Francis Dhomont and Robert Normandeau

I met with Dhomont in Montréal the day after his 80th birthday, which was celebrated there with a five day festival of electroacoustic music by Calon, Brümmer, Martusciello and others. And by Francis Dhomont, whose concert took place on his birthday. A working birthday, too, as he presented his music himself. In the midst of all this activity, Dhomont was gracious enough to grant Asymmetry this interview, and not only that, but since he wanted to conduct it in French, his friend and colleague, Robert Normandeau very kindly agreed to act as translator for us and very naturally took part in the conversation.Normandeau at Studio Hydro-Quebec

Asymmetry: When you read biographies of composers, there’s often some mention of that person having studied with Nadia Boulanger, say, or Charles Koechlin or whomever. That’s the extent of it, usually. And I always find myself curious about the other people; who are the other people that a young composer, that a young Francis Dhomont—at 14, or 20, or 25—admired and perhaps tried to emulate, even?

Dhomont: When I was studying with Nadia Boulanger, I was listening to the most contemporary composers who had been discovered after the war, which meant Stravinsky, a lot, but also the three Viennese composers, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Bartók as well. During the war, in Paris, this music was not accessible at all. So after the war, all these composers had to be rediscovered, because for the younger generation there was a blank, you know. And afterwards, there was Olivier Messiaen, the most important composer in France at the time, and in direct line from Claude Debussy.

Also after the war, jazz was important for the younger generation in France; music that we liked and that we played as well. And after, American composers, but not necessarily the best ones for me, at first. Copland right after the war, but Cage not until later. Not for me, anyway.

Normandeau: I think that Cage made his first appearance in Donauesching or maybe it was Darmstadt in ’56 or ’58.

Dhomont: Yes, that’s true. And then of course the composers of my same generation, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio, all that whole generation of composers, and some other French composers like Jean Barraqué, people like that who were the exact contemporaries, who were very active and very influencial.

Before I knew that electroacoustic music was around, or that it was possible, I discovered for myself, playing around with a wire recorder, that it was possible to do something with sound. After the war. Kind of a parallel story to Schaeffer.

And after that, I discovered all the composers who were working at the GRM, like François Bayle, Bernard Parmegiani, Luc Ferrari, all the first generation of composers who were a part of the GRM in Paris.

Asymmetry: Speaking of whom, people I talk to, especially electroacoustic composers, know that one of my reasons for starting this magazine was a frustration, with textbooks, and music critics, and consequently with listeners generally, that electroacoustic music is always something that’s off to the side. If it gets into a textbook, it’s always something at the very end, “Electronic Music and other things.” And it will be five pages, and it will mention the same names, Schaeffer, Henry, Varese.

Normandeau: Maybe Stockhausen.

Asymmetry: Yes, maybe Stockhausen, maybe Hugh Le Caine.

Normandeau: Maybe Subotnick.

Asymmetry: Yes, always the same people, and there’s never any sense that there are a lot of people working in this area who are all very good and who have all been doing it for a long time. Electroacoustic music didn’t start with people who didn’t know what they were doing. These were people who were composers already. One of the things I want to do with the magazine is to present electroacoustic music as an important part of the whole musical scene.

Dhomont: Do you think that you will find that many things already written on electroacoustic music? Or by electroacoustic composers?

Normandeau: There’s not that many things written about electroacoustic music up to now.

Asymmetry: Well, there’s some, but it’s scattered about. And in the textbooks, it’s always the same. In fact, it appears as if they just copy one another. You take this from the Harvard book and you put it in your Princeton book. You take this from the Princeton book and put it in your Oxford book.

Normandeau: I actually have a project—one of my colleagues is pushing me in that direction, and the university press has agreed to publish a book—to publish a overview of sixty years of electroacoustic music. Not a book about the history of the music, that is too complex; I don’t have the time to dedicate to that kind of thing. But it’s true, that there is absolutely nothing that would help a student get an overview of the first sixty years of this music. Everything so far is local. You will find a book about the history of electroacoustic music in Paris. Or the story of the synthesizer in the United States. Very partial. No overview, no information in one place.

Dhomont: Most of the books we’re talking about cover the first thirty years of electroacoustic music. There is nothing about the last thirty years, you know.

Asymmetry: Or even the last forty. The ones I’m thinking of will do pretty well up to about mid-sixties, and then they just fizzle out.

Dhomont: And it’s not the same for instrumental music. There there are lots of things written about contemporary composers.

Asymmetry: That’s true. And what’s more, these people writing about it don’t seem to have ever listened to any electroacoustic music. They’ve listened to the instrumental music; you know that they’ve heard these pieces, that they have gone to concerts and heard the stuff.

Normandeau: Yes, it seems there are very few musicologists interested in electroacoustic music.

Asymmetry: And you can read critics, who go to concerts, and they seem to have no idea that electroacoustic music even exists.

Dhomont: If you think about magazines about music, when people read magazines on music, from time to time there’ll be an article on contemporary music, and they will read it, because it is there. The problem is, that with electroacoustic music there is no popular magazine or general magazine, because this music is only new. You cannot have a magazine on electroacoustic music that would talk about the Bach or the Vivaldi of electroacoustic music. We are all contemporary and we are almost all of us still alive, sixty years after. And this is a problem, that we have only specialized magazines that are dedicated to electroacoustic music. So it is distributed only in specialized fields and only specialists are reading these magazines, because they’re only intended for specialists.

Asymmetry: Exactly. And that’s the gap I’d like to fill. To promote this music as perfectly normal, perfectly lovely, and perfectly accessible. And not difficult.

Normandeau: No, in fact, I would think that for the most part it’s less difficult than contemporary instrumental music. If you go to an instrumental concert today, it’s kind of difficult to make your way through all the different aesthetics. You can get completely lost.

Dhomont: Most of the instrumental contemporary music is really abstract today, and it’s kind of difficult for the audience to project themselves into this music. While in electroacoustic music, because we are working with images of sound, it is possible to trigger the listener’s imagination, probably easier than with contemporary instrumental music.

Asymmetry: I think there are some prejudices still, that linger for a lot of listeners. If you go to a concert and there’s a cellist playing, or even if you just listen to a CD and there’s a cello, no one thinks “Oh, there’s a cello.” But with electroacoustic music, if a train whistle appears, everyone goes “Oh, there’s a train whistle.” You never say that about the cello; you just listen to the music.

Normandeau: Well, you are right when you say that there is a prejudice about electroacoustic music, because people will not go to an electroacoustic concert because there is no social ritual. There is no stage, or very few stages. There is no performer on the stage, only a guy who is at the board, and nobody understands what’s going on on that board. This is a difficulty of this music up to a point. And we can see that, because as soon as you present a visual element in the concert, the concert is crowded.

I’m curious how would you describe the electroacoustic scene in the United States? Because as far as I know—because many years ago, we tried to make a tour in the States, with the empreintes DIGITALes label, and we couldn’t find any place like we have here to play this music. Not necessarily 24 speakers, but even ten or twelve. And not in universities, you know, but like here, downtown.

Asymmetry: There should be places, aside from universities. San Francisco, which has an electroacoustic festival of its own.

Normandeau: Yes, the San Francisco Tape Center and places like that, but that’s very unique.

Asymmetry: And in New York, there should be places.

Normandeau: Well, apparently…

Asymmetry: …apparently not! But it is true that in the United States, electroacoustic music is very much a matter of the academy. And the place where you can set up 24 speakers is going to be on a university campus. It’s different in that sense from Europe or Canada.

Normandeau: Do think it is related to the fact that there is not that much support or involvement from the government with the culture? If it is possible for us to give things like this festival, downtown, it is because we have the Canada Council for the Arts, who gives money to concert societies like us to produce that kind of concert. If this subsidizer were not around, I think it would be very difficult.

Asymmetry: There are subsidizers in the U.S., but I think everyone is so used to thinking of things in terms of the universities, that nobody really thinks of taking it out of the university and putting into a concert hall downtown. If there’s money, from the NEA say, it’s going to go to a professor, to a university, to students—and there’ll be concerts there and that will be an end to it. It’s not that there’s not money, government money—though the amounts are very small. There are a lot of people in the U.S. doing this music, but you never hear of it—there’s nothing in the U.S. that corresponds to Montréal, or Paris, or even Karlsruhe, for that matter. The activity is there, but it’s all scattered. And people do feel that. They go to Europe or Canada, a lot, just so they can feel they have colleagues. [Laughter.] I think there are many things going on, but everyone is isolated in the U.S., and even with the SEAMUS conference—everyone’s happy about it once a year, but then everyone goes back to their universities.

Normandeau: Today it is easier to make a network, though, with modern communications, and that may make it better. But it doesn’t often spread out to the public. Yesterday, at the concert for Francis, many of those people I never had seen before. Of course there were colleagues and former students, but easily half of those people I didn’t know.

Asymmetry: And that’s exactly what you want!

Normandeau: Yes, a real public.

Asymmetry: It was sold out. They turned away at least thirty people in the line that I saw.

Normandeau: We turned away maybe 15 or 20, because we managed to squeeze in some more into the hall. It’s a nice problem, but it’s not agreeable to do that, especially if you know people in the line!

Asymmetry: Whenever I think of the new music situation in the States, I think of the trip of John Cage to Finland shortly before he died, where he was mobbed as if he were a rock star. Audiences in his last ten, fifteen years were very appreciative, and they were growing. I met John at a time when audiences were not big; and I watched them grow. But still nothing like how it was, I hear, in Finland. So there’s that kind of difference, too. There’s no sense of the audiences being excited and happy about this exciting music.

Normandeau: But they don’t know about it. It’s not broadcast, so they have no chance to just happen upon it, by chance.

Asymmetry: There are really only a couple of magazines, print magazines, in the U.S., now, devoted to classical music, and the most prominent is the one from the BBC. And people opening BBC Music Magazine are not going to hear about Francis Dhomont, or Robert Normandeau. They’ll probably hear about Wolfgang Rihm. But you’re just as important as Rihm.

Normandeau: I don’t know….

Asymmetry: I do! [Laughter]

There’s one thing I’d like to know—it’s something I always think about, but I’ve never asked this before, and that is, is there any question that you wish someone would ask, just so that you could answer it?

Dhomont: One question I would like someone to have asked me is where electroacoustic music is going, because of the fact that the situation at the beginning is not there any more, and another thing has been done, and now we have to ask ourselves as a collective of composers and actors in this field, where is this music going in the future?

Asymmetry: That’s a great question! [Laughter]. But other people haven’t asked that?

Dhomont: Maybe specialized journalists would ask a question like that, but they would have to be aware of the field, to know the situation, if there is any problem. It is a question I have been asking myself.

Asymmetry: Well, Asymmetry is not intended for specialists, but you can be as technical as you want!

Normandeau: It is not a matter of technical things, though, but of aesthetics, which means that it’s more or less a question of we have done so many things in the last sixty years, and all the things that had to be discovered, up to a point, were discovered, and now we have to go somewhere else. That is my own interpretation of it. [Dhomont chuckles.] We have had discussions about this. It is where the younger generation—what will be the new deal for the next generation?

Dhomont: The first point is that the field of electroacoustic music was completely empty in the beginning. The former generation explored in every direction, and so the field is now completely crowded, and really busy, and, up to a point, exhausted. Just like if you have cultivated the same land for years, you have to let it rest for awhile.

The second point is about the actual technology, which is so easy to use compared to what was possible in the past, and because of that, composers don’t ask themselves any more questions about composition but about skills, technical skills. You know, how to use this software in a better way than the day before and what is the next upgrade and et cetera.

So they miss something about questioning themselves, aesthetically speaking.

The main thing about that is when you are using tools, you have to use them in a personal way to find your own language through these tools. These tools are there only to help you find your own language, and what I sense, especially when serving on a jury and receiving pieces from many many people, is that a lot of pieces coming from the young generation are sounding exactly the same from one composer to the next one, because they are using the tools exactly the same way at the first level, just opening the software and putting something to it and that’s it. So there is nothing that goes beyond that.

I feel like we have to strongly ask ourselves what to do now, and where are we going? We are going somewhere, but we have to ask that. This music will not go somewhere by itself.

What we should do, and what I will do myself, about my own music, is to try to draw the whole picture of my production, by listening to all my works and trying to bring out of this exercise what are the most important musical aspects that I would like to develop for the future. This is where I am at the moment.

Asymmetry: Since you were a professor, is there any specific advice you have for young composers, faced with tools…. What kind of attitude to have towards those tools?

Dhomont: If I were still teaching, what I would say to my students is to try to really jump into the musical questions and stop experimenting with the tools. The tools are there; they are working perfectly well. They are over-performing, actually. So it’s largely enough to make music. We have enough tools to make music. Stop experimenting with the new tools, the new fashioned ones that just appeared yesterday. And all that stuff that generates actually only experimental material.

Normandeau: I think the experimental part of this music is in the past, up to a point. We have experimented with things, have produced a lot of experimental works in the past. Now we have to do music. We have to question ourselves about aesthetics and about music and not about tools any more. Except at engineer conferences, of course!

Dhomont: In the previous era, you would buy a tape recorder, and you started to work with the tape recorder, and you made music with the tape recorder. You didn’t say to yourself, “maybe I should have a different tape recorder, maybe there is another one that would be a little bit better than the previous one?” You were working with the tape recorders, and you were making music directly with the tools that you had in your hands at the moment. So let the engineers build new tools; it’s not a problem, they will build new tools anyway. As composers, just keep concentrated on the music, and be satisfied with the actual tools and work as much as possible in the musical field instead of the engineering field.

Asymmetry: Since there are so many changes and they are so fast, I’m wondering if composers, young composers, may come to the point where they realize this, how true this is. And realize, for themselves, that they can’t keep up. There are too many things happening, on the engineering side. And maybe they’ll realize that they have to deal with those musical issues, because that’s what everyone has to deal with anyway.

Dhomont: Maybe yes. Maybe the new generation will be fed up as well with waiting for the next tool and maybe naturally they will jump into the composition process without being really being concerned by the appearance of the new tools. Composers in the past were never looking for or never waiting for new instruments or new tools. If the instruments appear, OK, we’ll play with it we’ll work with it. But they weren’t waiting.

Asymmetry: No one was waiting for the saxophone, but as soon as it came, people said, oh OK, may be.

Normandeau: May be, exactly. This is the main difference. Naturally, the younger generation now is a little bit less concerned with the new tools.

Dhomont: You think so?

Normandeau: Over the last two or three years, yes. They don’t want to talk about technology any more. Well, there is a group of people who are involved in technology—there will be always people like this—but for what we would consider the most interesting composers, they have the tools, they know them by heart, and they use them just like a composer, like an instrumental composer, would use the piano. The piano player doesn’t spend time describing the piano mechanism. And instrumental composers, when they meet, do not talk about the piano mechanism. But this is what electroacoustic composers did for years. They would meet and immediately start discussing software.

Dhomont: Composers will stop talking about software and hardware issues starting when the tools become completely transparent. Just like the piano. You don’t worry about the piano. The piano works. As soon as the tools become completely transparent, as soon as composers don’t have to worry any more about the internal functionality of the software, they will then be able to jump directly into the music. There was a tool developed at the GRM in Paris called SYTER; it was both software and hardware. The user manual was only so thick. After one day of training, you were able to work and do something musical. It was a very complex machine, but nobody explained that to you, you were just playing with it, working with it. Just like the piano. The piano is a very complex mechanism, but no one explained to composers how the mechanism worked. So it’s the same thing.

Normandeau: The next step in electroacoustic music will be to build a perfectly transparent interface between the composer and the computer. And this is what we are waiting for, instead of working with a keyboard and a mouse, which is not a musical interface at all. There is an international conference dedicated to interfaces, called NIME (New Interfaces for Musical Expression), which was held in Montréal recently. A lot of people are working to develop something that would trigger a computer from a human point of view, for the performer as well as the composer. So I think a lot of people are working on that, on what would be best kinds of interfaces that performers would need or that composers would need to make this music perfectly transparent, just like with a clarinet, say.

Asymmetry: Is the SYTER at all like the UPIC from CCMIX?

Normandeau: No, it’s completely different. The concept is different. But the idea is the same, that is, to give the tool a direct relationship with the sound through a very simple interface. In the UPIC, you draw things on the screen, and you have the result immediately. You don’t have to think about all the parameters, you are able to work directly with the sound. The SYTER offers different strategies for working with sound. Let’s say you have a resonant filter. You can organize a group of parameters of that resonant filter in a circle on the screen and another group in another circle, perhaps a larger one. The circles have an effect, kind of gravity, so the bigger circle has a bigger effect on the result than the smaller one. As you move the mouse from one circle to the other, there is interpolation of all the parameters at the same time. And so it is really interactive.

Dhomont: In real time.

Normandeau: In real time, yes. It is really interactive, really intuitive. You can put different circles on the screen, as many as you like, and make interpolations. And playing with the sounds in real time is very easy. And so the results with this machine were really fantastic. I still—and it’s probably the same with Francis—I am still using sounds that I made in the middle of the nineties.

Dhomont: At GRM, they have also put out a smaller version of it as a form of plug ins that work on many platforms, called GRM tools.

Asymmetry: One last question. What are you working on now?

Dhomont: I am working on something called Cycle des Profondeurs. This cycle comprises three major works. The first work was called Sous le regard d’un soleil noir, which was composed in the late seventies, early eighties, which lasts about fifty minutes or so, and is based on some books of the famous Scottish psychiatrist, Ronald Laing, who was interested in schizophrenia and other mental diseases. The second work of the cycle was Forêt Profonde, which was dedicated to fairy tales, but interpreted by Bruno Bettelheim. And the third part of the cycle, which I am working on, is about the work of Franz Kafka, the Czech writer, as interpreted by Marthe Robert, from a psychoanalytic point of view. The work will be called Le cri du choucas, the cry of the crow. Kafka is the name of the bird in Czech. Franz Kafka’s father was a merchant, and on the facade of his store there was a representation of the crow, this choucas.

This is a project I’ve been working on for many years now, especially because I had some problems with the French editor of the text by Kafka, who didn’t give permission to use the text. So it was a long process to be able to get able to get the text to work with. So the premiere yesterday—well actually the premiere was in Bruxelles, a co-premiere if you can say that—was a musical study for this long work. And along with that will be some texts by Kafka, in a new translation, especially made for the work. And another musical study in Paris, part of this cycle, on November 11.

[Another portion of this work in progress was presented at the 2007 Bourges festival. The report on that will be appearing in Asymmetry some time before the 2008 festival.]

Clip of interview in dressing room with rehearsal for Brümmer’s concert in the background:

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One Comment

  1. Jay Williams
    Posted November 21, 2010 at 2:51 am | Permalink

    from Marietta, Georgia: I discovered M. Dhomont’s work a few years ago at the Music from Other Minds festival and just tonight, 11-20-’10, I heard Normandeau on the BBC. WOW! You both write truly imaginative music. I’m also a composer and I think my use of sound gestures is similar to yours. Nice to have such musical companionship. Very inspiring.

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