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Carte Blanche

Associations Libres — Gilles Gobeil and René Lussier

14th Festival Rien à voir (15–19 October 2003)
Espace Go (Montréal)
15 October 2003

The concert to be examined for this report occured at 8 o'clock on the evening of Wednesday, October 15, 2003, at Espace Go on St-Laurent. This performance by Quebec artists Gilles Gobeil and René Lussier marked the inaugural showing of the 14th installment of the Rien a voir series -- a collection of concerts dedicated to electroacoustic works and acousmatic performance by Quebec and Canadian composers.

Rien a voir was initiated in 1997 and has since established itself as a hallmark of this genre of performance, characterized by the real-time multi-speaker diffusion of recorded sound throughout a darkened or half-lit auditorium. This particular event showcased four individual works by the two aformentioned composers, Gobeil and Lussier. The evening was split into two sections with three pieces being performed in the first half, followed by a brief intermission, and the remaining piece comprising the entirety of the second set.

To the first half of the evening, Lussier contributing one solo work, which was bounded on either side by one piece of Gobeil's work. However, the inarguable highlight of the evening came later as Gilles Gobeil and René Lussier's collective epic work entitled Le contrat was globally debuted in its fully realized (66 minute) form for the first time since they began work on it in 1996. Both composers were present for this performance, with Gobeil spending the whole night at the helm of the concert hall's diffusion station. A more detailed examination of the works performed will follow later in the report. The concert hall at Espace Go in which this performance took place is a large, empty space (a rectangular cavity, in essence) that presumably may operate as a cinema on occasion, as well as a house for other performance and media-related events. Audience members entered from the back balcony section of it, and then descended the inclined staircase, shuffling accordingly into whatever seats were still available. The metallic, bleacher-like seating structure on which the cushioned chairs were arranged in rows were filled to capacity on this notable evening of electroacoustic performance. The audience seemed to be comprised mostly of elderly, distinguished people with an admixture of young student-types in attendance, as well. Heavily clothed -- and poshly so, I might add -- couples of middle and golden-age populated the theatre on this evening. There seemed to be anywhere from 100 to 150 people packed into nearly every seat throughout the hall, from its upper and sideway reaches to the less-desirable seats below the mixer in front.

The diffusion board was situated in the centre of the bleachers, approximately fifteen rows from the back of the hall, and another ten from the front. The speaker arrangement throughout the black, longer-than-wide, rectangular void was somewhat difficult to pinpoint at times, particularly because of the forward expansiveness of the room (like a hallway), and the darkness that painted over anything placed within the rafters and in the room's corners. However, looking at the diffusion board, it became evident that the Espace Go concerts employed an eighteen speaker setup, with the stereo audio signal from compact disc being split into sixteen different channels and assigned to sixteen corresponding speakers (plus two sub-woofers) for spatial diffusion throughout the hall. Two speakers were placed side-by-side within five feet of the front row of seating, with the remainder being staggered symmetrically along the front, back, and side bounds of the hallway, primarily above the audience toward the rafters and ceiling and in corners. The considerably narrow confines of the room seemed to pose a problem for acousticians in preparing for this type of performance, because the speakers in this space, particularly along the side walls, seem to be situated far too close to audience members even seated in the exact centre of the auditorium, let alone those relegated to the sidelines. As such, the element of sonic movement that is imperative to the idea and success of such a diffusive performance seemed to be unduly impaired. The author's perception of this performance occured in two separate spots of the auditorium -- the first set from one row behind the mixer to its right (beside René Lussier, no less) and the second from directly behind the diffusing board, two rows from the sonic centre of the concert hall, as heard by the diffuser himself. From the former, the element of movement seemed to be noticeably more prevalent because of being in closer proximity to a certain set of speakers (those on the right-hand wall, looking toward the room's front). Therefore, movement to that area of the speaker system was fairly obvious, as was sonic movement away from them, accordingly. However, observing Le contrat from the absolute centre of the seating area proved to be a much flatter listening experience, because of the generally neutral distance from any one area or set of speakers. Sonic movement became far less perceivable, and detracted considerably from the enjoyment of the performance. This was puzzling because of the close proximity to the actual diffusion centre, but such was the case. Undoubtedly, the crowded confines of the area due to the large audience, and the absorbent nature of themselves and their clothing did not aid the struggling acoustic abilities of the room. While the audience was mostly attentive (and hugely appreciative), there was much inevitable shuffling, sneezing, some chatter, and that forsaken heavy breathing. In particular, restlessness seemed to become an issue with the sprawling duration of Le contrat, as many audience members could be heard to reposition themselves in light of their numbing bums and waning eyelids. Most of the spatial characteristics of the evening's performance that were actually impressive, however, (and likely a forced product of the narrow dimensions of the room), was movement of sound overhead. Many speakers were arranged along the uppermost bounds of the auditorium, and oftentimes could be heard to affect the seemingly skyward motion of sound that on occasion caused one to look up for the source of the stimulating movement of sound, of course, to find nothing but darkness. Overall, Espace Go seemed to be a less than appropriate location for an acousmatic performance because of its awkward, austere dimensions, reverberant emptiness, and limited seating area.

This report will elect to focus on examination of the projects that bear Gilles Gobeil's name, choosing to consider foremost the nature of his compositions and any notable correlations that emerge between the three pieces for which he is mostly responsible. The first performance of the evening, as mentioned, belonged to Gilles Gobeil with his Associations libre (1990), a three-minute piece that spotlights René Lussier's improvisational guitar playing, and explores the various timbres and levels of density that his instrument and his style of playing bear. As a whole, this piece was highly gestural, with sudden transitions being made between themes, sounds, and listening environments, and little establishment of patient flow. Rather, this piece was highly cluttered, endlessly kinetic, and a challenge to follow along its path. It was comprised of a number of sound sources, including a daunting percussive march that seemed as if it was procured by an unbalanced washing machine. This sound was oftentimes joined or overtaken by distorted, imperceptible vocal screams, and other biologically-derived squelches, as well as crickets, bells, and so on. Associations libre was an interesting admixture of both mimetic and acousmatic sound sources, in which the polar natures of each sound type did not compete against each other, but often appeared and moved in tandem. As such, in a very short while, this piece established itself as macro- and microscopically rhythmic jaunt that displayed an expressive, dynamic structure of almost orchestral proportions, with many waves of constructive, climactic, explosive, and deconstructive sections.

Following the performance of René Lussier's Prise de terre (1997), a 13-minute piece that explored themes of the natural versus the electric through the examination of his guitar, Gilles Gobeil then presented his Point de passage (1997). This 12-minute prize-winning adaptation of HG Wells' The Time Machine -- a catalyst to the development of time travel in fiction when it was published in 1895 -- contained undeniable similarities to the evening's earlier performance of his work. While, overall, this piece adopted a more mechanical auditory aesthetic, Gobeil employed the now familiar drum-like washing machine march to similar effect as in his previous piece, establishing a pounding, daunting rhythmic flow that bled into ensuing gestures and climaxes. In this instance, it gave way to a more train-like rhythmic noise. This piece, too, was amplitudinally dynamic, transportive, and obscured of human presence. There was much spatial interplay between channels, oftentimes in a manner of call-and-response. Subtle drum rolls, rolling noise, percussive textures, and incessant gestures solidified Point de passage as another of Gobeil's decidedly kinetic, impatient, flights through sound.

Le contrat is a sprawling 66-minute epic that Lussier and Gobeil, collaborators of 28 years, were commissioned to execute in 1996, and began work on it then, not completing it until earlier in 2003. Like Point de passage, this too is an adaptation of a written work. It is inspired by and built according to the poetic architecture of Goethe's Faust, which itself took 30 years to write. As such, Le contrat duly required a significant amount of involvement in the construction of this piece, and it is certainly evident here. This piece is arranged in seventeen individual movements, each of which is separated from the next by a silent pause, that range in length from two minutes to twelve. Le contrat's credits cite the composers with every facet of composition from conception, research, and spatialization to synthesis and sound transformation, travel reminiscences, sensitive platform, luminous Achille and foot-tapping. René Lussier performed the instrumentation (guitar and daxophone) which is threaded recurrently throughout the duration of this piece, while varoius voices are heard to recite selections from the inspiration text on which Le contrat is built. This report will focus on two particular movements of the piece's seventeen that proved to be exemplary of the holistic piece, which is simply far too long to recount or even aptly summarize.

Firstly, Le duel, the twelfth movement begins notably with the very same washing machine-like percussive pounding that we heard in both of his preceding presentations. Here, it is again used to established an extremely dense listening atmosphere which continues with the development of this passage, although it is subject to a similarly disruptive flow of sound vignettes as those listed above. Interruptive horse-produced noises and flowery orchestral gestures define one component of this three minute movement, however, the most notable aspect emerges in the appearance of mimetic guitar sounds. Many rhythmic, stacatto guitar strikes of dissonant tone occur throughout. But what was especially impressive was their accompaniment by metallic, knife-scraping sounds that seemed to occur in time with each spastic guitar strum, and further enhance its rhythmic feel. This portion exhibited little processing, but meticulously obsessive arrangement that worked to great effect, as if both sounds were produced at once by some deranged musician. Similarly, piano clusters were joined complicitly by a strident, high frequency scream that emphasized the piano's daunting melody and focus in a mid-rich pitch range. As a whole, this endlessly kinetic, and again impatient situation of sounds was exemplary of Gobeil's earlier work in the evening, but particularly highlit by the presence of the guitar.

The concluding movement of Le contrat entitled L'ecolier is a roughly two-minute segment which displayed a similar instrumental focus as heard in Le duel and throughout the holistic piece. Here, concentration was placed on the development of alternately ascending and descending piano gestures that affected a more melodic, if not still rhythmically offset coda to the epic piece. These piano clusters were again timely joined by distant, puerile screams from female voices that established a veritable circus-like atmosphere, both playful and daunting. In addition to the piano, there seemed to be tonal clusters of different vibraphones, mass structures of screaming, various vocal noise, and other vocal presence. The movement contains brief voiced segments of Goethe's poem, thereby delving further into the vocal basis of this and other of Le contrat's movements. However, one of the most strikingly personal additions to the considerably more patient sonic palatte that Gobeil and Lussier employ here, is the inclusion of subtle breathing sounds and infinitesemal percussive looping of hands rubbing coldly against each other. Whereas much of Le contrat was an experience in sweeping gestures of grand sound, the composers appropriately end the journey with a more relaxed, resolvent, reflective passage that is amplitudinally economic yet minutely rich in detail. The 66-minute challenge ends abruptly and hesitantly, chugging to a stop with descending piano runs, rubbing hands, distant screams, and a meow, all heard separately, quietly, standing out from Gobeil's (and Lussier's) normally cluttered field of sound. Perhaps they just needed the space and time to stretch out.

Jonathan L. Shedletzky

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