Well, shame on me for neglecting to do a write-up on Belgian composer Annette Vande Gorne. Penance must be paid, and that comes in the form of a twofer in this write-up, so this may be on the longish side. By the way, “penance” is not the correct word because listening to her works has been nothing but a source of joy…let’s call it, joyful penance.
First the preliminaries…like all empreintes DIGITALes releases, they are available at electrocd.com. Healthy length sound samples of the specific two I’ll be talking about, Haïkus and Illusion (both released in 2020)can be found at their individual links. I’m assuming by now that I don’t have to verbalize how good any given empreintes DIGITALes release sounds. Anyone who has been keeping up with this long, ongoing series of write-ups on the label will find it old hat.
Vande Gorne’s history in the Acousmatic world can be traced back to Pierre Schaeffer. In 1970, while engaged in a training class for choral conducting in Vichy France, she was drawn to a room emanating with “unrecognizable sounds”. Curiosity, and I’m sure bravery took hold, and she entered the room only to find…
…people sitting around with their eyes closed in front of two loudspeakers.
The rest is history, as they say. She proceeded with several years of electro-acoustic training courses and workshops through the GRM in Paris and finally, in 1977, studied under Pierre Schaeffer and Guy Reibel. Through her studies, Vande Gorne honed her listening and developed ideas based on Schaeffer’s concepts about sound and its relation to time and movement through the listener’s space. Reibel influenced her thoughts on gestures by the composer to control these sounds. Together, these tools have informed her methods of composition.
Her calling was found and the fact that the Acousmatic community as well as the public at large are still benefiting from her continuing activity is a boon to us all. My bolding above is important. All my write-ups about Acousmatic music have been from the perspective of a giant fan boy. I’m not a creator or composer of this art but I am an intense listener (and still learning how to listen to this music to achieve max. Nirvana…nope, haven’t made it there yet). I’m a card-carrying member of the public.
Unfortunately, the discipline seems to be mired in an impenetrable maze of high-brow, academic tech talk along with a “boys and their toy’s” equipment fetish. In a couple of lengthy interviews by Elizabeth Anderson in the Computer Music Journal, Vande Gorne has gone out of her way to stress the importance of public awareness and engagement by creating festivals that welcome both artists/creators AND the public.
The opening to the public is also important because music can only exist if the public knows it.
Additionally, per the above interview…she considers the studio as simply a tool to achieve her goals. Outside of the studio, since Acousmatic music shares a relationship with a fixed medium… the Acousmonium (the large loudspeaker speaker array originally conceived by François Bayle) is looked at as something necessary for proper spatialization and diffusion purposes (but I’m ok with my stereo too).
To all of this, I give a HUGE BRAVO!!! To benefit and enjoy Acousmatic music there is no need to know the “how’s” …all it takes is an active imagination. How simple is that?
Speaking of imagination, the very nature of Acousmatic music I surmise, is to engage a relationship between sound presenting in space over time (on a fixed medium) and the listener. Optimally, the goal is to enable the listener (or at least this listener) to develop a highly personal mental narrative facilitated by the composer which, of course, demands nothing less than a healthy dollop of attention. Anything less defeats the purpose, and…in my opinion lessens or even negates the experience. Before I get into the albums, there is another concept that Vande Gorne talks about that I found interesting: How Acousmatic music stands apart from what is commonly known as “music”. From these same interviews:
If electroacoustic and, particularly, acousmatic music could be in the plan of social and artistic life as Denis Dufour and Francis Dhomont prefer to have it, it would be an art which is apart, a sound art which is detached from the preoccupation of the term “music.” It would be an art like photography, like all the other types of art and their corresponding—and changing—media; for example, the evolution made by the art of representation on a stage, from the theater to the cinema to the video. One can, at that moment, say that art on a fixed medium, and particularly acousmatic music, which has a particular relationship with the imagination, could be considered to be an art form apart from music.
I’m not 100% sure I completely buy into this argument because I think CONVENTIONAL music (you know, the kind the plebs listen to) has a relationship with imagination, but I think her point is well taken. The “particular imagination” that is engaged WITHOUT the well-trodden physical gestures of the performer on stage is certainly “apart” from what is commonly known as “music” and it’s certainly (for me at least) … transcendent.
Let’s get into the music on these albums. If sound is the paint, then space is the canvas and the composer, (and/or the diffuser) is the catalyst (artist). On Haïkus, Vande Gorne is indeed a master artist using sound, space, and motion as her tools. She paints a living, mental portrait that is astounding in its detail and scope while retaining a sort of organic, earthly beauty that is captivating.
The overarching concept on this album is the five (Japanese) seasons but her intent is:
… to bring together, as much as possible, the historical repertoire of highbrow European music and current studio music writing practices: acousmatic music.
There is that word…that dreaded word…highbrow, but this time used to describe European classical music. Reading the above quote, I was glad that she didn’t use the word in the context of Acousmatic music. Score one for Team Lowbrow!
This piece was inspired by the shortness of the haiku and its long resonance in the imagination. It evokes contrasting realms from the five Japanese seasons set within an ambiophonic space (spread over 16 channels in concert).
(Note…like me, if anyone was confused about the “five seasons”, the Japanese consider New Year’s Day before their spring kicks in as a season on to itself.)
So, the album is split between the 5 seasons with several smaller “haikus” comprising each section. Hidden/embedded into the general Acousmatic tableaux there are snippets and traces of those “highbrow” European composers like Debussy, Messiaen, Ravel, Vivaldi, Schumann, and others that are referenced throughout. Personally, during my early listening experiences with this album, this aspect flew completely over my head but now, I can’t help but hear them (even though I have no idea of who the composer is). They are there, waiting to be discovered. (Or not.)
I’ve been using the word “epic” quite a bit in my last several write-ups about Acousmatic music. Artists in the discipline (Natasha Barrett and Gilles Gobeil come to mind but the list is long) are no strangers to creating vast sonic landscapes of epic proportions. Think of your favorite world-exploring RPG (or prog rock album for that matter) and then just release yourself, both mentally and physically into its service. Congratulations, you have just reached Dunsany’s realm “beyond the fields we know”.
Haïkus is another work that visits these misty places. Coursing through its 57-minute length is a seemingly endless parade of acoustic detail. The seasons are adorned by the sounds that define them. Some of the sounds are (studio) transformed while others are untransformed. The marvel is how Vande Gorne alchemically combines the two into a coherent, seamless, compelling sonic narrative.
The myriad bells on this release stand out immediately. It sounds like most of them are untransformed in the studio with the composer reaching down to the essence of their physical being. The strike, the tone, the decay…all of this is heard, or rather experienced deeply, in stunning detail. This is the physical embodiment of Acousmatic music that the composer has complete control over (Reibel’s academic idea of “gesture”?). When she combines the sound of several bells of various sizes and sonorities the results are nothing short of arresting. The way they present within the listener’s experience of time/space is transportive.
The usage of bells on Haïkus is just one facet that struck me but really, on this release Vande Gorne is “playing” the world”. The raw material in these compositions is the earthly creations all around us, whether animate and corporeal or static and phantasmagoric. The artistry is in the presentation, and on Haïkus…the world is indeed, a beautiful place.
Illusion is the sister album released around the same time in 2020. Here we have Vande Gorne playing with the notions of text and voice (both by Belgian poet Werner Lambersy) and its uniqueness within an Acousmatic framework.
The opening piece, “Au-delà du réel” again, makes use of a specific sounding body, one that was previously explored to great effect in Haïkus…bells. This sound-the physical striking of a bell is the raw material that the piece is built upon. Vande Gorne’s intent was to highlight “the human presence, the creative gesture of the musician”. It’s a haunting piece with the various bells taking on a life of their own. My personal cinema was a 3D spatial visual of hundreds of FTL space-faring vessels popping into real-time from the wormhole they just exited from.
“Déluges et autres peripeties” (Floods and Other Adventures) is the 30-minute centerpiece of this album. Vande Gorne has composed several pieces that are based on human voice, which she considers a source of sound AND meaning.
I must say that each time I compose a piece with text, I start by deeply analyzing the text; I try to feel the profound meaning of each phrase and try to put myself in the place of the author. From this analysis, which is not only a formal analysis, arise several possibilities of choice regarding material and form. It’s the first stage of composing…
I don’t speak French but per Vande Gorne, this is a “horrific poem” thus leaving her “no choice but to support it with “horrific” sounds”. Mission accomplished, the voice as sound, (which is the only way I can hear it) goes from the untransformed to the ultra-transformed. It’s the latter where these sounds reach a new level of “horrifying”.
Without knowing the meaning, some may say that I’m only at the half-way mark of hearing this piece. To that I’d say, “Ok, I’m good with that”. The intended effect, one of “horror” is indeed successfully conveyed. The delivery and intonation of the un-transformed voice is steeped with a preternatural air, but it’s when the voice is studio transformed that the (black) magic begins to happen. Reducing to a metaphorical description…it’s like the atmosphere got sucked out of the listening space and the human voice-matter becomes a base, elemental, atavistic thing. Yes, quite malevolent, and for the 30-minute duration…quite alluring in its malevolence.
The album ends with “Faisceaux”, a stark, minimalistic piece that is presented in two versions. The first is strictly a fixed medium work that worms its way into a “dark ambient” zone. Here, the timbre of the piano is the primary focus. The atmospherics hang heavy and deep with each piano note exposing itself in naked detail. The second (mixed) version adds a live piano improvisation by Ana Cláudia de Assis that effectively has her playing in response to the Acousmatic noise material coming through the loudspeakers. Both versions display a sense of darkness and unease which suggest a similarity to Belgian countrymen Univers Zero in their earlier, more acoustic period. While Haïkus had a lighter, more detailed outlook on my head film, these two pieces (and Illusion in general) are a fitting end to an album that primarily uncloaks a desolate sense of blackness.
Both come solidly and completely recommended! Within the Acousmatic community, Annette Vande Gorne’s output is rightfully respected and both Haïkus and Illusion should not be missed.
Late Addendum: empreintes DIGITALes now has a Band Camp page which you can access here. They have many releases available that I’ve talked about in the past including all the Vande Gorne albums. Go on…spend your money!