This is an oscillator, a tiny cyclopean vault that produces one thing: sine waves.
It’s not much to look at, but in the hands of the Ensemble d’oscillateurs, a group of musicians assembled by sound and installation artist Nicolas Bernier, it becomes an instrument of real ingenuity, capable of bold and startling expression.
As to the question of how someone actually plays an oscillator, I direct your attention back to the image above. The big dial establishes a base frequency, the knob on the lower left allows a performer to multiply the amount of repetitions of that frequency – X1, X10, X100, up to X10K, adjusting the speed of it, essentially – and the knob on the lower right determines the amplitude or volume of that frequency, which is measured in decibels. The ports on the bottom are for output. And that’s about it. But from such limitations, the Ensemble d’oscillateurs create rich and strange worlds.
“États Altérés” by Xavier Ménard is a fitting opening for the album, punchy and dynamic, while exploring dialectics of sound that push and pull and grind and glide before cutting out in random guillotine chops that open onto breathtaking chasms of emptiness. It has a clean electronic purity to it but never feels cold or merely mechanized.
“Shaping Things (A Simple Spectrum)” by Francisco Meirino sounds surprisingly organic in comparison. The oscillators are made to crunch and drip and hiss and leak on their way to an unsettled realm of ascending and descending tones buttressed by sporadic, pulsing bass pressure. There’s something mournful to this track, like the sound of fog horns both warning and lamenting a lost ship, and it’s in this piece especially that the oscillators effectively mimic the timbres of horns and woodwind instruments, a feature that can be directly attributed to the skill and care the ensemble players bring.
Referencing the eerie light that sometimes appears over swampy ground, “Ignis Fatuus (Solis)” by Kevin Gironnay is suitably crepuscular and hazy, built from braided, sustained tones that hover and fade in overlapping layers. After pulling the listener in, that atmosphere is torn away, and any suggestion of something on a spiritual plane is transformed to high pitches, staticky clicks, and the crackling sounds of things short-circuiting. The piece eventually stabilizes but the more ethereal quality established at the start is replaced by something harder and metallic, something less enticing, less forgiving.
The album closes with “SYN-Phon,” a piece scored in graphic notation by Candaş Şişman. Rather than attempt to describe how it sounds, I’ll post two videos: one of a live performance of SYN-Phon featuring Barabás Lőrinc on trumpet, Ölveti Mátyás on cello, and Sisman on “electronics and objects,” the other featuring the Ensemble’s interpretation of the same score.
It’s said that constraints can foster creativity by forcing a person to come up with approaches they might not have taken otherwise. But as much as I enjoy both performances, I find the Ensemble’s interpretation more faithful to the score, more exacting, and maybe because of the limitations of their instruments, more imaginative. You decide.
While I’m confessing here, I’ll add that as much as I liked 4 compositions at the time of its release three years ago, I wasn’t directing any speculative thought toward a follow-up. The work presented had managed to fulfill any unforeseen longings I’d had for oscillator-generated music. So imagine my surprise when I heard Ensemble d’oscillateurs’ 2 Transcriptions (Oliveros + Pade).
Accompanying this new recording is an extensive, bilingual booklet describing the mind-melting work that went into transcribing the works, “Jar Piece (a Piece of)” by composer and founder of the original Deep Listening Institute, Pauline Oliveros, and “Faust” by electronic and musique concrète composer Else Marie Pade. The trope “labor of love” does little justice to the challenges Bernier and company faced to bring new life to these works. After listening to what they’ve achieved, I can say without hesitation that it’s a huge accomplishment.
Something these new recordings have going for them, compared with the tracks on 4 compositions, is brevity. “Jar Piece” takes off with what sounds like squalling feedback before climbing to the upper registers where it hangs in suspended tones, mobile and free as a hawk riding thermals. Those elongated tones gradually break up into arrhythmic fragments punctuated by swoops and glides while still maintaining their purchase on that upper realm. As the piece begins drawing toward its close, a high steady ringing emerges and stabilizes, pulling a few straggling tones in line with it while others fade to nothing, creating a solid yet airy sense of closure in its wake. In the six short minutes it takes for “Jar Piece” to play out, it artfully wields a laser to your skull and opens your mind to the sun.
The first movement of “Faust” had me convinced that someone was accompanying the ensemble on keys. This is easily the most melodic the ensemble has sounded so far and that sense of melody continues throughout as it sharpens and fuzzes and glints. A genuinely eerie mood is conjured in the second movement with its theremin-esque tones and timbre and the spreading haze of static that subtly drifts in and overlaps. Where Oliveros’ track feels elevated and Apollonian, Pade’s feels mired and earthbound, interior in comparison, like a kind of psychological soundtrack for a displaced person. The third movement is perhaps my favorite: spare, tentative, and gently pulsing with undesignated worry. Unexpectedly, Movement 5 drops the listener on a windswept shore and buffets them with bracing squalls of static before filling that new headspace with a chorus of what sound like crickets overlayed with rumbling growls and almost at times like someone violently bowing a cello. (This section reminded me of Kassel Jaeger’s Swamps/Things, which I’ve written about here.) “Faust” wraps up with a recapitulation of theme and mood and texture, a brief, creepy, narcotized crawl to something more of an ending than a clear-cut finish. It leaves a spooky residue behind it.
2 Transcriptions make it clear that the skills and techniques of the ensemble have grown exponentially in the time between recording their first album and this one. To listen to it and consider that the impressive arrays of sounds produced are coming only from sine waves makes me want to run out and snap up the nearest oscillator I can find just to see what else it can do.
Sometimes you don’t know what you need until somebody shows you. If I’ve done my job properly, you might just need this music too.