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Prize-winning Sound Art

Anna Friz, Musicworks, no. 90, October 1, 2004

The myth of the open road is still a potent one in North America. The classic American road trip as immortalized by everyone from Kerouac to whoever wrote Thelma and Louise represents an escape from social expectations and restrictions into the flow of the immediate, nomadic life full of adventure, danger, and possibly transcendence. Road movies conjure images from Super-8 films, hastily shot in the green light of nighttime truckstops or at eccentric landmarks like the worid’s largest western boot. Though inspired by these tales, extensive travels in Canada have a distinctly different flavour from the discoveries and disappointments of this mobile American dream. Fewer roads, smaller roads (even the mighty Trans Canada is only three lanes wide in parts of the Prairies), fewer people. Nonhuman characters take precedence - we note birds, insects, animals; and the weather looms large. Mountain and plain, ocean and stream, wind in the grass, thunder in the afternoon. Of course there are memorable people encountered along the way, particularly if hitchhiking, but outside of cities, people do not dominate the landscape to the same extent as south of the border.

Veteran Montréal sound artists Christian Calon and Chantal Dumas spent two months on the road from Montreai west to the Pacific and north to the Arctic Circle in the Yukon in the summer of 1999. They stuffed their minivan with “recording equipment, tools, DAT cassettes, tent, Coleman burner, sleeping bags and cooking apparatus, spare tires, beer and camera, boots, and maps,” and set off to hear what they could hear. The results are newly available in a double CD set, the first entitled Le petit homme dans l’oreille, the second Documents de surface. Each was originally produced for Radio-Canada and Deutschland Radio respectively, and though episodic, they also flow as complete pieces. Le petit homme dans l’oreille functions as an audio travelogue with particular narratives of place, while Documents de surface unites sound material from very different places under themes of waterways, trains, prairie wind, and wilderness night. With nods to electroacoustic composition and rural radio, Radio Roadmovies invite the listener away from cities and suburbs to the less populated areas on the map. These are captivating testaments to summer on the land, of tape rolling while on the highway, and of time spent motionless, crouched in forest and fen, with ears and microphones pricked.

The most notable feature of these works is the clarity and richness of the field recordings. Though theywere designed for the fickle fidelity of radio, Calon and Dumas’s works stand up to intent headphone listening. Ravens, trains, rain, ocean; these ail present unique challenges to the recordist and composer, but it is especially difficult to convey the aural complexity of the wind without it degenerating into white noise. Calon and Dumas are fond of wind and excel at capturing it: Le petit homme… begins with a rush of wind in the trees in Manitoba, and by the end of the piece we have returned to the prairies where the Saskatoon wind in the cornfields sounds more like an earthquake, like the creaking of cornstalks magnified to what might be apprehended by a beetle digging in the earth beside so giant a plant. Other gems include an especially haunting train and its whistle as heard in the distance from within a cedar forest, and frogs chirping on the Magdalene Islands.

Calon and Dumas take liberties with Le petit homme… to include themselves in the recording, so we really do feel that we’re along for the ride with them. Calon takes on the role of the little man with his introductory “broadcast” from the tent of the “princess of the stars,” where the princess (Dumas) has just awakened at the stampede in Austin, Manitoba. Sometimes Dumas is the little man, introducing us to the Pacific Ocean and mile zero of the Trans-Canada highway. We can easily imagine ourselves squeezed into the van, lumbering up the Dempster highway north of Dawson City to the Arctic Circle, with friends playing recorder and singing songs about sweet potatoes, while the landscape outside is shrouded in fog. Our hosts take us from vast open spaces to the intimacy of tents and camping, of sleeping bags zipping up and pork chops sizzling on the stove. With Le petit homme… Calon and Dumas also indulge in processing and editing to accentuate the activities recorded, such as the looped and equalized stamped announcer’s voice, a looping conversation about bears, or a collage of radio overheard on the road to Inuvik. The end of the piece is ominous and sudden: night by a lake plagued by mosquitoes, Dumas curses and flails about, shutting off the tape. Oh yeah, the unromantic reality of camping in Canada includes the infernal bugs.

Working with field recordings always leads to the dilemma of how much to process or meddle with the material, especially with extremely clear and detailed stereo recordings such as these. Much as I enjoyed many of the compositional and editing choices on Le petit homme…, by the end, I was also hungry to hear longer stretches of material without self referentiality, and so the more abstract treatment on Documents de surface was a very satisfying second course.

Documents… is devoid of human voices, being instead a phenomenology of non-human actors such as animals, machines, ocean, and weather. Cows in a field groan like constipated old codgers, a raven croaks and caws, a loon calls, a dog barks on a First Nations reserve, frogs thrum in the wetlands. The train returns again and again, finally grinding to a halt on the tracks in front of us. These voices, some rendered so cliché by Heritage Canada ads and the tourism industry, nonetheless speak to history and reflect on the passage of time, both in historical and circadian terms. A herd of buffalo gallop past only to be replaced by the train - a telling collage when we remember that the buffalo were exterminated from the prairies in part by hunters paid to shoot at the stampeding herds from the train. A tumultuous thunderstorm subsides and the frogs chorus anew. Rhythms emerge from two months of material that are subtle and vast.

Le petit homme dans l’oreille and Documents de surface are both humorous and contemplative. As a double CD set, Radio Roadmovies comprises two different but complementary approaches to soundscape work that showcase Calon and Dumas’s considerable aural and poetic talents. Le petit homme dans l’oreille won the Phonurgia Nova prize in 2001.

Radio Roadmovies comprises two different but complementary approaches to soundscape work that showcase Calon and Dumas’s considerable aural and poetic talents.

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