Pascale Criton is a composer who has been exploring sound variability, microtunings, multisensory reception, and spatialisation of listening since the 1980s. Her work frequently makes use of specific tunings, and such is the case with the pieces collected on her new album “Infra”, with violin, cello, and guitar all tuned to 1/16th of a tone — “an interval barely perceptible to the ear, generating effects that alter our perception of timbre, rhythm, and time”. The pieces are performed by Ensemble Dedalus, with Didier Aschour on guitar, Amélie Berson on flute, Thierry Madiot on trombone, Silvia Tarozzi on violin, and Deborah Walker on cello.
The unconventional tunings and the use of microtonal techniques leads to a range of different sound worlds. The multitude of keening, cawing pitches in ‘Process’ produces a forest of muted tones, strange resonances drifting slowly but steadily like clouds accumulating and dissipating. The piece gains in tension as a rattling low drone becomes insistent, surging. The title of ‘Steppings’ refers to what sounds like muted strings plucked at a steady, rapid tempo, harmonics shifting as long trombone tones accompany and at times seem to merge with the regular pings. Final piece ‘Chaoscaccia’ was composed in collaboration with Walker, and her solo cello switches between scuffled shuffle and a low sliding gurgle; sustained hums start off faintly before gradually growing in density and energy as they leap into the high registers and descend into the abyss.
Forest, clouds, abyss: rarely does an album make me more aware that such terms are merely metaphors for something that is ultimately self-sufficient and non-linguistic, the vain striving of a writer to describe a phenomenon that can’t be reduced to language. The music of “Infra” sounds like nothing except itself, refers to nothing outside itself. Some of the extended techniques, particularly with Walker’s cello, bring to mind the work of Okkyung Lee; but the performances here are more measured and precise than the Korean’s dynamic playing style, and hence perhaps a little less dangerous — horses for courses, one might say. Despite the use of more esoteric tunings and techniques, however, what I hear most strongly in “Infra” is an impressive clarity of form and idea: Criton and her collaborators not only experiment with new approaches, but work them into coherent and compelling new music.