Kevin Austin, Computer Music Journal, no. 15:3, September 1, 1991

Few releases are so integrated in medium and message. Most CDs continue the tradition of simply being a medium for the storage and transport of sonic artifacts, sound recording being the twentieth-century equivalent of the Guidonian hand. Like the unjustly neglected Nonesuch recording commissions from the mid-1960s most of the works included on the Électro clips release were created explicitly for the recording medium.

Électro clips is the fourth CD from the Montréal-based label empreintes DIGITALes. It consists of 25 commissioned 3-minute works by 24 North American composers. The release, timed to coincide wich New Music America held in Montrcal in November 1990, carries on a centuries-old tradition of asking composers to write within predefined constraints for a specific occasion or event.

Coproducers Jean-François Denis and Claude Schryer desired to merge the 3-minute popular song form with the concept of the vidco clip. The invited composers embraced this task to varying degrees. I find the most interesting works on the CD to be those written with that goal as the original inspirational seed, rather than those that are reworks of longer, preexisting compositions.

Like most labels specializing in electroacoustic music, empreintes DIGITALes continues to lace the daunting challenge of distribution, the costs, and its vagaries. To reach as wide an audience as possible, the recording is accompanied by a 58-page booklet that is trilingually French, English, and Spanish. It includes biographies of the composers, program notes, and a series of 25 photographs commissioned from the Quebec City photographer Joanne Tremblay.

Thirteen of the composers represented were born in the 1950s, and five of them in the 1960s. Eleven live in Montréal, four in Toronto, four in Vancouver. Four are from the United States, and one is from Mexico. The compositional and electroacoustic orientations are the polyglot that is rather characteristic of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community. This is part of this collection’s charm and strength, and a great part of its beauty.

As an educational tool, this CD could be a major resource. The 3-minute constraint provides a balancing framework for the study of compositional styles and schools and the works provide excellent examples for analysis.

Using the analytic hierarchy from linguistics — morpheme, vocabulary element, syntax, and semantic — these compositions can be parsed and described at each level. The following should clarify how I am applying these terms to music. By “sonic morpheme,” I mean the lowest level and smallest sonic unit; an indivisible instance of sound, that which constitutes a particular timbre’s integrity. “Vocabulary” is the set of sound sources that populate a given composition; the “orchestra.” This set may consist of one source or multiple sources (uni- or multi-family), and may include members that combine attributes of more than one source (cross-families). The term “syntax” can be applied to various units of music composition, just as it is when applied to natural language. Note-to-note transitions, phrase, section, and whole-composition structures all have a syntactic element. So, there is micro-syntax and macro-syntax. Both concern the application of transformations, transitions, constraints and procedures. Electroacoustic music often uses syntactic plans such as collage, layering and continuous transformation. “Semantics” (or what the composition “means”) may simply be the result of all the previous levels of organization. This might be the case in pure music. The semantic level is perhaps more distinct in program or other music that is based on metaphor, direct source quotation of text-sound or life-sound, or other extra-musical (personal, emotional, social, or political) statements. Each of the pieces presented exists on all of these levels, with some of them resting more solidly and completely on some subset of levels.

John Oswald’s Bell Speeds, a sampled bell played at numerous octaves, resides heavily in the area of vocabulary (simple, uni-family, predictable within the sampled-instrumental model). Syntactically and macro-structurally this work is uncomplicated, producing a memorable sonic identity with a relatively low semantic complexity John would probably point out that this structuralist approach completely fails to hear the piece (see Konybski, above). Tamed structuralism appears in the self-replicating algonthmic composition What If by Daniel Scheidt, and the tonally fractal piece by Bruno Degazio entitled Humoresque 901534.

Political statements form the basis of several of the compositions, making them semantically deep. Examples include Charles Amirkhanian’s Bajanoom (“Separation”) and John Oliver’s Marimba Dismembered. The latter contrasts and compares the violent confrontation of the Guatemalan Mayans over land claims, to the native resentment with Quebec’s nonresponse to the Canadian constitutional accord (Meech Lake). Social injustice is the fœtus in Yves Daoust’s Mi bémol and Christian Calon’s Temps incertains.

There are numerous, multilevel continua for sonic, æsthetic, and pedagogical exploration, including the problem of sonic identity, both internally within each work and across all 25 of the compositions. The obviousness of sound processing is one of the criticisms frequently hurled at electroacoustic music. Histoncally the indiscriminate slathering of sounds with reverberation has been one of this genre’s weaknesses. Several of the works on this CD have stimulated lively discussion as to whether the processing is integral or mearly decorative. This leads back to the question of sonic identity and the special case of quotation.

Quotation, in its broadest sense, is present in just about all of the pieces on this collection, from the sonic “objet réalité” tradition of musique concrète in Yves Daoust’s Mi bémol. to the quotation of traditional instrumental sources found in Craig Harris’s wonderful piano in Somewhere between.

Quotation may be clear or hidden, sonically and metaphorically. Francis Dhomont’s masterful epithet Qui est-là? retrospectively examines his own work and the works of those who influenced him. It ends with an original quotation about the unknowability of the self by others, and of others by the self.

The use of text in more than half of the pieces is clearly a type of quotation. In both Amnon Wolman’s Man-Bridge and Robert Normandeau’s sampled child’s voice in Bédé. text is used to convey information at all levels of organization, from the sonic morpheme to the complete semantic statement. In some cases, speech rhythms are preserved and the utterance is completely stripped away. Several compositions make an indirect reference to such rhythms, not in an obvious fashion, but rather as a profound underpinning for their macro — and micro — structure. Such is the case in Jean-François Denis’s Point-virgule, Martin Gotfrit’s The Machine’s Four Humours, John Oliver’s Marimba Dismembered and, in a completely unvoiced work, Simulant by the Toronto composer and sound-poet Richard Truhlar.

Some of the works on the CD obtain meaning through their reference to other media, easily recognized musical styles, or readily identifiable experiences. A few examples include the comical, horror-film qualities of Roxanne Turcotte’s Minisérie, Javier Álvarez’s Mambo à la Braque with its upbeat, boogie-woogie jazz references, and Breathing Room by Hildegard Westerkamp, with its peaceful life-force evocations.

At a practical level, an adventurous, independent producer today must explore the potential audience and consider how and where the product will be used. Possible applications for Électro clips run the gamut from personal entertainment, to radio and concert presentations, educational uses, and as material for integration with other media (e.g., dance, film, or theater).

Possibly the most commercially viable application of this material is in radio, where there are plenty of 3-minute slots calling for interesting diversity. Within an academic environment, Électro clips will prove itself of great value. Discussions of style and electroacoustic languages can be pointedly illustrated because of the diversity of the materials and the brevity of the works.

Concert venues with multiple speaker systems (8 to 16 or more not being unusual in Montréal) can reveal a hidden dimension in many of the works. Those pieces with collaged, environmental realities benefit enormously from the articulation of space. A brief list of the works in this category includes Dan Lander’s I’m looking at my hand, Christian Calon’s Temps incertains, Claude Schryer’s Les oiseaux de Bullion, and the Calon/Schryer collaboration Prochaine station. Works such as these really depend on the spacial parameter, not only with respect to acoustics, but also in terms of their extramusical content. Multiple speaker facilities can make the difference between an intimate and an aloof performance.

Few releases are so integrated in medium and message.