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Mathias Delplanque: Parcelles 1-10

img  Tobias Fischer

In 1950, American composer Elliot Carter said „to hell“ with all expectations and drove off into the Arizona desert to spend an entire year conceptualising and writing his first string quartet. He was, as he later explained, particularly obsessed with Jean Cocteau’s surrealist movie "Le Sang d’un poète", whose 55-minute action was framed by a short sequence of a collapsing industrial chimney. Accordingly, the quartet opened with a  poignant theme in the cello, which was only to return in the first violin at the very end of the piece's three-quarter-of-an-hour-long journey, implicitly suggesting that everything the audience had just gone through was nothing but a short moment of daydreaming (a „parenthesis in time“ as critic Bayan Northcott aptly called it in his introduction to the recent budget priced Naxos-recording of the piece). Even though Carter's „second coming“ as an artist has been largely overplayed in the myth surrounding this self-sought catharsis, it can hardly be denied that the conscious attempt at breaking away from his own past liberated him from a personally dissatisfying creative cul-de-sac - he had, in a way, burnt all bridges and started from scratch again at the age of forty two.

In various respects, French Sound Artist Mathias Delplanque has now embarked on a similar trip to Carter's. For one, „Parcelles 1-10“ marks the debut release on his freshly-founded Bruit Clair-imprint, allowing for complete control not only in musical terms but, quite seminally for an artist originally looking for a career as a sculptor, with regards to visual presentation as well: After the cover of „The Uncertain Trail“, the penultimate release of his Lena-project, featured a miniature-scale reproduction of Ed Ruscha's homonymous painting, the elegant and high-quality digipack of his most recent publication under his civilian name highlights the associative and carefully attuned work of designer Alexis Pierre. Of course, founding a record company isn't the most sensational thing in the world these days. But since Delplanque's musical personality has always been marked by an astounding eclecticism, bringing the different aspects of his oeuvre together under one roof for once points to the constants in his oeuvre rather than the differences: Minute sound-crafting, meticulous attention to what others might regard as background noises, a combination of utmost transparency and breathtaking depth as well as a preference of threedimensional expansion over linear development.

This debut as a self-releasing label boss arguably also defines a zero-hour for him as an artist. Constituting the first episode of a triptych of full-lengths, it introduces the new compositional form of „parcelles“ - mostly concise sonic „packages“, in which electronically processed materials culled from instruments such as the melodica, bells, guitar, zither and a plethora of tiny percussive objects (whose emanations, however, never coalesce into fully-fledged rhythms), are freely floating around each other like particles in liquid. Recorded by Delplanque in the studio under simulated live-conditions, these packages take on the character of complex acoustic systems. Set in motion and carefully supervised by their creator, much of the action appears to be guided by self-sustaining evolutionary processes, with all elements running through chains of changes in volume, colour and function. The concrete realisation of a particular parcelle appears to carry a certain amount of indeterminacy, as sets of initially fixed parameters are channelled through the moment in what could well be described as „controlled improvisations“.

Similar to Cocteau in Le Sang d’un poète, Delplanque embeds the entire trilogy in the formerly empty silence between two former pieces: „The track Parcelle 1 is meant to be listened to in the continuation of track no 14 (Le Regard) on my previous work Le Pavillon Témoin“, he writes in the liner notes, „Track no 15 (Dérivation) on Le Pavillon Témoin is meant to be listened to right after the last track on the third opus of the Parcelles series.“ To understand what he is on about here, one only needs to go back to these reference-points from his 2007-album on now-defunct Greek label Low Impedance: While „Le Regard“ is an airy, summerly Folk-pastiche, replete with strummed guitar chords and an upliftingly whistled melody, „Dérivation“ rips these elements out of context: Chords are running backwards and themes spinning out of control as four to five layers of sound are wilfully piled on top of each other. Only in the very last minute, when nothing is left but a pensive guitar and the confusing simultaneity has subsided, does the piece find peace in a plaintive, bittersweet coda. Quite clearly, something must have happened between these two works for the composer to treat essentially identical sources with entirely different methodologies and aesthetics. „Parcelles“ constitutes an effort of getting to the heart of the issue, of trying to identify how these two seemingly paradoxical philosophies can coexist in the same mind and how they can be converted from one to the other. It is a journey of self-discovery for an artist, who seemed to have taken his versatility for granted and is now seeking for answers to the big questions of who, what, when and why.

Contrary to what one might expect, this soul-search is anything but a purely self-gratifying, egoistical or academic pleasure. The first batch of ten „parcelles“ literally flows over with stimulating ideas and inspiring craftsmanship. Especially the visceral power of Delplanque's massive basses, whose sonorities seem to fill the entire frequential spectrum on their own, is a tantalisingly cinematic pleasure. Moods range from the sweet and sultry to the ominous and downright depressive, arrangements from the minimal and microscopic to the rich and resonant. Pieces not only lean towards fields of pure sound or melodic creations respectively, but regularly discover fascinating niches of their own in the ground somewhere between these poles: While „Parcelle 6“, with its addictive harmonica-motive, is a straightforward work of charming neo-chansons, on „Parcelle 5“, Delplanque bases every single invention on a simple melody, but spreads its notes out over different instruments and effect channels, thereby creating a coherent space filled by continuous transformations of a single idea.

Echoes of Delplanque's various activities are playfully running through the tracks here: The deep reverberations and dub-echoes of Lena, the serene and über-concentrated sound-shaping of currently-on-hold supergroup The Missing Ensemble, the spatial science of his early work. It lends an air of variety and eclecticism to these tracks, whose installational character might otherwise have appeared cold and dismissive. As it is, these first ten „parcelles“ represent one of the few occasion, where accessibility and uncompromising explorations do not mutually exclude each other. For their accessible musical language, Elliott Carter may not have enjoyed them. But he would certainly have found nothing but praise for an artist, whose „to hell with expectations“ has yielded his perhaps most immediately beguiling work to date.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Mathias Delplanque
Homepage: Bruit Clair Records

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