Discover the Power of Breathing

Four new electro-acoustic releases from Empreintes DIGTALes. (18/06/2019)

Nikos Stavropoulos studied at Bangor and how has a chair at Leeds University, where he lectures on the subject of electroacoustic music. His Micro-lieux (IMED 19159) contains eight compositions dating from 2003 to 2017; most of them seem intent on exploring the structure of a space or a place in comprehensive detail, making microscopic sweeps over his chosen materials and reprocessings. His notes reveal nothing of his compositional approach, and instead describe certain organic phenomena such as ‘Ballistichory’ and ‘Nycintasty;, or discourse on aspects of Greek mythology he is evidently familiar with. I enjoyed some of the textures in ‘Atropos’, which I thought was telling the story of one of the Fates (the one who cut the thread of life). However, it isn’t anything of the sort; he simply wanted a title that described his process in a metaphorical way, and he denies any relation to content. Vague…unsatisfying.

James Andean is a composer, but also does free improvisation and music performance in groups such as Rank Ensemble, The Tuesday Group, and Plucié/DesAndes. His Assemblance(s) (IMED 19157) is both maximal and lively. At any rate, he’s good with creating strong dynamics and jarring shifts in timbre through his editing, particularly on pieces like ‘Dechirure’, whose very title indicates it’s all about “ripping up” the sound. He uses field recordings, but very precise ones – and can tell you an interesting travelogue story about each one (e.g. the old Jesuit monastery in Greece where the wind gave him many moments of epiphany). He also uses piano and percussion in his work, and samples of famed opera singer Maria Callas on ‘Maledetta’, his unsettling sound portrait of the terrifying Medea character. I’m also warming gradually to ‘Valdrada’, which is not only a fascinating sonic enigma, but is prefaced with an Italo Calvino quote; anyone who reads Calvino is OK in my book. A strong and varied set with a lot of great compositional ideas, backed up by life experience and insightful observations.

Sophie Delafontaine was born in Lausanne and studied in Belgium; a gifted child prodigy, she seems to have come into electroacoustic music through the medium of dance and movement. I’m quite taken by her refreshing, near-innocent approach to her work on Accord Ouvert (IMED 19156), which showcases six recent compositions. The overlapping voices (speaking and singing) on ‘Ondiesop’ are absolutely enchanting, and they swim in and out of a collage which involves running water and stabs of digitally reverbed sound. ‘Respire marche pars va-t-en’ began life as an observation about breathing – and made me think for two seconds we’d be getting a Pauline Oliveros-like observation – but instead it’s about the forward movement of life, which sets up a kind of swing or pendulum. What I like is the way she makes it part of her personal history; did she do the right thing in leaving Lausanne so young? She reflects, honestly, on her own private impressions of what it all means for her, giving the music depth and feeling. There’s also a droney, languid reflection on the restorative powers of sleep in ‘Dormir, Aujourd’hui’ which uses the speaking voice of Laurent Plumhans to deliver fragments of a lecture in among compelling rise-and-fall electronic tones. The distant sound of a cock crowing at dawn in the middle of this one is about one of the most poetic moments I’ve heard in this genre of music. The three other pieces refer in turn to watchmaking and the tiny springs, the rock formations at Creux-du-van, and the work of Ovid as she tells the story of Echo’s metamorphosis. While it’s possible to situate Delafontaine’s work in the traditions of musique concrète and electro-acoustic, she clearly isn’t weighed down by the baggage of history. I mean it as a compliment when I think of her as a naive, instinctive composer, one who is not afraid to source her own life in an honest, personal, diaristic fashion. Some of the stodgier buttoned-up composers on this label could learn a lot from her.

English composer Annie Mahtani studied with Jonty Harrison in Birmingham, and does electronic music, electro-acoustic composition, free improvisation, and installations; she expresses an interest in environmental recordings. Five very recent pieces on Racines (IMED 19158), of which the earliest dates from 2008. The stories behind these contain her written observations about the very specific places where they were made, or where the original recordings were captured; it’s evident she’s very sensitive to the entire surrounding area, hoping to capture the truth of a locale. I like her subdued, pared-down approach on ‘Past Links’, which remains very coherent as it attempts to take on the form of a living museum in sound, using objects from a museum in Dudley to tell the story of the industrial past of the Black Country. ‘Round Midnight’ derives from her time in the Amazon rain forest, working with Francisco López; having heard my fair share of recordings of frogs, insects, birds and rainfall, I can safely say Mahtani’s is one of the most interesting entries in an over-crowded field. In her hands, the locale becomes an intense, bubbling cauldron of life; the power of nature, cubed. Equally subdued and focussed is ‘Inversions’, involving a strange tale of 5000 figures carved out of ice at some open-air exhibit; she creates a minimalist humming atmosphere which may have been derived from the sounds of chiselling and melting ice. Scary; at times it seemed these icy figures were coming to life, forming an army and preparing for an invasion. There’s also ‘Aeolian’ made from wind recordings in Northumberland, and the very touching (and personal) ‘Racines Tordues’, about a family tragedy which has evidently deepened her and made her stronger. A most excellent set by Mahtani.