My Cinema for the Ears

Uli Aumüller

… worth a second, even a third immediate repeat viewing… Classical Voice North Carolina, USA

… this art/documentary film is memorable and worth having. Audiophile Audition, USA

My Cinema for the Ears is a 59-minute film by Uli Aumüller. An impressionistic, wryly humorous look at nature and the creative process, the film features composers Francis Dhomont and Paul Lansky and follows their search for an art, that emanates from their surroundings.

This disc includes the film My Cinema for the Ears — The musique concrète of Francis Dhomont and Paul Lansky — in French and English with optional French, German, and English subtitles — which includes the commissioned composition Un autre Printemps by Francis Dhomont and visualized by the video artist Robert Darroll, and four audio tracks: Dhomont’s En cuerdas and Lansky’s Night Traffic, Table’s Clear, and Idle Chatter Junior.

DVD-Video (BRIDGE 9117)


Audio tracks

  • Label: Bridge Records
  • BRIDGE 9117
  • 2002
  • Total duration: 109:00
  • 110 g

On the web


My Cinema for the Ears: The Musique Concrète of Francis Dhomont and Paul Lansky

Electroacoustic music or musique concrète as it was conceived by Pierre Schaeffer has no visual aspects as it usually only comes out of loudspeakers. At the same time, most of the composers of musique concrète do not use sounds that are related to narrative structures. So you won’t often hear sounds whose origins could easily be recognized, such as a bird singing, a bell ringing or wind whistling. Composers generally prefer the more abstract qualities of sounds, so that listeners will focus their attention on their musical aspects, rather than the stories they might tell.

When I decided to make a film about electroacoustic music, I was explicitly looking for composers who use sounds that are recognizable and refer to a visual reality. In my film I wanted to show the visual origin of a sound alongside its purely acoustical qualities, just as I have in my other films where one sees musicians playing their music.

One of the first composers I thought of was Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) who imitated natural sounds with classical instruments in a way that mediated the differences between their natural (referential) and musical (abstract) qualities. The famous barking dog in the second movement of Vivaldi’s Spring Concerto, for instance, is more a musical figure — a basso continuo line — than a literal attempt to imitate an animal. Those who know may discover a dog within the viola line, but it’s more a dog singing than a viola barking, even when the musicians try their best to imitate the natural sounds. The same applies to water murmuring, birds singing, thunder and so on…

From the very beginning of musical history, composers have played with the ambiguity of the abstract and the absolute. I was curious to know how a contemporary composer with modern technical equipment might handle the same sounds Vivaldi wrote about in the didactic poems which he attached to his scores.

After listening to a large pile of compact discs, my choice fell upon the work of Francis Dhomont, who was influenced by the Pierre Schaeffer school. Dhomont follows a dream-like aesthetic, where fragments of (acoustic) reality sometimes appear for a few seconds, only to dissolve and quickly vanish. He takes recorded sounds as raw materials and uses the vast possibilities of electronic manipulation to travel with them to unknown islands, where these materials were nothing other than starting points. But Dhomont also travels within the sounds, turning their insides out onto the surface.

Once Francis Dhomont not only agreed to compose Un autre printemps (An Other Spring), but also agreed to be filmed during his compositional process, I spent a couple of weeks in Canada looking for locations that might match the landscapes Vivaldi had written about. I took nearly 1000 pictures of the beautiful Canadian landscape, searched in vain for goats and the dogs who accompany them (I found some sheep, but no shepherds), and discovered, more by chance than systematically, that the process of looking deeply inside a sound (where its qualities become more abstractly musical) could be echoed photographically by getting extremely close to a given object. The closer I got, the more my attention was drawn to the object’s mathematical proportions, the changes of light and shadow, the tiny differences of the surface and its colours. Here were the infinite variety of created forms and structures which one rarely takes notice of in everyday life. Those pictures suddenly appeared with an overwhelming beauty I’d never seen before, and I asked myself (and Francis Dhomont) just what it is that determines how one structure is beautiful and another is not. Was it my imagination, or was I following certain patterns I’ve always had in my brain, or learned in my childhood? Was the beauty created by my sense of fantasy? Or if not, was this beauty waiting for me, within a river, or in the structure of a rock, or on the surface of a lake, for hundreds of years, until a pair of ears or eyes might have the joy of beholding it?

We did not find an answer to that eternal question ‘Where does beauty come from?’. But we did discover that beauty might be found in almost any sound or object — depending on how long and in what manner one wanted to search for it, and how open one’s mind was to discovering it.

The other thing we found was a structure for our film (which was “our” film by then). It begins with “real” objects — landscapes, water, trees, villages, towns etc., and then the sounds and images move closer and closer, so that we might enter more deeply into the reality of existing things. Francis Dhomont took parts of Vivaldi’s music, the sounds of nature and some selected viola sounds and made his music from them — and I gave my footage with our close-ups to the video artist Robert Darroll to make a “musique concrète visuelle” out of it. In the end, the film is about an audio-visual creative process.

The second living composer who entered the stage was Paul Lansky. Some of Lansky’s works use the rhythmic framework of minimal music, though his use of random elements separates his music from easy predictability. When I heard Lansky’s music for the first time (above all Table’s Clear and Idle Chatter), I immediately had pictures in my head, his music evoking the inherent structure of the moving pictures of film or video.

Paul Lansky’s composing methods are quite the opposite of those that are used by Francis Dhomont. Lansky layers his sounds on pre-existing musical structures, creating, for instance, a Gamelan orchestra with kitchen instruments, while Dhomont peers inside the structure of sound and tries to find compositional form on the basis of what the sound offers him.

I enjoyed observing that two composers so similar in one aspect of their work (balancing the narrative and abstract), could at the same time occupy such completely different worlds. I wanted them to explain to each other how they achieved such different results using virtually the same raw materials. If you listen carefully to the discussions of Lansky and Dhomont that are part of this film, you’ll hear that they sometimes use the same words, but with slightly different meanings — and I think that these differences explain more than a hundred books and analyses might.

Above all, I want to say thank you to Francis Dhomont and Paul Lansky — for their confidence and patience (and love) — without which a film like this could never have been made.

Uli Aumüller, Berlin (Germany) [vi-01]

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In the press


Kristine H Burns, Colby Leider, Computer Music Journal, no. 27:2, June 1, 2003

Mein Kino für Die Ohren (My Cinema for the Ears), a 59-min film by Uli Aumüller, is not only a fascinating “under the hood” peek into aspects of the creative processes of two important contemporary composers, but also an impressive experimental work for video and tape in its own right. The DVD is presented primarily in French with some English, along with optional German, French, and English subtitles. It also includes four audio tracks in stereo format.

The film depicting the lives and creative processes of Francis Dhomont and Paul Lansky is difficult to describe. It skirts idiomatic elements common to art film, documentary, and video while presenting a nonlinear examination of its subjects. Although this may be considered a strength in many aspects, it also may lead to some confusion as to where the documentary ends and the experimental film begins. With footage of Mr. Dhomont recording samples in the field and in the studio, and footage of Mr. Lansky tweaking samples on the computer, viewers are treated to a brief glimpse of both composers working in their respective environments. Mr. Aumüller punctuates the film with footage of conversations between both composers, with Mr. Lansky speaking in English and Mr. Dhomont speaking in French (and a little bit of the other way around, to be fair!). Some of these interchanges seem scripted, although they contribute to a kind of subtle dry wit that underlies the whole film. However, while it is interesting to see the impetus for Mr. Lansky’s Table’s Clear, the viewer is somewhat less interested in seeing Mr. Dhomont skipping stones on a lake. The “action” elements are a bit contrived in spots.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the cohesiveness between dramatic and artistic elements. A discussion between Mr. Dhomont and composer Christian Calon about music made for the ear, rather than for paper, flows into a series of stunning water transformations accompanied by Mr. Dhomont’s Un autre Printemps. During such scenes, though, one wonders whether the accompanying water sounds in the foreground are part of Mr. Dhomont’s composition or part of the film. However, on rare occasions the video trivializes the audio. The direct synchronicity of elements during Mr. Lansky’s Night Traffic seems a bit too comical at times. During this part of the film, the video resorts to a clichéd montage of the industrial city, rather than balancing the audio and visual elements in a more experimental format as in the bucolic scenes.

While Mein Kino für Die Ohren offers much to the viewer, we see Mr. Dhomont much more than Mr. Lansky, and learn much more about his musical impetus. Curiously, Mr. Aumüller seems to be aware of this, offering three audio tracks by Mr. Lansky (Night Traffic, Table’s Clear, Idle Chatter Junior), while offering only one by Mr. Dhomont (En cuerdas). Both composers are quite equally represented on the DVD as a whole, but one wonders why the discrepancy between film and audio appearances exist.

The DVD is well worth [its] purchase price. Video artist Robert Darroll is integral to the success of the DVD, and both he and Mr. Aumüller should be commended on the wonderful visual elements for this project. A combination of education and art, this would make an excellent film to show composition students, although it may not be what most of them would stay home on a Saturday night to watch!

DVD Review

Marvin J Ward, Classical Voice North Carolina, June 19, 2002

This is a fascinating documentary about two composers, French/Canadian Francis Dhomont (who lives in Montréal and [was] affiliated with Université de Montréal) and American Paul Lansky (who lives in Princeton, NJ, and is affiliated with Princeton University), and the type of music they write, “musique concrète,” or “electroacoustic / électroacoustique,” although they do not approach it in the same way or produce the same types of compositions. Music played on instruments can reference a sound in nature, thereby evoking a visual image; these composers use the real sounds, which they collect on site and treat electronically to make recorded musical compositions. They manipulate sounds on tape or in digital files in a studio in the same way that a filmmaker manipulates images on film in the editing room, seeking “to hear the music in the sound.” The narrative portion of the program includes interviews with the composers, shots of them working in the field and in their home and university studios, conversations between them, and demonstrations.

A complete six-minute composition, “Un autre printemps,” by Dhomont, inspired by the poem that Vivaldi places at the beginning of the score for his “Primavera,” is included at the end, as the soundtrack for a video montage by Robert Darroll that uses photographic elements from nature and computer-generated images representing some of these elements, closing the circle begun at the outset with the demonstration using the first two movements of the Vivaldi, focusing on the second which features the musical representation of the barking dog mentioned in the poem. We see the appropriate portion of the Vivaldi score with its notation as well as the text of the poem in French in the course of the video. We see Dhomont recording a dog barking and electronically isolating and manipulating the sound, and subsequently coaching a violist in his attempt more accurately to reproduce the real sound-to some extent an exercise in futility, since the instrument can only suggest it-with the real one in the background. This cyclical form is also emphasized by the use at the opening of an interview clip from the conclusion in which Dhomont likens his compositional process to “a voyage of discovery,” and himself to Christopher Columbus, setting out to find one thing and finding something else that is completely different. Many of Dhomont’s sounds are water-based. The video shows gorgeous shots of Canadian landscapes resembling those described by Vivaldi; we are shown the sources of the sounds we hear, focusing on the textures of the natural elements in the close-ups. Hence we have a direct link between the concrete reality in nature and the abstraction that is music. The challenge for the electroacoustic composer is to transform the sounds into a new, different, but pleasant musical experience for the ear.

The program also contains four audio tracks presenting complete works by the two composers. They are: Dhomont’s “En cuerdas” (using sounds produced by the plucked, rubbed and struck strings of a guitar), and Lansky’s “Night Traffic,” “Table’s Clear” (featuring sons Jonah and Caleb on Kitchen Percussion-strikingly reminiscent of gamelan music), and “Idle Chatter Junior.” Lansky’s titles give away the content and its sources, which we have also seen in the documentary portion, along with the methods he uses to isolate the sounds and recombine them. The documentary shows how the sounds were found and transformed into music, but in this portion, the photographic image of the source has been eliminated as we listen-as would be the case in a concert hall. For this reviewer, a couple of the works seemed a bit long and monotonous due to their repetitive nature, but they were far from unpleasant. Their genesis and realization are intriguing, and knowing it enhances understanding and increases enjoyment.

The original soundtrack is in French, except for Lansky’s contributions during the conversations with Dhomont; each clearly understands the other’s language completely even if he does not use it. It is pleasant to be able to listen to it this way. It is also possible to view the film with English or German subtitles. The menu lists a subtitled version of the original, but I was unable to make it work; choosing that item also gave the English subtitles when French is being spoken. The twelve-page booklet contains, in addition to track listings and credits, short essays by filmmaker Aumüller, both of the composers (Dhomont’s in both the French original and English translation), and video artist Darroll, setting forth both their esthetic and their creative goals in the individual works or in their contribution to the project. It is an interesting complementary read.

This is perhaps not a film you would want to watch numerous times (as you might listen to a CD of a classical composition) unless you were a composer or a student of electronic composition, but it is most definitely worth a second, even a third immediate repeat viewing, and one you would want to come back to again at a later date. It is a valuable document, an artistic success, and an informative, insightful and enjoyable viewing and listening experience. Highly recommended. [To read the complete review, please go to the Classical Voice North Carolina’s web site.]

… worth a second, even a third immediate repeat viewing…

DVD Review

Peter Bates, Audiophile Audition, June 2, 2002

I didn’t expect to like My Cinema for the Ears. The description seemed precious and ill-defined: “An impressionistic, wryly humorous look at nature and the creative process.” It didn’t help that it began unassumingly, with shots of the Stanstead, Canada’s countryside accompanied by Vivaldi’s “Spring” segment from The Four Seasons. So what else is new? Plenty. Not long after that inauspicious introduction, Aumüller introduces veteran electronic composer Francis Dhomont at work, assembling his music to Vivaldi’s poetry. He needs a “faithful dog,” so he goes out into the countryside with his analog recording equipment and finds one. The humor creeps in as he encounters an uncooperative sheep dog, a curious farmer, and bees. Aumüller shows brief glimpses of Dhomont’s computer technology at work, yet not in a dry expository sense, but more as a link in the process. Dhomont is then quoted as saying that Debussy wanted to paint music, which is not exactly true but it leads into a charming sequence composed of Aumüller’s poetic images and Dhomont’s music. He says “we have more in common with the filmmaker than with traditional musicians,” because of the dependence on media and the way that concrète composers intervene by cutting, mixing, etc. At the 19 minute mark a fragment of the piece Water Music (En cuerdas) plays, a hypnotic composition that becomes more concrete with Aumüller’s brilliant use of sped-up and close-up imagery. Soon Dhomont is discussing work methods with American musique concrète composer Paul Lansky.

As more of these segments transpire-interview, compositional fragment, interview again—it becomes apparent what this film is showing us. These musicians mine everything in nature, the city, and social interactions (like parties) as sources for music. A thumping trip over a suspension bridge: why not digitally alter that rhythmic sound and distort it so that it’s both unrecognizable and a fascinating musical figure? Attend a social event and record snatches of conversation. “Loudspeakers are windows into an imaginary space,” says Lansky, with Aumüller skillfully illustrating his point. The DVD comes with four excellent audio tracks, featuring pieces by Dhomont and Lansky. Oddly, they aren’t sequenced, so you have to play each one separately. Also, your DVD player’s pause button may refuse to work, like mine, although I had better luck on my DVD-ROM player. Despite this technological fluke in the middle of a DVD about audio technology, this art/documentary film is memorable and worth having.

… this art/documentary film is memorable and worth having.