Robert Normandeau interviewed by Ned Bouhalassa
Ned: You've been composing for nearly ten years pieces for multi-track diffusion. What was your original set-up?
Robert: It was very simple: a Mac IIx computer, an AKAI S-1000 sampler, a 16-track analog Fostex recorder and multi-effects units. I also used the same monitoring system as today, with 8 speakers placed around me in the studio.
N: How would you compare your present compositional method with that which you used to create Eclats de voix?
R: Clearly the biggest difference lies in the format (support) of the completed work. With analog tape, the recording levels of the individual tracks had to be worked out in advance. I had decided that during concert presentations, I didn't want to play with the levels or the eqs. Today, with a digital format such as Pro Tools, I can set the levels as I go along, and make changes when I add new elements. When I used analog tape, if I perturbed the balance of a mix by adding a new element to a track, I would have to re-write the other tracks that had already been recorded.
N: If I compare the works that you realized in the 80's with those that you composed for a multi-track diffusion system, I find that the later seem to be more abstract, less anecdotal, and that these contain many examples of sound in movement. Would you agree?
R: It depends on the Cycle. Tangram, my first real multi-track piece, has referential qualities, and it belongs to a cycle of Cinema-for-the-ear works, like Rumeurs (Place de Ransbeck) or Jeu. Other cycles, like the Onomatopoeia Cycle (Eclats de voix, Spleen and Le renard et la rose) and the Citations Cycle (Memoire vives, Tropes, and Venture) are more abstract. As for my use of movement, to appreciate it fully you have to be in a multi-channel listening environment. The stereophonic collapse of the tracks takes away a great deal.
N: Do you think that the ability to hear 8 individual sound sources in your studio increases the polyphonic aspect of your writing?
R: Completely. It is essential to true multi-track composition. This aspect of the compositional process is not just an extra element. Otherwise, anyone who transfers a Pro Tools session onto ADAT is realizing a multi-track composition. It's more complex than that. I'm referring to a specific way of composing that extends the musique concrete way of writing by adding an additional dimension, that of a real space, not the simulated one like the stereophonic soundstage. Stereo was a good idea, a good simulation of our binaural hearing, but this process has reached its end.
N: In what other ways has your compositional writing been affected by your set-up?
R: The writing itself has changed considerably. When everything has to be thought out with the final format in mind, when mixing technique is no longer part of the writing, the way in which of our intentions are permanently presented becomes a determining factor during the realization of the work. In the course of composing, since nothing can be left to chance or to a latter stage, I must find the proper place for each sound element as I go along. As paradoxical as this may seem, this brings the work of an electroacoustic composer closer to that of an instrumental composer, in that one has to write the definitive musical elements as they come to mind. One aspect that remains different is that the studio composer hears what he or she is doing while composing; a composer writing a score will only get this opportunity in the rehearsal hall, with the musicians present, and only once the work is completed.
N: Your works are regularly presented in concert around the world. Do you often have the opportunity to present multi-track versions of your works?
R: More and more. Tangram, a work which dates from 1992 and which has rarely been performed, had three multi-track presentations last year alone! I think that this has to do with the fact that this kind of diffusion is now accepted, particularly because the equipment is readily available. I remember that in 1994, the GRM had invited me to present Tangram during their Acousmatic Cycle. When I proposed the multi-track version, they replied that it would be too complicated. This year, five years later, their entire Cycle is called Multiphonie (Multiphonia)!
N: With the growing popularity of the DVD format, the average listener will soon be able to hear multi-channel versions of your work in their living room. What do you think of this technology, and do you intend to realize a surround version of one of your works?
R: The DVD format is very promising. We're only waiting for the companies to agree to an audio standard. When that's done, you can be sure that I'll be on the front lines, preparing my pieces for this format. It'll be great when the average listener, as you've named him or her, can appreciate multi-track pieces - this presents us with an incredible opportunity to have these works presented in conditions that are even better than those found today.