…comme un silène entr’ouvert… - Denys Bouliane

October 15, 2015

by: Chris Mayo

Je suis un musicien sans culture, sans tradition en quelque sorte. ( I am a musician without culture, without tradition so to speak.)1 - Denys Bouliane

It is, perhaps, a truism to say that a person who pulls up stakes and heads off to live in another city, country, or continent doesn’t know what they’re leaving behind until they’ve gone. The internet is full of anecdotes of American expats in the UK suddenly acutely aware of the immense importance which Dunkin’ Donuts had played in their pre-move life. When I moved to the UK in 2003 to study at the Royal College of Music I was certainly hit with this kind of cultural nostalgia for the suddenly unavailable minutiae of Canadian life, but in another, more literal sense, I truly didn’t know what I was leaving behind until I was gone.

My composition teacher at the RCM was Julian Anderson, a wonderful teacher with broad tastes and a vast, encyclopaedic interest in the darkest recesses of the repertoire. As a composer, I was, it is fair to say, a little rough around the edges and in this new environment I felt the gaps in my knowledge quite keenly. Julian was shocked by my lack of knowledge, skill and general aptitude as a composer, but only truly appalled by my total ignorance of Canadian music. That I didn’t really know how string harmonics worked was forgivable, but that I’d never heard (or even heard of) Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child was inconceivable and reprehensible.

Julian made it his business to address my failings and nurture my talents, but equally, to guide my discovery of the music of the country I had just left behind. Knowing of my interest in Conlon Nancarrow (one of the bits of repertoire I did know at that time), Julian began with a piece which brings the kind of intricate tempo relationships one finds in Nancarrow’s player piano studies into the realm of live performance: …comme un silène entr’ouvert… by Denys Bouliane.

Bouliane, like me, left Canada to study abroad, relocating to Germany in 1980 where he studied with György Ligeti. In the early 1980s Ligeti and his students were together discovering and exploring the music of Conlon Nancarrow. Nancarrow used the precision of the player piano to create rhythmically complex music with various layers operating in independent tempi. Canonic voices often related in very complex tempo ratios (e:π, √2:2) or had different, independent rates of acceleration and deceleration. Ligeti and his students were immensely inspired by the intricate tempo manipulation which Nancarrow achieved in his works, and many—including Ligeti himself—were interested in finding ways to use these kinds of tempo relationships with live performers. …comme un silène entr’ouvert… is, for me, the earliest work for live performers which really approaches Nancarrow’s level of intricacy and ambition in dealing with tempo relationships.

…comme un silène entr’ouvert… is a hazy, seemingly amorphous work that floats by and is difficult to hold onto. It’s like standing in a darkened alleyway between two jazz clubs, the unrelated music from each wafting out and mixing in the night air. The music is rich and gelatinous with no hard edges or flat surfaces on which to stand. It’s a work whose nebulous surface rarely betrays the intricate structure underneath, and this is explicitly intentional. The title, which translates as …like a half-opened silene… is a reference to The Author’s Prologue to the First Book of Gargantua by François Rabelais:

Silenes of old were little boxes, like those we now may see in the shops of apothecaries, painted on the outside with wanton toyish figures, as harpies, satyrs, bridled geese, horned hares, saddled ducks, flying goats, thiller harts, and other such-like counterfeited pictures at discretion, to excite people unto laughter, as Silenus himself, who was the foster-father of good Bacchus, was wont to do; but within those capricious caskets were carefully preserved and kept many rich jewels and fine drugs, such as balm, ambergris, amomon, musk, civet, with several kinds of precious stones, and other things of great price.

The almost-familiar jazz-inflected surface of …comme un silène entr’ouvert… is merely the decorative exterior, the dancing satyr painted on the surface which belies the precious materials inside. But, as Bouliane says, the silène is half-open, and as the piece progresses, we glimpse more and more of the intricate structure upon which this piece is built.

…comme un silène entr’ouvert… is for seven players and tape. The seven players are divided into two trios: a “high” trio of piccolo, oboe and harp and a “low” trio of bass clarinet, trombone and double bass. The seventh player, the piano, moves between the two trios. The tape is likewise in two parts: tape “a” always accompanies the “high” trio and is made of synthesised piccolo, oboe and harp. Tape “b” always accompanies the “low” trio and is made of synthesised bass clarinet, trombone and double bass. The material on the synthesised tape parts is identical to the material played by the live performers, but they are neither synchronised nor at the same tempo, creating multiple, overlapping tempo canons throughout the work.

Additionally, and most crucially, the tempi of all four parts are not static, but constantly accelerating or decelerating at different rates. If that were not enough, the tape parts constantly and gradually change pitch as they change speed while the live parts do not. In Bouliane’s words, this creates a situation where “boundaries between lines, counterpoint, harmonic structures, temperament, timbre and textures vanish”. Bouliane’s own “schema formel” (below) shows the progression of this intricate overlapping as the piece gradually moves towards a point of “synchronisation”.

There is much more to be said about the structure of …comme un silène entr’ouvert… than can be addressed here. Bouliane uses a rigorous and unique pitch structure based on a system of modes of his own creation (and used by him throughout many other works). He also subjects his material to a gradual, systematic transformation between various “forms”: “forme Poly-Métrique Éclatée” (exploded polymetric form), “Pseudo-Regularité Metrique” (metric pseudo-regularity), “Variation Mélismatique Pseudo-Métrique” (pseudo-metric melismatic variation), “forme Métricisée” (metricised form). I mention these here in hopes that the evocative titles which Bouliane gives these various treatments of his material will inspire others to take a closer look at this work.

I can’t really say how much of my lack of knowledge and appreciation of Canadian composers was due to my own undergraduate laziness and how much could be blamed on our collective cultural reluctance to elevate and anoint our home-grown talent. Bouliane has long been inspired by the idea that we have no true musical tradition or heritage in Canada, and that as composers we must find our own ways to acknowledge and engage with this. For him, that has meant inventing “pseudo-traditions”; he creates a fictional musical heritage on which to draw in the same way that a fantasy author might create a fictional world with a vast, intricate history in which they set their stories. Bouliane views this lack of heritage as an utterly positive aspect of being a Canadian composer, a liberating blank slate that has allowed him to create music that he feels would have been impossible if saddled with the burden of tradition.

Tout ce qu’il me reste à faire, c’est de jouer avec la tradition, de devenir un illusioniste, de me donner l’impression de posséder une culture, d’inventer une pseudo-tradition, de jouer au caméléon pour tout dire (all that I can do is to play with tradition, to become an illusionist, to make myself believe I do have a culture, to invent a pseudo-tradition, in sum to play the part of the chameleon)2

In October 1987, Bouliane was the subject of composer Charles Amirkhanian’s “Morning Concert” radio program on KPFA-FM. The two-hour program, embedded below, presents an intriguing interview with Bouliane alongside recordings of several of his works and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in Bouliane’s music.

You can learn more about Denys Bouliane through his CMC profile page. Click here!

This is part of a series of monthly blog posts that highlight various works from CMC Associate Composers. You can learn more about Christopher Mayo, and the other resident artists for 2015-16 by clicking here. Check back regularly for new posts, and new pieces!

1. Wilson, Peter N. “La musique du Réalisme Magique,” Sonances Vol. 7, No.2 (1988): 32. Trans. Levesque, Patrick in "Illusions, Collapsing Worlds and Magic Realism: The Music of Denys Bouliane"
2. ibid