AMN Reviews: Robert Normandeau – Figures (2009; empreintes DIGITALes)

I consider Montreal based artist Robert Normandeau’s work an excellent gateway to the weird, wonderful world of Acousmatic music.  The release of Figures in 1999 (and reissued in 2009) provides a great launchpad for exploration, either backward or forwards.  Figures lacks some of the more abstract moves that were heard on the 1994 release Tangram but still retained enough of what I consider a traditional “acousmatic feel” (that is to say, ambiguous sound sources made even more ambiguous by synthetic manipulation that is artfully and logically stitched together to form a synergistically satisfying whole).  Beginning with Puzzles (2005) his music became more polished, more smooth-edged.  Elements of power electronics and drone were very creatively employed while still maintaining his original artistic aesthetic.   These later albums were excellent in their own right but stylistically different than his earlier works.

The reason I believe Normandeau’s work is a good gateway to the Acousmatic world is because he does not shy away from melody.  He creates notes that are relative to each other, thus creating intervals which in turn create harmonic figures, something that can be interpreted as melody.  This may provide a bit of a lifeline to someone’s first encounter with this music.  Instead of an initial reaction like “what is this noise I’m hearing”, it may give the listener a feeling of familiarity or safe harbor.  Maybe some respite from all the other “alien” sounds that are also being presented.  Additionally, the later releases (Puzzles, Palimpsests, Domes) have sounds/drones that may resemble what is coming out of the Ambient/Dark Ambient or even Industrial world.  This material may hold more familiarity with some.

Figures is comprised of four long pieces ranging from 13 to 19 minutes.  Three of the pieces were constructed strictly in the studio with no human interaction other than the composer.  Only “Figures de rhetorique” had a live performer interacting with the tape (Jacques Drouin on piano).

The first piece, “The Fox and the Rose” relies heavily on Normandeau’s fondness for using the human voice as a sound source.  The voice appears quite frequently in many of his releases across his catalog.  In this instance, it is used not to convey language but more of a reservoir for various sounds.  Laughs, grunts and guttural exclamations are sampled and manipulated to produce actual beats and other features throughout.  This piece is a fascinating journey that flows along in a linear fashion, constantly morphing in a very natural manner where the listener might not realize the changes that are taking place until it’s over.  This, as in all the pieces on Figures packs a lot of power and is quite the riveting listen.  It crescendos in grand Parmegiani-esq fashion with a twisting kaleidoscopic whirlwind of sound. 

The next piece, “Figures de rhetorique” has the added benefit of a live performer on piano.  The piano contribution is scored in parts and improvised in others and is a wonderful foil to the synthetic wrangling from Normandeau.   This results in a very successful studio marriage between the acoustic and the electric.  Over it’s 14 minute time frame we have a frenetic work out of spikey Don Pullen-like piano clusters augmented by the omnipresent studio mutations by the composer.  This clip is performed by Vasyl Tsanko handling the piano duties.

Next comes “Venture”.  This is my second favorite work on the album behind “The Fox and the Rose”, but it is a bit of an outlier.  This is Normandeau’s homage to day’s gone by, namely 70’ rock…and to be even more precise, 70’s prog rock.  This piece seems to be constructed exclusively of samples from his prog rock record collection, although I’m finding it difficult to identify the source material on most of this.  (Maybe I’m not as big of a fan as I thought I was, shame on me I guess!)  Normandeau did a masterful job of stitching taped snippets of this material together and the end result is otherworldly. It doesn’t have the punchy attack of everything else on this record, instead it’s an endless flow of layered sounds that all seem to coalesce within each other.  I see it as a gentle excursion into the past and I believe Tod Dockstader would be proud of him.

Finally, we get to “Ellipse”.  This is a collaboration between Normandeau and guitarist Arturo Parra.  Parra typically works within the crossroads of fixed medium mixed with acoustic guitar.  He has an excellent release, also on empreintes DIGITALes called Parr (A) Cousmatic that I’d like to write about eventually and is well worth checking out.  This piece is another brilliant pairing that just works.  Parra’s level of playing is technically precise as well as emotionally charged, and the synergies released from this combination is brilliant.  You can hear a short sample (which unfortunately does not do the piece justice) as well as the liner notes for the album and other biographical information here.

Figures is my most played Normandeau album but I can recommend his entire catalog. He is another (in a long line) of composers on the empreintes DIGITALes label that deserve a level of higher recognition in the electronic music world.  This record provides a great starting point if you have yet to experience him.

Mike Eisenberg

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