In 1982, a small Canadian record label specializing mostly in classical music released “Heliograms”. This was the first record by Canadian composer and video artist Jean Piché, and it was also one of the first albums to feature music produced almost entirely with digital synthesizers. But, due to an unfortunate turn of events, the label went bankrupt as soon as “Heliograms” was released, therefore relegating this essential piece of electronic music to obscurity.
Jean Piché recorded “Heliograms” between the years 1977-1980 during his time at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. The music on the LP consists of works for computer, digital synthesis and acoustic instruments, and most of it was composed using the POD Interactive Compositional System that Barry Truax had developed at SFU. The four compositions that make up “Heliograms” are often dense, harmonically rich pieces that slowly evolve through time. There is a strong use of tonality throughout which characterizes Piché’s work during this period. It echoes a fascination with the music of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Lou Harrison, placing it firmly in a minimalist approach to electronic music, alongside the contemporary work of American composer Laurie Spiegel, then working at Bell Labs.
The initial sounds that would end up constituting the bulk of “Ange”, the first piece on the LP, were created on the Systems Concepts Digital Synthesizer, also know as the Samson Box, during a residency at Stanford University, California, in the CCRMA facilities. The Samson Box was a powerful machine and the first of its kind. It was designed to synthesize complex musical events in real time using FM synthesis. As soon as Piché returned to SFU, he mixed all the tracks in a traditional analog studio and then proceeded to record the voice of Joanna Anonychuk, as well as his own voice, carefully blending these with the sounds generated with the Samson Box. The result is a striking oceanic drone of microtonal frequency waves shifting in and out of focus.
“La mer à l’aube” starts with distant cascading lines that rapidly dissolve into a gaseous, neon-tinted trip through icy digital landscapes. It was actually the first piece here to be recorded, and it is one of the very first digital synthesis pieces ever produced in Canada. This track, along with the remainder of “Heliograms”, was created on a Hewlett-Packard 2116 mini-computer running the POD System. This software enabled precise tuning of harmonics, making it possible to build chords consisting of up to 500 differently tuned notes, creating a natural chorusing effect that can be heard throughout the LP. “Rouge” is a more rhythmical proposition and certainly breaks away from the overall aerial mood of the LP. It features the percussion work of Paul Grant performing along with a series of complex computer-sequenced patterns of synthesized sounds, eventually disintegrating into the title track of the album. The scattered piano flourishes that open “Heliograms” announce a more pastoral affair, but this eventually gives way to organ-like tones that rise and fall, morphing into glacial rays of brightness that reach high levels of intensity. It is a very majestic ending to a sadly overlooked document of its time, and we hope that this reissue will finally give “Heliograms” the place that it deserves in electronic music history. - Roger Tellier-Craig
Remastered by James Plotkin from the original tapes.