Montreal’s Tenzier continues to unearth fascinating artifacts from across Montreal’s diverse musical heritage. Past records have ranged from visionary and singular electronic music to the distinct brand of free jazz and free improvisation that has been cultivated in Quebec. But Tenzier’s sound cannot be pinned down, just like Quebec itself. For instance, the electronic new wave duo Cham-pang’s Tant pis 81-82 sounds as unclassifiable today as it did when it was recorded 35 years ago, a fascinating and bewildering combination of electronically driven grooves and a warped pop sensibility, made truly exceptional by the power of the vocal delivery. Wonderfully bizarre, infectious, and perpetually fresh.
Rien Ô Tout Ou Linéaire Un, too, is in a category of its own, though one with none of the groove or pop. Rien Ô Tout consists solely of one composition split across both sides of the record, from artist, drummer, and improvisor Guy Thouin. Thouin was studying percussion at McGill University by this point in his career, and created this composition as an immersive sound environment to accompany “Structure immatérielle,” a laser sculpture designed by the artist Roland Poulin, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal in 1971. Poulin would become defined by his minimal, formalist sculptures and in situ works, perhaps akin to Donald Judd if he worked in wood, or Malevitch if he worked in 3D. His earlier work was confined to the flat surface, in the form of analytic drawings and collages. His first solo exhibition, inspired by countercultural Happenings, employed “laser beams and rays of light.” Regardless of medium, Poulin’s work explores the space where the fullness of form meets the emptiness of the void. While we cannot experience “Structure immatérielle” ourselves, Thouin’s sonic accompaniment seems to pursue a similar balance of the empty and the full, as implied by the nothing and all of its title.
As a vinyl recording, one side flows into the other, with no clear entrance point but rather a slowly evolving series of sonic events that continually intersect. This is not a beautiful or even inviting piece, hardly something one would typically expect to be played in an “ambient'” or “environmental” context. Instead the result is powerful and evocative, drawing attention to itself and disrupting the listener’s attempt at peaceful contemplation.
A Montreal native, Thouin’s multifaceted body of work is typical of the kind of creativity one associates with that city. Educated as an artist, having studied sculpture and contemporary art, he co-founded the Quatuor de jazz libre du Québec in 1967, one of Montreal’s innovative free jazz ensembles (whose work has previously been highlighted by the wonderful Tenzier label). Thouin also played with rock groups, and joined l’Infonie for their 1969 self-titled debut, the product of a wild rock commune which produced four albums at the intersection of rock, jazz, classical, and pop which influenced Quebecois progressive rock.
Rien Ô Tout Ou Linéaire Un nods somewhat towards the sororities one might expect of free improvisation, however the results have clearly been ordered and composed. Even when individual elements can be quite abrasive, there is an apparent order and restraint guiding its perpetual movement. The primary sound objects consist of screeching vibrato pitches and crashing percussion, ornamented with the occasional staccato notes on a dismantled piano. Not quite electroacoustic music, as most of the sounds are untreated, the use of magnetic tape is nonetheless central Rien Ô Tout‘s aesthetic. The screeching pitches originate from a modified koto, a stringed instrument that is the national instrument of Japan. The koto has moveable bridges, for tuning, and as one plucks with one hand one can modify pitch by bending the string with the other. Here, rather than plucked, the koto seems to be bowed, producing a sound more akin to a kokyū or erhu, seemingly without any attempt to produce a pleasant tone. A cloud of percussion comes and goes, generally mallets beating symbols with the occasional crash. Reverse tape noises and the general constructed quality of the piece suggests extensive tape editing and manipulation.
If Rien Ô Tout Ou Linéaire Un seems to reject pleasant sounds in favor of abrasiveness, startling the listener to attention, perhaps we would do well to consider the historical context. Poulin’s show at Montreal’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which ran from October 21 to November 7, 1971, occurred one year after the October Crisis, in which Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures act in response to the kidnapping of Quebec’s Deputy Premiere and a British diplomat by Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), effectively imposing martial law on the province. While Quebec’s Révolution tranquille was considered to be “quiet,” this was a most unquiet time, and sometimes noise is called for. Jazz Libre, of which Thouin was a founding member, certainly embraced improvisation as a means of bringing about radical change in Quebec, and in their case a radical avant-garde aesthetic reflected their politics, even establishing an artistic commune for activists and artists to live collectively and share ideas. 1970 was a defining year for Jazz Libre’s sound, as they continued to embrace avant-garde music. I can only assume that Rien Ô Tout carries with it at least some of the same political drive. While the efficacy of such activities is open to debate, 2018 feels like the right time to re-open the question. (Joseph Sannicandro)