Monique Jean: Hard Graft for Easy Listening

Monique Jean
CANADA empreintes DIGITALes IMED 12119 DVD (2012)

In this tastefully packaged DVD-audio recording, electroacoustic composer (and former Francis Dhomont protégé) Monique Jean (re)asserts her redoubtable talent in a field scarcely short of it. Her second release on the empreintes Digitales label – in 9 years to be precise – demonstrates a depth of realisation most likely achieved as a result of a patient, methodical work ethic. Unlikely is it that she’s been sat around thinking about lunch all these years: her list of works for live performance, radio, video and installations, since 1997, is Babylonian in stature. Regarding the work itself: in the words of a biographer, Jean ‘is interested in the tensions, ruptures and clashes of sonic matter that produce a transmutation of the real into the poetic.’ Which is as valid a summary of the contents of this DVD as one could possibly muster.

The slightly sycophantic sleeve notes twice designate the composer a ‘siren’ (though not ‘a goddess’, phew); moving on to conceptually clarify the kinesthetics of solo instrumental performance qua source material for Jean, relating a methodology whereby ‘each performer’s gesture…is magnified and broken down to its energetic principles, which then become the theme of the piece.’ And where for some this might entail sampling and looping telling fragments of a recording for the sake of a tasty beat, for Jean it is an intuitive reckoning with the musician’s very élan vital, as she disembowels a series of intrepid improvisations and exposes the pulsating innards. While Iancu Dumitrescu isn’t likely to find himself on the dole any time soon, he would have every cause to approve of this assiduously assembled set of acousmatic meditations.

While the album’s title Greffes (‘Grafts’, 2011) alludes to realms botanical, I concur with (sleeve note writer) Sharon Kanach’s ‘amniotic’ designation, for there is palpable depth to her world. Subtle aquatic allusions/illusions emerge from the get-go: alien technology stealthily scanning the primordial sea floor in ‘Givre’, begetting an unearthly counterpart to Parmegiani’s La Creation du Monde; while simultaneously inhabiting a measureless void – space both inner and outer – a blackness sliced by shafts of light, devoid of emotion or intellect; over 17 minutes accreting electromagnetic mass in the face of the inexorable final moment. Something of a centrepiece to the album, this piece might benefit frequenters of flotation tanks more than the usual phalanx of reverbed panpipes and didgeridoos.

In ‘Ricochets’ (2006), a soaring saxophone shrieks, wails, wavers and vomits its guts into the alchemist’s laboratory, where it is both dissected and disintegrated on a bed of silence which becomes a funeral pyre: the incandescence of the performance immolating the improviser, who issues upwards in a pungent plume of smoke. Within this, identity remains intact if intangible; conveyed in millions of glistening particles that flow freely from the expanding flames, rattling and retreating from the speakers in intervals.

Similar phenomena beset subsequent performances; differences determined by participants’ personalities. These are also electronically processed, abstracted and distilled. ‘Misfit’ (2007) sees a tightly tuned guitar given the Catholic heat treatment: the rising and abating conflagration discharging the essence of the once-electric instrument into the heavens. Its strings become livid tendrils that lash through the dense smoke, leaving bloody trails. In ‘low memory #3’ (2005) and #1 (2000) there is a distinct alternation/altercation between extended bouts of atmospheric compression and decompression, ‘attempts at re-establishing some kind of balance…the act of rebuilding being constantly thwarted and repeated’; clarinets of different pitches are manipulated and molested with religious fervour and scientific rigour, as though concealing a cosmic secret from the inquisition.

There is violence apparent in these audio autopsies, though it is as implied in the recorded performance as it is, applied by the curious composer. The result is an agonising catharsis, whereby the transpersonal essence is alchemically separated from the ‘corpse’ of the recording and given freedom of speech, within the full emancipatory remit of the recorded medium. It’s a real room-rumbler to boot. Jean’s concerts have won her acclaim in Canada (she took home the 2005 Opus Award for Concert of the Year), which suggests her performances must be something approaching transcendental, if this sublime, surround-sound extravaganza serves as an indication of her prowess. In rare instances such as this recording, a voice speaks to me from an alien dimension, whereupon I experience a gut-level glimmering of fear and wonder. For those who regard the recorded medium as a tomb for ‘dead’ performances, this album might revive a few spirits. Seek it out forthwith!