If you’ve ever taken a ride on Montréal’s metro, you know it has its own kind of music. Whether it’s the wind when the train pulls into the station; those indecipherable announcements on the P.A. system of each station; or those famous notes the train hums when it leaves each platform… Those are the sounds that surround the thousands of Montréalers daily, who remain seemingly oblivious to them.
Yet, Robert Normandeau dove head on into this sonic universe. The electro-acoustic composer is used to gathering all kinds of sounds to create his works, but he never expected the Société de Transport de Montréal (STM), in collaboration with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (MSO), to tap him to celebrate the metro’s 50th anniversary. “To be honest, when I heard the message on my voicemail service, my initial reaction was… not to call back. It seemed so unlikely that I thought it was a bad joke,” says Normandeau..
One can see where he was coming from, because it’s indeed a bold move on the part of the MSO, which also commissioned an orchestral piece from José Evangelista for the celebration of the metro’s birthday – which will take place during three concerts at the end of October 2016. Bold, because it’s probably the first time an orchestra has commissioned a composer for a piece that it won’t even be able to play, since Tunnel Azur is a multi-phonic, electro-acoustic piece played by a dozen loudspeakers. The orchestra won’t even be onstage when it’s created.
Almost all the sounds the audience will hear were recorded in the metro by Normandeau
“It’s surprising, but it’s a tribute, on the one hand, to the fact that Montréal is one of the world’s capitals of the electro-acoustic scene,” says Normandeau. “And on the other, which must be saluted, of the incredible open-mindedness of the orchestra and its conductor, Kent Nagano.” As a matter of fact, the composer decided to tip his hat to the orchestra and its conductor by citing excerpts from Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, his favourite, which he heard Nagano conduct back in his Berkeley days. He also used a mind-blowing instrument recently bequeathed to the orchestra by a patron of the arts: the octobass, a huge acoustic bass that’s more than four metres tall.
For the rest, all the sounds the audience will hear were recorded in the metro by Normandeau. “I went during the day, with all the door and crowd noises, but also at night, when maintenance crews go to work,” he says. “At first, they thought I was a little weird, but they rapidly grew interested in my work and started proposing that I record all kinds of sounds their equipment makes.”
Some of them will attend the concert to hear their universe re-imagined by an avant-garde artist. We’d love to hear their comments afterwards! “I hope they enjoy it!” says Normandeau. “I admit I was a little weary when I presented the piece for the first time.” The MSO people, even though they might not be electro-acoustic aficionados, are familiar with this approach simply from working in the music industry. But what about the STM people? “I proposed two versions of the piece,” says Normandeau. “One with images and the other without, and I was surprised when they told me to drop the images because the music carried the story in and of itself.”
Normandeau has become a specialist of what are called “ear movies,” meaning that there’s truly a narrative in his work. “It’s electro-acoustic music that tells a story,” he says. “For the listener, it’s a highly referential piece: basically everyone who’s ever visited Montréal will recognize those sounds. Besides, it’s a path, a journey…”
Speaking of references, we’ll obviously hear those famous notes that each train makes when it leaves a station. The fascinating thing is, those notes are merely an accidental by-product of the subway train’s electrical propulsion system. A mechanism called a current chopper feeds the system in increments instead of sending hundreds of volts all at once. That’s what creates the characteristic, “doo-doo-doooo.” One can hardly imagine a better example of musique concrète.
But contrary to your average ride at rush hour, travel in Tunnel Azur will only be First Class, since it’ll be the first electro-acoustic concert played at the Maison Symphonique. As a matter of fact, Normandeau will be the first one to use the venue’s speakers, some of which were still packed in their boxes until recently. The piece will be played on Oct. 20, 22 and 23, 2016, alongside pieces by Schumann, Strauss and José Évangelista’s creation. It will also be presented during the Akousma festival, held at the same time.