I’ve been labeled as a «problematic score» composer
In the first part of our interview with Charles-Antoine Fréchette (Montreal, 1981), the Canadian composer spoke about the route which leads from his early pieces to his more recent and extreme compositions, such as Toposition(s)#3, premièred in October 2013 in Santiago de Compostela by Vertixe Sonora Ensemble. Fréchette explained his influences and the way he composes today, using ecomimicry methods, which means to him «trying to 'achieve' a 'depolypolarized unique polyphony' in each piece»”, going beyond of what he understands as the taboo of concrete mimesis in contemporary music.
Fréchette spoke as well about the space in his music (and his music in space), about notation, and about the way he is researching new sounds with instruments to define his style and personal voice. He paid special attention to Toposition(s)#3, showing how nature turns its sounds and noises into his music: the way he creates the piece from soundscapes; trying to follow his thinking that «works of art should be critical and raise questions more than solve problems».
In this second part, Charles-Antoine Fréchette speaks about Canadian music: composers, performers, institutions and government funding, always keeping critic and trying to connect Canada with a global music scene. He goes into his non-music influences: literature, science, arts, cinema, philosophy, etc. Fréchette reminds, as well, his experiences in Europe and how his music was received here.
Paco Yáñez. For many European music lovers, Canada is completely unknown in terms of contemporary music. Which composers do you recommend to follow?
Charles-Antoine Fréchette. It’s a vast country, you know; I would not pretend to be aware of everything going on: I will concentrate on the city of Montreal, which is an important carrefour for Canadian and Quebecker music. After World War II, composers like Serge Garant (Quebec, 1929), Pierre Mercure (Montreal, 1927) and Gilles Tremblay (Arvida, 1932), all represent different composers with original aesthetics and rigorous endeavours. They were important in the development of new music in Quebec by occupying teacher, conductor, broadcast, and artistic director functions. Another important Canadian composer of that generation is Murray Schafer (Sarnia, 1933): he had much impact by his works and his environmental writings.
Pierre Mercure organized a festival in 1961, Semaine internationale de musique actuelle, programming Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Luc Ferrari, Serge Garant, Mauricio Kagel, György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki, Pierre Schaeffer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, David Tudor, Christian Wolff and Iannis Xenakis. An important amount of those pieces were tape works. Although this event suffered from a lack of output in the media and was not understood by the public, it was crucial in Quebec cultural history because these programs were also thought to be fusional concerts of avantgarde music, dance and visual arts: dance -Cunningham, Nikolais, Riopelle, Waring-; video -McLaren, Portuguais-; and visual and performance artists -McEwen, Mousseau, Ono-. In that perspective and because Mercure was closed to the New York avantgarde circles, this event must be reconsidered as an important step in the elaboration of the North American «Fluxus» movement. Today, it would be great to established durable relations between Montreal and New York.
Gilles Tremblay and Serge Garant were co-founders of the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ). This society played and still plays a key role in diffusing international new music and commissioning works to Canadian composers. Claude Vivier (Montreal, 1948) and Michel Gonneville (Montreal, 1950) went to study with Tremblay and Stockhausen. Rapidly, they had support and commissions by the SMCQ. Both have integrated post-serial and spectral structures and worked on melodic aspects. In the 80’ and the 90’, there were much questions raised about identity, cultural influences, signs, and métissage -Walter Boudreau (Montreal, 1947), Denys Bouliane (Grand-Mère, 1955), Michel-Georges Brégent (Montreal, 1948-1993), Tim Brady (Montreal, 1956), José Evengelista (Valencia, 1943), John Rea (Toronto, 1944), Jean Lesage (Montreal, 1958)-. This post-modern eclecticism is still a dominant tendency although younger composers integrate more «popular» influences -Gabriel Dharmoo (Quebec, 1981), Nicole Lizée (Gravelbourg, 1973), Maxime McKinley (Estrie, 1979), Michael Oesterle (Ulm, 1968) and André Ristic (Quebec, 1972)-. Traditionnaly, Quebec scene has been influence by France (Messiaen, Boulez, spectralists) and the United States (Ives, Varèse, Cage), but composers like Stockhausen and Berio were also significant (www.centremusique.ca)
Other important Quebec composers with distinctive and personal voices are Serge Provost (Saint-Timothée de Beauharnois, 1954), André Hamel (La Pocatière, 1955), Linda Bouchard (Montreal, 1957), Jean-François Laporte (Quebec, 1968) and many more. Serge Provost has a really refined writing, and his recent pieces create a nostalgic poetry by deconstructing sonic memories in a «Tarkovskien» suspended space. Hamel has been experimenting with space and timbre for a while: he demonstrates lots of inventiveness from one piece to another. Laporte was really important in my development: he invents instruments or play traditional instruments with original and unconventional means and techniques. This music of noises and timbres had really a strong impact, because I discovered it as a late teenager, before I had ever listen to a piece of Lachenmann or late Cage. The Canadian composer Wolf Edwards (Montreal, 1972) is a close friend. His music works with saturation of noises in kaleidoscopic intuitive forms: it is an exteriorized yell against domestication and the violence of any domination. In the composers about my age or younger than me, works of Simon Martin (Montreal, 1981), Guillaume Primard (Quebec, 1982), Cristina García Islas (México DF, 1984), Gabriel Dufour-Laperrière (Chicoutimi, 1986) and James O’Callaghan (Montreal, 1988) have showed promises, but again I’m not aware of everything.
Paco Yáñez. Canadian musicians and orchestras are much more well known, like Glenn Gould or Montreal and Toronto orchestras. How is the Canadian scene in terms of performing contemporary music? Is there a support for young composer like you?
Charles-Antoine Fréchette. The years 2000 have seen the emergence of a lot of new music ensembles and composers in Montreal and Quebec city, as well as in Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria and other cities in Canada. Concretely, it tells there is much going on.
In Quebec, we have the possibility to apply to CALQ -provincial- that can provide money to pay the expenses while creating, making research and some travels. As artists, the amount of money we can earn as a grant as not been upgraded for more than twenty years: meanwhile obviously, it was not the case for plane tickets, rents, food, etc. The total envelope allowed by the government was not much augmented either. In consequence, you have much more ensembles and composers for less money. When I began my studies in music, mostly all contemporary concerts were free... It is not the case anymore (by the way, CALQ’s funding was about 93,5 million Canadian dollars -about 64 million €- in 2012-2013 and was eligible to writers, dancers, music and theatre performers, composers, architects, visual artists; either for individual artist or for organisms. For instance, it is much less than the Metropolitan Opera house budget alone -approximating, 327 million American dollars-).
Just in Montreal, you have more than thirty ensembles or organisms devoted to contemporary music (www.levivier.ca). In the prerequisites of their funding, they often need to create new works by local composers. While this stimulates the demand for composers, it diminishes the possibilities of creating international commissions. In a way, it isolates the community from the rest of the musical world and render precarious the maintenance of the «national» repertoire. Obviously, more funding is required. The funding for visiting international ensembles is scarce. Therefore, if the biennial SMCQ’s International Festival would be more funded, with more visiting ensembles and composers while still programming local ones, it would be possible to ease our comprehension of what we do and what is actually been done in Argentina, Spain, UK, Russia, Greece, Austria, and everywhere outside. Because the ensembles don’t have much money to rehearse, it generates a situation where complex music like Lachenmann, Ferneyhough and so on is rarely performed, or just not at all. But more dramatic are the constraints put on the local composers. It explains why in the last four years, my pieces have mostly been created elsewhere. Some say the reason that explains this «crisis» resides in the audience. The true is even with poor media the audience for new music has augmented in the last years, although it could still be more. The media have left us. The national radio (CBC/Radio Canada) is being smash down by the federal government. Therefore, no more new music comes out of the state radio, while not long ago it was equipped with an orchestra and a budget for commissions. It also means less money for the contemporary music performers.
In Quebec, we are fortunate enough to be as well eligible to CAC funding (Canada). CAC funding can also help to pay a plane ticket, provide money for a commission and help ensembles. It has also not been augmented following the cost of life. I’ve heard in British-Columbia the provincial government has cut the funding in the arts to make the Olympics. It meant in 2010 a Canadian artist from BC could only rely on grants from Canada. I don’t know precisely how it works in each one of the provinces.
In Quebec, the orchestras only play -so rarely!- contemporary established composers or what happens to be conservative «new» music often made with prescriptions. The Nouvel Ensemble Moderne is still important in the community for it’s rigorous sound. The ECM pushes the music of new generations upfront. The opera company Chants Libres manages to create a new opera once every two years. There is also a critique publication on new music called Circuits. You have three Universities and one National Conservatory with contemporary music lessons and concerts (Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal, McGill, Concordia and Montreal Universities). You also have an advance research centre in acoustics and musical creation (CIRMMT). And finally, you have numerous ensembles like the very active and dynamic saxophone quartet Quasar, the rigorous chamber ensemble Transmissions, the percussion ensemble Sixtrum, the string quartet Bozzini, and many others. I know Toronto also has many growing ensembles and it seems the same on the West Coast, like the recent ensemble Tsilumos, who has commissioned me Toposition(s) #4.
Besides of contemporary concert music, the electroacoustic and improvisation scenes are much important in the landscape, either in official and «underground» concerts. Electroacoustic composers like Francis Dhomont (París, 1926), Yves Daoust (Longueuil, 1946), Gilles Gobeil (Sorel, 1954), Monique Jean (Caraquet, 1960), Christian Bouchard (Quebec, 1968), Louis Dufort (Montreal, 1970), between others, are all significant composers (www.empreintesdigitales.com). Each year, in Victoriaville, there is a festival of new improvisation music. Montreal has really young and established great artists in improvisation, and this scene often goes further in the exploration of radical material than the contemporary concert music scene (www.actuellecd.com).
Diego Ventoso y Charles-Antoine Fréchette en Santiago de Compostela (España)
© Paco Yáñez, 2014
Paco Yáñez. Did you notice a good understanding of your music in Europe?
Charles-Antoine Fréchette. In general, I have the feeling my music intrigues more performers, ensembles, composer’s communities outside of Quebec, although I had mostly good receptions in Montreal and elsewhere. Of course, the question of «understanding» should be answered by the listeners. In London, in spring 2013, there was much enthusiasm about Toposition(s) #2: this is rare. The last time I could recall a success like this was with Thème et Variations, performed in France (2005) and Quebec (2007). With Toposition(s) #1 (2012) in Russia, I could feel my work would create an ambiguous state in the hall: some listeners would like it, some would dislike it, some would be overwhelmed by it. This is generally how my pieces are received since Aspirations (2006), considering I had mostly premières... As a listener of the creation of Toposition(s) #3, how would you describe the understanding of my piece was in Santiago de Compostela?
Paco Yáñez. As far as I remember (and I wrote that concert’s review paying an special attention to your piece), it was very well received: a great success! Apart from the intense and brilliant contemporary language, and the vast variety of timbres and instrumental textures, I think Toposition(s) #3 works fine because of the many layers the piece has, which helps listeners to follow their own routes into (I think the word ‘into’ is the right one in this sound-space you create) different directions. The environmental sounds are pretty clear: that oceanic soundscape easy to recognize and to give an intention (even political, as I asked you for). But, as there are abstract and powerful musical ideas, there are, as well, influences and images easy to link with. I would like to mention the romantic painting, very specially William Turner’s Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842), as well as Caspar David Friedrich’s Das Eismeer (1823-24). In a more recent perspective, it recalls the soundscape of Leviathan (2012), a film by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel which is related to the sea (fishing in that case) as well. I mean there is a net of links to share images which comes out from your piece. But, of course, as a musical process and sound-sculpture it’s amazing: in my opinion, one of the strongest pieces premièred in Galicia in the last decades. I think people had the feeling of being inside something very special, because of the way sounds are created, their nature and the way they move in(to) the space, surrounding them: you become part of the soundscape, your body is a resonant part of the whole thing.
And, concerning that première, what about the performers? Your pieces have been played throughout Canada and Europe, so you have experiences with different ensembles. How the rehearsals and concert with Vertixe Sonora Ensemble were?
Charles-Antoine Fréchette. I had really good but different experiences with performers in Europe, and I’ve learned something out of each one of them. Vertixe Sonora Ensemble are wonderful musicians! Pablo Coello, David Durán, Diego Ventoso and Criptana Angulo were really patient, generous of their time to workshop each part alone with me. They have provided more time to rehearse when everyone felt it was required (not just for my piece, and even if they had tight schedules...). Toposition(s) #3 asks for a performer at the mixing board. Therefore, apart of the technical abilities, you need a strong musician to realize the score and manage the mix smoothly without distortions. I could not have dream for a better artist to deal with this endeavour than Ángel Faraldo. He has a really refine and accurate listening, being a composer and an improviser himself. It was reassuring to have him in the process as I was stressed by the fact I needed to have a good recording of that piece for my doctoral thesis. Vertixe is also very lucky to rely on Ramón Souto as an artistic director. I think he’s a visceral composer and his works are really deep, original and expressive. Thanks to him I have discovered many composers I didn’t know through his concert programs, and obviously I had this wonderful opportunity to work with Vertixe’s crew.
In Quebec, I was really lucky to be supported by musicians of the Ensemble Chorum, for which I was co-founder and co-artistic director between 2006-2012. Not paid, musicians would manage to rehearse, give their time and create pieces as well as performed classical and contemporary repertoire. But at the end, it was becoming unsustainable to go further without any funding. In my generation, a lot of performers like to work with composers. I think performers here are really hard working, serious and dedicated, in general. But the scene would be improved if performers could only rely on new music for living -if the number of specialists would grow- and if they would be able to travel more and share with other new music communities. Currently, all the community works on those issues.
In Quebec, I think I’ve been labeled as a «problematic score» composer. Aside of the new techniques and physical constraints, the fact I work with dirty some while contingent sounds must not been excluded in this evaluation. But like I said earlier, musique concrète instrumentale or hyper-complexity is just almost not performed here. With their busy schedules, musicians are afraid and overwhelmed by multi-layered scores, while more conservative performers have itches when they need to performed noises. But not all of them, fortunately enough!... like the Wapiti duo, who has recently commissioned me a new work for piano and violin.
Paco Yáñez. I have previously related some artistic references your music suggests to me; so I would like to ask if there are main influences in your music: literature, painting, philosophy, science, linguistics, cinema...?
Charles-Antoine Fréchette. I don’t consider myself to be a groupie of any sort of anyone except maybe the Christ!, if it’s possible and if it’s still possible to say so without making a fool of yourself, or being seen like a conservative mind. On a theological point of view, I think the Christ as set an ongoing revolution shifting from a God-Justice to a God-Love. Outside from a Christian faithful perspective, I see the Christ as one of the most anarchic mind of mankind history. Despite his call for God and Love, the discourses and acts he has made in society (not aside of it), still have implications today. He was against the control of the religion by a cast -if we refer to the event at Jerusalem’s temple as an example-, he was against the capital and the political domination, he would care for the children, the prostitutes, the slaves, the poor, the sick, the excluded.
I don’t consciously apply influences in my works. Like would do any curious person, I’m more like a bee who flies over time from one flower to another. Therefore, although it seems a bit like a Facebook itemization, those lists below recall durable influences... If something can unite them, it must be in the constant anarchic thrill for consciousness, metaphysics, mystics and freedom. In the last years, my readings were mostly in philosophy and music (for my doctorate). My culture his scattered with holes like moon’s surface. In literature: the Bible, Balzac, Dickens, Faulkner, Kafka, Musil, Dostoyevsky, Richard Millet... In painting: El Greco, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Goya, Cézanne, Soutine, Richter, Basquiat, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Roland Poulin... In poetry: Canticles of canticles, San Juan de la Cruz, Hölderlin, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Celan, Fernand Ouellette... In cinema: Dreyer, Mizoguchi, Tarkovsky, Lynch, Von Trier... In philosophy: Parmenides, Lao-Tse, Plato, Pascal, Kant, Kierkegaard, Thoreau, Nietzsche, Deleuze & Guattari, Foucault, Adorno... In theatre: Sophocles, Euripides, Racine, Chekhov, Brecht, Beckett... In science: even if I don’t understand the formulas, I often listen to physics conferences on Youtube (String Theory, Entropic gravity, etc.). I love History and Archaeology, generally speaking.
Paco Yáñez. Finally, I would like to know what are you working at right know and which routes are open to you for developing your musical ideas.
Charles-Antoine Fréchette. I will continue to explore ecomimicry for a while, because there is much typologies still to invent and explore. I am currently working on a piece for tuba and contrabass commission by Max Murray and Caleb Salgado. The fact I have recently worked with different types and techniques of motors on the instruments is just a consequence of the source environmental material (insects, printer machines and motorcycles). Afterwards, I have two commissions for piano and violin formations. I don’t lack of ideas for the years to come, but I’m afraid of the support and capacities to realize them...
Paco Yáñez. We keep waiting for those new projects and pieces we hope to discover soon. Thank you very much for your kind and deep replies to our questions.