In the press
Will Stewart, The Ann Arbor News, October 15, 2004… “challenging” isn’t a pejorative when it comes to Edgefest — the duo frequently found harmonic plateaus that, while frequently dissonant, had an unmistakable beauty.
Cristin Miller, Signal to Noise, no. 34, June 1, 2004A drama of highly attuned listening slowly emerged full of simultaneous starts, frequent finishing of each others’ sentences, and sudden collective laughter.
François Couture, actuellecd.com, September 16, 2003
Jennifer Kelly, Splendid E-Zine, July 15, 2002… they extract an extraordinary array of sounds from themselves and their instruments, and create a landscape of furious, questing, contentious beauty.
François Couture, AllMusic, June 15, 2002… Justine pushed further the ideals of challenging, thought-provoking feminist rock…
François Couture, AllMusic, June 1, 2002A small but very stubborn woman, she made a career for herself starting out of nowhere at age 19, to become a successful businesswoman and a vocalist with a very distinctive style.
Avantjazz’s outer edge isn’t only razor sharp; it’s also broad enough to accommodate a range of artists who at once push the envelope of improvisatory music to glorious effect, but also, at times, test the patience of the casual listener’s attention span.[…]
And the fact that some of these performers are pretty far out there only adds merit to their accomplishments. That a vocalist squealing and grunting in French and slapping her torso in time to her accompanist’s caterwauls on various whistles can come across not only as listenable, but enjoyable and oddly soothing, is a tribute not only to the artists’ abilities but to the patience of an open-eared audience.[…]
Derome and Hétu performed for an hour, their unique sound occasionally living up to their performance moniker: “We Pierce the Ears." Oddly, for as challenging as their sound was - and “challenging" isn’t a pejorative when it comes to Edgefest - the duo frequently found harmonic plateaus that, while frequently dissonant, had an unmistakable beauty.[…]
The 19th annual Seattle Improvised Music Festival took place this winter over two week-ends in Febuary. This year brought a turning point for the festival, as the long-term orginizers turned over the reins to musicians newly very active in the scene, all of whom are directly or indirectly affialited with Open Music Workshop. Open Music Workshop (or OMW) is a relatively young entity, less than two years old, but has constitued something like a second wave in the improvised music scene in Seattle. This shift in leadership was reflected in the shape of the festival this year, which cast a wider net and included a broader range of approaches to music making.
The next weekend I also managed to catch Les Poules (Montréal) at Consolodated Works, a large warehouse-like art gallery and performance space. Les Poules have beon playing together for over a decade, and every passing minute of their long history and musical intimacy. Joane Hétu (vocals, alto sax) staked out a minimalist territory of voiceless fricatives and static noises, which she mined over the course of the performance. Diane Labrosse (electronics) explored a similarly focused territory, while Danielle Palardy Roger’s percussion poured out speechlike with orchestraly various gestures accumulating over time into a complex field. A drama of highly attuned listening slowly emerged full of simultaneous starts, frequent finishing of each others’ sentences, and sudden collective laughter. Occasionally, certain silences were allowed to move with grace to the center of the circle.
With the notable exception of sugary pop, all music styles are dominated by the male. Whether he’s grunting into the microphone, strumming his guitar, or blowing his lungs out on the saxophone, the manly man monopolizes the image of the musician, be it in corporate rock or on the new music scene. When women venture into his domain, they are often coerced into fitting the mold of the industry.
That’s why it is so surprising to find this many creative, challenging, talented women in DAME’s catalog. But one should not forget that early in its lifetime the collective Ambiances Magnétiques welcomed three artists whose musical activities, organizing minds and determination provided a force of attraction for other women. Of course, I am talking about Joane Hétu, Diane Labrosse and Danielle Palardy Roger.
Our three protagonists met at the turn of the ‘80s in Wondeur Brass and pursued their association into Les Poules and Justine. First an anarchist/feminist big band, Wondeur Brass was a laboratory to Joane, Diane and Danielle. They honed their skills — Joane, self-taught, literally learned to play music while playing music in it. Their own blend of modern poetry, free jazz and rock-in-opposition already took center stage on the LP Ravir. From the sextet featured on this first effort, the group scaled down to a quartet (with bassist Marie Trudeau as the fourth member) by the time of Simoneda, reine des esclaves. This line-up soon took the name Justine for three more albums (credited to the name of the individual musicians, La légende de la pluie can be seen as a collaboration between Justine, Zeena Parkins and Tenko) and the feminist discourse got gradually subsumed, making way for a growing playfulness that reached its peak on the phenomenal album Langages fantastiques.
Soon after the release of Langages fantastiques, the three girls launched their solo careers. Linguistic marvel and a rough delivery keep singer and saxophonist Joane Hétu close to the field of outsider art. First she formed her own group Castor et compagnie (with Labrosse, Jean Derome and Pierre Tanguay) which has recorded two albums of sensual and twisted songs in direct relation to Justine’s music. Later she turned to improvisation, first in a duo with her life partner Jean Derome as Nous perçons les oreilles (We Pierce Ears) and later solo with the intensely intimate album Seule dans les chants. She recently proved her worth in large-scale composition with her marvelous Musique d’hiver.
Toward the end of Justine’s life, Diane Labrosse traded in her keyboard for a sampler. After a solo album, Face cachée des choses, a duo album with percussionist Michel F Côté (Duo déconstructiviste) and a guest spot in the latter’s group Bruire (on Les Fleurs de Léo), she wrote a piece for improvisers (Petit traité de sagesse pratique) before devoting her time to improvisation. Parasites (her ongoing collaboration with Martin Tétreault) and Télépathie (with Aimé Dontigny) show how it is possible to handle a sampler with grace and sensibility.
Since the disbanding of Justine, Danielle Palardy Roger’s discography has been growing slowly — she’s very busy organizing concerts as head of Productions SuperMusique. Her children’s tale L’oreille enflée (featuring the voices and instruments of Derome, Hétu and André Duchesne among others) speaks to a young audience with an intelligence too rarely found in such projects. And Tricotage, her improv session with French bassist Joëlle Léandre, reminds us how refined her drumming can be.
In 1986, Joane, Diane and Danielle took a vacation away from Wondeur Brass to investigate the limits of the pop song format under the name Les Poules — The Chicks (Contes de l’amère loi, freshly reissued). Recently they reformed the trio, this time pushing the music toward a form of improvisation rich in subtle textures, blending quiet noise, active listening, and lyricism. Prairie orange is the first effort from this awaited return to collective work.
The presence within Ambiances Magnétiques of these three creators has attracted to the label other female artists with similar interests. The first one to join the roaster was Geneviève Letarte, who has recorded two beautiful albums of poetic songs (Vous seriez un ange and Chansons d’un jour). Lately, DAME’s catalog has welcomed performer Nathalie Derome, guitarist Sylvie Chenard, pianist Pui Ming Lee, along with Queen Mab members Lori Freedman and Marilyn Lerner who each delivered a solo album (À un moment donné and Luminance).
So, is musique actuelle a man’s world? Listen to these few hints and you’ll see for yourself.
Listening to this record of free improvisational piano is a little like watching a group of bored children on a swing set. They’ll spend a few minutes actually swinging, then the ringleader ventures to hang by his knees from the top. A few minutes later, they’re walking a hazardous tightrope across the top of the swing set, then building a fort underneath. If you leave them alone for the time it takes to drink a single cup of coffee, you will return to find them gathering firewood in preparation for burning the whole thing down.
Like these kids, Lee Pui Ming applies her restless intelligence to devising ways of playing that the piano wasn’t designed for and probably wouldn’t survive on an extended basis. She plays, she bangs on the lid, she lifts the cover and runs her car keys (or something) along the exposed strings, she keeps the pedal down for most of a 10-minute track… and that’s just the piano parts. Lee and her partner Joane Hétu also use their bodies as instruments, breathing, speaking, moaning, slapping and thumping. In the process, they extract an extraordinary array of sounds from themselves and their instruments, and create a landscape of furious, questing, contentious beauty.
Who’s Playing starts with Greetings, a half-minute interlude of slaps and moans and sing-song spoken word. Then we move to the demented, freeze-frame cakewalk of Steps, a prickly jazz improvisation that sounds more like music you’ve heard before than anything else on the album. Silica, the third track, finds us opening up the piano cover and discovering a slithery, metallic menu of sounds inside. Bones returns to the piano as it’s usually played, with a tentatively played conversation between high notes and low, but then Lee leaves the keys behind and drums insistently on the cover for Sinews. The thwacks and thumps continue in the dance rehearsal rhythms of Torso, and, in hearing it, I first began to think it would be more fun to watch Lee play than to listen to her. Belly of the Beast, the album’s best track, layers piano sounds by holding the pedal down. You hear a swirling cigarette smoke miasma — not just the note that’s being played, but the ones before it and the ones that weren’t played but have somehow been picked out of the ether. What follows, Uvula, is certainly the album’s oddest cut — a rhythmic blend of slaps and deep, fractured breathing, moans and tonally diverse nonsense syllables. I’m tempted to be flip and say that it sounds like two asthmatics having sex, but there is such a variety and multilayered texture of sounds that I can’t dismiss it so readily.
The title of Who’s Playing comes from a short, unattributed poem in the liner notes, which asks “When one is completely present in the moment — / Playing, or listening / — Who, then, / in that moment, / is playing / and who / is listening?” I can’t recommend playing like Lee does — it sounds like it might be painful — but if you like to push the boundaries of what music is, then you should definitely try listening.
Born out of the Montréal-based avant-rock group Wondeur Brass, Justine pushed further the ideals of challenging, thought-provoking feminist rock established in its previous incarnation for another ten years. The group released three albums during the 1990s and toured Canada, the United States,and visited Europe twice. Three of its musicians are members of the collective Ambiances Magnétiques, so the label released all their albums.
Wondeur Brass started as a sextet in the early ’80s. By 1987 the group had been scaled down to a quartet. Bassist Marie Trudeau had joined the three original members saxophonist Joane Hétu, keyboardist Diane Labrosse and drummer Danielle Palardy Roger. That line-up released Simoneda, reine des esclaves in 1987.
Upon starting work on a new opus in 1989, the girls decided it was time for a change. The new music taking shape was turning out to be more complex, intricate, and driven by a stronger will to improvise and make things interestingly dangerous. Thus Justine was born. The first album under the new name, (Suite), came out in 1990. It included guest appearances by Japanese singer Tenko and American harpist Zeena Parkins. In 1992, Hétu, Labrosse and Roger brought them back for a quintet project, La légende de la pluie. Although it doesn’t include Trudeau and sounds softer, more introspective, it can be considered as the second album by Justine. Around the same time the “real” quartet appeared on stage in an Ambiances Magnétiques showcase which yielded the live CD Une théorie des ensembles.
In early 1994 Justine toured Europe, visiting many former communist countries. Back in Montréal in June they recorded Langages Fantastiques “live in the studio” — the recording of (Suite) had stretched over ten months. After its release later that year things slowed down as group members focused on individual projects: Roger on the children tale L’oreille enflée, Labrosse on a solo album (La face cachée des choses) and a duo with Michel F Côté, Hétu on a new group called Castor et Compagnie. Justine stayed together for another three years and performed at the 1997 Ring Ring festival in Belgrade (Yugoslavia) alongside Ground-Zero, Palinckx, and Kampec Dolores (a previously unreleased song was included on the commemorative compilation Ring Ring 1997). After that tour the group disbanded. Hétu, Labrosse and Roger have continued to contribute to one another’s projects.
Saxophonist, singer, improviser, composer, and record label manager Joane Hétu ranks among the pillars of the Montréal avant-garde music scene revolving around the collective Ambiances Magnétiques. A small but very stubborn woman, she made a career for herself starting out of nowhere at age 19, to become a successful businesswoman and a vocalist with a very distinctive style. She has recorded many albums with the groups Wondeur Brass, Justine, Les Poules, Castor et Compagnie, with her husband Jean Derome and solo.
A Montréaler born and raised, Hétu turned to music in 1977, at age 19 when she started to learn the alto saxophone by herself, with no notions of music theory. Two years later she briefly fell in love with pianist Pierre St-Jak who introduced her to an eccentric bunch of artists tied to the Pouet Pouet Band and L’Enfant Fort (which years later would evolve into the Fanfare Pourpour). These experimentalists confirmed her musical vision. With keyboardist Diane Labrosse and drummer Danielle Palardy Roger she formed the feminist avant-rock group Wondeur Brass, learning the basics of music during rehearsals. In 1985 the three members were asked to join the collective Ambiances Magnétiques, recently established by Robert Marcel Lepage, René Lussier, André Duchesne, and Jean Derome (the latter would become her life and major musical partner). Wondeur Brass released two critically acclaimed albums in the mid-’80s (Ravir and Simoneda, Reine des Esclaves). Hétu, Labrosse and Roger played in two similar projects, Les Poules and Justine, and toured North-America and Europe.
In 1991, at a time when the volunteer structure of the collective was becoming a burden on the shoulders of its members, Hétu created DAME (Distribution Ambiances Magnétiques Etcetera), a record label/distribution outlet with the aim to regroup local independent avant-garde labels under one roof. Her dedication to the company convinced federal and provincial governments to start subsidizing avant-garde music a little more and the Ambiances Magnétiques catalog began to grow steadily. Meanwhile, she formed her own group Castor et Compagnie in 1992 for which she wrote a repertoire of twisted erotic songs, and performed with many of the other AM members’ projects. In the late 1990s her impetus shifted from avant-gardist songwriting to improvised music with Nous perçons les oreilles (with Derome) and her solo album Seule dans les chants. The beautiful Musique d’hiver showcased her talents as a composer.