Vol. 30 Issue 4 Reviews

Bourges CDs

25e Concours International de Musique Electroacoustique, Bourges: Prix Quadrivium
Compact discs (2), 1998, Cultures électroniques 11, LCD 278 065/66; available from Institut International de Musique Electroacoustique de Bourges, Place André Malraux, B.P. 39, 18001 Bourges Cedex, France; telephone (+33) 2-48-20-41-87; fax (+33) 2-48-20-45-51; electronic mail administration@ime-bourges.org; World Wide Web www.imeb.asso.fr/.

Compendium International Bourges 2001
Compact discs (2), 2001, Chrysopée Electronique 20, LCD 278 11 22/23; available from Institut International de Musique Electroacoustique de Bourges, Place André Malraux, B.P. 39, 18001 Bourges Cedex, France; telephone (+33) 2-48-20-41-87; fax (+33) 2-48-20-45-51; electronic mail administration@ime-bourges.org; World Wide Web www.imeb.asso.fr/.

29e Concours International de Musique et d’Art Sonore Electroacoustiques, Bourges: Lauréats du Magisterium et du Trivium
Compact discs (2), 2002, Cultures électroniques 16, LCD 278 076/77; available from Institut International de Musique Electroacoustique de Bourges, Place André Malraux, B.P. 39, 18001 Bourges Cedex, France; telephone (+33) 2-48-20-41-87; fax (+33) 2-48-20-45-51; electronic mail administration@ime-bourges.org; World Wide Web www.imeb.asso.fr/.

Reviewed by Laurie Radford
London, UK

The renowned electroacoustic music festival and competition held yearly since 1973 in Bourges, France, continues to provide a point of reference for many practitioners of the sonic arts. From the early days of tape works to the currently expanding categories of programmatic work and work involving technology and live performance, the Institut International de Musique Electroacoustique de Bourges (IMEB) has championed experimental sonic art and has diligently documented and promoted the activities of the institute, festival, and competition by means of journals, composer portraits, audio compilations, and, of course, the illustrious prizes awarded to each year’s competition winners. The annual CD compilation of prizewinners offers an overview of international compositional activity and has for a number of years included a retrospective of works from the early years of the competition and festival. This format, with master composers of the genre placed beside young upstarts in the prize categories and compilation recordings, has fostered a sense of breadth and commitment with regard to its practitioners and offers evidence of the historical context and development of the art form.

Each year’s compilation is presented as a double CD and includes approximately ten to twelve works. (This is admittedly a small sampling of the more than 400 works typically submitted to the festival and competition and reflects the decision of that year’s jury.) This review will give a brief overview of some of the works that were deemed worthy of distinction in the competitions of 1998, 2001, and 2002 as well as several of the early works included in the Coda Mémoire addenda of these recordings.

The 1998 compilation offers eight works representing prize-winning composers from England, France, Sweden, USA, Spain, and Italy, as well as winning works from the 1970s and 1980s. Natasha Barrett’s Little Animals garnered an Electroacoustic Music Studio prize in the 1998 competition and is a good example of this accomplished composer’s detailed, sensitive approach to sound and sonic design. The work is at moments playful and boisterous, at others reflective and serene, always animated by rich sound materials and masterful unfurling of sonic textures. There is in this work an infectious sense of curiosity and amazement at the glorious world of sounds, their shapes and colors, their trajectory and mass. Two other works offered from the Electroacoustic Studio category are Paul Koonce’s Walkabout and Voz Oculta by José Manrique. Mr. Koonce’s work is a study in the juxtaposition of environmental and traditional musical sound materials. It navigates an eclectic path of everyday sounds in collision or combination with materials and mannerisms of various musical traditions. Despite the dated sound of some of the synthetic materials and processing, it is an engaging work that propels the listener with sharp contrasts and bold sonic images. Mr. Manrique’s much shorter work adopts a similar approach to combining environmental recordings with studio-based sound generation and transformation, but to a much more abstract end result. Waves and impulses of sound carry the listener in a state of suspension, fractured briefly by changes of texture and density, with only fleeting suggestions of the sources from which the sounds arise.

The Electroacoustic Music with Instruments category is also represented on this compilation by three works. Vifs Instants by Gilles Racot combines a small instrumental ensemble (here the Archeus Ensemble from Bucharest) with carefully modified recordings of these same instruments in a work that draws acoustic and electroacoustic sound worlds into a highly convincing interplay and exploration of “mobility, rapidity, suddenness, and impact.” Although moments when the distance between acoustic and electroacoustic evaporate into pure spectral pulsation are frequent and alluring, there is evident and successful attention to the balance of instrumental performance and sonic fusion with an insistent percussion solo staking out the ensemble’s territory before the instruments are subsumed in the massive textures and frenzy of the concluding minutes of the work. Emanuel Casale’s four-min Studio pits a solo horn with warped and garbled reflections of itself in a fervid series of call and response episodes, while the much lengthier Games by Fabio Cifariello Ciardi ably offers a tantalizingly raspy, amplified contrabass part as a capable contender amid a whirling storm of rich, eruptive sound events, at times in conflict with, at others supportive of, the solo instrument.

The Programmatic Electroacoustic Music category of the Bourges competition offers a nod to the art form’s radiophonic roots as well as providing composers with the opportunity to explore the narrative strengths and potential of electroacoustic art. Prizewinners in 1998 in this category include Jonas Broberg’s Conversation in Cadaqués and We, we the waves by Love Mangs. The distinction between works submitted in the programmatic and studio categories is rather vague with the criteria of a program or narrative as the basis of the programmatic work, whether overtly present in the work or not, being the only identifiable difference. (Given that many purely electroacoustic works rely on similar strategies, this distinction is somewhat suspect in all but the most blatant cases.) Nonetheless, Mr. Broberg’s work is uplifting and suggestive of movement and travel with a conversational underpinning punctuating highly developed and constantly varying sound textures. Mr. Mangs’ 20-min piece (subtitled “an acoustic poem”) is more exemplary of a programmatic work. Its highly delineated formal design admirably controls the emotional weight and imagery of the August Strindberg poem upon which it is based. A few words of the poem, hesitantly spoken, appear near the beginning of the work and set the desolate tone of the work which is made up predominantly of swaths of undulating waves, distant pulsations, and unsettling turbulence. Vocal materials, now stretched and shaped to bind with the poem’s images of water, flames, wind, and waves reappear midway and drive the work to a stormy climax and an appropriately desolation conclusion.

The Coda Mémoire works included with the 1998 Bourges compilation are Barry Truax’s Sonic Landscape No.3 (1977), Klaus Röder’s Mr Frankenstein’s Babies (1982), Patrick Kosk’s Nebula-Prospekt (1985), and Ton Bruynel’s Chicharra’s (1986). Mr. Truax’s piece harkens back to the early days of computer music having garnered first prize in that fledgling category in 1977 with long evolving and short chattering FM materials distinctive of the time. Mr. Röder’s piece is a tour de force of vocal recording manipulation with a hyper-choir jumping from highly rhythmic, chattering textures to abrupt, somewhat cheesy synthesizer harmonic blasts. Mr. Bruynel’s work is an ode to Spain with the over-present buzz and hum of cicadas wreathing the voice of Lino Calle de Segovia intoning an homage to this captivating landscape.

A change to the title for the competition in 2002 (International Competition of Music and Electroacoustic Sound Art) is reflected in the compilation Cultures électroniques 16, Bourges 2002 and indicates a reaction on the part of the organizers to the growing diversity of styles and strategies in the sonic art community and the need to acknowledge this at the festival and competition. The 2002 compilation consists of six works from that year’s competition and four retrospective works from earlier competitions.

Two works by Argentinean Ricardo Mandolini figure here, La noce en que los peces flotaron, which was awarded the Magisterium Prize in 2002, and an early work from 1979, El cuaderno del alquimista. La noce… is an illusive, fleeting piece that teases the listener with wisps of sound, isolated pulsations, slowly accumulating masses of undulation and an ever-present disarming calm. Midway through the work, a frantic, suspended choir leads the piece towards the first of two climatic moments. Mr. Mandolini’s El cuaderno del alquimista clarifies the rarified character of La noce… as a distinctive compositional trait, already in evidence and extensively explored in this earlier work. The voice appears in this work as a favored source of sonic material and concept. Dense slabs of sound are abruptly juxtaposed with faltering particles, both vying with a heavy, intervening silence that regulates the ponderous pace of the work.

American John Christopher Nelson’s Scatter lives up to the implied energy and spatial concept of its title (and would surely be even more engaging in its multi-channel version). The particular textures, grainy rasps, and careening punctuations fill the soundstage in an impressive display of spatial composition closely aligned to temporal and timbral function. Baoding by Canadian David Berezan is a highlight of this collection with its athletic, gestural character and bountiful timbral palette ably controlled and molded into a terse, engaging piece in three short movements.

All of the works cited so far were winners in the Electroacoustic Music category of the 2002 competition. Portugal’s Joao Pedro Oliveira’s Labirinto is one of the two winners of the Electroacoustic Music with Instruments category featured on this compilation.  This work features the Arditti String Quartet in combination with an electroacoustic component, the two closely allied in gestural energy and character. Mr. Oliveira excels in string writing and electroacoustic design that meet in a common territory of sonic impulse, contrapuntal texture, delicate exploration of extreme registers, and a confident regulation of harmonic and inharmonic, all articulated and shaped convincingly over the piece’s 16-min duration. The other prize-winning work in this category, To walk the night by Italian Marco Marinoni, integrates the performance of four instrumentalists seamlessly into the nervous, frenetic fabric of electroacoustic chatter and explosion.

The sole work in the newly introduced Sonic Art category from the 2002 competition is Vibratility.Mozaik by Eric La Casa (France) and Slavek Kwi (Ireland),a collaborative work constructed from many hours of recordings made in a bell foundry in France. Despite the sequential nature of the collaboration (with each of the two artists providing independent versions of the selected and transformed source materials which were subsequently combined and mixed), the work is a coherent, rich aural voyage through clouds of humming drones, industrial collage, and finely crafted punctuation. The temporal frame and proportions are entirely convincing in this grand fresco of soundscape capture married to skilled intervention.
Three lengthy works are included on this compilation as part of the Coda Mémoire retrospective of earlier Bourges competition winners. Tim Souster’s The Transistor Radio of St Narcissus (1984) is a 24-min work for bugle, live electronics, and electroacoustic component based on a passage from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. The long arcs of this work are remarkably assured, exhibiting diverse timbral evolution and demarcated by effective points of articulation. The bugle is a motivating force throughout the work serving as soloist, instigator of cascades of sound processes, and contemplative outsider reflecting upon the sonic expanse of the work. An expulsive bugle solo embellished by pitch-bent multi-tap delays hovering above an ominous drone appears prior to the somber final section of the work.

Chile Fértil Provincia, also from 1984 by Gabriel Brncic, and also weighing in at just under 24 minutes, veers through numerous diverse sound worlds, from barrages of electronic chattering to long sections of string orchestra accompanied by faltering drum punctuations, from the disassembling of a piano smothered in the dripping of water to slowly diverging glissando driven by beating drums and mumbling radio-like voices in its depiction of the epic poem, “La Araucana,” an account of the conquest of Chile. Without an intimate knowledge of the poem, the work tends to sound like a series of unrelated episodes strung together without any overriding formal design or attention to mechanisms of structural coherence.

Ake Parmerud’s 1978 work Närheter is a text-sound piece originally destined for radiophonic diffusion. It consists of several long sections depicting firstly the story of creation and subsequently the concept of dance. The relationship of varying states of sleep to the main structural concepts of the work apparently function as important links to the (Swedish) text of the piece. One obviously misses a great deal of the import of the work if one doesn’t understand the language that animates much of its content. Nonetheless, there is a sonic interplay and development between the spoken word, modified voice materials, and electroacoustic design that propels the work and makes clear its formal and expressive intentions.

From its inception, IMEB has developed research and compositional components amongst its various activities, and has established distinctive studio and performance facilities that have attracted many composers from around the world to work and perform in Bourges. In 2000, IMEB began issuing a new series of compilations under the title Compendium International, a collection of recordings bringing together works that were composed in the same year at the studios of IMEB. The Compendium from 2001 consists of eleven works by composers from France, Sweden, Spain, Argentina, and Poland, including Christian Clozier, Erik Mikael Karlsson, Eduardo Polonio, Beatriz Ferreyra, Jacky Merit, Elzbieta Sikora, Françoise Barriere, Horacio Vaggione, Adolfo Nunez, Patrick Ascione, and Philippe Auclair.

With the accessibility of software and the similarity of the architectures and interfaces of plug-in and mixing environments, there is increasing interest of late concerning the impact that particular environments and technologies have on the creative act, the tools no longer viewed as transparent in consideration of the work. The sound of certain studios and the unique instruments they often housed in the 1960s and 1970s left an indelible imprint on many works composed in those facilities. Although the effect of certain tools available in the Bourges studios can be heard in some of the works in this collection, the diversity of individual styles and approaches to technology and sound materials guarantees that there isn’t an overriding “Bourges” sound per se.

Mr. Karlsson’s Lignage/Liaison is an evocative reflection in six movements on the poem “Chant Nocturne d’un berger errant d’Asie” by the 19th-century poet Giacomo Leopardi. Contemplative and finely crafted in shape and momentum, there is always a sense of intense, clear purpose in this work, whether at moments of near stasis or when scurrying fragments of sound dart through the dark receding textures. Ms. Ferreyra’s La ba-balle du chien-chien à la mé-mère takes the listener on a delightful sonic exploration of the sounds of a ball, a dog, and a grandmother. The contributions of the source materials are rich and varied in their many transformed guises and an ever-present poetic tension between origin and destination provides a convincing framework for the gestural and formal design of the piece. 24 Variations by Horacio Vaggione imaginatively expands a small source collection of sound materials into a diverse but unified sonic universe, the variations of the title referring more to the wealth of subtle gradations of variance from one version of a sound to another than to distinct formal units over its 10-min duration. A similar energy and propulsion characterize the distinct sections of the work and lends another interpretation to the variations at work in this detailed composition. Patrick Ascione’s Divertissement is, as the name implies, a light-hearted work with buoyant timbres, a clearly articulated formal design, and a sonic proposition that is deliberately narrow in range of expression and exploration. The result is rather uneven and rambling with a strained avoidance of more engaging use of certain materials and an over-reliance on streams of pallid, pulsing materials devoid of direction. Several other of the works on this compilation share this characteristic in regards to temporal proportions. Nonetheless, it remains an interesting overview of the output of electroacoustic practitioners during a short period of time in a world-renowned studio facility.

Compilations from festivals, competitions, gallery curation, and special events afford the opportunity to sample a cross-section of work from a particular event and within a particular time frame. The audio compilations published by IMEB give us access to a cross-section of this yearly activity of electroacoustic production, presentation, and appreciation. IMEB and the Bourges festival and competition continue to provide opportunities for electroacoustic composers to submit their work to the greater sonic arts community for evaluation and dissemination.