[Jean-François Denis] participera au Forum: numérique et arts de la scène de RIDEAU le 13 février, de 9h45 à 10h45, dans la portion «Posture critique: arts de la scène et technologies numériques».
Qui êtes-vous et quel est votre parcours?
J’ai découvert l’électroacoustique lors d’un cours d’été donné par Kevin Austin en 1981 à l’Université Concordia à Montréal. Épris, j’ai poursuivi des études musicales au Mills College à Oakland (Californie, ÉU) avec David Rosenboom (maîtrise, 1984). J’ai pratiqué l’électroacoustique en direct, seul ou en ensemble, et en différé pour la danse et l’interdisciplinaire de 1982 au milieu des années 1990.
Je suis le directeur de Diffusion i média (1989), qui produit et distribue les disques empreintes DIGITALes (1990), les disques SONARt (1992-95) et les disques No Type (2002-08).
Votre emploi actuel
- Directeur artistique: maison de disques empreintes DIGITALes
- Éditeur musical
- Gestion de métadonnées (principalement musicales) - https://dim.qc.ca/
- Conception de sites web
Pouvez-vous nous donner un aperçu de votre conférence?
(Je vais surtout répondre aux questions des animateurs…)
Quels sont les enjeux pour les arts de la scène et les artisans?
Le vocable «numérique» à la mode ces jours-ci semble se limiter à la notion de mode de distribution. À cet unique égard, les grandes disciplines d’arts de la scène sont peu impliquées.
Le «numérique» repose sur la fixation/captation/enregistrement, soit un acte de «production», souvent audio ou audiovisuelle: il s’agit donc d’un champ d’action (et de compétences) distinct.
Musique concrète, musique pour bande, acousmatique, musique électroacoustique, cinéma pour l’oreille, paysage sonore, art sonore: dit de cette façon, il faut reconnaître que les choses avec lesquelles trafique Empreintes Digitales s’éloignent un peu des intérêts quotidiens de cette sainte maison. Ce problème semble devenir la condition habituelle des disques que publie le label canadien. Trop abstraits pour les amateurs de pop, trop sérieux pour les adeptes de l’électronique (même dans ses formes les plus expérimentales) et, voilà la surprise, trop mondaines pour les consommateurs de musique contemporaine (musique culte, comme eux-mêmes le revendiquent), des messieurs sybarites qui devraient être le public réel du label. C’est de tout cela que parlait dans un récent entretien le père de la créature, Jean-François Denis. Il expliquait qu’au fond, quand on travaille avec une musique si spécifique, qui a sa propre place dans le marché, on fini par trouver un public que suit son son, qui apprends et grandit en même temps que le label et «finit par créer des réseaux, des revues, des groupes et des événements». Même si Denis ne sait pas trop clairement qui achète nos disques, où ils sont et quelles autres musiques ils écoutent, il est très conscient qu’il faut les soigner, qu’il ne peut pas leur donner n’importe quoi, «ni au niveau du contenu, ni au niveau des présentations de disques». Autrement dit: quand on a un produit unique et sans concurrence pour se faire des soucis, survivre n’est plus une cause de préoccupation et la seule chose qui compte est la beauté. Il est clair qu’il faut reconnaître à Denis qu’en plus du bon goût, il a du flair et une certaine vision du business, vingt ans après la création et avec un catalogue qui dépasse les cent références. Empreintes Digitales bénéficie d’une image plus forte que jamais. Des aspects comme l’édition des œuvres en DVD-Audio («il y a des expériences sonores qui nécessitent une ambiance plus soignée», dit Denis) ou le design des jolis boîtiers en carton — remplis d’information et pas très pratique pour de grandes mains — qui donnent une impression de raffinement renforcé par la musique. Comme par exemple, les deux dernières publications du label, Études pour Kafka de Francis Dhomont et Ubiquité de Dominique Bassal, deux disques si beaux et si inclassables. Musique pour un univers parallèle qui est meilleur que le nôtre.
Labels come and go. But even within this fast-changing world, where everyone with internet access can set up a record company and start releasing music, some outfits have proved more valid, relevant and meaningful than others. On January 31st, Canadian imprint empreintes DIGITALes will celebrate its 20th anniversary as one of the world’s leading label for electroacoustics and true to its title, it has certainly left some fascinating fingerprints.
As artistic director Jean-François Denis recounts, the world was a different one when he published the first four albums all the way back in 1990 and the notion of devoting a label entirely to a music so far away from mainstream sensibilities and obvious medial tangents must have appeared wildly optimistic. And yet, Denis’ brainchild got off to a remarkable start and quickly started extending beyond its homebase of Montréal into an international platform for ambitious Composers and Sound Artists.
Over the years, empreintes DIGITALes has not only developed a recognisable musical style, but also been at the forefront of technological development, switching to the multichannel possibilities of DVD-Audio in 2005. Its visual taste has been of an equally tasteful quality and today expresses itself in elegant cardboard boxes with extendable trays. By Spring of 2009, its catalogue had grown to include over 450 works by more than 90 composers from over 20 countries, on almost 100 releases. As easy as it may be to set up your own record company in the digital age, today’s record companies have a long road ahead of them to match that.
The past twenty years in a nutshell
We started in 1989 in a bid of making the music available for a first release in January 1990. Our plan was to begin with 4 discs; we did not want to be another 1-disc label. We selected the compact disc for its better sound quality and longer duration as the only medium for our releases. At that time many people were suggesting that we also release on cassettes! In 20 years we saw different audio formats come. and go almost completely.
In 1990, there was basically no independent record label specializing in electroacoustics. The first years proved to be a greater success than expected, probably because we simply did not have any real idea about the “commercial” or medial potential for such discs; the novelty dimension, the great quality and variety of local, national and international composers, the sound quality of the discs, the bilingual, French — English liner notes, the packaging, for which we used the conventional jewel case until 1996, then our first deluxe carboard box until 2000 and since then our current cardboard box… all of this contributed to the excitement.
By the late 1990s, the situation had stabilized. Many more labels were founded around the Western world; compact disc production was simpler and more affordable — and the supply was thus bigger.
In 2000 we changed some of our production methods and invested more energy into our web site, which was started in 1995, by refocusing it and automating it. The Internet was growing and “net labels” started to appear, meaning the supply was even bigger. In 2005, we selected a better-sounding disc format, the DVD-Audio, as our main format.
Since 2000 an important shift towards digital compressed audio format happened in the popular music industry, namely in 2001-03 with the iPod and later, the iTunes Music Store. While this change of access to music and “attitude” towards the disc had a great impact on the whole, “specialized” music remained somewhat protected, at least for a while. We only started to feel a change, a decrease in impact, in sales, over the past 3-4 years.
About serving the download market
I do not surf the Internet looking for “mp3” of works available on empreintes DIGITALes, nor any other audio files for that matter. So I do not know for sure. My guess is that someone somewhere most certainly has “ripped” works from our discs, converted them in lower or medium grade mp3 and has placed those in peer-to-peer networks.
We are now living in a time where the music on empreintes DIGITALes has to also become available as digital files, authorized so far composers may get some fruits out of this activity. For the last 3 years we are seeking methods to make high-definition (HD) audio files available. Unfortunately we have not yet found an aggregator — as digital wholesalers are now called — that does.
About the process of getting press coverage, radio play and concert opportunities
The advantage of being a “niche” is that people in a niche tend to build networks, groups, magazines, events. In 1990 we had to learn everything, and we naturally discovered networks. In 2009 I’d say the same thing. Some networks have came and gone, newer ones, newer platforms were created.
There is less and less (conventional) radio airplay time for experimental- and contemporary music; most larger national broadcasters are pulling back from curious, avantgarde, exploratory music.
Generally in concerts electroacoustics tend to have a wider reach. More and more soloists and small ensembles tour with some mixed and/or live works, including those in programmes with instrumental repertoire. Concerts with acousmatics are slightly different. But in the very recent past I have witnessed sizable crowds attending concerts of acousmatics within the context of festivals of live electroacousitcs or even electronic music (the term understood under its current usage).
About artistic changes and constants
As an artistic director, the notion of a “living room listening experience” has always been important to me. The refocusing within electroacoustics to acousmatics was made in order to improve the listening dimension. (Acousmatics on disc is the work “itself”; while mixed and live — or other “recorded” — music is a “documentation” of the work.)
But your question refers to the aesthetic level and in that respect I cannot say that within the last 20 years the genre has been substantially “revolutionized.” The means of production / composition have change greatly to extremes, from hard-to-access studios in institutions to domestic laptop computers, but thinking has evolved just as naturally. Listening to Portrait d’un visiteur by Christian Calon is just as great as a musical experience today as it was when first presented in public 25 years ago.
About the relationship between the label and its homebase of Montréal as well as its composers
Our relationship with the city is symbiotic. Because of my role with the label and, until recently, my role with a concert organization in Montréal, one could feed the other, and vice versa. But in my view the label has never been a Montréal.label, it was simply based in that city. Within only 4 years the offer quickly became international with discs by composers from France, UK and Belgium.
A personal relationship with composers is very important. Trust and sharing of visions; understanding and acting upon our interacting roles. Working on the long term with, where/when possible, several releases in mind. As to my reasons for releasing something or not, I often say that I need to grasp/feel the integrity of the composer process, but there are of course several other factors, including timing, economical and legal ones.
About the future of the label and acousmatics
The goal was foremost to make the music available. With today’s possibilities empreintes DIGITALes is far from the only means for such a goal. But however easy it is to get one’s music on the Internet via one’s own website or even via well-organized outlets (such as CDBaby, for instance), the role of channeling, organizing, presenting of a specialized “label” will be required with or without physical discs.
Younger generations of composers are exploring the genre, naturally evolving it. So there is a future. There is a future for creation, invention, daring propositions…
Canada has an abundance of resources including petrol-soaked sand, hockey fans, and electroacoustic music. These national assets can be found, respectively, in Alberta, in bars, and at electrocd.com. Most countries have no way of knowing what their electroacoustic scene consists of, but Canada does, thanks to Montrealer Jean-François Denis, whose web site, recording label (empreintes DIGITALes), and distribution company (Diffusion i média) make our nation a trailblazer of electroacoustic production and archiving.
Now in its twentieth year, Denis’ label appears to be as strong as ever. He explains how the project took shape. “I was a teacher of electronic music at Concordia University,” says Denis by phone, “and of course I was a composer, too. I shared an office at the time with [British–Canadian electroacoustic composer] Kevin Austin. We were accumulating lots of tapes at Concordia for concerts. Some of these tapes were musical treasures that no one else would ever have the opportunity to hear. That’s the germ of the whole project: trying to make this music available.”
So how does one make a specialty record label? In Denis’ case, he was forced into it. “In 1989, we started surveying several composers,” Denis explains. “The idea of starting a label, or at least, creating a musical collection, got positive feedback from several composers in Ontario and Québec. However, none of the labels we approached were interested in a collection of electroacoustic music. Nobody wanted to do that, so I set it up myself.”
It’s easy to understand why the labels weren’t interested in Denis’ plan. Electroacoustic music is a strange genre, and is both everywhere and nowhere. We music fans still have to define electroacoustic music for most people. When we say “rock” or “hiphop” or “drum ’n’ bass,” no one needs an explanation. But electroacoustic music is more widespread than people realize. It’s present in movies, for instance, on web sites, and in video games, as well as in choreography and theatre.
In the field of music specifically, electroacoustic music can be heard across genres ranging from Stockhausen to Aphex Twin. Electroacoustic material lurks beneath techno’s surface. Underneath the dance rhythm are those sounds that electroacoustic composers sculpt so carefully. “Electoacoustic composers bring that background stuff to the foreground,” says Denis. “There’s a different emphasis, a reverse. It’s not actually so very exotic.”
empreintes DIGITALes has had an impact on electroacoustic composers. By making the work available, the composers become more visible. The label has helped many composers reach out internationally. Denis is, in part, shaping Canada’s international music reputation. “The key for new music is to be heard,” says Denis, adding, “Instrumental composers are stuck without a label for new instrumental music, because it’s a lot more expensive to record a chamber ensemble or an orchestra.” Electroacoustic music without performers is far easier financially. It’s also less complicated to play on the radio, though few stations will program the genre. Nonetheless, it seems true that Canadian electroacoustic music has more of a reputation than our instrumental material because it’s consistently available in recorded format.
Paul Dolden and John Oswald are two Canadian composers on empreintes DIGITALes whom savvy Europeans have told me are part of our international reputation. The attention they’ve gained from audiences abroad causes Denis to be as much concerned with the mechanics of media as he is with being an impresario. When I started [empreintes DIGITALes] compact discs were the only format,” recalls Denis. In the last twenty years things have evolved greatly. The big difference is the MP3, which has changed how music gets distributed. “The Internet is changing how we think about bringing music to people,” continues Denis. “And since that was my first goal, I’m always questioning if my work is truly fulfilling that goal. I’m not interested in moving into an online-only format. However, in 2005, I did move from CD to DVD-Audio, which provides a better standard of sound quality than does CD. It also brings into play the option of surround sound, and allows for the musical dimension of space, which is key to many electronic works. Fifteen DVDs have been released so far. Of course there is less and less of a need for the physical disc,” continues Denis. “But in three to five years from now, access to the Internet may be different. There’s no telling how fast it will be. When I started, people were telling me to stick to cassette tapes,” he laughs.
Music sales and distribution is in flux like everything media related. iTunes is ubiquitous today, but it didn’t exist five years ago. Five years from now where will we be? Access to music is more and more widespread, and difficult to control.
As the media continues to morph, Denis will continue to focus on music for loudspeakers. He’s very strict about what the label will produce. He remains a traditionalist, shepherding a technology-based musical tradition into our developing Information Age.
“This is a label of excellence,” concludes Denis, “I can say that because I’m the artistic director. There are some masterpieces in our catalogue, which is good for electroacoustic music, and for the arts in general.”