by Ensemble on FatCat RecordsReleased 17/01/2011
‘Excerpts’ is the gorgeous record from Montreal resident Olivier Alary, the songwriter/composer behind Ensemble. A middle ground between lush orchestration, absorbing pop, guitar-indie, experimental sonics and beyond, it offers no obvious or straightforward reference points, yet here is an album full of maturity, sophistication and romance, architectured carefully and atemporally. A loose comparison could be made with the finale of Sgt. Peppers’ ‘A Day In The Life’ in its dense, unconventional take on pop music, or to the larger scale music of Matthew Herbert in its sublime eccentricity, or even to Yann Tiersen’s gentle nods to chanson française, but behind Alary’s musical charms is an overarching, unique personality that interweaves wide-ranging musical cultures and influences.
The album’s opening track ‘Things I Forget’ could be an exercise in achieving textual fullness through restraint. Pizzicato violin and female voice are embraced by a canopy of breathy brass and skipping, melodic string rhythms. Seemingly never afraid of pure noise, Alary (and singer, long-term collaborator Darcy Conroy) eventually craft the song into a beautiful waltz of cut-up spoken word snippets, harpsichord, feedback and sumptuous string arrangements. ‘En Attendant L’Orage’ employs a thick, distorted guitar line reminiscent of shoegaze or his local Montreal post-rock scene, but Olivier’s singing voice – with lyrics in French - is soft and clear, untouched by the floating reverb that one would usually associate with that style of guitar playing. A shimmering urgency is achieved through erudite friction, darkly melodic chord changes perhaps intended to mimic the ‘orage’ (“storm”) alluded to in the title.
A major theme of 'Excerpts' is the confusion of real memories with fictional ones, the capacity of imagination to fill spaces left by real memory - as Alary writes, the memory of "weddings I’ve never attended, kisses with someone I’ve never met, childhood landscapes that I only saw on screen, faces of friends I’ve never had". Represented by traditional musical forms - the aforementioned waltz and string quartets - as well as experimental recording techniques (such as recording on cassette tape and degrading it with different tools) mixed with contemporary or standardised techniques, Alary's illustration of a sense of fictional nostalgia can be felt across the album. It is at once enlightening, dizzying, tragic and beautiful.
Far closer to traditional songwriting or to film score composition than to a "studio project", 'Excerpts' was recorded almost entirely using physical, acoustic instruments and objects (i.e. with no software or sampling). It was comitted to tape in Montreal (which is, like the record, bilingual) and mixed in upstate New York and Berlin with collaborator/arranger, the award-winning film/theatre composer Johannes Malfatti.
Olivier was among the first artists to send music to FatCat Records at the label’s inception whilst living in London and working under the name ‘Hearing Is Our Concern’. Eventually retitling his project ‘Ensemble’, Olivier’s debut album ‘Sketch Proposals’ was released by Rephlex Records in 2000. By 2006, Ensemble had re-established his ties to FatCat, and, alongside the release of his beautiful self-titled album (featuring collaborations with Lou Barlow and Cat Power), co-written with Bjork on her ‘Medúlla’ album and contributed several remixes to Bjork singles. Olivier has also composed music for several exhibitions at the V&A museum; contributed to an Audio-Video installation by Doug Aitken at the Centre Georges Pompidou and at the MACBA in Barcelona; and received an honorary mention at the Ars Electronica Festival. Since 2007, he has also provided soundtrack for several feature-length films and documentaries, some of which have received prestigious awards and screenings in Europe, the US and China. His film work includes the score for the 2008 film ‘The Last Train Home’, directed by Lixin Fan, which received a Sundance screening.