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The Plasticity of Sound

A Swedish retrospective, presented by Åke Parmerud

13th Festival Rien à voir
Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal
23 mars 2003

On Sunday, March 23rd, at 8 pm, the concluding evening of the Rien a Voir electroacoustic music series took place at the Musée d'Art Contemporain. This evening featured the Swedish acousmatic composer Ake Parmerud, who presented a carte-blanche selection of works followed by a retrospective of his own work. The acousmatic genre of electroacoustics may be roughly defined as electronically created tape music in which the notions of melody and rhythm are de-centered in favour of a focus on the timbral qualities of sound. The notion of performing in an acousmatic context usually refers to the diffusion of the sound throughout the concert space through multiple speakers (in this case, twenty-four, including a circle of eight main speakers, four bass, and two overhead speakers), in such a way that the sound appears to move throughout the space. It is a dance between the composed work and the performer's interpretation, much as it is in the realm of traditional music performance. Unfortunately, my ability to judge this crucial aspect of the concert was hampered by the steeply racked seating of the concert theater, which left all seats but those at the high rear acoustically unbalanced. I tried two different seats throughout the evening, but neither enabled me to adequately experience, let alone comment upon, the diffusion of sound throughout the space. Forced to contend with the electroacoustic concert equivalent of sitting behind a pole at the opera, I turned my focus to the quality and development of sound, as opposed to its movement through space, and in this I was far from disappointed.

Although the shape of the black-box theater was problematic in terms of diffusion, excellent speakers and dampening curtains helped to create a very dry acoustic space in which sounds were able to emerge undistorted. The theatricality of the this space was emphasized by a smoke machine (unfortunately common at Rien a Voir shows, and having tendency to make me cough), subtle theatrical lighting, and video projections of the titles of each piece. The pieces Parmerud presented were all fixed-medium and medium-length works by his contemporaries - - middle-aged male Swedish acousmatic composers. The concert- proper was preceded by an avant-programme, highlighting the young, emerging Québecois artist, Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay. Tremblay presented his «Autoportrait» (2001), an alternately playful and majestic piece which flirts with traditional music as it deconstructs various bits of jazzy instrumentation, exploring their resonant qualities and punctuating these with various noise bursts. Unlike the works to follow, this work was presented in complete darkness, in adherence to the electroacoustic concert tradition to which the title of the Rien a Voir festival refers.

Before commencing, Parmerud addressed the audience, briefly (and charmingly) putting the carte-blanche selections which we were about to hear in historical context. The first piece which he presented, Rolf Enstrom's «Directions» (1979), which had been described as an «expressionist» work, was made up of small, beautiful sounds, often «wet» sounding and high in frequency, which were articulated in a sparse overall texture. The next piece, Par Lindgren's «Houndinism» (1984), Parmerud had characterized as an example of the «constructive style» of acousmatics. He referred to the genre of work to which it belongs as «sculptural,» as not having a clear beginning or ending but being, rather, an «extract of eternity.» I wasn't sure exactly how this applied as I listened to the piece. I did, however, begin to decipher the evenings theme of small, frictional sounds. This often percussive, trancelike piece focused on the sounds of knocking, metallic resonances, dragging sounds, and little pinpricks and trickles. Andres Blomqvist's «Akrobat 0.2» (1988), a «poetic» piece, illustrative of the «freedom of the late 1980s,» appeared to me to be less directional than the preceding pieces, focusing on tiny, slithery sounds, and punctuated small percussive gestures of various timbres. Parmerud described Jens Hedman's «Mixup» (2001) as being in the «modern collage style.» This piece, which struck me as very dynamic, featured snippets of song and rhythmically contrasting sections.

After the intermission, Ake Parmerud presented a chronological selection of his own work. He began with «Repulse» (1986), a sparse, gestural piece, featuring enveloping ringing sounds and slithery metal tongue licks, as well as various little squeaks, bumps and rumbles. The next piece presented, «Stringquartett» (1986), is a close examination of small sounds, which explores and stretches their every nuance in subtle, emotive layers including little drones and repeated melodic fragments. «Renaissance,» (1995-96) featured the sounds of bees, resonant hums, speed acceleration, and some melodic relationships (at one point breaking into anthem-like band music). The last piece presented, «Les flutes en feu» (2000), was a mysterious piece featuring reverberation, glinting sounds, liquid-like timbres, and little metallic sound gestures. As the progression of his pieces unfolded, I began to develop an idea of what Parmerud might have meant by «an extract of eternity» in sound, as his work seemed to resist the traditional formula of conflict, climax and resolution, in favour of a more static overall form in which sounds continually shift and develop one into the other in smaller gestures.

While it is unfortunate that the shape of the theater interfered with the sound diffusion, I found this, nonetheless, an inspiring and uplifting concert experience. And while much of the audience (nearly filling the 130-seat capacity) must have faced similar acoustic issues, the concert was extremely well-received. It was, in fact, one of the most formally united electroacoustic concert experiences I have had to date. Parmerud's short lecture illuminated the carte-blanche pieces presented, and while spanning different periods and aesthetics the selected works segued into one another seamlessly. His own retrospective was equally unified, consisting of beautiful sounds masterfully articulated in time, their appreciation further enhanced by the glimpse into his influences that we had received.

Stephanie Loveless

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