Jonty Harrison, Contact!, no. 11:1, October 1, 1997

In Forêt profonde, we may be better able to relate to the central proposition — we have all been children at least, even if this is only one of the many levels on which the piece operates. Dhomont’s evocation of childhood through fairy tales is potent — dangerous, even — to our urbanised sensibilities. What is staggering about this work, as with so much Dhomont, is the sheer accuracy of the observation — he might be talking about me, my life, my singular experience; the insight cuts the listener like a knife. The piece exhibits a masterly and poignant interweaving of the sounds of childhood (actual? remembered?), an adult’s awareness of the ‘real’ subject matter of fairy tales and documentary references to the life of Bettelheim, who survived Dachau but committed suicide in 1990.

Those who know other works by Francis Dhomont will recognise some fingerprints: the exquisite sound world; the beautifully executed recordings of real-world sounds; the apparent simplicity, yet complete appropriateness to the poetic intent, of the studio transformations (particularly, in these two works, of the voice); the sense of everything happening at just the right time, the right speed, the right density; the staggering depth of field, from infinity to much too close for comfort; the subtle reference, not only to the real world (but what is really ‘real’ in this aural evocation of an internal super-reality?), but to a musical heritage of which he is fully aware, even if his art now extends beyond this. In Sous le regard d’un soleil noir, this manifests itself in the insistent B natural (si in French, also meaning ‘if’) which permeates the work, recalling what the composer calls ‘the memory of Wozzeck’ (from Berg’s ‘Invention’ on this note in his opera of the same name), and echoing Laing’s repetition of what Nattiez calls ‘the conditional if… [which] becomes obsessive alliteration’. In Forêt profonde the primary musical reference is to Schumann. As Dhomont explains, ‘each of the 13 sections borrows a brief element, a colour, an atmosphere, from the 13 Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood)’.

As ever with works by Dhomont, the listener’s ear in these two remarkable pieces is enhanced by the composer — he makes us hear better than we might otherwise. He makes us aware of connections, of subtle exchanges and interplays; and by contrast, he makes radically different material sound ‘right’, sound organic and logical. He holds the listener in a suspension of belief, in a magical land not unlike the ‘deep forest’ of the imagination, guided — so unusually in this day and age, and so all the more strikingly — by our ears. What Dhomont tells us is true — the proof is the confirmation of aural perception: hearing is believing.

… hearing is believing.