Whither Canada? Part 2

Another three items from the Canadian Ambiances Magnétiques label representing aspects of modern music mostly from Montreal. As it happens these arrived before the last batch, on 24th February 2016.

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Calling yourself Ensemble SuperMusique is bound to raise high expectations in your audience, but the team of Jean Derome, Bernard Falaise, Joanne Hétu, Danielle P Roger et al are clearly consummate musicians. Perhaps they mean that the music they play is some form of “hyper-music”, or “meta-music”, rather than implying they have super powers. On Les Accords Intuitifs (AM 222 CD), the players perform in various combinations with woodwinds, electric guitar, percussion, synths, violin, piano, bass guitar, and the human voice. The turntablist Martin Tétreault joins them for two pieces. Together, they play their interpretations of compositions by Malcolm Goldstein, Raymond Gervais (avant-garde conceptaluist and creator of multi-media pieces), Yves Bouliane (bass player in Le Quatuor De Jazz Libre Du Québec), Bernard Falaise, and Joanne Hétu (noted in the last batch) – all of whom are Canadian, with the exception of Goldstein who is half American. All of the works are quite challenging to listen to, full of dissonances, tensions, and yawning gaps; I kind of like the way that classical modernism, free improvisation and contemporary rock noise all seem to meet up in the same room, but the conversations they hold are very forced and mannered, as if they were total strangers trying to be stiffly polite to each other.

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The composer Simon Martin was highly taken with an art exhibit he saw in 2005 and tried to convey his feelings in music. On Hommage a Leduc, Borduas et Riopelle (CQB 1616), he’s expressly paying his tribute to the Canadian painters Paul-Émile Borduas, Borduas’ tutor Ozias Leduc, and the sculptor / painter / lithographer Jean-Paul Riopelle, and he’s engaged three different Canadian ensembles to realise his visions. The Trio De Guitares Contemporain play ‘L’Heure Mauve’, and they pluck and strum single notes on their classical guitars with a certain single-mindedness which to my ears is an attempt to recast the pointillist technique into music; like seeing the brushstrokes of Seurat dot themselves onto the canvas one by one. In fact, the composer is trying to recapture the effects of light on foliage, to get to the heart of one of the things that motivated Leduc to paint in the first place. Next, Quasar quatuor de saxophones blow an impressionistic breeze on ‘Projections Liberantes’, producing many subtle and pleasing overtones in their slightly dissonant overlapping drones. This piece is attempting to say something about the voyage of self-discovery undertaken by Borduas, and proposes 11 minutes of gradual dawning realisation in sound. Lastly, the Quatuor Bozzini raise their violins, viola and cello in the most dramatic piece on the album, called ‘Icebergs Et Soleil De Minuit – Quator En Blanc’. That title alone is evocative enough, and the nerve-shredding tautness of this icy, minimal piece is served well by it. Isabelle Bozzini and her team create astonishing atmospheres and microtonal contrasts in this 17-minute chiller of dissonance and Beckettian emptiness. Simon Martin’s intention here was surprisingly literal – he simply wanted to represent Riopelle’s Iceberg paintings in sound, a series the painter worked on in the 1970s. Worth seeking out images of these stark monochrome oils with their sharp strokes of black, white and grey. And if you want to hear more of the Quatuor Bozzini, they’ve also made records of James Tenney, John Cage, and Steve Reich.

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Quasar – the Quasar Quatuor De Saxophones, to give them their complete name – also have a solo record of their modernistic saxophone work, Du Souffle (CQB 1617). They tackle works by Canadian composers Philippe Leroux, Gilles Tremblay, Jimmie LeBlanc, Claude Vivier and Louis Andriessen. All convincing material and well played too, though LeBlanc’s Fil Rouge strikes a chord on today’s spin, perhaps because of its extreme compression; very short segments in this 8-part suite, of which one lasts just 7 seconds, but still manages to say something with a few well-placed toots. I’ve tried reading the composer’s explanation of Fil Rouge, but it loses me with its abstruse inter-textual associations. With the other pieces here, it’s notable how many of them stand on the cusp of turning into big-band jazz; there’s something about the chord changes, the awkward attempts to “swing”, and the occasional forays into “complexity” that feel like a laborious attempt to score something which any member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra could easily have played at the drop of a fedora. This jazz leaning is most evident on Facing Death, the 1990 composition by Andriessen, which explicitly attempts to pay homage to the music of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. He originally composed this recasting of complex Be-Bop music for strings, knowing full well that “bebop is not at all idiomatic for string instruments”. It kind of misfires in this woodwind arrangement too, but Quasar acquit themselves well with their efforts, and there’s no denying the heartfelt sentiment behind Andriessen’s work. I just wish it didn’t make jazz seem so “worthy”, like some sort of improving text which we have to study, rather than simply dig.

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