AMN Reviews: Arturo Parra – Parr(A)cousmatique (2002; empreintes DIGITALes)

This album was a grand experiment that went exceedingly…right!  As the story goes, classical guitarist Parra (and a very accomplished one at that as this album ably shows) approached five Acousmatic composers and asked them to create a work for which he would then mix himself in creating a hybrid piece.  With the exception of D’or et de lumiére where he partnered with fellow Acousmanaught Mauricio Bejarano, the partnerships with Dhomont, Gobeil and Normandeau were also recorded as stand alone pieces within their own catalog and can be heard on other records.  The Stéphane Roy piece seems to have been recorded specifically for this release.

Full disclosure, when I bought this record about 15 years ago, I didn’t bother learning about how it came into being, I just thought it was really interesting to hear (what I thought was) an electronically processed classical guitar.  It was something very new and fresh sounding to me back then because it had all the qualities I was looking for in an Acousmatic record.  Dramatic, mysterious sounds rushing inwards, backwards, whirling all around the sound stage that I mistakenly thought were all processed from the classical guitar as the only sound source.  There is a point to me mentioning this, which I’ll get to in a second…but I had no idea he was working with some of the preeminent sound pioneers of the time.

Well obviously I was (more than a) tad wrong here.  The point of all this being…Parra inserted himself over the Acousmatic backdrop in such a natural, organic way that my ears were led to believe that everything being heard was coming from one source, his guitar.  Fast forward to now…remembering how excellent this album was I decided to write about it, which lead me to the liner notes.  I was completely taken off guard when I found out who his collaborators were. Stéphane Roy, Francis Dhomont, Gilles Gobeil, Robert Normandeau, and the above-mentioned Bejarano, well Mr. Parra sure knows how to pick em, right?  The first four are very highly regarded in the Canadian corner of the field and, while I was not familiar with Bejarano, judging from his contribution I think I probably should be.

Knowing now the “truth” of this album, my regard for it has GREATLY increased.  I’m now listening to it in a different light, with a different mindset.  First of all, I’m amazed at how Parra must have composed his part over the tape.  Careful listening reveals how he must have storyboarded everything out.  I now hear the naked, unprocessed, Spanish-tinged acoustic guitar having a dialog with the manipulated taped sounds.  Not only is his playing reactive, but it’s also proactive.  It belongs there.  He never overpowers the Acousmatic sounds, instead the tape and guitar are very equal partners.  I think the whole is equal, if not greater than the parts here.  Given that some of these composers also used these pieces as stand-alone tracks on their own records, I realize I’m giving Parra very high praise.  Deservedly so in my opinion.

Additionally, Parra’s playing skills are exemplary.  Speed demon flamenco runs are everywhere, extended techniques like scraping, general guitar neck torture and “sick” notes are just where they need to be and totally compliment the taped portion.  Everything he does is in service to his partners, and visa versa…the whole thing just works perfectly.

Kicking off the album is La basilique fantome (The phantom basilica) which is the combo with Stéphane Roy.  Roy spins up some ghostly textures that cues some elegantly played Spanish guitar figures.  Nothing too dark and foreboding here, but just enough quiet unease and tension to create the mood the title suggests.  The piece ends with Roy ratcheting up the intensity quite a bit with a nearly overpowering drone prompting some dynamically equal guitar work from Parra, brilliant all the way through!

The second piece, D’or et de lumiére (Gold and light)is a pairing with Mauricio Bejarano.  Bejarano’s taped input is probably the most abstract of all the works on this album, the sounds he uses are varied and random.  Parra’s ability to seamlessly meld his playing into this tapestry is quite the testament to not only his playing talent but his imagination as well.  This piece is full of clicks, scrapes, extended guitar techniques, and micro-sounds.  Parts are quite pastoral and very melodic only to be subsumed into a maelstrom of avant-noise.  Close and numerous listens will pay off immensely. 

Next we have the dazzling Sol y sombra…L’espace des spectres (Sun and shadow…Ghosts over the ring) with Francis Dhomont.  As if things weren’t’ interesting enough, a new level is reached here.  I find it difficult to dissect each composer’s contribution in isolation, instead, taken as a whole…this piece just soars on wings of pure energy.  I hate to resort to cheesy metaphors but every time I hear this it’s like holding on for dear life as your magic carpet takes flight over a technicolor infused psychotropic Catalonian landscape.  Strap in, close your eyes and try not to freak out…sorry, no refunds.

Soledad (Solitude) with Gilles Gobeil allows you to catch your breath, but only for a little while because you soon realize that you are in a darker realm.  A possible soundtrack for Willian Hope Hodgson’s weird fiction novel The Night Land may be a good analog here.  Silence is used to good effect on this piece, and when Gobeil breaks it with his “ opening of the crypt” sonics, images of a haunted landscape are unavoidable.  At points, the silence gives way to passages of pure pandemonium which Parra wildly solos over creating a seemingly unstoppable wall of dark energy.

All this is a great segue to the final tour de force, L’envers du temps (The other side of time) with Robert Normandeau.  The dread-filled silence in the previous piece gives way to a veritable tornado of studio processed sonorities and inventive guitar heroics from Parra.  This piece also appears on Normandeau’s own album Figures (under the original name Ellipse) of which you can see my previous review here.   L’envers du temps acts as an all-out sprint to the finish line for this excellent album and always leaves a smile on my face.  High energy doesn’t even begin to describe it as Parra seems to be reaching outside of himself to muster every ounce of energy he has to keep pace with the tape.  I have to mention the final 15 seconds of this piece acts as a bolded exclamation mark just to drive it all home.

Parr(A)cousmatique works for me on all levels.  In this age of collaboration, I would love to see empreintes DIGITALes organize more partnerships like this culled from their huge roster of artists.  Unfortunately I was unable to find any suitable links to hear the full versions of these pieces but one can hear samples at the electrocd site.  This album receives a table pounding recommendation from me, not just for Acousmatic music fans but lovers of guitar as well. 

Mike Eisenberg

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