Francis Dhomont

From Wire to Computer: Francis Dhomont at 80

Rosemary Mountain, Computer Music Journal, no. 30:3, September 1, 2006

Francis Dhomont, a pioneer in electroacoustic music, is renowned internationally for his compositions — attested by numerous awards and prizes including the Magisterium Prize at Bourges (1988) and the Prix Ars Electronica (1992). Mr. Dhomont (b. 1926, Paris) recently retired to Avignon, in his native France, after a long sojourn in Montréal, Canada, where his work and teaching had a profound influence on the development of the local world of electroacoustic music. In particular, his scrutiny of Pierre Schaeffer’s work and his own experiments in the earliest days of musique concrète resulted in a favored place for the development of acousmatic music in Montréal. This interview was conducted initially during the Electroacoustic Music Studies 2005 conference (EMS-05) in Montréal, where Mr. Dhomont was the keynote speaker. It was subsequently completed through electronic mail correspondence, and then translated from French by the interviewer.

Rosemary Mountain: I remember that the first time I actually met you, at the Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC) conference in Banff in 1989, I said that although it seemed that everyone was moving toward synthesizers and computers, I still preferred musique concrète, and you said “Me too!” I was very reassured! But it’s interesting that we are doing this interview for Computer Music Journal, because in the old days, musique concrète was considered quite distinct from computer music.

Francis Dhomont: One can produce musique concrète with any medium; despite the fact that it’s made with computers, it’s still musique concrète. It used to be tape recorders — it was always done with a support medium. Pierre Schaeffer used the flexible disks with needles… that was the first thing. I started around the same time as him — without knowing him — but I worked with a Webster sound recorder (an American brand) with a magnetic wire. It was a wire made of very thin steel. I had a roll of it. It sat over at the side, I would pull some out, and then I would record on it. Magnetic wire had been invented a long time prior by Valdemar Poulsen, and this Webster was meant for businesspeople — an early kind of Dictaphone. I found it in the years just after the war; the Americans came over not only with guns but also with recorders! The uncle of one of my friends had one; he worked with an American firm. I experimented a bit with it and thought it quite fantastic. So I started working with one, making musique concrète, without knowing that musique concrète already existed.

Mountain: When would this have been?

Dhomont: Let’s see, it would have been between 1946 and 1948. I would have been 20–22 years old. At the time, I was an instrumental composer.

Mountain: What was your instrument?

Dhomont: I didn’t really have an instrument. Well, of course I played a bit of piano, but I started too late. I began the piano at a very early age, then I stopped, and I began again when I was 15, but without any intention of becoming a performer; I was interested in composition. Of course, I would play a bit with my friends — some jazz — I played some trumpet, some trombone, but I wasn’t a competent instrumentalist.

Mountain: Did you know any electroacoustic or electronic composers at the time you discovered this invention?

Dhomont: No.

Mountain: So it was the technology — its potential for recording things — that attracted you.

Dhomont: Exactly. The possibility of recording was fantastic! It was quite a discovery — although it was not easy; there were a few studios around, but still… Now, with a little machine, one could do everything. One could hear right away what one had just done. So, with a friend, I started making musique concrète, without knowing what it was. We made sounds with bottles, all types of things. We made noises, we recorded our voices.

Mountain: Did you use acoustic instruments to produce sounds?

Dhomont: No, not really — mainly noises. You know, you could say it was an idea in the air at the time, in a way.

Mountain: Where were you at the time?

Dhomont: In Paris. But you know, I did this mostly as something to amuse myself, but I was really quite interested in it. And then, one night, I heard the famous Musique Concrète show by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry on the radio — I think it was called Radio Paris at the time — and right away I recognized it as being the same thing as I had been doing. I said, “There! That’s what I’m doing!” And frankly, I’d had about enough of instrumental music at the time — my own as well! I had the opportunity to work again with the recorder a bit later, but by then tape was being used. This was around 1950–1951, when I had moved to the South of France and was working in a youth hostel. I was asked, since I was a composer, if I would be interested in preparing a workshop of contemporary music for teachers, professors, etc., who came to Provence to visit. I said, “Yes, certainly, I’d be very interested.” I made a collage of a very long program of contemporary works, and also a whole bunch of text, all recorded using cheap little microphones. I could slow down the sound by pressing my finger on the capstan and create superpositions by putting a piece of cardboard in front of the erase head, and so on — all quite amateur, you know, but it really interested me, and gave me a taste for it all. I was still doing instrumental music, but I thought, I really need to get some money to buy some equipment to work.

Mountain: And were you alone there? Or did you have friends to help you make these experiments?

Dhomont: No, there were no other composers, no other musician buddies — I was the only musician in the area. Now, at the time, I was married, we had three boys, and I needed to do lots of other things to make a bit of money. For a while, I didn’t do any more music, because I had to work hard to support the family. I did a lot of different things, but mostly I worked as a wood craftsman. I made objects in wood — olive wood — and I lived for years like that.

Mountain: That’s fascinating!

Dhomont: Yes, it’s different, but then, I’m rather good with my hands. Anyway, it really seemed that seemed stabilized a bit, and I managed to find the funds to buy some recorders and set up a little studio for myself in the middle of the countryside. The first recorders were really not very good, they didn’t work properly, and they gave me a lot of trouble, but then I was able to buy some Revoxes. Now, they were old Revoxes — what we call the G36 — not very well known — big, old gray things with tubes in them. Have you seen that kind? They worked very well.

Mountain: Yes! And how many did you have — two?

Dhomont: Yes, two.

Mountain: One can do a lot with two already.

Dhomont: Yes, sure — though I did manage to resuscitate one of the old cheap ones I had for a third, to allow me to do mixing and so on.

Mountain: Were these two-track?

Dhomont: Well, you know, that was the most dramatic problem, because the first ones were quartertrack. I didn’t know much about them, and the salesman had told me they were excellent, and so on, but it wasn’t at all what I needed. So I converted the quarter-track machine into half-track, which was an awful lot of very complicated work. I had to buy new heads, and it never worked well. But in the process of taking these old ones apart — you know, I was in the middle of the country all by myself doing this — I managed to create a variablespeed recorder. You see, I replaced — there was a metal disc, like this — it had three speeds — 1, 2, 3, like this [he describes with his hands three discs of decreasing diameter, with the smallest on the top] — and I took it out. And since I was used to working with wood, I was able to turn a little cone, and the rubber slid along it.

Mountain: That’s great!

Dhomont: Well, you know, when you have nothing, you need to have imagination! So, that was the beginning of my electroacoustic career. You know, I listened a lot to the radio — the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) editions — and I also started buying records. I bought the Traité des objets musicaux, which I read very carefully and seriously.

Mountain: How did you know about the existence of the Traité? Was that through the GRM radio shows?

Dhomont: I don’t really remember, but I was listening to those shows all the time, and reading — well, really looking hard for anything that would relate to this field — and I bought the Traité in 1966, just as it arrived on the shelves. Solfège de l’objet sonore, with the three records, came out a year later. So that was how I taught myself. And in fact I began writing my own book about it.

Mountain: Really? And do you have any trace of that?

Dhomont: Oh, well, I don’t know, I might have some notes somewhere, or maybe at the Université de Montréal.

Mountain: But that would be really interesting to read, because if you were questioning the same issues independently at the same time, you might have different perspectives, different solutions.

Dhomont: Well, yes, I did have some different solutions, but those that worked, I remembered and used in my own work subsequently — I think! The Traité was very important for me. I didn’t know Schaeffer at the time, but I bought all the records that came out from GRM, including the first ones of Schaeffer, that came out on the Philips label, called Prospective of the 21st Century, and at the same time, I was reading. So that was really my schooling.

Mountain: Did these GRM radio shows occur weekly?

Dhomont: I think they must have.

Mountain: You know, in Canada right now, we don’t have much on the radio.

Dhomont: Yes, that’s true; it seems to be the same everywhere. In France, it’s really diminished through the years. Even I made some GRM shows at one point with Christian Zanési, but now, there is hardly anything. And it’s the same everywhere: only a few shows in the middle of the night, when no one is listening. It’s awful. But they were really solid shows, one hour long, with explanations of how the music worked, who was doing it, the manipulations and so on. I kept the cassettes of the shows.

Mountain: What type of speakers did you have for listening to these shows? Were you able to hear details of the timbres and so on?

Dhomont: Well, I can tell you a story about that! I had bought some better equipment, but I didn’t have a console. So I made one out of modules. I had made some radio sets when I was young, so I knew how to solder, how to read diagrams, and so on. Well, it worked, but there was a bit of hiss. Anyway, although I had bought the best speakers I could afford, they weren’t great, since I didn’t have much money. And one day, I went to the house of a friend who was a technician and had some really good speakers, and we put on the tape of my new piece. And all we could hear was a lot of heavy bass thumping. You see, I couldn’t hear the bass very well on my speakers, so I put tons of it in! And I was really taken aback when I heard it on these good speakers — really alarmed — because I had to do everything again. But that’s how it goes. I discovered the technical stuff like that, a bit at a time. Because I was alone, I had to figure out how to make things myself. In the middle of the countryside like that, there were no people who could repair my equipment. And I was having crises because I had to work all day in the woodworking shop to make money, and then I would work all night in the studio, and the equipment wouldn’t work properly. Even when I went to Marseilles, no one there really knew what I needed. They could tell if a machine worked or didn’t work, but they had no awareness of the subtleties in between. I would say, “But there’s a little noise here,” and they would shrug their shoulders. It was difficult.

Mountain: So, apart from your friend with the good speakers, did you have any other people around you who listened to your music? Or did you have the impression that you were stuck being a perpetual student?

Dhomont: By the way, my friend with the good speakers worked at FNAC, the record store, and through him I was able to get good prices on records, which helped me a lot. But no, there wasn’t anyone to listen, because I wasn’t in Paris, so it was difficult until the day I decided to put on my own concert. In 1975, a few of us artists in the region (Provence) founded a little festival of contemporary music. It wasn’t mainly electroacoustic music — it was instrumental music mainly, classical, jazz, rock, etc. — but Xenakis came, and Ligeti. Then I became president of the society and continued for five years. Van Gogh is buried there. Saint-Rémy-de- Provence is a tiny little village, but there were always lots of painters and sculptors, so it was exceptionally active for its size. So I organized these concerts. There was a young man, Bruno d’Auzon, who came to work with me in the woodcraft business, to make some money, and after a while — since he was interested in music — I suggested that he could help out with the concerts. (He is now an electroacoustic composer and a teacher in Nîmes.) That was around the time that I went to find François Bayle to invite him to participate in the concert. So he came with a big truck full of equipment. That’s when I really started to have contact with the electroacoustic music world.

Mountain: How did you find the funds for this?

Dhomont: Well, we didn’t have much! But we were full of goodwill. When the society was originally founded, the local municipality gave us a bit of money to help out, but it wasn’t much. Then, when I became president, I went after Sacem (the French performing rights organization) in Paris for a bit of support, and so on. But everything was volunteerbased: we only paid for the visiting musicians, and we didn’t have to pay for labor. Everyone was just happy to help get it going. Of course, it doesn’t continue forever, that kind of thing. But nevertheless, we had a great two-week-long festival!

Mountain: And I suppose that people enjoyed coming down to the south of France and drinking the wine. Did it have a name, this festival?

Dhomont: Yes, initially it simply bore the name of the artist society that founded it: Prisme. But when I took over the presidency of the society, I chose the name Musiques Multiples, because we played all kinds of music, as long as it was contemporary. Much of it was instrumental. But we had Bernard Parmegiani, and François Bayle, and Daniel Charles who spoke about John Cage, etc.

Mountain: And did these people not find it a bit odd to find you making musique concrète in the middle of nowhere, all by yourself?

Dhomont: Yes, certainly! But anyway, we soon entered into conversations, and they seemed to enjoy it. At first, they wondered, “Who is this guy?” But they quickly realized that I was quite serious, and frankly there were many who relied on me. And I did still know a few people in Paris. For example, when Ligeti and Xenakis came, it was through Claude Samuel who was organizer of the important series called (and still is) Centre Acanthes. And every year they had a program in Aix-en-Provence called Compositeur Celebre where young composers could go for workshops. I had known Claude Samuel for a long time, and so we came to an agreement where he moved the whole program — not only the invited composer but also all the performer — to our festival for one day. He got a bit of publicity for his program out of the deal, and I benefited from excellent performers who played the work of Xenakis and Ligeti, so it worked well. And then I moved to Canada.

Mountain: What prompted that?

Dhomont: Ah, well, that’s a personal story, but I can tell it. You see, at one of the festivals, there was a composer in Marseilles called Marcel Frémiot — who is still there, in fact! — and he wanted a Canadian singer to perform a piece of his. And I said, “But I don’t have the funds to pay a singer to come from Canada!” He said, “No, it’s okay, she’s currently in Paris because she’s working on her doctorate, so we only need to bring her from Paris,” so of course I agreed. So she came and sang Mr. Frémiot’s work, and we got along very well. This was Marthe Forget — perhaps you know her? She was professor at the Université de Montréal for many years. And things were not going so well for me there, and she suggested that I come to Montréal for a bit, and I thought it a good idea. So in 1978, I arrived in Montréal, and stayed a few months, and then I went back to Provence to organize the festival for the next year. But I was really exhausted that time. So then afterwards, I returned to Montréal, and we married, Marthe and I. And I must say that at the Faculty of Music at the Université de Montréal, they really opened their doors to me. They had a studio there — not very sophisticated, but not bad, run by Louise Gariépy then. I met her and we got along well, and she said, “You know, no one is really using the studio much, so if you want, you can work there sometimes.” And so I worked there most nights. And I made a long piece there, Sous le regard d’un soleil noir. We gave our first concert there, with the premiere of the first version of that work. (The hall wasn’t where it is now, but rather on Côte-Sainte-Catherine — the Pavillion Marguerite-d’Youville, where there is a hospital now. On the second floor was a space we called Le 10–20, where we gave the concerts.) And Jean-Jacques Nattiez was there, and even the dean, who wanted to make a record of the piece, to which I of course said yes. Then the dean pulled back a bit, but Jean-Jacques Nattiez urged me to talk to François Bayle at GRM, whom I knew of course a bit from the St-Rémy festival days. He was quite enthusiastic, and we made the recording with them. I was then invited to go to GRM and work for a short time to produce some supplementary material, so I ended up creating an additional movement for the work. And from that point, I started working more closely with GRM, working in their studio, giving talks there, and so on. At that point, I had completely abandoned composing for acoustic instruments.

Mountain: And when you arrived in Montréal, did you feel that it was really a different culture?

Dhomont: Well, yes, but the most notable difference for me was that between the anglophone and francophone cultures. You see, when I first arrived in Montréal, I met composers like Yves Daoust, Philippe Ménard, Marcelle Deschênes, who had all worked in France already, at GRM or at Bourges. links; you knew some of the same people, had the same influences.

Dhomont: Yes, that’s it — it was the same culture.

Mountain: So if you had gone to Toronto, for example, it would have been completely different.

Dhomont: Completely. We all knew France, musique concrète, Schaefferian ideas, etc. So we got along well. It was only after that that I got to know the English works, after I had lived in Montréal for a while. Because when I first arrived, my associations were with people who shared similar ideas, like Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux, who had also been at GRM.

Mountain: Did you know her already?

Dhomont: I knew her work — we had had some of it at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. We had played and recorded Ishuma. We presented a recording of her work at the festival — Marthe spoke to me about her — because it was she who had premiered the work. So, I didn’t find a great difference, but I believe I was able to offer something additional, because I knew something of the Paris/Bourges culture: for example, concerts that used multiple speakers. I began speaking about “acousmatique” — a word unknown here at the time. Then they asked me to give some courses. Louise Gariépy asked me to give some courses in technique, and then Marcelle Deschênes was appointed professor, and she asked me to teach some of the courses: electroacoustic composition techniques, auditory perception, composition.

Mountain: Was the idea of having a course in electroacoustic composition techniques particular to the Université de Montréal, or was it taught like that in Paris and elsewhere also?

Dhomont: I don’t really know, because in Paris I spent a year at GRM and at the Conservatory, but it wasn’t defined like that.

Mountain: And the course in Auditory Perception?

Dhomont: Acoustic Perception was taught in my own way. Before me, it had been taught by Marcelle Deschênes, who had founded the course, and subsequently François Guérin, but as he didn’t want to give the course any more. Marcelle asked if I wanted to give the course, and I said yes, but that I would want to redesign it. So she gave me carte blanche, and it was there that I designed it so that the Schaefferian idea of listening was a central element. I thought that it was important, the only place in North America where this kind of thing was studied, so I thought it would be a good idea to introduce it. And in the end, a whole generation of students became familiar with these ideas — not only the way of listening, but also the thinking that accompanied it — so I believe that it was good, and it seems to have produced some good results. And people began talking about “the Montréal school” because we had a special way of doing things.

Mountain: Auditory Perception is of particular interest to me. You know the work of Al Bregman, Auditory Scene Analysis?

Dhomont: Yes, though not so well.

Mountain: Montréal has become quite a center for this, in fact; from the psychology aspect à la Bregman, and from the electroacoustic-music angle, although oddly enough for years they did not mix or cross paths much.

Dhomont: Yes, and it’s great, because they’re quite complementary. And clearly I was quite partial to it — I was very happy to develop these courses, because it was an area that I knew well, and on the other hand, it was not at all known here in North America. Sometimes I had arguments, for instance with Jean Piché, because he came from a different background, but I said, “Listen, I know I’m not teaching all aspects, but I am teaching something that is different, so maybe I should keep going.” But it was of course important to have diverse points of view.

Mountain: What about computer music? Did you have any links with Vladimir Ussachevsky, people like that?

Dhomont: No, not at all. No — my training is in that of musique concrète. I never used a computer at all until tape recorders became a thing of the past. Of course, I knew something about it; I was very aware of the difference between the German electronic school and the Paris musique concrète one… but I was clearly of the latter. There was one guy, very well known in France, who right from the beginning was working with computers; his name was Pierre Barbaud. He really worked a lot in the field. I didn’t know him; I knew his music a little bit, but I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the musicality of it. What was good about it was that there was finally a little bit of real music that started being produced — like the ILIAC Suite — the first steps towards actually using the computer to produce music. It showed that it could in fact be done. But it wasn’t my specialty at all; I didn’t feel connected to it. It’s true that it seemed to be a tendency that was more explored in Western Canada and in the States.

Mountain: Yes, it’s true — the Université de Montréal didn’t have so many students working with computers — perhaps even now?

Dhomont: Well, now it’s changed quite a bit. For example, there’s Jean Piché, who is quite open to computers — and now of course everyone uses them, but at the time, I seem to recall, back then, we did make a couple of attempts, but I can’t remember much about it. Anyway, it’s not my field!

Mountain: Now you use the computer, though. What software do you use?

Dhomont: Well, I’m always thrifty! When I worked with tape recorders, I didn’t have the most expensive ones, and I work on the basis that to make good music, it can be done relatively simply, as long as the technical quality is good. As far as software goes, as you know, I work with Pro Tools, and also GRM Tools and a few plug-ins. What else… oh yes, I have also kept some of the old digital audio machines for reverberation and effects, such as the Lexicon PCM 70 and 60 — a very good machine, it was — and I still use it.

Mountain: And to create the sounds, did you always record them?

Dhomont: Not always. Way back in the early days, I actually bought a synthesizer — a little AKS, just when it first came out — and I still have it and use it from time to time. And then I also used lots of electronic sounds, which I went off to different studios to create — at Marseilles, at GRM, at Bourges, etc. — as they had machines — synthesizers — that I didn’t have. So I recorded many sounds there.

Mountain: So you would go there, record sounds, and then take them back home where you would manipulate them?

Dhomont: Exactly. I always work that way, except for once at Bourges, when I created a whole piece in their studios because I had to. Actually, twice I worked like that. But mainly, during all the time that was allotted to me, I would just collect sounds. I would get to know the machine well. For example, I worked on the first Synclavier at Marseilles. You see, I knew Jon Appleton very well, so I went to visit him at Dartmouth College, and learned a bit about the Synclavier from him, and then I was invited to spend a month at Marseilles, where they had one too, and recorded lots of sounds with it. Similarly, at Bourges, they had some extremely high-quality analog oscillators, so I was able to create many sounds there too. Also, at GRM, I worked with the SYTER system. So I would record all these sounds onto tape, in the early days, then later onto DAT cassettes, so that I would have a huge collection of sonic material — and then I would take it home, because I always preferred to work at home. Ever since the beginning, I had been collecting sounds, and I would begin developing them, little by little. I would get to know my material very well and assemble it. And I would know my machines well, too. I don’t like working with new machines, because one just ends up producing banal things. But when one knows a machine very well, one can get more deeply into it. So, I would take my sounds, work with them, apply treatments from different tools, organize them, mix them, and eventually produce a work on tape — or later on, put it into Pro Tools.

Mountain: Do you still have sounds you’ve never used?

Dhomont: Yes, a few — mostly sounds that haven’t been subject to much treatment. The sounds I took from the SYTER system, unfortunately, I think have all been used already. I was very fond of them! But I had many acoustic sounds that I had recorded — and I still record interesting sounds — and many of them I have not yet used. All my sonic objects — I know where to find them!

Mountain: Well, it’s all fascinating! Tell me: it’s rare that a composition lasts more than 20 minutes, even in the world of instrumental music. It is even rarer that a piece over 60 minutes long will not lose the audience to impatience or boredom. But you do that regularly, with success.

Dhomont: Yes, clearly one of the difficulties of long pieces (30, 45, 60 minutes and more) is not wearying listeners, of holding their attention. When I compose works of any substantial dimension, I am very conscious of this problem. It’s why I organize them into a succession of relatively short movements (of from two to twelve minutes). That’s what happens in Sous le regard d’un soleil noir (eight sections),… mourir un peu (nine sections of durations that increase and then decrease in size), Forêt profonde (13 sections associated with the 13 Kinderszenen of Schumann), Cycle du son (four movements; the second movement is itself divided into six interlinked parts), and so on. Each section or movement has a particular character that often contrasts with the preceding one. Thus, the interest of listeners is renewed, and if their attention starts to lag during one section, the change in the musical discourse will wake them up by breaking the perceived monotony. In other words, I learned very early on — as we were taught at GRM — to avoid long static textures, so easy to create on synthesizers but so often boring, or to use them but with significant bits and echos, which give life to and articulate the sonic continuum. This style of writing is fairly representative of a so-called “French” style, which is sometimes considered by some circles within the electroacoustic milieu to be too information-rich, and therefore difficult to follow. But, as I tend to think of electroacoustic music as more than mere entertainment, I feel that it is quite acceptable to expect a bit of effort from the listener, since I have already made the effort to shape each detail of the work with care.

Mountain: Do you think about a total duration before you begin a work? Do you choose your durations according to specific measures, or just “by ear”?

Dhomont: I generally have an idea of that at the beginning. I even go so far as to predict the number of sections with their respective durations. These choices are rarely arbitrary, but rather depend on the general form I have chosen for the specific piece in question. In the same way, I almost always find a title for the work before beginning, because the title sums up, for me, the general concept that I have chosen. But I don’t feel obliged to subject myself to rigid rules, and if my intuition tells me, “That’s not working,” then I don’t hesitate to make some changes. Because even if I do go for a certain rigor for the form and construction of my works, whenever there is a doubt, it’s my intuition that is always given the final word. However, it is rare that these types of changes will radically transform the generative idea and the overall organization; they simply take into account the discoveries that I am making during the compositional process. Moreover, I often go back to work on a piece that has already been finished and presented in concert. Frequently I endeavor to “aerate” it; I remove the elements that I find too long, useless, redundant — precisely because I think that they will tire the listener’s hearing.

Mountain: It seems to me that the majority of your works are based on “narrative” forms, giving the idea of a voyage or story, more than an exploration of sounds or textures for themselves. Do you think of it this way?

Dhomont: I have long thought that my body of work was made up of two main categories: on the one hand, the rather abstract works (that is, where the music is there just for its own sake — developments, variations, permutations of musical parameters or morphologies, etc.), and on the other hand, more figurative works that include extra-musical ideas (poetic, romantic, philosophical, psychoanalytical, social, etc.). But, as time goes on, I have noticed that the majority of my works belong to the second category and that many of them do obey narrative forms or rise from extra-musical arguments. Some do this in an obvious way, by using texts borrowed from works of writers, poets, philosophers, psychologists, spoken by various voices; others are inspired by specific situations, events, or ideas that I try to express through the music. I chose to abandon instrumental writing around the mid 1960s to focus on my study of electroacoustic composition, because I was convinced that this new and very open domain, practically free of rules — where the poetic image could be freely associated with a musical vocabulary — was capable of drawing on very diverse creative fields. The idea stayed with me when I noticed that I was often positioning myself just at the edge of narrative, and that I was in search of a kind of musical dramaturgy, close to opera, but an opera free of singers, traditional instruments and all the conventions of lyric art. It’s therefore not surprising that, 45 years later, I realize that I remained faithful to my intentions first and that behind my music there is often something else. I could almost say that music is for me the language that I use to speak of aspects of being. However, not all my works belong to the narrative domain, and some could be considered “pure music.” I should add that, for me, all musical organization — even that which illustrates something — needs to follow musical criteria. This means that the logic of a narrative alone does not ensure the coherence of a musical discourse. The work must function at two levels: that of the concept and that of the musical syntax used, in the same way that a verbal narrative must transmit ideas through an understood language.

Mountain: Do you normally start at the beginning of a work, adding fragments in a more or less chronological way?

Dhomont: I take a long time to construct my narrative works — months or years. I gather documents, ideas, readings, notes, sketched-out diagrams, lists of sounds to find. I also reflect on the form and listen to previous works, simulations, etc. The duration of this preliminary phase varies, but is often proportional to the work itself. Afterwards, I can then begin to organize the chosen materials, with the inevitable hesitations and regrettable bits corrected through an attentive listening. It is extremely rare that I build a work in a chronological way. In fact, that has happened only once, for Signé Dionysos, which was a sort of linear narrative. In general, I need to know from the beginning how the work will end, and where the principal points of articulation for the musical discourse are. However, as these long works have separate sections, I may well work on those that are related to each other but don’t follow one another in the final piece. I work a bit like a filmmaker, because I use a “story board” to figure out how the piece should evolve. Also, like a filmmaker, I can improvise during the shooting. Lots of details can be modified, adapted, or abandoned during the production, depending on the problems encountered and solutions discovered. But the overall form and the generative idea don’t change.

Mountain: Can you give some examples of names of composers who have influenced you the most — if there are any?

Dhomont: It’s clear that musique concrète had a crucial influence on my work. Of course I am thinking of Pierre Schaeffer, but also Pierre Henry, François Bayle, Bernard Parmegiani, Luc Ferrari, Michel Chion, and, in general, the composers of GRM in Paris. But naturally, composers like Stockhausen, Xenakis, Varèse, Berio — who are above all instrumental composers — also counted for a lot. Among the composers of “pure” instrumental music, I would mention Machaut, Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Debussy, Ravel, Berg, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Ligeti, Scelsi, Boulez, Kagel (but these are just the ones I can think of at the moment — there are lots more) — and contemporary music in general, and jazz.

Mountain: Do you still listen to other electroacoustic music?

Dhomont: Yes, not only because of my personal interest but also because I participate in numerous juries.

Mountain: You incorporate a lot of spoken words into your works. I noticed that when you talked of your first experiments with the magnetic wire recorder, making noises and sounds with the bottles and so on, that you also mentioned using fragments of conversations with your friend. Is there a direct link with these early experiments, or does it come from somewhere else?

Dhomont: My attraction to words comes partially from an appreciation of the sound of voices themselves — their particular “grain” — but above all from my lifelong interest in literature, poetry, and text in general. My parents read a lot. My father and one of my uncles were writers, and I was attracted to books from a very young age. I was also a fairly gifted student in the humanities.

Mountain: How do you choose the text for a work?

Dhomont: They are always ones that moved me or fascinated me when I read them, whether Kafka, Freud, Laing, fairy tales, Lautréamont, and many others that I have not yet used.

Mountain: When you create a section of a work, do you think in terms of atmosphere — melancholy, happy, strong, weak?

Dhomont: Yes, certainly. I try to translate the feeling or idea that the words suggest to me through the evocative power of the sound. Of course, I strive to avoid making redundant illustrations of the text, a 19 pleonasm. In Sous le regard d’un soleil noir, for example, there is a section of the work where a female voice describes what madness is. At this moment, it’s obviously necessary to avoid emphasis, sonic delirium, loud cries. I therefore used an agitated but understated rhythmic vibration throughout the whole section, at a low dynamic level with simply a few bursts of sound from time to time, like an inner tremor.

Mountain: Now, as a retiree, how do you find postuniversity life?

Dhomont: At the time that I left the university in 1996, I had not been teaching such a heavy load. I had managed to have my classes all grouped into one or two days at most, which wasn’t very tiring. But when I really didn’t need to go to the university anymore, and I could spend all my time as I wished, without having to make arrangements if I was going to travel, for example, or if I wanted to work all night and sleep during the day, I experienced a fantastic feeling of total freedom. What I did miss was not meeting with the students any more. I always really enjoyed teaching and having discussions with them. I tried to give them the taste for electroacoustic music and art in general. In return, they gave me their enthusiasm and all sorts of useful information on life in Montréal and the latest technological gadgets. I have very fond memories of all those years of study and friendship.

Mountain: It is obvious that many of them have very fond memories of you as well! What do you wish for in your future?

Dhomont: As far as that goes — since it’s not reasonable to think about the long term! — I will stay active for as long as possible. I wish for passion and wisdom. For the moment, my health still allows me to compose, to write, to travel, to participate in the music world — and I won’t deprive myself of it! In 2005, I made a dozen trips in Europe and Canada for concerts and conferences. I am in the middle of working on two new compositions: one a long work on Kafka, which I have been thinking about for ten years and for which I have already completed a part dedicated to “The Letter to Father” (Brief an den Vater). I have had two commissions for concerts that will happen in November for my eightieth birthday. I am also working in France with the Radios Libres and I have several trips planned. And we are invited, my wife Inés Wickmann and me, to the Studio Delta P in La Rochelle for a residency which will end with a multimedia show; she is going to link some videos to my works with a setting on the theme of “Anamorphoses” (deformations, reflections, shadows of visual or acoustic images, etc.). We have stretched the concept to the metaphor, playing on all sorts of alterations and distortions — natural or not — of illusions and tricks, through reverberation, duplication, echo, and sparkle, confusing time and space, audio and visual.

Mountain: What do you want to tell us about Inés, your wife? I know that she adores your music, and it’s clear that it inspires her. For example, I really enjoyed her video Microcosmo set to your piece that we watched during the EMS-05 conference.

Dhomont: Inés Wickmann is an artist, sculptor, and video artist from Colombia. She is passionate about music, particularly contemporary music. She has even produced numerous shows on the subject for the Bogotá radio. When we met in that Colombian city, during a festival of acousmatic music, she already knew many of my works, and I could say that it’s not I who seduced her, but my music! She really feels it. I have great confidence in her judgment and I always ask her advice when I work on a new piece.

Mountain: So we owe her some thanks too!

Dhomont: Since our respective artistic paths are very close to each other, we have an excellent rapport when we collaborate. It seems to me that this rapport is evident in our works and that the results are convincing testimony.

Mountain: I fully agree! Thanks so much for your time, Francis. It’s always such a pleasure to chat with you. And we look forward to your next piece!

… I thought that it was important, the only place in North America where this kind of thing was studied, so I thought it would be a good idea to introduce it. And in the end, a whole generation of students became familiar with these ideas — not only the way of listening, but also the thinking that accompanied it — so I believe that it was good, and it seems to have produced some good results.

trans_canada Festival: Trends in Acousmatics and Soundscapes

Wibke Bantelmann, Computer Music Journal, no. 29:3, September 1, 2005

The trans_canada festival of electroacoustic music by Canadian composers at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe was certainly no everyday experience for the interested German public. A festival of acousmatic music—and acousmatic music only—is quite unusal. The German avant-garde music scene is still uncommonly lively, but most composers prefer either instrumental music (with electroacoustic elements) or multimedia works. The idea of invisible music seems not to touch the German musical sensibility.

Despite this, 460 visitors found their way to ZKM. During 10-13 February, 2005, they experienced a four day-long plunge into the Canadian way of composing, and had the opportunity to learn more about the “Canadian Example” as Daniel Teruggi of the Groupe de recherches musicales (GRM) called it in his paper. According to Mr. Teruggi, the liveliness and outstanding quality of the electroacoustic music scene in Canada is the result of good composers but also of academically sound research and training and a wide range of philosophical approaches to music. The opening of the festival showed another aspect of this “example.” Paul Dubois, the present Canadian ambassador to Germany, came from Berlin to open the festival—cultural policy in Canada apparently knows and supports the electroacoustic scene intensely, quite contrary to German policy.

Francis Dhomont, Robert Normandeau, Gilles Gobeil, Nicolas Bernier, Hildegard Westerkamp, and Louis Dufort took part in the festival and presented works (Ned Bouhalassa was invited but for health reasons was unable to attend). Nine pieces were commissioned by ZKM and received their world premieres at the festival.

trans_canada not only offered an occasion for Germans to learn about Canadian acousmatic music; apparently, it also connected the Canadians themselves. “It seems we had to come to the ZKM in Karlsruhe to get together,” said Robert Normandeau at the last concert. And so, the Francophone composers from the east, rooted in the Paris school of “musique concrète,” met the Anglophone soundscape composers from the West coast. “I was very much surprised when Francis Dhomont told us that he does not like the original sounds to be changed so much that you can’t distinguish their origin any longer,” said Hildegard Westerkamp. “We are not as far away from each other as I used to think.”

This proved to be quite true, as could be heard. The parallels between their new works, Brief an den Vater by Mr. Dhomont and Für Dich—For You by Ms. Westerkamp, were striking. Both compositions were not only inspired by but also formally based on literature and the structure, the sound, the rhythm of the text. The work by Mr. Dhomont, with the scraping of a pen as a sort of leitmotif, was no less abstract than Ms. Westerkamp’s music with its sea-sounds (gulls, wind, waves). And her fantasy land called “home” is not more “real” then his world of inner struggle. Both works showed an extreme sensitivity for subtle, delicate sounds which were spread in many layers, throwing shadows of sound, and constantly and slowly developing into new shapes and shades. The differences between the works seemed after all (to this listener at least) to be ones of personal style and expression than of basic principles.

Another new work with words came from Darren Copeland. I don’t want to be inside me anymore was quite singular in the festival due to its definite focus on content, on a “real story.” This fact gave the piece a strong dramatic quality leaving hardly any room for imagination. The intention of the sounds to build around the absorbing, sometimes even vexatious, words seemed to force the listeners to constantly keep their full attention on the meaning of the text. It was a deeply impressive piece, even if it was to a certain extent more dramatic than musical. (Although other listeners might experience it differently if they do not understand the German text.)

In a way, this work resembles a compositional style of a very different kind, that of Barry Truax. The connection may be found in the very sense of reality in both composer’s works: the reality of the feeling of isolation on one hand, and the reality of an existing landscape (streams, peaks, caves) on the other.

Even Gilles Gobeil’s magnificent medieval drama, Ombres, espaces, silences…, followed roughly this direction. This piece was not about feeling or landscape, it was about reality, too, in this case the reality of history, only by far more sublime, sensitive, and imaginative. Not “cinema for the ear” but a “novel for the ear” (something like The Name of the Rose?)! However, the form and structure of this work is by far more of a narrative nature than strictly abstract-musical.

It was Robert Normandeau and the youngsters of trans_canada who were most abstract, and therefore the strongest advocates of a true “invisible music.” It was not only not to be seen, it was not to be imagined. There was nothing real, nothing you could get hold of, it was more or less a complete deconstruction of sounds, ideas, narration. They appeared not to start from any landscape, be it imagined or real, inside or outside the head; they started from ideas, ideas of sound, ideas of form. Even the antique Writing Machine in the work by Nicolas Bernier was more a (slightly exotic) sound than a sense, more a historical reminiscence than an element of form.

Coincidence shows her unaccountable face, experiment and surprise follow. You could hear experience and mastery in the work of Robert Normandeau, of course. You were always sure that it was him who played with coincidence and not the other way round. His world premiere, ZedKejeM, was highly dynamic, with the energy and rhythm from a dancefloor, but still showed the deepness, density, and versatility of a deep-thinking organizer of energy and fantasy. Every single sound seemed well calculated, the effects carefully set.

The music of his younger colleagues, Mr. Bernier and Louis Dufort, was more spontaneous, wandering dreamily through all the possibilities of technique and sound, to find out what would happen. Mr. Dufort spread a richness and variety of colors in a free, open structure that simply followed the beauty of the sounds created. In contrast to that, Mr. Bernier followed an intellectual plan, he set his rules and let them work. One always sensed the will behind the music, one always tried to follow and understand the experiment instead of just enjoying the result. But, on the other hand, this method produced a certain strong energy in the work. This composer had the power to raise and hold the intellectual interest of the listener.

All in all, it was fascinating to take in over a few days such a wide range of styles and personalities, and to learn a little about their methods.

trans_canada also provided the chance to meet the composers in person. Each of them delivered a paper about their work. They could only give a rough survey, of course, in a 45-min talk. Rather than concentrating on techniques or software, most composers just tried to acquaint their colleagues and the small number of other interested people with their sources of inspiration, their opinions, their philosophy. Remarkable was the clear delivery of all the composers and the relaxed atmosphere of these sessions. There seemed to be no need to impress anyone, and not so much need to discuss, let alone debate. Everybody was open-minded and respected the others, as if trying to learn and understand, not to question fundamentals.

It was like a good talk between colleagues and friends. Mr. Normandeau provided insight into his large archive of sound and his permanent work on the human voice. Mr. Gobeil expressed his preference for the sound of exotic instruments (like the Daxophone) and his dislike of techno music (inducing him to write a techno-piece). Mr. Dhomont talked about the relation between accident and control in his work, marking his own position somewhere between Pierre Boulez and John Cage:Boulez would say: ‘This is incidental, throw it away;’ Cage would say: ‘This is incidental, so I take it;’ I say: ‘Look, there is an interesting incident, but should I take it?’” He also used the opportunity to call for more polyphony in electroacoustic music instead of the exclusive concentration on creating the most original, most exotic new sound: “In an orchestra, you mix different instruments, but the single instrument becomes not less beautiful.”

The exceptional environment of ZKM supported this beautiful richness of sounds and the inventiveness of the composers immensely. The two concert venues offer exquisite acoustics. They were equipped with 70 concert loudspeakers, placed in either circles or in a kind of “acousmonium surround environment.” This, in conjunction with the timbral and spatial qualities of the works, created an extraordinary musical experience.

… it was fascinating to take in over a few days such a wide range of styles and personalities…

L’école de Montréal, 2/4

Bernard Girard, Aligre FM, Dissonances, March 23, 2004

Nous avons entrepris l’exploration des travaux de l’école de Montréal. Et nous avons commencé avec celui qui en fut l’inspirateur et l’animateur, Francis Dhomont. Je vous propose de poursuivre l’exploration du catalogue de ce compositeur qui, après avoir découvert très tôt, dés la fin des années quarante les musiques sur bandes, n’a vraiment commencé à composer qu’à la fin des années 60. Nous allons aujourd’hui poursuivre avec des extraits de Forêt profonde, une œuvre voisine par la forme et la durée de Sous le regard d’un soleil noir, il s’agit là encore d’un cycle qui comprend 13 pièces et dure, tout compris, près d’une heure, mais beaucoup plus récente puisqu’achevée en 1996.

Dans cette œuvre on retrouve ce goût pour les textes savants, psychanalytique, qui est la marque de Francis Dhomont. Il s’agit, cette fois-ci, de textes de Bruno Bettelheim sur les contes de fée. On aura remarqué la place de la voix et la manière originale dont Francis Dhomont la traite, aussi respectueux de la tessiture des voix que du sens des mots prononcés. Dans une interview qu’il m’a accordée, il s’explique sur cet usage de la voix, sur son goût pour le mélodrame, un genre musical qui consiste à associer à de la musique des textes parlés et qu’ont pratiqué des auteurs aussi différents que Schumann, Liszt, Berlioz ou, plus près de nous Stravinsky dans l’histoire du soldat, Poulenc sur des textes parlant de Babar ou Honegger. Mais rares sont ceux qui en ont fait un usage aussi intense et systématique que Francis Dhomont.

Forêt profonde explore le monde des contes de fée, mais aussi celui des forêts qui servent souvent de cadre à ces contes. Un monde des forêts que Francis Dhomont avait abordé quelques années plus tôt, quoique de manière plus problématique, voire intrigante, dans Drôles d’oiseaux, une œuvre de 1985-1986, qui se distingue du reste de sa production par son utilisation des techniques électroniques. Dans la pochette du disque, Dhomont nous présente cette œuvre comme «une curiosité unique dans sa production.» Une curiosité qui mérite, je crois, qu’on s’y attarde quelques instants. La musique électronique telle que pouvaient la pratiquer des compositeurs comme Stockhausen est un peu passée de mode chez les compositeurs savants, malgré ou, peut-être, à cause de son succès dans la musique populaire. Et c’est dommage.

Comme l’indique le titre de cette œuvre, Drôles d’oiseaux, Francis Dhomont a toujours entretenu une relation intime avec la nature. Relation qui l’a amenée, jeune homme, à faire un retour à la nature et à s’installer en Provence. On retrouve dans plusieurs des titres de ses œuvres des allusions à des oiseaux, à l’environnement. C’est le cas, par exemple, de Vol d’Arondes, une œuvre de 1999 révisée en 2001 réalisée à partir de sons saisis en Provence et d’autres repris de Drôles d’oiseaux. Comme beaucoup de ses collègues, Dhomont n’hésite jamais à retravailler ses œuvres, à cannibaliser son propre répertoire, à réutiliser des sons déjà montés dans des pièces antérieures. Ces musiciens qui ont choisi de travailler sur bandes, avec des magnétophones et des micros ne sont pas seulement des compositeurs, ce sont aussi des preneurs de son, des promeneurs qui nous apprennent à entendre notre environnement, qui nous font découvrir ces sons qui nous entourent et qui, cependant, échappent le plus souvent à notre conscience.

Il y a dans Vol d’Arondes quelque chose d’un portrait ou, plutôt d’un paysage au sens que les peintres donnent à ces mots. On y entend des hirondelles, un avion, le bruit d’un soir de festival avec ce qui pourraient être des applaudissements, des cris… Cette musique s’inscrit dans une veine plus intime de l’œuvre de Dhomont.

Cette manière de traiter le son comme des couleurs sur une toile modifie le rapport du compositeur à son environnement. Tout comme les impressionnistes avaient pris leur chevalet et étaient aller peindre sur le motif, les compositeurs de musique électroacoustique se sont ouverts au monde. Et cela leur a donné la possibilité ou, qui sait, l’envie d’écrire des œuvres qui raisonnent directement avec l’actualité.

On sait que composer des musiques politiques a été une tentation des compositeurs tout au long du 20ème siècle. On retrouve cette même volonté d’exprimer des opinions avec ses moyens propres chez Francis Dhomont, dans cette Lettre de Sarajevo qu’il a composée en 1995 et 1996 et dont il dit: «Devant les débordements du cynisme triomphant, je n’ai pu cette fois-ci me contenter des jeux formels et esthétiques chers au compositeur. J’ai donc, naïvement, voulu parler de l’horreur et de la honte. Le titre a surgi, évident: la «lettre» qui informe de l’étendue du désastre et qui, en même temps, lance un cri dans le désert des nations. Sarajevo, parce que cette ville, parmi tant d’autres, symbolise l’incohérence tragique du retour en barbarie de notre époque.»

Musique politique, l’expression laisse souvent incertain, hésitant, mal à l’aise et, cependant, à l’écoute de cette œuvre sans concession on devine le projet de Dhomont, son désir de mettre en scène sans la moindre emphase, sans le moindre effet, une musique épuisée, enchaînée, comme prisonnière de menottes sonores.

… celui qui en fut l’inspirateur et l’animateur, Francis Dhomont.

Electroacoustics, the Quebecois Way

François Couture, electrocd.com, March 22, 2004

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, right? Wrong — at least when it comes to electroacoustics, the beautiful province of Quebec compares very well to any other region of the world. Call me chauvinistic, I don’t care: Quebec is home to several composers of tremendous talent and influential professors.

My goal is not to turn this article in an analytical essay, but, as a music reviewer and unstoppable listener, I am convinced that there is such a thing as Québécois electroacoustics. Despite the stylistic variety among our composers, I detect a Québécois “sound,” something that sounds to me neither British nor French or German; something that calls to me and speaks to me in a language more immediate and easier to understand.

This “unity in diversity” is probably, at least in part, due to the lasting influence of a small number of key composers whose academic teachings have shaped our younger generations. I am thinking first and foremost of Francis Dhomont and Yves Daoust. So let’s begin this sound path with a Frenchman so Québécois at heart that he was awarded a prestigious Career Grant from the Conseil des arts et lettres du Québec. I can sincerely recommend all of Dhomont’s albums: his graceful writing, his narrative flair and his intelligence turn any of his works into fascinating gems. I have often publicly expressed my admiration for Forêt profonde (including in my first Sound Path, so I will skip it this time), but Sous le regard d’un soleil noir, his first large-scale work, remains an international classic of electroacoustic music, and his more recent Cycle du son shows how close to perfection his art has grown — the piece AvatArsSon in particular, my first pick for this Sound Path.

If Dhomont’s music is often constructed following large theoretical, literary and sociological themes, Yves Daoust’s works lean more toward poetry and the anecdote. Most of his pieces betray his respect for the abstractionist ideals of the French school, but his seemingly naive themes (water, crowds, a Chopin Fantasia or a childhood memory) empower his music with an unusual force of evocation. His latest album, Bruits, also displays a willingness to grow and learn. One is tempted to hear the influence of his more electronica-savvy students in the startling title triptych.

To those two pillars of Quebec electroacoustics, I must add the names of Robert Normandeau and Gilles Gobeil. Normandeau is a very good example of what I consider to be the “typical” Québécois sound: a certain conservatism in the plasticity of sounds (the result of the combined influence of the British and French schools); great originality in their use; and an uncanny intelligence in the discourse which, even though it soars into academic thought, doesn’t rob the listener of his or her pleasure. My favorite album remains Figures, in part because of the beautiful piece Le Renard et la Rose, inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novel Le Petit Prince – and also because of Venture, a tribute to the Golden Age of progressive rock (a pet peeve I share with the composer, might I add). As for Gobeil’s music, it is the wildness of wilderness, the turmoil of human passions, the sudden gestures, the copious splashes of sonic matter thrown all around. If La mécanique des ruptures remains an essential listen, his most recent album Le contrat, a collaboration with guitarist René Lussier, stands as his most accomplished (and thrilling!) work to date.

These four composers may represent the crème de la crème of academic circles, but empreintes DIGITALes’ catalog counts numerous young composers and artists whose work deeply renew the vocabulary of their older colleagues.

I would like to mention Fractures, the just released debut album by Christian Bouchard. His fragmented approach seems to draw as much from academic electroacoustics as from experimental electronica. Thanks to some feverish editing and dizzying fragmentation, Parcelles 1 and Parcelles 2 evoke avant-garde digital video art. I also heartily recommend Louis Dufort’s album Connexions, which blends academic and noise approaches. His stunning piece Zénith features treatments of samples of Luc Lemay’s voice (singer with the death-metal group Gorguts). I am also quite fond of Marc Tremblay’s rather coarse sense of humor. On his CD Bruit-graffiti he often relies on pop culture (from The Beatles to children’s TV shows). His piece Cowboy Fiction, a “western for the ear” attempting to reshape the American dream, brings this Sound Path to a quirky end.

Serious or facetious, abstract or evocative, Québécois electroacoustic music has earned a place in the hearts of avant-garde music lovers everywhere. Now it is your turn to explore its many paths.

Québécois electroacoustic music has earned a place in the hearts of avant-garde music lovers everywhere…

L’école de Montréal, 1/4

Bernard Girard, Aligre FM, Dissonances, March 16, 2004

Bonjour, nous débutons aujourd’hui une série de quatre émissions consacrées à l’école de Montréal et, pour les deux premières à Francis Dhomont, un compositeur d’origine française qui joua un rôle déterminant dans le développement de cette école de musique concrète, bruitiste, acousmatique.

Montréal n’a découvert la musique concrète que relativement tard. Le premier à avoir créé des musiques de bruit fut sans doute Norman McLaren, cinéaste expérimental qui dans les années 50 créa des musiques de ce type pour ses films, mais sans véritablement faire école.

Lorsqu’on leur demande de chercher des ancêtres, les québécois citent plus souvent Hugh Le Caine, un ingénieur du son qui a inventé plus de vingt machines musicales que l’on peut aujourd’hui voir au musée. Ces machines, toutes analogiques, furent souvent pionnières et l’on peut regretter qu’elles n’aient pas eu plus de succès tant leur nom fait rêver. Ainsi, Le Caine inventa le premier synthétiseur de son qu’il appela «sacqueboute électronique». Ce beau mot «sacqueboute» n’est pas une invention d’un poète lettriste mais la reprise du nom d’un instrument né au 15ème siècle qui ressemble à un trombone dont il est l’ancêtre. Ce nom vient de sacquer qui veut dire tirer et bouter, qui veut dire pousser et il vrai que le jouer de trombone tire et pousse alternativement.

Le Caine créa son propre studio de composition, mais son travail resta confidentiel jusqu’à la fin de ses jours, il est mort en 1977, à la veille de l’émergence de cette école de Montréal dont nous allons parler dans les semaines qui viennent.

A la fin des années 70, la musique bruitiste se fait à Montréal pour l’essentiel dans un laboratoire de l’Université qui n’est pas très richement équipé. Quelques jeunes compositeurs, comme Yves Daoust ou Marcelle Deschênes, s’essaient à la composition, les yeux fixés sur la France où certains ont suivi des stages, au GRM de l’Ina, à Bourges. Ils commencent à s’organiser, créent une association pour favoriser le développement de ces musiques, pour les faire entendre et les éditer.

C’est dans ce contexte que l’université de Montréal invite, pour une série de conférences, un français au parcours atypique: Francis Dhomont. Dhomont frise déjà les cinquante ans, puisqu’il est né en 1926. Musicien de formation classique, il a été l’élève de la célèbre Nadia Boulanger, de Charles Koechlin, l’un des compositeurs les plus intéressants et les plus novateurs de la première moitié du 20ème siècle, il s’est très tôt intéressé à la musique enregistrée qu’il a découverte tout seul, dans son coin, à l’époque même où à la radio Pierre Schaeffer inventait la musique concrète. Francis Dhomont explique cet intérêt précoce pour la musique des bruits par une expérience personnelle de l’aveuglement, de la cécité. Adolescent pendant la guerre, il a perdu un œil des suites, semble-t-il, des privations alimentaires et a du vivre de longues années sans pouvoir lire. A défaut donc de lecture, il a joué du piano, exploré cet univers des sons. S’il a découvert la musique concrète, Francis Dhomont ne l’a en fait que très peu pratiquée jusque dans les années 70. Parti dés le début des années 50 s’installer à la campagne, en Provence, il a du faire mille métiers pour survivre et ce n’est que dans les années 70 qu’il l’a redécouverte en participant à l’organisation d’un festival de musique qui lui avait confié la programmation des concerts de musique contemporaine.

Appelé à Montréal pour faire des conférences, Francis Dhomont est sollicité pour devenir professeur à l’Université et pour y enseigner la musique électroacoustique. Ce travail lui permettra tout à la fois de former des étudiants, pendant les 16 ans qu’il est resté enseignant, il a formé plus de 200 musiciens, dont beaucoup se sont consacrés à la musique électroacoustique. Ce travail lui a surtout permis de se remettre à la composition. Ce qu’il a immédiatement fait, de manière originale. Sa première œuvre composée de 1979 à 1981 à Montréal, Sous le regard d’un soleil noir, tranche sur ce qui produisait à l’époque tant par sa longueur, l’œuvre dure près d’une heure, que par son ambition et par son projet. Il s’agit d’une exploration du monde de la folie, de la schizophrénie engagée à partir des textes de Ronald D Laing, textes que l’on retrouve, sous forme de citations plus que de bribes tout au long de cette pièce.

Dans Le moi divisé, la cinquième de cette suite, il s’agit d’explorer le clivage, la fragmentation, la fissure, la fêlure, tout ce qui fait que le schizophrène est ce qu’il est. On aura remarqué le jeu sur le mot «individual» qui révèle en anglais en son cœur le verbe divide, diviser. Il y a là une allusion, volontaire chez un musicien particulièrement cultivé, aux célèbres jeux de mots de Lacan. Mais il n’y a pas que cela. Cette pièce faite de mots, de sons et de bruits, est aussi une œuvre musicale, une série de variations autour du si, note qui revient de manière obsessionnelle tout au long de cette composition [comme dans] Pétrification, réflexion sur le stade ultime de la schizophrénie, la catatonie: «il n’y a plus qu’un vide là où il y a eu quelque temps une personne». Dans cette pièce, on retrouve, comme dans d’autres parties de cette œuvre, des échos du Wozzeck d’Alban Berg. Cette très belle œuvre, originale tant dans forme que dans son projet, a tout de suite retenu l’attention. Elle a été donnée en France et primée dans des concours. On pourrait dire qu’elle a signé la naissance de cette école de Montréal. Pour la première fois, en effet, des amateurs se sont dit: il se passe quelque chose là-bas, de l’autre coté de l’Atlantique. Quelque chose qui n’est pas très éloigné de notre culture (le titre de l’œuvre, Sous le regard d’un soleil noir, évoque un poème de Gérard de Nerval que nous connaissons tous, la psychanalyse était à la fin des années 70 au sommet de sa gloire) et cependant différent tant dans la forme, c’est un mélodrame, au sens que les musiciens donnent à ce mot qui veut dire association de la voix parlée et de la musique, que dans le projet.

Francis Dhomont aurait pu alors rentrer en France. Il a préféré rester au Canada. Et il l’a affiché dans une œuvre composée en 1981-1982: Points de fuite, titre qu’il faut entendre aussi bien dans sa dimension mathématique, géométrique que dans sa dimension plus personnelle de départ, de déplacement. On y reconnaît, à l’écoute, des glissements, des déplacements souvent rendus, de manière inattendue, par un traitement quasi-impressionnistes de la matière sonore. On devine dans cette œuvre comme un écho de certaines œuvres de Debussy.

Points de fuite est le premier mouvement d’un cycle consacré à l’errance, qui reprend et explore plusieurs des thèmes liés à l’idée de voyage, l’embarquement, la fuite, la carte, le retour, l’abîme. Francis Dhomont a organisé son œuvre sous forme de cycles. J’ai cité le Cycle de l’errance, il y a également Forêt profonde, une œuvre construire autour des contes de fée et des travaux du psychanalyste Bruno Bettelheim, Les dérives du signe et Cycle du son qui est une célébration de la musique concrète, une exploration très personnelle de cet univers sonore, un hommage aux fondateurs d’un genre que Francis Dhomont envisage de manière radicale.

Lorsqu’il est arrivé à Montréal dans les années 70, beaucoup de compositeurs voyaient leurs compositions musicales bruitistes comme un accompagnement, un supplément à d’autres œuvres. Yves Daoust, nous avons entendu en début d’émission, une pièce venait, de manière très significative du monde du cinéma, il avait longuement travaillé et s’était formé à l’Office National du Film. Dhomont a imposé l’idée que cette musique devait être entendue pour elle-même sans artifices, sans support, seule. Et pour marquer sa différence, il a introduit au Canada un mot, «acousmatique», que François Peignot et François Bayle avaient inventé, un peu plus tôt, à Paris, pour désigner ces musiques que l’on entend au travers de hauts-parleurs.

Je dis inventé, mais en réalité, ce mot est ancien puisqu’il nous vient de Pythagore et désigne en grec la perception auditive (acousma). L’acousmatique est un «art du son proposé à l’oreille sans recours aux autres sens». Cette idée que la musique s’entend pour elle-même ouvre un espace aux citations musicales, à l’exploration d’une tradition, d’une culture. Et c’est ce travail du compositeur sur les œuvres de ses prédécesseurs que Francis Dhomont a entrepris dans plusieurs de ses œuvres, notamment dans ce Cycle du son.

Objets retrouvés, composée en 1996, donc relativement récente, est un hommage à Pierre Schaeffer dont elle reprend, paraphrase l’une des toutes premières œuvres: l’étude aux objets. Un hommage qui, de manière assez caractéristique chez Dhomont, l’inscrit dans une tradition musicale plus longue. «A la fois lamento et marche funèbre, cette paraphrase de l’étude aux objets de Pierre Schaeffer n’est pas, nous dit-il, sans rapport avec le style du choral orné ou figuré. Trois voix (au sens contrapuntique du terme), élaborées à partir des éléments du premier mouvement de cette étude, viennent broder et habiter les durées prolongées des objets originaux qui constituent le «choral», quatrième voix de cette polyphonie. Le choix d’une forme classique si présente chez Bach n’est pas innocent lorsqu’il s’agit d’honorer la mémoire de Schaeffer: j’aime me persuader qu’il n’aurait pas été insensible à l’allusion.»

Je voudrais terminer avec une œuvre qui illustre tout à la fois son rôle très particulier dans cette école qu’il a contribué plus que tout autre à développer et son intérêt pour l’histoire de la musique. Il s’agit d’une œuvre récente, elle date de 1997, composée d’un montage, collage de travaux de compositeurs canadiens qui ont souvent été ses élèves. On retrouve dans cette Frankenstein Symphony, des traces d’œuvres de Gilles Gobeil, Ned Bouhalassa, Christian Calon, Robert Normandeau, Stéphane Roy, etc. Il serait trop long de tous les citer.

Francis Dhomont joua un rôle déterminant dans le développement de cette école de musique concrète, bruitiste, acousmatique.

Introduction(s) to the Delights of Electroacoustic Music

François Couture, electrocd.com, October 15, 2003

Electroacoustic music is an acquired taste. Like it or not, radio and television have conditioned us from an early age into accepting some musical (tonal and rhythmical) molds as being “normal.” Therefore, electroacoustics, along with other sound-based (in opposition to note-based) forms of musical expression like free improvisation, is perceived as being “abnormal.” That’s why a first exposure to this kind of music often turns into a memorable experience — for better or worse. Many factors come into play, but choosing an album that offers an adequate (i.e. friendly and gentle) introduction to the genre will greatly help in letting the initial esthetic shock turn into an experience of Beauty and mark the beginning of a new adventure in sound.

My goal with this sound path is simply to point out a few titles that I think have the potential to encourage instead of discourage, titles opening a door to a new musical dimension. Of course, this selection can only be subjective. But it might be helpful to new enthusiasts and to aficionados looking for gift ideas that would spread good music around. After all, Christmas is only a few weeks away!


We usually develop new interests from existing interests. What I mean is: we explore music genres that are new to us because a related interest brought us there. That’s why when it comes to electroacoustic music, mixed works (for tape and instrument) or works related to specific topics are often the best place to find a bridge that will gently lead the listener into the new territory. For example, people who enjoy reading travel literature will find in Kristoff K.Roll’s Corazón Road the sublimated narrative of a journey through Central America. Those still young enough to enjoy fairy tales (I’m one of them) will find in Francis Dhomont’s Forêt profonde an in-depth reflection on this literary genre as inspired by the works of psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, in the form of a captivating work with multiple narratives (in many languages) and electroacoustic music of a great evocative strength. Lighter and more fanciful, Libellune by Roxanne Turcotte finds its source in childlike imagination and is in part aimed at children without over-simplifying its artistic process.

Guitar fans can turn to Parr(A)cousmatique, a wonderful project for which classical guitarist Arturo Parra co-wrote pieces with some of Quebec’s best electroacoustic composers: Stéphane Roy, Francis Dhomont (Quebecer at heart, at the very least), Robert Normandeau, and Gilles Gobeil. The latter has just released an album-long piece, Le contrat, written with and featuring avant-garde guitarist René Lussier. Lussier’s followers and people interested in Goethe’s play Faust (and its rich heritage) will find here an essential point of convergence, another bridge.

Essential listens

Those who want to explore further will probably want to venture into more abstract electroacoustic art. I recommend starting with the Quebec composers. Chauvinism? No way. It’s just that the music of composers like Dhomont, Normandeau, Gobeil, Yves Daoust, or Yves Beaupré seems to me to be more accessible than the music of British or French composers. It is more immediate, has a stronger impact (Gobeil, usually hitting hard), a more pleasant form of lyricism (Daoust, Beaupré), more welcoming architectures and themes (Dhomont, Normandeau). If you need places to start, try Normandeau’s Figures, Gobeil’s La mécanique des ruptures, Dhomont’s Cycle du son, and Beaupré’s Humeur de facteur.

That being said, there are hours upon hours of beauty and fascination to be found in the works of Michel Chion (his powerful Requiem), Bernard Parmegiani (La création du monde), Jonty Harrsison (Articles indéfinis), Denis Smalley (Sources/Scènes), and Natasha Barrett (Isostasie), but they may seem more difficult or thankless on first listen. And for those interested in where these music come from, the EMF label offers L’œuvre musicale, the complete works of Pierre Schaeffer, the father of musique concrète and grandfather of electroacoustics.

Tiny ideas

A compilation album has the advantage of offering a large selection of artists and esthetics in a small, affordable format. Available at a budget price, eXcitations proposes a strong sampler of the productions on the label empreintes DIGITALes. The albums Electro clips and Miniatures concrètes, along with the brand new volume of the DISContact! series, cull short pieces (often under three minutes) to trigger interrogations and discoveries in those with a short attention span.

And finally, for those of you who want to take their time and explore in short steps, the Cinéma pour l’oreille collection produced by the French label Métamkine contains many wonderful 3” CDs, 20 minutes in duration each, for a reduced price. The catalog includes titles by renown composers such as Michel Chion, Lionel Marchetti, Michèle Bokanowski, Bernhard Günter, and Éliane Radigue. These tiny albums are perfect for gift exchanges.

Of course, all of the above are only recommendations. The best sound path to discovery is the one you follow by yourself, little by little.

Best listens!