Robert Normandeau’s recent compact disc, Figures, presents four of his acousmatic compositions from the latter half of the 1990s, documenting his continuing investigations of the medium and its stylistic evolution. The results of these explorations are more focused and less physical than his earlier work, yet for the most part they clearly retain Mr. Normandeau’s distinctive compositional fingerprint.
Although the liner notes speak of the composer’s ideal of a “cinema for the ear,” these works contain a noticeably smaller number of “concrète” source sounds than his pieces of the 1980s, with more focus on playing with and sonically developing the material he does utilize. Thus, although the “cinema” ideas and elements are still present, they are less literal than in his earlier works.
The four pieces on Figures are arranged chronologically (quite convenient for a reviewer!) and span the years 1995–1999. The first, Le renard et la rose (1995), employs as its source material elements from the music and voices for a radio production of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince which Mr. Normandeau scored. The piece begins wonderfully. First, a cascade of laughing voices erupts from nowhere. Then, after about five seconds, it is suddenly replaced by a churning pulsed texture of vocal ostinati, taken in part if not entirely from the initial laughing sounds. The result is simultaneously artificial and primal, and quite intriguing. These ostinati are quite prominent during the work’s first section, where they die away, return, and evolve many times.
Le renard et la rose is structured in five sections, and each of these has its own distinct sound and types of activity. Primary among the activities are pulsed rhythms, as percussive patterns are repeatedly employed to propel the music throughout the piece.
Overall I am struck by two things in this composition. First is Mr. Normandeau’s impressive sense of pacing. He seems to be constantly pushing the piece forward, sometimes forcefully, sometimes gently. But even in its moments of repose, this music does not sit still. When its ostinato engine is shut off the sonic environment is still fluid. To me, this work is a “short” 14:45.
The second striking element, as in many of this composer’s works, is his talent at choosing and sculpting materials. Nearly every sound has a bite to it, a sense of physicality and place. The “place” here, however, is not as literal as in earlier works, in which Mr. Normandeau would actually include recordings of subway stations, children in the park, the seashore, and so forth. In Le renard et la rose and the other works on this CD, I sense that the individual sounds are abstractions that retain enough qualities to point to their origins—original sounds or sets of sounds which often never appear themselves. While Mr. Normandeau has been processing sounds for years, his newer pieces atomize the source sounds more. Meanwhile, he makes less effort to perceptually tie unprocessed sounds to their processed relatives. Combining these well-defined sonic scenes and colors with the work’s swirling activity, the listener has much to enjoy.
The second piece, Figures de rhétorique (1997), is quite different from Le renard et la rose and is not quite so successful. It is scored for tape and piano, and in this recording the piano part is played by Jacques Drouin
Mr. Normandeau states in his liner notes that he constructed the music in four movements, creating structure by utilizing devices of rhetoric. He categorizes these speech-types into “figures of meaning (hyperbole, litotes, metaphor, oxymoron, parable, and pleonasm), words (alliteration, embellishment, and rhyme), thought (allegory, apologue, bombast, irony, and tautology), and construction (antithesis, ellipsis, repetition, and reticence).” Although the piece is sectional I could not identify specific rhetorical devices while listening—I assume that the composer would not mind this. Mr. Normandeau also limited the source materials for the tape part to sounds of the piano, which seems reasonable. However, the sound world which he creates in Figures de rhétorique does not seem nearly as vibrant and intriguing as the rich palette of sound colors he created for Le renard et la rose. It sounds as if he began with a limited set of sounds and then allowed them to remain rather static throughout the piece. He does explore several varied sonic environments, but within each of these the sounds themselves as well as the gestures they create don’t vary much. Possibly these repeating gestures represent specific rhetorical figures?
It could be that the composer purposely left space in the tape part for the piano to fill. The piano part was evidently written after the tape part, which makes this seem natural. However, if this is the case, then he overestimated how much the piano would dominate the soundscape. I think that both the tape and piano parts in this piece would benefit from more variation in their materials and the treatment of these.
Venture, the third work on the disc, definitely does not suffer from a poverty of material. Named after the rock group The Ventures, this tape piece was composed using numerous moments from progressive rock songs of the 1960s and 1970s. Sadly, I am not as well-versed in this genre as the composer, but I have heard enough Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP), King Crimson, and Yes to identify with his endeavor and recognize more than a few tiny moments from the quotations. Essentially, Mr. Normandeau’s idea is that many of these songs served “as sonic archetypes for an entire generation of composers, my generation…” This work is his tribute to that music.
Beyond the reason for its composition and origin of its materials, Venture stands as a rather satisfying piece of music. Mr. Normandeau begins with a set of intriguing sonic materials that he colors often beyond recognition using signal processing. With this arsenal, he sculpts a twisting, slippery world of acousmatic music that lasts for nearly 20 minutes without losing much freshness.
The collection ends with Ellipse (1999). This tape piece was commissioned by guitarist Arturo Parra and shares most of its material with the composer’s guitar and tape piece, L’envers du temps (1998, 2000), also written for Mr. Parra. Ellipse begins with an agitated polyrhythmic texture of noises taken from the classical guitar, derived from strumming and scraping strings, knocking on wood, turning tuning pegs, and so on. The first 2.5 minutes of the piece feel very physical and have an itchy, insect-like energy. After this, the music segues into a bath of harmonic textures only to quickly return to the first material, this time overlaid with more and even stranger sounds. Once again, as the work progresses, the sense of pacing gives it a catand- mouse energy that is quite enthralling.
As he did in Le renard et la rose, Mr. Normandeau uses rhythmic activity to retain a sense of energy throughout most of Ellipse. However, in the latter piece these sounds are less frequently organized into pulsed polyrhythmic stretches. Instead, the inner rhythmic activities of a variety of tapping, strumming, and scraping sounds overlay each other without always creating a composite organization. Ellipse also seems to possess more regularity in its progression of ideas than the earlier piece. There are no “jump cuts” between sections. Instead, the materials are consistently dovetailed, allowing elements to fall from the texture and resurface repeatedly, appearing in a new context each time.
Overall, the pieces on this CD, as well as many of Mr. Normandeau’s other works, succeed best when he allows them to be (or at least seem to be) a bit out of control. This is not to say that I only like the busy sections of the music; rather, that I enjoy his music when it seems to roam, seems to have its own purpose, when it takes chances and allows itself to be quirky. For instance, I love the tag endings he added to both Venture and Ellipse — short, throwaway moments that risk silliness, but work to my ears. Mr. Normandeau’s best work involves a sonic kaleidoscope, a tour of musical places, a sort of spelunking through sounds more than a cinema of the ear. Thus, even though these recent pieces feature fewer real-world sounds than his earlier works, they still have highly dramatic profiles. On this CD, only Figures de rhétorique fails to conjure the feeling of three dimensional adventure. His music is usually not about economy of material, but in this piece he attempts a quite strict control. Unfortunately, the material he chooses and what he does with it do not work out so well. However, his other successes clearly outweigh this aberration.
In the end, what I appreciate about Mr. Normandeau’s work is that his music generally seems to have no pretentions, even at its most symphonic. He is willing to let his guard down, to be funny, to admit that he used to listen to ELP all the time — and that maybe sometimes he still does! (I have to admit that I smiled when I caught his references, especially the bits of The Beatles’ Revolution #9.) Yet the real success is that his music grabs me. And I like that.