The career pathway of clarinetist/composer François Houle has been variegated in the extreme, a continuum of explorations into a broad range of musics. A selection of his congruously eclectic CDs include the compositions of American clarinet genius John Carter, duo collaborations with pianists Benoît Delbecq and Marilyn Crispell, a lovely glimpse into the music of Persia with tar player Amir Koushkani and percussionist Sal Ferreras, Messiaen’s (1908-92) “Suite for the End of Time”, and an electro-acoustic two-volume extra-aural compositions/improvisations on the 1998 Québec ice storms.
His track record demonstrates a creative imagination that consciously ignores musical classification systems. Ancient and contemporary literature are on occasion more important sources of creative impulse than music, even to the point of composing one CD based on music numbers theory and Neil Stephenson’s novel Cryptomomicon, even to the point of taking as inspiration the contest of musical power between Apollo and Marsyas.
Houle has always been an aggressive musician, not in the sense that he has had to compete with or out-do others, but in the sense that he drives himself and his music to limits outer. He has the technical ability to do just about anything on the horn he wants, and when he cannot through intensive exploration realize the sounds he has heard in his head, he has found them through the media of electronic manipulation. The power he projects and the ceaseless and regular turnover of innovative projects gives the impression of a man determined to prove himself to himself, a fortitude that translates itself into a formidable concert presence.
Yet in listening to his solo clarinet CD Aerials, one gets the impression that he has arrived within himself. Critical mass is too explosive a term to apply to this continuum. Perhaps sea change is the more appropriate term for the powerful currents and weather forces operating within him. Houle plays the clarinet as intensely as ever on Aerials but an even-keeled composure is present in the articulation, as if the music-making organism has matured to the point of not being aware of itself, in which nothing is forced, in which single notes and each phrase flow as natural consequences of antecedents, in which the personas that permitted the clarinet to be the contemporary instrument that it is are clearly substantiated, in which the stunning beauty of the clarinet played by breath alone is the dominant ethos.
The defining characteristics of Aerials are its melodic and lento qualities. Jewels, like “Persina”, an exaltation of Persian classical music; an ode to the great Hamilton, “Pour Jimmy”; the entrancing “Song F,” each personalize some deeply held emotional and musical respect for the great players, each of which illuminate the clarinet’s range of expression.
“Pour Sidney” is a lament, a real sound-story, an eye-closer that reveals homage to the unadorned clarinet, a song that rides the zone between the clarion and chalumeau registers, that leaves degrees of silence between phrases the better to emphasize the eulogic sentiments, and is taken with a tempo that matches the pace of a man lost in contemplation of an immeasurable sadness.
A listener wanting to appreciate Houle’s abstractions could try listening to “Neume,” in which Houle plays single notes on the prepared piano and simultaneously uses specialized fingering to create the same de-tuned notes on the clarinet.
Hard-core types may wish to listen to the exquisite “Circulaire”, an example of Houle’s thundering technical prowess. Generating over- and under-tones requires acceleration, deceleration, and above all nano-second timing in the embouchure and fingering. Houle soars and swoops among the clarion, chalumeau, and altissimo registers with liberty. He both generates multi-phonics from the bottom notes to release the higher harmonics but also does the inverse, triggering the higher harmonics and then setting in motion the lower harmonics. He capitalizes on microphone placement to achieve sonic depth and utilizes the reverberation from the piano to enhance the music. But note also the pacing that results in a musical suite.
Another remarkable quality is Houle’s augmentation of the clarinet’s harmonics by playing into the prepared piano. Houle creates unusual soundscapes by letting the sound of the clarinet vibrate the strings of the piano. On the tracks where he does this, a fullness of sound resorts the clarinet and lends an orchestral quality to the music. Houle, of course, is not the first musician to consciously use this technique as an extended compositional device. Steve Lacy often used this device during his concerts with pianist Mal Waldron.
Which leads me to the issue of dedications and musical content. Houle had been conceptualizing Aerials for over a decade, assimilating the fullness of the straight-horn masters. But it was only in 2004 when he was sponsored for a five-week residency at the Castello Ranieri in Umbria, Italy that he was able to concentrate the energy and achieve the quietude to work out his ideas. It then took another year and a half to get into the recording studio, step up to the microphones and the prepared piano, and create. There were no overdubs and each take on the CD is a complete improvisation. Importantly, there are some obvious reference points to master musicians in the music and in the titles. Others are not so obvious, and in his oblique fashion, Houle has left it to listeners to figure out these things for themselves. He did, however, say in an interview that “I was thinking about how Lacy dedicated his compositions.”
One could listen to a Steve Lacy composition dedicated to, say Jimi Hendrix, and perhaps hear no relationship whatsoever to the music of Hendrix. To approach the music of another musician, not in their style but rather as if one had breathed the same airs and had drunk from the same waters of the others, and then create your own music is an ultimate mark of esteem, one of the gold standards that define artistry.
Houle does not play John Carter or Steve Lacy or Edmund Hall or Evan Parker on Aerials, he plays Houle. Esteem does suffuse Aerials but a comparison with the music of the straight-horn masters easily reveals that Houle has forged his own singular sound and compositional approach. Aerials is in Houle’s words, ”a manifest, musically and technically, of what I do on the instrument.”
In the Vernacular: François Houle 5, Songlines sgl 1522
Alight: SAFA (Koushkani & Ferreras), Songlines sgl sa2403-2
Cryptology: François Houle 5, between-the-lines btl 012
Au coeur du litige: FH solo & electroacoustic quartet, Spool spl 302
Dice Thrown: w/Benoît Delbecq, Songlines sgl sa1538-2
Any Terrain Tumultuous: w/Marilyn Crispell, Red Toucan rt9305-2
Originally Published August 2006