Christian Calon’s new project Atlas is a sound spatialisation project composed of five correlated pieces, with each piece having a duration of around 20 minutes. The first part of Atlas is the Sonic Arts Network-commissioned North. The piece was developed at SARC, Belfast, where Calon was artist in residence and the piece will be presented in concert at the Sonorities festival on Saturday 29 April.
Can you tell us about your new work Atlas and why you are here in the UK?
Atlas is a virtual memorial. It wishes to be a tribute as well as a work of memory. It is a tribute to the creative forces in man, his genius for probing the world, and harnessing the unknown through sound and music, with the help of musical instruments. In parallel the project wishes to be a witness to his relentless hate and fear of his fellow man, his neighbour, through the destruction, violence, pain he has inflicted in various and innumerable ways in order to quench his greed and quest for power and possession. Thus, the under-title, Atlas (of Infamy).
In the background of the project is an idea of cartography, of a vision of the world. The world, in general, represented the same way and centred around the Atlantic. I wished for a way to conceive and present an acousmatic work in a situation where the listener could put to use his hard learned but natural capacities of hearing sound in space and present him with a conception of space and spatialisation that is free from constraints inherited from the concert situation. Things like position in space, points of view, directionality, height, planes, volumes and movement (etc.), all questions that had to be re-examined in the light of a multiple perspective (or non-dominant perspective) concept. The idea of a non-isotropic listening space. Since Atlas will be composed out of five different “regions” (or sequences, or areas on the map), each having its own material and spatialisation mode, the idea came naturally to work in different environments and studios in order to benefit from their differences and own qualities which I hope will induce something in the works. In the discussion, it became clear that working here in the UK, at SARC, could help advance some of the ideas still at a theoretical stage and enable me to bring them to fruition.
What is your approach to audio-visual work in Atlas and your collaborative process? Is this work with image a new aspect of your work?
Things in general happen by necessity. At the early stages, the project was thought as a purely audio piece, in the form of an installation. But due to its nature, intent and thematic, it soon became apparent that the various natures of information to be delivered could and should not be carried out by sound only. The main reason for this is that I didn’t think this installation type project would benefit from having voices (spoken voices) as part of the sound content. In my experience, that would shift the whole thing in an undesirable perspective, that would in a way sabotage the acoustic experience I set out to propose. So the sound should, as much as possible, concentrate on one aspect: the sounds of musical instruments of the world. Thus it became natural to think (since we are in a cinematic approach) of some form of visual proposition, in parallel to the sound. A piece developing and delivering two levels of information, each with its content and constraints. So I did not set out to make an audio-visual work, but the essence of the project pushed me to seek for solutions (which would benefit the experience for the audience) and required some shift in the form, i.e. working with images and sounds.
After living for seven years in Europe (France and Germany) we went to Canada to do several projects. In Berlin both of us got involved more deeply in producing works for the radio, an activity which corresponded to both our interests with narrative forms. So going back to the North, we thought it would be a good idea to probe our knowledge of the Canadian entity and of this idea of North and a sense of belonging. So with the help of two commissions for radio works (one for Radio-Canada — an “audio art” piece— and one for Deutschland Radio — an “artistic documentary”) we took the road and trails in the summer of 99 in a minivan. What was to be a trip in space soon became a trip both in time and in topography. It soon became apparent that we were not going to make pieces that would sound like postcards of the places we’ve seen. We were not going to make use of words either. But how can you make heard a mountain, a bear, a landscape? And further questions like: does the recording of a soundscape really sound like reality?
So we came to think of the two pieces as mirrors of one another: The little man in the ear, is an action piece, a road movie in which the listener is always with the microphone and part of the action. Presence is always felt and heard; here a few words, clothes noise, the shaking of a microphone, footsteps, etc. The form goes fast from a sequence to another, the road is omnipresent, and from the south to the north, there is always the presence of man. Surface documents is a landscape size piece that can be perceived as abstract for the wide expanse of sound as if painted with very large brushes, but at the same time totally concrete in the sense that materials overfill the whole acoustic space. We worked with the microphone the same way one would do with the camera. Closing in on some tiny insect in a wheat field in the Prairies or shifting perspective and taking in large planes of sound or again creating dual perspectives. And a paradox we came to was that, probably largely due to the quality of the sounds and recordings, at times, one does not hear the “document” anymore but slips into the purely musical dimension of sound. Sound as a composed material. As a result, in both cases, the pieces do not have much to do with what are called soundscapes.
But how does the sound convey the experience we had of the places, the people, the landscape, the spirit of the land? In order to bring some of this back we realized that we were not making documentaries, but in both cases fictions that were so close to the original that the listener would not look at them like as remote postcards, but be in the action and in the sound. So what one hears is not what was there. On the other hand what one hears is exactly what we saw and heard.
What will be the relationship between sound, spatialisation and image in the Atlas installation?
Being at heart a phenomenologist, I would not be able to say so early what the relations between the elements will be. That is for the audience to experience and define. What can be described are the elements coming into play, the setting of the piece. This work is about perspective. The elements are all considered spatially; images, sounds and … audience. Just like the way things happen around us in the world, never at any moment can one say: I am at the centre of what is happening. There is no centre but a cohabitation of local spaces, visual areas, passages; the centre of the structural space in which the installation takes place is not necessarily the centre of the activity or the best place to follow it. No predominant direction, not one but several “volumes” to enter and inhabit. The piece is not at all unlimited in its scope and perspectives but wishes to offer just another way of looking at things, of listening to something that remains a musical discourse. Yes there are images projected on several surfaces, but these too are a non-directional. As I said earlier, since the piece is about different perspectives, various facilities encourage this “difference” simply by their layout, equipment and spaces.
Can you tell us a little about your life in Canada? Do you travel much within the country? Can you touch on how it influences your work?
Canada is a large country and cities or centres are far apart. It is also a place with a non-uniform distribution of aesthetics and interest, and from the west to the east artists and centres in the same field have very different perspectives. Of course, in digital based arts, the conditions and questions related to technology are quite equivalent, but remain the aesthetical specifics. So historically, and this is still true today, acousmatic practice is a thing that grows east, closer to Montréal. In such a country, yes, you need to travel in order to grasp the various ways art can be thought and practiced. But of course, the sense of space, the openness, a certain distance from dense and strong centres as in Europe or the USA has turned Canada into a very favourable soil, where ideas have a certain freedom to generate and develop without the pressure to accept certain dominant rules edicted somewhere else. This is also why there is to be found a different nature/culture balance.
Do you feel part of a community of artists there? Is there much mutual support between different groups?
Definitely, yes. And at the same time the best position for an artist is to find his own balance between the proximity to centres and their collaborative possibilities and a healthy distance from their pressures. This for the sake of his own personal research. This in order to have the freedom to try and redefine forms and contexts of successive projects and certainly so when these are eventually, slightly off of the main road. Artistic activity and groups of course are largely dependent on financial institutions that require them to define their fields of activity. So groups may be perceived from the outside as monolithic entities within a very defined field of practice. But in general, there is a strong tendency nowadays for groups to collaborate and exchange (but this is always the push of some individual of course) in order to open to newer forms and projects and shifting interest on the part of artists. Groups and centres open up to various forms and aesthetical differences are put aside in order to encourage and achieve the work of creation.
Arrivé au Québec en 1966, Christian Calon s’équipait d’un premier studio de composition électroacoustique en 1975, à l’âge de 25 ans. C’est durant les années 80 que ses premières œuvres furent remarquées (premier prix du Concours international Luigi Russolo en 1985). En 1989-90, il était vice-président de la Communauté électroacoustique canadienne et, en 1991, il repartait pour quelque temps en France afin d’assumer la responsabilité du Groupe de musique expérimentale de Marseille. Ses œuvres, dont plusieurs sont regroupées sur deux disques parus chez empreintes DIGITALes, lui ont valu de nombreuses distinctions. Il conçoit des pièces radiophoniques, des installations sonores et des musiques de concert.
Il y a déjà un bout de temps que Christian Calon travaille au spectacle auquel l’Association pour la création et la recherche électroacoustiques du Québec (ACREQ) nous permettra d’assister le 8 novembre prochain. La première ébauche du projet remportait en 1996 le prix Lynch-Staunton du Conseil des arts du Canada; en 1998, une première réalisation radiophonique en allemand et en anglais était diffusée sur les ondes de la radio allemande, puis au planétarium de Berlin (sur 89 haut-parleurs!). Cette version récoltait en 1999 le Grand Prix Marulic de l’Union européenne des radiodiffuseurs. En juin 2001, c’est à la Chaîne culturelle de Radio-Canada que fut réalisée et créée l’adaptation française dont nous aurons finalement la création sur scène, avec traitements et spatialisation, au Festival Elektra. J’ai rencontré le compositeur à son studio afin d’avoir un avant-goût de l’œuvre et d’en discuter avec lui.
Le Projet Ulysse est presque aussi dense que l’Odyssée d’Homère dont, bien entendu, il s’inspire. Viennent s’y greffer des références au Ulysses de James Joyce, au satellite Ulysses de l’agence spatiale européenne et des hommages à la musique concrète… «J’ai commencé à composer la pièce sans trop savoir où j’allais aboutir, explique Calon; je me rendais compte cependant que je m’embarquais sur un gros bateau et, de fait, j’ai débuté en 1995 et je suis actuellement en train de finir. De faire la réalisation radiophonique, c’est une chose, mais la transposition sur scène en est une autre. Lorsqu’il m’arrive, à l’occasion, de diffuser en concert une pièce qui contient de la voix, des paroles, je ressens un manque; le manque de la présence du corps. Dans cette pièce-ci, le texte m’apparaissait trop important, il fallait que les personnages soient là afin de défendre les mots avec leur corps, les cautionner. Ça rejoint un peu le théâtre et ça en fait un projet hybride qui est difficile à caser…»
Les références à Joyce se situent surtout sur le plan de la forme, les 24 chants qui constituent la pièce étant tous traités de façon différente, comme les chapitres de Ulysses sont tous écrits dans des styles différents. C’est aussi de cette manière que Calon peut faire des allusions à divers compositeurs qui ont marqué l’histoire de la musique concrète. «Je ne cite pas forcément ces compositeurs, précise-t-il, mais des manières de travailler.» Bien sûr, lors du concert, c’est Calon qui sera à la console de mixage pour spatialiser la bande sur l’orchestre de haut-parleurs et procéder au traitement des voix. Les voix en direct seront celles de Gabriel Gascon (Homère), Elisabeth Lenormand (Athéna), Wajdi Mouawad (Ulysse) et de la New-Yorkaise Shelley Hirsch (Pénélope). Cette dernière, véritable pasionaria surréaliste, chantera sa partie en anglais. Les choeurs, ainsi que d’autres personnages, seront sur bande, comme la musique dont une grande partie du matériau de base a été fournie par les guitares acoustique et électrique de René Lussier. Les versions radiophoniques allemande et française du Projet Ulysse devraient bientôt se trouver sur deux disques compacts édités par empreintes DIGITALes.
En avant-programme, le compositeur diffusera Time Well (La Fontaine du temps), une œuvre qu’il a créée à Paris en mai dernier et que Wayne Siegel nous faisait découvrir le 11 septembre dernier lors d’un concert de la série Rien à voir 12. Notez que le Festival Elektra débute le 7 novembre avec une soirée qui présentera une série de premières d’œuvres vidéo-musique de compositeurs montréalais, parmi lesquels Jean Piché, Zack Settel et VJ Pillow.
One of the most interesting composers of the generation that was born with Pierre Schaeffer’s discovery of musique concrète, Christian Calon developed in his works a unusually strong evocative vein that links him stylistically to his mentor Francis Dhomont. His musical interests shifted from acousmatics to hörspiel when he relocated in Berlin in the mid-’90s.
Born in Marseille (France) in 1950, only a few years after Schaeffer and Pierre Henry’s first experiments with electroacoustics, Christian Calon started his career as a composer in Montréal. There he created his first works and co-founded the Canadian Electroacoustic Community. Paradis (1984) was his first major opus, but Portrait d’un visiteur, premiered the following year, was the piece that introduced him to the world, thanks to a first prize at the 1985 Luigi Rossolo international competition. His love for long works with complex architectures and multi-level metaphors seduced aficionados of sound art. His first CD, Ligne de vie: récits électriques (“Life Line: Electrical Tales,” 1990) was the first item to be released by the Montréal label empreintes DIGITALes, who would soon grow up to become a leader in electroacoustic music.
In 1991, Calon was offered the musical direction of the studios of the Groupe de Musique Expérimentale de Marseille. He stayed there until 1995, creating a few more works including Les corps éblouis, released on CD. In 1995-1996 he was artist in residency at the DAAD in Berlin and decided to relocate there permanently. The world capital of the hörspiel had quite an influence on him and he started to apply his poetic approach of acousmatics to literature. The results were two radio plays, Die Zimmer der Erinnerung (“The Rooms of Memory”) in 1997 and Le projet Ulysse (“The Ulysses Project”) in 1998-1999.
The release of Ligne de vie: récits électriques marked two important events: the launch of the record label empreintes DIGITALes which would grow up to become a leader in electroacoustic music and establish Montréal as a Mecca in this field; but also the closing of an era for composer Christian Calon, who following this publication would leave Montréal to go back to Europe. This CD contains three long works created between 1985 and 1989. They illustrate the composer’s “first phase,” so to speak. Portrait d’un visiteur (“Portrait of a Visitor,” 17 minutes) takes the listener on an evanescent journey. Synthesized sounds paint an uncertain landscape with very poetic strokes. La disparition (“The Disappearance,” 21 minutes) follows a more determined structure of almost architectural proportions. Bits of classical and foreign folk music have been transformed and embedded in the sonic narrative that recalls Francis Dhomont’s storytelling talents. The latter’s influence is highly detectable in the 40-minute Minuit (“Midnight”), clearly the disc’s highlight. Three fragmented texts form the backbone of this hörspiel. There is no real story, but emotions and metaphors follow a progressing narrative, leading the listener through various stages of the night (the booklet provides an English translation of the French texts). This breathtaking piece points in the direction Calon will follow in the hörspiels from his Berlin period (1996 and on). Ligne de vie: récits électriques is highly recommendable to anyone interested in electroacoustics. Calon’s art is impregnated with a personal touch that makes it unique.
[Le comédien Jean Maheu] parle de Christian Calon, compositeur de musique électroacoustique avec emphase: «Une oreille incomparable et une sensibilité à l’affût de sons que je ne connaissais pas jusqu’à ce que je fasse sa rencontre. Il a bouleversé ma perception de la musique et m’a ouvert les oreilles. Trois disques, tous sur l’étiquette empreintes DIGITALes: Ligne de vie: récits électriques, Les corps éblouis et Électro clips (qui est, en fait, une compilation sur laquelle on retrouve des pièces de Calon et d’autres compositeurs).»