Tousignant’s Unusual Music

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TOUSIGNANT: Conflits. Quatre incarnations.1 La muse vénale.3 Anatole, sans paroles. Sonate pour clavecin. Histoire. Étude pour Shayol No. 3.2 Trois paysages proustiens 2/ 1Myriam Leblanc, 2Catherine St. Arnaud, sop; 3Vincent Raynallo, bar; Ensemble Paramirabo: Jeffrey Stonehouse, fl; Charlotte Layec, cl; Hubert Brizard, vln; Viviana Gosselin, cel; Pamela Reimer, pno/DX-7/hpd; David Therrien Brongo, perc / Centrediscs CMCCD 28821

This CD presents the music of yet another composer new to me, François Tousignant (1955-2019), a Canadian who spent more than a decade learning composition at the Quebec Conservatoire and the CEGEP at Hull. His most famous teacher, however, was fellow composer Max Deutsch at the École Normale de Musique de Paris. Deutsch, along with Serge Garant and Luis de Pablo, were proponents of the Schoenberg 12-tone school, thus Tousignant was a late exponent of this style of writing at a time when it had begun to fall out of favor.

But being French Canadian, Tousignant had lyricism in his soul, and this comes through in his music despite his adherence to the 12-tone school. Moreover he, like Alban Berg, wrote 12-tone music that did not strictly adhere to the rule that you must use all 12 tones before you can repeat any of them, and this, too makes his music sound fresher and more lyrical than usual. In short, he wasn’t Elliott Carter.

The liner notes also tell us that Tousignant was involved in several radio programs for the CBC over the years, among them Chronique du Disque and L’Opèra du Samadi, and became a music critic for Le Devoir from 1994 to 2005. The notes also relate that he was “a man of few words, guarded and secretive. His music likewise deals in intimacy and interiority. It cuts directly to what is essential while evoking a sense of urgency and great intensity, just like the manner of his speech in life. A great lover of literature, he found refuge and inspiration in poetry,” particularly the works of Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Éluard and Whitman.

His music clearly reflects all of these influences. It is poetic and lyrical as well as a bit cerebral; it almost sounds like a modern-day extension of late Debussy mixed with Schoenberg. But it is not insipid music; it has character and interesting forms. This makes it difficult to describe verbally since his melodic and harmonic language is subtle  and lyrical, not easily put into a box and defined by its atonality.

I read in the notes that he wrote some electronic and electro-acoustic music, and this is brought out in La muse vénale for baritone and chamber ensemble. At least, the acoustic instruments here simulate the sound of electronics with the aid of amplifiers, and there is clearly magnetic tape used; but here, too, he did not adhere to the general rule that such music must sound continually abrasive or ugly, and there is some humor in the fact that he requires the baritone soloist to gargle out a few notes well below the bottom of his range. (Or at least, I found it humorous, even if he didn’t intend it to be so.) There is even the sound of glass breaking at one point. Yet even here, Tousignant maintains a strange sort of legato flow to his music; it sounds whimsical without being offensive. The text, which is later spoken as well as sung, comes from Baudelaire’s compilation The Flowers of Evil:

Oh Muse of my heart — so fond of palaces old,
Wilt have — when New Year speeds its wintry blast,
Amid those tedious nights, with snow o’ercast,
A log to warm thy feet, benumbed with cold?

This is followed by an excellent piece for cello and piano, Anatole, sans paroles, in which Tousignant employs some microtonal effects in the ‘cello part. The music here—and, in a way, most of the music up to this point—moves slowly, in this case almost creeping across the landscape of one’s mind as it progresses, often in long arcs and phrases but sometimes in quick, harsh splatters of sound. Immediately after is his Sonate pour clavecin, a highly atonal harpsichord sonata using a great many circular-pattern figures strung together. (For some reason, while listening to it my mind flashed on Ernie Kovacs’ bizarre, surrealist comedy of the 1950s.)

Histoire, for clarinet and piano or string quartet, is another mostly slow, sad piece with explosive moments. This performance, needless to say, features the piano rather than strings. With Étude pour Shayol No. 3, written for soprano and violin and based on a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, we again enter into Tousignant’s strange, haunting side, with the melodic line soaring atonally (and sometimes microtonally) alongside the violin’s equally high, surreal lines. At only one point, the 6:55 mark, does the soprano and violin suddenly hit upon a consonant harmony in thirds for a few seconds.

The album concludes with Trois Paysages proustiens for soprano, piano, percussion and a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer. At 22:47, it is the longest piece presented here, and is identified in the notes as Tousignant’s best-known work as well as one of his most important. Based on the writings of Proust, it is also considered his most challenging piece, based on three phrases from In Search of Lost Time. He described these as representing “three states of the evolution of perception,” which refers to the analytical model created by Jean-Jacques Nattiez, a semiologist who dealt with sign language. It is, at times, a bit fragmented in structure but always seems to know where it is going, even if the listener isn’t quite sure.

In addition to the excellent playing of the members of Ensemble Paramirabo, I should also praise the excellent singing of our three principals, sopranos Myriam Leblanc and Catherine St. Arnaud and baritone Vincent Raynallo. Having outstanding vocalists aids our appreciation and understanding of what Tousignant was trying to accomplish. The recorded sound is a bit varied in quality, however, with the singers sometimes recessed in the soundspace, though this is not much of detriment. Well worth checking out!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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