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Je me souviens

Je me souviens: Événement de musiques exploratoires / A series of exploratory music events [PDF]
23–24 April and 22–23 May  2008
Montréal, La Sala Rossa

Je me souviens
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The Je me souviens concert series took place at La Sala Rossa in Montréal, and consisted of two pairs of concerts, one in April and one in May, 2008.

Eric Mattson, the producer and curator for the series, introduced the first evening with the idea that seeded the concert series: to examine the association that exists between the music of the influencial experimental music studios of Montréal and that of sound artists practicing today in their own studios. With Montréal and Québec being known for their past contributions and current activity in the field of experimental sound and film — both within Canada’s cultural history and internationally — there must be some link between the opportunities it provided students and practitioners in the earlier days of the electronic arts, and the sheer number of independent artists who are based in Montréal now, many working out of their home studios.

The first two concerts focused on the activities of McGill’s Electronic Music Studios (EMS) and improvising electronic music groups with which it was associated: Group of the Electronic Music Studios (GEMS) and MetaMusic. The other two evenings were oriented towards the experimental sound and animation work at the National Film Board of Canada. Mattson acted as M.C., supporting the guest “hosts” of the events, with alcides lanza and Kevin Austin speaking for the McGill evenings and Mario Gauthier and Réal la Rochelle leading the NFB concerts. Each evening, a program of historically relevant film and music was selected to accompany the discussion.

In the first series, a point often highlighted in the discussion — and for which thanks was given to lanza — was that the opportunities for composers working in electronic music in Canada were considerably more vast than those working in Europe. In North America, studios were generally based in universities, as opposed to radio stations in Europe, where technicians limited the equipment’s creative use by visiting composers. alcides brought to Montréal the possibility for composers to actually work hands-on with the machinery available in the studio. Now, lanza names Christian Calon and Gilles Gobeil among those who were able to benefit from full use of the studios by simply enrolling in a relevant music course at McGill. The following evening, Kevin Austin emphasized that good studios weren’t built by institutions, they were built by people like lanza, who was willing to argue the need of a greater availability of the studios (in the case of the EMS, 24 hours a day, seven days a week) to a larger number of people.

Claude Schryer, one of lanza’s students, co-founder of GEMS and a noted electroacoustic composer / producer / director in Canada, shared the floor with Mattson and lanza, emphasizing GEMS’s independence from the regular activities of the EMS and McGill’s music school. GEMS was made up of both composers and instrumentalists, and embraced the style of mixed composition, straddling the cultures of the English and French, the aesthetics of Western and European traditions of the art. Bringing this discussion back to the present-day, Mattson observed that these diverse interests manifest themselves today as a community of artists who collaborate across different genres and backgrounds.

For the second evening, Kevin lauded lanza’s assembling of the McGill Electronic Music Studio, and mentioned Mario Bertoncini’s involvement which brought about the group MuD — Musical Design — later SONDE, of which Andrew Culver, who had performed the previous evening, was part. Kevin gave an interesting overview of the contributions of Hugh Le Caine’s groundbreaking musical inventions, namely the Serial Sound Structure Generator (SSSG), a versatile early analog sequencer, and the Polyphone (Poly), the world’s first polyphonic synthesizer. Hugh LeCaine’s contributions are not at all widely-known, despite their quantity and the years by which they preceeded commercial implementations.

As for the performances of the first evening, Andrew Watson opened the evening with a high-fidelity, crispy acousmatic granular sequence. This quality of this material was very reminiscent of the acousmatic work that emerges from the studios of the Université de Montréal. Nancy Tobin shifted gears somewhat, and grooved to a minimal loop-based jam. Andrew Culver presented a host of enchanting atmospheres from old (Minimoog) and new (software, MIDI control) modular synthesis environments. His fondness for the era was impossible to ignore. For more contrast, Alex Moskos (The Unireverse) flopped about at a floor-level stage while rocking on a rack of synthesizers, which was probably successful at clearing the room of anyone who might have only wanted to listen to “serious music.”

In the second concert, minibloc demonstrated his finesse with analog noise montages and sparse breakbeat permutations, all accompanied by a minimal, stroboscopic tube monitor visualization of the sound patterns. Chantale Laplante and Raylene Campbell treaded delicately through a improvisation of accordion and laptop processing. Their sensitivity to the composition of the sound’s spectra and dynamics was very similar to Andrew Culver’s performance the previous evening, as was the loosely-structured composition of the set. Victortronic’s set was a stark contrast to this, with his very slowly-accumulating digital distortion soundscapes. Lastly, Jonathan Parent brought back a warmth to the space with winding, vocoded ambiances to bright rotating laserbeams. It seemed by the second evening that Mattson had chosen the set sequences such as to close the events with the more light-hearted performances.

For the second series of concerts in May, Montréal-resident producer, composer, writer  and director Mario Gauthier gave a very thorough review of the National Film Board (NFB/ONF) and the pioneering work of the likes of Norman McLaren, Maurice Blackburn and Pierre Mercure. Gauthier noted Blackburn’s ability to bring out the musicality of the film image, and also explained his feeling of Mercure being the perfect “middle-ground” composer, not straying too far into a strictly niche territory, but still producing very experimental work. The historical discussion was accompanied by screenings of short films and audio excerpts.

As one of McLaren’s hallmark contributions to the field of experimental animation is his scratching and painting on the sound band of the film reel, it was appropriate that there was a certain amount of focus in the performances on synaesthetic systems, where the sound and visuals were connected in various ways. Gauthier’s historical overview frequently came back to an emphasis on synchronicity (or subtle variations to the term, “synchrétisme,” “synchronité”), as two compositional elements that are independent but also coincident. The performances of Erin Sexton, minibloc (Nicolas Dion), Steve Bates, and skoltz_kolgen (Herman W. Kolgen and Dominique T. Skoltz) were all truly multi-media, each very different in their approach to this aspect of the show.

Sexton’s was a calmly-played, but extremely loud set using some props with contact microphones and what seemed to be a video signal from an Amiga computer plugged directly into a sound mixer. As the drawing program on the computer would change shapes, so did the electrical noise harmonics resulting from this image converted to sound. This set was somewhat of an antithesis to skoltz_kolgen’s complex setup involving five Macbooks, two gutted tube monitors, cameras, light sensors and projected video. Theirs was a more literal homage to McLaren, in which they remixed in short vignettes his 1955 film Blinkity Blank. Using light thresholds read by sensors and controlled by their palms, they modulated the intensity of the images from the film along with their characteristic ambient tones. The timbre didn’t carry much narrative weight, but was based on the association with the moving image. It was a shorter set, but one of the more elaborate ones (including the setup!)

Nicolas Dion, mentioned earlier, had a visual thumbprint of his sound fed live to an old computer tube monitor, analogous to low-bit visualization software from the Commodore era of computing. Steve Bates, the standout (and first) performance of the final evening, combined a film projector, camera and screen in a concentrated re-capturing process that incorporated the projector noise as part of the soundscape.

The events were truly successful at reaching the goal of surveying the state of the art today. In terms of equipment, not a single method of performance was duplicated (with perhaps the exception of two “computer-screen-and-mouse-only” performances). It’s clear that there is an incredible range of approaches, techniques, software, equipment and information affordable to almost anyone — and, as Montréal has this history of being home to institutions who have made a goal of bringing experimental tools and knowledge to a wide audience of interested individuals, this seems to have resulted in a community in which artists of rather diverse styles, who might in a different society be confined to strict genre niches, can fit comfortably next each other in a concert program. I would take these events as evidence that in this community, and no doubt in other similar artistic communities in other parts of the world, there has begun a kind of flattening out in the field. Without the same scope of history as in, for example, the performance of traditional music, there is much less of a linear path from the boundaries of “beginner” and “virtuoso.” The “instrument” is merely a conceptual model which can comprise multiple and/or nested hierarchies of software and hardware inter-communication. These performances showed a repurposing of outdated equipment from generations that cover nearly the entire lifespan of the popularized adaptations of innovation in electronic music.

This transformation in the state of the art may also be related to a more casual, “snapshot” or state-based approach to the composition of performance, which bears less resemblance to the compositions that were presented for historical context. Many of the sets were constructed as a sequence of several states of very structured improvisation — similar in ways to the experimental spirit of MetaMusic.

It was refreshing that there was a broad spectrum in terms of the performative aspects of the performances — audiences are familiar enough with laptop music to again demand some tangible gestures from the performer. Austin noted how SONDE dealt with this problem by incorporating intentional, obvious physical gestures into their performances.

It seems that today’s performer of electronic music may “perform” music that is very similar to that which has been “composed” and distributed on a recordable media, whereas improvisations from the 70s, heard today, show a particular characteristic of being limited by the number of simultaneous processes which can be controlled by a human (possible with the help of the programmable logic of a large physical machine). In hindsight, knowing the limitations faced by the compositional process from this time, we can continue to appreciate the labour involved in older work that displays a complexity at the level of the orchestra.

In listening to the early works introducing each evening, the level of detail in general, the refinement of dynamics control and the sheer time and effort required to produce a quality sound, remains a model of achievement for that time. While we are afforded the luxury to compose electronic art with the level of control and power we possess now, we are also for the most part not approaching the work as does a composer who comes from an academic background, because the means are available to anyone with Internet access. The art-making tools are to an extent virtual, either open-source or freely available, and their legacies are not necessarily known to those who are free to use and repurpose them, who in doing so may produce something completely naïve and/or something completely refreshing and new. The state of the art is changing rapidly, marked by each major generation of digital hardware. These topics of changing compositional approaches and the availability of technology was what was most brought into perspective in the juxtaposition of the historical segments to the works of today, and for this reason the productions were a success.

Concordia University / Université Concordia

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