The Impossible Orchestra

Andrew Jones, Montreal Mirror, 3 mai 1990

Think of the fun Mozart would have had with a harpsichord retrofitted with MIDI ports. The musical instrument digital interface, with which one can score, arrange, and play any number of instruments from a lone trigger instrument — keyboard, drums, guitar — would have freed Mozart’s lightning-fast mind to compose works that would make complex and brilliant operas like Cosi Fan Tutte seem like child’s play.

Today, MIDI has become an inexpensive way to get an impossible orchestra sound from just a single instrument. Just ask Alain Thibault. A founding member of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community, the 34-year old Montréaler composes with a Macintosh mouse and music software rather than quill and quire. Thibault, who taught electroacoustic music at Université de Montréal for four years in the late ‘80s, has heard his music performed by the SMCQ, the Nouvelle Ensemble Moderne, Synthèse in France, and New Music Concerts in Toronto.

“While the syntesizers are programmed to play sounds which are familiar to orchestral ears — a harpsichord or a trumpet — the articulation is something that we couldn’t accomplish with real musicians,” says Thibault of his 1989 work Concerto a For MIDI Piano, which pits pianist Jacques Drouin against a MIDI-fied orchestra that he can control with his 88 keys.

“The advantage for Jacques is that he has the touch and feel of a real piano, and he can control an entire orchestra in real time. He doesn’t play against or inside the computer, it’s more like a dialogue between them.

“But it’s not like performing with other musicians. When you perform a concerto with a symphonic orchestra, the conductor will adjust for individual tempos. Because the orchestra was generated with a computer, the tempo is unbelievably rigid. If you miss, you’re finished.”

Concerto For MIDI Piano appears on Thibault’s new recording, Volt, the third compact disc to be released on the empreintes DIGITALes label, which has been offering recordings of consistently high quality by local composers working in the champs magnetiques of electroacoustic music.

The first release, Christian Calon’s Ligne de Vie: Récits Électriques (Lifeline: Electric Stories) are gossamer sound sculptures with silence as perhaps the most important element. Although Calon thanks Bataille, Joyce, Baudelaire, and Artaud, the corruscating prose hallucinations of those famous literary pioneers are merely the inspiration for dreamy and terrifying sonic landscapes that sound like a possessed version of Brian Eno’s ambient series.

Robert Normandeau’s Lieux inouïs, (Unheard-of-Places), on the other hand, combines the playfulness of Carl Stone and the layered sound of Zoviet France. His brilliant Jeu begins with a chant that’s split, phased, and processed until it’s completely unrecognizable. Thematically working with metaphors of game and chance, Normandeau takes pure sounds, shifting and shaping them until a juke box resembles a shower of cobalt, and wobbly fragments of sound trigger deep memories.

Thibault parts company with his label mates is in his dynamic sensibility. While many electroacoustic composers steep their work in overlapping ambience and extended atmospheres, Thibault is more interested in rhythm, something he gotfrom growing up with the devil’s music, rock’n’roll. It’s no mistake that Concerto For MIDI Piano sounds like a cyberpunk Prokofiev.

“I come from the electroacoustic boom of the ‘70s,” explains Thibault. “I was interested in the richness of the sounds I could get from tapes and synthesizers. The aesthetic at the time was to not use any parameters familiar to instrumental music, like notes or rhythm. But in the ‘80s I broke away from that, and went back to notes and rhythms. Rhythm is the most important parameter for me. I need rhythm, the propulsion of time.”

Thibault’s rhythmic arsenal is best heard in two multi-media works also found on Volt. E.L.V.I.S. (Electro-lux Vertige Illimité Synthétique) is a deliciously sly work that has the Montréal Saxophone Quartet exploring Timothy Leary’s headspace and finding The King in a Henry Cow groove.

OUT, a science-fiction video opera composed on the Fairlight CMI, won Keyboard’s Sound Page Competition for 1986. Taking place in the year 2084, OUT tells the story of hapless souls lost in the “psychic immigration spaces” of a world governed by a computer-generated simulacra of Ronald Reagan. “I was reading a lot of Philip K Dick books, and Reagan was still president at the time,“ confesses Thibault.

“I think Dick was one of the greatest writers in science fiction. His conception of the future was determined by the drugs he experimented with, the music he listened to, the religion and culture of the times he lived in. That’s not science fiction that’s reality.“

Volt, the third compact disc to be released on the empreintes DIGITALes label, which has been offering recordings of consistently high quality…

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