Gilles Tremblay | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Gilles Tremblay

Gilles Léonce Tremblay, OC, OQ, composer, teacher, pianist, ondist (born 6 September 1932 in Arvida [Saguenay], QC; died 27 July 2017 in Montréal, QC). Premier prix piano (CMM) 1953, premier prix analysis (Paris Cons) 1957, L MUS counterpoint (École normale de musique, Paris) 1958.

After private lessons with Jocelyne Binet (counterpoint), Isabelle Delorme (solfège), Jean Papineau-Couture (acoustics), and Edmond Trudel (piano), he entered the CMM, where he studied 1949-54 under Claude Champagne (composition, theory) and Germaine Malépart (piano). He attended summer courses 1950, 1951, and 1953 at the Marlboro School of Music in Vermont and studied music history 1952-3 with Jean Vallerand at the University of Montreal. A meeting with Varèse in 1952 made a deep impression on him. After presenting his Mouvement for two pianos with Serge Garant at the CMM in 1954, he went to Paris to continue his training 1954-61.

He enrolled at the Paris Cons, working 1954-7 with Yvonne Loriod (theory, piano) and Olivier Messiaen (analysis). It was at this time that he met Pierre Boulez. He also studied the ondes Martenot 1956-8 with Maurice Martenot, obtaining a première médaille for his performance on that instrument. He became interested in electroacoustical techniques while attending the summer courses given in Darmstadt by Stockhausen. He took advanced studies in counterpoint 1957-8 with Andrée Vaurabourg-Honegger. On Canada Council grants 1958-61 he was able to attend sessions 1959-61 with the Groupe de recherches musicales headed by Pierre Schaeffer at the ORTF. There he met several composers, including Boucourechliev, Ferrari, and Xenakis. During the summer of 1959 he taught analysis at the JMC Orford Art Centre. A grant from the Kranichsteiner Musikinstitut allowed him to return to Darmstadt in 1960 to attend the summer classes given by Pierre Boulez and Henri Pousseur. Also in 1960 he composed his first important work for orchestra, Cantiques de durées, which was to be premiered in Paris in 1963 by the Domaine musical under Ernest Bour.

Upon his return to Montreal in 1961 he taught again during the summer at the JMC Orford Art Centre. He taught analysis 1961-6 at the CMQ and in 1962 began to teach analysis and composition at the CMM; he also collaborated 1962-3 on the scripts or music for the CBC radio series 'Paroles de poètes' and 'L'Homme américain' with Fernand Ouellette and for 'Festivals,' of which he was the host for 39 weeks. His production 1966-7 of the sound-tracks for the Quebec Pavilion at Expo 67 earned him the 1968 Prix de musique Calixa-Lavallée. Tremblay took part in the conference on Canada, in 1968 at Cerisy-La-Salle, France, and in the 24th (1970) Avignon Festival, where, with the Trio vocal de Montréal, he presented his work Kékoba at a concert in homage to Varèse. He was a member of the jury for the International Composition Competition at the 1971 Paris Biennial and for the 1972 International Flute Competition at the 9th International Festival of Contemporary Art in Royan. Also in 1972 he embarked on a tour of the Far East (Japan, Korea, the Philippines, China, Java, Bali, and India) as the recipient of a bursary from the Canada Council. After his return he served again on juries in 1973 and 1976 and was invited to give lectures at the University of Montreal, at the JMC Orford Art Centre, in Los Angeles, and elsewhere.

Along with his numerous duties Tremblay continued to compose on commission for festivals or for organizations such as the SMCQ, the CBC, and the NACO. The MSO commissioned one of his major works, Fleuves, and premiered it in 1977 under Serge Garant. The CBC has presented some of his compositions at the International Rostrum of Composers: Deux Pièces pour piano in 1964, Kékoba in 1966, Souffles (Champs II) in 1970, and Solstices in 1972. In 1986, his Vêpres de la Vierge were premiered in honour of the 850th anniversary of the foundation of the Notre-Dame de Sylvanès Abbey in France, which had commissioned the work.

Tremblay was a member of the board of the SMCQ 1968-88, of which he also was president 1982-8 and artistic director 1986-8. He also served 1975-7 on the advisory board of the Canada Council. He received the Canadian Music Council Medal in 1973, and the Canadian Music Council named him composer of the year for 1977. In 1991 he was made an Officer of the Ordre national du Québec, and that same year he was awarded the Prix Denise-Pelletier from the Quebec government. He was an associate of the Canadian Music Centre and a member of the CLComp. Volume 12 of RCI's Anthology of Canadian Music (6-ACM 12), released in 1983, is devoted to Tremblay's compositions. His name has been given to a hall at the Collège Lionel-Groulx in Ste-Thérèse, near Montreal.

The aesthetic of Gilles Tremblay is concerned above all with sonority. Yet we should hesitate to reduce so rich an output to one word. It therefore seems necessary to dismantle the word 'sonority' and reassemble it in a more subtle form in which the notion of timbre is both encompassed and extended. Far from referring solely to original combinations of timbres, the word should invite us to consider sound as a complex network of events, both material and immaterial, real and potential - in other words to examine sonority according to a number of dual perspectives, all necessary for a precise and full understanding of the inner meaning of Tremblay's work.

The quest for more supple timbres led the composer to explore the instrument's alter ego, its otherness, its reverse side, its shadow: to draw from it an ultimate sonority. In Souffles (Champs II), for example, the musicians must blow into their wind instruments without causing the column of air to vibrate. The ensuing sound, lightly coloured by the various pitches, exists, as it were, apart from the instrument. Again, at the very beginning of Oralléluiants, the contrabass players are required to explore their highest harmonics. In the same work, a chord played fortissimo in the low register by three bass players must cause an 'invisible' (according to the indication in the score) high B flat to emerge. This note is not produced directly by any one of the instruments but rather by the convergence of the harmonics of all three. It thus exists outside the instruments, freed from the material entities of instruments.

In these fringe areas the uniform and rigorous structuring of (equal) tempering of pitches holds no sway. Instead, it yields to an infinite number of non-tempered approximations and divisions which the composer purposely exploits, as when he specifies, for example, that a performer should play the fifth or seventh harmonic of a given fundamental. In his work the composer attempts to discover in each instrument an area of proximity that corresponds as accurately as possible with that of other instruments. In Oralléluiants, the percussionists have to imitate the high pitches and penetrating sounds of an aluminum sheet being crumpled slowly in front of a microphone. In Solstices, one section of the work intervenes in another to influence the latter, to render it 'akin.' At the outset this piece is divided into four regions which correspond to the four seasons. The 'winter' region, marked by long cross-fades, can intervene in the 'summer' region, for example, in an attempt to make it 'akin' on the level of its rhythms and contrasting elements.

Certain sections of Tremblay's works are designated 'en mobile.' In these instances, the notes are blockframed in the score. The performer may choose the order in which he will play them, but he must respect the pitches indicated. If the notes are enclosed in a triangle, the instrumentalist must give priority to the elements inscribed at the base of the triangle, whether notes, dynamics, or timbres. Frequently several instruments are playing 'en mobile' simultaneously. In such cases, all the proximities are possible within the defined networks. From the perspective of the work, this presupposes a virtual identity, or at least a strong relationship between the different sounds of a network, so that one aggregate of sounds may come into contact with any other aggregate without incurring a lack of affinities, all the while remaining within the limits set by the composer. The original equilibrium of the network or area remains unchanged despite the many possible displacements within it, following a concept wherein the field of proximities is virtually unlimited and where one note gets closer and closer (as it were) to being 'like' another, in spite of the pitch differences the composer has assigned to both inside the blocked frames.

The actual diversity in timbres, which Tremblay obtains through optimum extension, leads ultimately to a sonority or, rather, to a vast incorporeal sound coextensive to itself. Thus from a real and maximum diversity we arrive at an omnipresent and unequivocal virtuality. The non-tempered field is more than simply latent; it is an actual and constant presence in every note - to the extent, one might add, of obliterating the individual notes, dematerializing them in favour of the omnipresent, but never fully articulated, non-tempered field. The real note gives way to the virtual without the latter losing its non-present or incorporeal quality. Thus one is made to feel a non-presence as a non-presence.

If the preceding outline has shown the composer's fundamental aesthetic to be a logical extension of 'sonic elements,' we now must take a look at his use of rhythmic pulse which may be qualified as indefinite, yet occupies an important place in Tremblay's work. The 'duration-breath' describes a time lapse from the attack until the extinction of the breath of the singer or wind instrumentalist. Often this length of time limits the 'en mobile' activities of other instrumentalists, whose playing must evolve according to the choice of the dynamics of attack, a choice which in many cases is made at the moment of playing. In the 'duration-resonances' the time lapse is a function of the natural resonance of the instrument until all vibration ceases. In the 'duration-arcos' the length of the bow's stroke becomes the controlling element. This undefined rhythmic element is in actual fact a duration derived from the sonic reality of the instrument.

Finally there are the 'reflexes,' the one major element that does not come down to a consideration of sonority. The reflexes designate ways of playing in which a choice made spontaneously by one instrumentalist sets off a precise reaction among several possibilities available to another instrumentalist. These reflex actions may assume the character of a duel in performance, with one player provoking another or several others, even trying to frustrate him or them by a rapid and unexpected choice. Thus the reflexes have a tendency to create a 'rhythmic pulse based on tension,' wherein the tempo is broken up by reactions and counter-reactions. This rhythmic pulse is nonetheless closely tied to the durations of indefinite type. At one moment an instrument may exhibit a continuous time lapse until its natural extinction; at another, two or several musicians diffract the tempo, giving it a tension that often is very strong. This tension-induced rhythm is the reverse counterpart of those indefinite rhythms. Strict time (as a common element, integral to all situations in motion) is both the focus and the point of reversal, so that the first rhythmic element is essentially the 'other' of the second, and vice versa.

Thus, a preoccupation with sound elements is the primary unifying force of Tremblay's work. An infinitely pointillistic sound indicates each sound always differently, obliterating the sound (as, it is said, the name indicates and kills the object it names), and in the single real sound one hears the continual coming-into-being of the non-tempered field.

Selected Compositions

Un 9. 1987. Mime, 2 trumpet, 2 percussion. Sala 1988


'Thèse analytique sur La Messe de Guillaume de Machaut,' thesis, Paris Cons 1956

- et al. 'Hommage à Messiaen,' Melos, 25, Dec 1958

'Les sons en mouvement,' Liberté 59, Sep-Oct 1959

'Vers une nouvelle écoute' and other articles in Musiques du Kébèk, ed Raoul Duguay (Montreal 1971)

'Notice (1967) pour ''Phases'' (1956) et ''Réseaux'' (1958),' VM, 7, 1967

'Note pour Cantique de durées,' Revue d'esthétique (Paris 1968)

'Le bruit, prospective négative et prospective positive,' Le Bruit,quatrième pollution du monde moderne (Montreal 1970)

'Oiseau-nature, Messiaen, musique,' CMB, 1, Spring-Summer 1970

'R. Murray Schafer: The Book of Noise,' CMB, 2, Spring-Summer 1971

'Le point de vue d'un compositeur,' Vie spirituelle, vol 56, Mar-Apr 1974

'Olivier Messiaen,' Dictionary of Contemporary Music


Cantique de durées. 1960. 7 groups of instr (50 perfs). Ms

Jeux de solstices. 1974. Orch. Ms. RCI 477/6-ACM 12 (see Discography)

Fleuves. 1976. Orch, piano, percussion. Sala 1976. (1983). 6-ACM 12 (National Orch of France)

Vers le soleil. 1978. Orch. Sala 1978. 1986. SNE 523-CD (Nouvel O phil de Radio France)

Katadrone (Contrecri). 1988. Orch. Sala 1988

Musique du feu. 1991. Pf, orch. Ms


Mobile. 1962. Vn, piano. Ms

Champs I. 1965 (rev 1969). Pf, 2 percussion. Sala 1974. RCI 370/6-ACM 12 (see Discography)

Souffles (Champs II). 1968. 2 fl, oboe, clarinet, horn, 2 trumpet, 2 trombone, 2 percussion, double-bass, piano. Sala 1974. RCI 370/6-ACM 12 (SMCQ)

Vers (Champs III). 1969. 2 fl, clarinet, trumpet, horn, 3 violin, double-bass, 3 percussion. Sala 1974. RCI 370/6-ACM 12 (SMCQ)

'... le sifflement des vents porteurs de l'amour...' 1971. Fl, percussion, microphones. Éd. musicales transatlantiques ca 1980. Mel SMLP-4037/RCI 565/6-ACM 12 (Aitken)

Solstices (ou Les jours et les saisons tournent). 1971. 1, 2, 3, or 4 groups of 6 soli: fl, clarinet, horn, double-bass, 2 percussion. Québec-Musique 1981. RCI 298/6-ACM 12 (see Discography)

Compostelle I. 1978. 18 inst. Sala 1978. RCI 527/6-ACM 12 (SMCQ)

Le Signe du lion. 1981. Hn, tam-tam. Sala 1982. 6-ACM 12 (G. Masella)

Envoi. 1983. Pf, 15 instr. Sala 1983

Envol. 1984. Fl. Sala 1985

Triojubilus 'À Raphaël'. 1985. Fl, harp, cow bells. Sala 1985. NMC 001 (NMC)/SNE 572 (M.-J. Simard)

Cèdres en voiles. 1989. Vc. Sala 1989?

Choir or Voice

Kékoba (Tremblay). 1965 (rev 1967). Sop, mezzo, tenor, percussion, ondes M. BMIC 1968. RCI 240/6-ACM 12 (see Discography)

Oralléluiants. 1975. Sop, fl, bass clarinet, horn, 3 double-bass, 2 percussion, microphones. Ms. RCI 499/6-ACM 12 (SMCQ)

DZEI (Voies de feu). 1981. Sop, fl, bass clarinet, piano, percussion. Sala 1981

See also Les Vêpres de la Vierge


Deux pièces pour piano: 'Phases,' 'Réseaux.' 1956-8. Ber 1974. (1981). RCI 499/6-ACM 12 (C. Helffer)/RCI 228/RCA CCS-1022 (Troup)/('Phases') CBC SM-162 (Buczynski)

Traçantes. 1976. Sala 1976. (1981). RCI 499/6-ACM 12 (C. Helffer)/SNE 553 (Bessette)


Exercise I (1959); Exercise II (1960)

Centre-élan. 1967. 6-ACM 12

Sonorisation du Pavillion du Québec. 1967. 24-channel stereophony

Also music for the NFB film Dimension Soleils (1970). 6-ACM 12

Further Reading