Interview with Robert Normandeau
The following interview took place 8 February 2011 at the Université de Montréal.
Robert Normandeau (Québec City, 1955) holds an MMus (1988) and a DMus (1992) in Composition from Université de Montréal. His work figures on many compact discs, among them six solo discs: Lieux inouïs, Tangram, Figures, Clair de terre and the DVD Puzzles, published by empreintes DIGITALes and Sonars published by Rephlex (England). He was awarded two Opus Prizes from the Conseil québécois de la musique in 1999: Composer of the Year and Record of the Year in Contemporary Music (for Figures on the empreintes DIGITALes label). The Académie québécoise du théâtre awarded him with the Masque 2001 and Masque 2005 for the best music composed for a theatre play, for the works for Malina and La cloche de verre, respectively. He is Professor in Electroacoustic Composition at Université de Montréal since 1999.
If you maybe want to start talking generally to me about how you decided as a composer that electroacoustic music was the direction and how you approach technology.
I started quite a long time ago. So we didn’t talk about technology that much at the time. But electroacoustic music? Probably because electroacoustic music was by definition associated with technology from the very beginning. It was a technological media, essentially. No one for the first thirty, thirty-five years, ever thought about naming this music a technological music of some sort. It’s just because suddenly the computer arrived and everything was technological. Why am I doing that kind of music? Because I’m a very acousmatic composer; I’ve done a couple of mixed pieces, but it’s really not my thing. And why I decided to go into that is for one reason: it is because I’m self-sufficient. [Laughs] To me it is a written form of music, which means that if I think about what I’m doing, I’m closer to what a writer is doing, or a painter or a sculptor. I’m alone in my workshop, and instead of using words or using canvas and paint or marble, I use sound. And I don’t need and I don’t want to have any intermediate in the process. So I’m not an abstract composer. I cannot sit at a table and write a sign on a piece of paper. It’s not satisfying to me. I need to be in touch with sound, and the sound triggers my imagination, not the opposite. I’m not thinking in the absolute about some sounds. I can think about some sources, but thinking about the sources is not about sound. Sound is the real thing. When you go into the studio with a performer or with an object, or whatever, and then you start to create sounds. This is the sound. And you never know what will happen. And that triggers my imagination.
Seems exciting in a way, seeing what’s going to come out of what you’ve decided to explore. And it seemed like with the way that you were documenting Éclats de voix in your dissertation, there was a mind-blowing amount of experimentation. You would take this one word that the young girl recorded, and you would explore it in various ways, stretching it this way. That just seems like a very extensive process. What is that like for you?
The cycle began actually with, not really a joke, but something like that because two things happened at the same time. Someone gave me a book called Dictionnaire des bruits.
Yes, I’ve read it. It’s pretty funny.
It is pretty funny; that’s true. And at the same time the record label in Montréal, empreintes DIGITALes, in 1990 commissioned twenty-four pieces of three minutes each. It was very original at the time because electroacoustic music pieces are usually quite long. Especially in the 70s, 80s, you could find easily pieces of two, three, of four hours, for example. To commission pieces for three minutes was kind of a challenge for electronic composers. So I just had this idea to go with this girl to record the onomatopoeias. It was just a very small thing at the beginning. And the technology involved at the time in ’90 was not digital audio. We didn’t have digital audio studios as the time. It existed, but it was really too expensive for an individual. So the only thing I had at the time was a sampler, which had 256 MB of memory. [Laughs] Can you imagine in comparison to today’s standards? So it was not possible then to use long sounds, it was only possible to work with very short sounds. We had to think very carefully, to edit them very carefully in the computer, and make them very short, and then put them in the sampler. Onomatopoeias were perfect to do that because they were always, or usually, short sounds that could be extended [using] the sampler, because it was possible to loop the sound in some ways. At first, it was just a way to play with this material because of the circumstances. When I did the first three-minute piece, I didn’t realize how important it would be for me as a composer at first and how this material is fascinating. Because I didn’t realize one thing that I realized later when I did Éclats de voix [the first 15-minute piece of the cycle], that with onomatopoeias, you work with sounds, but you are not working not only with sounds. Because you’re working with the voice, you are working with emotions. And because you are working with onomatopoeias, things that don’t say anything by definition. They represent things by sound, but they don’t say abstract things. You cannot describe a table with onomatopoeias, for example. You can represent your feelings with onomatopoeias; you can represent actions like slamming a door, for example, things like that. But it’s a very concrete thing. It’s very into the body, into the mind, into the feeling of the people. And I realized that because when you go into the studio with all that sounds and you try to transform them, you realize that at some stage the onomatopoeias resist some transformation. If anger was part of the sound, you cannot make it a gentle onomatopoeia; it’s impossible. Because the emotion is there, and there is some character, some specificity of the sound that you can’t change; it’s impossible to change it.
So I suddenly realized when I worked on Éclats de voix that I have to categorize the onomatopoeias by feelings. What do they say? What do they generate as feelings? So I said, “Wow! This is fantastic.” Because it means that I have a sound material completely involving emotion and, not really but almost, universal. Because it has nothing to do, or almost nothing to do, with the abstract structure of the language or my specific mother tongue, for example. It is not because the young girl was saying these onomatopoeias in French that it has anything to with French. It has to do a bit, but not that much. It has to do a bit, because years later I did the last piece of the cycle with three people in Germany and they were saying the onomatopoeias in a very different way. The emotion was still there, but the pronunciation was different for a French speaking person. But apart from that, once these sounds are in my work, it’s very difficult to notice a difference between the German and the French.
Are the same exact onomatopoeias used in the same exact spots?
In the cycle? This was the idea. The technology involved at the time I was using for the first time in this cycle. I was using a computer that didn’t have to deal with the digital audio itself, a Macintosh Plus. The audio was in the sampler, and the sampler was triggered by MIDI common. So it was a computer playing a MIDI software that just controlled the way the sounds are triggered over time. But the way the sound was triggered was recorded in the computer. Just imagine that five years before, if you were in the studio of electroacoustic music working with tapes, if you have one sound, and you want to transform it, you have to put a tape on one recorder, set the output to whatever filter and then the output of the filter on the second recorder. And the filter was manually controlled. So if you want to do a transformation, you have to do it in real time and record it. Then you listen back to the second tape and say, “It’s not exactly the same; start again.” This was the only option to make it right there on the spot, live, perfect.
What I did with Éclats de voix: the main difference was that there was a filter in the computer — well kind of. And the button was not a real button. It was a virtual button, and all this action was recorded. So if my gesture was not precisely exactly the gesture I wanted, it was possible to just go back into the screen and the gesture was written onto the form of a shape, and then I just had to make a correction to the drawing, and then it was perfect. So I realized at the end of the process that, not only do I have all the sounds in the sampler that were used in the piece, but in the computer, I have all the gestures recorded. So I said, “Wow!” So why not do the exact same piece, but with different sound sources. Because the young girl was quite young. She was eleven, and she has a tiny voice of some sort. So the onomatopoeias have some characters, some specificity.
Who was she?
She was the daughter of a woman with whom I was living at the time. She was not my daughter, but she was kind of my daughter at the time. I had her close to me and we just went to the studio. And then a couple years later, I had the idea to go into the studio and redo the same piece, but with four teenagers. We got the same book. But they chose themselves; I put some post-its on some of the major onomatopoeias that I really wanted to have, but apart from that they found others that they found fun just to say. With some recording sessions, the four of them were in the studio. So I have a group recording, and apart from that I made recording of the different guys separately. A sixteen-year old boy has absolutely none of the same energy as a young girl. I tried to make a kind of an equivalence. If there was an “ouch” onomatopoeia somewhere, I tried to find an “ouch” onomatopoeia said by the boys. But it’s not necessarily exactly the same thing; so you have to compose. I tried to make it as far as possible very close to the original. But there are some differences. The energy is not the same; the emotion is not the same. Except for one movement in the four pieces, which is the centre movement dedicated to anger, all the other ones have different emotions involved. So this was the idea originally.
And then afterwards I had the chance to work. I did a radio adaptation of The Little Prince.
Yeah, I listened to it. I hadn’t actually ever read the book.
You never read the book?
Until I was researching this. It’s the loveliest little novella. I couldn’t believe I’d never read it.
It’s the most read book written originally in French, ever. It’s translated into 35 different languages, I think. It’s crazy.
For that we had a bunch of very famous actors in the studio because all the different characters were played by different actors in the studio. I had all these famous and very good actors in the studio. I just asked them after they did their show, or their service, to record onomatopoeias for me. And they had so much fun. I have more than two hours of onomatopoeias recorded by these people. It was something completely different, because then I had trained voices. People who played with that, made variations, which is something that I didn’t have in the first two versions. And so the third piece was a lot of fun to do. I decided then to [make the work more complex]. The orchestration, if I can say, of the third piece is far more complex than the first two.
I think I read somewhere that for Le petit prince, the sounds, the background sound was also just voice.
Yes, I just used onomatopoeias that I’d done before, and with some of them that I’d done specifically for the show. But essentially the music for The Little Prince is made only of onomatopoeias.
In the program note for Le renard et la rose, you say, “the musical themes associated with the different characters in the book are arranged chronologically” — you list the lamplighter, and all of these… How does that relate?
I just added a layer actually, that doesn’t change that much, that didn’t change the structure of Le renard et la rose compared to Spleen or Éclats de voix, it’s the same structure. So I just added a layer actually, kind of a secret layer. If someone didn’t hear The Little Prince, they can’t notice that, but I just added this layer into Le renard et la rose. I adapted all the characters; there is a second layer on top the structure.
I heard parts. I could hear the Lamplighter. And I could hear the cough, the Rose’s cough. So is that the kind of thing that you did?
They are there, but very often they are in the background or mixed in with the rest. Maybe it’s not the same time spacing: all this cycle is very rhythmically structured, and that was not the case with The Little Prince. So if I made some music to accompany a character in The Little Prince, it was very often not the proper rhythm, so I had to adjust. But they are, I think, almost all there.
For you was that just a fun musical inside joke, or did it contribute to the expressive meaning of the work? To connect it more with the story?
“I’m closer to what a writer is doing, or a painter or a sculptor. I’m alone in my workshop, and instead of using words or using canvas and paint or marble, I use sound.”
Yes. Where the sound comes from. And it also adds a specificity to this third work that the first two didn’t have. Because when I did the music for The Little Prince I used both, I used former samples that I’d already enhanced and new ones. But I think that at the time all the work that had to be done with the new samples, the recording of the actors, I was not able to use all of them for The Little Prince. Because the timing was very, very short. We started to work on the recordings in September. And then they worked on the recording in September and October, and the premiere was in December. So it was a very short time. It was, after I finished the music, a way for me to incorporate this music into my work. To add a kind of a signature of the origin.
You do a lot of music for theatre works that you then turn into standalone works.
Yes. Into concert music.
In terms of your æsthetic approach, how does that inform what you do?
It’s because I’ve done that essentially with one stage director [Brigitte Haentjens]. It’s more or less very difficult to do that with other stage directors. The stage director — with whom I don’t work that much anymore — [and I] did this show for example, Hamlet-Machine, we did Électre, we did Mademoiselle Julie. The stage director puts a lot of confidence in her collaborators, especially the music. And because I think that because she doesn’t have that many expectations for the music, about the music. The first show I did with her, I just made some complete collections of new sounds, and I edited them just like I would a concert piece. I put just as much time and effort as I would do in a concert piece. Usually you would never do that with a theatre piece because it is functional music, and most of the time, if it is too complicated anyway, they will scrap it. Because it not a concert. The music can’t be as complex as with concert music; it will suddenly add a voice to a play, and this is not what they want. This is not what they need.
So I started to work on this first project. The sound material was absolutely fantastic and articulated, etc. And finally it was a novel adaptation in a way, so they kept very small sections of text. Most of the show was a kind of choreography, so there was a lot of silence, a lot of room for the music. We ended up with a show where the music was omnipresent: one hour and fifteen minutes of music. Afterwards I just compressed everything, re-articulated some things and made a concert piece out of it. The sound material was there. It was already very well articulated, and so I just had to put the theatre play away from me enough — a couple of years — to make sure that I was not nostalgic about the theatre play, trying to reproduce the timing of the theatre play, because we are [now] in a concert situation, it’s not the same timing. It’s a completely different thing. In such a way that it becomes an autonomous piece of work.
And is that your approach with all these ones that you transformed — that you need time and distance?
Yes, except for this one, L’Éden cinéma, I did the theatre play and the concert piece at the same time. They were premiered almost the same day. But it is the only one where I’ve done that. There’s also a piece, a theatre play, where the music was everywhere. And so I did the concert piece. I never retouch a concert piece once it’s there.
So the first three works in the cycle you did in quite quick succession. Did you know at that point that you wanted to finish the arch of the cycle?
It was in my mind, but I was kind of tired. [Laughs] I think after Le renard et la rose, I thought it’s done, it’s fine, it’s a trilogy; thank you, bye — I have to do something else. And then it happens that I had a commission in Germany. Well, it could be interesting then to work with old people, German old people, so they found me old people over there. And we started again. And I did the whole piece just like I did the first three. And I was not happy. I thought, well, okay it works, but it adds nothing to the first three. So I was looking for a while how to make this fourth piece special in some sort. And I had an idea, but the technology was not there. So I made six versions of Palimpseste. I’m now on version six. It’s finished now. It’s okay.
Because I was really looking for a technology that didn’t exist at that time. Very strangely, it was a very simple technology in the old analogue days. But it hadn’t been transported into the digital world until recently. Until three years ago, a bunch of guys in France designed a tool that was exactly the tool I needed. So I completely redid the work. The work is called Palimpseste. A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been erased and on which you write a second, another book. The idea actually was to try to simulate the way I imagine old people perceive life. Through some filters, I can imagine, because they don’t see that much, they don’t hear that much, they don’t feel that much. So probably everything is softer than for young people where everything is very on the edge. So technically speaking I was just using the same structure with the same onomatopoeias as the first three pieces, but these onomatopoeias were only controlling another layer of sustained sounds. So they were just shaping the sustained sounds. But the original onomatopoeias are not heard. It’s a fake thing. I just put a shape on something that doesn’t have any shape, but the shape is coming from another source, which is kind of the idea of the palimpsest, so it’s just like if I’ve erased the original sound, but kept only the shape and the contour and used the contour to shape something that has no shape. This was the idea with the fourth piece. After that I was kind of happy with the work. It’s a piece that has less punch; it is softer. I played it a little bit softer in concert. It has its specificity. It’s not as punchy as the first three were. But this was the idea.
So the sixth, final version. What year was that done?
I think it was two years ago. It was published last year. The piece was commissioned by ZKM, a production centre in Germany, for a Canadian electroacoustic music festival in 2005. They commissioned nine Canadians and planned to produce a DVD out of the festival. And it took them four years. So in the meantime, I had time to make six versions of the work. And they were not waiting for me. I sent them the first version straight away; and then I worked on that. I wrote them, “I have a second version. Is it still possible to send it to you?” “Yes, no problem.” Okay, second version, third, fourth, fifth, sixth.
What were you waiting to be able to do? You said you were waiting for the technology to catch up with the idea.
I used a very simple technology, actually, that was present on every single analogue synthesizer, which is called an envelope follower. An envelope follower: if you send a signal, a musical recording for example, into that kind of device, it outputs a voltage. And in the analogue time, you just used this voltage to control the different components. You could put it on amplifiers to change the amplitude of the amplifier, or you can send that to a generator so that the frequency of the generator would change according to the envelope of the recording, etc. So it was a very classical way of generating sound. And so, very strangely, there was no device like that in the digital world. I tried, with a very complicated connection of different things, to simulate it, but it was not convincing. Even when these guys in France [Blue Cat Audio] published their first version of [the envelope follower], I tried it personally, and there were some problems with it. We worked very closely together. And they designed a new version that finally worked perfectly well. So this is the idea. I used the onomatopoeias. I made sounds that last very long, [using] a process called granulation. And then I just used the envelope of the click to articulate that. It’s a bit more neutral. It’s a bit like if you see things through a dirty glass; you’re not quite sure what you’re seeing on the outside, because it’s not quite clear.
These three people in Germany. Were they actors as well?
There was one woman who was an actor. The other two were just people. They had a mailing list, and they sent an invitation through the mailing list. And three people showed up.
Not just because of their age, but the fact that two of them weren’t actors, did they approach it quite differently than the previous?
Yes, yes. The woman was very extroverted, so she did a pretty good show. [Laughs] I was expecting the exact opposite. I was also supposed to have a woman of eighty-something, but finally she didn’t come because she was sick the day of the recording. And I also asked for some old actresses in Montréal to come to the studio. I asked Andrée Lachapelle, who is a great actor; she looks quite young, but she was 75 when we did the recording. So I had a couple of, let’s say, not really old people; let’s say people over 50, 55. The recordings themselves didn’t show up that much the fact that it was recorded with old people. So I tried to find a way in the process to give the listeners the impression that the sound is not that solid.
My impression of it is that the piece sounds tired. That is just feels like a sigh. I just want to lie in my bed.
[Laughs] That’s good.
It was especially in comparison to the previous two that seemed to have so much energy and vitality. And then I listened to Palimpseste.
It’s good, if you can feel it.
One other thing, I wasn’t sure what the thought was behind it: with the last three works you inserted in the first six to nine seconds a sound that’s different in each work.
There’s no sound in the first. It’s just straight away. The next three have a kind of introduction sound.
The one with Le renard et la rose, the laughter. I think that’s a really powerful opening. What was sort of the thought behind doing that? And how did you decide what you were going to do?
It’s again, it’s all related to the feelings. In Le renard et la rose, the first movement is “Babillage”, which is adults speaking about nothing, saying nothing. And because they were all actors they have a lot of laughter during the recording sessions. This women who opens the piece is not actually an actor, she’s a radio speaker, very famous for her laugh. [Laughs] So I thought, “Oh wow! That’s good. That’s really good.”
It’s a really effective opening. What was the idea with Spleen?
The opening sound is a kind of glimpse into progressive rock music, because there was a piece by Gentle Giant that actually started exactly like that [“The Boys in the Band” from the album Octopus (1972)]. It’s a piece of money; so I actually recorded the Gentle Giant opening and just like I did with the envelope follower, I kept the contour of the [makes sound effect of spinning coin] energy and put it into a voice. It’s just a glimpse into this piece of Gentle Giant, just because it was one of my favourite groups when I was a teenager myself, and because I grew up in the progressive rock era. So Gentle Giant was one of my favourite groups at the time.
And with Palimpseste?
It is just as you said. Because she was an actor she was good at that, she simulated a lot kind of tiredness with an exhausted voice of some sort, and I thought, “Wow. This is very good. And I would like to put that in the forefront at some stage.” So the piece starts with something like that. Where, as you said, we think just that: “Wow. That would be difficult.”
It definitely has that tone right from the start. From what I’ve looked up, the very first work that I could find that you ever dealt with the human voice was La chambre blanche. Is that true?
Yes. Have you ever heard it?
Okay, phew! [Laughs] It is published actually, but it was published in the United States by a guy from Toronto, Dan Lander. He was a radio producer at some of the community stations. He was very active in the 80s. He had a CD himself on empreintes DIGITALes of radio works. And he curated a publication in the States — four CDs — with Canadian radio art. He asked me to publish La chambre blanche. So it was published on that label. The label does not exist anymore and the record is not available anymore. But very strangely, Gus Van Sant used it, not in his last film, but the film before, Paranoid Park. I don’t know how he found this record, why he decided to use it. Because he used two excerpts where the French-speaking woman was very evident. Very interesting.
I understand how onomatopoeias are interesting to you in terms of expression and emotion. But what is it about the voice?
In La chambre blanche it was not especially about the voice; it was about poetry, so I didn’t work that much with the voice at the time. It was essentially that I did want to make a piece with poems by a Québec poet called Marie Uguay. There was not that much transformation of the voice, or chopping, or editing of the voice. It was essentially the text. It was closer to a radio art piece than to a music piece.
So with Bédé, that was basically the first time you really picked apart the voice.
Yes. But that was far away. It’s [La chambre blanche] a piece of ’86. It was really a tape piece, with tape recorders and everything. It never came to my mind at that time to do something like what I did with the onomatopoeias later. This is how I think technology could influence you at some stage. Because you can have an idea, and when you are looking at how I will be able to realize that: “Wow! It will take me ten years.” You don’t do that.
It’s interesting. I think you hear that with film makers too, directors who say they have this idea and they wanted to do this, but they had to wait until the technology could do it. And that’s really why I’m astonished that the early electronic composers stuck with it. Because what they could do at first was, first of all, painstaking. It would take hours, and wouldn’t really produce all that much. But they believed in the potential.
But it’s just astonishing to me the long suffering, sticking with it until it could come into its own, which it is still is continuing to do. To push through years of that. It’s astonishing to me. Punching cards, and then sending it off and waiting to hear what it sounds like.
This was the worst. Waiting. And usually it was so boring. [Laughs] Computer music of that time was not for me at all because of the waiting time. As I told you, I like to do this music because I like the interaction with the sound. So putting numbers on the punching card and waiting two days for the result that would sound like [makes “early computer music” sound effect]. You know, how discouraging.
There was one other little thing that I was sort of [curious about]. It’s very small. The work Erinyes — in the program note for that work, it was identified as the fourth work in the cycle. But it doesn’t follow the timeline.
It could be considered as a part of the cycle in a way that it was using onomatopoeias. But it was not at all using the onomatopoeias the same way. They were not used that much by themselves. Because in the other works — except for Palimpseste, where things were a bit more transformed — the first three works, the sound is not transformed; it’s there: onomatopoeias — pure. Except one thing: transposition. Because I needed very low frequency or higher pitch. But usually there’s only octave transposition, that’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.
To me, a lot of it sounds very abstract. It’s hard for me to hear the voice sometimes. And then there will be moments.
Because I make you hear all of the sounds that I’ve used and you make you realize “Oh yes, this is it; this is it.” They were all natural. There’s no any sort of sound transformation except pitch.
Because people who I’ve played it for, I say, “Yes. That’s all voice.” They can’t believe it.
I can prove it if I’m [forced to]. I will be able to prove it.
It’s interesting to me what you said earlier, that it’s not an abstract process for you, and yet for me as a listener it did feel quite abstract on some levels.
“Luc Ferrari arrived one day with Presque rien, where he put just a sunrise of 20 minutes on the harbour in the south of France. And everyone was shocked. It was a big debate: Was that music? Where does it stop? Where are the boundaries?”
This is where I hope it comes to [be] music. In the sense that music is an abstract thing, it’s an abstract art form. So I don’t want to keep at the anecdotal level with the onomatopoeias because after one listening it will be enough. I hope that at some stage I have reached something that belongs to [the realm of] music. But these works, even if people don’t believe or don’t realize or whatever, the cycle was quite well received generally speaking in concert situation.
I think that musically it’s convincing. It’s just whether or not you’re convinced that it’s human across the board. That’s sort of a side issue to the question, “Does it work for you as a listener?”. Does it hold together æsthetically? And that it does, whether or not you know that it’s all human.
Just to go back, Erinyes was made after Électre. And this is quite interesting because this is also the first time I used the onomatopoeias in theatre. So I recorded all the actors that were there. And the music of the show was made out of the voice. So every time they were there, there was also music everywhere. And as soon as one of the characters was on stage, he was accompanied by his own voice. And when a second actor came, there were two voices. The idea was to represent — with the music — the psychology of the actors. And it worked pretty well. The show was unfortunately not really convincing for various reasons, but from that perspective, the show was working pretty well. And in the piece, if you know the story, they are the Erinyes, which are the goddesses of death.
In the program notes for Éclats de voix and Spleen, it mentions that the whole work could be played or separated into its sections for radio play. I was wondering, has that been done much? Has it been isolated?
No, I don’t think so.
For you, in terms of thinking of the overall arc of the piece, how do you think that that works — that you can take out a section? Did you think of each section having an arc?
Each section is almost self-contained or self-sufficient up to a point. But I never play an excerpt of these pieces personally; maybe a radio station has done that itself, I don’t know; it’s very convenient. It’s probably why I have mentioned that originally; it’s very convenient to say to the radio producer, “Oh you can play a three-minute excerpt. You don’t have to play the fifteen-minute piece.” But I don’t know if that happened very often. It could be possible in the first movement, which is quite rhythmic and it has kind of a real end. So it might be possible to play the first movement. Second one, I don’t think so; third one, neither. Fourth maybe, because it is also very compartmented and then it goes with a fade out. So it might be possible to play the first and the fourth autonomously up to a point.
With each work you were going with an emotional feeling. And you have all of these different sections. My impression overall, especially starting with Bédé, is that things seem very dark.
[Laughs] I think that one might say that I’m probably a dark composer.
When you say, especially with Bédé and Éclats de voix, that it’s a young girl’s voice and she’s reading onomatopoeias, you come at it thinking…
That it will be fun.
And then it’s “The Valley of the Phantoms.”
It’s probably the result of a bizarre childhood. [Laughs]
Even in the cycle overall, these moods — titles like “amertume” and “fatigue” — seem kind of heavy. It was just something that I noticed, that things seemed a bit dark or cynical.
I don’t think it has to do with [being] cynical, though. It’s probably dark. It is not intentionally dark. It is just the way I composed; I’m probably dark myself. That’s true. This is the kind of film I like, this is the kind of music I like, this is the kind of book I read, etc. I’m not that much in the entertainment business. This is probably why it has worked so well with the stage director, because she was always doing things with very dark topics on stage or plays. Except one thing that we did. We did a funny work, all the same crew. I think it was after Éden cinéma, we did a trilogy of pieces by Feydeau who was a French writer of the nineteenth century. Famous, absolutely famous. He invented a genre that we call boulevard. Which is very funny theatre where you have a woman and a man and the lover of the woman hidden in the closet somewhere. And all of the funny story around that. But his writing is probably absolutely impossible to translate in any other language. It is very, very, very French. And he’s famous for that. We worked on that show for three months and the night of the premiere, we were still laughing. So this was an exception, I did funny music for that show. So from time to time…
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying any of these things as a criticism. I think when you just see it on paper with the sound sources, a person would kind of assume a level of optimism or lightheartedness that isn’t really there. When I actually went to the book Le dictionnaire des bruits… it’s a dark book too. With cartoons with vultures eating a man’s eye…
But at the same time it’s a very funny book. Comics are not always comics. Especially today.
You have the article “Cinéma pour l’oreille.” 1[1. Robert Normandeau, “… et vers un cinéma pour l’oreille,” Circuit 4/1 & 2 (1993) — “Électroacoustique-Québec : L’essor,” pp. 113–125.] And in the dissertation you mention a few works that are cinéma pour l’oreille. Does that infuse everything you do, or do you approach certain works with that idea of combining sound and meaning?
I don’t think of the Onomatopoeias cycle as cinéma pour l’oreille. It was not intended like that. There is no real-life sound in this work. It’s more something related to the voice and to some extent to an abstract, to a representation of the world. Cinéma pour l’oreille is really when I work on a piece in which I will use daily life sounds, for example: sound recognition. And I will use them especially for that, because they have a meaning for me, and I don’t suppose it has a meaning for everyone. If I use the sound of a train whatever it means for you, it will have a meaning. It will put a reference of something in the piece, however you imagine it. Just like when you read a novel. This is probably the best example. When you read a novel, you imagine the characters, you imagine the landscape, you imagine the buildings, everything, because there’s only descriptions. And if we compare your perception of the description and my perception, you’d be very surprised for most of it. I think that cinéma pour l’oreille has a similar power. If I use a sound of a train, it will be every listener’s train according to their own experience. It will remind them of different things. And then they will be put in a situation where they have to deal with themselves. But if I put a train on a screen it will be my train for everyone, the same train for everyone. It triggers the imagination a lot less compared to cinéma pour l’oreille.
Am I correct in thinking that that came out of your study with Dhomont?
“After years of abstract and computer music, difficult computer music, I think it was a liberation to be able to use [referential sounds]. You want to use birds, go for it. It’s a fantastic sound.”
Kind of. Actually, he was interested; he was into that himself. There was a big debate in the 70s in France about whether we should do that or not. Pierre Schaeffer was completely against the use of referential sounds in electroacoustic music and there was a bit debate. And Luc Ferrari arrived one day with Presque rien, where he put just a sunrise of 20 minutes on the harbour in the south of France. And everyone was shocked. It was a big debate: Was that music? Where does it stop? Where are the boundaries? But when I arrived here in the mid-80s, here, maybe not in France, but here clearly this debate was closed. Use whatever you want. And so I think that Francis was just letting me do whatever I wanted. It was not a problem at all. I think it was part also of the Québec school to a point. If you listen to pieces by Gilles Gobeil, Stéphane Roy, Christian Calon, all these people, you will hear that they are all using anecdotal sounds, referential sounds. I don’t know exactly why. It is strange, because in France at that time, a composer of my age did not use referential sounds at all; there were a lot more abstract composers compared to us. But the Scandinavians composers were very close to us at the time. So I don’t know. I have no explanation. Probably they felt the same liberty. After years of abstract and computer music, difficult computer music, I think it was a liberation to be able to use whatever. You want to use birds, go for it. It’s a fantastic sound.
Here in Montréal you didn’t have the same baggage that France did of having to stand for something unique.
I think that electroacoustic music in Canada in general was very well supported starting from the mid-80s. It was there before; it was difficult. It was impossible to get a grant. But from the mid-80s, when the Canadian electroacoustic music [scene] was founded, my colleague Jean Piché was working at the [Canada Council for the Arts] in Ottawa and was responsible for the music section. And he forced everyone who was there to accept electroacoustic music. The CEC was a lobby group, and finally it was possible to get money for electroacoustic music, and it was recognized as a major Canadian thing, especially with the World Soundscape Project in Vancouver. So there was a huge committee in Canada at the time, and for many years we held CEC Days, a big gathering, where all the people from across the country met in different places. So it was a time when the community built a sense of community. We are at the boundaries of two cultures. Because we are close to Europe. I think I’ve been for the first time to Vancouver after being to Europe fifty times, something like that. Why should I pay for the same plane ticket and go to Vancouver, instead of going to Paris, London, Berlin. So it was pretty clear that we’re all going east and not west. But at the same time we live in North America, so we are close to the States. And Canada has a subsidy system that is closer to the European one, with Arts Councils subsidized by the state, which is completely different than the States. I think that it was pretty well subsidized. “Pretty well” is not true. I wrote a report for the Canada Council five years ago and out of the money that Canada Council gave to music, electroacoustic music received that year 0.3% of the overall budget. [Laughs]
That’s not very good.
It was impossible to detail that a bit more because some numbers are secret. In Québec it was possible to do a lot more refined thing. And in Québec, I excluded all the symphonies, operas, etc. from the results. And even after removing the symphony, there was still only 1.7% dedicated to electroacoustic music. So most of the money in Canada is going to instrumental music. Very, very little to electroacoustic music. But it’s probably a little bit better now, but not that much, because it’s a long thing to do. And actually electroacoustic music is now disseminated. Almost every contemporary music society in Montréal does electroacoustic music at some level; they commission a piece, a mixed work; they produced mixed concert music. So it’s not an exclusivity thing anymore. It’s a different situation now. But generally speaking, socially speaking, it’s probably a better situation.
It’s important to investigate or interrogate these funding agencies. Because the arts councils are fantastic; it’s really important that we have them, but it’s also important to interrogate what they’re doing. And maybe how their system to set up to favour certain things implicitly. Grateful for them, but we still have to question them sometimes, just to make sure that everything’s good.
Absolutely, they have to question themselves from time to time. That’s for sure. Just to make sure… A good example: Spleen was commissioned with a grant from the Canada Council, but from the media art department. Because in the music department, it was impossible to get a grant for electroacoustic music at the time, ’93.
So you got it through media arts.
Media arts were open-minded enough to accept works that are… Because it is a media art. It is not something dedicated to a performer; it’s a media art. But finally they pushed us back into the music section after the music section agreed that we exist. [Laughs]
Yes. You exist and this is music. Thank you very much for your time.