Gilles Gobeil (1954) is one of the most well-known composers in the realm of modern acousmatique; a term which nowadays might indicate a more sophisticated and artistic/intellectual form of sound art than, say, the term musique concrète or the even more general terms electronic or electroacoustic music. In my mind, Gilles Gobeil’s acousmatique has a lot in common with modern abstract visual art, and he is one of the foremost representatives of the cinéma-pour-l’oreille strand of contemporary sound art. In short, his music is a highly developed and refined form of electroacoustic music, and he is widely acknowledged for this, through numerous awards in different parts of the world. Not only is his sonic art deeply interwoven with modern visual art, but also with written such, since literary works have inspired him on several compositional occasions.
Given Gobeil’s great fame throughout the electroacoustic society, I’ll head right into the music of this DVD, cutting the biographic background info short.
Track 1 — 4. Ombres, espaces, silences… / Vol de rêve / Descente au tombeau / La nuit / Vision (2005) [23:00]
The history behind this composition — or this set of compositions — is rather original. Gobeil states in his introduction in the booklet that he aimed at revisiting early polyphonic music, merging the universe of intervals and chords with the greater universe of noises, with the intention of letting modified fragments of early Western music appear in this noise. Gobeil also names the so-called Desert Fathers; hermits from the first centuries after Christ, who believed that the human destiny could only be figured out outside society. Gobeil explains that he has attempted to describe the life of these hermits through a number of tableaux sonore.
The four parts are presented in one, seamless stretch.
The music starts ever so slightly, like the stirring vibrations of dawn through the first bleak light hovering in the east, while a slight, short murmur hiding like an ominous warning below the horizon introduces a serious atmosphere.
Small sounds in the immediate vicinity startles your perception, as if you are lying in a tent in a beach forest as the new day rustles through the dry leaves of the forest floor, insects moving erratically and fast through their miniature worlds.
The wind picks up, and I feel like I’m not far from the ocean, the gray-white sounds of wind transforming into the gray-black might of oceanic force against a rocky shore. A sudden scream from pre-history — I glimpse some sort of lizard — opens up a wilder sonic space, out of which a flock of birds flap violently, while time dips in a downward glissandi of a Jean-Claude Risset kind, the seconds extending into a gluey halt, the way you sometimes feel in your dreams that you cannot move, cannot move your legs, precisely when you have to flee…
Gilles Gobeil paints semi-transparent sonorities in wide, faint nuances around a lofty realm, in which shutters and hatches are closed and opened, shifting the feeling of atmospheric pressure and ambience, from large, all but endless spaces to small, enclosed, claustrophobic enclosures and back again to vertiginous voids. Even though you can’t define the motion, there is a violent sense of speed built into this music. I get reminded of one time in 1972 when I was riding a car with a friend of mine from Damascus in Syria to Baghdad in Iraq, 900 kilometers across the empty desert, sometimes feeling that the car stood perfectly still, though we proceeded at high speed, or sensing that we shot right up into the sky, though the road was level. I get these distorted sensations right inside Gobeil’s music in this piece. The dynamics are staggering, as is the scope of pitches, from the darkest murmur, almost experienced more like infrasound; like vibrations through your body, than as audible sound, up to sharp, wheezing treble layers that rise above the hearing of humans, reflecting back as peculiar interferences through the audible bands.
Grainy, percussive ingredients are strewn through this eternity, like a mixture of gray gravel and tiny bronze spheres, emitting sonorities the likes of atomic jitter watched through scanning electron microscopes. Heavy forces are at play, riddled with nuances and sonic details that flash by in whirlwinds of quantum mechanic contradictions. Orchestra tuttis extend through this process engineering recasting, like reminders of the social life of reality’s physical musicians; now ghostly reminiscences in the back of some read-only-memory stashed away among rusty left-overs in an abandoned 20th century factory on the Baltic coast.
Later I feel the vibrancy of early 20th century concertos through the filter of time, more hinted at through glimmering drones than actually identified, as if being heard and watched through thick, uneven glass, or through an aquarium; that odd feeling of familiar unreality that permeates some dreams. The correct components are there, flickering in and out of view, but they come in a reordered guise, just remotely reminiscent of their composed origins, though still familiar in this worrying way.
The grainiest growl of monks’ chants soars like sandpaper audio, extended beyond the aptitude of man, and far into the soundspace, like those unwanted vibrations from an engine showing the first signs of mechanical failure while you’re speeding steadily down a highway in West Texas, the heat of day about to shift into the chill of night.
As faint barrels roll around a desolate and flat space under a wide sky (like, in a more myopic perspective, empty, opened tin cans through a dark back alley), an orchestral drone appears like a streak of light across a valley, as the combined movements of Sun and Earth open a crack between the summits for the rays to shoot through. The moment grows, only to dissipate and dissolve into the general fabric of sound, just like individual lives sink into life in general and life as a principle, as enough time goes by. Vestiges of a large number of murmuring voices dance like shadows on the brink of perception, deep inside the fabric, on the edge of time. A thundering magnificence of tonal colors wash over you, as from the holy spaces of a thousand domes at dusk, the way God may perceive the essence of piety from his Everywhere.
Gilles Gobeil achieves delicate drones that soar past, winding and unwinding before your perception, seemingly containing vague elements from chanting Tibetan monks and Gregorian chant, as well as fragrances of sound from undefined Western ensembles throughout the history of composed music — but in no obvious way, only perceived through the imagination and the frames of reference of the listener. This is the great thing about this wonderful music: it’s utterly suggestive!
The forces slowly grow into a mangling, star-crushing time machine, which lets no fragment of matter escape its transmutation, in an Einsteinean matter-energy-matter flip-flop through space-time, talley-ho! The original question mark is still firmly attached to existence, and no answer is even remotely available, as the interstellar and intrastellar forces slowly recede into themselves, back into that whimper of energy, that faint vibration at the core of everything. Gobeil opens his hands like a deity of sorts and lets the most magnificent and pure chords hover like purple evening light above a restless world of weary souls. We’re about 9 minutes and 40 seconds into the composition. Beauty is allowed complete dominance for a while. It feels like a simple, introverted musical gesture of trust and confidence, rising out of a lonely organ somewhere deep inside a huge space; perhaps an empty cathedral with only a few candles burning.
However, even this soaring beauty is but a passing moment, as echoes of vicious friction are heard from inside the musical darkness of some huge construction; perhaps a brooding, crenellated fairytale castle wherein giant wheels of stone grind against each other, emitting this unpleasant sound. This is precisely the moment when voices are heard without any reservation; real voices, perhaps some kind of plainchant choir — and we’ve never gotten this close to apparent humanity in this, up till now, very abstract composition, but the voices are heard from a good distance. Bells from a tower make the moment even more real — but as you are lulled into relaxation and a sense of familiarity and cultural security, a large whammo scares you out of your wits! This is almost not fair, Mr. Gobeil! It’s like Maxwell’s silver hammer across your head! Chaos breaks out. I hear large masses of people in a rage rushing across a field, and the music becomes very cinematic; a mass scene from one of those mega movies, for example Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) (1959), or The Ten Commandments (Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner) (1956). Thousands of hooves!
Close snippets of dry insect wings and ghost movie echoes of werewolves enhance the cinematic atmosphere — but these creepy factors seem more comic than ominous, as if Gobeil makes squirmish comments on horror traditions!
The composer clamps horror sounds together into tight and dense slabs of ill will, as time rushes past at an unnatural velocity. Whole mountainsides of karmic debris come off and completely fill the valleys with consequences.
Once again the human factor arises, as footsteps occur and approach, in a sharp, piercing cricket concertino.
This does not last, for dark, murmuring sounds come at you, on a backdrop of squeaky, jingling metal audio and forlorn distress calls from out of the likeness of Stockhausen’s most formidable ring modulators. A natural environment is mimicked with birdcalls and rustling wind flurries, soon to give way to pure imagination, dispersed on glowing brass synthesis and the honey dew essences of many centuries of ecclesiastical choral art. As the piece draws to its conclusion, it soars slowly and gradually into an enchanted liturgical realm of small brass bells and jingle jangle New Age sonorities, star shine across endless fields of glittering snow, the cold air biting your cheeks, and then… silence.
Track 5. Entre les deux rives du printemps (2006) [18:08]
This is a free adaptation — as Gobeil has it — of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, part III.
And I with vision new rekindled me,
Such that no light whatever is so pure
But that mine eyes were fortified against it.
And light I saw in fashion of a river
Fulvid with its effulgence, ‘twixt two banks
Depicted with an admirable Spring
I’ll be darned if I don’t recognize the fluttering of birds’ wings from the previous piece, right at the outset of this Danteism! A slow, calm breath moves like an oceanic swell, punctuated by sturdy combination beats, shiny, varnished hardwood and bicycle bells involved: loud with rounded corners — very tidy but forceful, annual rings to be counted. Sweet, pleasant sounds, high up in the pitches, move in complicated patterns through the listening space, while a child calls for someone through the breeze of events. An engine kicks in with covered-up howling of cables, perhaps hoisting an elevator or managing some factory machinery. The haze of environmental sounds functions like a mist that hides the origin of much of what is happening and heard. This could be some kind of automated process, perhaps conveyor belts at an airport, transporting bags and suitcases and the odd guitar or cello, well packed into their covers. Not much here, however, direct my associations towards Paradise, Dante’s or anybody’s…
The horn — or so it first seems — from a car or a truck, which blasts away surprisingly — or is it an Indian oboe (shehnai)? — is immediately followed by a thump and a heavy weight dropping right through the floor of this sonic dimension, in turn cushioned by a resonant afterglow of the most pleasant, fondling kind, soft as satin, forgiving like the green moss of a spruce forest in Scandinavia. Yes, deep inside this forest in the music, in a hidden-away meadow where sunlight reaches, I see/hear a shimmer of elves dancing lightly around a moss-laden rock that the inland ice left ten thousand years ago: the most brittle and transparent paired with the heavy and distinct. With a little imagination I can hear the timbres of elves’ voices mixing with the sunlight in transcendental song from a realm of light and good intentions. Gilles Gobeil shows here that he is a master of beauty, while also evoking a sense of mystery in the listener. The gradual appearance of water sounds, as if from a small rivulet, enhances the sense of short, blinding reflections throughout this otherworldliness, while also, through its naturalistic potency, bringing you into this secret fairytale realm in a concrete sense; opening this world up to you: allowing you to step into the world of The Others…
All of a sudden the scenery changes; the atmosphere shifts, as the wind picks up and the sky in the music darkens, perhaps even making a change of seasons, into fall. The sounds evoke reminiscences in me, from late fall canoeing trips in the Swedish District of Sodermanland, on the Lake Baven water system, biding my time on a shore littered with pine cones, whitecaps on the waves, the wind battering my face. Of course Gobeil pushes the envelope, pulls this whole scene into an extension that slowly but surely transforms the scenery into its unreal successor, by way of a creaking pine tree that just continues to creak and creak louder by the second. This must be Creak Creek!
Right off this stops, as you continue your path by sheer inertia, finding yourself in a singing bowl timbre that involves dark nuances as well as the winding, multi-faceted high pitch drone of the singing bowl type…
A dramatic rise of intensity loses itself in a crash and a bang — which allows for a silence in which church bells toll, in the finest of French electroacoustic traditions, instituted by the likes of Jean-Claude Risset and Luc Ferrari, indicating small, Mediterranean towns with sunny, cobbled town squares and red roses climbing the espaliers: the milieu of writers like J M G le Clézio.
Reality soars in a thermal for a while in Entre les deux rives du printemps, talking in the shape of sea gulls rising in spirals over the terrain like unselfish thoughts, in a pure state of absentmindedness, like a song of painlessness and freedom from gravity. Stockhausen smiles in a hand-written letter and tells me about Bardo Thödol.
A new atmosphere opens with an increasing, indefinable truckload of audio, presenting speed and fast motion, like the trailing white fumes of a jetliner across the sky, past those thin, high veils of summer clouds. Thunderous incidents distress this scenery, time after time, but in the background an angelic choir sings beyond matters of life and death. Things slow down and dissipate for a few seconds, in which pigeons speak in muffled pigeon matters. The pigeons, however, are obliterated by a whole year of steel business noise packed into a few seconds of unendurable noise; looping mill, steel works and blast furnace in one venomous breath!
Follows a most peculiar section with a low-pitched murmur, on which the voices of playing school children dance like sunlight across the sea. The time-filtered glare of a Dutch barrel-organ — remotely like the dreamy organ of Gilius van Bergeijk’s Over de Dood en de Tijd — seeps into the sound space, like the light of a candle through a town in ruins at the close of a war which still rumbles in the distance.
The chorale property of this organ(ic) sonority grows in volume and intensity, eventually dominating the space, albeit soon dissipating into the fairytale realm again, with small, prickly and rustling sounds appearing up close and a thumping, dark resonance of the Heart of the Matter rising out of clay and soil.
Yet another utterly strange — but pleasant! — stretch of sounds appear; the rhythmic hammering of the steel rail as a train travels through time, faintly detected through a whimpering, velvety electronic hum seasoned with the barks of distant dogs.
The high-pitch friction of crickets fill the air, until one of those Gobeil bangs — like a violently banged-shut hatch — cuts things short, only to introduce something else, this time with ingredients like modulated and permuted plain-chant and a most beautiful, winding, soaring blend of pleasant electronic overtones assembled into a gluey, rubbery drone. The music — especially those hazy vocals — sound as if they come from distantly placed loudspeakers up in the corners under the ceiling in some huge, dusty factory hall. There are many veiling distances in this music.
The commotion at the level of the factory floor intensifies, until cut short with a Gobeil hatch, where after the sole significance rests with the very distant roar of some kind of aircraft, long ago and far away. A softspun electronic drone, pitched semi-high, fills the area with a rising, purple mist, in which a child calls for Mama, and other children are appearing like dots of spirit in empty space.
Towards the end of this piece, in a receding rumble, the sounds all die down and dissolve pleasantly and gradually into their end state; that of silence…
Track 6. Le miror triste (2007) [13:42]
Gilles Gobeil states that this music is freely adapted from “a few scenes from an unshot scenario” by Andrey Tarkovsky (1932 — 1986). What does this mean? Has Gobeil read a screenplay that became nothing of, or is this published somewhere for anyone to read? Tarkovsky is one of my favorite film directors, and just his name in this introduction by Gobeil raises my eyebrow and my interest! I find the answer searching the web, where information has it that Tarkovsky’s last — and unfinished — project was Hoffmanniana, based on a screenplay he published in 1976, dealing with the hard life of composer and writer E T A Hoffmann (1776 — 1822).
I’m getting used to this behavior now; a distant sound growing in volume and closeness, eventually exploding in your face, followed by serenity. This is the opening of Gobeil’s last entry on this Audio DVD. I sort of wake up into an environment. It rains hard, and the sky is thundering. The call of a roebuck imitates the bloody insanity of a werewolf. Metallic electronic sonorities fall like garlands around you, promising something else than this unpleasant place in the rain of the 19th century.
A whirlwind — a worldwind! — of stormy air and indigenous sounds sweep through the streets of Gilles Gobeil’s score, store signs squeaking, as he sits by his desk in Canada, his head in his hand, the leather-bound volumes in the bookshelves ‘round the room humming inwardly.
After all hell breaks loose and dissipates, the weak-minded humming of a man lost in time is heard. Supposedly this man is Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann. Growling noises, like sniffling wild boars, grub around the feet of the lonely man, or it could be that he came upon a sleeping and snoring giant in a beech forest in a novel he planned to write.
A crescendo involving children and some kind of carriage carries over into a beach scenery with wading birds calling, as electronic strangeness fills in the cracks of perception with pure imagination, the wader calls transforming into embroidered birds forever locked in a tapestry above the sofa bed in a rural kitchen of the 19th century.
Gobeil successfully mixes natural, naturalistic sounds with his electronic weaving. Somebody’s footsteps — Hoffmann’s? — through gravel and wheezing, humming electronics picture a man at the brink, his head charged with the electricity of his persistent thoughts.
A thin bell tolls twice, in all peacefulness, until the most brutal whammo hits your head again, this time with the inclusion of a mad werewolf scream. The period is indicated quite clearly by some Beethovenish bars (Hoffmann was born six years after Beethoven, and died five years before him).
Fresh water sounds, as if someone cups his hand and drinks out of a stream, are heard very close, while electronic hum permeates the surroundings, the totality of the sound picture eventually wringed and bent out of shape, only to be let loose in another sonic direction, after a while assembled into a brownish drone speckled with tolling bells and flurries of birds and the century’s paraphernalia, all vaguely exposed. Hoffmann wraps his dark coat tighter around himself; the stooping figure against the wind, like the man pictured in Rune Lindblad’s erasure Vandring i regn (Walk in Rain) (1962).
No solution is in view, but the life of E T A Hoffmann continues in Gilles Gobeil’s glimmering sequences, which extend and contract down the duration of the score. Supersensual tonalities hover in some kind of liturgical setting; swifts diving in kamikaze calligraphy around the church tower. Velvet hope resounds in a soaring and light-hearted drone that counteracts distress, as waves roll in across the shore under a white lighthouse up on a cliff. The last sonic surprise is a small bird that flies up in front of you out of the dry leaves of the beech forest. Gilles Gobeil has once again cast light on the noble art of acousmatique. Merci, Maestro!