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AMN Review

Mike Eisenberg, Avant Music News, 5 septembre 2022
mardi 6 septembre 2022 Presse

Well, shame on me for neglecting to do a write-up on Belgian composer Annette Vande Gorne. Penance must be paid, and that comes in the form of a twofer in this write-up, so this may be on the longish side. By the way, “penance” is not the correct word because listening to her works has been nothing but a source of joy… let’s call it, joyful penance.

First the preliminaries… like all empreintes DIGITALes releases, they are available at electrocd.com. Healthy length sound samples of the specific two I’ll be talking about, Haïkus and Illusion (both released in 2020) can be found at their individual links. I’m assuming by now that I don’t have to verbalize how good any given empreintes DIGITALes release sounds. Anyone who has been keeping up with this long, ongoing series of write-ups on the label will find it old hat.

Vande Gorne’s history in the Acousmatic world can be traced back to Pierre Schaeffer. In 1970, while engaged in a training class for choral conducting in Vichy France, she was drawn to a room emanating with “unrecognizable sounds”. Curiosity, and I’m sure bravery took hold, and she entered the room only to find…

… people sitting around with their eyes closed in front of two loudspeakers.

The rest is history, as they say. She proceeded with several years of electroacoustic training courses and workshops through the GRM in Paris and finally, in 1977, studied under Pierre Schaeffer and Guy Reibel. Through her studies, Vande Gorne honed her listening and developed ideas based on Schaeffer’s concepts about sound and its relation to time and movement through the listener’s space. Reibel influenced her thoughts on gestures by the composer to control these sounds. Together, these tools have informed her methods of composition.

Her calling was found and the fact that the Acousmatic community as well as the public at large are still benefiting from her continuing activity is a boon to us all. My bolding above is important. All my write-ups about Acousmatic music have been from the perspective of a giant fan boy. I’m not a creator or composer of this art but I am an intense listener (and still learning how to listen to this music to achieve max. Nirvana… nope, haven’t made it there yet). I’m a card-carrying member of the public.

Unfortunately, the discipline seems to be mired in an impenetrable maze of high-brow, academic tech talk along with a “boys and their toy’s” equipment fetish. In a couple of lengthy interviews by Elizabeth Anderson in the Computer Music Journal, Vande Gorne has gone out of her way to stress the importance of public awareness and engagement by creating festivals that welcome both artists/creators AND the public.

”The opening to the public is also important because music can only exist if the public knows it.”

Additionally, per the above interview… she considers the studio as simply a tool to achieve her goals. Outside of the studio, since Acousmatic music shares a relationship with a fixed medium… the Acousmonium (the large loudspeaker speaker array originally conceived by François Bayle) is looked at as something necessary for proper spatialization and diffusion purposes (but I’m ok with my stereo too).

To all of this, I give a HUGE BRAVO!!! To benefit and enjoy Acousmatic music there is no need to know the “how’s”… all it takes is an active imagination. How simple is that?

Speaking of imagination, the very nature of Acousmatic music I surmise, is to engage a relationship between sound presenting in space over time (on a fixed medium) and the listener. Optimally, the goal is to enable the listener (or at least this listener) to develop a highly personal mental narrative facilitated by the composer which, of course, demands nothing less than a healthy dollop of attention. Anything less defeats the purpose, and… in my opinion lessens or even negates the experience. Before I get into the albums, there is another concept that Vande Gorne talks about that I found interesting: How Acousmatic music stands apart from what is commonly known as “music”. From these same interviews:

“If electroacoustic and, particularly, acousmatic music could be in the plan of social and artistic life as Denis Dufour and Francis Dhomont prefer to have it, it would be an art which is apart, a sound art which is detached from the preoccupation of the term “music.” It would be an art like photography, like all the other types of art and their corresponding— and changing—media; for example, the evolution made by the art of representation on a stage, from the theater to the cinema to the video. One can, at that moment, say that art on a fixed medium, and particularly acousmatic music, which has a particular relationship with the imagination, could be considered to be an art form apart from music.”

I’m not 100% sure I completely buy into this argument because I think CONVENTIONAL music (you know, the kind the plebs listen to) has a relationship with imagination, but I think her point is well taken. The “particular imagination” that is engaged WITHOUT the well-trodden physical gestures of the performer on stage is certainly “apart” from what is commonly known as “music” and it’s certainly (for me at least)… transcendent.


Let’s get into the music on these albums. If sound is the paint, then space is the canvas and the composer (and/or the diffuser) is the catalyst (artist). On Haïkus, Vande Gorne is indeed a master artist using sound, space, and motion as her tools. She paints a living, mental portrait that is astounding in its detail and scope while retaining a sort of organic, earthly beauty that is captivating.

The overarching concept on this album is the five (Japanese) seasons but her intent is:

… to bring together, as much as possible, the historical repertoire of highbrow European music and current studio music writing practices: acousmatic music.

There is that word… that dreaded word… highbrow, but this time used to describe European classical music. Reading the above quote, I was glad that she didn’t use the word in the context of Acousmatic music. Score one for Team Lowbrow!

This piece was inspired by the shortness of the haiku and its long resonance in the imagination. It evokes contrasting realms from the five Japanese seasons set within an ambiophonic space (spread over 16 channels in concert).

(Note… like me, if anyone was confused about the “five seasons”, the Japanese consider New Year’s Day before their spring kicks in as a season on to itself.)

So, the album is split between the 5 seasons with several smaller “haikus” comprising each section. Hidden/embedded into the general Acousmatic tableaux there are snippets and traces of those “highbrow” European composers like Debussy, Messiaen, Ravel, Vivaldi, Schumann, and others that are referenced throughout. Personally, during my early listening experiences with this album, this aspect flew completely over my head but now, I can’t help but hear them (even though I have no idea of who the composer is). They are there, waiting to be discovered. (Or not.)

I’ve been using the word “epic” quite a bit in my last several write-ups about Acousmatic music. Artists in the discipline (Natasha Barrett and Gilles Gobeil come to mind but the list is long) are no strangers to creating vast sonic landscapes of epic proportions. Think of your favorite world-exploring RPG (or prog rock album for that matter) and then just release yourself, both mentally and physically into its service. Congratulations, you have just reached Dunsany’s realm “beyond the fields we know”.

Haïkus is another work that visits these misty places. Coursing through its 57-minute length is a seemingly endless parade of acoustic detail. The seasons are adorned by the sounds that define them. Some of the sounds are (studio) transformed while others are untransformed. The marvel is how Vande Gorne alchemically combines the two into a coherent, seamless, compelling sonic narrative.

The myriad bells on this release stand out immediately. It sounds like most of them are untransformed in the studio with the composer reaching down to the essence of their physical being. The strike, the tone, the decay… all of this is heard, or rather experienced deeply, in stunning detail. This is the physical embodiment of Acousmatic music that the composer has complete control over (Reibel’s academic idea of “gesture”?). When she combines the sound of several bells of various sizes and sonorities the results are nothing short of arresting. The way they present within the listener’s experience of time/space is transportive.

The usage of bells on Haïkus is just one facet that struck me but really, on this release Vande Gorne is “playing” the world”. The raw material in these compositions is the earthly creations all around us, whether animate and corporeal or static and phantasmagoric. The artistry is in the presentation, and on Haïkus… the world is indeed, a beautiful place.


Illusion is the sister album released around the same time in 2020. Here we have Vande Gorne playing with the notions of text and voice (both by Belgian poet Werner Lambersy) and its uniqueness within an Acousmatic framework.

The opening piece, Au-delà du réel again, makes use of a specific sounding body, one that was previously explored to great effect in Haïkus… bells. This sound-the physical striking of a bell is the raw material that the piece is built upon. Vande Gorne’s intent was to highlight “the human presence, the creative gesture of the musician”. It’s a haunting piece with the various bells taking on a life of their own. My personal cinema was a 3D spatial visual of hundreds of FTL space-faring vessels popping into real-time from the wormhole they just exited from.

Déluges et autres peripeties (Floods and Other Adventures) is the 30-minute centerpiece of this album. Vande Gorne has composed several pieces that are based on human voice, which she considers a source of sound AND meaning.

I must say that each time I compose a piece with text, I start by deeply analyzing the text; I try to feel the profound meaning of each phrase and try to put myself in the place of the author. From this analysis, which is not only a formal analysis, arise several possibilities of choice regarding material and form. It’s the first stage of composing…

I don’t speak French but per Vande Gorne, this is a “horrific poem” thus leaving her “no choice but to support it with “horrific” sounds”. Mission accomplished, the voice as sound, (which is the only way I can hear it) goes from the untransformed to the ultra-transformed. It’s the latter where these sounds reach a new level of “horrifying”.

Without knowing the meaning, some may say that I’m only at the half-way mark of hearing this piece. To that I’d say, “Ok, I’m good with that”. The intended effect, one of “horror” is indeed successfully conveyed. The delivery and intonation of the un-transformed voice is steeped with a preternatural air, but it’s when the voice is studio transformed that the (black) magic begins to happen. Reducing to a metaphorical description… it’s like the atmosphere got sucked out of the listening space and the human voice-matter becomes a base, elemental, atavistic thing. Yes, quite malevolent, and for the 30-minute duration… quite alluring in its malevolence.

The album ends with Faisceaux, a stark, minimalistic piece that is presented in two versions. The first is strictly a fixed medium work that worms its way into a “dark ambient” zone. Here, the timbre of the piano is the primary focus. The atmospherics hang heavy and deep with each piano note exposing itself in naked detail. The second (mixed) version adds a live piano by Ana Cláudia de Assis that effectively has her playing in response to the Acousmatic noise material coming through the loudspeakers. Both versions display a sense of darkness and unease which suggest a similarity to Belgian countrymen Univers Zero in their earlier, more acoustic period. While Haïkus had a lighter, more detailed outlook on my head film, these two pieces (and Illusion in general) are a fitting end to an album that primarily uncloaks a desolate sense of blackness.

Both come solidly and completely recommended! Within the Acousmatic community, Annette Vande Gorne’s output is rightfully respected and both Haïkus and Illusion should not be missed.

Both come solidly and completely recommended!

AMN Review

Mike Eisenberg, Avant Music News, 19 juillet 2022
mercredi 20 juillet 2022 Presse

It’s been a while since I’ve contributed to my on again/off again examination of the wonderful empreintes DIGITALes label. I’m going to dig deep into their catalog and talk about this stellar release from 2008. Ned Bouhalassa’s Gratte-cité is one of those releases that evokes, not only a long passage of time but also a vast soundscape, creating an unparalleled cinéma pour l’oreille. This sense of “the epic” is familiar to me because there are other releases on empreintes DIGITALes that deliver in the same way. I’m thinking specifically of the Gilles Gobeil / René Lussier release Le contrat and Arturo Parra’s Parr(A)cousmatique which I’ve also written about. It’s this boundless, infinitely expansive journey through environments both physical and metaphysical, rooted in both real time and a temporal otherworld that elevates Gratte-cité to such a compelling listen.

Full disclosure: When I first heard this, I was less than enamored… and I know why. The beats.

Full disclosure (addendum): Now… when I listen, I’m completely enamored… and I know why. The beats.

Bouhalassa has done something that I’m sure has been done before but… not in such a seamless, organic way. He married both live and electronic drum n’ bass elements to the Acousmatic world. And this marriage wins the “Power Couple” award usurping Brad and Angelina!

I’ll return to the beats in a bit but a little about Bouhalassa first. It appears that he has his feet in two worlds, not only working in the Acousmatic space but also creating music for film, television, and video. I’ve looked around and it seems his Acousmatic work is limited to this release and 1998’s Aérosol (also on empreintes DIGITALes). A quick search on YouTube reveals several short videos ranging from synth demos to short films and documentaries in which he created the soundtrack. Much of this newer music has a retro “synthwave” vibe to it, a vibe that also pokes its head out on Gratte-cité and not in a small way. (BTW, since I mentioned “synthwave”, the fact that there is even an element of it on this release really adds to its appeal when it’s mixed into the final mélange.)

Unfortunately, I can’t link you to any of the works on this album in their entirety but, like all empreintes DIGITALes releases, you can sample a healthy segment of each piece on their dedicated webpage. But, to really experience this album… a single listen straight through is the way to go. It’s long, about 76 minutes but, most good journeys are.

Gratte-cité (Cityscraper) can be looked at as the Acousmatic world’s version of a David Lean movie… it’s that big! Bouhalassa says:

In preparing the sonic materials for these pieces, I selected, like a DJ, what I liked out of my large collection of recordings, though in my case, these are recordings of city soundscapes. I then imagined a fantasy, where a gigantic vinyl record’s grooves are replaced by the jagged outline of skyscrapers, and I, a giant, drop an impossibly-large needle and begin to ‘play’ the city.

The first piece, The Lighthouse kicks things off in an ominous fashion. Horse hooves on cobblestone streets, old-timey music, faint human presence, and movement of sound to and fro from within the headspace all mingle with an unsettling drone. It all comes together to form a darkened city street, a place in the old world perhaps. The movement, the sound gestures all point claustrophobically inward… until they don’t! Enter the electronic beats… and enter they do in a grand, chest-thumping peacock strut that made me smile.

I remember on my first listen to this album not too long ago I didn’t smile. I was so taken aback by this overt display of “techno dance music” that so rudely interrupted my perfect symbiosis of loudspeaker / brain-infused dreaming I may have audibly uttered, “What is this shit”. But, as my full disclosure above intimates… I now have arrived at the realization of how bloody brilliant this move was. These rhythm blasts, both electronic and human-made (courtesy of Christian Olsen) are surgically dropped in at strategic places for what seems like the sole purpose to disrupt.

Disrupt? Yes, but disrupt what. Surely the answer to that will have as many different responses as there are listeners. One thing for sure though, these events create drama… and drama in Acousmatic music is or should be a prime goal.

The beats, which I now consider so important to this album are scattered across its entirety. They appear, they disrupt, they vanish… never wearing out their welcome, and they are beautiful!

The centerpiece of this album is the 34-minute Urban Cuts, a crazy patchwork of places, times, visions, and emotions. This is the piece that best demonstrates what he means by “playing the city”.

Bouhalassa “plays” three cities, Montréal, Las Vegas, and Berlin. The piece has no natural separation between places, but the listener can determine the change of locale by the natural, organic vibe change from what preceded it. Montréal and Berlin both display their urban plumage, moving from frenetic to serene, dark to light in a blink of an eye. It’s the Las Vegas middle section though that is the most compelling for me.

Bouhalassa achieves an extremely accurate sonic representation of the mystical solitude of desert life in stark contrast to the hedonistic frenzy of a casino. That being said, it’s possible for the listener to be transported to any number of places depending on… the listener. In the middle of this lengthy segment, the poet Fortner Anderson infuses the soundscape with lines from his poem, Vegas. His delivery is cold, with a sense of pathos, tension, and dread… doing an excellent job augmenting the already vivid pictures in this sonic epic.

This piece, as in all the others has the beats as well as a “just under the surface” bed of long tone, shifting, electronic, and futuristic synthwave layers. The addition of well-placed cello (by Delphine Measroch) is a nice touch as well. If Vangelis didn’t do such a great job with the soundtrack to Blade Runner, Urban Cuts would be a very able substitute.

The 16-minute mOrpheus also begins in a very 80’s synthwave fashion but eventually dissolves into a lonely, deserted sound world with some sparse, sustained Piano chords. The ear traveler is then ported over to a robotic, Kraftwerk-ish place for further examinations by whatever manner of nefarious beings who created this cold, sterile place. Outside there is panic and chaos but here, in this place… there is nothing but the warm, secure feeling of skin against the stainless-steel table on which you lie on. This piece has less of the organic natural world, with the synthetic sucking up all the atmosphere. Of course, your mileage will vary based on your own David Lean epic.

Unlike mOrpheus, Impulse, at 14 minutes begins with, what I consider… classic Acousmatic sound. This would fit well in the Francis Dhomont, Beatriz Ferreyra, or Denis Dufour zone. Sounds moving through space leaving the mind just enough time to get a fix on them before they are gone. More beats of the drum ’n’ bass variety eventually do kick in but don’t last long… giving way to all sorts of non-rhythmic, synthetic as well as organic atmospheres. With this in mind, Impulse may be the most evocative piece on the album, leaving the mind free to spin whatever image(s) it can generate.

The final piece, Songe errant is the shortest, at just under 6 minutes. Beats and synths cavort in a synthetic playground until night falls and the natural sound of “the world” takes over, and all is well.

The empreintes DIGITALes label has an extremely deep roster of great releases and I hope to be a bit more consistent in my coverage moving forward. Bouhalassa’s Gratte-cité is a very worthy addition to a long lineage of unique, adventurous sound explorers and comes VERY highly recommended. I should mention that you can grab a high-res download off the electrocd site. It was this format that I based this write-up on. Additionally, the physical product is available as a DVD-Audio with advanced resolution and 5.1 surround sound. I have this and, do I even need to say how incredible it sounds? This is a great release from the label’s back catalog!

… a very worthy addition to a long lineage of unique, adventurous sound explorers and comes VERY highly recommended.

Review

Arian Bagheri Pour Fallah, Computer Music Journal, no 44:2/3, 1 juin 2020
samedi 4 juin 2022 Presse

Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon coming on, better known as The Slave Ship (1840), is among Joseph Mallord William Turner’s finest paintings, and one of the most recognizable visual artworks of the romantic movement. Fused with the painting L’étoile noire (1957), by the founder of les automatistes Paul-Émile Borduas, it greets listeners of Annette Vande Gorne’s latest acousmatic venture, Illusion, in the form of Luc Beauchemin’s cover art, Seule issue (2020). The level of intertextuality is broad. Beauchemin’s title hints at necessity. The cover art’s contrasting frames of references, too, provide an air of calamity. It is difficult — one may say impossible — to free one image from the other, or to brush aside the many implications of these whispers, these overtones in the context of here and now, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the ethical, as well as economic, state of the world today. In spite of a seemingly absent narrative, these specters endure, however, throughout Illusion, at times by virtue of the omnipotence of sounds, and at others, through the performer’s material and gestural presence.

Déluges et autres péripéties (2014–2015), the most recent endeavor on this album, operates from a singular, base leitmotif: “We await destruction.” Replacing the ambiguity of the image with the certainty of the word, Vande Gorne chooses to walk in the glinting footsteps of poet Werner Lambersy, whose voice is one of the three used in the piece. Least subject to the manipulations pertinent to musique concrète, Lambersy’s voice is used mainly to wend an otherwise umbrous or disquieting narrative. It is spoken using a narrator’s voice, akin to Jean Négroni’s role in Apocalypse de Jean by Pierre Henry. The piece is, in form, an art song. With a length of half an hour, its effectiveness depends on the listener’s willingness to follow along. For it is punishing throughout, singular in this respect in Vande Gorne’s repertoire, at times more threatening in character than the album Impalpables while matching, if not exceeding, the fervor of the opera Yawar Fiesta.

Vande Gorne’s implacable art song is a far cry from Turner’s gracious, albeit troubling, landscape. Where Turner transfigures, Vande Gorne echoes the dread, supporting a horrific poem, in her own words, “with horrific sounds.” Not only is the piece texturally and emotionally unrelenting, the implementation of the voice in reverse can only be described as miasmic, rendering it vicious in ways contradicting contemporary acousmatic aesthetics. In this respect, the vicious narrative has few parallels in the greater electroacoustic repertoire, among them, Michel Chion’s Sanctus, from his early work, and the mass Requiem (1973), an equally demented endeavor “rich in extended vocal experiments and, most of all, spoken words.”

Yet, does this bring the piece closer to Borduas and les automatistes? The art song is dedicated to Francis Dhomont, whose rapport with spoken words is exemplary within the broader acousmatic tradition. As per the majority of acousmatic works, it makes use of the fixed medium, and is designed for a 16-channel setup. This places it well away from the inclinations of les automatistes. Declarations such as “It seemed as if our future were set in stone,” from the scandalous 1948 manifesto, Refus global, for which Borduas and les automatistes are most remembered, here are not points of departure for unrest but very much Vande Gorne’s aspirations. For her as a composer, fixity remains both an aesthetic and an ontological necessity. Hers is, in other words, neither a romantic, but, even more prominently, nor a revolutionary concern. In her own words: “I do not have a romantic vision of art” (CMJ 36(1):10–22). The automatic and the improvisatory are, in her view, contrasted with architecture and organization — with mastery over one’s time. This is what she also shares with Chion. His notion of sons fixés [fixed sounds] Vande Gorne deems to be “correct,” in relation to fixing time. Having said that, it may be useful to question the nature of this “mastery” over time.

Today, acousmatic music remains part medium and part listening strategy. In the first instance, it involves fixed media, with scattered examples of hybrid (live with fixed elements) media, which often incorporate small groups or individual performers. It is also as a fixed media that notions such as sons fixés find immediate meaning. In other words, the further one moves away from fixed into hybrid media, notions such as sons fixés become more difficult to follow. For one thing, the live instrument or electronics can disallow any immediate control outside that of the performer. Hence, the implicit decision of most composers in the acousmatic tradition to produce works more often in the former category. With regard to listening strategies, it is fair to say that many listeners are unfamiliar with either reduced listening or spectromorphology. The select few who are familiar would struggle to find any reciprocity, strictly speaking, between the listening strategies and the notion of fixed sounds. So, does this “mastery” point to anything except an aesthetic proclivity?

The two iterations of the third and last piece included in Illusion, Faisceaux, are concluded respectively, in fixed and hybrid media. Whereas the former is designed for fixed stereo medium, the latter is accompanied with a pianist. Within the acousmatic tradition, collaborative works, regardless of the nature of the collaborations, rank among the strongest. For example, Gilles Gobeil’s best works, including his individual recordings, are those involving composer-performer René Lussier. Simon Emmerson’s duets with Lol Coxhill outrival the composer’s “fixed” works. Barry Schrader’s recent collaboration with Wadada Leo Smith has not only exposed his works, for the first time, to a wider audience, it is furthermore aesthetically varied in ways that are not true of his earlier output. The list goes on. And the hybrid variant of Faisceaux is no exception. Albeit suffering from what has already been discussed regarding hybrid media — namely, that the fixed sounds are accompanied with a narrow number of instruments or performers (in this case, one pianist) — the hybrid rendition is one of the most commanding works included in Illusion.

It is evocative but also pulsating and alive. The performer’s presence is able to disrupt, even if briefly, the moribund, idealistic narrative evoked by the fixed component. It is a refreshing take, compared with similar ventures of Vande Gorne into evocative sound worlds, such as Terre (1991) or the included fixed-medium variant, and although using instrumentation that is as of now depleted by composers time and again, it manages to stand out in a selection dominated by fixed media. What is evident, from Faisceaux but also the other examples noted above, is that the alleged mastery over time is, more than anything, an aesthetic qualifier. Although it is true to some degree that a narrative temporally fixed also allows the composer to have more immediate control over the output, this is by and large incidental and furthermore subordinate to the primary function of the fixed medium, which is to predefine the work aesthetically.

Finally, it is the spirit of Arsène Souffriau that roams Illusion. The album’s opener, Au-delà du réel, with which I find apropos to close this review, is dedicated to the enigmatic composer. Obliquely reminiscent of Vande Gorne’s own Métal (1983), the piece pyramids percussive and instrumental resonance into hypnotic spectra, while conniving at performative gestures. Compared with the former, its use of spectral mobility, pronounced by oscillations and rotations primarily, is much more vivid, thereby evolving faster with a magnetizing effect on the listener. As per the other dedications on Illusion, it is a material, not a merely symbolic celebration. The piece utlizes soundobjects from a rare collection gathered by Souffriau, catalogued according to materials, ranges, and frequencies.

It is as if instruments become doorways to the tenebrous. His self-described “instrumental” piece, Incantation (N’sien ufo d’ra) (1981), for ondes Martenot, tcheng, and three percussionists, albeit with a modus operandi different from that of Vande Gorne, in which both a score and performers are present, achieves analogous aesthetic results. The piece’s backstory is also one that pertains to the discussion on composer and performer reciprocity in the acousmatic strand. Allegedly, another version was intended by the composer but was never realized, due to the performers’ unwillingness to learn “the unusual notation of the score.” Vande Gorne may not be a romantic, yet the acousmatic tradition with which she identifies has always been prone to idealism. Acousmatic music, which, rather interestingly, positioned itself in contrast to concert-hall music, appears all the more today to suffer from the same set of predicaments besetting musique spectrale, once openly described by Grisey also as an aesthetic. And this is Illusion’s weakness as well as source of its partial strength. Acousmatic music, as aesthetic, is recognizable strictly due to the fixity of vision shared by its practitioners, and in that also, it cannot proceed forward unless opening up the creative space for performers, stressing reciprocity and collaboration.

… at times by virtue of the omnipotence of sounds, and at others, through the performer’s material and gestural presence.