Understand — it’s an evening of electroacoustic music.
At centre stage there’s a chair and table. A box sitting on the table emits a pinpoint red light. Cables sprawl from the box onto the floor and lead off stage.
Both the stage and the audience sit in the dark, for there’s nothing to see, and there are no musicians on the stage.
The sound technician, Paul Hodge, stands with his control boards and monitors in the middle of the audience. Hodge will end up being as much a performer as each of the composers who work at his side to control and alter their pre-recorded electroacoustic music, music which is not produced by musical instruments.
For its part, the audience has comfortably huddled together in the centre of their rows in order to sit in a sound universe produced by four strategically placed speakers. The audience sits, waiting for ‘playback.’
Ann Southam’s Fluke Sound (1989), with its mysterious, late night mood, was a composition of measured and well-placed sounds recorded from three Revox open reel track tape recorders and two Synthi AKS voltage control synthesizers. Southam’s piece was largely characterized by a ringing telephone sound that continually rang and rang as a connecting motif through the criss-cross and layered waves of new sound that kept dropping in and later faded out entirely. The ‘fluke’ in the title refers to the lucky coincidence of making a new composition by putting two separate compositions together.
The historical part of electroacoustic music was beautifully represented by György Ligeti’s pioneering pieces, Glissandi (1957) and Artikulation (1958). This ‘historical’ reference does not mean to say that the recently departed Ligeti (1923-2006) is anything but startling, original, and always exciting to listen to. Glissandi — with its opening sensual sound like a steel guitar glide — is a beautifully imagined exploration of all manner of glissandi — the short, long, burpey, and longer. Artikulation is all about the tissue of sound that results when new sound elements meet. It starts with the sound of huge water gurgles as they mutate into electronic droplets and then become highly animated, electronic atmospheres.
Meanwhile, the symphonic dimension (or the grand gesture) of electroacoustic music was represented by Gilles Gobeil’s often exciting and occasionally nervous-making Ombres, espaces, silences… (2005) and by Robert Normandeau’s more intellectually planned out (or so it seemed) composition, Palimpseste (2005, 06).
Palimpseste — with its recorded and manipulated vocal sounds — was crafted by Normandeau into five sections, each with a different rhythm, timbre, dynamic, emotional quality, and space. At times it was unclear when the piece was finished, but what touched the audience was the audible scope and ambition of this inter-layered composition, whereas Ombres, espaces, silences… by Gobeil — which started with a loud wind storm and a vast scale ‘THX sound’ — grew dramatically and surely into a true ‘cinema of the ear.’ ‘Cinema of the ear’ is Normandeau’s phrase to describe his composition Palimpseste, but to these ears, ‘cinema of the ear’ better describes Ombres, espaces, silences…. Notable were its quick jabs of violence and loud cosmic door slams; plus its adventurous mixing of tones with noise in startlingly forceful ways that made Gobeil’s composition stand out as one of the more expressive compositions played this evening. The sounds seemed to emanate from deep space.
John Oliver’s Nylong Symphony (excerpt 2005) was a composition of electroacoustic music with a solo guitarist, Oliver himself, on stage. A drone established itself — and over and against it, Oliver played Flamenco and Middle Eastern styled passages, then he moved into an extended sequence where he rapidly ping-pong-ed single notes inside a vibrating framework that was like a suspended Flamenco guitar strum. While playing his guitar, Oliver was kept busy looking back and forth between the music on his stand and the computer screen, but despite all this activity, the music increasingly began to sound the same.
The most engaging compositions this evening were surely those with a clear sense of form — a holistic sense of form, perhaps, but nonetheless a sense of form — something which open-eared audiences intuitively respond to.
[January 13, 2007, Isabel Bader Theatre, Toronto]