The Catalysts

By Manon Tourigny

Willing to decompartmentalize creation, encourage collaboration, and allow artists from various fields to explore the organ at Palais Montcalm, Avatar has acted as an artistic mediator for the project Plein Jeu. The three artists invited to participate in the residency Musique pour sièges vides [Music for Empty Chairs] experienced what could be called a blind date. Working in different fields, Bruno Bouchard (live arts), Benoît Fortier (music), and Philip Gagnon (visual arts) embraced collective art making. Over a period of five weeks before beginning their exploration at Palais Montcalm, the artists shared their artistic fields of interest, disciplinary approaches, and languages, seeking ways to connect their personal universes so that the collaboration could take place.

During this process, each member of the trio took on a role that came naturally to them, according to their individual strengths: with a background in performance and experience in collaboration, Bruno brought everyone together; using his programming skills, Benoît enabled the performers to play the organ in new ways; given his art practice in the public space, Philip became interested in playing in and with the space. Though the organ has remained at the core of Plein Jeu, the artists also examined the instrument’s symbolism and some of the architectural elements around it during their explorations. It is important to mention that the organ is located in the Raoul-Jobin Hall of Palais Montcalm, a space that is not particularly dedicated to experimentation. In this house of music, the hall is considered to be one of the best in the world for its exceptional acoustics. Majestic, draped in maple wood panels, and adaptable to different needs1, the hall offers multiple configuration possibilities. Nevertheless, it mostly hosts concerts and has a resident organist. The space entails, therefore, a certain decorum but also presents other possible benefits.

This is the perspective from which we should observe the part of the residency that took place at Palais Montcalm, during which the artists deepened their reflections on the organ by exploring the object, its limitations, and the constraints they imply. It should be noted that the organ does not bear the same significance for the three artists. For Bruno, the organ has a sentimental dimension because it is connected to his family. Both his parents are organists and being part of their world, Bruno has always been around the instrument, without actually playing it. For this project in MIDI format, he recorded his parents playing a classical repertoire. He also recorded excerpts played by him, as well as by his brother. This sonic material could then be integrated into the programming and the score. For Benoît, who accompanied these musicians in their explorations, the organ plays a critical role because it opens up infinite possibilities by being MIDI-controlled. As for Philip, he is less interested in the organ and more in the place in which it stands. The organ is an important figure, yet it also makes room for a space in terms of what it is and what it represents. Philip even talks about “playing the Palais Montcalm,” a way of speaking to the installation aspect of the project. There is the organ, a masterful and imposing element integrated into an architecture built specifically for it, but there is also everything that surrounds it, more specifically the hall and its configuration, the seats for the audience and the stage.

The work that the artists did in situ allowed them to consolidate or eliminate certain ideas developed in advance, particularly by adopting a way of being onstage, but also around it and throughout the concert hall. The artists used their creative context to carry out concrete actions. They became catalysts for the organ. Somewhat like sculptors, the artists “hewed” the organ, by addition or subtraction, seeking a sound that could be assembled and associated with the overall work. In the yet to be defined project, the artists wondered how they could wander within a work? One of their answers was to come into contact with the components of the Raoul-Jobin Hall: the seats, which the artists “activated” by sitting down or getting up, by rubbing a microphone on the fabric or armrests of the seats, by unbolting them to create sound; then the rows, along which the artists walked slowly or ran, creating a game of bodies that move through space, act as catalysts for the organ, and are in dialogue with it. Through these various movements, a choreography began to develop, as much through micro-gestures as through more obvious actions (for example, when nodding or shaking the head while wearing an EEG headset). Through this research, the artists examined the relationship between their gestures and the sounds produced, as well as how the organ will respond to their movements. One factor at work in this exploration is that the organ becomes a character in the emerging mise en scène. It dictates how the body can produce the desired sound through certain gestures. The organ interacts with the artists and is thus an integral part of the collaboration, as well as serving as a sound emitter that gives rise to the performance.

In the interest of playing the organ in new ways, the use of programming and electronic devices becomes essential. Every gesture must correspond to a reaction in the organ. Writing this code can go on indefinitely, adding an additional layer of work to each change or idea put forth. The artists began their collaboration by thinking that they would carry out a great number of actions. At the time when I write this, a synthesis still remains to be done. The performance that is in the process of taking form must allow the artists to play the organ without touching it, so that they can all contribute to composing the same score, without relying solely on programming a MIDI track or directly interpreting a piece of music on the instrument. The body is the music here, in other words the artists transform themselves into actual organ players. Everything they do allows them to trigger the instrument, to play it or make it react. Even the idea of the “score” allows them to structure a series of gestures and movements with the aim of creating a sound experience. This is very different from the Baroque repertoire or sacred music. It is a conceptual and experimental music, an abstract symphony that takes shape through a series of movements. In addition to using gestures, the artists also integrate the Partition vocale [Vocal Score], a text written by Philip on the notion of value, the organ, and Palais Montcalm2. One passage in this text touches on collective work, reflecting on what the three artists have experienced during the residency Musique pour sièges vides :

“A set of symbols of a relatively common language.

A set of words of a relatively common tongue considered in terms of their brief history, their new development, their new meanings.

Mutual communication of the entire set.

Doing an action, getting energy in return, getting a result. “

It’s conceivable that this excerpt won’t be used in the final work. with a voice resonating in a microphone, the rhythm of certain words or phrases making the organ react, as though it was in conversation with the artists. An important aspect of improvisation will also persist, both in terms of the text and the gestures producing the sounds and activating the organ.

One of the strengths of Plein Jeu is that it takes a chance on bringing together artists from different fields to collaborate. For this residency, the collaboration will continue to develop up to the final performance, which will form a score that combines music, actions, choreography, scenography, and play in space.

1The website mentions that the hall can be used for acoustic or amplified concerts, conferences, conventions, and recordings, among other uses. See https://www.palaismontcalm.ca/salle-quebec/raoul-jobin/ (consulted July 18, 2021).

2 The artist composed the text based on definitions drawn from the website of the Centre national de ressources textuelles et lexicales (https://www.cnrtl.fr/). The definitions were reworked so as to add rhythm to the textual material.