“Au Coeur du Litige” François Houle (Spool SPF 302)

©Laurence Svirchev

The artistic work of François Houle advances so quickly that each new release is a surprise package with no overt references to previous recordings After acknowledging his debt to clarinetist John Carter with In the Vernacular (Songlines), Houle has now published a singular creation, Au Coeur du Litige (At the Heart of the Matter).

The double CD contains two stories, first that of the January 1998 Québec Ice Storms which buckled hydro-electric towers under the massive tonnage of encasing ice, crippled the maple-sugar industry by uprooting whole trees, and isolated whole heat-energy- and food-deprived villages for two weeks. The second is of Houle’s personal experience being three-quarters of a continent away, his source of information the perceptions of electronic media which left him emotionally involved but powerless to do anything other than attempt to phone his family in Châteauguay.

Houle weaves his stories using spoken word, recordings of the storm and radio transmissions, his own clarinet and the work of his electro-acoustic quartet. The methodology of assembling this broad range of material is reminiscent of the founder of electronic jazz collage, Miles Davis, who in conjunction with Teo Macero would record hours of concert improvisations and condense the results into a CD. Expanding on that visionary approach, Houle reconfigures natural clarinet sounds with extended techniques, conflates the musical content with elint from other arts, and renders the whole like news from another world into an epic of contemporary mythology.

“Air Froid” (Cold Air) is a clarinet concertino announcing a portentous change of atmosphere. The diabatic emotional suggestions are achieved by two clarinets simultaneously blowing long tones in the lower mid-range in the left channel; juxtaposed in the right channel is the sound of one clarinet using the techniques of circular breathing and multiphonics, or the creation of synchronous well-differentiated tones.

The micro-crystalline structure of steel hydroelectric towers reaches its tensile endpoint in the quartet piece “Cryogenic Nightmare.” The refrain of distorted radio calling for ‘generators’ signalizes the fragility of contemporary life when power grids collapse, and night stars can be seen above a frigid land deprived of artificial light.  On “Ice” Catriona Strang’s voice calls the tempest “all splendor-spit and crickle-bit”, and then her voice is progressively reverberated and distorted. With the framework of a natural disaster in mind, the listener can hear both the shrieking of the storm and then in contrast the lovely balladry of respite (“En Attendant la Neige”).

 It is rare for a natural or political event with profound social consequence to be effectively transformed into a work of musical art, but Houle succeeds. The bilingual booklet accompanying the CDs contains concise academic, political, and musical analysis to contextualize the music.

The test of story-based music is whether it will continue to be listened to outside of the thematic context in which it is created. My opinion is that no matter how you analyze it or listen to it, Au Coeur du Litige is a thoroughly sensory experience that once again confirms Houle as a composer and instrumentalist who is setting the highest of standards for the international contemporary creative musical scene.

Originally published in 2004

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