New Interfaces #5: Jacques Lejeune, Parages and Other Electroacoustic Works (1971-85)

Posted by on June 26, 2014

New Interfaces 5

Taking a few steps back in time, New Interfaces again looks to France for inspiration, exploring the essence of a member of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) whose electroacoustic output is singular in its expression of the mythical. Jacques Lejeune was born in 1940 in Talence and studied at the Schola Cantorum de Paris (founded in 1894, opened in 1896) and at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris (founded in 1795). At the Conservatoire, he studied with Pierre Schaeffer, who would go on to create the GRM in 1958. Lejeune would go on to join the GRM ten years after its creation, eventually heading up the Cellule de la Musique pour L’image (Music for Images Department).

Lejeune employs a considerable philosophical heft in his compositions, while leaving room for a sense of playfulness. The “real” and the “imaginary” often intersect in the musical pieces he produces. Showing a distinct sense of introspection and a love for the fantastic, the artist himself classifies his large collection of sonic creations based on the following characteristics:

•The character and everyday landscape

•The fabled:
1. Tales of the deep forest
2. The dream of spring water
3. Legends and magic of the air

•Ritual and imagery of the sacred:
1. Prayers and lamentations
2. The lovers, death, and angels

•Birds of fantasy

•Farces:
1. The bestiary
2. Burlesques, gourmandise, and eroticism

•Variations:
1. Studies and paraphrases
2. Pieces inspired by metamorphosis
3. Aphorisms

Texas-based avant-garde record label Robot Records recently unleashed a triple CD collection of Lejeune’s works from the period spanning the years 1971 to 1985. Robot, which is run by an affable gentleman going by the name of Kevin Spencer, boasts an incredible roster that includes the likes of David Jackman (Organum), Christoph Heemann (H.N.A.S.) and The New Blockaders. Previously, the label issued a disc of compositions from GRM member Luc Ferrari in which a composition from the turn of the millenium was paired with another that dated back to 1968. The Lejeune collection, however, is quite an ambitious and accomplished package, featuring a number of the composer’s most stunning electroacoustic work.

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The collection is housed in one of those triple disc jewel cases, which opens on either side to reveal the trio of CDs inside. Each disc features a pair of Lejeune’s extended compositions, the pieces arranged chronologically across the platters. Every aspect of the package is emblazoned with photographs of the composer save for the front cover, which features an array of antique scissors (including those for splicing magnetic tape) from Lejeune’s personal collection. The cover was “dreamt” by Andrea Cernotto of legendary Italian power electronics project The Sodality (who also ran the Aquilifer Sodality imprint in the 1980s) and was photographed by Christoph Heemann. The set includes two booklets, the first of which features biographical information and extremely detailed liner notes (in both English and French) along with album art, a portrait of Lejeune by writer Yak Rivais, and even a graphical “score” for the piece Symphonie au Bord d’un Paysage. The second booklet is a real gem: a collection of Lejeune’s poetry set to accompany each composition included in the collection. It’s here where the artist’s playful imagery and musical/textual symbiosis really shine through. The fluid wordplay really completes the picture; even on their own, the poems are worth the price of admission.

Lejeune considers Cri (Scream), which he developed in 1971 and premiered in 1972 at that year’s Festival International d’art Contemporain de Royan, as the first piece in his catalogue. It is divided into four movements, which together total nearly a half-hour of sonic wizardry. Mixed Landscapes, the lead section, pits electronic passages against the sounds of nature. Birds, insects, and children sit at the forefront, as the synthetic sounds – some of which are evoked from manipulated tapes – weave among them. In Scattered Calls, a mysterious rhythmic structure forms the backdrop for a single voice to trod upon. This passage evolves into a playful series of intercut exclamations sourced from voices, a piano and some electronic circuitry. This direction continues in Bursts, albeit with the various voices arriving in a more abrupt fashion. A steady handclap beat seeks to ground the proceedings, yet the cacophony of the multitude ultimately wins out. The sounds become more mysterious and drawn out as The Earth is Telling the Dead What the Living are Saying takes hold, as a spine-tingling low moan is played off of electronic noise and magnetic tape mayhem. Ultimately, a synthetic call-and-response emerges to bring the piece to an exhilarating close.

MP3: Jacques Lejeune – Excerpt from ‘Cri’

MP3: Jacques Lejeune – Excerpt from ‘Parages’

MP3: Jacques Lejeune – Excerpt from ‘Blanche-neige’

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Composed in 1974 and released as a vinyl LP in 1977 on the Collection GRM imprint, a sub-label of INA-GRM which is itself a sub-label of INA (named after the Institut National de L’Audiovisuel, spun off from the GRM and other likeminded French institutions), Parages (Vicinities) is an intense assemblage of sonic material. As poet Alain Morin wrote in the album’s liner notes, the 46-minute suite shows how Lejeune “often traverses the musical fabric like a landscape, thus creating a signature procession of auditory colors, places, and events. He is drawn to cycles, circles, and the eternal return of the unvanquishable myth.” A triptych, the piece begins with Study of Matter, Space, and Rhythm. Lejeune sets up an immense cacophony that spirals across the stereo field until it unravels into near-silence. Fragments of sound disperse the quiet, leaving a nocturnal jungle in their wake. This serene image is gradually replaced by synthetic cries that splinter into jagged shards of sound that themselves eventually tumble apart. The Icarus Cycle pits an anxious panting against the atonal moans of a chord organ in its first movement, eventually making way for a subtle yet high-pitched squall of electronic tones. A chorus of rewinding magnetic tapes appears momentarily, followed by an exquisite percussive section that gradually lowers in tone (mirroring the fall of Icarus, perhaps). Something splashes into a large body of water, the waves of which wrap up the middle section of the piece. Bells – whether natural or manipulated – are what Traces and Reminiscences uses to spring into being, eventually morphing into mysterious electronic tone clusters punctuated with hysterical laughter. This is the longest section of Parages, and also the most evocative, with drawn out smears of sound and intricate jump cuts exposing the magnetic tape from which the entire piece was constructed.

My first introduction to the music of Jacques Lejeune was the incredible Blanche-Neige (Snow White), which originally saw the light of day on vinyl in 1975 but was given the limited and unauthorized reissue treatment by the crucial and mysterious Creel Pone label. Whispers on the Internet have traced the origins of Creel Pone – the mandate of which is to ensure the classics of early electronic experimentalism see the light of day – to a certain Massachusets-area distro (wink, wink) but the identity of the curator has never (at least to my knowledge) been 100% confirmed (wink, wink). Fantasmes, ou L’Histoire de Blanche-Neige was a ballet adapted from the Grimm Brothers fairy tale by Yves Boudier and Catherine Escarret, with Lejeune providing the sonic backdrop. Lejeune worked alongside the development of the ballet, producing a piece that stands alone yet also provides a suitable accompaniment to the story and dance. The version included in this collection was premiered at the Festival Estival in Paris during the summer of 1976. In the piece, Lejeune evokes the spirit of the fairy tale; the magic mirror and the seven dwarves, the huntsman and the envious queen all come to life in the composer’s deft hands. The music unfolds with the dream-logic of fantasy, yet is imbued with a surprising sense of purpose. The composition is, in Lejeune’s own words “the initiatory journey of a child abandoned ‘in the deepest’ part of the forest, as a dramatization of her life up to adulthood when she finally reaches the edge and the light.” Blanche-Neige is certainly one of many highlights in this incredible collection.

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Lejeune plays with fragments of sound as if they were the elemental components of matter, allowing the particles to collide and marvelling at the results. The relatively short (compared to the accompanying works) Entre Terre et Ciel (Between Heaven and Earth) – which was realized at the main auditorium at Radio France – aptly demonstrates Lejeune’s sonic artistry. Over the course of twenty-two minutes, sounds are smashed together and smeared across each other in a seemingly endless variety of directions. As Lejeune himself describes, “steps, leaps, detonations, shocks, diverse and short organic sounds are worked on and developed exclusively towards their dynamic profile; stripped of their original meaning.” This abstraction allows the composer to develop a completely new framework that is separate from whatever world the source material originated.

Author Yak Rivais in his liner notes for Symphonie au Bord d’un Paysage (Symphony on the Edge of a Landscape, 1981) points out the clever play on words Lejeune employed: “One stays at the edge of a well-behaved land (or pays sage) as if at the edge of a chasm.” Earlier, he describes this metaphorical chasm most effectively when he writes that “in the ebb and flow of impulse, the order set forth by Lejeune leads to a polyphony (I and the others), a density (the world and life). It reveals, takes on, and morphs a series of coded forces through a kaleidoscope of definitions.” Rivais continues to describe the active nature of the piece; church bells, the sounds of nature, vehicular movement and machinery all collide and distort, pouring into a vast, unfillable void. The tie that binds the piece together is the mutant chorus of bells, wavering on the edge of sanity as they edge into and out of focus, speeding up and slowing down as if guided by Lejeune’s own version of the Doppler Effect.

With Les Palpitations de la Forêt (Palpitations of the Forest, 1982), Lejeune treads back into the deep, dark forest that he previously explored in Blanche-Neige. This time, however, he takes a darker, more sinister path. Very little light penetrates the canopy, and as the composer notes “we are in the darkness of a bottomless well that suffocates, assaults and projects the listener by revealing another fantastic world through listening: a place where human, animal, vegetable and mineral forms merge with the elements of the unknown.” The piece is relatively half as long as Blanche-Neige, but with twice the peril.

Overall, this entire package serves as both a survey of the career of a master of sound and language, and as an introduction to the use of sound as a revealer of the fantastic. Cheers to Kevin at Robot Records for taking such great care in the presentation of this incredibly fascinating music.