Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Just Plain Sound

For those of us versed in the vocabulary of western art music, Bernard Parmegiani's music is extraordinarily difficult to write about. There isn't even a commonly accepted name for the genre, which is sometimes called electroacoustic or acousmatic music (music designed for playback through loudspeakers, as opposed to music played live by instrumentalists), or musique concrète (music which was completely comprised of samples of sounds from the real world, as opposed to sounds which were electronically generated). Parmegiani studied directly with Pierre Schaeffer, musique concrète's inventor, and his early work is musique concrète in the strict sense. But now he is a ProTools user, and some of the sounds in his recent work are almost certainly generated electronically. For some reason, the genre is peculiarly French, with nearly all the major practitioners located in France or Montreal. Similarly, all of the major theoretical writings on musique concrète are written in French, virtually none of which have been translated into English.

Parmegiani's most recent release, entitled Plain Temps (which is sometimes hyphenated Plain-Temps on the cover, and sometimes not) is a suite of three pieces on the subject of time composed in the early 1990s, with the first and last pieces in the suite revised in 2006. The first piece, Le Présent Composé was released on his Violostries album a few years ago, but the other two pieces have not been previously issued on CD. The liner notes are in English and French, but the French texts are impressionistic and poetic, and the English often badly translated (e.g., "Things we do automatically or deliberately, the aim of which is the inflect the instant towards a composed continuity." Clear?) It might be more helpful if the English-language notes explained some of the peculiarities of the titles. The title of the first movement might be translated as The Composed Present, the second movement as In the Meantime, and the third movement (and for the suite as a whole) as Just Plain Time. But there are all kinds of additional meanings. The passé composé, or composed past, is one of two primary grammatical tenses in French to indicate an event in the past, and it is used to refer to events that took place at a particular moment in time (as opposed to the tense used to describe trends that took place over an indefinite period). And the title for the suite, Plain Temps, is a homonym for Plein Temps, which means a full day's work.

The earlier version of Le Présent Composé on Violostries was subdivided into four named sections, but all mention of the subdivisions have been removed on the new release, even though the silent separations still exist. After an annunciation chord, we hear a door opening and creaking on its hinges, with the last squeak prolonged and resonating as the annunciation is repeated, adding more and more overtones to the drone. The squeaking door is not only an auditory cue to enter Parmegiani's sound world, but is a reference to one of the pioneering works in the genre, Pierre Henry's Variations on a Door and a Sigh from 1963. The door will return throughout the piece, as the listener goes from one of Parmegiani's cinematic rooms to the next. The movement gets quite thick, with the high-pitched whistling layered on top of electronic percussion sounds. Very otherworldly, and it doesn't really sound like anything else. I hear several different layers in the music, but I can't relate it to any kind of human agency, but little sound figures recur often enough to keep the music from being completely disorienting. Parmegiani's music isn't disorienting, exactly, but I can't imagine humans playing it. A number of different groups have experimented with transcribing electronic music for acoustic instruments (such as the Italian musician Marco Lucchi, Bang on a Can with Eno's Music for Airports or the London Sinfonietta's work with Aphex Twin's music), but I can't imagine what instruments or notation that one might use for this.

The second movement, Entre-temps, opens with an amazing interplay between a ticking clock, turning pages, and background noise from general human activity. The middle of this movement is a long meditation developing a sound that reminds me of a wooden ball in a spinning roulette wheel. But the page turns again, and we're back in a world of whistling sounds, perpetually rising and fading away. In the climactic last minutes of the movement, all of the preceding sounds come together and in a mysterious blend over a slow heartbeat before the ticking clock returns at the very end.

The eponymous third movement opens with sounds that remind me of seagulls circling overhead, and perhaps these were the whistling sounds in the second movement. Several of the sounds introduced in the earlier movements reappear here, reminding me of a passage from Harry Mulisch's novel The Assault:

Whenever he thought about time,... he did not conceive of events as coming out of the future to move through the present into the past. Instead, they developed out of the past in the present on their way to an unknown future.

Although the third movement is generally quieter than the preceding two, the work closes with the resonating squeaking door that opened the first movement, tying all three movements together into a unified whole.

In Parmegiani's music, the traditional musical elements of pitch, harmony, and pulse are replaced by a play of dynamics, gestures, timbres and resonances. His sounds extend themselves in unique and remarkable ways, as with the squeaking door whose resonance grows to fill the entire sound spectrum, or the wooden ball skittering over the pockets on the roulette wheel. These elements take the place of melodic themes in orchestral music, but retain the same degree of complexity and interest for the listener.

One of the aspects of drone music that most appeals to me is the absence of a pulse, or at least of the binary pulse that stems from activities that we undertake as symmetrical beings, such as walking and dancing. One of musique concrète's epiphanies was the combination of removing the attack from a sound and putting the resonance in a locked groove, which enabled the listener to hear the inner workings of the sound during its potentially infinite repitition. Parmegiani's squeaking door and other drones extend this same insight. The sophistication of his tools permits not only a deeper investigation into a sound's resonance, but also provides the ability to layer many different sound objects in a much more polyphonic fashion than he could on his earlier works.

He also manages to put percussive and rhythmic events in his music without adding a pulse. Inevitably, something of the event persists and resonates, which gives his music a sense of space that I find exhilarating. His drones are more investigations and prolongations of the resonance of his sounds, but his percussive sounds are fascinating in themselves as they provide melodic and rhythmic contours to the music.

Parmegiani's music, like much of the musique concrète genre, is cinematic in the way it uses time. Most pop music, with its rock steady beat, moves at a fairly consistent rate. By combining silence in a sparse listening field with sound objects of great rhythmic flexibility and sophisticated melodic contours, Parmegiani slows down our perception of time, makes it seem to move more slowly, so that our senses are heightened waiting for the next sound events. Music psychological studies have shown how sensitive human hearing is for discrete sound events and different reverberations, and in Plain Temps Parmegiani spreads around his sounds in space and uses the objects' reverberations as compositional elements so our hearing becomes more acute, with listening and understanding following close behind.

Plain Temps is available from Forced Exposure and better music stores.

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