Victoria Fenner, Musicworks, no. 91, April 1, 2005Her work is made up of moments. Each moment is intense and transparent but contained within a clearly audible narrative arc.
I first discovered the work of Chantal Dumas four years ago. When I heard her sound compositions broadcast on radio, they grabbed my ears and haven’t let go since. I’ve always been interested in the places where radio documentary becomes art, where music becomes drama, and where sound becomes story. Dumas’s work is a blend of all these art forms, and through them she has been able to breathe new life into the medium of radio.
Though her work is firmly rooted in narrative, she also leaves much of the interpretation to the listener. Her works contain enough identifiable sounds to give a sense of the intended story, but the compositional style is ambiguous enough to allow the listener to let the story be what s/he wants it to be. When I listen to Dumas’s work, I am given a balance of freedom and structure that lets my ears roam. Her compositional materials are sounds from real world sources - the tapping feet of dancers, ice being scraped off a windshield during the ice storm of january 1998. Sometimes thesc sounds are combined with improvisations of singers and musicians, sometimes not. The sound of a train, a wild goose, clips of people speaking to each other in conversation, these are usually the materials of radio drama and documentary. Also notable about her work is the sense of movement. The sounds are in constant motion, dancing from one speaker to another, from foreground to background and back again.
For more than twenty years I’ve been interested in the creative possibilities of radio, but I have lamented that the airwaves are usually used in pre-formatted, unimaginative ways. Part of the reason for this is economic. In recent years, the broadcast outlets for radiophonic art have declined dramatically. There have never been many radio stations where artists have been able to stretch their creativity. A recent shift in programming philosophy has reduced such opportunities at Canada’s national radio service, in both the French (Radio-Canada) and English (CBC) divisions: audio art has shown up in small sound bursts, but with no regular time allotted to it in the schedules. The international situation is equary discouraging. Even in Europe, where there has historically been greater acceptance of art-based sound, radio services are beconiing more conservative.
It is all the more important, then, to celebrate the audio and radiophonic art that does exist. For me, Dumas’s sound is a shimmering light in a grey soundscape. Her work exists on CD, in sound installations, in performance, online, on community radio, and on the air-waves of the national broadcasters.
Her primary artistic background is in music. She played piano as a child, and later graduated from Université Laval with a Bachelor of music in 1981. When I interviewed her for this article she told me that the year 1984, when she arrived in Montréal from Quebec City, marked a major turning point in her life. The following years (1984-1989) revealed a whole new world of possibilities to her: “I discovered everything at that moment: new music, electroacoustic music, radio art, the avant-garde. It was a very active period. I hardly slept. I was doing radio and a bit of comniunity TV, I had a full time job at a multi-ethnic community radio station, and I was going to concerts and listening to everything I could, going to exhibitions, following arts activities of all kinds. At the same, time I was discovering through radio the multiculturalism of Montréal, the social and community milieu, and the day-to-day reality of a radio station.“
Dumas gradually developed a clear sense of what she wanted to create, and which medium she would embrace. Her work today is both radio and not radio, music and not music. It includes clarity and ambiguity, is linear and non-linear. It exists in time, but is also timeless. Her work is made up of moments. Each moment is intense and transparent but contained within a clearly audible narrative arc. You can step into Dumas’s works at any point and still feel that you’ve had a complete experience. Whether you choose to stay for a moment, or stay for the duration of an entire work, you hear a subjective, intense audio narrative. The sound images are developed in a poetic way and the interpretations of those images can be highly personal.
Although Dumas acknowledges that her musical background shapes and influences her work, she is concerned more with finding the appropriate medium to express what she wants to say, rather than with developing an identifiable musical voice. Categorizations of style and medium do not interest her. “The place where I see my radiophonic work is in between categories and genres. Interstices arc spaces of freedom, fields of possible exploration.” The rhythm she hears in everyday sounds is only one part of the musicality she brings to the compositional experience: “I listen to sound in an analytic musical way (to pitch, speed, texture, etc.) rather than for its referential sense. This is one way I like to use day-to-day sounds in my pieces. I think of a piece in terms of fiction, and I think of the structure, the composition, and the organization of sound materials in terms of rhythm, timbre, melody and musical sentences.”
She also works with musicians when she is creating new pieces, usually involving them in the compositional process: “I work with musicians who are open-minded and who do improvisation. I sometimes ask them for something specific. For example, in the case of one of my works, In the Pale Grey Days, I wanted specific musical quotations related to the jazz scene in the ‘40s in New York City. So I asked trombonist Tom Walsh to propose some music. He suggested JJ Johnson, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk. After that, he played at my request a passage from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and interpreted a duet version of Gershwin’s song They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
Another demonstration of her method of working with musicians can be found in Le parfum de femmes — Das Perfüme der Frauen, a three-movenient suite created in 1996-97. It was composed while Dumas was living in Germany, and it explores the theme of immigration, belonging, and alienation. It began as a radio-art project for the SFB radio and Deutschlandradio Berlin, and in 2000 it was published on CD. It was also broadcast throughout Europe and received two international awards, ArsAcustica of Ear’97 International Electroacoustic Competition in Hungary and the 1997 internatioal Phonurgia Nova Award (France).
Le parfum de femmes — Das Perfüme der Frauen is a blend of narrative elements, found sound (both natural and processed), and instrumental sound. Dumas worked with three musicians in creating the piece, encouraging them to use improvisation to bring their own experience to the work. Her working process is highly collaborative; musicians who are inventive and flexible and who do not need to rely on written music are ideal collaborators. Dumas worked with vocalist Shelley Hirsch for this piece. She began the recording session by suggesting words, colours, and tempo: “I had this idea I would like to have the voice of the wind which to me is connected with the idea of influences, even illusions, that lead people to move to one country instead of another. Hirsch created vocal improvisations related to the wind and also contributed a large range of possibilities, qualities of voice, that she associated with my request for certain ethnic musical colorations. I said I’d like her to create music that was short, happy, or dark, or playful. Or I would suggest a colour. Then she did an improvisation, and I recorded it.”
Hirsch worked with Dumas for only two hours. They were able to work quickly because Dumas already knew Hirsch’s style, and knew what she wanted to achieve during their recording session. Dumas also knew that Hirsch was flexible and accustomed to improvisation. After the sound material was recorded, Dumas was free to do what she wanted with it. At that stage, musicians are no longer involved in the composition process. So in that sense, could she not be considered a composer? She says no. “I never think of myself in that way. I always think of my compositions in terms of narrative and atmosphere. Music is there, I dont say no to that, but I think of a piece more the way one would think about a film - in terms of sequences, narrative lines, characters, texts, sound images, and musical themes. For sure, my background in music is there and my productions will always have a musical quality. I hope it will always be there!”
If Dumas’s work is not music, what is it? Dumas acknowledges that categorization is a problem in a culture which likes to fit art into neatly defined little boxes. “Its not documentary and it’s not drama. Radiophonic art or acousmatic art might fit.” she reflects. “My production is part of a large category called sound art. Some projects are radio art (in a narrative form), some others are music, and recendy I began to explore sound installation. Most of the time this question of categorization refers to the ‘product’ and its mode of ‘presentation’ rather than to the intrinsic nature of the work.”
The 1980s was a fertile time in the development of community radio. New regulations encouraged the growth of volunteer programs, and local radio stations were springing up everywhere. This provided an opportunity for hundreds of people to volunteer to produce radio shows on all kinds of subjects. Dumas was one of the people who took to the airwaves, Her first experience in radio was at the Montréal community radio station CINQ FM Radio Centre-Ville, where she worked on an arts magazine program, doing visual art reviews and interviews with artists. Though not a visual artist herself, she knew many painters and artists in the visual arts scene. She had not yet thought of creating artwork for radio, but she immediately understood that this was an exciting new medium through which she could express herself.
The first radio-art production she took part in at CINQ FM was Où allez-vous, madame? (“Where Are You Going, Mrs?”) which was based ou the children’s game, Snakes and Ladders. She describes the work as “open fiction.” She was part of a core group of ten people who collaboratively created a script, developed the text, added some music, and recorded a series of capsules which offered many possible paths inside the same story. Some of these were broadcast, after which the phone lines were opened for listeners to call in and decide which of the paths to follow next.
At the same time, she discovered the radio work of French composer Luc Ferrari. “The first pieces I heard by Ferrari were his musiques anecdotiques. Some of his pieces deal directly with the action of composing and dealing with the technology of the studio, as does his Dialogue ordinaire avec la machine or Trois fables pour bande doucement philosophiques (1984). His Presque Rien ou Le lever du jour au bord de la mer (1967-70), is what he calls his first minimalist composition, which was followed by Presque rien no 2, ainsi continue la nuit dans ma tête multiple (1977). I appreciated the strong sense of narrative in these pieces, along with the musical expression, and the fact that the presence of the composer is palpable in the music. They are wonderful pieces, very inspired. Et si toute entière maintenant (1986-87) is a symphonic tale, which tells about a journey of a crew and a woman on their way to the North on an ice-breaker. Is it a question of love, or cold? With Ferrari, there is always some ambiguity.
“This was the first time I had heard Hörspiel (literally,“game for the ear”), a form of radio art developed in Germany after the war. In discovering this genre, I met a sensibility that I really connected to. I understood the potential of the mix of text, music and sound. Ferrari is really free as an artist. He has explored many genres - radio and television documentary, radio art, pure music, theatre pieces - and continues to move from one genre to the other. In fact, he chooses the form he feels is the right one to express the idea of the moment.
“Duririg my residency in Europe I discovered a tradition of radio art that has been decisive in the development of my radiophonic approach. While I lived in Marseilles I listened to France-Culture radio, which had a regular five-day-a-week broadcast, “Les nuits magnétiques”, presenting documentaries with an extremely broad mandate. I listened to anything: the displacement of sheep in the fields, the autobiography of a well-known burglar (Papillon, in his own voice), recordings related to ethnopsychiatry.
“In Berlin, I became directly involved in radio production. In Germany there is a comniunity and economic context which supports art related to radio. Many new pieces are produced in radio studios every year - even with the reduced funding available today it is still a thriving community in comparison to Canada. In 1995, in Berlin, I found an active radiophomc milieu which supported conferences, festivals, and competitions. Even a small local theatre schedules its own Hörspiele events.”
Dumas’s latest CD release, Radio Roadmovies, was created in collaboration with composer Christian Calon. The project began as a trip with microphone and camera across Canada and up to the Arctic. Two radio-art pieces resulted jointly commissioned by Radio-Canada and DeutschlandRadio. A two-CD set and a website installation documenting the journey were also produced. In November, Dumas, Calon and media artist Don Sinclair premiered a web version of Radio Roadmovies during Soundplay, an annual festival produced in Toronto by New Adventures in Sound Art.
Dumas describes the long journey that she and Calon made. “What was really exciting was that the journey wasn’t really planned. We wanted to cross the country and look closely at the Canadian reality and feel the immensity of the territory after seven years of living in Europe, we really needed it. We wanted to escape from the cities because we spend so much time there. At one point in the trip, we decided to head north and try to reach the Arctic Circle, which was going to add another five thousand kilometres. We drove so far, it was incredible. Each time we stopped we asked ‘What does it sound like here? Is there something different, and in which way is it different?’ We developed a critical way of listening, and because we did so much listening and recording, we know which things sound different in each place. And, you know, if youre in a city in North America, all the cities sound the same. We were really looking for something else.”
“One of the main questions we had when we began this journey was how to cornmunicate in sound. For example, how do you communicate the 360 degrees of blue sky in the Prairies, the geographic accidents, how do you communicate the sensation of this journey? Rapidly we concluded that sound has its own reality, separate from our physical presence in an environment.”
The first of the two CDs is a subjective interpretation of the sounds encountered on the trip. Dumas and Calon call this part of the work Le petit homme dans l’oreille (“The Little Man in the Ear”). The title was inspired by a totem pole at the University of British Coluilibia’s Museum of anthropology. On this particular totem pole one could see a little man looking out of a bears head. Dumas says “It could have different meanings. According to a German expression it means you are crazy. For me, it means that there is always a part of us which is listening. I liked both these interpretations.”
The second CD is called Surface Documents [Documents de surface], and consists of field recordings presented without interpretation, processing, or alteration. The journey, Dumas says, “wasn’t necessarily planned, but we had nice surprises. Like one place where we heard some incredible birds, and tip until then we hadn’t known that these sounds existed. And the Prairies were incredible, not so much for the sound, but for the openness.”
The resulting CDs present a wide range of sounds, rhythms, timbres, and voices. We hear a foghorn near Tofino, B.C.; the wind in a cornfield; voices talking about heavy fog on the Dempster Highway heading up to Inuvik, N.W.T.; pork chops frying. Throughout Radio Roadmovies we hear sounds that are both epic and ordinary. “There is not just one way to see things or to listen,” Dumas points out. “The two pieces are mirrors to each other. The little man… is active. As listeners we are part of the journey; we feel the spaces change. … Documents is a contemplative piece. Even if the sound material is recognizable the construction brings the listener to another level of listening which is musical. I think having two different productions gave us the possibility to have another point of view. This is what we wanted.”
The Radio Roadmovies installation is an example of the kind of work that Dumas is hoping to do more of in the future. While she wants to continue producing radiophonic art, she is also planning to do more sound installation. Dumas says she thinks of sound in photographic terms, and thinks of her recordings as sound images. Though she will be developing new sets of skills when she works with other media, Dumas already has a strong base of knowledge, and has been influenced by cinema and photography. “I really appreciate photography. If you look at a photo, you can see a connection with social issues, you can see something about how the photo is constructed. At the same time, it can be very alive. I think this influenced me in terms of how to create something fictional with realistic material, how to create more than an atmosphere.”
In the summer of 2004 she accepted an opportunity to work on a project combining sound and text (presented in the form of graffiti). She had answered an Internet call for proposals to participate in an art project in Shanghai, and was selected to work with visual artists from China, Europe, and Australia in a project called Matchmaking at Suzhou Creek, an event organized by the Eastlink Gallery in Shanghai. Before her departure she interviewed Montréal residents of different ages, asking about their main concerns of the moment, and whether they are concerned about globalization or not. She combined the interviews with sounds recorded on Montréal bridges and used the bridge as a metaphor for the piece. As stated in the project description Dumas sent to Eastlink Gallery:
Under the Bridge, the two rivers (the St. Lawrence and the Huangpu) flow join, cross, pour one into the other, and mix their waters. Metaphorically, it is the unconscious of the two people that meet, the stream of thought mixed in the energy of the current of these two powerful waters. Those are the desires, the realizations, the culture, the fear, the force, the apprehension, the past, the present, the future, the freedom, the peace, the work, the family, the honour.
Once in Shanghai, Dumas posed the same questions to people who lived there, working through a translator. ““I wanted to know how we feel about globalization as individuals. Do we feel a part of it? The position of East and West about this question is very different. Chinese people see globalization in a very positive way. It is, for them, the opportunity to reach the same standard of living that we have in the West, and they really want to take as much as they can from the new economy which globahzation brings with it.”
Taking excerpts from these interviews, she worked with four visual artists. In pastel, chalk, and spray paint, they transcribed quotations from the interviews on the walls of the grey, colourless passageway leading to a water tower. As people stopped to read the walls, they were surrounded by Dumas’s soundwork. The visual and audio materials were thus linked by the experience of the visitor to the passageway.
Dumas is now completing several projects including another radio piece. The theme of some of her work is now moving towards more overtly socially conscious subjects, but she is also expanding into other types of sound practice. She is movmg outside the studio to find different forms, different ways of presenting her work. She collaborates with the poet, performer, and novelist Geneviève Letarte. She is working on another project about transcription, relating dance to sound, which deals with the process of creation and raises fundamental aesthetic questions. On this project she is working with writer Chantal Neveu, musicians Martin Tétreault (turntables) and André Leroux (saxophone), and four dancers who use their voices, giving body to the text. She is also collaborating with Emmanuel Madan and Anna Friz, both well-known audio and radio artists from Montréal. And she is pursuing her interest in improvisation: “What I like in improvisation is that the position of the improviser contrasts so much with the position of the studio artist. Improvisation is physical and has to deal with the present moment. I also like the fact that these moments are shared with artists involved in radio. And its fun and alive.”
In many ways, this brings Chantal Dumas’s work back to the place where she started. Her earliest works in radio were experiments with the medium, later evolving into carefully constructed, meticulously planned studio works. Another experimental phase has begun. It is hard to imagine what a Chantal Dumas artwork will look and sound like in ten years. If she enters into the next phase of her artistic life with as much imagination, technical excellence and conceptual brilliance as she has shown so far, exciting new things we’ve not yet heard or seen are sure to emerge.
Victoria Fenner is a Canadian audio artist who has spent the past two decades exploring the medium of sound. Her interest in audio art began in 1982, at Vancouver Cooperative Radio where she produced the Newsounds Gallery, an exploration of the artistic possibilities of radio. Since that time, she has produced many pieces of her own, and has curated the nationally distributed Canadian audio-art radio series Radiant Dissonance. She is also the creator of many audio art events and workshops.