Nicolas Bernier / Jacques Poulin-Denis - Sur Fond Blanc [Ekumen - 2009]Sur Fond Blanc’s eleven monosyllabically-named tracks segue into each other describing a journey through modern city life. All arrangements are sparsely constructed using minimal materials: recordings of the urban environment, from footsteps in a stairwell to the creaking of a door, place the listener in a voyeuristic position, while a cold, Rhodes piano-like pad wanders almost constantly throughout the disc providing versatile glue as melody, drone or percussion, balanced by a warm bass tone.
The overall effect is of detached observation, documenting day-to-day behaviour of inhabitants of an unknown city – not dissimilar to Italy’s neorealist cinema of the forties and fifties where aspirations for authenticity put the mundane in the spotlight as much as the melodrama. Also filmic are the digital, glitch-based rhythms featured on many of the tracks that would suit time-lapse photography of a city centre emphasising the collective movement of the masses mirroring microscopic cellular processes; while individuals are represented by speech, often multi-layered hinting at more cognitive behaviour.
Over the past four years, Montreal-based electro acousticians Nicolas Bernier and Jacques Poulin-Denis have worked both together and separately with many dance and theatre groups throughout their homeland. Sur Fond Blanc was originally conceived to accompany a new version of Ginette Laurin’s choreographical work, La Chambre Blanche, an exploration of a theatre of confinement performed by O Vertigo in 2008. Their multidisciplinary nature is underlined on ‘Air’, perhaps the most intriguing and infectious moment on the album, which is wholly based around recordings of the footsteps of O Vertigo as they perform. The sound of eight or so sets of feet sliding, stamping, stepping and squeaking builds subtly into an aural choreography accompanied by a slowly tolling bass note and the quiet but insistent hissing of a machinic beat. These rehearsed footsteps as they dip and leap have born a recording of organic percussion that does not require much further adornment – the expert hands of Bernier and Poulin-Denis have lent these expert feet a new lease of life as, literally, electronic dance music.
‘Air’ does stand out, however, both for its innovation and because it is spared the Rhodes or marimba-ish timbre that is spread thickly across most of the rest of this release. Perhaps if it were used more sparingly, the delicious detail of the field recordings would rise to the surface and feel less detached, joining ‘Air’ in its inspired music of movement.Russell Cuzner