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Marcelle Deschênes

Marcelle the multifaceted

Stormy, serene, tender, bold – the music of Marcelle Deschênes moves with ease through the gamut of emotions, often with an exhilarating rapidity. The skill that crafts the sonic shapes of mood is of such high quality that the listener is easily persuaded to relinquish control to the composer, and accept the often dizzying colours and images associated with the sounds. Sometimes these visual aspects are manifest through a multimedia presentation – but even in the purely aural concert works, the listener’s imagination is stirred to provide lush mental imagery.

Marcelle Deschênes is a dynamic individual who has contributed to the field of electroacoustics and multimedia for decades, not only as composer and teacher but also as activist – stimulating the field and its players in a variety of ways. Although now retired from the Université de Montréal, after two decades of teaching, she is still active in juries, spurred by curiosity about new works. In this role, I met her last year at a concert in the HTMlles / Maid in Cyberspace Festival, produced by Studio XX. What impressed me within a very few brief minutes of talking was a sincerity, at times a playfulness (look at her titles!), and an underlying dynamic passion for life and art.

In fact, it would be hard to imagine what Montreal’s current scene would be like if Marcelle had not been here. The plethora of electroacoustic music concerts and multimedia events must owe an immeasureable amount to her work. Not only did she firmly establish the electroacoustics programme (bachelors, masters, doctorate) at the Université de Montréal, but she also helped found key organizations such as ACREQ (Association pour la création et la recherche électroacoustiques du Québec) and the SMCQ (Societé de musique contemporaine du Québec). The major players in the region include myriads of “ex-students”, many of whom remain in close contact with her, still grateful for her excellent teaching and aware of her unusual dynamism. 

Her compositional output remains the truest portrait. Although many electroacoustic works convey the notion of energy to me, few have captured such a range and subtlety of emotion. Although Marcelle’s mastery of sound is what enables her to carve it into evocative shapes, the appreciation of her technical expertise is likely to be submerged by the emotional impact. The almost psychedelic multimedia works from the 1980’s are the most blatant examples of Marcelle’s version of “total art” – not only a combination of light, sound, image, movement, and players, but also of disparate styles: of music, of image, of mood. The result is almost overwhelming, but the music provides the trapeze wires to swing from one to another. In recent works for sound diffusion alone, like Indigo and Le Bruit des Ailes, the sensory overload is diminished but the energy and shifts of mood remain clearly delineated. Marcelle’s music is not suitable for creating a gentle background ambience for a candelit dinner. 

A case in point is Die Dyer, a recent video by Alain Pelletier for which Marcelle’s musical score won her the ‘music for multimedia’ award at Bourges in 2002. The film conveys an anguished view of our contemporary world through a story which seems to float between black humour and bitterness. Music and image both echo the level of commentary given by spoken voices, such as through audible and visual camera clicks, sudden fluid or disjointed movements of certain images and sounds as though fast-forwarding or splicing. But what makes the result so compelling is that, after establishing an intimate connection between sound and image, certain low sounds lend an ominous counterpoint to faster-changing images, while some faster sonic fluctuations suggest hidden energies behind almost still images. The sounds and images constantly dissolve and reform, distort and overexpose, giving results which are hauntingly beautiful, disturbingly so in juxtaposition with the more focussed images and descriptions of people in agony. 

Marcelle seems to embody the old-fashioned image of the artist who reflects the world around them with the kind of clarity that we are usually taught to avoid: a world full of beauty and terror, gentleness and bitterness, innocence, secrets, thoughts, feelings, and emptiness. Many of her works involve voices, the unmistakeable presence of the human element. These voices are sometimes speaking, sometimes chanting, singing as in a church choir or in a cabaret, laughing, crying, men, women, children, babies. In fact, her work ???? includes all of these. At the same time, she tends to incorporate long low sounds which seem to be surprisingly expressive of mood. Often they will emerge slowly to a medium volume and then sink back again, adding a sense of movement but often a calm one. At other times, similar sounds will creep into the foreground, conveying more power and passion, often with ominous overtones. The third typical manifestation of these types of sounds is through an explosion, such as the ones that occur at the opening of – predictably – Big Bang II.

Avoiding simplistic contrasts between the organic and the technological, or the urban and the rural, Marcelle manages to integrate or even “morph” a bird call into an industrial sound in such a way that it seems natural. It is easy to see one source of this type of metamorphosis in the realm of images from the early multimedia works, and this suggests the way in which Marcelle moves so freely from image to sound. She explains that she finds certain semi-identifiable sounds convenient as metaphors for human expression. What she doesn’t talk about, presumeably because it is second nature to her, is her ease with shaping any and all sounds exactly to match whatever form or phrase she envisions. Her compositions are truly expressive of human emotions rather than “explorations of sound” or – worse – the titillation of dizzying configurations in surround sound, common pitfalls in the electroacoustics field. 

For me, the most unexpected aspect of my meeting with Marcelle was discovering the rich legacy of teaching materials she has developed – unexpected because, given its quality, depth, and breadth, it should have been already much more widely known and distributed. Years have gone into the organization of course structure and content, and into the collection of thousands of examples, each carefully annotated – not only electroacoustics from many different countries and genres, but also more traditional acoustic works. How does one assemble such an archive? Obviously, by listening to an enormous quantity of music, with a critical ear for structural and expressive elements. That Marcelle had the appropriately critical ear is evident in both her own work and in her choice of the specific examples, from Bach to Berio, Boulez, and Bayle.

Although Marcelle’s course outlines seem in many ways unique, they are not simply the product of her own personal reflections. She is intimately acquainted with theoretical work such as Schaeffer’s pivotal “Traité des Objets Musicaux”, not only in its written form but also through a personal acquaintance with his studio and associates, due to her time at the Groupe de Recherche Musicale of the ORTF from 1968-1970. However, she (like Smalley and others, later) was dissatisfied with the static quality of the metaphor of “objects” for conveying the essential temporal aspects of musical composition. She therefore worked to develop and extend the vocabulary to be more inclusive and appropriate to such concepts as gesture, phrase, and form while making links with the existing categories when possible. 

When I first began examining Marcelle’s course materials, I was struck by the title of one of them in particular: Techniques d’Ecriture Électroacoustique. This is something which I doubt would have been introduced in an English-Canadian university department; I am aware of its history from my time in European educational systems. When one visits the Prado in Madrid during a school term, one usually encounters students working away in various rooms, seemingly engaged in forgery training. On their own easels, they reproduce the painting hanging on the wall in front of them, usually with amazing accuracy of detail and style. In music, the same principle is followed: the student learns how to write in the style of Bach, of Mozart, of Beethoven, of Schubert – one major style per term. Although I understood the intelligence of such an approach, and saw plenty of proof in the students’ fugues and sonatas and lieder of the facility gained, I was very skeptical about using the same approach for the 20th century. In order to learn to write in twentieth-century styles, one presumeably has to learn to imitate Stravinsky, Varèse, Debussy, Stockhausen, Brant, Crawford, Andriessen, Oliveros, Hassell, Schafer....and Deschênes. The normal conservatory course cannot tolerate the adding on of the several years which would be necessary to achieve a fluency of such a diversity of styles. But the idea of learning to imitate the style of one’s predecessors in electroacoustics is just about feasible, and fascinating. In particular, it is fascinating because it demands the means for studying music whose only trace is auditory, and whose instrumentation is not strictly identifiable. That Marcelle chose to import this means of study to electroacoustics is yet another manifestation of her creativity.

Marcelle’s passion is refreshing – she is quite prepared to entertain controversial ideas.  I can complain to her about the lack of tools for multimedia analysis and two weeks later she refers me to a brand-new internet source on the matter. I mention the lack of analytical tools for certain complex works and she mentions a particular article by Boulez, finding the relevant book in 2 minutes to show me. I ask her about my sense that teachers are often undervalued, and she is enthusiastically in agreement. We discuss how the students – even ones like her most devoted – are unable to be objective, and many naturally more concerned about their own promotion rather than their teacher’s. We discuss the audience response to her works, and she points out with amusement how those who dislike her works seem to use the same descriptive terms as those (far greater number) who like them. 

The possibility of adapting such analysis for non-music students reveals its potential for multimedia. Marcelle anticipated this in the 1970s, when she was responsible for research into techniques for stimulating multidisciplinarity exploration at the University of Laval (from 1972-77). Photos suggest her in a rôle of fellow-explorer with the children involved: all of them together on hands and knees, drawing pictures and shaping sounds, using one medium to stimulate the other. The association betweeen shapes and colours and sounds seemed so natural, and potent, that the correspondences became an integral part of Marcelle’s thinking about composition and teaching. She was also aware of, and feels affinities towards, other artists such as Paul Klee for whom the links between colours, shapes, and sounds were equally apparent. The experience focussed her exploration of the myriad relationships between image and sound – the clear correspondences, the obvious contrasts, the image which gives an extra meaning to a sound and vice versa. Of course, the most obvious evidence of this work is in her own multimedia works. (Marcelle differentiates in her c.v. between “functional” music – installations, music for theatre, film, etc. – and “musiques d’intégration: spectacles et multimedia”).

Those who become involved with multimedia productions understand the enormous resources involved. In the 70’s and 80’s, there was much enthusiasm in general for such big events, and participants were compensated by the energy generated as much as by more formal means. Re-creation of such large-scale events require almost as much investment of time and energy and probably at least twice as much money to re-mount as they did initially. Only recently has it become possible to make DVD recordings of multimedia pieces, but it is questionable that such recordings will ever be able to capture the thrill of being there -- even more than for acoustic performances. Not only does one need multiple cameras, but also a talented producer who knows when to change zoom and angle; the reproduction of such a performance requires artistry in itself. (A recent example is Christian Calon’s Ulysses, presented at last year’s Elektra Festival. Despite the very limited action, I cannot imagine any means which would be able to adequately transmit his creation and mastery of the enormous energy in that performance.) Old video documentation, of which Marcelle has a few, give only enough of a glimpse to make one wish one had been there at hers. Such impressions are further strengthened by comments from the press and from colleagues, as well as by the descriptions, titles and dates themselves: “1981 – OPERAaaaAH, version I – multimedia spectacle for voice and live transformation of slides, tape, mimes, lights, odors, and multi-image panorama” or “1987 – Big Bang II – electroacoustic music for a multimedia installation of George Dyens incorporating holographic sculptures, lighting, fibre-optics and programmed synchronization system.”

Contributing to the problem of what I see as under-exposure of a brilliant person’s work is that multimedia works imply collaboration, and this is something with which much of our Western society is still uncomfortable. The still-prevalent notion of the composer as superman receiving inspiration from the gods is not compatible with that of several partners working in true collaborative fashion. I also suspect that the personality which demands to be the sole artist in charge is usually the same type of personality that is best at self-promotion, to the detriment of the rest of us. On the other hand, although Marcelle seems typically non-aggressive in her marketing, her participation in collaborative efforts has usually arisen from specific opportunities, so the final production has been assured. Also, more recent projects such as Die Dyer is presented in the much more easily packaged form of a video. A difficulty of discussing Marcelle’s multimedia contributions in an academic manner may stem from the sheer energy they involve – an energy that is not limited to the performers but which demands a far-from-passive response from the audience. Those who choose to discuss music in analytical terms, perhaps especially in the culture of the English-speaking Western world, are often precisely those who are not comfortable with emotion as a factor which must be acknowledged for the work to be understood. Marcelle alludes to these issues in her paper “La technologie au service des emotions et des sensations” given at the CEC Banff conference <convergence> in 1989. In this paper, she explains the intent of the works as total sensorial experiences, and while she readily admits that their form and nature is rooted in antiquity, she insists on the necessity of recreating that form collaboratively as a “spontaneous totality”, rather than being a mere methodical combination of component parts. On the other hand, she betrays her passion for her own medium by explaining how the music acts not as an echo or complement of the images but as the agent of “dynamic propulsion” – and given her precocious use of full spatial diffusion along with the sonic material itself, it is easy enough to accept.

Surveying the critical reactions and general comments on her various works to date, she notes with appreciation the number of responses that recognize the artworks as “kaleidoscopes of fragmented forms, motifs, colours and lights.” She is fascinated by the commonalities revealed by some of the terms which recur: vertigo, hallucination, dementia, euphoria, magic, dream. What she also finds highly amusing is that those who don’t appear to enjoy the works have attributed the same reasons for their dislike as those who found them thrilling. Well, some people do not like to let go and live life to the fullest!. One senses that, for the composer at least, indifference to her work would be a sure sign of its failure – but, given all past evidence, an unlikely event.  

Perhaps because I am so involved with teaching and analysis, Marcelle’s rôle as a teacher seems the most undervalued of all her contributions. For example, I was stunned to learn that she was teaching courses on auditory perception in the 1970’s at the University of Laval. I have had a difficult time persuading colleagues since the mid-1980’s that auditory perception is potentially relevant to the development of new analytical tools, and I find myself angry (though hardly surprised) that her pioneering work in the field was not more thoroughly disseminated around the country. Some of her students at the Université de Montréal enrolled for this course more than once, realizing that each time not only did the course have a slightly different nature, but also that their ears were becoming more discerning and they could therefore learn more upon each listening.

The list of Marcelle’s former students reads like a Who’s Who of Québec electroacoustics and media arts: Robert Normandeau, Gilles Gobeil, Louis Dufort, Monique Jean, Jean Décarie, Michel Gonneville, Alain Thibault, Roxanne Turcot, Myke Roy, Serge Arcuri, Michelle Boudreau, Stéphane Roy, Michel Tetrault... and others farther afield, such as Jean-François Laporte, working at IRCAM (Paris) composition and research, and Jorge Sad, composing and teaching in Buenos Aires. Not only the quality but the diversity of the students’ works indicates for me something of the quality of the teacher. 

Often those who teach for many years find that the time demanded by academia, and sometimes even the nature of the job itself, begins to interfere with creative efforts. Given the wealth and detail of information which Marcelle developed in her courses, it would be understandable if her creative output diminished over the years. However, it is clear that this has not happened. In fact, she claims that her need for creating is fundamental, cathartic – and this is easily believed when one listens. But it is also clear that she is quite happy to have retired, finally, and be free to compose according to her own schedule. She is even returning, on occasion, to playing the piano as accompaniment to various “chansonniers” – an activity which she performed and loved decades ago. The piano stands near her computer, which has finally become the central piece of equipment in her studio “Bruit Blanc” . while the Aries analog synthesizer stands rather sadly in a spare room. (Meanwhile, at Concordia, we have recently named our Aries studio after Marcelle.) But the long years of experience with analog tape techniques are still audible in her work, as are her passions – for sound and for life.

I am confident that Marcelle’s electroacoustic works will become increasingly well known. I am less confident that all of her multimedia presentations will be re-created, although with venues like Montreal’s ex centris and S.A.T., the more easily-circulated formats are more likely to be presented. But the phenomenal amount of work which has gone into her course materials is in danger of being lost if a concerted effort is not made to preserve it and make it readily available. Marcelle herself is very anxious to do this, but not at the expense of her own present compositional activity. Despite the highly organized filing cabinets and folders, a substantial amount of work would be required, such as transferring the piles of tapes into digital format and enquiring about copyright clearance for the hundreds of aural excerpts prior to publishing. So, we are beginning to investigate how best to approach a project such as the preparation of a set of books and CD-Roms, perhaps with a web component. As a bonus with such a package, we could add her amazing Lexicon project. Starting in the late 1960’s, Marcelle went through her “Petit Robert” dictionary, and extracted words which she thought could be relevant to the composition of electroacoustics. The list of words alone is now over 90 pages long. For each word, she has a set of 5” x 8” cards, with notes explaining the relevance of the term, quoting other sources, sometimes with little hand-copied excerpts of scores (again, she was not limiting herself to electroacoustics), as well as graphs and diagrams. Although the list itself is not arranged hierarchically, and some words are much more loosely related, revealing as much about Marcelle’s personal associations as specific relationships with techniques or processes, it would still provide any creative artist with a wonderful collection of stimuli.

Of course, I have a personal interest in such a project being carried out, as it not only meshes with many of my own research interests but also would ease the searching for appropriate examples of gesture, texture, etc. in my own courses. But I also believe that once such material was made available for professors of electroacoustics, it would be easier to persuade professors in other disciplines, and other sub-disciplines of music, of its potential for aiding discourse about all types of music, not only to those without prior knowledge of traditional music analysis, but also to those who need a jolt to think about Beethoven or Berg in a new way. And as a last argument, we need to continue celebrating the work of pioneers who live in our midst. Anyone looking for a doctoral project?

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