Andrew Jones, The Gazette, June 18, 1994It has the possibility to tell us how to better hear our world.
Andrew Jones, Montreal Mirror, no. 9:29, December 16, 1993
Andrew Jones, Montreal Mirror, no. 7:16, October 3, 1991… an archival document that lives and breathes, an award-winning work…
Andrew Jones, Montreal Mirror, January 17, 1991Vous seriez un ange is poesie spiked with a headlong torrent of juxtaposed, stream-of-consciousness images. At times it resembles a musical version of André Breton’s 1920s surrealist landmark Les Champs Magnétiques, twisting and turning along its automatically written path, with surprises around every corner.
In the early-music debate currently all the rage in the classical world, learned musicologists are asking themselves how Mozart’s music should sound played on period instruments instead of modern ones.
If we reverse the concept, however, we arrive at an even more interesting question: What would Béla Bartók’s music have sounded like if he had had access to a modern recording studio?
The result would probably sound a lot like electroacoustic music.
Electroacoustic music is an abstract compositional form that was born in the recording studios of France’s national radio network during the 1940s.
Composers like Pierre Schaeffer realized that everyday sounds — a ticking clock, thunderstorms or even crashing Concordes — could be recorded and organized into “music” through tape techniques, in much the same way that Béla Bartók wove the folk music he recorded on wax discs into his own compositions.
Like Bartók, electroacoustic music is a highly structured, tactile music reflecting the texture and rhythm of everyday sounds in our acoustic environment, only the recording studio is the main instrument rather than the piano or violin. Many of the techniques pioneered in electroacoustic music are commonplace in today’s urban pop music, from the sampling and sound collages of hip-hop DJs like Hank Shocklee to the inventive remixing of dub reggae.
Yet for years electroacoustic music itself has suffered a reputation as New Age’s inner-city cousin: a tedious, chaotic collision of found sound and synthesizer squawking that did no more to put our acoustic environment into perspective than a ride uptown on the subway.
Alain Thibault is trying to change all that. A composer in his own right, Thibault is also artistic director of Quebec’s flagship electroacoustic organization, the Association pour la création et la recherche électroacoustiques du Québec (ACREQ), which celebrates 15 years at the vanguard of new music exploration tomorrow at Redpath Hall.
The 37-year-old Quebec City native believes that to reach new audiences, electroacoustic music needs to come out of the studio.
”I have no interest in being a purist,” says Thibault. “More and more we see a crossover between musical genres, and what I’ve been trying to do with ACREQ is get electroacoustic music out of the contemporary music closet. I want to make it more alive, more accessible, without any artistic compromise.”
With this in mind, Thibault designed ACREQ’s current season as a multi-media affair.
Recital well received
The Dangerous Kitchen, an electroacoustic homage of Frank Zappa’s work that Thibault and Walter Boudreau staged last October, was an unqualified success. Electro Radio Days, broadcast in December, was an intriguing crosscountry checkup of radiophonic art. And there is still a buzz in the air about last month’s well-received recital by the hip Kronos Quartet.
The 15th-anniversary celebrations will feature performances both inside and outside Redpath Hall by a baker’s dozen of Québec composers who got their start with ACREQ, including Yves Daoust, Jean Piché and Bruce Pennycook. Many of the works involve pairing a live performer, such as a guitarist, pianist, harmonica player or dancer, with a computer.
”I’m interested in electroacoustic music that involves live performance,” says Thibault. “We now have the technology for extraordinary interaction; the tools are so much more sophisticated. But I don’t believe in putting the performer behind the technology. The lights should be on the performers, not the speakers.”
The wide scope of styles and influences that ACREQ has showcased over the years is a reflection of the diverse pool of electroacoustic talent that has settled in Quebec. While the music has long flourished in Canada, Québec has proven to be its hothouse.
Part of this has to do with the high quality of musical education here. McGill, Université de Montréal and Concordia all have state-of-the-art recording studios and new music departments. On the air, both the English and French CBC support the music through programs such as Brave New Waves, Two New Hours, Musique actuelle, and Chants Magnétiques.
”There is something that is very unique to Québec,” says Jean-François Denis, composer and major domo of empreintes DIGITALes, a record label devoted to the genre. “We take pretentious music out of the concert hall and put it into people’s hands in bars, on the radio, on the street. By doing that it becomes much more accessible. Heard this way, electroacoustic music can be as fun to listen to as musique actuelle.”
Denis has released 16 full-length CDs so far, and his catalogue encompasses composers drawn to both the American and European schools of electroacoustic thought. The former is influenced by technology and minimalism, the latter is more esoteric and dreamlike. The goal ot both schools, however, remains the same: to open our ears to the world of music we often tune out.
Music think tank
“Electroacoustics is an innovative medium,” says composer Claude Schryer of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community, a new music think-tank with its headquarters in Montréal.
“It has the possibility to tell us how to better hear our world. It can tell you how acoustic environments work, how they affect you, how you can improve them, how important silence is.
”The whole spectrum is exciting when you think about it.”
SONGWRITERS LOVINGLY CALL their dreams muses — a vocabulary to translate the compositional process. Hip artists, such as Brian Eno and Suzanne Vega, have gone so far as to say they have even heard entire songs handed down to them while they slept.
Dreams have long fascinated composer Serge Arcuri. Yet he could never quite bring their surreal, unearthly power to the stage with orchesiral instruments that were hundreds of years old. “Dreams, like myths, express themselves in a symbolic language, communication both obscure and universal,” Arcuri writes in the liner notes to his debut CD for empreintes DIGITALes, Les méandres du rêve. “At the heart of the night, brandished against this apparent death that is sleep, the dream world is more a product of senses and seduction than one of speech.”
The breakthrough for the 39-year-old native of Beauharnois was hearing electroacoustic music. This oft-misunderstood branch ofthe musical tree was born in 1949 when Pierre Schaeffer started using a tape recorder to bulk erase the musical past and record over it the music of the future, “musique concrète.” Forged and sculpted in the multi-track recording studio with both live and synthetic sound sources, electroacoustic music has always been headphone fodder, music for our personal headspace. Like dreams, electroacoustic music offers a hot-wired short cut to the subconscious, the topology of sounds triggering something different in every listener, a soundtrack to films and visuals limited only by our imaginations.
“I like the ease with which electroacoustic music can transport yourself into many different acoustic surroundings,” says Arcuri. “That’s much more diffcult to do in a concert hall. But on the other hand, I don’t like excluding instruments. I like to have a mix of electroacoustics and live instruments, so the work is somewhere between reality of the concert stage and the ‘inouïe’.”
Arcuri studied with Yves Daoust at Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal, and has an impressive list of commissioned works to his name from the SMCQ, ACREQ, CBC and The Vancouver New Music Society. It’s not difficult to understand why: Arcuri’s work avoids the studied aridity of most “musique concrète.” It’s dazzling, texturally ravishing, and propulsive, recalling the recent pop-oriented work of John Adams on Hoodoo Zephyr — only minus the minimalist pulse.
Les méandres du rêve (Dreams’ Meanders) was a long-term project begun in 1982 with Arcuri’s first electroacoustic piece Errances. Arcuri tried to keep a diary of dreams and incorporate them into the pieces as they were written, but found his dreams weren’t up to the quality of the project, so he decided to stick to themes rather than specifics. Indeed, most of the pieces here work on a visceral rather than literal level. Murmure, for example, revisits tribal myths about the origins of life and the big bang through processed and sampled breath sounds.
La porte des sables, for oboe, English horn, MIDI percussion and tape, is inspired by the fables of Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun’s novel The Sand Child. The music, while bereft of the quarter tones that permeate most Arabic music, evokes the serene, still mood of the desert through the arabesques of the horn playing. “Reading Jalloun opened my ears,” says Arcuri. “The idea of each door leading you deeper into myth, deeper into the unconscious.”
Arcuri has had the good fortune to work with intuitive and passionate soloists such as oboist Lawrence Cherney, harpist Erica Goodman, French homplayer Francis Ouellet and percussionist Trevor Tureski. “More and more instrumentalists are interested in working with electroacoustics,” Arcuri explains. “After all, these pieces were written to be included in someone’s repertory and to be easily played. I like to have open rhythm sections for the player to roam. I don’t like to be a metronome.”
Somewhere between the cultural straitjacket of the Arpin Report and the rampant eclecticism characterizing the music of the late 20th-century lies René Lussier and Le Trésor de la langue.
Picture a young guitarist honing the folkloric traditions of Québec during the Me decade in Conventum, yet hooked on a progressive musical revolution across the Atlantic in European groups like Henry Cow, Etron Fou Leloublan, Stormy Six, Magma, and Faust. Imagine a music where everyday sound, folklore, free jazz and social protest meet at the crossroads Québec has dubbed musique actuelle.
Put them together and you get Le Trésor de la langue, a painstakingly assembled musical composition inspired by the spoken word, an archival document that lives and breathes, an award-winning work (the Prix Paul-Gilson, awarded for excellence in radiophonic work) that’s souvrainiste in principle, yet not political. In short, music that’s neither fish nor fowl. Or, more appropriately, mi-figue, mi-raisin.
“It’s a funny thing,” says Lussier, relaxing in the kitchen of his renovated turn-of-the-century house by the shore of the Richelieu in bucolic Mont-St-Hilaire. “Québec will encourage anything that is in French. But the minute you’re doing music, even if you’re French, you have to get some help from outside Québec. It’s not like the printed word, like books or the theatre. To cultural bureaucrats, instrumental music doesn’t mean that it’s culturally French. They’ve got a problem with their brains in this sense. “
Lussier counts the early inspirations for Le Trésor de la langue: an early work by composer/guitarist André Duchesne on hockey, Hermeto Pascoal’s album In Grupo, where Pascoal musically interprets a soccer match, some obscure Zappa recordings.
Above all, it was the sing-song timbres of everyday speech he wanted tocapture. “There’s always something melodic in everyday talk. So much music all around us. In talking, there’s very complex rhythms and melodies, often all in the same breath. Sometimes more complex than contemporary music. “
So, with Claude Beaugrand, a stack of tapes and a Nagra, Lussier set out on the road for Québec City.
Lussier and Beaugrand certainly had it easier than the first archivists in the 1950s, who ran a long wire and microphone from their running cars (to provide current for the huge recorders) into storyteller’s shacks in the countryside, capturing the legend of Ti-Jean or the tale of the Crooked Man for posterity.
“My original idea was to do a compendium of different accents in French in Québec. I was listening to one woman’s tale, and I didn’t understand a word. I was just writing phonetically. And it wasFrench. It was not so far from here. There’s some people who have very strong accents. And it’s not dialect. At a point I decided to not become a monk, I left that to the linguists. “
On the record Lussier thanks two people for their collaboration and their complicity Claude Beaugrand and Richard Desjardins. Beaugrand is an old friend, a skilled sound tech who was at home recording in the field.
“At the beginning we were so shy,” recalls Lussier. “I didn’t have much experience in interviewing people, like you do. You’ve got a purpose, you have a subject, a list of questions. We didn’t. Even Claude, who had done a lot of documentaries, didn’t have a camera to hide behind. “
The question they wound up asking—Is it important to speak French in Québec?—came from Desjardins. “l wanted to go on the street and ask people a question about language,” says Lussier. “l talked to Richard about it, and he said, ’Well, you just have to ask a simple question. Is it important to speak French, and why?”
Enfin Oui René
Needless to say, many of the interview subjects responded in the positive. Add to this excerpts from speeches by Charles de Gaulle and an extract from the FLQ Manifesto, and, at least on the surface, Le trésor de la langue appears to resonate with nationalistic vibes, a sort of Enfin Oui René set to music.
“I was excited about those speeches, probably more about the FLQ than De Gaulle, but my initial idea was not to provoke,” Lussier claims. “lt was me learning my own history. When I went to get those archives through CBC or other sources, I was acquiring pieces of my history that I wasn’t aware of when they had happened.
“Some people of course saw it as a nationalistic statement. I didn’t consciously write it that way, I see it more as a historical work, with others might say it’s a linguistic work, or a musical work. I did think it would freak out a lot people at the state radio. So people at Radio Canada really like it, while others said it’s really interesting, but we’re gonna have problem with this FLQ stuff. “
Many have asked Lussier if province’s political climate play any part in the release of the album but he takes the fifth. “Personaly I’m not so interested in the nationalistic politics. I think they’re laugh,” he says. “ln Québec, we have some problems we’d like take care of ourselves. I can understand that. But when they wan build a cultural bureaucracy it will judge if a book, a record, art work, a play, is worthy of be produced or not, that’s dangerous. That’s going to be a big probem. For all of us. “