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The Onomatopoeia Cycle
A cycle of electroacoustic works dedicated to the voice

Bédé (1990)
Éclats de voix (1991)
Spleen (1993)
Le renard et la rose (1995)
Palimpseste (2005)


The three works that are concerned in this text are Éclats de voix, Spleen and Le renard et la rose. They belong to a cycle of works that use exclusively the voice as the sound material. Thanks to the digital recording, it is now possible to keep the smallest details of the voice that would have been masqued by the tape hiss in the analog days. After the recording has been made, the sounds are transferred to a digital sampler that implies, at least at the beginning of the composition of the cycle in 1990, that we could work only on short sounds, therefore on small temporal units, because of the high cost of the digital memory at that time (one might smile today about that…). After several steps of sound transformation where the computer is used with its incredible power of revealing the microscopic details that were invisible before — I should write «unheard» —, the sounds are classified, grouped and organized with the help of some database softwares that help to generate some very sophisticated interrelational schemes. The final step is the composition itself and the recording on a multitrack recorder (analog at the beginning, digital today) since these works, even if they work well in stereo (specially for radio broadcast), are intended to be presented in concert on a multichannel system.


2.1. BÉDÉ (1990) 3'
The beginning of the cycle that uses the voice has started in 1990 when the Canadian record label Empreintes Digitales has commissioned me a three minutes long electro-clip. I discovered, at that time, a book called Dictionnaire des bruits (Noises Dictionary) by Jean-Claude Trait and Yvon Dulude that is a repertoire of the onomatopoeias used in the comics. The onomatopoeias interest me particularly since it is the only case in the human language where the action, the gesture or the feeling are directly related to the sounds used to describe them, contrary to the words which are the abstract representations of them. When we describe something that disgusts us for example, we use a sound like «beurk», and not «oumoum».

2.2. ÉCLATS DE VOIX (1991) 15'
After the work Bédé has been completed, I realized that the sound material I have recorded for it — the voice of an eleven years old girl — was richer and more complex than I would have thought at first place. I then decided to start composing a new work called Éclats de voix by using the same recording but by making a lot of new onomatopoeias out of it. Where in Bédé I have used thirty one samples, in Éclats de voix I made two hundreds and twenty three samples.

Because of the great diversity of the sound material, I had no choice but to find a way to classify all these onomatopoeias. The classification was organized around two main themes: the objective and the subjective criteria.
The objective criteria were the ones related to the physical study of the sounds. There are three of them:
1) the temporal profile (punctual, sustained, short loop, long loop);
2) the register (from the lowest to the highest register);
3) the spectrum (noise or periodic sound, poor of rich spectrum).
On the other side, the subjective criteria correspond to a personal classification system that reflects a first level of compositional organization. There are also three of them:
1) in each of the five movements of the work, a «feeling» or a situation related to the childhood is associated to a musical parameter: 1st movement, play and rhythm; 2nd movement, tenderness and timbre; 3rd movement, anger and dynamics; 4th movement, sadness and space; 5th movement, joy and texture;
2) the function of the sounds (anecdotic, sonorous, singing, speech); 3) the perspective, organized accordingly to a cinematographic approach (1st plan, 2nd plan, 3rd plan, texture).

After Éclats de voix has been composed in 1991, I realized that it was possible to completely redo the work because I had kept not only the sounds themselves but also, because of the use of the computer , all the gestures that were used to transform them.
So the dynamic profiles, the filterings, the levels, the space treatments and the spatializations were all recorded in a MIDI software. It then came to my mind to apply this morphological structure to another family of sound material. Therefore, where in Éclats de voix I have used the voice of an eleven years old girl, I recorded for the next piece, called Spleen, the sound of the voices of four teenager boys.
After that, I made a third work, called Le renard et la rose (The Fox and the Rose), made out this time of the voices of the actors that were recording a radio adaptation of the Little Prince by Antoine de St-Exupéry produced by Radio-Canada for which I composed the music.
So basically the three works share the same timeline, onomatopoeias appear at the same places in these three works but of course, the energy, the feelings, are not the same because of the origins of the sound material: a young girl, four teenagers and fifteen adults don't sound the same and don't exhale the same meanings out the same onomatopoeias.


One can notice that the onomatopoeia cycle is made out of voices that come from different ages: the childhood, the teenage and the adult time. The final work of the project is dedicated to the old age. I recorded the voices of some old people, from Québec and from Germany to complete the cycle of these works dedicated to the onomatopoeias.


5.1. BÉDÉ (1990) 3'
To my parents
This miniature was realized from sounds (onomatopoeias) used in comic books traditionally associated with the world of children. The piece is divided in three sections: Child’s world, Phantom’s Valley and Search of the Voice. The voice of 11 year old Marie-Hélène Blain is the single sound element of the piece. Bédé — a pun on the abbreviation of “bande dessinée” (comic book) — was produced in my personal studio, the studio of the Faculty of Music of University of Montreal and the studio of the Groupe de recherche musicale de Paris with the assistance of the Canada Council. Bédé is published on the compact discs Électro-clip (empreintes DIGITALes, IMED 9604) and also on Tangram (empreintes DIGITALes, IMED 9920)
© 1990 Normandeau (SOCAN)
Work published by YMX MéDIA (SOCAN)

5.2. ÉCLATS DE VOIX (1991) 15'
1. Play and Rhythm; 2. Tenderness and Timbre; 3. Anger and Dynamics; 4. Sadness and Space; 5. Joy and Texture
To Martine Blain
The primary visual imagery of the title Éclats de voix (Bursts of Voices), the fragmentation of the voice into little shatters, is augmented by the connotation of anger—a child’s sudden anger which appears like a tornado, to disappear just as quickly. The voice is of an 11-year-old child who wholeheartedly joined in the game of recording dozens of sounds from the Dictionnaire des bruits by Jean-Claude Trait and Yvon Dulude. The work is divided into five sections which represent childhood ‘states’ and a corresponding sonorous parameter.
Éclats de voix was produced at the composer’s studio and at the Groupe de recherches musicales (GRM) in Paris from recordings of the voice of Marie-Hélène Blain. It was premiered on September 26, 1991 by CKUT-FM in Montréal and recorded on the compact disc Prix international Noroit-Léonce Petitot 1991 (NOR 2). Éclats de voix was commissioned by CKUT with the assistance of the Canada Council. The present version is a stereo recording of multitrack sound diffusion realized at the Banff Centre for the Arts (engineers: Antonio Oliart and Stephanie Rogers; assistant: Jennifer Lewis) in July, 1993. The piece was awarded the 1st Prize by Jury and tied for the Public’s Prize at the 2nd Noroit-Léonce Petitot International Competition (Arras, France, 1991). It was awarded a mention at the Stockholm Electronic Arts Award Competition (Sweden, 1992), an Honorable Mention at Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria, 1993) and a 1st Mention at the Bourges International Electroacoustic Competition (France, 1993).
© 1991 Normandeau (SOCAN)
Work published by YMX Média (SOCAN)

5.3. SPLEEN (1993) 15'
Spleen is comprised solely of the voices of four adolescents, aged 16 years. The title refers to one of the most significant moods of the adolescent: this kind of sudden melancholy which surfaces for no apparent reason. This work is a sequel to a previous piece, Éclats de voix, which utilized dozens of sounds from the Dictionnaire des bruits by Jean-Claude Trait and Yvon Dulude as a sonorous base. Onomatopoetic, the material is extremely rich because it represents those instances when the sounds of human language correspond directly to the designated object or to the expression of a sentiment.
The piece is divided into five sections which represent typical situations for the adolescent, and a corresponding sonorous parameter: 1. Music and Rhythm; 2. Melancholy and Timbre; 3. Anger and Dynamics; 4. Frustration and Space; 5. Frenzy and Texture.
Spleen was produced at the composer’s studio from recordings of the voice of Marc Gilbert, Laurent-Josée Sainte-Marie, Nicolas Thériault and Patrick Virar. It was premiered during the radio festival Journées Électro-Radio Days broadcast live in Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver on December 10, 1993. Spleen was realized with the assistance of the Audio program of the Media Arts Section of the Canada Council. The piece was awarded the Public’s Prize at the 3rd Noroit-Léonce Petitot International Competition (Arras, France, 1994) and the second prize at the Musica Nova competition (Prague, Czech Republic, 1995). Spleen is published on the compact disc Tangram (empreintes DIGITALes, IMED 9820).
© 1993 Normandeau (SOCAN)
Work published by YMX Média (SOCAN)

5.4. LE RENARD ET LA ROSE (1995) 15’
To Odile Magnan
Le renard et la rose (The Fox and the Rose) is a concert suite composed from two sound sources: the music commissioned for an adaptation for radio of the book The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (produced by Odile Magnan for Radio Canada in 1994) and whose principal themes are found in it, and the voices of the actors who collaborated in the recording of the radio adaptation.
It is the third work in a cycle begun in 1991 (Éclats de voix and Spleen [recorded on the album Tangram, empreintes DIGITALes, IMED 9419/20, and IMED 9920] were the first two) and is based exclusively on the use of the voice; more specifically on onomatopoeia, which is the only form in human language that corresponds directly to the designated objects, gestures or feelings as sounds, rather than as the abstract representations that are words.
In each of the work’s five parts a state or feeling experienced in adulthood is associated with a sonic framework: Babillage et rythme (Babbling and Rhythm), Nostalgie et timbre (Nostalgia and Tone), Colère et dynamique (Anger and Dynamics), Lassitude et espace (Weariness and Space), Sérénité et texture (Serenity and Texture). In them the musical themes associated with the different characters in the book are arranged chronologically: the King, the Businessman, the Conceited Man, the Flock of Wild Birds, the Well in the Desert, the Rose, the Baobabs, the Lamplighter, the Little Flower, the Merchant Who Sold Thirst-Quenching Pills, the Fox and the Geographer.
The voices of the different characters in The Little Prince are those of Pierre Bourgault, Françoise Davoine, Cynthia Dubois, Michel Dumont, Gilles Dupuis, Luc Durand, Monique Giroux, Jacques Languirand, Jean Marchand, Jean-Louis Millette, Guy Nadon, Martin Pensa, Gérard Poirier, Claude Préfontaine and Christine Séguin.
Le renard et la rose was composed in the author’s studio with the aid of a grant from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec. The work was a commission from the Banff Centre for the Arts for the 1995 International Computer Music Conference that was made possible by the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Le renard et la rose had its premiere on September 6th, 1995 at the Banff Centre for the Arts. It won the Golden Nica at the 1996 Ars Electronica competition (Linz, Austria). It has been recorded a number of times: Prix Ars Electronica 1996 (ORF PAE 96), Le petit prince d’Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Disques Radio-Canada (MVCD 1091-2), Sonic Circuits V (Innova 114) and Figures, empreintes DIGITALes (IMED 9944).
© 1995 Normandeau (SOCAN)
Work published by YMX Média (SOCAN)

5.5. PALIMPSESTE (2005) 15'
To Anick La Bissonnière
This work is the fourth and the last one of a cycle called Onomatopoeias begun in 1991 with Éclats de voix followed by Spleen (1993) and Le renard et la rose (1995). The pieces of the cycle were dedicated to the childhood, the adolescence and the adulthood where the fourth one is an homage to the old age. As with the first three pieces, this one is divided into five sections each of them evoking a feeling, associated to a musical parameter: Fury and rhythm; Bitterness and timbre; Anger and dynamics; Tiredness and space; Wisdom and texture. The title refers to a palimpsest, which is a manuscript on which a first text (even many texts) was erased in order to write a new one over it (the parchments were rare and precious). Here, the first text was the timeline structure of the previous works. It is still there but in the background. It has been overwritten with another layer made out of a series of new category of sounds, more noisy, absent of the previous works of the cycle.
Palimpseste is made exclusively with vocal sounds and more specifically with onomatopoeias that are extremely rich because they represent those instances when the sounds of human language correspond directly to the designated object or to the expression of a sentiment. The recording of the voices took place in Germany — Christian Gressier, Eberhard Geyer and Gabriela Lang — and in Montréal — Andrée Lachapelle, Christiane Pasquier. The work was commissioned by the ZKM in Karlsruhe (Germany) where it was premiered during the trans_canada festival on February 13, 2005 under its first name: ZedKejeM. It was revised during the Summer 2005. The work was composed with the financial help of the CALQ and the CAC. Thanks to Sabine Breitsameter and Ludger Brümmer. The work was finalist at the 2005 Musica Nova competition (Prague, Czech Republic).

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