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Composers Working in or from the Canadian Prairies Region

SONUS Gallery

The possibility of establishing a connection between electronic sound and traditional instrumental and vocal performance has been a perennial concern in the international development of electronic sound art (a.k.a. electroacoustics or EA) — from the romantic classics that Clara Rockmore would play on her Theremin to the musica mista of the Milan studio in the 1950s and 1960s, and beyond. My experience has been that EA composers from Canada’s Prairies — the western provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta — tend to gravitate towards this possibility, answering it in a variety of different and interesting ways (why they might do so is a musicological question on which I must, at least for the moment, plead ignorance). In this playlist, part of a special eContact issue on the Prairies (9.2), I am hoping to draw attention to works that show diverse ways of imagining the relationship between electronic sound art and its unplugged elder sibling.

To begin: there are works that can be heard as palimpsests of traditional, live, linear instrumental performance. In Edmonton composer and sound artist Raylene Campbell’s Idols of the Children one cannot help but feel that the dense washes of electronic sound, despite their improvisatory intricacy, are only epiphenomena wound around the nearly omnipresent sound of the accordion, even when this latter is present only as the most restrained pedal tone. Song of the Turtle, by Winnipeg’s Greg Lowe, displays a similar structure, although here the various electronic sounds are montaged with short phrases from a distorted electric guitar, each one pregnant with nuances of pitch and timbre.

In Michael Gurevich’s Soft White I am particularly attracted to the way that the electronic shadow of the saxophone player seems to be tightly bound to the player’s timing and expression at some moments, only to depart from them in other moments. The minimal but significant electronic component of Diana McIntosh’s Climb to Camp One serves to decompose and expand an acoustic event undeniably rooted in a single, linear performance. Taken from a larger music theatre work, the piece is “performed entirely on the interior of an amplified piano, using climbing gear such as karabiners, rope, leather gloves and a helmet.” Experienced as a recording, with the amplification appearing to affect the motoric, percussive fragments and aggressive scrapes more than the quieter material, the only thing to remind us that this is a live performance is the occasional vocalization from the pianist.

1. Raylene Campbell — Idols of the Children [6m58s]

2. Greg Lowe — Song of the Turtle [2m17s]

3. Michael Gurevich — Soft White [6m12s]

4. Diana McIntosh — Climb to Camp One [6m50s]

Another grouping consists of works in which traditional, linear performance is absent but is nonetheless still invoked by an element of the composition, perhaps a melody or a timbre or the way that a structure unfolds. For instance, it isn’t clear to me whether the voice of the indigenous person featured in Edmonton composer Garth Hobden's Inukshuk is singing (for one thing, it is a relatively brief sample). But it is very clear that Hobden’s piece highlights the musicality of that voice, its melodic and rhythmic profile, against a backdrop of electronic sounds that evoke boundless times and spaces.

One of the guiding threads running through Guillaume Laroche’s Delusions of a Derelict Television (created at the University of Alberta) is a rising and falling pitch theme that hovers delightfully on the edge of the categories ostinato and “ground bass” — too long and too internally varied to be an ostinato but too short and too insistent to be described in terms of theme and variations.

In works by two composers with an Edmonton connection, Jamie Philp and Laurie Radford, it is timbre alone that makes the link to traditional performance. In Philp's Lizard in the Garden, an excerpt from a dance score, a dialogue is setup between brief phrases of electronically sampled and “distanced” clarinet and trumpet tones, over an undulating bed of rich electronic bass. The initial sounds of Radford's Verb Tales also appear to be a phrase from some sort of brass instrument. The piece gradually moves further and further away from this initial sonic reference, although to the attentive ear the first phrase is still present in the final quiet sounds.

5. Garth Hobden — Inukshuk [2m55s]

6. Guillaume Laroche — Delusions of a Derelict Television [4m34s]

7. Jamie Philp — Lizard in the Garden [3m40s]

8. Laurie Radford — Verb Tales [5m00s]

The exceptions that prove the rule are provided by a number of Prairie composers whose works display an element of more or less undisguised constructivism and also a much less direct — or perhaps much more abstract — relation to traditional performance.

In Entropic-Fragmentation, Marcel Wierckx (who arrived in the Netherlands from Winnipeg via Montreal) a tightly restricted registral and timbral palette is modulated by “algorithms inherently entropic: fractal noise generators, feedback loops and recursive algorithms.” This rigour is shared with Jay Lind’s somewhat less austere 14 Lines, based on a text by Edmonton poet Wayne Defehr. Even without reading the program notes (which explain that the many of the sounds are “extrapolations of the harmonic character of the voice reading the text”) one senses that a systematic process is being worked through with sensitivity.

Heather Hindman’s Flow is based on gradual transformations of water sounds, building at different rates towards noisy fortissimi, timbrally well beyond the bounds of conventional musical sounds but architecturally not so far removed from the symphonic tradition. Paul William’s Everest is a good example of how contrapuntal complexity in no way stands in contradiction to narrative concreteness. Williams states explicitly that he is “interested in the grey area between electroacoustic art and traditional conceptions of music.” Calculation overall — Iraq, the composer's reaction to the 2003 war on Iraq, is also definitely worth a listen.

9. Marcel Wierckx — Entropic-Fragmentation [6m08s]

10. Jay Lind — 14 Lines [5m08s]

11. Heather Hindman — Flow [6m36s]

12. Paul Williams — Everest [5m27s]

13. Paul Williams — Calculation overall — Iraq [4m42s]

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