Acousmatic and soundscape composition are arguably the most important compositional tendencies in Canadian electroacoustic music today. Rooted in musique concrète, acousmatic music treats the sound source as an abstract element which can be modified to suit a formal plan laid out by the composer. Recorded sounds are taken out of their context and their temporal and spectral characteristics are transformed, sometimes beyond recognition. Contrastingly, soundscape composition keeps the sound material close to the original recordings, and places the musical process within a specific socio-cultural context.
Francis Dhomont is among the foremost composers in the acousmatic tradition.
Since 1963, he has produced several dozens of works for tape. Sous le regard d’un soleil noir (Under the glare of a black sun) was done between 1979 and 1981. Its CD release dates from 1996. This is the first work of a trilogy inspired by psychoanalytic thought.
According to Dhomont, this work proposes a meeting of the imagination (‘psychology of depths’) with the mental images produced by the acousmatic treatment of sounds. Dhomont uses texts by psychiatrist - psychoanalyst Ronald D Laing (among other authors) to describe the journey of a schizophrenic mind from the ‘incarcerated self’ to the catatonic state.
The piece is structured in eight sections lasting four to eight minutes each. Dhomont uses three strategies to achieve formal unity: (1) The text is delivered almost without inflections and it is clearly articulated to keep it comprehensible. Little processing is applied. (2) Material from previous sections is recycled achieving an impressive economy of means. (3) The pitch class B natural is employed as a pivot and as a recurring motive throughout the piece.
Dhomont shows his compositional craftsmanship by keeping the pace of the sections masterly balanced. Sound objects are carefully designed to keep sources’ identities hidden. When these can be identified, they are meant to fulfill a specific formal function. For example, after the listener has been exposed to several minutes of abstract sound, the sudden appearance of a talking crowd (Inner Citadel, at 1:10) provides a striking contrast. The voice of the narrator is usually kept as a layer separate from the musical material.
After twenty years of its conception, Sous le regard d’un soleil noir starts to feel the weight of time. Some of the sound processing techniques employed may sound a bit artificial today, e.g., the low pass and high pass filtering of the voice. The use of amplitude envelopes on natural time varying sounds eliminates important temporal cues. Thus, the spectral characteristics of these sounds do not fit their temporal structure creating a perceptual paradox. Check, for example, the articulation on the B natural in the section titled Implosion.
Keeping in mind the year of its realization and the concepts underlying its formal plan, Sous le regard d’un soleil noir stands as a landmark of acousmatic composition.