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Lecture by Gilles Gobeil

First, I’d like to thank the curators of this wonderful event, Sabine Breitsameter and Ludger Brümmer, as well as the team of the ZKM. It was a great privilege for me to work here for more than three weeks in this splendid institution getting all the technical and organizational support I needed.

In this short lecture I will try to give a brief outline of my development as a composer and talk about what sort of ideas keep me occupied.

To begin with, I would like to recall a visionary quote by Messiaen, who recognized the vast potential of this new way to work with sound. Without any doubt, electro acoustic music is the music of tomorrow:

« …la musique électronique. Je crois que c’est la principale invention du XXe siècle, et c’est probablement celle qui a le plus marqué tous les compositeurs. Parce qu’il y a des compositeurs qui font de la musique électronique, comme Pierre Henry qui est spécialiste (…), mais presque tous les compositeurs ont subi l’influence de la musique électronique, même s’ils n’en font pas. »

My training as a musician is mainly of instrumental nature. I studied composition at the University of Montreal with Serge Garant, an excellent composer and teacher. From him I learned a lot about form, organization and arrangements of sound. But the one thing I’m particularly grateful for is that he quickly recognized a sensitivity for electro acoustic music in me. He had the talent to discover an affinity to sound exploration even within my instrumental scores.

Concerning this new approach of composition, I appreciated the immediacy of results when working with sonic material, an instantaneousness, which is the direct opposite to the process of creating instrumental music. This in contrast seemed to me to be much more arduous; involving a rather abstract way of work and organization, meaning drafting and realizing the score, searching for quite some time for a musician (or an ensemble) to interpret the piece, the mere possibility (yet not the certainty) of getting the work performed (often enough at a very uncertain quality due to expensive rehearsal time) and last but not least the disappointment that the work would only rarely be performed and heard. My professor remarked quite rightly that, in contemporary music, a premiere (a creation of a work) is quite often the last performance as well.

What fascinated me enormously about electro acoustic music is that it combines many activities in the music, including instrument making, (the creation of sounds, of tuning systems, of instruments), the interpretation (the phrasing, the quality of performance), then the actual organization of the composition to finally getting to the end product and presenting this in concert. It was the prospect of having precise control over all parameters, from the first inspiration to the performance that led to my decision for this compositional praxis.

In my work I’m first and foremost interested in finding an expression, that is to say, to create a poetic moment or a powerful sonic evocation. I prefer suggesting emotions rather than demonstrating abstract concepts. At the same time, I feel very close to the concept of “l’ecoute réduite” as proposed by Pierre Schaeffer, meaning the ability to listen to the material while disengaging it from its parameters, which is exactly what can be found in his famous typo-morphology; in short listening to sounds abstractly and reducing them to their own plasticity. This approach of “musique concrète” fascinates me because it offers a direct relationship with the material. But, I love also to utilize anecdotal sounds, which remind the listener strongly of their source; yet I love to rearrange them in such a way that a completely different context is constructed. It’s a little bit like poetry, which emerges when two words encounter each other for the first time. So, I organize the objects, the sounds in a structure, which often arises from an image.

For me, all sounds are interesting; there are no beautiful or ugly sounds. They all have a meaning, an own quality, an expressive power. I even think that one could create excellent music with very bad sounds. Here we are close to a certain sound ecology, or aesthetics of recycling…

Personally, my way of composing is often inspired by non-musical topics. The range of literature that interests me and which has inspired me to lay it out in music includes a wide range of texts and authors (such as novels, short-stories or poetry, excerpts from works by Proust, Goethe, Valéry, Dante, H.G. Wells, Verne and others). I simply wanted to transform the impressions I felt when reading the texts into sound; to convey the poetic images evoked by the literature into the domain of music. The same applies for movies. I wrote, by the way, three works based on childhood memories of watching movies.

I try to develop my musical ideas like a traditional musician, who, in absence of an orchestra, has to rely on his inner ear. This is a direct consequence of my training as an instrumentalist. I often produce graphic scores to guide me through the process of realization. These mainly serve the purpose of restraining me to pursue only one direction rather than wasting energy by exploring too many threads. Nevertheless, it is more than likely that these first ideas dissolve into nothing and are not present in the final work as their purpose was only to nourish the process of creation.

In my approach, sonic impressions, evocations and the desire for expression precede the conception, they even guide it. This desire should imbue the technical barriers (the whole electro acoustic instrumentarium) to transcend into the work itself. In a certain way I consider technology to come second. It should definitely not turn into a barrier or a danger to lose ones way. It is quite obvious that music is based on technology, that it closely associated with it, but just like the violinist who over all has a certain knowledge of instrument making yet is no professional violin maker, the composer has to beware of getting lost in the maze of technology. He should try to obtain a sound technical craftsmanship yet direct all his efforts towards the composition as such, towards the music. It will be the music and not the technology that will remain in the future After all, we are dealing with art here, not with science. By the way, when looking at our short history of electro acoustic music we have to notice that there are masterpieces from every decade, produced with different technologies, some old-fashioned and some very sophisticated.

60 years after the discovery of “musique concrete”, and all efforts to label and classify sounds (as in the famous Traité des objets musicaux) there is still a scientific work missing that explores the “concrete” relationship between sounds as such in an objective way. Such as their articulation, their layering, their vertical relationships, the changes in timbre and duration; all in all everything that constitutes music and does not only represents an enumeration of sound materials.

I believe it is necessary to develop such tools, as music is first of all the organization of sound in time. It is this organization that gives a musical work its sense and its profoundness. The instrumental music has, for its own part, developed such a language and can rely on a long tradition, which throughout all of last millennium has never ceased to be transformed and modified. Electro acoustic music is only in its infancy, but I am convinced it is destined for an extremely promising future, as through it all of sound is accessible. Traditional instruments certainly are quite divers, but in its development since roughly 50 years ago (which is interestingly enough is the same moment in time when electro acoustic originated) composers of contemporary music have been striving to overcome the instrumental boundaries and invent new and partly quite surprising playing techniques to enlarge the palette of timbres.

Electro acoustic music has only naturally devoted itself to continuing this history by making it possible to carry on this quest for the unheard of and thus justly paying tribute to the century which witnessed its origination.

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