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Richard Chartier
Set or Performance


n the past, my chief worry when approaching Richard Chartier's music was volume. How loud should it be played? I often wondered about this because most of his music, when listened to at normal volume, is barely audible. It sounds like a very faint echo of the noise a certain mouse makes when it crawls around the insides of my walls (driving my wife crazy). In other words, you can hear it, but it takes time, energy, and deep concentration to figure out exactly what you are hearing. The easier solution is to turn the volume way, way up to Merzbow levels; at this level, the sounds are deep, rich, complex, and utterly entrancing. Now, I always preferred the latter option. But that weird, purist streak that runs through my head once in a while forced me to wonder: was this the correct way to listen to Chartier's music? Perhaps it's faint for a reason; perhaps the concentration and the energy are necessary for a full appreciation of the music.

That's what I used to worry about when approaching Chartier's work, and if you read my previous Chartier reviews, you'll sense my own anxiety at the proper way to listen to this music. I don't worry about this any more, however; Chartier himself emailed me and told me to pump up the volume. So I did, and so should you. What a revelation of sounds! Those tiny specks of mouse noise are transformed into entire symphonies of scrunchy oscillations and tweeped weirdness (forgive my portmanteau words—I'm a Joyce scholar in real life); what was once inaudible becomes overwhelming and ear piercing.

Of course, the question is, why make these sounds so tiny to begin with? Why force listeners to turn up the volume to hear them? One answer might be practical. Perhaps the sounds, when compressed and embiggened (to borrow from Jebediah Springfield), are distorted or mangled in some way. Or perhaps the sounds are small simply because Chartier chooses to examine and manipulate sound at the microscopic level. Think of his music as slides filled with the sound equivalent of microbes, amoebas, and other infinitesimal creatures. From this point of view, our CD players (or iPods) are microscopes that magnify those sounds into recognizable shapes.

Chartier's latest CD is a perfect example of this microscopic focus. It's called Set or Performance. It is a live recording made on December 9, 2003 in Montreal. Earlier works, like Of Surfaces, focus on only a handful of different sound elements; these elements would be manipulated and examined in a variety of ways over the course of a composition. For this live recording, however, Chartier's palate is expanded. There's a lot going on here—from sharp, piercing stabs of sound to slow, elongated oscillating waves to some combination of both of these. At times, the music sounds a bit like Pan Sonic in their more glacial, slowly rumbling moments (before the noise kicks in); at other times, it's filled with jerks, pops, and clicks, reminiscent of other 12k/Line artists like Taylor Deupree, Sogar, and Motion. When all put together, however, these various sounds tell a pretty fascinating story: from quiet rumblings (anticipation) to bold crashes (excitement) to lulls (reflection) to more noise (climax) to a final long, slow dissolve into nothingness (coda).

In a way, the work reminds me of nothing more than that early scene in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, when Kyle MacLaughlin finds the ear in the field and stares at it for the longest time. As he stares, the camera slowly moves in closer and closer to the ear until we see inside, at which point the ear is replaced with close-up images of bugs and maggots crawling around in the wet dirt. In a sense, that's what listening to Set or Performance is like—a microscopic examination of the sonic life that surrounds us every day. It's an amazing work, one of Chartier's best.

Reviewed by: Michael Heumann

Reviewed on: 2004-10-20

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