After first arriving at Les Voûtes for the debut performance of Paris’s new laptop ensemble, Le Cercle pour la Libération du Son et de l’Image, one could not fail to notice the artistically provocative atmosphere of this marvelous space. Les Voûtes is a hive of experimental arts activity in the midst of an artists’ squat called Les Frigos near the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand in Paris. Its lichened, stone walls form a long, narrow vault that tethers into an impressive arched ceiling from one end of the space to the other. Les Voûtes and its surrounding communal environment quite literally set the stage for the debut performance of this group that emphasizes the values a true collective can offer : artistic collaboration ; mutual commitment ; and shared responsibility. The ensemble, founded in November 2007 by Gérard Pape, is comprised of eight composers and a conductor/composer who have banded their talents together to provide an artistic outlet for new, structured compositions (as opposed to free improvisations). In private conversation, Pape makes the point that he is tired of hearing all of the negative commentary about the state of music today and the lack of opportunities for creative musicians. Rather than play the role of the victim, he prefers to take advantage of the power offered by the computer as a musical instrument of today and has ambitious plans to present new works and to create new opportunities for performance. In their first concert, CLSI premiered three new works written specifically for the ensemble. Three more concerts are scheduled within the next year that will include at least six premieres of works written by ensemble members. Thus, within the span of one year, Pape hopes that the ensemble will have generated a basic set repertoire of nine new works to expand upon. In addition to premieres, Pape tells us that the “concerts will also involve creating new versions of classic works such as Stockhausen’s Prozession where computers will replace acoustic instruments.” They also plan to perform Stockhausen’s other process compositions : Kurzwellen, Pole and Expo in future concerts.
All of that said, CLSI has more ambitious plans than only presenting works for 8 laptops. For example, their November 2008 concert will focus on integrating the visual element into their performances, will incorporate acoustic instruments presented by the instrumental ensemble ’Hyperion’ from Romania, and will also present new works by composers from outside of the ensemble, Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana Maria Avram.
In their debut concert this past June, conducted by Paul Méfano, ensemble members were arranged in a circle surrounding the audience, each equipped with a laptop computer and a single loudspeaker for audio output. Pape tells us that, “we decided to work with the idea of each computer performer as an independent sound source rather than put all the computers in a network or all to be played through a mixer. The model comes from Xenakis and such works as Teretektorrh or Nomos gamma where performers were scattered amongst the public. In our hall, Les Voûtes, it was easier to be in a circle around the public for technical reasons. Since it is always difficult to coordinate eight performers, we decided from the start that we would need a conductor.” Fortunately for CLSI, Méfano who has devoted much of his life to composing, performing, and conducting new works (most famously as the founder of the ensemble 2e2m), was interested in getting involved and serves CLSI as official conductor as well as a composer member.
In preparation for the debut concert last June, the ensemble had been regularly rehearsing for nearly eight months (since November). This impressive amount of time underlines the mutual commitment of the individual members to the collective. The fact that performers are provided with only a single loudspeaker makes precise spatialization of a single source over two or more speakers very difficult requiring much listening and rehearsal, yet this very task is something asked for by Pape in Heliophonie II (as can be seen from the graphically notated score, see insert). The highly reflective stone walls and the arched ceiling of the space itself did affect, to some degree, the spatialization effects as it was sometimes impossible to localize a sound source. On the other hand, the space provided its own interesting spatial illusions such as sounds that sometimes seemed to be emanating directly from the ceiling.
The first work of the concert was Kaspar T. Toeplitz’s Demonology #11. Toeplitz, originally an ensemble member, has since left the group to devote more energy to his computer music trio, KERNEL (http://www.sleazeart.com/). Nonetheless, the ensemble continued to dedicate its time and energy to rehearse and premiere his new work. Demonology #11 is a noise-based composition that uses very fundamental materials : sine waves, filters, and band-limited noise. This poses a stark contrast to use of granular synthesis, fft-stretched, and sample-based music prominent elsewhere. The music was engaging, loud, and full of dark, brooding energy. It was admirable that such strong, expressive qualities could be captured with such simple parameters and how each gesture received the duration it deserved without being cut short. The timing is a credit to Mefano’s expert direction and musicianship, since the ensemble members relied on him for entrances and shaping of sonic events as the score itself gives no preset durations.
Jean-Baptiste Favory’s work, UNISONO, called for an instantiation of identical MAX/MSP patches on each laptop. The score indicates changes in the sounds by providing specific directions for altering individual parameters in the patch. These changes were performed via midi commands produced in real time by peripheral fader boxes. The sounds of the work were again produced with relatively simple means. At times, huge clouds of sounds sometimes reminiscent of sirens and natural overtone series were built from complex heterophonic interactions among the performers. These clouds seemed to ‘hang’ in the space, coloring its atmosphere, and having a very effective hypnotic effect.
Pape’s work begins with small grains of sound that gradually form into clouds which quickly break apart into an intricate counterpoint of fluid streams. Interesting contrasts of fission and fusion, individuation and sublimation, wind their way to a massive climax at the end of the work where everything seems to fuse together into a giant mass of sound. Rodolphe Bourotte offered a description of Pape’s compositional process that emphasizes the collaborative aspects of the ensemble. Gérard brought in a score that the ensemble rehearsed. After getting valuable input from group members, he took the score home, made revisions, and brought back new versions of the score as rehearsals for the concert progressed. Pape’s score (see insert) is graphically based. Like the Toeplitz work, ensemble members were free to use any means at their disposal to produce the sounds described in the graphical score. In Heliophonie II by Pape tells us that “timbres and sound events are described as to frequency, duration, dynamics and timbre, though, each interpreter had to synthesize his own timbres as I gave no presets.”
In reflection, an interesting observation is that all of the scores were printed on paper. One can imagine alternatives, for instance having all of the computers networked to a single server that provides a graphical, virtual score in real-time. Or it would also be possible for one person to easily program all of the sounds and fashion a multi-channel work for presentation. Thus the very powers of computing on which a laptop ensemble depends, also in a sense brings into question its very existence (similarly for PLOrk and Laptoporchester Berlin). Why the devotion of so much time and effort to rehearse ? Why have an audience ? In the absence of financial profit and at the possible expense of inefficiency, one thing gained from this venture is social interaction and the ability to tap into a wealth of creative perspectives offered by a mutually supportive artistic community. In Pape’s case, the creative feedback from knowledgeable artists was reminiscent of Luigi Nono’s approach to collaborative composition. But perhaps the most compelling reward of all for a musician is to sit across from another musician and create that illusive moment of satisfaction. In all, we found the concert to be an exciting affirmation of the computer’s power for performance and were happy to be in town for CLSI’s debut. We wish them all success in implementing their plans for the future.