worked with tape, but in the early 80’s he switched to using computer software. A true pioneer of electroacoustic music, its practice and its theory.
Portail is Smalley’s third release (on Empreinted Digitales) after a 20-year ‘pause’. It presents recent multichannel works: Fabrezan Preludes (2015-2016) and Sommeil de Rameau (2014-15). Both were originally composed for 8-channels (oh man, I wish… don’t get me started…), but are converted to stereo ambisonics for this release (by Jonty Harrison) — so headphone listening is recommended.
Also included is one of his earliest compositions: The Pulses of Time (1978), which, by the way, is quite different from the previous two compositions.
In the two recent works, some titles refer to classical composers: Sommeil de Rameau (‘Rameau’s Sleep’), of course, and also Debussy’s Cathedral, directly referring to Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral).
The last title alone made me think of the reinterpretation of this piece by Isao Tomita on his 1974 debut album Snowflakes Are Dancing. And from there I realized there were similarities in the approach of this material (which can best be heard in Sommeil de Rameau), even when there are fundamental differences too. Unlike Tomita, Smalley doesn’t aim to meticulously re-create the classical score: his compositions are entirely his own. And I assume that the techniques used to create this music are also completely different.
But in taking “the transformation and development of a pair of resonant chords from Debussy’s piano prelude”, or when “drawing on characteristics of the sleep scene in French Baroque stage works and cantatas, which first occurred in a comédie-ballet by Molière and Lully the homage to Jean-Philippe Rameau ”, Smalley uses the same washes of ‘engulfing’ sound to create his musical atmospheres.
A dreamlike atmosphere, for the most part: “When a sleep scene is invoked, a main character is exhorted to sleep, and dramatic action is suspended. The music may be solely instrumental, or may involve sung commentary, where, for example, the singers personify dreamed thoughts or suggest future courses of action. The musical style, with its slowish harmonic motion, undulating or rocking contours, and airy instrumentation (typically strings and flutes), is intended to create a contemplative atmosphere and a sense of timelessness.”