Francis Dhomont arranges natural recorded sounds onto stereo tape (now CD), and plays them back through eight speakers, mixing the two channels live throughout the room. This creation of fixed-media art came to be called musique concrète, a term which began in France with Pierre Schaeffer.
There are things we (an educated classical music audience) come to expect and recognize in music: the “arc,” harmonic movement (or stasis), the grammar of an ending. The natural sounds strip away any harmony, any recognizable form, and timbre — or “sonority,” why a trumpet and a saxophone can play the same note and sound different — is the only thing left. At one point in time, primarily with the Romantics beginning around Beethoven, this was achieved through orchestration, or the differentiation of instruments. Whereas Bach’s Die Kunst Der Fuge was completely devoid of instrumental markings (it has since been played by string trios, pianists, the organ, and many others), Mahler rides on the powerful sonority of the brass, and Grieg’s “Spring” from Peer Gynt is unimaginable on anything but the pure flute. Timbre serves as a support to harmony, such that we know that the blaring brass signify a climax. We realize discrepancies within the instruments as well, as a flute can be soft and pure (Grieg’s Peer Gynt) or the voice of a flaming bird (Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite).
If timbre can support and even eclipse harmony, then can harmony be removed completely? Dhomont’s music is pure sonority, without harmony or signposts given to traditional (harmony-based) musical analysis. Instead, it creates much the same form using nothing but the sounds themselves. And this is the key: the form is recognizable. Dhomont (at age 84 — Friday was his birthday) seems to be a product of that late modernist generation, schooled before the formlessness (and silence) of John Cage. The endings were endings, the grammar still underlying every musical movement, even if the sounds themselves were entirely foreign. It was Modern music in the capital sense, the sense that can be better read as post Modern because of its extension of the methods, rather than questioning of the motives. It was still the work of an artist, as sounds are still given voice by the man at the mixer; there were no dice rolled.
This begs the question of writing, possibly the greatest leap that musique concrète made. In the French school (meaning not Stockhausen), there was no score for these tape works (feel free to correct this statement — I’m curious to hear if examples exist). The expectation exists that the audience is hearing the voice of the artist (composer) directly, without any interference from a conductor or performer. It would seem to be a war waged against the precariousness of writing, if not for one thing: the sounds’ origins. These “natural” sounds, not sprung fully-formed from the artist and his tools but rather shaped on the chopping block (although now shaped on the MacBook Pro digital audio workstation) are appropriation itself. Like a poet’s appropriation of words, the composer creating musique concrète shapes sounds by their contexts — by what other sounds appear near them, and how those sounds may carry multiple meanings. Dhomont’s music, then, becomes even closer to writing than ever before, not because it is seemingly fixed but because it is appropriated.
The term acousmatic refers to sounds rendered by unidentifiable sources; applied to music, it describes fantastic pastiches fashioned with natural sounds, distorted samples and more. Get up to speed when Francis Dhomont presents his psychologically probing electronic classics during his first-ever New York performance, at Issue Project Room Fri 30.
Si les quatre soirées d’Akousma (4), qui se tiendront de mercredi à samedi au Monument-National, nous promettent «de l’électro comme jamais vue!», c’est que la vidéo prendra une part non négligeable au cœur de ces concerts de musique acousmatique.
Akousma est organisé par Réseaux des arts médiatiques, une société de concerts de musique électroacoustique fondée en 1991 par Gilles Gobeil, Robert Normandeau et Jean-François Denis. Réseaux définit la musique acousmatique de la manière suivante: «Un son acousmatique désigne un son que l’on entend sans déceler la cause physique qui lui a donné naissance; il devient possible de l’écouter pour lui-même, plutôt que de le cataloguer selon sa cause.»
La musique électroacoustique, concrète ou acousmatique, selon les termes divers utilisés, doit beaucoup au Français Pierre Schaeffer, son inventeur, à son compatriote Pierre Henry, qui a le plus «popularisé» le genre et, bien sûr, au Québec, à Francis Dhomont, auquel la précédente édition d’Akousma avait rendu hommage. On signalera d’ailleurs qu’un DVD consacré à Pierre Henry, L’Art des sons, est paru chez Juxtapositions (distribution Naxos) il y a une semaine.
Le but de Réseaux est de faire de Montréal la capitale nord-américaine de l’électroacoustique. À l’occasion d’Akousma, vingt haut-parleurs relaieront les créations conçues préalablement en studio. La soirée d’ouverture sera consacrée à l’anglo-norvégienne Natasha Barrett (Angleterre, Norvège). Jeudi, le Portugais Miguel Azguime livrera une «performance multitechnologique» mêlant audio et vidéo avec, sur deux écrans, un traitement électronique des images et du son en temps réel, additionné d’une spatialisation sonore et vocale.
Vendredi Laurie Radford dialoguera avec le Quatuor Bozzini (Québec) dans «Les ponts de l’espace», la soirée de clôture de samedi dressant un portrait de Gilles Gobeil intitulé «Exploration des grands espaces». Tous les concerts sont précédés d’un avant-programme, avec, notamment, des œuvres primées de jeunes compositeurs.
Parallèlement, des cours de maître, ateliers et conférences ouverts gratuitement au public, auront lieu avec
Miguel Azguime, Natasha Barrett et Laurie Radford jeudi 29 novembre à 13h à la Faculté de musique de l’Université de Montréal.
Op het Canadese label empreintes DIGITALes is van beide nu een overzichts-CD verschenen en met recht, want zowel mevrouw Deschênes en meneer Dhomont zijn gelauwerde veteranen en hebben een respectabele staat van dienst binnen de elektro-akoestische muziek.
Francis Dhomont heeft zelfs aan de wieg gestaan van dit begrip, toen hij in Parijs in de jaren ‘40 experimenteerde met ‘magnetisch geladen draden’ en zo de term ‘Musique Concrète’ ontlokte bij monde van de een van de belangrijkste grondleggers, Pierre Schaeffer. Iets jonger en wellicht iets minder legendarisch is Marcelle Deschênes. Zij zich vooral toe op audiovisueel werk en multimedia. Haar CD petits Big Bangs is een retrospectief van haar elektro-akoestische werk gemaakt tussen 1976 en 2002.
On n’a pas tous les jours 80 ans, aussi l’anniversaire d’un grand créateur comme Francis Dhomont ne passe-t-il pas inaperçu. Coup d’œil sur les productions qui le soulignent.
Computer Music Journal (30:3). La revue américaine publiée par MIT Press consacre sa page couverture au compositeur. Rosemary Mountain, qui enseigne l’électroacoustique à l’Université Concordia, y publie sous le titre «From Wire to Computer: Francis Dhomont at 80» un excellent entretien avec le compositeur.
Circuit, musiques contemporaines (16:3). Le plus récent numéro de la revue publiée par Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal présente un échange épistolaire entre le compositeur Maxime McKinley et Francis Dhomont sur l’évolution et le devenir de la musique acousmatique. Dans le même numéro, un portrait de la société de concerts Réseaux, présenté par Réjean Beaucage.
Portraits polychromes no 10: Francis Dhomont. La série publiée par l’Institut national de l’audiovisuel consacre le 10e de ses Portraits polychromes à Francis Dhomont. Entretien détaillé avec Évelyne Gayou, analyses de François Bayle, Jean-Christophe Thomas, Stéphane Roy, Andrew Lewis, Anna Rubin et Katharine Norman, catalogue [d’œuvres] commenté par Annette Vande Gorne, discographie, souvenirs du compositeur et photos. La totale.
Francis Dhomont: … et autres utopies (Empreintes DIGITALes, IMED 0682). Le plus récent disque de l’étiquette montréalaise consacré à Francis Dhomont présente cinq œuvres: Here and There (2003), Je te salue, vieil océan! (1998, 2000-04), Voyage-miroir (2004), Corps et âme (2001-02) et Chroniques de la lumière (1989, 2005). Le compositeur y démontre, une nouvelle fois, son étonnante maîtrise du genre.
Composer Francis Dhomont, who is about to turn 80, has always been closely identified with acousmatic music. In the realm of electroacoustics, acousmatic music, which “is shot and developed in studio, heard in a projection room, like cinema” (François Bayle) is probably the most direct descendant of concrete music, unveiled by Pierre Schaeffer in 1948.
At age 22, in 1948, Francis Dhomont discovered, in parallel with Schaeffer, the surprising virtues of a new medium: recording (on magnetic tape, in his case.) Born in Paris, Dhomont studied under Charles Koechlin (1867-1950, a defender of contemporary music and a stereoscopic photography pioneer) and Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979, one of the most influential teachers of the 20th century), and between 1944 and 1952, he composed pieces for piano, organ, violin, voice, and even a symphonic movement (Dimanche, 1945). However in the 60s, his focus turned entirely to electroacoustic composition. Throughout his career, which continues actively to this day, he has been a passionate defender of electroacoustics against those who, like Pierre Boulez, label it as “do-it-yourselfery”; he has been one of the leaders of the genre through his teachings, particularly at the Université de Montréal, where he mentored numerous composers; he also added to electroacoustics several of its most important works, the majority of which are available under the record label Empreintes DIGITALes.
By the end of the 70s, Francis Dhomont had moved to Québec, “Two things attracted me to Québec: first of all, a young woman invited me to visit, and it was so pleasant! Furthermore, I was very nicely greeted, namely by the Université de Montréal, who offered me their studio, where I was able to write Sous le regard d’un soleil noir, which has been an important work for me. I was able to feel true warmth in those encounters, and the dean of the Faculty invited me to stay as a resident. I felt great there, and I stayed! There were people in Montréal who were already seriously interested in electroacoustics (I am thinking of Marcelle Deschênes, Yves Daoust, Philippe Ménard, et al.) but I am probably the one who introduced Quebec to the concept of acousmatic music.”
Chroniques de la lumière (in 1989, on the album Halogènes, under the UMMUS label) was Francis Dhomont’s first work published here on CD, and in 1990 he was included in the 37th volume of the Anthology of Canadian Music published by the Société Radio-Canada.The volume was dedicated to electroacoustic music, and the retained piece was Thème de la fuite, 1984-87. The only thing missing was his own recording with a local label. In 1990, the record label Empreintes DIGITALes was founded in Montréal and has since become one of the best sources for electroacoustics. Its founder Jean-François Denis joined composers Gilles Gobeil and Robert Normandeau the following year to found the concert society Réseaux des arts médiatiques. The ensuing launch of the double-disc Mouvances~Métaphores, was dedicated to Francis Dhomont on his 65th birthday. “It was a wonderful surprise. I had been invited to presentmy music as part of a concert, but I had no idea that the concert was a celebration… for my birthday! And it was also the first concert of Réseaux, so now, our birthdays coincide!” The concert by Francis Dhomont on November 2, 2006, as part of the event Akousma (3), presented by Réseaux, commemorates the 15th birthday of the organization as well as the 80th birthday of the composer!
By 1997, the concert series Rien à voir, organized by Réseaux, was a success, attracting a rather young public that was discovering the wonders of acousmatic concerts (set in the dark, with an orchestra of about twenty speakers controlled by the composer.) When the series ended in 2004, after its 15th edition, some observers linked its ending with a certain fading of the acousmatic formula, if not of the entire electroacoustic genre. “I am not convinced at all that it is a music of the past,” Dhomont retorts. “I think that, on the contrary, it is still a music of the future. Of course, it is music of research, and, being quite complex, is not destined for entertainment. In that sense, it will never be a success with the general public and I don’t mind that. I know that it bothers some people, some composers who would like their music to be played in front of massive audiences, but I think that these are illusions. Research requires a certain amount of sacrifice, namely that of popular notoriety.”
Considering that Pierre Schaeffer’s first experimentations with concrete music took place only in 1948, acousmatic music is still quite young and evolving. As it is precisely a research genre, it would be wrong to restrain it to a fixed form.
In that same line of thought, during the concert series Akousma (3), Elio Martusciello and Ludger Brümmer will present videomusic, Christian Calon will play excerpts from a piece conceived for the stage and the Quasar saxophone quartet will play mixed music (for instruments with electronic modifications or for instruments and tape.) Has Francis Dhomont remained a fierce protector of music in the dark? “Ah! You know, they hadn’t specified to me that there would be videomusic, but I could bring some, because my wife (Inés Wickmann) and I have done some together. Inés is a sculptor and video artist. She has worked with some music of mine, which I have adapted. I am not opposed to video; and the actual working process is so similar.” During a visit to Francis Dhomont in 2001, while discussing the concert he gave at the 10th edition of Rien à voir, he had showed me a few magnetic tapes he was using in his works. I thought I had found the secret to the “Dhomont difference,” as the sounds used by many other composers tended to be very similar, since everyone was using the same sound treatment programs. “No, I don’t use the tapes anymore… It is impossible now… I can’t find anyone who will fix the equipment. I work with computers, like everyone else. Of course, the problem is the same as with tapes. It is important to try not to exploit only the functions that had been intended by the designer. The true solution is to strive to be original! This can be achieved, for example, by using different processors simultaneously, which reduces the risk of sounding like everyone else. The fact remains that there is a style for the «era», but there was also a style in the 18th century.”
On November 2, 2006, Francis Dhomont will present the North-American premiere of Premières traces du Choucas, a joint commission of Réseaux and Musiques & Recherches (Belgium). It is a preliminary work, part of a current project on Franz Kafka’s universe. Since our last conversation, a videomusic piece called Moirures by Francis Dhomont and Inés Wickmann has been added to the composer’s November 2 program, and it will also be a North-American premiere. [English translation: Luba Marc]