There’s a track on SoundCloud that periodically goes viral on social media, accompanied by the usual expressions of astonishment and high emotion that that medium demands. It sounds like a heavenly choir singing in perfect diatonic harmony, but the accompanying blurb claims it as no more than a recording of massed crickets slowed down in extremis.
It’s not, of course. Or at least, not without significantly more manipulation than that implies. But the popular hoax finds an uncanny echo in the first track on composer Ana Dall’Ara-Majek’s new album on Québécois label empreintes DIGITALes.
The title track Akheta’s Blues refers to the cyclical song of the Acheta domesticus, that is the common house cricket. And though Akheta’s Blues offers significantly more melodic and rhythmic sophistication thans its online predecessor, all skittering rhythms and unearthly howls, sudden bursts and implacable rustles, it is nonetheless a piece of tonal electroacoustic music, its variant layers related harmonically and arranged according to melodic leitmotifs. The approach is typical of Ana Dall’Ara-Majek, a Paris born composer with a PhD from the University of Montréal and a particular interest in electroacoustic analysis. The track works through precise, granular detail to discover the music hidden in things, to eke it out and elaborate it compositionally.
All the tracks on Nano-Cosmos are inspired by, extracted from, or somehow dedicated to the indra-world of creepy crawlies and micro-organisms. Diaphanous Acarina takes you into the society of mites that live on vine leaves as seen through a microscope. Bacillus Chorus, as the name suggests, os a chorus of bacteria, developed with the RSF Kobol synthesizer and structured according to processes of binary fission and incessant contamination. Pixel Springtail Promenade evokes arthropods as small as computer pixels. Xylocopa Ransbecka goes in search of an errant carpenter bee from the macro world of human-audible field recordings to a micro world of glitches and electrical swirls.
The album collects works composed since 2012 in a wide variety of formats — in some cases reducing a 16-channel surround set-up down to a stereo mix. But in no case does that reduction inhibit the listener’s sense of entering into a universe quite distinct, both familiar and inscrutable, everyday and utterly alien.
Here we have a composer from Montréal, where she got a doctorate in composition at the University in . Besides working with others in composing and performer, Ana Dall’Ara-Majek organises computer music programs and has a duo with Ida Toninato called Jane/KIN. “Nano-Cosmos is a cycle of acousmatic pieces dedicated to insects, small arthropods and microorganisms”, it says on the cover. There are five pieces on this release, usually created for a multi-speaker set-up, but here traveling from two speakers to your ears. The microscopic look at insects, bacteria and other hardly visible creatures lies at the basis of the music, which in all five pieces seem to consist of lots of small sounds. Sometimes these are heavily clustered together, thus from some drone like pattern (or two), but the can also appear like a swarm, all appearing seemingly random and chaotic, although they probably are not. It seems as if some of these sounds are voice like, almost singing, like in Bacillus Chorus, but surely the title of that piece was perhaps leading me on. Dall’Ara-Majek doesn’t seem to be using all these granular processes that sound like slides, going up and down that some of the composers who record for this label are known for, but throughout she seeks an extremer sound, with deep bass bumps and high end hiss, such as in Pixel Springtail Promenade, yet she also never betrays her roots in serious electronic music. She uses quite a bit of field recordings, although not always recognizable as from the land of microcosmos. In the final piece, Xylocopa Ransbecka one recognizes the sounds of wood doors; in the text she explains how sees that relation and yes, that works well. Also within the context of the whole CD it works pretty well. Throughout a most enjoyable, me thinks.
Montréal-based Parisian Ana Dall’Ara-Majek is releasing her breakout debut, Nano-Cosmos on Empreintes DIGITALes (CD/DL). The label has been producing high quality records back to 1990 and often remains coolly under-the-radar often celebrating some of the best French Canadian electroacoustic music work, paralleling anything out there. Dall’Ara-Majek is also one half of the multidisciplinary duo Jane/KIN (w/Ida Toninato). But here on her own these five pieces composed between 2012-17 explode with exuberant, innovative flourishes that tickle the most challenged of eardrums. Normally I might write a review after a single listen, this is riddled with complexities, requiring multiple spins, not to understand, but to appreciate its breadth of nooks and crannies.
The record begins with the earliest track, Akheta’s Blues, which starts off with a tingly series of electronic bleeps and earthy-crunchy footsteps. A distant horn shimmers into a light symphonic outbreak, with active fore/backgrounds this is quite a dynamic recipe of in-situ effects, the only slim similarity I can think of is perhaps some of the critical work of Illusion of Safety (Dan Burke). The oblique dissonance is strikingly live in nature. The rustling is playful yet tectonic. Diaphanous Acarina uses a drone emission and microsound, stretched over a skeleton of regret.
Bacillus Chorus was realized in 4 channels at the blue spider studio in Montréal (Québec) in 2016 and was premiered on august 7, 2016 at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik at Centralstation in Darmstadt (Germany). It was commissioned by the Distractfold Ensemble. Thank you to Christine Groult and Marco Marini for those wonderful days of improvisation on the RSF Kobol synthesizer in the electroacoustic studio at the conservatoire de Pantin (France).
There is a mythical tale woven here, something beyond the naked eye, microscopically synthesized. This is a timeless piece that could have been recorded two decades ago for Trente Oiseau, Plate Lunch or Mille Plateaux, but is most insistently flash-forward. Next is the unsettling Bacillus Chorus, filled with a “for the birds” squealing pitch retrofit over a covered percussion and space laser effects. For lovers of electronic music, there is no time but the present to revel in such evolving, shape-shifting patterns and textures as there are on Nano-Cosmos. The endless experimental intricacies here are an eyelash short of numbing, meaning this will lull and excite simultaneously.
Pixel Springtail Promenade starts off with a minimal ghostly drone and a bit of electro-static, bathed in a vague industrial guise, and field recordings from a playground and other building blocks. It sharp cuts from looming-danger quietude to the harsh realities of the outdoors, nature, people, trotting horses and machinery. Connecting the dots is a mad scientist at the boards, processing the overall picture, playing god/dess ala Westworld. Yes, it seems like a classic machine vs man vs manipulated memory scenario, one where multiple realities could possibly ring true. In this way the piece draws from a seemingly encyclopedic style of samples and processes that are in essence an audio storyline. I’m just imagining this being developed for AI, and how one might lose themselves in the pageantry of pastiche and sensory overload.
Xylocopa Ransbecka was realized in 16 channels in the Métamorphoses d’Orphée studio at Musiques & Recherches in Ohain (Belgium) in 2017 and was premiered on april 25, 2018 as part of the Électrobelge concert at Espace Senghor in Brussels (Belgium). Thanks to Annette vande Gorne for the residency at Musiques & Recherches (Ohain, Belgium).
Xylocopa Ransbecka: The album concludes with chirping birds as heard through the right and left channel separately as the third-person is inside a vehicle of some sort, letting the sound in, becoming silenced, then bird songs metamorphosize, becoming a flurry of tape manipulations, it’s a marvelous transition. It’s a tangle of jangling amplified percussive pleasures, stops and starts with constant activity. There are moments where I’m recalling the quirky side of Esquivel of all references, but this is far from groovy. No, instead, a rush of layered sounds become a fiery avalanche, the timbre of timber, lit and doused with the sass of light rain, and suddenly you are comparing the buzz to bees and race cars to chainsaws. What the recording truly has in its pocket is its ability to throw the listener off guard, into an imaginary morphing world where nothing is at it initially appears. En garde, for a truly astonishing debut!
Composed across a period of more than five years, Nano-Cosmos is a five-piece cycle of acousmatic pieces dedicated to insects, small arthropods and microorganisms. Fifty-three minutes of arhythmic granular clicks, glitches and sharp biology lab sounds running over long drones, tuned synthetic hums, irregular heartbeat sounds and electric growls, it certainly emphasises how alien the microscopic world is relative to what we would call familiar.
If you’re squeamish, don’t worry — despite being rooted in biology, sonically there’s quite a digital flavour to it, often sounding more sci-fi than organic, particularly in pieces like Bacillus Chorus or the expansive synth opening of Pixel Springtail Promenade. The biological aspect exhibits itself as much in the unpredictability as in the tones themselves.
Pixel Springtail Promenade is a notable highlight, a self-contained 15-minute work in many sections where the synthetic pads evolve into larger more orchestral sounds with a luxuriant quality that emphasises the dichotomy of the insect clicking noises — twisting into weirdness towards the end with a soundscape that to my ear sounds decidedly more like a frog chorus than insects.
Final piece Xylocopa Ransbecka is also an opus, accompanied by the hard-to-beat conceptual description: “features a carpenter bee and twenty doors, recorded in Belgium”. After a series of disorientating vignette-style sections, again more orchestral elements appear in the second half, building steadily to an almost conventional crescendo that then devolves into a digital equivalent where the insectoid clicking and glitching multiples exponentially until we approach white noise. It’s a fitting finale, both successful and strange.
Inspired by and sourced from a selection of very specific biological phenomena, this release really does seem to blur the lines between music and science — and the result is a nicely immersive bit of complex soundscaping that you really can get into.