Culture & Conversation

Starting from Scratch

Jean-François Laporte has scarcely put down his tools in the last decade and a half as he refines the sounds he’s making. The instrument inventor and composer uses PVC tubes and balloons, plastic tie wraps and compressed air in search of the limits to the noises that can be made from one object striking another. “I just go by the sound,” Laporte said. “It’s an intuitive process. I see what a sound tells me and go from there.”

Electrochocs 5, which was at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal on February 7, featured pieces written for Laporte’s instruments by other composers, including Simon Martin and Felix-Antoine Morin. Saxophonists Jean-Marc Bouchard (of Quasar fame) and Marie-Chantel Leclair performed along with Laporte. The Electrochocs series matches up experimental composers with performers, many of whom have scarce experience

Since his start a decade and a half ago, Laporte has gained national and international attention with his sound installations and ensembles. Behind us sat the orgue de sirènes, a collection of steel trumpets and tubes controlled by compressed air valves. Laporte builds everything himself in his Contemporary Totems studio in the Mile End.

His pieces start slowly and build, usually with just the hiss of an open valve. Then different pitches and frequencies are methodically put together. With “Plateforme” on the orgue de sirènes, Laporte stuck a hollow PVC tube in one horn, moving it around in circles as the organ warbled.

Laporte was a civil engineer working in asphalt recycling when he decided to commit himself to music full-time. His invented instruments started taking shape during his time in the composition program at the Université de Montréal. This convinced him of the limits of traditional music theory. “Writing for, let’s say, the violin is very easy,” he said. “How many changes have there been [over time]? Not that much. But if you gave a violin to a [tribesman] in Africa who’d never seen one, it will sound completely different.” He cites Karlheinz Stockhausen as a major influence.

The limitations in his music are dictated by the physical constraints of the instrument. To him this is the only limit that matters. “If you don’t have contact with the material, with the sound, you don’t have much,” he said emphatically.

Laporte may be an acoustic purist, but he sees an increasing role in his compositions for technology in a supporting role. For the Electrochocs show, the instruments were manipulated through guitar effects pedals and the Max/MSP program.

Laporte listens keenly to the sounds at every stage. “Sound always changes depending on where you are in a room. It’s never the same reflection,” he pointed out. He hopes to test this principle out further with a new design he’s working on: a piece of rubber latex in a glass bottle that’s then suspended from the ceiling and moved around.

With instruments that have just been invented, he exclaimed, “nothing exists. I ask myself, ‘how can I write this?’ How can I hear it for myself?”

Jean-François Laporte  was at Electrochocs 5, February 7, 2013

Conservatoire de musique de Montréal

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