Stuart Marshall, The Sound Projector, July 25, 2021

The release schedule of Canadian label empreintes DIGITALes — electroacoustic music specialists — continues apace. Keeping up pace and penchant for excellence, this pair from 2020 arrive in empreintes DIGITALes’ customary card wraparound, but subtly differentiated by colour scheme and subject matter, spanning everything from abstract philosophy to concrete studies of instruments. Fascinating as these documents often are though, they are not above criticism. For one thing, given how standardised the tropes, techniques and themes in circulation, there is a risk of uniformity between practitioners, although on a good day it’s easy to lose oneself in the dynamic vortex. The tension between these positions informs my listening to today’s CDs.

Another problem, specific to releases of multi-channel music, is that they are better suited to live settings than the home, so these CDs can only hint at the mind-boggling experience of listening in situ. That said, the recordings are resplendent in their own charms. Denis Smalley‘s Portail makes for particularly immersive listening as it deep dives into the waters of Claude Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie (‘the submerged cathedral’) in the second part of its centrepiece, Fabrezan Preludes (2015-16). In the custom of many diverging interpretations of this piece (Isao Tomita and John Zorn among these), Smalley deftly repurposes the source material by setting some of the piece’s ‘resonant chords’ adrift in an underwater realm of ‘Debussian intervals and scale patterns’, where even the dim performance of an organist (Smalley, presumably) assumes a naturalistic character.

The hazy image of the organist originates in Smalley’s early musical training in New Zealand and in 1970s Paris, when he studied church organ under no less an authority than Olivier Messiaen. The same period saw him learning the tools of the fixed medium composition trade at GRM studios, and was followed by a move to computer composition — and the UK — in the ’80s, wherein the seeds of Portail could be said to have been planted. Since then, Smalley has released only sporadically, but the respectable quality of his work as well as his prestigious associations attest to the kind of pedigree that distinguishes practitioners in this field.

The other Fabrezan Preludes exhibit similar preoccupations with water and meteorology (vapour clouds, storms, rainfall, tidal currents), evoking parallels between numinous inner spaces and those of nature, and a similar act of ‘engulfing’ occurs in the other highlight, Sommeil de Rameau (‘Rameau’s sleep’; 2014-15). Herein, faint, sunlit memories of Smalley’s church organ studies glimmer through another undulating, underwater dream in glistening modal phrases. So hazy and dreamlike are its slow, lilting lines of ‘airy instrumentation’ that I actually mistook this for the Debussy piece on my first few listens.

By contrast, the 12-minute closer (The Pulses of Time (1978)) could pass itself off as a lost cousin to Aphex Twin’s Bucephalus Bouncing Ball. Preceding the preceding pieces by over four decades, Portail ‘s outlier is an ever-shifting flux of pulses, plucked and percussive, from a battery of incognito sound sources, alongside ballistic shards of atonal matter from clavichord, EMS Synthi and such. Smalley categorises these pulses into 3 types: slower ones to establish pace; those more accelerated to accentuate iterative variation; and finally ‘compacted pulsing grains’ for texture. While standing out like a sore thumb from the rest of the collection, this shuffled deck of rhythmic variations adds a wild card element to proceedings, lest the listener become too complacent in the sacred confines of Debussy’s cathedral.

… the recordings are resplendent in their own charms. Denis Smalley‘s Portail makes for particularly immersive listening…