The Quatuor Bozzini are a national treasure, shining on the international scene for several years now, and have more than a dozen quality albums to their credit. They deliver here a recording that deserves a lasting spot in one’s record library, three masterpieces for string quartet spanning 40 years of the composer’s career. Of a sometimes disconcerting clarity, Cage’s music, far from any romantic effusion, is admirably served by the clear and crystalline style of the quartet. Necessary and timeless.
One of the mid-length releases i’ve been revelling in most lately is Punt by Érick d’Orion and Guillaume Cliche. It exhibits something i always treasure in music of all kinds: complexity as the product of relative simplicity (which is usually the most interesting kind of complexity). The nine electronic pieces on Punt, which were improvised and range from around 2 1/2 to 6 minutes’ duration, share a lot of similarities. Perhaps the most obvious, because it features so often, is the superposition of very rapid ticks or pulses with material that either seems contrastingly suspended or manifests in amorphous, nebulous forms.
What’s so exciting about these superpositions is how they’re dramatic in their own right — forming extended periods of mounting and/or maintained tension — and regularly lead to or even precipitate instances of eruption and overload. It’s a simple but highly effective melding of (ostensible) stability and free-wheeling caprice that has the most hypnotic effect (each time i listen i find myself forgetting to breathe). In opening track blitz it forms the basis for what feels like the most prolonged build-up you’ve ever heard, yet this sequence lasts less than 90 seconds. What ensues is pure exhilaration: a deep throbbing drone and thwanging bass notes absolutely caked in the most squelching, squalling detritus. yard behaves similarly, accumulating layers of rapid-fire ticking that continue despite being plunged into a sticky miasma through which muted traces of where we came from can be dimly heard far above. It’s one of a number of instances throughout Punt where the re-emergence into the musical ‘light’ triggers an irrevocable corrosion, its elements quickly falling apart and dissolving before our ears.
mach finds the repetitive layer articulated as pounding beats which find their opposite in swooping glissando tones overhead. d’Orion and Cliche simply move back and forth in their emphasis on these two ideas, and i can’t help feeling the results are all the more effective not only due to their simplicity but also their brevity; mach makes for a pretty breathless three minutes. In Furose the tables are turned somewhat, initially at least, the entry of the beats becoming a climax after a minute and a half of intense piercing and grinding tones. Thereafter these beats set up multiple strata of repetitions, some percussive, some pitched, all flecked wildly with hot electronic splurge.
Elsewhere in Punt the contrasts thrown together are less polarised and more cohesive. pinte is essentially a short study in shape-shifting pitches, some of which speed up and down into temporary pulsations while unchanging sonar-like pings resonate all around. Houston and Razzia inject large amounts of warmth into their respective soundworlds. In the former it comes in a transfixed ambient wave, within which we glimpse, among other things, the possibility of voices; in the latter an expanse of exquisite hovering chords is for a time made to ripple and undulate by pounding beats on its oceanic floor.
All of these ideas find their apex in the concluding pair of tracks, which push them to epic proportions. Rio Grande projects the ambient richness into a vast space, its slowly-shifting hanging chords periodically made to throb due to massive deep pulses. There’s a real sense of the cosmic here, especially as the after-effects of these pulses cause an ever growing mixture of glimmering and juddering to stretch across its sonic universe. Sheer ecstasy. Final track yard (nouvel-âge) returns to the album’s original idea, though now its rapid percussive ticking sounds inextricably interconnected to the gentle pitches floating over them. At the mid-point they begin to meld, the beats transformed into motes of light dancing on and bouncing off its own surface. It leads to a thrilling denouement of full-force radiant clatter, in the midst of which we see thin shards and slivers of light penetrating through, until everything distorts and the music erodes itself out of existence.
I’m embarrassed to admit that Punt passed me by when it was released last year, but I’m delighted finally to have discovered it — and though i’ve subsequently been returning to it many, many times i still can’t get enough of it. It’s a dazzling example of how simple ideas can lead to breathtaking results, as beautiful as they are electrifying. Don’t even think about headphones for this one: this is an album for speakers, and should be played as loud as you possibly dare.
Another release on the Mikroclimat label that it’s taken me far too long to spend time with is Paysages imaginaires by Montréal-based composer Pierre-Luc Lecours. As the title — ‘imaginary landscapes’ — implies, the five tracks on this half-hour album create and inhabit artificial environments conjured up through the combination of real-world sounds with synthesizers, electric guitar and bass clarinet (the latter played by Charlotte Layec).
Some of these landscapes allow for a meditative engagement, in part due to a greater sense of passivity in their construction. Final track Suspension is the best example of this, the sound of the clarinet a central (even catalytic) presence amidst gently swelling agglomerations of pitch and noise. Over time these swells seem akin to slow accents with extended resonances, embellished later with an assortment of clarinet trills. But for all its movement and detail, there’s a stillness at the heart of this piece, its notes hanging uncannily in the reverberant air. Amor Fati is similar, comprising whoozy, vaporous chords and faint plucked string drifting through space. The environment is shaken by a number of restrained blows from its depths, triggering the appearance of numerous tolling bells; but again, the tone remains relatively calm and there’s the impression that this activity is happening at some distance — without actively seeking our interest — and we’re hearing it from afar.
More ambitious but still conveying a similar kind of passivity is Passages, where Lecours introduces sounds indicative of train travel. Around these are a collection of diaphanous floating notes and chords, as well as a low drone that only slowly emerges, while the clarinet is concerned with minimalistic gestures, primarily repeated notes and arpeggios. This palette of sounds becomes the basis for a music that continually tilts between light and shadow, speed and stasis, vagueness and clarity, intimacy and distance. Placid noodlings are answered by deep throbs; high clarinet squalls (sometimes not unlike animal calls) have their energy quickly dissipated in the atmosphere; clattering, hard-edged momentum is countered by smooth melodic shapes. The result is a curious equilibrium in which, to a greater extent than in Amor Fati and Suspension, every action is to some degree a counterpoint to the preceding one, the total of all these actions being a kind of zero sum. Again, Passages invites a meditative form of engagement yet its music happily fits few if any of the clichés and conventions associated with that kind of listening.
The other two pieces on the album have a greater sense of drama, and as a consequence make a more striking impression. Unlike the previously-discussed tracks, Accalmie displays real unpredictability in its narrative. Its soundworld also has a more palpably three-dimensional quality (in both literal and cinematic senses), creating depth and perspective through the superposition of discrete layers. It’s impossible to say how many layers are present, but there almost seem to be as many as there are individual sound elements, each one — fast tappings, sustained tones, vague shuffles and scrapes, pitches by turns looming and twitching — occupying a unique position from foreground to background. It takes time for this dense habitat to be unveiled, whereupon Lecours courageously destroys it with a thunderstorm. The aftermath is a like a crude palimpsest, traces and echoes of former materials all but erased beyond recognition, all the while continuing to be spattered with rain. What appears to be a rapidly ascendant move towards a hefty climax turns out to be nothing of the kind, unexpectedly taking a left turn into a place of simultaneous rest and unrest. Expectations are thwarted everywhere in Accalmie, yet that only makes it more fascinating to behold.
But for me, the highlight of Paysages imaginaires is Ton souffle, five minutes of intensity full of fire and aggression. Layec’s bass clarinet becomes a vast, ominously imposing presence, first turning the sky black, and then almost cracking it open with heavy-tongued accents that cause deep ripples to resonate through the air, accompanied by angry buzzing. This exhilarating doom leads to a blasted wasteland coloured with quasi-demonic horn blasts and sonic disjecta membra, relics of an apocalypse that, somehow, become transfixed in a gorgeous moment of soft hovering shimmer at its close. Real-world sounds are to all intents and purposes absent here; aside from the bass clarinet, the origins of this landscape are unknowable, and all the better for it. This is electroacoustic music for the end of the world — what a marvellous way to go.
Jim Denley (flute, alto sax, objects) and Tour de Bras label honcho Éric Normand (electric bass, objects) do not believe in mere descriptions or pseudo-philosophical explanations to justify an improvisation. Released one year after a first collection of duets ( Plant, on Smeraldina-Rima), Plant II offers five joint studies in the dissection and/or enhancement of the humming + buzzing + rattling + squealing properties of mechanisms set in motion via unorthodox tampering.
Let’s be clear from the start: the respect of predetermined “aesthetic laws” — possibly tending to an immediate agreement with someone’s ears — is not a priority for the Australian/Quebecoise pair. Their hands-on approach implies a radical exploitation of the theoretical conflicts within sonic diversity, the subsurface tensions between abnormal upper partials and tiny agglomerations of noisy components originating the sort of interference that may even irritate a sizable chunk of unacquainted audience.
In such a context, the instrumental identities are often camouflaged, if not out-and-out destroyed. And when the timbres are recognizable, the feeling is still closer to a rather admirable “couldn’t-care-less-about-palatability” quasi-punk attitude. However, when Denley and Normand unleash the invisible forces inhabiting the darkest caves of acoustic filthiness, an impressive array of magnified micro-events appears as a completely new world. It’s a place where categories aren’t required, the actual nature of an uglier soundwave exposing its cantankerous nakedness without restraint, a pitiless disfigurement of what is familiar revealing at last a praiseworthy artistic rectitude.