Annette Vande Gorne (1946, Belgium) studied with Pierre Schaeffer! That’s how deep her roots go. This is becoming more rare as time passes and those legendary maestros of the middle and the latter half of the 20th century travel past us into the future, reborn and lost among the generations, like Stockhausen just recently. In this respect a composer like Vande Gorne serves as a link and a bridge, if not always per se, in her works, so at least in intellectual atmospheres or at the very least in our own tainted perceptions of how things are…
Annette Vande Gorne went through her time of classical studies at the Royal Conservatories at Mons and Brussels in Belgium, but then she was strongly swayed by the works of Pierre Henry and François Bayle, and soon went on to study with Schaeffer at the Conservatoire national supérier in Paris. She founded and managed the studios Musiques & Recherches and the Métamorphoses d’Orphée. She became Professor of Electroacoustic Composition at the Royal Conservatory of Liège in 1986, and then in Brussels 1987 and Mons 1993.
The description of Vande Gorne’s present inclinations probably comes straight from her own desk, so it may be informative to cite from it:
“Her current works focuses on various energetic and kinesthetic archetypes. Nature and the physical world are models for an abstract and expressive musical language. She is passionate about two other fields of research: the various relationships to word, sound and meaning provided by electroacoustic technology, and the composition of space seen as the fifth musical parameter and its relationship to the other four parameters and the archetypes being used […].”
Track 1. Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Est (2003) [7:59]
Debussy peeps into the circumstances and musical motions/emotions of this piece, and the title itself is a slight paraphrase on Debussy’s 7th Prelude from his First Book for Piano; Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest. Annette Vande Gorne says that “Debussy’s highly varied writing and composition techniques find a strong echo in electroacoustic writing techniques and sound processing”! I enjoy observations like this one, finding unexpected connections. Life is full of them, but they’re all too often overlooked. Nothing exists by and of itself; this is a Buddhist insight that needs to be learned. Everything exists in “dependent-arising”, meaning that all things, material and immaterial, depend on causes and conditions. Nothing is stable and solid and eternal, but flowing and fluctuating, disappearing and emerging, all of it: feelings and worlds and thoughts and housing projects. Debussy winking his eye through an electroacoustic piece by Annette Vande Gorne thus feels appropriate! In fact, the art of acousmatique serves well the concept and notion of “dependant-arising”, by its very nature, as it moves indiscriminately through ages and timbres and ambiences, letting all aspects of everything affect and reset everything.
I start listening on the outside of a sphere that holds a dream. I feel my knuckles knocking percussive queries on the even surface, which reflects myself in its funny mirror. The curving soap bubble entity constitutes a center of a hazy circumstance; some back of the mind clarity in a life that mostly holds up front, in the face obscurity. Vande Gorne paints in transparent hues, barely touching upon that illusion which we, habitually, define as “reality”. I think about the make-up of my bones, their intricate, porous structure, and I think about my flesh; organic matter with wriggling passages for blood and oxygen and nutrients. I wonder why this is. Why do I carry this brain on top of this human structure in matter, like a flower that blooms in the spiritual world? As soon as we’re born, we begin our journey towards death. And then it starts over. In the meantime — the mean time! — art is the essence of this process of life and living futility; the mirror into which we may look, and this art of electroacoustics, acousmatique, holds up a rare and wonderful mirror, dealing with “reality” in the most stringent way; by robbing it of its self evidence, unmasking its mystery, revealing the true uncertainty that lies within, at the core of each moment, of each life, of space and time: uncertainty, unreality, illusion, mirrors in mirrors, moment rising out of moment, hallway after hallway of mind and fantastic premonitions and nowhere a fixed point.
Annette Vande Gorne’s first piece begins with uncertain sounds; maybe rain trickling into a tin bucket or absentminded fingers tapping the tight skin of a drum, or boxes with apples rubbing against each other in a stagecoach passing over a cobbled street in 18th century Central Europe…
A sweeping motion that gathers force and content blows in your face like a dust storm on the road to Tucson, the sky turning yellow and ominous — but inside this dusty layer some kind of orchestral timbre hovers, in and out of earshot, elusive, like those sounds you sometimes think you hear (changing latitude now!) inside a snowstorm in Lapland when you’re on your skis, trying to follow the markers to the next hut, not to get lost in the whiteout and the cold; those kind of overtones that hide in storms — or all those colors that shimmer in the concept “white”: that’s how it feels in Vande Gorne’s Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Est. After a little while, you actually sense the bolder framework of a piece of traditional music as dark stretches within the noise; a musical being barely outlined in darker contours in the maze: Debussy staggering against the wind of time? This fades into the atmosphere of an industrial workshop or the sounds of the sea breaking; you chose according to your inclinations! As the progression of sounds turns more elastic and mystical, I hear the foghorn from a lighthouse that gradually changes into a warning signal that transforms into the wind section of an orchestra — and then, like a wondrous hallucination, a trickling piano appears, floating in this sonic space, and a string section, and finally a singer, in a dream or a recollection, somewhere in the circuits of your brain. Annette Vande Gorne has used a lot of precision mechanics building this piece of sound art. On the drone extensions of an orchestral tutti she lets sharp shreds of tinplate audio swarm along, cutting the skin of any sentient being not taking cover; shreds from various periods blown together in the time crusher machine of mind; a rummaging low pressure in the breath of destruction and creation.
In calmer sections the sounds thin out, opening the immediate space around you, where you find yourself in a pen where calves push their runny muzzles into your armpits, while making snorting sounds. It feels comforting in your rural childhood recollections. As tension and volume again rises, angelic choirs straight out of a Doré woodcut or Stockhausen’s Engel-Prozessionen appear, against the light, on the galactic horizon.
It is apparent already from the title that Vande Gorne works with the human voice in this piece. She calls it “the ancestral medium of all direct communication”. Introducing the five brief studies contained in this composition, the composer says, about Giocoso: “[It] mixes vocal music from every non-European continent with the ‘Western past’; about Amoroso: “[It] attempts […] an ornamental and contrapuntal compositional style using a Gregorian phrase for a template”; about Innocentemente: “[It] rediscovers immediate temporality with its contrasting, elusive nature and the diffuse, internal sense of space of childhood”; about Furioso: “[It] eructates its violence within a linear and directed space with rising, rhythmical, explosive energy”; and about Parola volante: “[It] is a short tribute to Pierre Schaeffer’s revolutionary thinking on sound, […] in a few sentences using Schaeffer’s voice.”
The voices in part 1 are deeply hidden in the electronics, blurred beyond recognition inside a torrent of work-arounds, but the sonic result is very nice as is, even if you have no idea about its origin. One of the wonders of electroacoustics is the possibility you have to hide and/or reveal certain aspects of sound, for example its origin, the way you chose to let some bubbles of methane gas reality blurp up out of the swamp of mushy sonorities or not. However, though I hear a direct and immediate vocalism only once in part 1, Vande Gorne has worked with a conversational touch here and there, indicating some kind of exchange of morphemes.
Part 2 introduces otherworldly aspects of sound, albeit with certain points of reference barely showing, like monks or priests chanting in growling low-passes, while rippling vocals dance in grainy streaks of light up under the ceiling of old European domes, the wobbly sonorities making you speculate about sunken worlds; an Atlantis of acousmatique, fish with round mouths looking ridiculously surprised as Christianity wells over the world like a pandemia.
Part 3 pours a bucket of daycare centre commotion over your perception like cubes of ice; such is the sudden effect of this unexpected taste of “reality”! This flurry of children’s voices are, however, soon sucked up in a hallucinatory whirlwind; a fever dream that lifts you in a spiral over into a neighboring reality, just as unreal as the already accepted reality you came from. It’s such an electroacoustic pleasure to lose yourself in Annette Vande Gorne’s multi-dimensional sound journeys! Discovering the alien properties of all you take for granted is a great exploration, any way you see it. Stockhausen was wonderful with this in his electronic music, and Vande Gorne also travels those explorative realms, looking back at Earth through inter-galactic eons of meditation. The jolly scream of a little child is turned into a beautiful, high-pitch drone that lets you take a giant leap into the dream world of life and death flickering. You’re stepping into a room where the Star Maker sits at a table, rearranging space and time. You hope you’re not intruding.
Part 4 hits suddenly from the outset, fizzling and sputtering like electricity through water; a sense of an engine gearing up, the whole situation turning fiercer — a model airplane rising through childhood; an inter-continental missile rising through worn-out civilizations, rage rising through the throat of the Star Maker at all this evil that we harbor; all these shiny jet fighters that we build from soil and rock. The piece recedes into the meditation of khoomei singing; a long, thin line losing itself in the haze of the distance.
Part 5, the final part of Vox Alia, is the most charming permutation of Pierre Schaeffer’s voice, which is also allowed its naturalistic place in the room in brief sequences, in and out of vision; a portion of the past blooming in the present, hurried off into the future.
The composer defines this work as “the image of Western urban civilization as seen through the eyes of an immigrant Arab poet.” She also talks about fragments of the inner being and fractures from our childhood, brought forth as we travel into a future that turns into past without us even noticing.
Here Vande Gorne works in a vein familiar to me, traditional in a way, in a French/Swedish way, since the art of sound poetry — which this is an example of — has been most successful in these European countries since the Sixties. I only catch part of the meaning of the text, since my French isn’t the best, but I enjoy immensely Vande Gorne’s way of distributing this storm of words with their surrounding hellfire sonorities, this trembling, rumbling jet-stream and earthquake shakedown, in which the poems get ample expression space, their inherent atmospheric seeds sprouting wildly through the cracks of poetic time.
Then, all of a sudden a break: silence, halting-places of the breath… out of which the voice steps alone, like a person emerging from a burning building, clothed in nothing but words… until the motion of the ambience tightens and sweeps the voice and all of its words away, away, up and away…
Sometimes the poems, loud and clear, appear in the complete presence of an anechoic chamber crammed with turbulent permutations; shadows of these poems; grotesque, disfigured, chopped up and thrown in the air like the rice at a wedding.
Vande Gorne applies various spatial stunts, luring you deeper into the smoky after-burn of linguistic sense. Wonderful!
The woman shouts to a neighbor, like she would in an old Fellini film, standing out on the lawn behind the house, hanging white sheets up to dry in the wind, but her shouts are accompanied by an immediate sonic shadow of her vocals, like time itself was slightly out of joint, or as if invisible cracks opened up in space; crevasses of existence, leading nowhere.
This was just a fanfare of sorts, a vocal fanfare in a cloth-line saga, to open the story, because what follows is beautifully instrumental, on dark flutes of various timbres, swung through ring-modulators (it seems), taking on sweet, romantic, melancholy semi-melodies of 19th century Swedish Dalecarlia, the bee swarm elasticity of the ring modulation rendering the electroacoustic strangeness; the sonorous alienation in which to dream strange dreams.
The poetry is introduced in a female voice, subdued and muffled, into the wobbling, meandering fragility of line, held in approximate equilibrium by one clean flute-like extension and one extremely elastic ring-modulated tone, moving simultaneously in the same direction down the duration. The music is heavenly here, unbelievably beautiful and truly mystical. The female voice expressing the poetic phrases is divided into several sister voices, appearing at various points in space.
A flock of geese suddenly takes over the main frame, while other birds — even one bird of pray circling on high; a buzzard — are heard; a wild duck speaking in his harsh language up close, expecting bread crumbs from passers-by. Children clothed in colorful rain clothes are also discovered playing in this crazy Photoshop bird land. Eventually Vande Gorne makes more of this than the analogue birds are capable of by themselves. As most of these sounds diminish and cease, and a new sound of close breathing appears, only the sharp and wild call of the buzzard recurs with long pauses in between, as the woman again begins to recite Saint-John Perse’s poems. The composer uses some light sound poetic permutations along the way, making for a truly exciting listening experience; the spatial parameters of the art amply applied.
Frictional disturbances crack through the area; water gushes in over the shore, the poem is cut up and distributed at very close range, up your nose, into your ears, invasive, until it finally leaves you with nothing but assorted vowels, like forlorn lingual building blocks swept up on the beach, after a war.
Some time later all hell breaks loose, when the poems are screamed and shouted by wild-eyed women standing with their feet in the water on the shore, invoking the deities of the ocean while ducks quack and the buzzard again rises above the scene, as electricity fizzles and frizzles through the land, water seeping in and out of cracks of skulls in the waterline. Finally the presence of a silent poem permeates the atmosphere with a fairyland ambience, beyond the Grimm Brothers as well as Brian Eno. Fabulous sound art!
Track 9. Crise (1983) [5:27]
Annette Vande Gorne tries to express “various states of madness” in this piece. How is she doing? Quite well, and in an amusing way too! She begins the work in a mad rush of bubbly spheres falling down a curving roller coaster track, for a while there mimicking some early Morton Subotnick and John Chowning, shortly letting her lust for shortwave interferences take severe hold! I can picture her in front of the radio set, the shortwave receiver, turning the station dial as fast as she can across the frequencies, achieving this crazy, bubbly, crackling noise of the world. I did it myself in the 1950s, establishing my lust for electroacoustic music — even though I didn’t know it then! You feel like your traveling the atomic jitter inside matter in this music, boring through the true state of granite and gneiss! Towards the end of this short work the waveband audio seems to originate in the electro-magnetic force fields around the planets of our solar system, the way NASA’s Voyager I & II recorded them, and with a smidgen of Vande Gorne’s earthly percussion, this madhouse incident draws to a close way down a lonely corridor of oblivion…
“What does ‘space’ mean?”, the composer asks, and possibly aims at a sonic reply in this 7-part work.
Strong, bouncing, trembling seasick sounds begin the piece, like wine glasses on a table hitting against each other as a tremor passes through rock bottom. The sounds, full of pleasure, shoot out like rays of light through cut glass, moving in winding paths through the irregular density of the crystal. These light-sounds are very close; you’re almost backing up a bit; that close! A common falling trajectory suggests a red shift of celestial bodies or a sense of a down-curving situation of a private nature. Percussive and sizzling ingredients move beautifully against a backdrop of extended, soaring atmospheres. The way these sounds — some of them — hover like dragonflies; one second still, the next shooting off, really charms me; has me listening attentively. Vande Gorne doesn’t hesitate to bring in the tolling of church bells and flies passing close by the microphones (like Pink Floyd on Ummagumma!) — and she fits it all into this work of art, sort of effortlessly, not missing out the slightest, very cleverly.
The falling trajectory garden sensation keeps on keeping on, masterly, but now combining high-pitch, shrill layers with deep, murmuring ones. I even had to open the window to see if it was on the DVD or came from a truck outside! It was the DVD! A full nocturnal summer ambience fills the atmosphere with insects that tremble and shiver with brief life under the stars. My senses get confused. Am I experiencing rapid movement or a complete standstill? If you meet someone in space, who is moving? You decide; it’s all about points of reference. Vande Gorne spreads delicate, semi-transparent layers of grainy courses of events, like the rings of Saturn, giving off these indefinable grey sonorities with trillions of tiny reflections pinching your perception.
Bouncing springs and metallic percussive sounds twang and jolt at close range, all but hypnotizing me with their brilliance and magic beauty. Sounds can be so utterly persuasive! The way the afterglow of percussive attacks in this work keep bending and curving constitute some of the most pleasurable sounds imaginable!
The sudden blow of a train whistle startles me, and the steam engine then starting up brings a good portion of anachronism into the picture. The rhythm of the rail soon disappears in downright spacey sonorities; the way Olaf Stapledon may have experienced them on his alleged space-and-time travels in the 1930s. A flock of birds scare easily and flap madly to rise out of their forest meadow. Crackling fireworks open other aspects of civilization, as does passing traffic. I’d say that these last regions of this DVD certainly celebrate Pierre Schaeffer and his new thinking in the late 1940s well, and yes, Annette Vande Gorne has administered Schaeffer’s assets in magnificence, developing her own brilliance out of these tantalizing traditions.