The Birds, a sound sculpture by Charles de Meaux

Interviews 20.12.2022

The artist and filmmaker Charles de Meaux has created a permanent sound sculpture for the Scène de recherche de l'École Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay as part of the 1% project. The artist proposes to make these birds sing, set to music by Messiaen; to make them sing the composer's score without the mediation of musical instruments. The immersive spatialized broadcasting of this performance, in which nature is given back its creation, is the trace of it.

The broadcasting of Charles de Meaux 's work requires a writing of spatialization - and 42 points of sound projection - to transpose the arrangements of the score and recreate a specific space. This plastic piece, conceived as an animated stage curtain, has the specificity of being triggered before each performance. This work is highly relevant to the context and the use of the building itself.

Charles, can you go back to the genesis of this project, how your proposalcame aboutand why the choice of this device more specifically?
Facing an architecture by Renzo Piano is humbling... In Saclay, the ENS building is designed as a majestic atrium with a very contemporary garden, both in its aesthetics and in its very ecological design. And in the middle, there is a windowless cube that the architect compares to the monolith in 2001 Space Odyssey. This building is dedicated to experimenting with contemporary forms of entertainment - performances, theater, talks - for and by students. It is also the part of the campus where I was to intervene. I didn't want to do anything that "clung" to the architecture or fought against it. I immediately had the desire, the intuition to bring nature into this space of the Research Stage, where it is not expected, a very closed, enclosed place. I looked for something that would make sense in this place. Like "turning over the glove".

How did you occupy this space?
I am a visual artist and not a musician, so the question that interests me is obviously that of space, how to occupy a space? To answer this question, I worked on spatialization to treat the sound as a physical matter. It is also the only way to approach the complexity, the equation of the passage from the score to the reality of nature.

What does Olivier Messiaen, this emblematic figure of 20th century contemporary music, mean to you?
Proposing a work for a place of transmission as emblematic as the ENS pushed me to reflect on this question of transmission and "the discussion of one's practice". Through his teaching, Olivier Messiaen has federated - I would almost say created - entire generations of composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, or even Quincy Jones. Today, he is still a reference for many musicians of all schools. Tom York of Radiohead, for example, quotes him regularly. I thought it was good to include in this school a personality who was as interested in what music is as in how to play an instrument. 

How did you construct this piece?
The piece has a certain humility in relation to Messiaen's creation, who himself felt humility in relation to nature. It is precisely this bridge that inspired me to move forward. Listening to his music, his Réveil des oiseaux, I have the feeling that he lives in a kind of permanent Stendhal syndrome, that is to say an emotional outpouring, in front of these birds and he draws notes from them. Since notes are not my language, how can I return them to nature? I wanted to explore the relationship between artistic creation and nature, nature understood not as a setting in the sense of the 17th and 18th centuries, but nature in the way it encompasses creation.
The starting point is the score of course. A score that is difficult to play, but whose indications of colors and sounds, coming from the real atmosphere, really guided this work. The score has been slightly simplified, it must be admitted. This twenty-minute work was not played in its entirety. We chose a six-minute excerpt: a duration that corresponds pragmatically to the one the spectator needs to enter into it without getting bored.

How did you proceed for the recording?
After a long ornithological work with an animalist used to working with cinema, we made the birds sing and then recorded them one by one. The biggest difficulty I encountered was the evolution of the birds' language. Today, one could almost say that the birds no longer speak the same language as they did in Messiaen's time; a sort of gap between French and Quebecois. At first I tried to solve this in a computerized way by transpositions and harmonizations. It was frankly impossible, because it produced a "Dj" effect, vocoder*... 

With Fabrice Guedy, composer and teacher, we recorded all the birds ad lib. We cut and assembled small phonemes by small phonemes like a sewing work to obtain the sound which corresponds to the note. It was a huge computer and sound work, a bit like the old-fashioned editing of magnetic tapes. This gives a very natural sound and allows to "repair" the original recording.
What I like is that the spectators can enter this room and hear the birds without knowing what they are. I wanted to avoid making a choir with distorted sounds!
I like the idea that Messiaen wrote this piece almost like one would write a movie, with a beginning and an end: it starts at 5am, I think, it's still dark and ends at noon. These are birds from a forest between Paris and Lyon. They are very common, we all know them. What is beautiful in Messiaen, once again, is this modest way of staging the birds we all know. I want to respect this simple approach, as opposed to a spectacularization. Obviously, like the musician, I hope that it is pleasant for people, that it is attractive, that it is interesting, that it questions them, but it is not a show-off.
When Messiaen composed it in 1953, he wrote it like a musician, that is to say with complicated melodic lines, but also with arrangements, motifs that complicate the composition. If one retains all this ornamentation, these added sonorities result in an incomprehensible hubbub. The only way to avoid chaos was to work especially on the spatialization. 

In this sound sculpture, what role does the image play in relation to the sound?
It plays a double role. In relation to the sound, the image allows the viewer to be physically positioned by focusing his attention on a fixed point. I especially wanted to avoid falling into the advertising trap of disconnecting from the image, proposing images of cars, whereas they are birds singing. I also didn't want images illustrating a beautiful nature well filmed. So what I propose is just an evocation of what the idea of a natural environment can be. An idea of the natural environment...

Interview by Anne-Laure Chamboissier

*The vocoder is an electronic device for processing the sound signal.

Photos © Charles de Meaux
Photos © Marc Saget
Photos © Anne-Laure Chamboissier