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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 19, No. 2

Some Great Works by Quebec Composers: Listening  Suggestions

by Michel Gonneville / October 1, 2013

Version française...

This article offers a selection of recordings of great musical works written by living Quebec composers aged between 55 and 70.

After briefly dabbling in serialism and a form of minimalism à la Steve Reich, José Évangelista (1943 -) founded Traditions musicales du monde, a concert society dedicated to promoting non-Western music, and quickly turned to composing music based on both non-Western and Western traditions. The Burmese piano, Javanese and Balinese gamelan, and the folklore of his native Spain in turn inspired works essentially based on melody, presented most often without accompaniment (monodic music) but enriched and ornamented by all sorts of variations (a process called heterophony). Based on two-part structure used by many traditional Indian songs, Alap et Gat (ATMA ACD22242) is a high point in his productivity, skillfully composed and immediately captivating listeners, with a slow introduction by means of a free, improvised character, and taking them in an accelerando that seems to have no end, like the melody that articulates and renews itself incessantly.

There are recordings of the iconic works of John Rea (1944 -) such as Treppenmusik (Centrediscs WRC8 6807) and Overtime (Centrediscs, CMCCD 3188), where the music flows like an exciting story, along with the changes and transformations of his own writing. We meet familiar sounds (tonalities, figurations and orchestrations) and even brilliantly integrated quotes from other music. An example of the latter is Las Meninas (for solo piano, Richelieu/Radio- Canada), full of subtleties, where the short themes of Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) are transformed according to the different styles of contemporary composers (including Claude Vivier, José Évangelista, Anton Webern, et al.). Each of these works – often the result of a thorough reflection on a slice of music history – will reveal itself to the curious and willing music lover in all its richness. Another example resulting from this process is Singulari-T (ATMA ACD22395). Launched by the beat of a metronome, it is a diptych dedicated to the memory of Hungarian composer György Ligeti, who was fascinated by the work of musical time. Taking up some pronounced oppositions characteristic of Ligeti’s style, the tensions of the original fast tempo constantly resolve themselves into dynamic rhythmic games, while the slow pulse of the second part (is it the dying breath of someone who is bedridden?), punctuated by the bells, stops abruptly at the end, like a rupturing aneurysm.

A large part of the catalogue (many works on Empreintes digitales) of Yves Daoust (1946 -) consists of purely electroacoustic works, where the sounds of daily life – sometimes those of musical instruments, as in the magnificent Quatuor – are transformed and composed into very sensitive and effective dramas. In performance some works require a real instrumental source, often a soloist, in addition to speakers broadcasting an electroacoustic part (this music is called mixed). In addition to this exchange between instrument and prerecorded sounds, Petite musique sentimentale (IMED 9106 1991) and Impromptu (IMED 0156 2001) also offer an effective dialogue with musical history: in the former, there are fragmented echoes of Satie that the piano chimes out  dreamily, and in the latter, the tensest and the softest accents of Chopin’s eponymous pieces are magnified by the synthesizer and piano. In Chorals ornés (IMED 11113 2011), 14 chorales of Bach’s Little Organ Book are recomposed for organ and fixed sounds, joined to texts of love, building a deep history of mankind in our imagination.

Those whose musical culture includes a wide range of free jazz or Frank Zappa should start exploring the repertoire of Walter Boudreau (1947 -) with older works such as Demain, les étoiles (for 12 saxophones - ATMA), Les sept jours (for 8 percussions – ATMA) and L’odyssée du soleil (brass ensemble), where these influences intersect with those of Varèse (for relief and acoustic power), Xenakis (for the energy of large sound masses) or Boulez (for the careful structuring of some passages). But perhaps the more “classical” listener would rather start with a movement of Berliner-Momente (Centrediscs CMCCD 10705), where references to Haydn and Wagner provide a foundation for understanding the composer’s characteristics, or with La vie d’un héros (ATMA ACD22551), which is more than a violin concerto: it is a beautiful funeral tribute for his friend Claude Vivier, whose music is used here as a guideline. I particularly like the “chamber” Boudreau, which, infused with live imagination, reaches great heights in variety and formal evidence in Coffre III (a)(ATMA ACD22283) and Le grand méridien.

Denis Gougeon (1951 -), to whom the SMCQ homage series will be devoted this year, is very prolific, and his career is punctuated with awards for the quality of his generous creativity. At times light, the works of this composer will connect immediately with most music lovers. But in his extensive catalogue, there are a few works that stand out for their remarkable depth. Un train pour l’enfer (1993 - UMMUS) already moved the listener but Mutations (2011 - ATMA ACD22395) reaches dramatic accents with impressive strength. Gougeon succeeds in renewing his vocabulary by purging it of many of the traits that we found familiar – as he has done, it seems, in the recent Phénix for orchestra – and adopting a single piece, relentlessly drawn to its climax and then the end.

Two of the most striking works of Serge Provost (1952 -), Le stelle, composed for the renowned Hilliard vocal quartet, and La pietra che canta for trio and electronics, are available for streaming on the website of the Canadian Music Centre (www.cmcquebec.ca). Les ruines du Paradis (ATMA ACD22376) is another example of the most recent accent of this composer’s particular poetics, a work of reflection and internalizing, but whose accents can be intense, a serious and sensitive proposal fueled by the demands of such figures as  Luigi Nono, Andrei Tarkovsky and Petrarch, among other soul-mates that we shall want to consult in order to better understand their relationship with the one who transposes their spirit.

Briefly summarizing the thought and work of Denys Bouliane (1955 -) is a challenge. As a Quebecker, this composer quickly felt some distance from the dominant European musical tradition, and he set a goal to invent his own cultural reference. Since Jeux de société and Vingt tiroirs de demi-vérités pour alléger votre descente to Du fouet et du plaisir and Qualia sui, he accomplished this especially through techniques whose application gives a strange feeling of hearing the known and familiar in a rather profuse discourse, often animated and highly nuanced in all respects. In keeping with “imaginary culture,” the latest works revolve around the mythology of an invented Native American tribe: the Anticostians. This cycle comprises two orchestral works (including a 25-minute cello concerto, Vols et vertiges du Gamache) and a work for a chamber orchestra of 15 instruments, Rythmes et échos des rivages anticostiens (ATMA ACD22395). The rhythmic dimension predominates here, remarkable both for its complexity and the clarity of its interplays. Outbursts and shifts and accelerandi come after the fallout, always varied, to the delight of the attentive listener, who will want to listen to this again and again.

More subtle but no less nuanced, Isabelle Panneton (1955 -) has developed over the years a canvas of works, often short or for reduced effect, but refined like Rameau, Haydn or Schubert, because of the attention given to the movement of lower notes (la conduite des voix). To the lightness, fluidity and mobility of early works (some audible on cmcquebec.ca) were added, in Sombre avec éclaircies and especially les Îles – whose recordings are unfortunately not available at the moment  –  formal evidence and depth, a mature language that frequent listening makes clear.

In 1998 In Auditorium (streaming on cmcquebec.ca), for large wind orchestra, revealed to the public the strength and solidity of the musical expression of André Hamel (1955 -), as well as his mastery of spatial instrumental sources. Through the use of the technique of alternating voices, he composed in some of his works incredible masses of sound, reminiscent of electroacoustic sounds. In this perspective, one should listen to À huit (ATMA ACD22396) for saxophone octet, where the sax is sometimes barely recognizable. The work, constructed from a limited number of elements (slaps, multiphonics, ghostly sounds, doppler siren effects, cries of strange birds, boat horns, sharp calls, and even a short tonal melody) presented sparsely and slowly between two silences at the beginning, are reunited, in a carefully composed progression, around the crescendo of a detuned organ, with a climax braking up in the extreme treble. At the end we have the last calls and cries of birds, breaths – glaucous color, wild. Is this another world? No, it’s ours. Think Riopelle ...

Tim Brady (1956 -) is another prolific composer, often giving the place of honour to his own instrument, the electric guitar. One could say that Brady’s musical language  is the assimilation of influences of Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, Steve Reich’s Tehillim and jazz-rock John McLaughlin’s guitar. Brady won the Opus Creation of the year with Atacama (ATMA ACD22676) for choir and instrumental ensemble, a cantata in six movements whose theme (based on the texts of a political opponent of the Pinochet regime) obtained here the formal scope, violence and dramatic breath it required. Not unwilling to mix sumptuous consonances, complex sounds and harmonic tensions, intimately bound to the messages of the poems, the characters of movements alternate among instrumental toccata, chanted choirs and great contemplative areas, with an electric guitar used sparingly, but whose presence adds a striking dimension whenever used: guns or military helicopter, or hovering song are quasi-electroacoustic from the introductory solo to the last movement.

Michel Gonneville is a composer, a professor of composition and analysis (Montreal Conservatory of Music), and the co-founder of Cette ville étrange, site of Chroniques sur la création musicale québecoise.

Translation: Wah Keung Chan and Annie Prothin

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