A Closer Look: Montreal’s AKOUSMA Festival

First published at A CLOSER LISTEN

All photos by Caroline Campeau, courtesy of Réseaux des arts médiatiques

Québec has  long nurtured creative and  experimental arts & music. The Québécois are something of an historical anomaly, an island of Francophones adrift in a sea Anglophones.  This fact, combined with its relative geographic isolation and the paradox of containing the world-class, affordable and pluralistic city of Montréal has apparently been the perfect combination of forces to cultivate many diverse and intensely creative artistic scenes regardless of language.  The fact that a city like Victoriaville, QC (which I hadn’t heard of either, so don’t feel bad) could host such a long running and influential event as the Festival International de Musiques actuelles  speaks volumes alone.  Montreal itself is extremely fertile ground, roughly equidistant from Toronto, Boston and New York, and yet completely in possession of its own identity.  Long known for jazz and free improv (in fact the city was briefly home to Sun Ra and his Arkestra for several months in 1961), more recent genres such as post-rock, ambient, hip hop, metal, and electronic music of all sorts have taken root here over the last several decades.

Add to that list electroacoustic music.  Montreal is without a doubt the center of electroacoustic music in North America, and in no small part to the efforts of Réseaux des arts médiatiques (Feel free to comment if you’d like to suggest a contender.)  Founded in 1991, Reseaux’s mission was to publicly present a variety of “electroacoustic works using an array of loudspeakers.  The works in question can be acousmatic (tape music), mixed (tape and instruments), live (live electronics) or include other art forms, such as video, dance or installation art.”   The city is truly lucky to enjoy the efforts of a group like Reseaux, let alone one partnered with an institution like the Conservatoire de musique et d’art dramatique du Québec and world-class venues such as Usine-C.

In its more than 20 years, Réseaux has presented over 100 international composers to audiences in Montréal.  The AKOUSMA festival of electroacoustic music in Montréal , produced by Réseaux, is now in its 9th year,  though they have also presented events in the off-season and at other venues in different cities, such as Troy, NY’s fanastic EMPAC theatre (current home to legendary co-founder of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, Pauline Oliveros, a past-performer at Akousma).

Usine-C, interior

Before diving into a review of this year’s festival, first let me break down some of the terminology, and establish a critical lens by which we can examine these concerts.

What is meant by acousmatic music?  Electroacoustic music? Musique concrète?

Pierre Schaeffer described sound technologies as producing “acousmatic” sounds, sounds that are isolated from their source.  Schaeffer is best known as the pioneer of musique concrète.  While working as a broadcaster at Radiodiffusion Française, a radio-station in Paris, during the late 1940s, Schaeffer innovated many techniques utilizing turntables, phonographs, and later tape recorders to manipulate pre-recorded sound to produce new compositions, an act which was radically innovative at the time and has gone on to be standard techniques employed by producers all over the world.  These techniques included looping samples, playing them backwards, changing the speed of playback to alter the pitch, and more.   Rather than organize compositions on the basis of traditional principles such as melody, harmony or metre,  Schaeffer and his associates relied on timbre, tone, and spectrum, using textures and events to produce dynamics and narrative.   The resulting compositions existed as recordings, and therefore were very obviously a studio art rather than a performance art in the way we think of “live” music.

The term “acousmatic” itself originates with the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras, who delivered lectures to his novice students from behind a screen, forcing them to focus on the content of his words rather than on his presence.  Just as the Greek logos became the Christian Word of God, acousmatic carries with it an implied and often unchallenged assumption regarding the relationship between a “source” and a “copy.”  The Word came to be privileged as more alive compared with the “dead” letters of writing, resulting in a metaphysics of presence that went unchallenged in the western world until the 20th century.

Schaeffer himself was also a devout Catholic, and one might suggest that his relationship with sound, that he described as acousmatic, follows this theological framework, one that distinguishes between “origins” and “copies” as fundamentally different.

This narrative hasn’t gone unproblematized.  In his now classic work The Audible Past, Jonathan Sterne writes that figures such as Schaeffer:

assume that sound-reproduction technologies can function as neutral conduits, as instruments rather than substantive parts of social relationships, and that sound-reproduction technologies are ontologically separate from a “source” that exists prior to and outside its affiliation with the technology.  Attending to differences between “sources” and “copies” diverts our attention from processes to products; technology vanishes, leaving as its by-product a source and a sound that is separated from it. (Pg. 21)

We can clearly see this at work in much electroacoustic music, perhaps no more so than in the performances of Francisco Lopez, who literally blindfolds the audience and covers his console in a tarp, literalizing  the absence, the lack, and using it in favor of his compositions.  Other contemporary artists, however, such as Giuseppe Ielasi, seem very much aware that mediation is not a neutral tool that re-presents a more authentic source but is, one can say, the message itself.  His recent LPs of the past four years (the Stunt series, Tools, 15 CDs, 15 Tapes, his Bellows collaborations with Nicola Ratti) list only the media employed itself and not the source material, putting the emphasis on reel-to-reel players, CDJs, effects pedals, a Discman.  Sterne asserts that “sound reproduction was a studio art, and, therefore, the source was as bound up in the social relations of the reproducibility as any copy was.   On the contrary, sound reproduction-from it’s very beginnings- always implied social relations among people, machines, practices, and sounds.”   He continues, “Sound reproduction is a social process.”  The question of “authenticity” or even “fidelity” rather misses the point, or at least diverts attention of the materiality at hand.  “Reproduced sounds are not simply mediated versions of unmediated original sounds.”  (Pg. 219)

Rather than consider sound through dichotomies (original vs copy, (a)live vs dead, present vs recorded)  in my look at the AKOUSMA performances I try to isolate the practice itself, including the variety of ways the audience interaction is in tension with the interpretation of the work itself.  How might this inform our understanding of the nature of electroacoustic composers working today?

The Akousma festival presented a variety of work, some improvised and site-specific while others were pre-composed pieces, but all took full advantage of the generous  multichannel sound system at Usine-C. Though this is my fourth fall in Montreal, I somehow hadn’t heard of the Akousma festival until this year.  The promoters were very generous and invited me to attend, and I hope that this coverage will introduce others who may have missed out to the great work they are presenting, and to document these incredible performances for those elsewhere.

Occupy the Ghost of Griffintown

“Occupy the ghost of Griffintown” took place the week before the festival, on the 16th of October,  gathering participants for a free concert held in Parc St-Ann, a recently converted green space built on the ruins of an Irish Catholic chuch in the post-industrial neighborhood of Griffintown.  Legend has it that every 7 years the ghost of Mary Gallagher, a prostitute who was brutally murdered and decapitated in 1879, returns looking for her head.  This tale has come to represent the Irish community who once called Griffintown home, but have since left do to industrialization and it’s subsequent collapse, though lately the neighborhood has been gentrifying, adding a variety of artistic institutions, studios and gallery space.  The ghost was scheduled to appear earlier this summer, but apparently she failed to meet her engagement.  What that means for us hasn’t yet been born out, but the spirit of absence and exorcism would continue to animate the festival.

Standing in the park on a rather frigid evening, surrounded by construction sites, empty grain silos, and the canal that built modern Canada, three local artists pushed the elliptical set up of 16 speakers far enough to make you forget you were outside.  (Almost. It was very cold!)  Félix-Antoine Morin began with a set incorporating bowed guitar, laptop and mixed acousmatic sounds. Alexander Wilson’s set was more focused on mixing acousamtic sounds that utilized the 16 channel set up and provided for a spatially interesting, bass-heavy and suitably creepy atmosphere for a cold night waiting for a ghost on the ruins of church.  Nicolas Bernier was the nights final performer, and impressed me most of all with his astonishing live mixing skills.  (Read our review of his recent album Music for a Book here.) Overall, Occupy the Ghost of Griffintown set the festival in motion by introducing the principles of acousmatic sound, public interventions and a phantastic and sometimes haunting ambiance.

Each night of the festival proper, running from October 24-27, began with artists discussions in the café, before two sets in the main hall.  Usine-C itself was formerly a marmalade factory, but was converted in the late ‘70s in a multi-million dollar renovation, resulting in one of Montreal’s finest multi-media venues.  The spirit of reanimation therefore was constantly the backdrop for the concert’s proceedings.

Martin Tétreault’s Turntable Quartet

In a very unusual manifestation, Tétrealt presented his “Turntable Quartet,”  directing/conducting the four performers.  Martin Tétreault is something of a local-legend, an internationally-praised DJ and improviser, and one of the sure highlights of Quebec’s musique actuelle scene.  Trained in the visual arts,  he brings a conceptual approach to his work and has a long list of equally impressive collaborators.  His recent turntable experiments explore the sounds of the turntable itself, and he directed his quartet that evening utilizing turntables, mixers and prepared discs. This relationship, by its very nature,  calls into question a variety of forms one might take for granted.  Surrounded by the audience, Tétreault was more than just conductor, but also the composer (as producer).  In lieu of a score, Tétreault had prepared various records, some of which were modified with pieces some material to produce regular, rhythmic loops, not at all unlike that of a techno DJ.  The format looks classical, with music stands and the conductor directing the performers, but many elements also call to mind free improv and with moments reminiscent of club music, fittingly given the history of turbtablism.  Tétreault was also responding to the room  (as physical, sonic space) and the response of the crowd,  its mood and accompaniment with the narrative of the journey of the piece, again not unlike a good DJ, which of course in a literal way he is.

Tétreault conducted/produced as four players with turntables and mixing boards responded to his cues, conveying with hand gestures or a raised eyebrow and telling gaze.  The output of each of the four performers was projected out of the corresponding corner of the room, giving the performance a quadraphonic spatiality that helped to follow the mechanics of what was occurring. Some of the records were rigged with geometric intervals or other alternations, so that the turntable could make rhythmic looping beats or be manipulated by other techniques.  Each piece had a very different and distinct vibe, and each performer got to improvise and be expressive within the compositional authority of Tétreault.  The result was something very unique,  dynamic, and not at all abrasive as some turntablism can be.

Tétreault has a good reputation here, and I think it is indicative of what is unique about Montréal that such a practice could cultivate a thoughtful, attentive public. I think people are more open to understanding these sorts of performances as something artistic. In fact in some sense it’s almost high modernist in its abstraction, yet formalized and also communitarian in the sense that the audience’s response is incorporated into its own unfolding .  In terms of the parts that make up the whole, there is nothing radically new: seeing him conducting,  configured in a way to be reminiscent of a string quartet, the turntable  being instrumentalized the way club DJs (kinda) use them, using prepared objects, incorporating improvisation within a compositional structure.  Taken altogether they produced something rather extraordinary.   The Quartet itself consisted of four local sound artists, Magali Babin, David Lafrance, Alexander Macsween, and Nancy Tobin, with each given room to interpret and express themselves within the parameters as laid out by Tetreault.

The first set that night featured four local performers, Émilie Payeur, Maxime Corbeil-Perron, Martin Marier, and Minibloc, employing a variety of audio and visual techniques.

The second night, perhaps more than any other, demonstrated why Usine-C is such an ideal setting for presenting acousmatic music.  The room itself has a high ceiling, perhaps three-stories, and is rigged so that there was almost full surround-sound, including numerous channels suspended overhead, totaling, if I’m not mistaken, 42.  (It’s not quite Stockhausen’s spherical concert hall, but still.)  This rather special post-indsutrial space  provides excellent acoustics, structural ambience and décor, and the multiple-channel system coupled with flexible audience configurations allowed for some truly extraordinary audio spatialization.

Contemporary art is often accused of failing to cause much emotional reaction or contemplation in its audience, but these pieces have had me thinking quite a lot, not just about the nature of the pieces but producing other thoughts as well as a result of the direction of my thoughts set in motion from the work.

Manuela Blackburn


Manuela Blackburn, PhD., is an electroustic composer from the UK, and also a lecturer on music technology at Liverpool  Hope University.  I mention her academic training in part because her work has some of the qualities one might expect, utilizing Max/MSP and presenting her work in a very controlled manner.  I don’t mean this in a derogatory way; this is by no means the sort of overly cerebral Computer Music that often comes out of the academe.   The program consisted of four prepared pieces, the last which was exchanged in favor of a recently completed piece, the first of a planned trilogy utilizing Indian music samples.   That last piece incorporated tabla and sitar, which I found to be  not very compelling.  Acousmatic music is meant to obscure the source material, but both instruments were clearly recognizable, not to mention identified by the composer in her address to the audience beforehand. Freed from their original context but still identifiable, they were utilized in way that didn’t resonate with me.  The philosophy (or spirituality) of Indian music is an inherent part of its structures, eg. the drone, or the meter/tala, and underlies the music (as social practice, as art). Manipulated and cut up in this way that impact is lost, so their inclusion begins to seem like an necessary exoticization rather than teasing out something new.   The first three pieces were more appealing, however, at times verging on glitch territory.  Each featured a steady momentum, almost impatient, never stopping or repeating. The compositions were dynamic and propulsive in a very thoughtful way.  The audience was seated with the composer’s mixing console behind us, with some space available to lie down in center of the front rows.




Keith Fullerton Whitman is a fairly important figure in the experimental music community.   In addition to work under his own name, he’s also released records as ASCIII, Anonymous, and Hrvatski. Counter to more beat driven, drill-n-bass style of Hrvatski, the material under his own name explores very different territory, from working with pure sin-waves, computer processes, algorithmic & generative systems, musique concrète techniques, and mixing field-recordings and archival samples.    Along with Geoff Mullen, KFW also runs the underground music mail distro Mimaroglu Music Sales.

Lately Whitman has been showing off his portable modular analogue synth unit, which you can see being demonstrated in the video below.
 There are additional videos at the Akousma site.

Originally produced for the prestigious INA-GRM in Paris (l’Institut National Audiovisuel-Groupe de Recherches Musicales), KFW performed an exquisite set that made full use of multi-channel room, arguably more so than any save Lopez. The piece featured  4 movements, with a coda and improvised segment at the end.  The GRM was founded  by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henri, the two father of musique concrète, and others, and included  Luc Ferrari and Iannis Xenakis among their members.

The first movements was comprised of Whitman playing around with his analogue modular synth, which if I was feeling ungenerous I might  say boiled down to arrhythmic bleepybloopy-time  spread across 20 channels.  Engaging spatially, but compared with the order of Blackburn’s compositions it came across as  rather unfocused and de-centered, though interesting at times.  Some ideas from here developed further or resonate with the later non-synth parts, which incorporated a variety of unidentifiable sound sources.  The remainder was more like an electroacoustic collage, which sounded more cohesive and substantive.   The immersive nature of the piece, coupled with the audience arrangement complete with places to lie down, made it hard to clearly separate the movements.  The latter movements featured more sustained tones, and was the high point of the set for me. Pitched, manipulated metallic tones, perhaps sources from a bell or some such clattered and rung out, very flat tones but satisfying.   The duration of the set continued to feature more metal, the final coda and lasts movements  being the most intense, almost approaching Ben Frost type zones (which is to say, it got pretty dark, and Very Loud).  Many in the audience  were completely blown away by the completion, with  Reseaux chair Louis Dufort pronouncing the set as one of his top 5 performances of all-time.  I’m personally unwilling to go that far, but the evening certainly was a suitable showcase of some of the most innovative elecroacoustic music being made today.

Francisco Lopez

Francisco Lopez is easily one of the most renowned figures in the international electroacoustic scene, as well known the quality of his music as for his strict policy of blindfolding his audience.  As one might expect, Lopez holds fast to the principles of acousmatic sound, and has written numerous essays explicating principles of musique concrète, and criticizing what he terms as program music.    See my interview with Francisco Lopez from prior to the festival here.

Lopez returns to Montreal, a city he called his part-time home from 2001-2006, diving into a set drawing on a variety of sounds.  Without a doubt the event was a truly intense experience, as we were subjected to Acousmatic in the most literal sense.  Upon entering the main room, we were greeted to several rows of chairs arranged in a circle around the mixing console in the center, covered by a black cloth.  The chairs all faced away from the console, except for the lone outer row, which faced inwards. After brief introductory comments from Lopez, we were instructed to blindfold ourselves with the attached black cloth, at which point the lights were dimmed and the room descended into near pitch black, the photographer and the composer the only individuals exempted.

After a few moments the silence was broken by the sound of close-miked noises, objects being dragged against another, layered and organized and moved across the wide sonic space.  The disconnect between the types of noises, the anticipated distance and the sonic sculpture they were distorted into, create impossible spaces and uncanny senses of perspective.  In fact, at least at the outset, the result is the farthest thing from soothing.  Yet the experience is also more than just an assault, but a very solid, focused and directed work of sonic sculpture.  Lopez’s music is quite removed from what would conventionally be considered musical.   Without a fixed rhythm, or a beat of any kind, devoid of melody or even pitched sound much of the time, any sense of narrative or direction can only really be viewed retrospectively.  Along with being blindfolded, this results in a sense of constant fear and anticipation, an uneasiness that not all are able to process.

Even if we recognize a sound or source material, it doesn’t much matter.  The origin of the sound is not at all relevant.  Does it matter that we know who is pulling the levers?  “Pay not attention to the man behind the curtain!”   The act of being blindfolded in this context actually draws more attention to the artist, even if we cannot see what he is “doing.”   Though listed in the program as  “Untitled,” as his unique live performances often are, it is without a doubt a piece by Lopez, and needs no further signification.  His identity, and all that comes with it, provides the context to the to the piece, and ultimately is relevant to how we experience it.  Lopez has a particular vision of the experience he wants to communicate.  Complete control is neither possible nor (I think) desirable, yet by tightening the parameters of our individual engagement Lopez is able to generate a greater reaction as well.  By attempting to make himself absent as a “doer” and by masking the source of the sounds he is not denying tradition or context.  As he makes clear in his piece on Cage he knows well that we can never fully be rid of these things, but he is subverting them and our expectation in order to produce novel spaces and experiences. The question is, do we want this kind of space and what else might it imply?  There is something very Fascistic about this, but aesthetics may be the place where Fascism makes the most amount of sense, where it is most appropriate.

Though I may be critical of the political implication of such an event, and though it seems to create a spectacle more than an ideal setting for listening, in the end I must conceded that the manner of presentation does indeed accomplish something worthwhile.  Being denied sight is only troublesome if we resist our condition, if we have reason not to trust the man behind the curtain.  When we SUBMIT to the experience, when we accept it, we listen and not just hear, letting our ego be swept away by the force of the performance.  We aren’t distracted by checking our phone, looking at the time, by taking photos, by observing others’ reactions, by checking how much time has elapsed and calculating how much more will continue.  Duration is only relative to the piece itself; in effect we lose a stable third, resulting in something like a sonic equivalent to a parallax view.  (Have you ever been on a train looking out the window as another train alongside you begins to move, and for a moment you cannot tell if it is your train or the other that is in motion?)  In this disorientation we are utterly swept away.

At a certain point in the piece I dissociated. Blindfolded, I focused on my other senses, and realized how much awareness and connection were still available to me.  I also couldn’t help but think what would my blind friends think about this experience?  Out of the layers of sound and space a steady rhythm gradually emerged, not unlike something one might hear in a dance club.  By this point I was already transfixed, manipulated to the point where the suggestion of a recognizably beat was enough to hypnotize  me completely, the transfixion elevated and my consciousness vanished.  I didn’t zone out so much as zone in, but in a way that my conscious mind, my ego, was abandoned.   I can’t call it a transcendence – that’s not at all right, I was very much bodily present, not transported somewhere else-  but I was transfixed in a really very powerful way.  I sat upright, I was mindful of my breathing, I was not afraid but had simply decided to go along with the experience with anticipation, like riding a roller-coaster or having a psychedelic experience.  If you resist it will be unpleasant, but if you give into it, you can find pleasure, even in what could be at times a painful experience.

Being in an audience of blindfolded listeners is no doubt a social situation, but because of the disconnect of having our sense of vision cut off, it is a very alienating experience as well.  One  is clearly removed from one’s neighbors.  It is communal in that we are in the same boat together but not that we have any chance of communing with one another.  Writing on Lopez’s work, Seth Kim-Cohen, in his book In the Blink of an Ear, draws an unsavory comparison between Lopez’s practice and the hooded prisoners of Abu Ghraib.  This may seem like hyperbole, but there is something truthful to the juxtaposition.  At least some members of the audience I spoke to actually felt traumatized, physically shaken by the experience.   This is where Kim-Cohen is most right in his analysis.  It is difficult not to think of torture, sacrifice even.  Is this his aim somehow?  Surely, Lopez is on some level a sadist. Kim-Cohen wonders at Lopez’s seeming ignorance that in the current context of the war on terror,  audiences may have such reactions.  Here is something sadistic, whether intended as such or not, but also communal in an odd way, as the end result is a shared experience of being subjected to another’s will.  Georges Bataille might approve of this experience, an Excess that brings us together; as accomplices or as victims, I don’t think it makes a difference.

Lopez is a master.


Daniel Menche

Quite on the opposite end of the spectrum while remaining utterly terrifying, Portland, Oregon’s Daniel Menche performed seated directly in front of audience, with a large screen behind him onto which black and white abstract shapes and textures were projected. Menche began with nothing but the sound of a contact microphone on a singing bowl, lightly activated by a chain of small metal beads.  We can see his actions, but through manipulating effects pedals he gradually builds layers of accumulated textures, gradually increasing in intensity.  We can see what he’s doing, or at least connect the sounds produced to his actions.  The bodily aspect of it coupled with the unseen actions of the effects pedals gives the air of a magic incantation.  One of Menche’s primary “instruments” seemed to be a metal ruler with contact mic, which he would tap like a flute while blowing over the mic.  At times he would hum in a falsetto, again suggesting ritual.  These moments weren’t quite meditative, as the intensity is to great and the volume quite loud.  The performance seemed freely improvised, exploring the range of his tools rather than generating a preexisting narrative.  As the performance reached its greatest intensity, the images on the screen began to subtly shift from abstractions to recognizable scenes of rushing through a forest, introducing something of a mood of  nervousness or fear.

The crescendo of intensity goes unresolved.  As if a DJ in a nightclub were to continue to raise the tension without the expected release, the anticipation of the resolution coupled with the nervous mood generated by the film and the music was traumatic in its own way.  At times the music seem ecstatic, however not in the happy way but more like an exorcism.

Taken together, back to back sets from Francisco Lopez and Daniel Menche proved a suitably horrific experience for  Halloween weekend.

Pierre Alexandre Tremblay, Monty Adkins et Paulina Sundin

The final evening’s performance was more tranquil, a fascinating and calm coda following the intensity of the prior night. The compositions did generate moments of tension that contributed to the over all impact of the works. Monty Adkins and Jay Payne’s video work deserves special consideration, as the underlying aesthetic is augmented in the interplay of shades, movement and harmony.

Special thanks to Réjean Beaucage and  Louis Dufort, of Reseaux, and Andrea Marsolais-Roy of the Conservatory.

All photos by Caroline Campeau, courtesy of Réseaux des arts médiatiques

Article: Joseph Sannicandro

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