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Ensemble Aleph
Arrêts Fréquents
Vand'Oeuvre

Arrêts Fréquents is an album by a French ensemble who call themselves Ensemble Aleph (after the title of a story by Borges). According to the sleeve they've been around the contemporary music circuit for many years and have a solid reputation in the field of experimental music. Arrêts Fréquents translates as "frequent stops" and that is what the album is essentially about.

The group commissioned pieces from composers with the rule that no piece could be more than thirty seconds long. Looking down the list of titles it seems that most of the composers bent the rules a bit - some of the pieces are up to a minute long. Others, sometimes consisting of just a note or a word or two, are a lot less. The band also threw in a few very short pieces by composers such as John Cage and Edgar Varese to spice up the mix.

Well, so far so good, and if you play the album as normal you predictably get a sequence of very short compositions, very much in the contemporary idiom, here some musique concrete, next a snatch of avant opera, sometimes even the semblance of a tune almost on the point of development. You can certainly sense the fun that the piece must be like live, more a piece of theatre than just a music performance, with the eight members scurrying around the stage to find the next instrument to bang, strum, blow, or bow, or the right microphone to scream shout or croon at.

But then you notice the command on the album cover to set your CD player to random play and suddenly you get the point!

So, every time you play the album you get a new sequence from the more than sixty segments of the CD, and the pieces are so short that it's almost like hearing a new composition each time. Well that suddenly opens up a grand vista, the possibilities extending to the far horizon. A whole new field of ambient compositions entirely based on the random play technology possible with digital recording. I confidently predict a new section of the record store (adjacent to New Age probably) called "Random Ambience" or something! Or has this happened already and I've just missed it so far?

Ah, what of the album itself - did I enjoy it, and would I recommend it to you? Well, yes I do enjoy it, but to be perfectly frank, explaining to you what it's up to is probably enough, I don't think you have to listen to it to get the picture, what you imagine the music to be like is possibly better than what's on the disc itself. The stops are bit too long in fact, if they weren't there at all it would have been more successful as a listening experience, and it is awfully arch like a lot of new composing tends to be - "I'm so avant garde I'm in front, beside and behind myself!", it seems to smugly scream at the listener.

But every now and again I put the CD on, setting the player on random, and for about ten minutes or so, (that's about my limit), almost believe that with the help of my CD I'm participating in the composition of a new piece of music, and then I dream about all those composers who'll pick up on the idea and truly turn this embryo into a new art form!

Copyright © 1998 Tom McPhillips e-mail address

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