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The Plasticity of Sound: A Swedish Retrospective

By Stephanie Loveless

eContact! 6.2

 On Sunday, March 23rd,  at 8 pm, the concluding evening of the Rien a Voir electroacoustic  music series took place at the Musée  d'Art Contemporain. This evening featured the Swedish acousmatic  composer Ake Parmerud, who presented a carte-blanche selection  of works followed by a retrospective of his own work. The acousmatic  genre of electroacoustics may be roughly defined as electronically  created tape music in which the notions of melody and rhythm are  de-centered in favour of a focus on the timbral qualities of sound.  The notion of performing in an acousmatic context usually refers  to the diffusion of the sound throughout the concert space through  multiple speakers (in this case, twenty-four, including a circle  of eight main speakers, four bass, and two overhead speakers),  in such a way that the sound appears to move throughout the space.  It is a dance between the composed work and the performer's interpretation,  much as it is in the realm of traditional music performance. Unfortunately,  my ability to judge this crucial aspect of the concert was hampered  by the steeply racked seating of the concert theater, which left all seats but those at the high rear acoustically unbalanced. I  tried two different seats throughout the evening, but neither enabled  me to adequately experience, let alone comment upon, the diffusion  of sound throughout the space. Forced to contend with the electroacoustic  concert equivalent of sitting behind a pole at the opera, I turned  my focus to the quality and development of sound, as opposed to  its movement through space, and in this I was far from disappointed.

Although the shape of the black-box theater was problematic in  terms of diffusion, excellent speakers and dampening curtains helped  to create a very dry acoustic space in which sounds were able to  emerge undistorted. The theatricality of the this space was emphasized  by a smoke machine (unfortunately common at Rien a Voir shows,  and having tendency to make me cough), subtle theatrical lighting,  and video projections of the titles of each piece. The pieces Parmerud  presented were all fixed-medium and medium-length works by his  contemporaries - - middle-aged male Swedish acousmatic composers.  The concert- proper was preceded by an avant-programme, highlighting  the young, emerging Québecois artist, Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay.  Tremblay presented his «Autoportrait» (2001), an alternately  playful and majestic piece which flirts with traditional music  as it deconstructs various bits of jazzy instrumentation, exploring  their resonant qualities and punctuating these with various noise  bursts. Unlike the works to follow, this work was presented in  complete darkness, in adherence to the electroacoustic concert  tradition to which the title of the Rien a Voir festival refers.

Before commencing, Parmerud addressed the audience, briefly (and  charmingly) putting the carte-blanche selections which we were  about to hear in historical context. The first piece which he presented,  Rolf Enstrom's «Directions» (1979), which had been  described as an «expressionist» work, was made up of  small, beautiful sounds, often «wet» sounding and high  in frequency, which were articulated in a sparse overall texture.  The next piece, Par Lindgren's «Houndinism» (1984),  Parmerud had characterized as an example of the «constructive  style» of acousmatics. He referred to the genre of work to  which it belongs as «sculptural,» as not having a clear  beginning or ending but being, rather, an «extract of eternity.» I  wasn't sure exactly how this applied as I listened to the piece.  I did, however, begin to decipher the evenings theme of small,  frictional sounds. This often percussive, trancelike piece focused  on the sounds of knocking, metallic resonances, dragging sounds,  and little pinpricks and trickles. Andres Blomqvist's «Akrobat  0.2» (1988), a «poetic» piece, illustrative of  the «freedom of the late 1980s,» appeared to me to be less directional than the preceding pieces, focusing on tiny,  slithery sounds, and punctuated small percussive gestures of various  timbres. Parmerud described Jens Hedman's «Mixup» (2001)  as being in the «modern collage style.» This piece,  which struck me as very dynamic, featured snippets of song and  rhythmically contrasting sections.

After the intermission, Ake Parmerud presented a chronological  selection of his own work. He began with «Repulse» (1986),  a sparse, gestural piece, featuring enveloping ringing sounds and  slithery metal tongue licks, as well as various little squeaks,  bumps and rumbles. The next piece presented, «Stringquartett» (1986),  is a close examination of small sounds, which explores and stretches  their every nuance in subtle, emotive layers including little drones  and repeated melodic fragments. «Renaissance,» (1995-96)  featured the sounds of bees, resonant hums, speed acceleration,  and some melodic relationships (at one point breaking into anthem-like  band music). The last piece presented, «Les flutes en feu» (2000),  was a mysterious piece featuring reverberation, glinting sounds,  liquid-like timbres, and little metallic sound gestures. As the  progression of his pieces unfolded, I began to develop an idea of what Parmerud might have meant by «an extract of eternity» in  sound, as his work seemed to resist the traditional formula of  conflict, climax and resolution, in favour of a more static overall  form in which sounds continually shift and develop one into the  other in smaller gestures.

While it is unfortunate that the shape of the theater interfered  with the sound diffusion, I found this, nonetheless, an inspiring  and uplifting concert experience. And while much of the audience  (nearly filling the 130-seat capacity) must have faced similar  acoustic issues, the concert was extremely well-received. It was,  in fact, one of the most formally united electroacoustic concert  experiences I have had to date. Parmerud's short lecture illuminated  the carte-blanche pieces presented, and while spanning different  periods and aesthetics the selected works segued into one another  seamlessly. His own retrospective was equally unified, consisting  of beautiful sounds masterfully articulated in time, their appreciation  further enhanced by the glimpse into his influences that we had  received.

Stephanie Loveless


“…in no way is he carrying the tradition, he appears rather as an outsider who had to fight his way onto the musical arena with the power of the quality of his music...Parmerud creates some of the best electroacoustic music there is to be found today...”