Listening sessions with Dominique Petitgand

Interviews 24.02.2023

Dominique Petitgand (1965) is an artist who is described as "sound" because his entire universe revolves around sound and its silences. From radio creations to performances, through exhibitions in France and abroad, through his recordings and books, his work, all in finesse, enchants the ears.

An interview in Nancy, on the occasion of his exhibition The Abolished Distance at the Musées des Beaux-Arts, - to be discovered until March 26 - , which allows us to come back on the different aspects of his work, as well as his relationship to listening.

Dominique, before exploring your work, I'd like you to tell us about your background? What led you to turn to sound?
The question of sound has always been present, but at the beginning it was alongside other practices that I had around images: photography, video, cinema. I made a few films, rather alone, films without script or preparation, for which the editing stage was the key moment of the composition. And then, one day, the sound was left alone. For many reasons, most of which I don't know. Perhaps above all, because it has always been important for me to be autonomous, at all stages of a creation. And at the time - the early 90's - a simple microphone and a 4-track editing table was an affordable way to start making pieces, to experiment without having to ask for technical help, a grant or a studio residency, without having to write a project in advance, without a specific subject matter and without having to answer to anyone. Sound also allowed me to mix and interweave two of my practices: on the one hand, working with reality (collecting sounds, voices, from all directions, then editing and dismantling them), and on the other hand, music, which I have always played and improvised on any kind of instrument or object. 

Your sound work is declined around different formats : installations / broadcasts / editions each with their own autonomy. Are these formats induced by the environment or chosen for a particular purpose? These formats are mainly induced by different contexts. Even if there is more and more porosity between the artistic disciplines, it depends, if I have to intervene in a place of art or music or in a place of spectacle, as recently for the installation Les heures creuses created at T2G-Théâtre de Gennevilliers. Each of these formats brings into play different modes of listening, strategies of appearance and diffusion of sounds, specific relations to space, acoustics, silence, time and the place of the public. For example, for a sound installation, I propose a rather solitary listening, favourable to the displacements, of a not fixed and free duration, with the long and circular temporality, without beginning nor end. And especially, I seek in this case the most right link possible between the sounds, the device and the place which I take into account in its concrete nature and its architecture as for example the installation Someone on the floor

Whereas a diffusion in a theatre, of type performance or concert, is addressed to a gathered public, the listening is thus collective, immobile, sitting. And its temporality is more tightened, linear, with necessarily a beginning and an end. To go from one format to another has thus pushed me, over the years, to be able to react to contexts and supports, to produce multiple versions of my pieces: stereo versions or multi-track versions, complete or boned-up versions layer by layer, with voices alone or accompaniment, with or without music, sometimes with translation. But also short and concentrated versions, in the form of miniatures, or extended versions, in variations and repetitions, interspersed with silences and looped on themselves. The duration of the silences also depends on the mode of listening, on the degree of isolation of the work, on possible other sound solicitations, thus, effectively, on the environment. And all these versions can reveal multiple facets of the same work, by putting forward its narrative nature, its plot and its elements of dramaturgy, or, in other circumstances, by privileging its linguistic nature - the enunciation and the use of the language, the word taken in the trap of the editing -, or, on the contrary, its musicality. See the cycle of four performances, Les gens assis par terre.

In any case, from one format or version to another, the stakes, for me, remain the same: it is always a question of creating the conditions of an experience to be lived, of a narrative to be discovered in stages, of a suspended enigma, of a multiple meaning to be invented by everyone, and of the freest possible listening.

I would like to talk about your compositional work. Your material is based on the recording of voices. Does the nature of these voices have an importance?
Yes, the voices are the essential material. The spoken voice, but also sometimes some other vocal expressions, like humming, whistling, and everything that can attest to the presence of a person in speech, his laughter, his breath or the unintelligible exhalations between words. 

In your first pieces, the music is much more present, then it disappears little by little in favor of the silences that you place between the words and the sentences. Why this shift? And what status do these silences have?
A few years ago, I created a set of recordings that I have been using ever since, like an inexhaustible repertoire.
A "real", as the starting point of all my work, to which I hasten to turn my back, in order to go, as far as possible, towards a certain form of abstraction.
I say just a "certain form", not abstraction itself, of course, because whatever the cuts and manipulations of my montages, at the end, there always remains, when listening to the pieces, this human scale, this presence, even extremely fragmented. The nature of the voice is not what counted when I started these recordings. It was more a question of an encounter. The meeting of a person ready to play the game of a device without preparation or text, without project or even deliberate prior intention. I turned to a few people around me, of different ages, and I tried to discover what in them constituted, for me, the greatest otherness and not the familiarity that one could, moreover, share.
My sound pieces are hollowed-out forms and it is silence, first of all, that allowed me to fragment the recordings, to cut out the voices. A silence before and after each sound is what gives this fragment the status of an element. It allows us to isolate it from the flow from which it comes and to constitute it as a part to be integrated into a new whole, this new continuity created in the editing. Silence is the structural essence of my pieces. It is the white, the void necessary for a figure to breathe and take shape in time. It is also what separates, cuts and marks the listening. It is at the same time what connects, makes the link between all the pieces of the puzzle. Silence creates tension, holds the attention, spares the suspense and gives to my pieces this dotted form. Each silence can be perceived as a possible entry but also an exit of the listening, it leaves us time to think about what we have just heard and prepares the coming of what will follow.

In the format of the installation, for anyone on the threshold of the work, each silence is a beginning, the start of something, the beginning of the narrative. It can also suggest that it is over. Another function, again, for this silence: it is, in a place of exhibition, what allows everything that does not come from the work itself to continue to exist, more or less without conflict.
So, silence has always been there, but it is true that, over the years, it has become more and more prominent, tangible, and has taken the place of music, which in the older pieces had this role of link and guide for the scansion of the voices. The switch was made when I did more and more exhibitions and this format took over the others. To be continued The invisible links.

According to me, there are two moments of listening that take place for the listener: the first listening where we try to analyze where the sounds come from and what they are? And the second one where we let ourselves be carried by the story. ..
Yes, it's true, I noticed that there can be different times of listening. As you say, a first time in which one seeks and discovers the elements one by one, and a second time during which the links between these elements appear, where the work reveals itself in its form, its unity, and where one enters more into the story.
I imagine that there may be many other operations, other mental and physical tractations that are played out in the heads of people who are listening. But it is not my primary intention to lose people. The way the work catches the attention is always important.

However, your scenic devices blur our spatial references and the presence of silence, our temporal references, how do you explain it?
The crucial moment when the listening starts, it is the starting point of an enigma, of a doubt which is created, and of an expectation which it is a question of making fructify. Afterwards, what counts for me is how to maintain this attention, how to prolong the discovery and give the impression that there is always something new to be explored, that the essential will perhaps be revealed later, later. In an installation, the beginning of listening and all its degrees - from indifference to concentration, - from vague attention to the most directed attention - are not the same for everyone, since we are free to come and go. I have the intuition that the most beautiful discoveries are often those that one has made by oneself. Even if it means going through some moments of perplexity and fog. This is the risk and it can sometimes be discouraging.

To give a concrete example, in a tour, for a work with several layers distributed in different spaces, including a voice separated from the other sounds, I will try to isolate this voice, which carries the story, as far as possible from the entrance and to place it alone in the last room. Like a secret that is finally revealed, in an indirect and delayed way. For another thing I can say is that I have always been driven by two parallel and opposite movements: the movement that comes from the familiar and the one that goes towards the unknown. The most important thing, and what determines my editing and the distribution of sounds in space, is to create the conditions for a permanent swing between these two poles. That this switch can be renewed each time in the head of the person who listens, I could not say in a precise way: every how much time, that is intuitive, but perhaps every few seconds. That there is for this person, each time he thinks he is on known ground, a new element which makes him fall into the most total unknown. Like the void at the edge of a cliff. Like a breach that opens up and makes her lose all her bearings. And then, a few seconds later, conversely, make sure that this impression does not last, that a recognizable element, assimilable, appropriable, which seems close and thus renews the movement of the listening and the intimate and dented progression of the story.

I would like to come back to your news and the exhibition The abolished distancecurrently on display at the Musée de Nancy. Again after the exhibition at the Musée Réattu in Arles in 2022, you are occupying spaces of different natures. How can this new context open up your field of investigation?
These exhibitions in museums are not very different, because art spaces are often architectures formerly dedicated to something other than art. Many of them are old industrial buildings or houses or businesses or parks, forests... There is such a diversity of places that it pushes me each time to think of a specific mode of presence and a specific device. My approach is more concrete than thematic. It is the spaces that inspire me more than the function of the place or its history. However, I can say that what is new with these exhibitions is that I have chosen to intervene in the collections of these museums without the works having to apologize for existing. So to assume that the voices accompany, dress, at the risk of parasiting, the usual course of visit. But I did not work with the pre-existing works of the museum themselves, I did not seek the illustration or the commentary. I stuck to what I usually do: create the conditions of a mode of existence of the work, that it is at the same time present and absent, dug by the silences, proposing a fragmented, mobile and open narrative. A narrative that is autonomous with respect to the other works, but which, in their reception, is naturally colored by their contact, without having to force the connection.

To talk about the exhibition in Nancy, I have scattered three types of presence. A first series of four installations - taking up the title La distance abolie - with several loudspeakers fixed to the walls at different heights, broadcasting in several rooms a series of very short vocal sequences, words cut out word by word, sometimes syllable by syllable, fraying from one loudspeaker to the other, which can be perceived from afar and communicating at a distance.
A second series of four intercoms - The Distant Ones, a work acquired by the museum and which will remain in a perennial way on the walls of some corners and passages - and whose sound sequences are, on the contrary, in waiting, for a listening to be activated. A way of putting within hearing range of whoever approaches it and launches the sound, of connecting at a distance with landscape compositions, scenes that seem to be taken on the spot, far away and outside the museum. Finally, a third mode of presence, in a small room, with a panoply of documents and editions to consult, to read, on the wall, with headphones, on a screen or on tables, like a mini documentation center.

For years you have also been developing the writings " Mes écoutes", 170 short texts that explore your own experiences of listening to everyday life . What is your focus?
I started in 2004. I wanted to talk about the reception of sounds, the effects produced, the traces, therefore the situations, the contexts and how my ears and my thinking behaved in all kinds of circumstances. The book exposes some memories, habitual and personal behaviors, scenes taken on the spot. With the idea that listening is not standardized, obligatory or model, that everything can be listened to in a thousand ways. I hope that these intimate "objects" can be shared and echoed. This work carried out in parallel allows me to bypass a certain difficulty in recording, it exonerates me a little and allows me to remain open to the world around me without making a work.

In our previous conversations, you pointed out that in the field of sound, at the moment, the emphasis is put on a valorization of the recording to the detriment of the editing. Does this mean for you the form?
Yes, as far as sound creation is concerned, I am sensitive to the invention of a language, to what confronts us with the novelty of a form, to what renews our listening rather than to what just puts us in the presence of something. I am therefore more interested in works of editing, of cutting, of articulation, of daring in the bringing together of elements than in those which value the recording as a nugget and sacralize the fact of having been there, in the right place and at the right time, to capture this thing. I feel more on the side of perspective than of raw presentation, than of a certain naturalism.

What do you listen to and how do you listen to music at home or in public situations...?
I'm afraid I'm not a very wise and disciplined listener in public listening situations. If I attend a speech or a reading, during a concert, I hardly listen to what is being said, the texts escape me, my mind is elsewhere.
Everything interests me, everything, that is to say both the music of course and the situation itself, the side effects, the protocol, the device. My domestic listening evolved according to the places of dwelling but also of the supports. Radio, cassette, vinyl, CD, computer... so many supports for different practices: obsessive, concentrated or floating listening, decorative musical background, gradual and repeated taming of a record, looping of a piece, random playback of a personalized jukebox..., I realize that many uses of my listening have a link with memory, its progressive construction and its fragility. For a long time, my tastes have been more towards short forms, songs, pop pieces, than towards learned music. The frequentation of songs gave me a taste for the miniature. But also of a voice in the foreground, supported by an arrangement. The frequentation of film music, listened to without the films of course, gave me that of the work of the punctuation, of the unfolding of a dramaturgy, of the installation of atmospheres. Finally, creations or music that mix noise, voices, notes, real or musical material, without hierarchy, from life or from the studio, have solicited my desire to create such assemblages in my turn.

Interview by Anne-Laure Chamboissier

Photos © Dominique Petitgand
Photos © Adeline Schumacker-Ville de Nancy
Photos © Véronique Beaudoin
Photos © Aurélien Mole
Photos © CWB


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