Les blocs errants / 2012
Born in France in 1962, Ned Bouhalassa has been involved in the Montréal music scene since 1988. He divides his time between writing for film and television, and composing electroacoustic works for concert. Regularly programmed at Montréal’s Elektra and Rien à voir festivals, Bouhalassa’s works are also heard around the world. For the past few years, he has been exploring hybridization by combining electronic beats with electroacoustic soundscapes. He is also currently interested in integrating video to his work, along with composing in Surround sound. In 2001, he was a member of the music jury of Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria).
Le Mans (Sarthe, France), 1962
Residence: Montréal (Québec)
On the Web
In the Press
Bernard Girard, Aligre FM, Dissonances, March 30, 2004Normandeau est de ces compositeurs de musique concrète qui se sont beaucoup intéressés à la voix, à son mystère…
Miriam Rainsford, Mstation, August 7, 2001
Marcin Borchardt, Radio El: Clockwork Orange, January 4, 1999One of The Best of 1998
Nous poursuivons notre découverte de la musique concrète, acousmatique produite par ce que l’on appelle l’école de Montréal. Nous avons souligné le rôle de la chaire de composition de musique électroacoustique dans la formation de toute une génération de compositeurs, chaire que Francis Dhomont a occupée pendant de longues années, mais qu’il n’a pas créée. C’est une canadienne, Marcelle Deschênes, qui en fut la première titulaire.
Comme beaucoup d’autres, Marcelle Deschênes a découvert la musique électroacoustique à Paris, au Groupe de recherches musicales de l’ORTF. De retour au Québec, elle a enseigné la perception auditive et a fait une carrière d’artiste multimédia. Elle s’intéresse aujourd’hui à l’intégration des technologies nouvelles aux arts de la scène ce qui l’a conduit à travailler sur un opéra. La discographie de Marcelle Deschênes est, si je ne me trompe, très courte. Je ne connais que deux disques d’elle, ce qui condamne à rêver devant les titres de ses œuvres, titres qui font penser qu’elle ne manque pas d’humour. Je pense notamment à Moll, opéra lilliput pour six roches molles, qui lui a valu un premier prix en 1978 au Concours international de musique électroacoustique de Bourges. Faute de disposer de cet enregistrement, je vous propose une œuvre plus récente, Lux æterna, qu’elle a dédiée à l’état d’âme des scientifiques de Los Alamos. Il s’agit d’une musique écrite, composée pour accompagner des spectacles multimédias qu’elle a réalisés avec Georges Dyens et Renée Bourassa. Comme son titre l’indique, ces spectacles traitent de la lumière, lumière éternelle, lumière primitive. Il est assez rare que des mots évoquant la lumière entrent dans les titres d’œuvres musicales. Il y a les six quatuors à cordes de Joseph Haydn, le Soleil des eaux que Pierre Boulez a composé sur des textes de René Char, les Chroniques de la lumière de Francis Dhomont… Les musiciens semblent préférer la pénombre des nocturnes… Mais il faut naturellement se méfier des titres.
Je ne suis pas sûr qu’un public auquel on aurait demandé de donner un titre à l’œuvre de Marcelle Deschênes aurait spontanément pensé à la lumière éternelle (Lux æterna).
Cette musique n’évoque pas forcément la lumière éternelle telle que nous l’entendons, mais elle paraît en phase avec les projets de Georges Dyens, un artiste qui s’intéresse aux forces telluriques, et pour lequel la lumière est, je cite, «matière révélatrice du monde mais aussi matière modelable au même titre que la glaise possédant un contenu spirituel.»
Marcelle Deschênes n’est pas la seule à s’être intéressée à l’art multimédia. C’est également le cas de Robert Normandeau qui enseigne aujourd’hui la composition électroacoustique à l’université de Montréal après avoir été l’élève de Marcelle Deschênes et Francis Dhomont.
La discographie de Robert Normandeau, né en 1955, est importante. Elle comprend des œuvres acousmatiques mais aussi des œuvres pour le théâtre et des musiques pour la radio.
Normandeau est de ces compositeurs de musique concrète qui se sont beaucoup intéressés à la voix, à son mystère, chaque voix est différente, à son épaisseur, à sa force émotive: les sons fabriqués, construits avec la voix ont toujours quelque chose de plus. Robert Normandeau a composé de nombreuses œuvres à partir de la voix, dont Bédé.
Il s’agit d’une œuvre composée à partir de ces sons, onomatopées, descriptions de bruits de chute, de coups, de sirènes… que l’on trouve dans les bandes dessinées prononcées par une enfant de onze ans. On observera que l’univers que décrit cette pièce courte, elle dure moins de trois minutes, n’est pas d’une grande douceur.
Ces citations de bruits empruntés au monde dessinée illustrent bien l’éclectisme des membres de l’école de Montréal. Robert Normandeau, Gilles Gobeil, Christian Calon, Alain Thibault, Mario Rodrigue… tous ces compositeurs nés dans les années 50 et formés dans les classes de Francis Dhomont et de Marcelle Deschênes ont une culture musicale complexe qui intègre le jazz, le rock et les musiques pop, la pratique de la guitare, de la musique populaire… Je ne veux pas dire que leurs collègues européens formés dans des conservatoires classiques, dédiés à la musique savante, ignorent ces musiques, ils les connaissent et il leur arrive également de les pratiquer, mais il est plus rare qu’ils les intègrent directement dans leur travail.
On trouve explicitement trace de cet éclectisme musical dans Constamment (autoportrait), une œuvre émouvante de Ned Bouhalassa, un compositeur qui a été l’élève de Francis Dhomont et de Kevin Austin. Constamment (autoportrait) reprend des sons familiers qui ont été ceux de l’enfance et de l’adolescence de Bouhalassa auxquels il adjoint une réflexion sur le métissage. Métissage des cultures chez cet enfant né d’une mère bretonne et d’un père algérien, métissage des musiques chez cet amateur de techno dont il nous dit qu’il en écoute quotidiennement et qu’il lui arrive parfois de danser dessus jusqu’aux petites heures du matin.
Constamment (autoportrait) date de 1997. Ned Bouhalassa avait alors 35 ans. Constamment (autoportrait) a été, comme beaucoup d’autres œuvres dont nous parlons aujourd’hui, composée dans le studio du compositeur. C’est une des caractéristiques de la musique de l’école de Montréal qui explique pour partie au moins son ton original. En France, les compositeurs travaillent dans des institutions, l’IRCAM, le GRM, le Grame de Lyon, le GMEM de Marseille… qui mettent à leur disposition des moyens techniques, des matériels, des techniciens et des bibliothèques de son. A Montréal, il en va tout autrement: le studio de l’université est réservé aux élèves et aux enseignants. Une fois diplômé, un musicien qui veut continuer de produire doit créer son propre studio. Ce qui a plusieurs conséquences.
Cela le force, d’abord, à constituer sa propre bibliothèque de son, à se faire reporter, preneur de son, ce qui l’amène à enregistrer son quotidien, son entourage, à travailler sur le motif comme les peintres impressionnistes qui posaient leur chevalet sur les bords de la Seine ou de la Marne. On retrouve, d’ailleurs, chez les compositeurs de l’école de Montréal ce goût pour le plein air, notamment dans ces œuvres que l’on pourrait qualifier de paysages, qui nous décrivent l’atmosphère si particulière de la capitale francophone d’Amérique du Nord. Fête d’Yves Daoust décrit l’été à Montréal. C’est un autre portrait de Montréal que nous propose Stéphane Roy dans Appartenances, une œuvre qui tente de mettre en évidence la richesse culturelle, la polyphonie d’une ville qui parle plusieurs langues, qui accueille et laisse vivre ensemble des gens d’origine très différente, une ville qui, enfin, échappe au conservatisme si fréquent en Amérique du Nord. Il s’agit d’une pièce en trois mouvements qui décrivent successivement les univers latins, celtes et orientaux de la ville. «Appartenances, explique Stéphane Roy, est issue de phonographies de cette mosaïque montréalaise, saisies à la volée lors de promenades dans les rues de la ville. J’ai fait, poursuit-il, usage de ces phonographies comme d’une matière sonore à l’état brut que le travail en studio m’a permis de modeler, de faire dériver vers une expression plus abstraite.»
Ned Bouhalassa’s music is unusual for an electroacoustic composer — for someone working in an area that one would normally think of as being limited to the world of academia. His work combines the scientific discipline of acousmatics, in which he was grounded, with raw field recordings and MIDI-sequenced fragments in a variety of techno-derived styles, with striking originality and transitions so natural that one hardly blinks an eyelid. He is one of a new group of electroacoustic composers coming out of Canada who are drawing on the rich developments in electronic technique that have evolved over the last 10-15 years through the dance music scene, combining sound sources in a truly postmodern sense, where all sounds are a resource to draw upon freely, without prejudice for style; where all things around us can be, and indeed are, music.
Ned Bouhalassa has been actively involved in the composition and promotion of electroacoustic music since 1987, working with the Canadian Electroacoustic Community, and teaching at Concordia University from 1991-96. His works have been diffused in concert and radio internationally, and he has received awards for his work in Canada and internationally. These days composition occupies him full-time, as he works on commissions for a variety of media, from tape alone to film and dance works.
I began by asking him about his studies in acousmatic music in Montréal, and how his early explorations in electroacoustic techniques still bring a great influence to bear upon his work today.
NB: My first contact with acousmatic music was in 1986, at Concordia University, when Kevin Austin came into the Introduction to Music History class (at the end of the semester) to give a brief presentation of electroacoustics (ea). He played a short tape piece he had composed with another Montréaler, Daniel Feist (also a well-known radio personality). The clip was entitled, Auxferd night burr’d, November 2.A.M. It had no text, but an engaging narrative was played out using musique concrète techniques on a Rastafarian-like voice. What struck me most was that the sounds were bringing all kinds of images to my mind — some abstract, others more recognisable. Upon hearing “Auxferd,” I saw that it was possible to tell a story using sounds alone. I bought a 4-track that summer, and starting experimenting with layering and pitch transposition. I began studying ea that Fall, and soon after, I got involved in the ea community by helping to put on many concerts, working for the Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC), hosting an ea music radio show, etc.
I also listened to a _lot_ of ea. I’ve always been very good at taking apart music or sound art by ear. I still remember the night I had an epiphany about multiple layers of processing. I was listening to a radio broadcast of a piece by Francis Dhomont (it may have been Points de fuite), where I could hear the sound of a pencil or some other like-object rolling towards and then away from me. I tried to analyse in my head the techniques used to make that kind of movement, and realised that it involved changing not only the timbre (filtering), but also the amplitude (volume), and stereo position (panning). This may seem obvious when it’s explained like that, but for me, being able to figure it out by listening alone had more impact than any professor’s lecture or text.
I didn’t take my composing seriously though until I won two Canadian young composers’ prizes in the same year (1990). Of course, I knew enough not to expect to make a living from it, but it made me feel stronger, more confident. I was quite insecure about my composing abilities, and getting recognition from my peers helped me a lot. By getting involved with the ea community, I also became friends with people whose work I had greatly admired: Christian Calon, Francis Dhomont, Gilles Gobeil, Robert Normandeau, and others. For me, this was also a fantastic way to learn the craft: to sit around and talk shop with these gifted artists.
Around the same time, I became interested in Hip-Hop, particularly Public Enemy. I liked what they were doing with samplers, adding street ambience to the Funky Drummer, using all kinds of musique concrète techniques. In 1993, I bought my first portable DAT and binaural microphones, and I began making a lot of indoor and outdoor recordings. Listening with headphones while recording really increased my perception of the sounds that I took for granted and hardly ever noticed (cars, general city noise, my refridgerator, a clock ticking, etc). 8 years later, I still go back to these DATs for source material.
I think the period where I fell in love with ea was a particularly exciting one, at least here in Montréal. The composers I listed above and many others were doing their first mature works (except for Francis, bien sur), and there was a regular flow of strong pieces, concerts. I think things starting leveling off in the mid-90s, or maybe it was my interest that diminished. This was also the period when I started to regularly listen to Techno music in (almost) all its forms.
MStation: In many of Bouhalassa’s works he seems fascinated by exploring the nature of sounds, and at time seems to almost get inside of them. The physics of sound is always something that is conveyed very immediately to me by his pieces — perhaps augmented by binaural field recording techniques. In works such as Jets (1996-98), where there seems to be a focus on movement, spatiality and kinetics, I wondered if this was at all reminiscent of early Xenakis, the orchestral pieces based on atomic particle movements.
NB: I can’t say I’m very much influenced by Xenakis. Of course, I’ve listened to some of his pieces, and I always think of him when I create cloud-like stochastic textures (using software like Cloud, MacPod or SuperCollider). I do like to really get into my sounds with a microscope, but in my case, it’s really the EQ and compression. Reverb is something I’m learning to use less. Kevin Austin really helped me understand how to manage digital reverb. I prefer to dig into the unprocessed material first: the acoustic world is so much richer than any digitally-created or processed source.
The focus on movement that you mention is really a compositional technique. I treat space as an equal aspect of sound, which means that I pay the same attention I do to pitch, amplitude, rhythm, etc. The sounds have dynamic trajectories because I program/automate movements across the stereo field (or sound stage). Regarding my fascination with movement, I should mention my acousmatic confreres as influences. I’m also still exploring granular synthesis in all its forms (slow and sparse, or fast and dense). In Move 1, I actually used that process to generate much of the gestures.
MStation: The acousmatic school seems to have quite an influence upon your teachers work, and upon Canadian ea/cm. Do you use any of the principles of acousmatics, i.e. abstraction and hiding or disguising the original sound source?
NB: I’m very intuitive, so I tend to steer away from what can be perceived by some as ‘rules’ or principles. Sometimes a sound that I’ve heard many times before, like an outdoor swing or a car zooming by, will take on a different characteristic when I take it out of its original context and edit it in the studio. If its screaming, “I’m a car!”, and it works for me in the context of writing a piece, then I might not disguise it at all. It’ll be a car for most people, and that’s already so full of meaning… On the other hand, if when looped, filtered, reversed, etc, it takes on a new, abstract, musical character, then it’s no longer a car, and that’s fine as well. In my acousmatic work, I combine both abstract and recognisable, anecdotal sounds. I like to think that when I’m successful, I tell a story that can be interpreted many different ways: you can tell that there’s some kind of underlying narrative, but the relation between the sounds/gestures is open to as many interpretations as there are listeners.
MStation: I very much admire the way you incorporate techno influences into your work — it is with great subtlety, and there is such a fluidity of movement across boundaries of style, that conveys that _all_ the sounds around us are music.
Is there a particular style of techno / drum’n’bass / hip-hop, or a particular group that you like? I guess that when it comes to incorporating techno into ea music it is also a question of what sort of music will work with the electroacoustic sounds, and whether you want things to blend or jump-cut.
NB: I really don’t know what I’m doing when it comes to combining genres… which is a good thing. I know that I won’t write a classic electroacoustic or techno piece, but that’s not what interests me these days anyhow, ‘pure’ anything. I listen to all kinds of music, as much as possible: the radio in the car, in the kitchen, web radio, dj friends, clubs/parties, etc. I get inspired by anything that is exciting. It can be 3 sine waves, or a dense soop of noise, as long as it’s _alive_. We are really blessed here in Montréal, as there are 4 community radio stations, and I can almost always hear something interesting on air. I like fast, hard jungle, like the British stuff (Optical, )EIB(, Dillinja, Dom and Roland, Total Science); IDM/glitch/anything-else-that-fits-that-label, like Autechre (studio more than live), Oval, Ikeda, Pole, Pan Sonic Plastikman; and of course more Brits, like Amon Tobin, Luke Vibert, Luke Slater, Photek, Lamb. Electroacoustic sounds can and should be any sound really, so the question is not so much what to combine, but rather what to leave out. Often, the problems are more technical than poetic. If you have a really heavy, in-your-face techno beat, chances are there’s not much room in the frequency spectrum for anything else, certainly not something subtle. So then it’s a question of filtering the beat to make room for other sounds. I’ve been using electroacoustic soundscapes as bridges to beat sections — or beat sections as lead-ups to electroacoustic spaces… I see people like Matmos doing that, and I think it’s great. They use electroacoustics as a way to create scenes, near-narrative contexts for their rhythmic tracks. I mean it’s really nothing new. Many rock records I used to listen to as a teenager had field recordings or little montages that preceded a given song.
MStation: What software and/or hardware do you use? I gather you’re Mac-based, are you using OS X at all?
NB: I use Logic Audio and the AudioWerk card on a G3 desktop. As for operating systems, I prefer those that finish with a “.5 or .6”! By the time they get to that point, they usually have worked out a few bugs… I’m running 8.6 presently. I love VST plug-ins, especially Pluggo, and I’ve recently started using EXS24 (Emagic’s soft-sampler). The latest, greatest toy in my collection is the new version of Absynth.
MStation: How you find working as an intuitive composer with programs like SuperCollider and granular synthesis apps that often require pretty intensive programming? Are there ways in which you balance these two seemingly opposite approaches?
NB: Since the early days of using a university studio, I have had a two-birds-with-one-stone approach to learning/programming software/synth patches: as I explore a new tool, I try to ‘compose’ gestures that I can later incorporate in a piece. That way, I don’t feel like I’m ‘wasting’ precious composing time. Anyhow, there’s no better way to judge the pertinence of a given program than by trying to make music with it right off the bat.
MStation: Technically, are there particular approaches or applications that you find helpful to acheive this? You already mentioned reverb, which I would assume helps a lot in the spatialisation and dynamic movement of sound. Are there any particular applications or techniques that help you to put a sound under the microscope?
NB: This might seem obvious, but one technique is to use EQ as a microscope. Use the peak filter setting, make a sharp bell, crank up the gain on the cutoff point and sweep around the frequency spectrum. This will allow you to ‘zoom’ in on the sound and find its significant frequency characteristics or formants. You can then decide if you want to highlite or hide the later. One can do so much with EQ alone.
MStation: Again it strikes me that it’s the movement, the dynamics of the transitions between beats and electroacoustics that inspires you… Sometimes I’ve noticed that the forms you use are quite cinematic, not only with the jump cuts from acousmatics to techno, but in the way you set a scene.
I’m aware that you also compose film music, I wondered if you’d like to say a little bit about your current project?
NB: These days, I’m starting work on the soundtrack for a feature film called Jack and Ella (www.jackandella.com). I’ve been given carte-blanche for one of the rare times in my soundtrack career. The music will be a blend of film score, techno and electroacoustics (surprise, surprise!). It’s a wonderful story, full of meaningful dialogue, superbly acted, well shot, etc. The director is my girlfriend, and we both work at home, so it should be an interesting experience!
I also just got a Canada Council for the Arts grant to compose a new 30-minute acousmatic work based on the morphing of sounds, the Berlin zoo, and the myths of Orpheus and Morpheus. I hope to travel to Berlin to record animals and people in the zoo, and to San Francisco, where I will use some of Sound Traffic Control’s resources for resynthesis.
MStation: Many thanks, Ned, and we wish you both all the very best with the forthcoming release of Jack and Ella. Ned Bouhalassa’s album Aérosol is available from empreintes DIGITALes. Jack and Ella, a film by Brenda Keesal, featuring music by Ned Bouhalassa, will be completed in Summer 2001.
Ned Bouhalassa, CEC, Sur le vif / Quick Takes, August 1, 1999… reconnue mondialement et reçoit régulièrement des éloges de la part des critiques
Ned Bouhalassa: In January 2000, the empreintes DIGITALes label will celebrate its tenth anniversary. It is recognized around the world and its catalogue receives rave reviews from the critics. How do you explain this success?
Jean–François Denis: In 1990, there were no independent record labels specializing in electroacoustic music. There were labels of course, but these were parallel activities of studios or organizations. We were a ‘fresh’ idea. Also, from the start, empreintes DIGITALes developed an artistic ‘policy’ (regarding both sound and graphics) and became very visible in the electroacoustic and experimental circles (due to its large publicity and the many mailings of catalogues). So there was a will to develop a signature, to be recognized. Of course, the quality of the works was always a priority.
NB: What inspired you to set up your own record company?
JFD: No one else wanted to do it. I went around to the other existing record companies (of this country) to offer to develop an electroacoustic sub–division, but returned unsuccessful. I also talked to several composers about a record production project: all were very interested… that someone else do it. When I spoke about it to Claude Schryer, he mentioned that he had been thinking about setting up a label as well. So in August 1989, we founded DIFFUSION i MéDIA (today a distributor) and the label empreintes DIGITALes, and we conceived the first 4 projects of the collection (Calon, Normandeau, Thibault and Électro clips).
NB: Starting a new business is always risky, even more so in the case of a serious music record company. Did you have many doubts in the beginning?
JFD: The risks? We were ready to work and, with the indispensable help of the composers, we faced only beautiful risks: to produce decent, superb, lavish CDs of music that we like. I believe that we need risk in order to constantly redefine ourselves, to question ourselves (even if it may mean going back to the starting point). The doubts? I wondered then what I would do with 1000 copies (the minimum at the time) of the same disc in my home: how do I get them out there to be heard? what about distribution? sales? We almost had to invent ways to reach our public! (We didn’t even know where to really find this public!)
NB: The first Francis Dhomont double–cd, with its large booklet, was launched with pomp and circumstance before two exceptional concerts. Was this one of your most memorable launches? One of your wildest projects?
JFD: The Montréal launches have always been a little special: in a Planetarium; disguised as a party–concert; café–croissant at 7 AM; in disco or punk bars. Of course the Dhomont box–set launch was important, though, if my memory serves me right, it was but a small part of a night which was celebrating Francis Dhomont’s 65th birthday. There was also a collage–homage piece from his students, assembled by Gilles Gobeil. There have also been other launches in Vancouver, Norwich (UK), Toronto, Birmingham (USA), and Paris…
NB: The image of your label is immediately recognizable. What is always obvious is the attention that is given to the quality of the graphics. How would you describe Luc Beauchemin’s role?
JFD: Luc Beauchemin conceived of the first design overhaul in 1991 (with the Daoust), as well as the second in 1996 (with the Harrison). (The OPAK cardboard box, used since 1996, is a collaborative effort.) As for the cover art, the composer is the one who suggests a work or commissions an artist (since Luc Beauchemin is also a graphic artist, some of the covers feature his work).
NB: The only CDs on your label that feature works by different artists on the same release are the clips CDs (Électro clips and Miniatures concrètes). Why don’t you combine normal length pieces by different composers on one cd?
JFD: Because I find these (mixed composers) CDs uninteresting to listen to. Each individual empreintes DIGITALes cd represents a unique musical ‘idea’; as a listener, I find that extremely enjoyable. The only exceptions stem from a very strong and original ‘concept’ (especially in 1990): that of the 3–minute electroacoustic clip. That, to me, is what makes it ‘possible’ to listen to these kinds of CDs.
NB: How do you choose your cd projects?
JFD: It usually starts with the music (heard in concert, during festivals — but very rarely from ‘demos’ received by mail) and follows with the composer’s approach, the integrity of their artistic approach.
NB: How can a composer interest you in a cd project?
JFD: It’s not easy actually, since I’m already drowning in daily mail in which I occasionally find a ‘demo’ – and I’m somewhat overloaded with work. But I can say that when a composer is recommended by a colleague, it usually helps (one should not forget as well that the production of a cd depends greatly on it being somewhat funded).
NB: What do you think of distribution via the Internet? Do you intend one day to allow your clients to buy works that can be downloaded?
JFD: The cd is only a medium. The advantage that it offers over previous formats is its sound quality specifically in the case of electroacoustic music duration and durability. As soon as there exists another support which offers similar sound quality, we’ll offer music in that format. It’s pretty obvious. So my answer is yes.
NB: You wrote many works during the 80s. Do you think that you might one day make a cd featuring your own works?
JFD: A few pieces have withstood the test of time (ten and fifteen years later). I really haven’t thought seriously about this. What do you think?