Robert Normandeau

Robert Normandeau



Born in


Featured work

Tunnel azur


August 11 and October 20, 22 and 23, 2016

Robert Normandeau is unquestionably one of the most important and most highly esteemed electroacousticians on the current Québec scene. A graduate of Université Laval and then of Université de Montréal, in 1992 he was the recipient of the first doctorate in electroacoustic composition awarded by the latter institution. Over the years he has been the student of Francis Dhomont and Marcelle Deschênes, two important figures in contemporary electroacoustic music.

Appointed professor at Université de Montréal in 1999, Normandeau is the author of close to 50 works, which since 1986 have earned him some 20 awards in international composition competitions. Again in 1999, he was the recipient of two Prix Opus (Composer of the Year; and Disc of the Year – Contemporary Music, for his album Figures), before being honored, in 2002 and in 2005, with two Masques (for best theater music) from the Académie québécoise du théâtre, a tribute to his collaboration with other performing-arts disciplines. Cofounder of the Canadian Electrostatic Community (1987) and of Réseaux (1991), an enterprise devoted to the production of media arts, Normandeau has seen a number of his works commissioned and broadcast in the Americas and in Europe.

It is said of Robert Normandeau’s music that it is a veritable “Cinema for the ear.” His work, essentially acousmatiquetransports listeners with pieces that are filled with supple sounds and are constantly evolving. Despite its appearance of stasis, Normandeau’s music is in steady transformation, as though sensitive to the passage of time.

Tunnel azur was commissioned from Robert Normandeau by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal for performance in a concert marking the 50th anniversary of the Montréal Métro.

Normandeau’s note on Tunnel azur :

To Jean-François Denis, for his friendship.
Tunnel azur is cinema for the ear. There’s a story with the Métro as the main character, with the arrivals and departures, the crowd, the workers’ noise and the musicians. Then a quieter moment, with some very low-pitched sounds. And finally, there’s movie music.

The Métro is also and above all the tunnel, that empty, mysterious space of which you see almost nothing when you’re at the entrance. It’s the underground, the crypt, the cave. And at night there are the motorized machines, types of metallic animals that do repairs with all kinds of noise and that sing. And then there are the new AZUR trains, which take up the torch of those earliest coaches, 50 years later. The name of these new trains is particularly significant, because we tend to associate the color azure with the blue of the sky, whereas the Métro lives exclusively in nighttime. It’s therefore daytime in the middle of the night here.
In this piece there are also the sounds of the OSM’s recently arrived octobass, which this work is the first to make use of.
Finally, a memory, that of my first concert with Kent Nagano conducting. This was before he moved to Montréal. He was leading the OSM in Mahler’s Ninth, one of my very favorite works. Spectators will hear echoes of it here.
Tunnel azur was written in 2016 in the composer’s studio in Montréal, and premiered in a stereophonic version on August 11, 2016, as part of the outdoor concert “The Organ and the Silver Screen…Under the Stars” on the Quartier des spectacles Parterre in Montréal. It will be performed again in a multitrack version on October 20, 22 and 23, 2016, at Maison symphonique de Montréal. Tunnel azur is a commission from the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) for the 50th anniversary of the Métro, and from the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM). It echoes the piece by José Evangelista, Accelerando, commissioned for the same occasion. Thanks to Marianne Perron and the entire OSM team, to Marie-Ève Masson-Guérette and the whole STM team (also for the sound recordings), and to Eric Chappel, new OSM octobassist.

© 2016 Normandeau (SOCAN)
Work published by YMX Média (SOCAN)

Learn more about the composition of Tunnel azur by reading this short interview.

Short interview: Robert Normandeau talks about his composition “Tunnel Azur”

“What, in your opinion, are the challenges presented by writing an electroacoustic work intended for an audience that’s used to orchestral concerts?”

Robert Normandeau: I really don’t know!

I no longer go to orchestral concerts much, so it’s hard for me to know what that audience is like or what it expects. I think that unfortunately a sort of divide has formed between audiences for music since World War II, when the music being composed today was taken out of concert halls and confined to temples of contemporary music, which are avoided by the general public. Yet we can read critics from the time of the romantics and discover that the audience then was just as alarmed by their music as the audience of today is of ours.

The new is disturbing, because it delivers a message we haven’t heard before, new sounds, original perspectives on the world of sound. And today, we live more than ever in a noisy world of sound, rich and dense. It’s only normal for that world to be found in a concert hall.

Messiaen said that the only true new thing in 20th-century music is electroacoustic music. It’s certainly the music that’s most faithful to its time. Therefore, part of the audience will recognize itself in what I propose, although another part probably not.

I can’t take that into account in my work as a composer.

I live in the 21st century, like the people who will be taking their seats in the hall the evening of the concert. I’m proposing that they make an original journey, daring for some, possibly, but one where I offer people the chance to recognize themselves. Some of them will make the effort and some won’t; each spectator is free to take that step or not.

I’ve nevertheless tried to include in this new work different musical elements the OSM audience might identify with: orchestral music, the sound of the Métro, sounds of the octobass, the new instrument that will be unveiled during a few concerts in the month of October.

“What restrictions come with the commission of a work? How do you manage to reconcile those restrictions and your creative habits?”

Robert Normandeau: I’ve set up a scenario, a sort of cinema for the ear, that features the different elements of the commission and others that I’ve added to them.

The commission was on the subject of the Métro, its fiftieth anniversary. I accepted it with pleasure: the Métro strikes me as so iconic of a modern city, especially in a country with a climate like ours. And even though I wasn’t born in Montréal (I’m from Québec City), I got to know the Métro practically from the start because I came to visit Expo 67 a dozen times with my parents (I was 12 that year).We camped out on the South Shore, and to get to the site we caught the Métro at Longueuil.

So we have the Métro in the leading role. The one in the early days, the MR63 and MR73 models, and the new AZUR. Then there are the track cars, those motorized machines used by workers at night for maintenance operations. People have no idea what goes on at night underground there! I had the opportunity to experience it and record it.

And while the Montréal Métro runs on rubber wheels, which makes it relatively quiet, the track cars move on the Métro’s metal rails. And they sing!

I don’t see the commission as a restriction, but rather as an opportunity to create a world of sound that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.

I’ve done that for 20 years in composing incidental music for the theatre, for instance. Here I had to echo the famous sound trio generated by the old trains at the moment of departure (in the AZUR that’s replaced by the sound of the doors opening).

Thus, I’ve incorporated these sounds into my piece, tuning all the others to these, to provide the whole thing with harmonic integrity. Those three notes do not correspond to the current tonal system, and are therefore not playable exactly by the orchestra, for example.

But in my piece they’re exactly at the right pitch. If I hadn’t had that restriction, possibly I wouldn’t have taken that step of additional tuning, which took a fair amount of time. But today I’m very happy with the result.

I also wanted to pay tribute to Kent Nagano in this work, because he left me with one of my finest musical memories of the past 20 years.

I’d gone to hear Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony conducted by him before he became the OSM’s artistic director. I was fortunate to have a very good seat, and if I remember correctly, Maestro conducted the work from memory. You have to know that I’m an unconditional admirer of Mahler’s work. But this was the first time I fully realized that the composer, an exceptional orchestrator, had developed a writing of orchestral space by developing a writing of registers and tones that are deployed and that work together across the stage arrangement of the instruments.

The tone colors are deployed literally in space.

It’s impossible to be aware of that on disc.

My piece is structured around the first movement of the Ninth Symphony, whose energetic process and tone material it borrows, redeploying them over a period of time three times shorter (that first movement runs to almost 30 minutes, whereas my piece is just 10 minutes long).

Maybe these symphonic moments will get the OSM audience to rally around…

Interviewed by Paul Bazin


Watch an interview with Robert Normandeau.

Listen to his work Tangram, dating from 1992.


Robert Normandeau being a composer of electroacoustic music, that music naturally finds its primary platform on disc. There is therefore a very considerable number of recordings devoted to his works. The website of the label ElectroCD contains an exhaustive list of recordings of Robert Normandeau’s music.


STEENHUISEN, Paul. “Robert Normandeau,” in Sonic Mosaics: Conversations with Composers. Edmonton, University of Alberta Press, 2009.