Elsa Justel (Mar del Plata 1944) is an Argentine electroacoustic composer whose work I had never met before. On the press release, Horacio Vaggione correctly describes her music as “canvases made of minuscule yet consistently varied sounds”. While it’s true that the same could be told about the majority of the names active in the acousmatic field, this is a case in which the expert listener will likely detect new intriguing factors in apparently common structures. One of these elements is Justel’s prowess in choosing an efficient spatial collocation for every sonic event: each sound seems to possess a life of its own, even independent from the context of the composition, albeit that span is usually very short. The amorphous resonances found in the more percussively fragmented pieces — such as Puntos, comas y refritos — are sufficient in themselves to establish an aura of mystery in pieces whose architecture had already been planned amidst manifold shades and shapes. My favourite ones are Midi de sable, a study on the modification of the timbre of recorders (played by Joan Izquierdo in their alto, tenor, basset and contrabass versions) and Au loin… bleu, entirely based on processed and juxtaposed vocal snippets. Episodes that size up the real possibilities of a talented, if pretty much obscure artist who deserves to gain some notoriety in a rather overcrowded sector that often features people who destroy the beauty of a regular emission by transforming it into an insignificant crumble of noise. On the contrary, Justel appears as still interested in forms of elemental purity, and that’s a major plus.
Dass es eine Frau ist, welche die derzeit lebendigste und intelligenteste Elektroakustik macht, muss man nicht erwähnen, kann man aber. Genauso wie ich die konzeptionelle Klarheit und spontane Lebendigkeit von Kaffe Matthews schätze, frage ich mich, warum es doch immer wieder Frauen sind, die den musikalischen Platzhirsch einfach nicht brauchen und sich im Hier und Jetzt ganz konkret und sinnlich auf die Töne konzentrieren können. Justel hat genug Erfahrung und Meriten, sie ist ein wahres Avantgarde-As — aber es ist vor allem die direkte, lebendige und unprätentiöse Vermittlung ihrer Musik, die sie auszeichnet. Die 8 Stücke von 1996 bis 2004 loten Gegensätze durch temporäre Verbindungen aus, die in ihrer Unberechenbarkeit zunehmend kräftiger und stabiler werden. Tiefe, Oberfläche, Struktur, Freiheit, Impuls, Intelligenz. Die Stücke haben Historie und Tiefe, aber es braucht sie nicht für die aktuelle Transformation, das aktive Hören in der Gegenwart. Jede Sekunde geschieht die Verwandlung. Sagenhaft.
Mats è una raccolta che organizza composizioni distribuite lungo dieci anni di ricerca musicale di Elsa Justel. La compositrice argentina rinnova con questo prodotto la propria concezione di suono elettro-acustico, toccando quei frangenti dell’esplorazione sonora che sfumano nel concreto (l’utilizzo dell’oggetto come sorgente di suono) ma che nulla concedono al contesto armonico. Piuttosto, le otto tracce che compongono il lavoro devono essere intese come un suono unico e continuo contemporaneamente misterioso e quotidiano, vissuto ed immaginato: l’album richiede una dimensione di ascolto profonda, una propensione attiva e disposta a scoprirne i risvolti più nascosti ed i sottotesti meno intelligibili, e nonostante la difficoltà di fruizione il disco rimane ancorato nel subconscio, facendo rivivere ricordi ma smarginandone i collegamenti. Riconoscere e distinguere le fonti sonore è impresa ardua: sia il sampling quanto il trattamento del software, così come le già citate e massicce influenze concrete costituiscono la nomenclatura basica del lavoro, e vanno a tratteggiare scenari contraddittori in cui diventa impossibile per l’ascoltatore attendere in modo consequenziale il secondo di suono successivo. Questo il pregio maggiore del lavoro, unito ad una competenza stilistica e formale di primo piano: Elsa Justel impartisce una lezione che è allo stesso tempo matematica ed emotiva, camminando a miglia di distanza dal rischio ipotizzabile della sterilità e dell’eccesso di intellettualismo.
Elsa Justel was born in Mar del Plata, Argentine in 1944, coming of maturity in a generation famous and infamous for its gallant force of creativity just in time for some exciting and useful scientific discoveries and technical inventions; a lucky generation!
Justel is a Professor of Music Education and Choral conducting at the Conservatory of Mar del Plata. She continued studying composition, and also electroacoustic music with José Maranzano and Francisco Kröpfl.
Elsa Justel moved the long haul to France in 1998, studying with fellow Argentinean Horacio Vaggione, receiving a Doctorate in Esthetics, Sciences and Technologies of Arts. Furthermore, Justel has spread her graces in wider artistic areas, but we’ll remain with the electroacoustic music in this review, since our reason for paying attention to her now is her new disc on empreintes DIGITALes; the world’s prime series of new electroacoustic music.
As I float throw a pre-listening hour, just letting all the pieces on the CD play, unconsciously, without aim or 100% attention, easing around the apartment, I feel a familiar joy come face to face; that same feeling of richness and invention that I often experienced in the 1980s, when I discovered so much new electroacoustic music, especially in France. Elsa Justel’s new CD makes me feel that same way, opening an atmosphere of great possibility and long wonders to my perception!
Track 1. Gwerz [to Horacio Vaggione]  (11:40)
The title is explained as a Breton word, meaning ballad or lament. This is funny, since it sounds so much like a Yiddish word pronounced “kvetch”, which also has to do with lamenting, meaning someone who complains a lot; a real kvetch! My Baltimorean Mother-in-law used it frequently! This in turn makes me think of a Swedish/French electroacoustic highlight from the 1980s, Tommy Zwedberg’s Bavarde (“Chatterbox”; someone who talks a whole lot!) — but now I’m veering off too far…
Horacio Vaggione wrote the introduction to Elsa Justel’s sound art in the booklet, and here he is the dedicatee of track one; Gwerz. Of course, Vaggione is a very important name in Argentinean art music, and his importance is by no means limited by national borders. I recall my own enthusiasm at some of his works that I discovered in the 1980s, like Tar with its tapping of vaults, which really blew me away. Round about the same time, other Argentineans became well-known through art music, and especially through electroacoustic art, like Francisco Kröpfl — with Orillas on one of the Cultures électroniques CDs — and Ricardo Mandolini with Microrreflexiones on another one of those Bourges CDs, and also Eduardo Kusnir — with La Panadería. Argentine has a rich tradition of electroacoustics, and now we get the chance to measure the art of Elsa Justel.
The piece hits home without any false modesty, with a bang and a bounce, but shortly the surroundings turn grainy, and then spooky, reverberant… and even rubbery. The ambience changes speedily. This is one of the effects that you can play with in free art music, but it’s not done too much. Justel knows how to wring the best out of the moment, out of the ambience of the moment, and like a blind man you hear the distance to the walls or the ceiling. You get locked in tight for a moment, before the cave opens into ominous distances.
At times I can’t decide whether I hear balloons being rubbed or bacon being fried… Small sounds — now and then extremely short instances of thin rain sprinkling across tin surfaces — makes for a certain atmosphere, which is, however, lost in some more violent event; a mud flow or a wall of rocks tumbling down a geologically active slope… The question is how the music makes me feel. I get a rather anonymous feeling, but sprayed with lust and curiosity!
Justel keeps shifting perspective from the close to the far, daring your adaptation and adjustment! She allows for brief breaks too, in which you sail across breathless gaps in time. A shower of grains rattles down on the other side, getting in your shoes…
Track 2. Du libe tu?  (2:14)
I’m not sure what to make of Justel’s own introduction to this brief instance, but she offers an explanation into the title, anyway, which is an anagram on the title Pierre Schaeffer’s piece Bidule en ut from 1950, actually created at a concert at Amphithéâtre Richelieu at Sorbonne on 16 March 1950. It is a brief, playful whip of cream, smack dab in the middle of a joyful and skirmish kind of sound art, arrived at on a whim, perhaps, albeit bringing some of the best mood of artisanship into the fore; twanging, springing cartoon illustrations a la Disney — or Spike Jones… or, for that matter, Pierre Schaeffer!
Track 3. Mâts  (10:57)
Elsa Justel dedicates this to her husband. I don’t mean to be nosy, but is Mâts perhaps a Swedish name? Mats — without the broken roof — is a common Swedish male name. Perhaps it means something quite different here?
The onset is a mystical one — nature mystery; that of landrails ticking along inside late summer nights of Scandinavia… perhaps… The sounds are short, brief, chopped about, but manifold, presenting an unfinished set of circumstances in this ever-changing mind of ours. Sounds are dark, grey, perhaps military green, and small, fragile moments are scooped up and shoved aside, only to fall back in place in a vain kind of effort. Later you start to hear chordal sounds resound, and the atmosphere gets reverberant. The whole tendency inside this fastidious, moving event is prickly and fast, if you have to define it as anything. Further on the sounds could be the isolated scrapings of a wooden spoon inside an Häagen-Dazs ice-cream container purchased on Lower Manhattan or in a village in Somerset, in Yeovil… (lots of fairies and small wonders there, along the arborist dwellings!)
You have to give Justel great credit for really exhausting the possibilities of these harsh, grey sonorities, making you stay on your toes not to miss the briefest flyby!
Track 4. Midi de sable  (9:47) [to Joan Izquierdo] (alto recorder / tenor recorder / basset recorder / contrabass recorder / tape), Joan Izquierdo [recorders]
This is an incredibly beautiful work, shining and squeaking with candy bar lights and sweet nothings! All these recorders are utilized in their smallest constituents, as well as amassed and dense. Recorder light is finding its way in and out of the iron bars of everyday, embellishing existence for what ever it’s worth! This kind of treatment of a set of instruments does carry a tradition from Vaggione’s Tar, for example, and Justel brings this artistic streak further, placing glass bowls of recorder candy — red and green and tan — at various levels of the human room. Wonderful!
Track 5. Alba Sud [1997 — 98] (9:48) [to Beatriz Ferreyra]
Elsa Justel says that Alba Sud is an homage to musique concrète as well as a reverence to synthetic sources of sound, of both digital and analog origins. She says that she was too young to directly experience Schaeffer’s heydays, but he has had a great influence on her nonetheless.
I get an ancient Australian feel in here, perhaps induced on me by the likeness of dijeridoo murmuring deep, emphatically, as black water seeps up around tree stems or crocodiles inside my imagination. Like in earlier works by Justel, you’re entrusted to details, a myriad of details, which eventually render you an atmosphere of something more over-arching. In this case of Alba Sud the general impression is muddy, moist with black iron-rich soak-water, filling your socks with shockingly cold fluids as you’re inching through one of your turned-away nocturnals.
Justel manages to rhythmize these precarious moments in a frantically corrugated pattern, as a simple unexpected ingredient of a female “huh?” appearing without warning in a misplaced section of understanding gets me off balance!
A piece like Alba Sud is nothing to speculate about really. It is clear that Justel has a brilliant knack of taking the simplest origins, creating mysterious sonic landfalls — and in this case I’d just recommend listening loud and brave, rock’ n’ rollish!
Track 6. Au loin… bleu  (11:26)
Fort the first time a purely lingual progression from the start, unintelligible morphemes, male and female, tangling down like ends of old rope from the ceiling, eventually losing meaning altogether, adhering more to whistling reverberations in the shape of voices, than original voices. Guttural echoes of more real vocals spring forth like tics on the closed face of time, somebody wiping sweat from a forehead. On the backdrop of alien space sounds on distant horizons, syllables appear like Mene Mene Tekels, while sound poetic saliva spittings a la late Henri Chopin occur, visioning the Dying Dandy stretched out in a full measure of bewildering vocal sonorities, losing his composure down the ages of putrefaction…
Yes, shreds of conversations (or monologues?) deviate and flap off like the flickering wings of jackdaws.
Track 7. Puntos, comas y refritos  (11:41)
Justel lets on that she utilized a number of clichés in this bit, to recreate a certain nostalgia. These clichés include the sounds of water, birds, footsteps — but as I ride inside this enchantedness, I don’t feel disturbed by clichés at all. Instead I enjoy the usual delicacy of sonic composition that surely belongs to Elsa Justel. All these small sounds, offered in rich offerings, are bound to associate your mental faculties certain ways, into various rooms at then end of your own frames of reference. Ok, perhaps the breaks are a bit wild at times, from the frantic sawing of wood to a high-pitch interstellar drone into the pouring of carbonized water over cubes of ice… and the familiar brushing of teeth!
Track 8. Bastet  (10:37)
Bastet is the Egyptian cat-god. Bastet served as the god of fire, pregnant women and the home. Here she has lipped into the piano box!
To begin with you just notice a lofty, soaring and slightly plucking sound, and a certain motion not unlike the swirling spirals of cotton candy. You hear the flourishing overtone patterns of stroked piano strings and the Pierre Henry rumble of grand piano hulls, shifting like icebergs on northern horizons. The prickly metal crackle comes across like crystals of ice in slowly freezing winds dying down. As much as I feel the presence of a piano, I sense the chilling gusts from rocks of ice. Short units of time shamble by across cold and reflective surfaces, through a nocturnal crystal world.
This is perhaps the most careful and delicate electroacoustic course of events on Elsa Justel’s CD, bringing her art ascending into a truly brilliant sound art of a kind that you seldom may experience. Spellbinding!
Many composers and listeners fear a growing degree of abstraction in music, the consensus among them being that it leads to less ‘human’ and ‘emotional’ compositions. Elsa Justel disagrees. Her pieces certainly rely on a considerable amount of processing and timbral transformation. But behind the border of immediate recognition lies a colourful new world, which she playfully populates with her sounds.
Mâts is a collection of several loose tracks compiled over the last 10 years, with the most recent piece already dating as far back as 2004 — which implies that Justel is one the composers who either needs temporal distance to be able to gauge the true value of her work or an artist who simply cares more for quality than for being up to date. If this album, her first regular CD despite several impressive distinctions at international concours and competitions, is anything to go by, the latter seems to apply here.
The approach has paid off. To me, anyway, an album of serious academic electronics that is both sonically explorative and thoroughly enjoyable is a feat to be celebrated. Maybe her position as a professor of Avant-garde Music has indirectly been responsible for this bipolarity. In her function of teacher, Justel confronts her students both with the most adorable facets of the music she loves, as well as with the stereotypes and cliches of the genre (which she semi-jokingly mocks on Puntos, comas y refritos). Like a knowledgeable DJ, she seems to approach her job as a composer both from an angle of education and entertainment.
Another stand-out feat is the vigorous thematic reduction she applies to her work. Midi de sable researches the sonics of the contrabass recorder and of the basset “to create a deep space,” Alba Sud deals with the fusion of concrete and synthetic source material and Au loin… bleu with the integration of speech into music. Her music is not so much conceptual, it is driven by curiosity — quite a difference in a community which often replaces healthy naivete with cool theory.
Shades of the sources often remain audible, but blended in with the electronically manipulated elements, they, too, turn into events changed by the senses. And yet, every single sample Justel uses seems to be filled with a life of its own, talking, singing, babbling, bouncing, laughing, grating, gritting, crunching or humming. Just like an instrumentalist in search of perfection, she uses the human voice as a template, imitating, mimicking or exceding its capacities with her computer.
This original factor turns her emissions, as void of melody or harmony as they may be, into a veritable dialogue with the listener and into an invitation to participate. It is music which creates an open, not a hermetically sealed, ambiance and which, despite its high degree of abstraction, is closer to nature than many more ‘traditional’ forms. I, for one, listened to this while taking a walk on a sunny morning along the canal.
Kompositören Elsa Justel är född 1944 i Argentina, men verkar i Frankrike. Majoriteten av verken på CD:n är bandverk. Hennes attack är häftig, men framförallt är de ofta relativt korta styckena skimrande och skiftande. De är som ytor där hon lagt ner största mödan på de minsta bitarna. Varje detalj är genomarbetad, genomlyssnad och väl formulerad. Så fogas de samman till olika karaktärsstycken. Ljuden är lätta att föreställa sig i deras rika skiftningar som ekon av bilder. Och mycket riktigt läser jag på konvolutet, att hon också genomfört flera audiovisuella projekt. Dem blir jag nyfiken på. Flödet, rytmen, förändringarna, rörelsen kan påminna om videokonsten med alla sina oväntade språng, där ändå formerna hänger samman.
Styckena är tydligt komponerade, de har visserligen lätthet, men sällan en livekänsla. Allt är noga övervägt, avvägt. Planerat. Men här och där skjuter hon klanger, ljud som skaver och flyttar kompositionen litet ur spåret. Jag tänker mest på Midi de sable som är skriven för blockflöjt, kontrabas, bassetthorn och bandkomposition. De övertonsrika akustiska instrumenten rör sig som i en annan värld mot bandets abstrakta klanger. Effekten blir förbluffande, ett slags kamp mellan attraktion och motstånd kring ett ständigt glapp.