Robert Normandeau IMED 21174

The Scholar’s Melancholy

New batch of Canadian electroacoustic CDs from Empreintes DIGITALes.

Robert Normandeau’s Mélancolie (IMED 21174) contains five recent compositions from 2013 up to 2021, although the dates for each of them indicate that he spends many years burnishing these works before bringing them to a state of completion. This particular release showcases his “cinema of the ear” aesthetic, a principle he has long adhered to, referring to the way that meaning/content play as important a role in his work as the sounds he makes.

As to that sound, all five pieces here were originally played back in “a dome of loudspeakers”, an image that suggest an ideal performance space that affords that truly “immersive” experience that Normandeau seeks. The music here does indeed seem to aim for that all-encompassing blanket of sound, a close-knit fabric which envelops the listener. Although he’s a maestro of digital processing, it’s true that ‘Le Ravissement’ here did start life as a conventional string quartet and solo singers, but after he’s finished his interventions the individual voicings of these instruments are subsumed within the larger ocean. He’s playing on the meaning of the word “rapture” to mean both a transcendent spiritual experience, and a “ravishing” with its connotations of plundering (and of rape, unfortunately); Normandeau uses these terms to express the way he is stretching “time and spectra” to the limit, through a method he likens to laminage, a specific term used in plastic manufacture.

Even more profound are the changes wrought in ‘Melancholia’, which was completely derived from the sounds made by the bandoneon (a member of the concertina family), yet what results is a largely alien, unrecognisable grey landscape filled with the shadows of sorrow and painful longing. Savour the brief passages where the bandoneon’s chords are overdubbed and treated until they resemble a grief-stricken church organ playing a funeral hymn. ‘Tunnel Azur’ is the most conspicuous example of the “cinema of the ear” notion, packed with audio content including sounds derived from recordings of trains, tunnels, crowds, and workers, and suggesting a fragmented narrative structured around the opposing ideas of “day and night”; Normandeau evidently likes the idea of being in a dark tunnel when the sky outside is bright blue. Perhaps surprisingly, ‘Tunnel Azur’ doesn’t attempt to suggest forward movement or speed, but is much more contemplative in nature, suggesting a trip to the underworld where we can enjoy the grim vistas from the safety of a passenger seat. The density and complexity is deepened by the use of an octobass, and a Mahler quote – or rather, an allusion to Normandeau’s memory of seeing Kent Nagano conducting Mahler. Of such nuances is this composer’s work woven.

Roxanne Turcotte may have started with traditional piano conservatoire training, but by the later 1980s she’d taken an electro-acoustic and technology direction and studied under Francis Dhomont. She too is not unwilling to be aligned with ideas of cinema and is working towards an “integrated” music that is wedded to visuals, be they film, theatrical, or installations. Besides her compositional skills, the CD Réverbères (IMED 21173) showcases her work on the synthesizer, with tapes, and with wind instruments on the long bird-call suite, ‘Les oiseaux des Nias’. The opener ‘Masques et dichotomies’ is understated, but still exudes an undercurrent of darkness and mystery which I like; Turcotte is experimenting with ideas about face masks, and how they distort the human voice; subtle explorations of the possibilities afforded by these distortions follow, including unrecognisable speech, coughing and sneezing. It’s a recent (2021) piece, but thankfully makes no explicit connection to face masks in the context of COVID 19.

Another enjoyable piece is ‘Le Bruit Des Soupirs’, using the familiar collage form to piece together commonplace sounds recorded on the street – which might sound unexceptional, but Turcotte exhibits great imagination and skill in making her odd juxtapositions, which she calls “short news reports…parleying under a street lamp”. She alludes to travel diaries and “secret gardens”, and the piece feels like a genuine attempt to discover something that is hidden behind the “longing sighs” she hears everywhere. This particular work makes use of materials from 2014-15, first used in an installation about greeting cards. I have no idea what this was, but presumably it wasn’t an exhibit focussing on the designs, and perhaps alluding to revealing the hidden truths about humanity that can be implied within these banal and sentimental communications.

Louis Dufort has realised a definitive version of Into The Forest (IMED 21175), a project he’s been working on since 2016, now arriving as a 39:40 minute suite of connected works. The music is inspired by and based on his many treks into the rugged terrain of the Canadian Rockies and the forests of Quebec, and he claims to have a “holistic” view of nature, taking in both the tangible (colours, smells, textures) and the intangibles (what he calls “mysterious power”) of the forests. In his four-part odyssey, he moves from straightforward pastoral vistas into somewhat more metaphysical musings and speculative notions, involving dream-states, the human psyche, and other abstractions. At times it seems to him that the human soul is exposed and writhing in a “cathartic space” when situated in the middle of the forest, a human drama which is rendered with suitably choppy and turbulent music. Some field recordings of waterfalls and footsteps in soft forest ground may surface now and again, but there is also a lot of rather bombastic synth music, veering from ordinary ambient droning to rather clunky sequences which sound like bad Techno. I found it hard to tune in on Dufort’s wavelength for much of this one. Ultimately, not a very convincing set; while there’s no denying the depth of Dufort’s passion about his chosen theme, he doesn’t adequately convey the truths he has found in nature.

All three above from 16th December 2021.