AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Canadian Electronic Ensemble -Modulisme Session 053 [Modulisme]

Founded in 1971 and still in operation, the Canadian Electronic Ensemble claims to be the “oldest continuous live-electronic group in the world.” The group was originally a quartet made up of University of Toronto graduate students David Jaeger, Jim Montgomery, Larry Lake, and David Grimes; over the next fifty years the ensemble underwent changes in size and makeup, reducing to a trio and then growing to a sextet between 1978 and 2002 and then undergoing frequent shifts in personnel after that. Even so, on this collection of recordings spanning 1976-2018, there is a surprising stability at the core, with Montgomery and Jaeger present on all six selections.

In addition to changes in personnel, there have been changes in the group’s instrumentation, an inevitability given developments in electronic technologies for sound production and reproduction. Early analogue synthesizers have largely although apparently not completely been replaced by laptops, as the group still employs modular synths as well as acoustic instruments. The bulk of the recordings on the Modulisme session postdate 2000, putting them firmly in the laptop years.

The earliest piece in the collection is Surge, a live performance recorded 19 August 1976 in St. Lawrence Hall, Toronto, with the original quartet. Like much early electronic music, Surge is about exploring the possibilities of synthesized sound—its timbral range and pitch compass. Low-frequency drones and high-frequency pings alternate and mutate into closely and then distantly related sounds; the compositional factor enters into the group’s deft use of negative spaces and dynamics to create a balanced overall sound. In essence, Surge provides the template for much of what follows. Ambient Pinging, a 2002 recording featuring Jaeger, Lake, Montgomery, Mike Dobinson, and longtime members Rose Bolton and Paul Stillwell, both of whom joined the group in the late 1990s, is more thickly textured than Surge, but continues and extends the older piece’s use of timbral counterpoint. The most recent recordings date from a live studio session of September 2018 with Jaeger, Montgomery, Stillwell, Bolton, and David Sutherland. The electronic voices represented are a combination of the classic and contemporary, and here too the ensemble’s signature approach, which Sutherland describes as “more about sound than melody or harmony,” is on full display.

Daniel Barbiero