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Bernard Parmegiani - De Natura Sonorum

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Artist: Bernard Parmegiani

Album: De Natura Sonorum

Label: Recollection GRM

Review date: Aug. 26, 2013

Lately I’ve been mulling over the resurgence of the term “experimental music” that has accompanied the latest go-around of people getting interested in the history of what is sometimes called electronic music. Most such terms are pretty useless, but this one is exceptionally awful (so is “electronic music,” but we’ll save that for another review). As best I can tell from asking people what they mean when they use it, embedded in “experimental music” is a galling suggestion founded on pure linguistic laziness that ignores the realities of experimental processes. All those unusual or non-standard sounds, they’re just someone experimenting, right? Making it up as they go along, finding stuff by accident — it’s a notion that absolutely fails to deal with how much of this music is made or the intentions that motivate its making, let alone the rigor that is often involved in genuine experimentation. If we really want to talk about experimental music, let’s talk about Taylor Swift experimenting with the effects of the dubstep beats in “I Knew You Were Trouble” upon her music’s marketability. It is, after all, a genuinely experimental endeavor. But that’s not what people mean when they say experimental, is it? Mostly they mean that the music has sounds that they find odd or discordant, but they don’t want to come out and say it that way.

Not that the terms musicians come up with are always a lot better. Bernard Parmegiani (b. 1927) calls his work “acousmatic music.” The word “acousmatic” indicates that the sound’s source cannot be seen. Sounds that come out of the radio or hard drive, or film soundtracks that move beyond the purely representational, are all “acousmatic.” Not only does the term fail to roll fluidly off the tongue, what it covers is so broad that it’s not a terribly handy category; try filing your records according to a concept like that.

What Parmegiani actually does, though, is make music for loudspeakers. On the face of it, that’s just as broad — so have Keiji Haino, Burial, the 1910 Fruitgum Company, and anyone else who ever envisioned the sounds they made being played through a speaker when they weren’t around to put it on. But Parmegiani goes a bit deeper than that. He was an engineer before he was a composer, and he has used technology to either make sounds that couldn’t be matched to any source, or so distorted sounds from a recognizable source that you can’t help but imagine or feel something that has more to do with what’s in your mind than what made the sound. Taken literally, the word “acousmatic” refers to an impossibly broad category, but it is used to signify a very particular and rare sonic experience.

Parmegiani’s work from the late 1950s to the middle ‘70s used the typical raw material of musique concrete; sounds lifted from records or the environment, and sounds that were generated by studio gear. But in 1972 he started playing with jazz and rock bands, and subsequently began using the sounds of instruments played specifically for his purposes in his music. They’re all over De Natura Sonorum, a two-part suite that was originally released as a single LP in 1975 and bulked up a bit upon its CD release in 1990 (both of those editions are collector’s bait now, although you can get a download for cheap at Amazon). Bursts of tablas and a flute puncture the fat electronic tones in “Accidents / Harmoniques,” then disappear. A swelling organ looms behind blurred cymbals on “Géologie Sonore.” And on “Conjugaison du Timbre,” the in-your-face echoes of short baritone sax blasts fly out of the speakers, dart around you, smack into the air behind your head, then fly back into a layered landscape of elongated tones that might have been derived from the same instrument. I strongly suspect that Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson have heard this piece; at any rate, some of the most exciting improvisations I’ve heard them play on the instrument occur at moments when it sounds like they’re trying to make something like this piece without the assistance of a studio.

Whether Parmegiani uses instrumental sounds straight or subjects them to some distorting process, they’re sufficiently divorced from the act of playing that that’s not what you’re likely to imagine when you hear them. What will you hear, then, and how will it make it feel? That’s up to you; that’s the experiment. Parmegiani’s genius is the way he takes sounds and finds in them some compelling quality. Then he arranges them in ways that are quite devoid of narrative, but full of surprise on first listen and deepening fascination on subsequent spins. This vinyl reissue, spread across two records and cut at 45 rpm, does a marvelous job of imparting the sounds’ impact and differential placement across the stereo spectrum. If you’re looking for hi-fi fodder, this record might induce you to retire your 200-gram, Direct Metal Mastered copy of Aja.

By Bill Meyer

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