Vol. 28 Issue 3 Reviews
McGill Electronic Music Studio 35th Anniversary: Tornado—Electroacoustic Compositions

Compact discs (2), 2001, McGill Records 2001-01-2; available from Electronic Music Studio, Faculty of Music, McGill University, 555 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal, Quebec H3A 1E3, Canada; Web www.music.mcgill.ca/resources/mcgillRecords/tornado.html

Reviewed by James Harley
Moorhead, Minnesota, USA

CoverHugh Le Caine is well-known as one of the pioneers of electronic music, working from the 1940s through the 1970s on a series of novel instruments and studio devices. He remained ensconced as a researcher at the National Research Council of Canada throughout his career, but he was nonetheless instrumental in supporting the establishment of the first electronic music studios in Canada. He donated copies of his devices, and worked with the musicians associated with the studios to develop new ones, or modified versions of existing ones, tailored to the needs/desires of his collaborators. The studio at the University of Toronto began operations in 1959, and the one at McGill University in Montreal was launched in 1964.

It is the McGill EMS that is celebrated in this two-CD set, issued in 2001. Originally intended to signal the 35th anniversary of the studio, work on combing the studio archives for a representative historical collection of pieces began in 1999 under the direction of studio director, alcides lanza. It is certainly appropriate that Hugh Le Caine be given the opening spot in the collection, as he was a composer as well as an engineer. His compositions are often dramatic, at times humorous, and Paulution, from 1972, is no exception. This piece’s moniker, a pun that includes reference to then-studio director, Paul Pedersen, comes with a subtitle, “Charnel No. 5” (“a building or chamber in which bodies or bones are deposited”). The music was produced with his Polyphone instrument, a three-octave touch-sensitive keyboard capable of 36-voice polyphony with each oscillator tunable independently and provided with its own waveform shaper, all functions being voltage controlled. The sounds of this short piece are remarkably rich, given the limited palette of electronic tones, and sensitively shaped.

In the early days of electronic music studios, the particular technology installed at each facility strongly influenced the music produced. In the case of the McGill EMS, this relative distinctiveness, strongly shaped by the Le Caine instruments such as the Polyphone, continued through to the onset of the digital era, when the Synclavier became a central component of the studio. Along with the technology, though, the “sound” of the studio tends to be shaped by the particular aesthetic and cultural confluence of the people attached to it. The first director of the McGill studio was Istvan Anhalt, a Hungarian-Canadian composer with a strong interest in exploring the limits of vocal utterance and performance. His work included on this set, Canto (1967), is a “creative reduction” of a poem by Eldon Grier for chamber choir and tape. The voices recite rather than sing, following what sound to be graphically-generated contours, and the electronic sounds enhance the textures of the choir parts, occasionally contributing processed vocal pronouncements.

Paul Pederson, the second director of the studio, is, according to the liner notes, the first composer in Canada to produce a computer-generated composition. His Fantasie (1967) is a tape work commissioned to accompany a presentation of hand-painted slides by Gino Bielanski. There are references to “Shepard Scales” (perpetually ascending or descending tones), and textures built from combinations of sine waves, square waves, and white noise. Apparently, much of the piece was created on Le Caine’s Spectrogram, a photo-electronic device that reads rhythmic patterns drawn on a roll of paper.

alcides lanza arrived in Montreal from Argentina by way of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and has directed of the EMS at McGill since 1974 (recently succeeded by Sean Ferguson). His energy and openness over the past 30 years have been to a large extent responsible for attracting guest composers and for motivating students to explore the potential of the facilities and their own creative capacity. As a by-product of the studio’s activities, Mr. lanza launched GEMS (Group of the EMS, McGill) in 1983, an ensemble/collective that has organized concerts, performed all manner of works, primarily mixed acoustic/electroacoustic, and produced recordings (three to date). GEMS celebrated its 20th anniversary with a series of concerts and related events in October 2003. Interferences III (1983), for voice, ensemble, and tape, was written for GEMS and Mr. lanza’s wife and frequent musical collaborator, Meg Sheppard. This is an evocative work, spun out from a central pitch, the vocal part containing no recognizable text but nonetheless standing out from the ensemble. The electronic sounds are clearly identifiable as being produced on the Synclavier.

Swedish-Canadian composer Bengt Hambraeus was an early electronic music practitioner, having worked in the studio in Cologne in the late 1950s and having helped garner support for this new genre in his native Sweden. He began teaching at McGill in 1972 and produced the piece heard here, Tornado, in 1976. According to the liner notes, the sounds were all created using analog synthesizers, shaped to “re-create the psychological effect on somebody in a desperate situation without any escape route.” This is a remarkable work; the vitality of the sonic material is powerful, an effect difficult to obtain using purely synthetic sources, and the dramatic outline is compelling. It is an appropriate tribute to the force of his musical expression that this CD set be named after Mr. Hambraeus’s composition (he died in 2000, as the recording project was in the midst of being produced).

Bruce Pennycook, the last faculty member to be presented in this collection, moved to McGill in 1987. He is well-known to the computer music community as a researcher, primarily in the domain of interactive performance. As part of this work, he composed a series of compositions, Praescio, for live musicians and computer. Praescio II: Amnesia (1988) is scored for soprano, chamber ensemble, and computer. The text is a setting of a poem by Tessa McWatt, ably sung by Pamela Jordan Schiffer and members of GEMS (taken from a 1990 concert recording). The computer-generated sounds, here MIDI patches, are well integrated into the fabric of the music, as was the intent. The ability, novel at the time (in the pre-Max/MSP age), to trigger sequences of material at will according to the dictates of the performance as it uniquely unfolds, makes for a fluid, natural musical performance.

It is somewhat unusual for a university studio to open its facilities to guests who are neither faculty nor students. But, over the years, the McGill EMS has welcomed many. Three works by visiting composers are presented as part of this historical collection. Frederico Richter, a Brazilian musician, produced Sonhos e Fantasia in 1980. This is an analog work using electronic sounds manipulated using classic studio techniques to produce a dream-like fantasy. Gilles Gobeil, based in Montreal, created Rivage in 1986. He combines recordings of everyday life with electronic sounds to explore conflict and interplay between these sources. Ricardo Pérez Miró, from Argentina, visited McGill in 1999. His Entre la noche y el océano is an evocative work that explores the poetic resonances of a variety of sounds, including a range of piano sonorities.

The second disc of the set primarily presents works by student composers. A number of them continue to remain active in the electroacoustic domain. There is always a risk in including student works in such a forum as an internationally-distributed CD. But, with decades of students and literally hundreds of compositions in the archives, Mr. lanza was able to choose a very strong cross-section of works created between 1983 and 1993, all of them standing up well to critical scrutiny. I will leave it to the listener to judge the music for themselves, instead merely introducing the pieces here (as a former McGill student myself, most of these people are friends of mine, in any case).

Osvaldo Budón, originally from Argentina, is represented by …para el trato con el desierto (1992), a dramatic exploration of attack, resonance, and silence. Laurie Radford produced Enclave (1993) on the studio’s NeXT computer using Csound, utilizing Linear Predictive Coding and phase vocoding to create some interesting sounds and sonic transformations. Brent Lee was inspired by T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” for his Deliberate Disguises (1986), and he presents in poetic fashion an eclectic collection of sounds, from sustained electronic washes to percussive clackings and rattlings. Michael Picton produced his Bagatelles in 1993, triggering a set of samples (wooden flutes, torn or crumpled paper, synthesized tones) “live” from a MIDI keyboard to shape the material into “statements and counterstatements resembling… classical phrasing.” Alain Thibault completed Déca-Danse in 1983, using the Synclavier. This piece, organized in 10 sections, draws on the energy of popular dance music (more obliquely than much of his later work), while arguing a Reagan-era political point.

Tornado: Electroacoustic Compositions is an impressive document of over 30 years of work in the studios of the McGill EMS. The recordings sparkle; the old analog tapes have clearly been treated with care and spruced up for this presentation. Much good work has been done at this facility, clearly, and one can only hope that more electronic music studios will delve into their archives to preserve and present the creative record of their years of operation.