Innocent Listening: Antoine Ouellette's L’Esprit envoûteur

November 10, 2016

By Gloria Lipski

Pour moi, créer de la musique a été une réponse a la violence.
For me, creating music was a response to violence.
-Antoine Ouellette (Musique autiste, p. 113).

Halloween may be behind us, but the spirits are still in the air with Antoine Ouellette’s L’Esprit envoûteur.

It is unique to find a work in the Canadian Music Centre (CMC) library that is accompanied by a 300-page book that gives it context. Musique autiste is an autobiography that goes far beyond an account of a life. It is a critical essay, an informative text, a reflection on creativity (especially musical creativity), and a commentary on social ethics surrounding the experience of living on the spectrum.1 In his book, Quebecois CMC composer Antoine Ouellette confronts widespread prejudice and discrimination against people on the autism spectrum, and personally validates the emerging thought that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is not a disability, but rather another form of intelligence with its own corresponding culture and set of values.

As well as composer, author and academic, Antoine is a biologist, and several of his numerous compositions have incorporated extensive research on birdsong. He has been composing since long before his PhD in Étude et pratique des arts from the Université du Québec à Montréal, the full story of which you can read in Musique autiste.

The book is written in French, and the interpretation here relies on my own, informal, second-language bilingual translation. Also of note, in the time since the book was written in 2011, the composer’s diagnosis, Asperger’s syndrome, has been absorbed at a diagnostic level by ASD.

Antoine’s way of being in music was evident at a young age. He played tiny segments of vinyl records on repeat, and had to avoid listening to certain music to prevent it from spinning in his head for days, which could disrupt his sleeping and cause anxiety.2 In high school, he found in instrumental classical music an immense expressive palette free from lyrics, stories, and words—verbal communications that Antoine sometimes experienced as obstacles.3 Listening to music was a privileged act with which other activities were not compatible; for Antoine, music must be given undivided attention. Yet, it was the experience of musical order itself that attracted and stimulated him, rather than an emotional response, a personal association, or an evoked image. He calls this unsentimental experience “une écoute naïve,” or an ‘innocent’ listening.4

Among all of Antoine’s particular views in Musique autiste, he talks about composing on the spectrum. This book gives an insider’s description of what makes this ‘autistic music’, as the title indicates, from the composer’s own perspective. To his autistic spirit he attributes the fact that his works are frequently rhythmically unsettled, as well as his tendency to pay more attention to morsels of musical detail than to the overall ensemble. The latter he balanced by studying the cello, which offered him the fluidity, continuity, and melodiousness that can be heard throughout his later compositional development.5 Perhaps most importantly, composition was Antoine’s refuge from the violence of bullying that he experienced in school.6 Music was a matter of survival and composition was an oasis. His pieces still carry echoes of the stress and trauma that he experienced attempting to live in a system that was inaccessible to his way of being—no sky completely unclouded, and no peace wholly perfect.

Although Antoine was not diagnosed until years later, in 1985 he wrote a piece that he now believes to be an accurate representation of his experience of ASD-related social isolation.7 Composed for flute, harp, percussion, and string orchestra, L’Esprit envoûteur spans five sections in approximately 30 minutes. Fully revised and completed in 1999, the piece is based on an Indigenous legend that sparked Antoine’s imagination at the time he read/heard it; only retroactively did he draw a direct link with his personal experience. The story of Mi'kmaq origin quoted in the score of L’Esprit envoûteur8 describes a character rejected from their community who is eventually transformed by magical flute music into an enchanted spirit who is mistaken for the wind, simultaneously isolated and freed from their struggles living in the community.

Antoine accessed the legend through a combined book and TV program produced for Radio-Canada audiences in the 80’s called Légendes indiennes du Canada. Directed by Daniel Bertolino and Diane Renaud, Légendes was apparently a collaboration with Ojibwe/Chippewa, Inuit, Mi'kmaq, Mohawk (Kanien'kehá:k), and Algonquin (Omàmiwininiwak) communities featuring individuals telling their own stories in their local settings and languages.9 The extent of that collaboration is not documented within a brief search, but the work was culturally significant enough at the time to win a UNESCO prize for Bertolino. It is tempting to digress deeper into Légendes, but I will leave it at the suggestion that future performances of L’Esprit envoûteur might be great opportunities to practice responsible creative partnership.

An excerpt from Ouellette's L’Esprit envoûteur.

Neither the text nor other aspects of Indigenous cultural heritage are integrated specifically into the music. What Antoine saw in the legend was an empathetic image of solitude and marginalization, an image that he had the privilege of using as inspiration. While the modal-sounding pseudo-tonality of the piece evades typical evocation of emotion, there is an overall tenebrosity. At the beginning of L’Esprit envoûteur, the strings and percussion, rather than supportive voices in a community, feel like features in an impressionistic setting, an empty or shadowy environment. Against that background, the flute sound has a way of standing out, different, and terribly yet serenely alone, as at measure 6. To me, this is our rejected character. By measure 30, we get a premonition of what is to come: the flute is gone, or perhaps we’re only mistaking it for the wind of the aeoliphone and wooden chimes.

An excerpt from Ouellette's L’Esprit envoûteur.

The narrative is not always specific, but the images are impactful. Some more turbulent swells (measure 112) and increased rhythmic movement (measure 120) in the harp and strings draw the listener out of the somehow peaceful paralysis of the first sections. The magic of the flute emerges towards the end of section 2 with a ‘flauted’ flourish at measure 190.

An excerpt from Ouellette's L’Esprit envoûteur.

In section 3, the flute has an experience of being ‘part of the music’, joining the momentum of the strings, and entraining with their lines. There is some chaos; there are moments of near-joyousness, and enchantment and mystery in the shining glissandi of the harp. Finally, in section 5, the flute literally recedes from view, sent offstage. The score note reads, “Parfaitment audible mais avec un effet de lointain,” audible but sounding far away.10 The flute drifts away as the wind blows. The transformation of the rejected character to an enchanted spirit is complete, with all its lingering, ambiguous longanimity; the suffering isn’t exactly over at the end of L’Esprit envoûteur.

An excerpt from Ouellette's L’Esprit envoûteur.

Leading up to the conclusion of Musique autiste, Antoine gives a tip, a course of action. He says that the most important thing that can help a person on the spectrum live well is acceptance.11 While there’s certainly more than that to be done to remove barriers, Antoine’s emphasis on acceptance is reminiscent of what he wrote about his way of being in music. If neurotypical communities let go of oversentimentality, drama, and assumptions, those on the spectrum can self-identify as who they really are as people. Antoine seems to want for folks on the spectrum, what he wants for music: an innocent listening.

You can learn more about Antoine Ouellette by visiting his CMC profile page, and you can access the score for L’Esprit envoûteur through the CMC library and publishing services. This is part of a series of monthly blog posts that highlight various works from CMC Associate Composers. Check back regularly for new posts, and new pieces!

1 Ouellette, A. (2011). Musique autiste: Vivre et composer avec le syndrome d’Asperger. Montreal, QC: Les Editions Tryptiques, p. 9
2 Ouellette, Musique autiste, p. 50.
3 Ouellette, Musique autiste, p. 114.
4 Ouellette, Musique autiste, p. 117.
5 Ouellette, Musique autiste, p. 120.
6 Ouellette, Musique autiste, p. 121.
7 Ouellette, Musique autiste, p. 128.
8 Ouellette, L’Esprit envoûteur, 3rd unnumbered page
9 Nath-Didile (2014). Les légendes indiennes du Canada par Nath-Didile.
10 Ouellette, L’Esprit envoûteur, p. 124.
11 Ouellette, Musique autiste, p. 255