Bouliane and the Anticostians – the invention of a world

The Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Orchestra present back to back to the Montreal public two orchestral creations (!) by Denys Bouliane. A composer too often away because he was for many years involved with multiple responsibilities linked to his duties as a teacher and his involvement with the MNM festivals (as a co-artistic director until 2007) and MusiMars, Bouliane, back at last, had sparked my attention in October 2009 during the premiere by the NEM of his Rythmes et échos des rivages anticostiens (“Rhythms and echoes of anticostian shores”). To my ears, there was in this work the seed of a new direction in his approach, clarity of expression despite the contrapuntal complexity and subtleties, and a remarkable rhythmic vigour. At that time, Bouliane had spoken to me about it as the beginning of a cycle inspired by a very particular thematic. Spurred by the readings of texts by a certain Sinet Enahwon, the composer took pleasure, in his own words, to imagine history and even the music of an imaginary tribe, the “Anticostians,” from the name of the well-known island, a tribe that would be at the crossroad between “American and Europe of the 16th century.” (See the progam notes for the MSO concert.) Following the work composed for the NEM and a 2nd part (Tekeni-Ahsen), premiered on Feb. 8th at McGill University and conducted by the composer – and that I unfortunately was not able to hear – the “anticostian” cycle, destined to be develop further, notably in true operatic evenings, is pursued here in a double way with Vols et vertiges du Gamache (“Gamache’s flights and vertigo”) created on March 22nd at the MSO and repeated on the 24th, and Kahseta’s tekeni-ahsen (performed by the Metropolitan Orchestra from April 13-17).

The work for the MSO is in fact a cello concerto of great virtuosity, whose premiere benefitted from the outstanding talent and personal investment of the co-dedicatee of the work, Matt Haimowitz, and supported by the precise and attentive conducting of Kent Nagano, both artists to the service of formal effectiveness. Having been able to consult the score, I have grasped the technical challenges faced by the performers, but the clarity and subtlety of the composer’s “dramaturgian” intentions have also been made clear to me: clarity due to the defining of a few characteristic textures ingrained in the listener’s memory, as well as the subtlety of the internal variations of those textures and the organisation of their successions (calls, recalls, transitions, etc). And everywhere, the usual attention afforded by Bouliane to the harmonic universe is evident.

The cello always interweaving with them, some textures will dominate: a series of descents in hyperbolic form, each taking its origins from held notes in the high strings that is each decomposed, accelerating towards a low register; then vigorous ascensions, interrupted later on by energetic blocks which themselves give way to timbral antiphonies in the winds. A rhythmic ostinato is then solidly installed, subjected to a work of dislocation leading to a cadence in the cello, made up of contrasts, silences, hiccups and contradictions. From the coda’s conclusion a stunning final section begins, composed of successive terraced accelerandi, each evolving from binary to ternary, those two divisions rapidly alternating by melting into one another. This dance, not at all primitive despite its pulsating character, ends up with a sense of exhaustion. One must then listen to those ultimate spasms from curious velvety falling gestures in the woodwinds, found in the first measures of the next piece in the cycle, Kahseta’s tekeni-ahsen… Chains of events in which matter engenders matter, in which a work engenders the next one, but at the same time adventure fragments of a mestizo tribe, and which the imagination enjoys in reconstituting.

Because the question should be asked: is there in this music something that clearly evokes this Anticostian imaginary mythology mentioned by Bouliane in his program notes? The composer is said to have studied the musics of First Nations: he not only mentions music’s function in these people’s life, but also the concepts of “rhythms of speech” and “corporal rhythm” that are incarnated and he reflects on their binary and ternary articulations. Is it this work on pulse – a remarkable rhythmic work, that had never struck me to such an extent in any of the composer’s previous works – is it such work that confers to this music its visceral aspect, that renders it at once “primitive and originary” and very sophisticated, a work in which on the one hand a certain originary Force with which Natural man conserved a greater number of links than Cultural man, and on the other an Art among which a European-based culture has undeniably contributed to engender compositional techniques?

One could also mention the effect of interference triggered by a sophisticated microtonality, which are the pendants of the terraced rhythms mentioned above, but those characteristics wouldn’t be sufficient to resume the work’s every path and detour. What is being told here? What stories unfold? And concerning the work which will soon be heard at the Orchestre Métropolitain, Kahseta’s tekeni-ahsen, what is hidden, once again in the program notes, behind the allusion to a possible idyll between Jacques Cartier and Taignoagnyee, the daughter of chief Donnacona, who allegedly resolved together to “found a new hybrid race ‘Americano-European’ […]: the Anticostians,” destined to be “repository” of the “fabulous secrets” of the great island? It is the lover’s powerful and mythical coïtus that the pulsations, which will monopolize anew a great portion of the work, render audible?

Far from arguments found in symphonic poems, this mythology in fact rather seems like a pretext to invent a bi-faced world, in which the listener’s imagination can involve itself from the perspective of the musically perceived and the extra-musical given accompanying it. Compositional techniques described by Bouliane in 1998 in a long article which appeared in Circuit (Vol. 9, No. 2), and which he claims he used since the 80s to “generate allusions, illusions,” to “ingest bribes of discourses and syntaxes gleaned in the course of various personal musical journeys” and “metamorphosing them” and “listening to their associative and referential potentialities,” those techniques have become, by his own admission, second nature, which now serve to manipulate an imaginary that seeks to touch upon the profound roots of the New World, neither purely Amerindian nor purely European… But it is perhaps especially, for Bouliane, another response to the question of identity, after the one Garant, Morel, Hétu, Tremblay, Coulombe-Saint-Marcoux and some members of the younger generations have attempted to ask, in their works and their writings, which is a question he also never ceased to ask, in his own way: an identity first and foremost musical, always to invent and built anew, in which the composer would like us to recognize ourselves.

Michel Gonneville

April 5th, 2011

The scores and program notes discussed above may be consulted here: http://www.music.mcgill.ca/~bouliane/doc/
The Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Orchestra present back to back to the Montreal public two orchestral creations (!) by Denys Bouliane. A composer too often away because he was for many years involved with multiple responsibilities linked to his duties as a teacher and his involvement with the MNM festivals (as a co-artistic director until 2007) and MusiMars, Bouliane, back at last, had sparked my attention in October 2009 during the premiere by the NEM of his Rythmes et échos des rivages anticostiens (“Rhythms and echoes of anticostian shores”). To my ears, there was in this work the seed of a new direction in his approach, clarity of expression despite the contrapuntal complexity and subtleties, and a remarkable rhythmic vigour. At that time, Bouliane had spoken to me about it as the beginning of a cycle inspired by a very particular thematic. Spurred by the readings of texts by a certain Sinet Enahwon, the composer took pleasure, in his own words, to imagine history and even the music of an imaginary tribe, the “Anticostians,” from the name of the well-known island, a tribe that would be at the crossroad between “American and Europe of the 16th century.” (See the progam notes for the MSO concert.) Following the work composed for the NEM and a 2nd part (Tekeni-Ahsen), premiered on Feb. 8th at McGill University and conducted by the composer – and that I unfortunately was not able to hear – the “anticostian” cycle, destined to be develop further, notably in true operatic evenings, is pursued here in a double way with Vols et vertiges du Gamache (“Gamache’s flights and vertigo”) created on March 22nd at the MSO and repeated on the 24th, and Kahseta’s tekeni-ahsen (performed by the Metropolitan Orchestra from April 13-17).

The work for the MSO is in fact a cello concerto of great virtuosity, whose premiere benefitted from the outstanding talent and personal investment of the co-dedicatee of the work, Matt Haimowitz, and supported by the precise and attentive conducting of Kent Nagano, both artists to the service of formal effectiveness. Having been able to consult the score, I have grasped the technical challenges faced by the performers, but the clarity and subtlety of the composer’s “dramaturgian” intentions have also been made clear to me: clarity due to the defining of a few characteristic textures ingrained in the listener’s memory, as well as the subtlety of the internal variations of those textures and the organisation of their successions (calls, recalls, transitions, etc). And everywhere, the usual attention afforded by Bouliane to the harmonic universe is evident.

The cello always interweaving with them, some textures will dominate: a series of descents in hyperbolic form, each taking its origins from held notes in the high strings that is each decomposed, accelerating towards a low register; then vigorous ascensions, interrupted later on by energetic blocks which themselves give way to timbral antiphonies in the winds. A rhythmic ostinato is then solidly installed, subjected to a work of dislocation leading to a cadence in the cello, made up of contrasts, silences, hiccups and contradictions. From the coda’s conclusion a stunning final section begins, composed of successive terraced accelerandi, each evolving from binary to ternary, those two divisions rapidly alternating by melting into one another. This dance, not at all primitive despite its pulsating character, ends up with a sense of exhaustion. One must then listen to those ultimate spasms from curious velvety falling gestures in the woodwinds, found in the first measures of the next piece in the cycle, Kahseta’s tekeni-ahsen… Chains of events in which matter engenders matter, in which a work engenders the next one, but at the same time adventure fragments of a mestizo tribe, and which the imagination enjoys in reconstituting.

Because the question should be asked: is there in this music something that clearly evokes this Anticostian imaginary mythology mentioned by Bouliane in his program notes? The composer is said to have studied the musics of First Nations: he not only mentions music’s function in these people’s life, but also the concepts of “rhythms of speech” and “corporal rhythm” that are incarnated and he reflects on their binary and ternary articulations. Is it this work on pulse – a remarkable rhythmic work, that had never struck me to such an extent in any of the composer’s previous works – is it such work that confers to this music its visceral aspect, that renders it at once “primitive and originary” and very sophisticated, a work in which on the one hand a certain originary Force with which Natural man conserved a greater number of links than Cultural man, and on the other an Art among which a European-based culture has undeniably contributed to engender compositional techniques?

One could also mention the effect of interference triggered by a sophisticated microtonality, which are the pendants of the terraced rhythms mentioned above, but those characteristics wouldn’t be sufficient to resume the work’s every path and detour. What is being told here? What stories unfold? And concerning the work which will soon be heard at the Orchestre Métropolitain, Kahseta’s tekeni-ahsen, what is hidden, once again in the program notes, behind the allusion to a possible idyll between Jacques Cartier and Taignoagnyee, the daughter of chief Donnacona, who allegedly resolved together to “found a new hybrid race ‘Americano-European’ […]: the Anticostians,” destined to be “repository” of the “fabulous secrets” of the great island? It is the lover’s powerful and mythical coïtus that the pulsations, which will monopolize anew a great portion of the work, render audible?

Far from arguments found in symphonic poems, this mythology in fact rather seems like a pretext to invent a bi-faced world, in which the listener’s imagination can involve itself from the perspective of the musically perceived and the extra-musical given accompanying it. Compositional techniques described by Bouliane in 1998 in a long article which appeared in Circuit (Vol. 9, No. 2), and which he claims he used since the 80s to “generate allusions, illusions,” to “ingest bribes of discourses and syntaxes gleaned in the course of various personal musical journeys” and “metamorphosing them” and “listening to their associative and referential potentialities,” those techniques have become, by his own admission, second nature, which now serve to manipulate an imaginary that seeks to touch upon the profound roots of the New World, neither purely Amerindian nor purely European… But it is perhaps especially, for Bouliane, another response to the question of identity, after the one Garant, Morel, Hétu, Tremblay, Coulombe-Saint-Marcoux and some members of the younger generations have attempted to ask, in their works and their writings, which is a question he also never ceased to ask, in his own way: an identity first and foremost musical, always to invent and built anew, in which the composer would like us to recognize ourselves.

Michel Gonneville

April 5th, 2011

The scores and program notes discussed above may be consulted here: http://www.music.mcgill.ca/~bouliane/doc/

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