Why document Sonde’s music ?
Charles de Mestral, Montreal, 2009
In 1975, contemporary music arrived at an important crossroads and was to diverge along several different paths. This context of upheaval yet full of possibilities instilled in the members of Sonde an undeniable thirst to create music. But where to begin when the old rhythms, trends, instruments and techniques seemed to have dried up? In his Musical Design Workshop at McGill University, Mario Bertoncini—always generous with his advice and encouragement—pointed the way to possible directions and helped avoid many wrong turns.
Bertoncini shared his experience of the process of musical improvisation he had acquired as a member of the group Nuova Consonanza, whose music was a free-flowing interpretation of the rhythms and sounds of that period. Ex tempore musical exploration would characterize Sonde’s method from then on.
Secondly, Bertoncini shared his ideas on sound sources and music design. As such, a piece is developed with no a priori constraints as to acoustic form, instruments or techniques. A composer begins by designing and constructing a sound source made up of a coherent set of possibilities. Next, improvisational playing and electronic techniques are applied to the exploration of these original worlds of sound. What sounds are produced from thin steel sheets, frames holding a variety of steel wires, by running, falling or bubbling water, or by thin sheets of wood? Each source contains its own particular range of rhythms, pitches, sonorities. Playing transforms these acoustic worlds into musical expression.
Live exploration by improvisation defined Sonde’s earliest pieces. They played by following where the sound led them, respecting its characteristics, rather than by imposing an external formal structure. This music does not fit into the mold of traditional forms such as theme and variations. A piece passes through a series of sound-modules in no predefined order. It’s a process that can only be understood by experiencing it: intense, focused attention on acoustic material brought to hearing live, a meditation through sound.
Thirdly, new electronic circuits made possible by transistors allowed for live musical production of the sounds heard in older electronic music, or concrete music. These techniques, beginning with amplification, permitted the exploration of these types of sound materials. Electronic circuits are not instruments in themselves, but rather vehicles for sound exploration. Bertoncini would often repeat, “Don’t be dominated by predefined devices. Take them apart, rebuild them according to your ideas and musical needs.” The same approach can no doubt be applied to present-day digital tools. This is one reason why documenting Sonde’s music is of relevance today.
Keith Daniel, a young and talented partner of the group, designed modular electroacoustic devices for live use in concert; not unlike what Serge Tcherepnine1 was doing at the same time in California. A series of units were built by Keith Daniel and sometimes Charles de Mestral, based on circuits designed by Keith. These included various live mixers, filters, ring modulators, devices capturing and filtering live brain waves (filtered into alpha, beta and theta bands to control oscillators or to send trigger signals), envelope followers, and many others.
The pieces from Sonde’s first period were characterized by unique and cohesive sound sources and evolved into synthesized pieces orchestrating varied sound groups together. This progression provided Sonde with a diversified sound palette and paved the way for a wealth and variety of activity in many different contexts: art gallery concerts, tours across Canada and Europe, performance art accompaniment, as well as soundtracks to films and a number of radio and television programs.
Did Sonde’s approach live up to its promise? That is for others to decide. The group performed an average of one event per month over ten years. You could say the need to play sometimes fed their spirit of researching new ways. In formal terms, the structure of Sonde’s works is not that varied, being sometimes animated, at other times more uniform. Electronic amplification dispensed, if you will, with the need for traditional instruments. Sonde’s music can be seen as an electroacoustic extension of the orchestral sound palette.
On a more significant level, this music group took up the challenge of a departure from point zero and remained musically expressive. Openness to improvisation, randomness, and the indefinite gave life to an original and oftentimes powerful music. Sonde’s collective approach to composition and playing, as well as to real-time electroacoustic performances before a live audience made them rather exceptional. At the very least, the lessons learned through producing this music remain valid. Music today blends with sound art in a soundscape where anything is possible. Contemporary music now—thankfully—mimics the great diversity of human experience.