Discreet Music

Chris Yurkiw, Montreal Mirror, 12 février 1998

On the 50th anniversary of “musique concrète,” Montréal’s electroacoustic composers are still watching the cement dry.

“At first the art of music sought and achieved purity, limpidity and sweetness of sound. Then different sounds were amalgamated, care being taken, however, to caress the ear with gentle harmonies. Today music, as it becomes continually more complicated, strives to amalgamate the most dissonant, strange and harsh sounds. In this way we come ever closer to ‘noise-sound.’”

Whenever this quote from Luigi Russolo is bounced around, the kicker is that the futurist artist wrote it in his manifesto The Art of Noises back in 1913. Russolo was ushering in the modern era and he gets cited because he turned out to be a damn good futurist. By the ’20s, French composers like Érik Satie and George Antheil were writing ballets for sirens, crying babies and typewriters; a generation later, American John Cage was reinforcing the idea that all sounds — including silence — were musical; into the rock era it was no great leap to the feedback of Hendrix, the kling klang of Kraftwerk and the scratching of Grandmaster Flash.

But long before the avant-garde became popular, a pair of Pierres named Schaeffer and Henry made a crucial discovery while playing around with the new technology of magnetic recording tape in 1948. In the studios of Radiodiffusion-télévision française [(RTF)] they manipulated recorded sounds — both ‘musical’ and non — by splicing the tape, rearranging it, varying the speed, looping it and overdubbing it. Schaeffer called it “musique concrète,” and with that he allowed for the possibility of a truly ‘artificial’ music. Not many considered it to be music then, and even 30 years later people were still railing against studio creations with the battle cry, “Disco sucks!

Fifty years after the birth of musique concrète (and a few changes in name, like electroacoustic or acousmatic music), Pierre Schaeffer’s break is certainly not lost on Jean-François Denis. Denis is one of the pillars of Montréal’s vibrant electroacoustic scene — the French connection not insignificant — a composer first but nowadays more of an instigator who spends most of his time promoting the music by releasing it on the crucial empreintes DIGITALes label. It’s a tiresome job pushing an ambient, jarring and intellectualized music, but Denis places more faith in its acceptance by the proverbial ‘people’ than any industry, media or festival.

“I think electroacoustic music is becoming less bizarre for the public,” says Denis, “and more present in their lives. The scores for lots of films, for example, are often verging on electroacoustic music, but it’s never pointed out to the audience.”

So Denis and composers Robert Normandeau and Gilles Gobeil, a trio who make up the electroacoustic promotional body Réseaux, are using the 50th anniversary of musique concrète to try to make their point once again. Not that they need an excuse: the upcoming concerts Rien à voir are the third in a series presented by Réseaux in the past year. But the link with the past is going to be made clear with the works and presence of two European figures; Frenchman Bernard Parmegiani, one of the godfathers of electroacoustic music whose work dates just post-Schaeffer, and Belgian Annette Vande Gorne, whose breaking of the gender barrier in yet another boys club has inspired Canadian “électroacousticiennes” such as Wende Bartley and Roxanne Turcotte.

Works by Denis, Normandeau and Gobeil will also be accompanied by those of Montréaler Christian Calon and Mark Wingate, one of the few American practitioners of a form rooted much more firmly in Europe and its stronger outposts. And while the presence of the composers is a nice touch, it’s certainly not needed in electroacoustics, where the recorded works are played for the audience via a surround-sound style set up of 20 loudspeakers.

“When the lights go down at an electroacoustic concert,” says Denis, “I always think, ‘I have no idea what this might sound like.’”

Pierre Schaeffer’s break is certainly not lost on Jean-François Denis