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Francis Dhomont in London: Electroacoustic Music and History

We have entered a new millennium; a fact celebrated by practically everyone apart from a few mathematically inclined pedants who are postponing their millennial celebrations (they claim) until January 2001. Given that a large proportion of the world's population feels little compulsion to abide by our calendar, the symbolic value of such significant temporal signposts is necessarily somewhat contrived. Nevertheless, the dawn of a new millennium will, inevitably perhaps, prompt a reflective consideration of the past. In a conversation with the French composer Francis Dhomont the electroacoustic medium's relationship with its history became a recurring theme. Some might argue, of course, that electroacoustic music is fortunate in being apparently independent of the historical burdens which can encumber other . This is, I believe, an illusion. The term "music" implies common cultural, aesthetic and philosophical issues. Electroacoustic music cannot - and should not - remain apart from the wider historical and social contexts in which it is situated. Its history is as diverse, rich and contradictory as any musical genre. Francis Dhomont's career connects the present day and the pioneers of our medium. He has received five prizes from the Bourges International Electroacoustic Festival in addition to other prizes and honours and continues to be active as a composer and writer. During February, Dhomont was invited to spend several days in Great Britain. He was the featured composer at the Sonic Arts Network Conference in Newcastle and during the preceding week he was a guest of Birmingham University. In between these visits he spent time in London where he diffused his composition Phonurgie (the fourth part of his Cycle du son) at the second "Fin de siècle" concert at City University. In acousmatic music the sounds are "fixed" as far as order and rate of succession are concerned but sound diffusion permits the restoration of some traditional aspects of performance practices. Dhomont is obviously a highly proficient sound projectionist, though he later admitted: "To be honest, I prefer the mixing desk in the middle of the audience - then I can hear the music like them!". This was not a criticism of City University's performance space; a complete rearrangement of their system was hardly a viable option! The next day, after an interview for Radio 3 at the BBC, City University was the venue once more for Dhomont's presentation on Phonurgie. Teaching is something at which Dhomont clearly excels. His experiences at Birmingham and City Universities indicate an immediate rapport with students. "I love teaching and many of my former students have become good friends. In fact, I see them as colleagues rather than students." With such a punishing schedule it was typical of Dhomont's generosity that he found time to talk to me. He even abandoned the opportunity to be a tourist: "I have only visited London once before, which is ridiculous now we have Eurostar and it is so easy to get here. Tomorrow I'll be a real tourist!". I have to confess I still feel guilty at interrupting this plan. Predictably, the next day it poured with rain.

Dhomont's relationship with electroacoustic history is evident in his compositions. Direct quotations from his own works and those of other composers are frequent reminders of a common heritage. Music and texts can evoke the power and poetry of deeply seated memories - both personal and collective. Dhomont never presents this as confused post-modern intertextuality but as an intrinsic part of his experience as composer and listener. Furthermore, he feels no need to claim priority in electroacoustic music's evolution. He had no knowledge of Schaeffer when he started experimenting with tape recorders and so, like Pierre Henry (a composer admired by Dhomont), he could justifiably demand some recognition for his role in the medium's development. However, such an attitude would be uncharacteristic of Dhomont: his admiration for Schaeffer is genuine and heartfelt. So convinced is Dhomont of Schaeffer's status that he asserted: "In my opinion, Schaeffer is a modern day Philippe de Vitry." This comment might appear obscure, eccentric even, until the parallels between the two musicians - separated though they are by some seven centuries - are investigated. Philippe de Vitry was regarded as one of the foremost intellectuals of his age whose expertise included not only music but also poetry. Schaeffer's polymathic activities are well documented. In addition, both men were not only composers but theorists. Naturally, there is no obligation for composers to theorise in writing about the techniques by which their works are produced: the music should do that for them. Nevertheless, theory allows, and might actually encourage, a systematic investigation of materials and techniques. It provides a cognitive framework which composers or analysts can use to clarify and explain their interpretations. Thus, Schaeffer's Traité des Objets Musicaux (a work whose importance still remains largely unappreciated by most instrumental composers) can be compared with Vitry's treatise entitled Ars Nova (a term also used to refer to 14th century polyphony in general thus contrasting it with Ars Antiqua or the polyphony of the preceding century). Comparisons between the two men acquire even greater significance if we examine their methodologies. Vitry was preoccupied with the classification of mensural rhythm and notation. His comments on this subject in his treatise were amongst the most important in the development of notation. The notational practices of the ars antiqua were systematic but limited and Vitry's codification and elaboration of rhythmic notation allowed an expansion in note values and, as a result, a much greater range of combinations. While notation was not a priority for Schaeffer, in his treatise he formulated the concept of the sound object and its classification into types. This expansion of materials and the development of a taxonomic system to relate them can be compared to the unprecedented rhythmic flexibility that was a consequence of Vitry's investigations. Thus both Schaeffer and Vitry fundamentally changed music. Indeed, Dhomont goes so far as to claim that: "Musique concrète is the Ars Nova of the twentieth century."

It is, therefore, particularly interesting to remember that whilst Dhomont was experimenting with technology in 1947 he was completely unaware of Schaeffer's work which, it must be emphasised, had barely begun. As a young composer he could claim an impressive list of teachers. He studied with Ginette Waldmeier (a pupil of Nadia Boulanger) then with Boulanger herself, René Leibowitz and Charles Koechlin - by any standards this must have been a formidable musical education. The composer Koechlin, for example, was the author of an important work on harmony and Dhomont was able to deepen his knowledge of the traditional repertoire. "Debussy, for example, was a particularly important composer for me." His relatively late commitment to the electroacoustic medium ensured he had already acquired substantial experience with instrumental composition - ear-training in the best sense of the term. Like many of his generation who became aware of the sonic possibilities revealed by analogue equipment, basic transformations such as tape reversal and acceleration or deceleration of playback speed encouraged a sensitivity to aspects such as energy and harmonic content. "The first tape recorder was a Webster. It was an old machine and not very good. Later I used Revoxes and other recorders." Consistent with the notion of analogue techniques as craft as much as, if not more than, art the actual mechanics of the equipment had to be considered. "For example, I'm not really interested in computers even though I use them. But, in those days I had to learn how to repair these machines (ie the Webster tape recorder) as there were hardly any spare parts available". Later, whilst living in Paris, Dhomont heard the tape compositions of others: "I heard the works of Schaeffer and Henry, but this was after I had experimented with tape recorders myself." Dhomont decided to attend courses at the GRM and commit himself to the electroacoustic medium.

Dhomont's background encouraged an acute sensitivity to the power of literature: "My father was a poet though it was never his career". The role of memory in recalling and recreating past events is particularly evident in authors admired by Dhomont. When I asked if the writers of the OuLiPo group had influenced him with their elaborate language games and reliance on highly organised, artificial methods of production he shook his head and replied: "Writers like Gide and Proust were more important for me." The latter, on reflection, is an obvious choice. The self analytical style favoured by Proust is adapted by Dhomont in more recent works such as Forêt profonde. The notion of the forest as a metaphor for the mind is compelling: "I see the forest as a symbol. But a forest is not just the trees there is also the undergrowth. Things are hidden, things we're only dimly aware of." Furthermore, the use of fairy tales in various languages is a striking device in some sections of this composition. It encourages ambivalence on the part of the listener. On the one hand, personal memories are recalled (who has not heard fairy tales when young?), on the other hand traditional fairy tales also exploit references to deeper, often darker forms of symbolism. They become myths tapping into a collective unconscious. Such depths, ripe for psychoanalytical treatment, are often lost today. For example, many children's initial experiences of Snow White, Pinocchio and Alice in Wonderland are in mind-numbingly anodyne versions by Walt Disney where they are stripped of all emotional and sexual resonance. Dhomont restores these tales to their original power in a work that shares radiophonic as well as musical approaches.

We are fortunate that Dhomont continues to compose with undiminished enthusiasm and inventiveness. His music shows that our history is still developing - it is dynamic not static - and that composers such as Francis Dhomont still have a vital role to play in this process.

With thanks to Phil Hallett for arranging the meeting with Francis Dhomont. Thanks also to Marie-Josianne Agossou for her advice in translating from the French.

This article first appeared in the Sonic Arts Network DIFFUSION.

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