Steve Benner, Amazon, August 18, 2002

Originally the second half of a 2-CD set, Mouvances ~ Métaphores (Movements ~ Metaphors)” but now re-released as a stand-alone disc, Les dérives du signe (The Misguidance of Signs) contains four major tape works from one of the most significant contemporary composers of computer-produced sound art of our age, Francis Dhomont. Although ostensibly linked, as suggested in the CD’s title, through “the ubiquity and ambiguity of signs [which] inform us and lead us astray,” I would suggest that in reality these four works have little in common with each other beyond being prime examples of Francis Dhomont’s acousmatic output of the mid 80s. Not that this makes the release any less desirable or worthwhile, of course. In fact, the variety of the programmatic content of the four works on offer here makes for a more varied and balanced collection than is the case with some other discs of this composer’s music.

This collection opens with the 20-minute work, Novars, composed in 1989 as an homage to musique concrète in general, and specifically to Pierre Schaeffer “its ill-fated inventor”. The entire work is constructed from a series of computer-processed variations derived from just two musical quotations, one from Pierre Schaeffer’s Étude aux objets of 1959, the other from Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame of 1364 — although there is a passing reference to Pierre Henry’s (in)famous creaking door from his work of 1963, Variations pour une porte et un soupir (Variations for a Door and a Sigh), thrown in for good measure. The work thus combines elements of the fourteenth century Ars Nova, with those of the “New Art” of our own century (just past): musique concrète and its realisation through the application of computer technology.

The work is a slowly unfolding, contemplative study of the infinite musical possibilities on offer from its twin source materials, neither of which are ever fully revealed, but rather are eternally veiled by the shimmering and complex treatments to which they have been subjected. For those unused to works of this kind, however, the listening experience may not be a gentle one: like much of Francis Dhomont’s music, Novars is not for the faint-hearted or the lover of sweet harmonies. It is, after all, a celebration of the new; any lovers of the old, unreceptive to revolutionary ideas, will undoubtedly have an abhorrence to such as this. Fans of electroacoustic works, though, will see this for what it is: a landmark treatise of epic scope.

Somewhat easier on the ears, perhaps, is the slightly earlier (1987) composition Chiaroscuro. As its title suggests, this piece is concerned with the interplay of shadow and light, with opacity and transparency of sound, revelling as it does in the game of masking the sources of its sound materials to produce a perpetual uncertainty of meaning; a veritable assemblage of ambiguities making for an acousmatic regalement of the highest order. To quote the composer: “one believes one holds the image but it sifts between the fingers, or allows itself to be covered, engulfed by a new image closing in upon it.” This is a work that you can simply sit back and let wash over you, as it swirls and splashes and gurgles and creaks and rattles and sings and sighs its way through its 17-minute duration.

Clocking in at just less than 13 minutes, the 1989 composition Météores (Meteors) is the shortest work in this disc. In fact, it is but the third and closing movement of a longer [work] , Chroniques de la lumière (Chronicles of Light), which presents sonic representations of visual or luminous phenomena. Météores uses an accumulation of short, tinkling bursts of sound, gently building from a sparse and austere opening, to construct an ever denser flurry of sonic events, somewhat akin to an electronic snow-storm.

The final work, Signé Dionysos (Signed Dionysus) (1986, 91), stands somewhat apart from the rest of the music on the disc. Described by its composer as an “operacousmatic”, it portrays, in a most charming and humorous manner, the dramas played out on a late spring evening in and around a small lake in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. But this is an opera like no other, for “all of the roles, from the diva to the choir, [are] taken by… frogs.” It begins with an opening scene — a kind of prologue — in which the day-time human visitors gradually finish their play and depart, leaving the stage set for the appearance of the main characters, who, I might add, sing with great gusto and passion. Joined by snippets of birdsong, and other natural sounds of the night, the voices of frogs — mostly real, but also synthetic or computer-processed — mingle with occasional orchestral sounds and other musical noises to form an intoxicating and entertaining series of tableaux.

Almost 30 minutes in length, this substantial work is entirely fascinating from beginning to end, constituting one of the very best acousmatic compositions it is possible to find. Not only a work of great beauty, it is also a masterpiece of dramatic tension and release, humour and suspense, replete with musical and sonic jokes aplenty, as well as pathos and a sense of the surreal; a veritable paradise of paradox and ambiguity. Or, as the composer puts it: “Truth or lie? Found, processed or constructed sound? All of these delusions confound the ear and, as with wine, alter the senses.” Quite so; this is heady stuff indeed! Absolutely unbeatable! The disc would be worth having for the final track alone; combined with the other works on offer here, this release should be considered well nigh irresistible.

Contrasts drawn in sonic quicksand. 5/5

Contrasts drawn in sonic quicksand.