The history of experimental music in Quebec is quite interesting. In part because it is the homeland of French speakers in North America, la belle province has maintained closer aesthetic ties to the Old World. It’s not surprising that the GRM and Xenakis have been the major influences on electro-acoustic music in Quebec, which admittedly is a rather academic pursuit wherever it manifests. Yet in Montreal at least, artists freely traverse different scenes, with the classical avant-garde bleeding into free jazz and rock and back again. The designation of musique actuelle is vague enough to unite composers, academics, and performers who practice non-commercial disciplines, including free improv, electro-acoustic, avant rock, and experimental electro-acoustic works. Perhaps best documented by the Ambiances Magnetiques collective, the range of challenging music produced in Quebec is truly remarkable. This non-genre is not confined in any way to Montreal, but is actually most closely associated with the annual (legendary) Victo music festival. And Quebec City had its own hot bed of electronic composition, as this release documents.
Tenzier is a non-profit label dedicated exclusively to releasing archival quality records from Quebec’s storied past. The work of such labels is truly invaluable, as such music is certainly of value to posterity even if it might have limited commercial appeal at present. Run by former Pas Chic Chic drummer Éric Fillion, the label is committed not only to preserving these works, but seeing that they circulate.
Earlier releases have documented Free Jazz, cut-up tape soundtracks to experimental cinema, and electronic music. Though pure electronic synthesis often takes center stage, the role of tape in these transformations shouldn’t be understated and there is a clear influence of musique concrete techniques. (I’ll leave the discussion as to whether or not there exists a “Montreal sound” to others.)
The latest from Tenzier is an LP by Gisèle Ricard, of whom I’d never heard. But this is rather the point, so don’t let the lack of familiarity put you off. Featuring three pieces realized between 1980 and 1987, each piece lives and breathes, making fascinating use of the stereo-field to create an organic sense of space and movement. Unlike Tenzier’s earlier foray documenting electronic music, which drew on the activites of McGill University’s formidable music technology program, Ricard was based at Laval University’s School of Music in Quebec City. So if there is a Montreal sound, this isn’t it.
“Je Vous Aime” (1987) is electro-acoustic bridal music, a tape collage composed out of sound fragments. The pitch shifted vocals may have lost some of their power the had two and half decades earlier (in that the technique is almost common place even in popular music these days), yet it still suits the surreal mood of the work. It’s tender, evocative, and a bit strange. I may be misunderstanding somehow, but I think the title is suggests this as well. In French, normally you’d say ‘Je t’aime’ to say I love you. Vous can mean you-plural, as in addressing a group, or it can be a formal, polite way of addressing someone you don’t know very well. In either case, it makes for an odd wedding. I imagine she is addressing the many chanteurs and chanteauses whom she has cut up to make this composition. Through the magic of tape music we get a resounding chorus of “We do.”
“Immersion” (1980) is the earlier of the three pieces presented here, realized on an AKS synthesizer (you know, with the little pins, in the suitcase? A great little synth.) So far as I can tell the primary occupation of the piece is with manipulating the sense of spatiality while adjusting the various filters. Perhaps a bit dated in some ways, it is still an expert manifestation of what a trained mind can do with the limits of these early synths. And yes, a lot has been done with and to synthesizers since then, but don’t focus on those aspects, focus on what she’s doing within those confines (which seemed rather expansive at the time, I’m sure.)
The second side features just one long composition realized in 1982 with Bernard Bonnier, a piece of music theatre for electronic instruments, two comedians and a visual designer. (Most unusual instrumental list of the year?) It is from this visual performance that the album artwork draws, and is a clear highpoint of the album for me. The utilization of electro-acoustic instrumentation grants the piece a flexibility and life compared with the previous compositions, a sense of openness that augments the electronic timbres. Bonnier served as Piere Henry’s assistant in the early ‘70s, and combined with his expertise, Ricard produced a masterwork in “Une autre création du monde.”