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“Space is not a flavor” – A Meeting with Robert Normandeau

Each year, the internationally oriented ZKM Giga Hertz Prize honors composers of electronic and electro-acoustic music. The first prize awards the selected artist’s total achievement, along with and his contribution to electronic music in particular. Several other prizes for production will also be awarded to nominated composers in the form of support for the creation of a new piece of work at the ZKM | Institute of Music and Acoustics (IMA). Canadian composer Robert Normandeau was among the prize winners for production in 2010. Over the course of two visits to the IMA in 2011 and more recently, in July 2012, he completed a new acoustic composition bearing the title La Part des Anges. In a discussion with IMA colleague Till Kniola, Normandeau disclosed information about his work and career.

Robert Normandeau (born in 1955) counts among the most important composers of electro-acoustic and acousmatic music worldwide, and has received numerous prizes for his work. The artist performs in many concerts worldwide, and has released numerous CD and DVD productions. He is professor for electro-acoustic music at the Université de Montréal, Canada. He began his career as a musician when still at college, where he played bass in various progressive rock bands. He initially came into contact electronic music in the studio (SMEUL – Studio de musique électronique de l’Université Laval), which had been recently founded by Nil Parent in 1969 during his studies in music at Laval University in Quebec City.

In Normandeau’s own words: “In the early 70′s I found a record in the university library that changed everything for me. It was Telemusik by Karlheinz Stockhausen. When I first listened to it I was totally shocked and couldn’t understand what it was. But I was at the same time totally attracted to this strange kind of music and wanted to hear more. This eventually led me to becoming a composer in the electro-acoustic world.”

Normandeau gave up his ambitions as instrumentalist and began experimenting with tapes and the abstraction of field recordings from their environment. His first concert experience in the field of electro-acoustic music, a guest performance by GRM music Guy Reibel, Bernard Parmegiani and Michel Chion in Montreal in the late 1970s, also endorsed his plan to pursue work as a composer of electro-acoustic music. In 1992, Robert Normandeau was the first student in Canada to gain a PhD with a concrete piece of work in the field of electro-acoustic music. The theme of the latter work was cinema for the ear.

Normandeau: “In my first works I was particularly interested in drawing on the experience of the cinema. I tried to apply techniques and a kind of language from cinema to electroacoustic music. This related to questions of timing, movement, perspective and focus, etc. In film there is a long tradition of formulating theories about the practical work of directors and documenting the steps in the working process. In electro-acoustic music we don’t have this; it is all still very much at the beginning. And with my studies, which I coined cinema for the ear I discovered, that there are many questions and techniques in the art of cinema that have a strong relation to the work of electroacoustic composers.”

There remains no doubt that with his early research and the works that emerged as a result Robert Normandeau laid important foundations for the further aesthetic development of electro-acoustic music. It is not for nothing that the series Cinéma pour l’oreille was founded by the French label Metamkine, and Normandeau, as Professor, currently seeks to keep the “ear cinema method“ alive among his students. The Institute of Music and Acoustics is also one of the most distinguished addresses worldwide in which research into electro-acoustic music is actively pursued: another reason why Normandeau has no intention of missing his working visits in in Karlsruhe.

Normandeau: “A professional environment like the ZKM enables me to really dig into the one most important aspect of electro-acoustic music: space. For me, space is not a flavor, something that I add as an extra spice when I have laid out my work. Quite to the contrary the notion of space is important to me in every step of the compositional process. I can only work with this parameter in a good setting, where I have good speakers and a setting like the Klangdom or the studios at ZKM where I can experiment with the positioning of sounds, volume, etc. This is something I cannot do in the same quality in my studio at home.”

When asked about current work at the Institute of Music and Acoustics Normandeau replies:

“Last year I had begun work on a piece called La Part des Anges or in English something like Angel’s Share. The name is taken from an expression in French which relates to the production of alcohol. In a distillery when you store alcohol in heavy barrels for many years there is a part of the original alcohol that evaporates throughout the years. This is the part of the drink that belongs to the angels. A beautiful expression I think. I tried to take inspiration from that idea for my composition. I only used voice samples from recordings from all over the world. In my work those voices should be totally stripped of semantics or lyrical content. You can still hear the sounds are human voices but you cannot distinguish where they are from, if they are from Corsica, USA or Hungary or what they are singing about. In terms of production it was very important to come back to the ZKM because only now I was able to work with a new tool that we have finished at my university in Montreal. It is a software that enables me to directly link the Zirkonium environment, that was developed here at the ZKM, with an audio sequencer and to have a more direct and hands-on control of the speakers I use as my instruments. With this new plug-in I could re-do the original composition in a much more satisfying way.”

Text: Till Kniola
Photograph: Bernard Préfontaine


Robert Normandeau’s Website:

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