Cinema for the ear by Denis Dufour

Spotlights 22.01.2022

For more than forty years, Denis Dufour has been a key figure in creative music. An extremely prolific composer and great experimenter, he claims to "write listening more than sounds". He is known above all for his work in the field of electroacoustics, as an heir to Pierre Schaeffer's concrete school, in acousmatic music as well as mixed and live electronic music, notions that we will define in this article. But Denis Dufour is also a composer of acoustic instrumental music. He approaches this aspect of his work with the same curiosity and love of sound matter.

Two recent releases give us the opportunity to meet the composer and to produce this dossier: a book of interviews with Vincent Isnard published in spring 2021 by Musica Falsa, The Composition of Listeninga precious work that retraces the extent of his training and his musical career, addresses his compositional methods, the basis of his teaching and puts his art into perspective with the history of musique concrète and the contributions of Pierre Schaeffer; and then the very recent edition of a boxed set of sixteen CDs by Maison ONA and the Kairos label, Complete Acousmatic Works Vol. 1which covers half of his acousmatic work, i.e. forty-four opuses, eighteen hours of music!

This is more than enough to devote an important column to it in this dossier. We also interview Maxime Barthélemy, from Maison ONA, who enthusiastically explains the energy behind this beautiful project, which may seem a bit crazy in these times of dearth for the record industry, a project that is still in progress, since this impressive body of work is already awaiting a follow-up: the release of the other half of Denis Dufour 's acousmatic works in a second box set. To get an idea of the scope of his work, one must add the same amount of instrumental pieces, i.e. nearly two hundred opuses in all.

Let us recall here what "acousmatic music" means. The adjective applies to a sound that we hear without seeing the cause that produces it. The experience of listening to the radio is of this kind. The listener tries to guess the source, opening up the listening experience to the imagination. The concept comes from Pythagoras, who taught his disciples behind a curtain in the 6th century B.C., to prevent them from being distracted by his mimics and gestures. Pierre Schaeffer used the term 'acousmatic' to define the particular listening experience of his musique concrète, which is based on sounds recorded and then listened to through the loudspeaker. In this "musique concrète", which he created in 1948 with his Cinq études de bruit, the composer hears what he is doing as he does it, capturing the sound with a microphone and working directly on this material, just as a painter sees his canvas come to life as he goes along. This approach is opposed to the abstract approach of music on score, where the composer imagines a sound result before being able to hear it through the interpretation by musicians. During rehearsals of the work, he often has to make small corrections afterwards, working on the concrete sound.

In musique concrète, recording with a microphone placed close to the sound source means that one often no longer recognises what it is originally, Schaeffer referring to this source as 'anecdotal'. Even an 'anecdotal sound', whose origin is clearly recognisable, can lose this character when placed in relation to other sounds in a concrete composition. In 1966, when he published his Traité des objets musicaux, a new musical grammar, a "solfeggio of the sound object", Pierre Schaeffer hesitated to call it "traité d'acousmatique". After those of "musique concrète" and "electroacoustic music", the term "acousmatic music" became necessary. This music has its own rules of composition, as Denis Dufour points out:

"Acousmatic writing requires more time because it is practised with very rich sounds, which are called "sound objects" or "sequences", which have to be mastered. Pierre Boulez used to say that it was impossible to make music with such sounds, which were far too complex. He called for abstract music made with notes, which are in fact simplifications of sound, produced by instruments that have been worked on for centuries in order to hear nothing but them. All noises, rubs and breaths are erased. It is only a molecule of sound with its separate parameters, pitch, duration and intensity. Acousmatic music, on the other hand, works on sounds in all their richness and complexity.

Born in Lyon in 1953, Denis Dufour began his musical career at the age of fourteen, studying the violin and the viola. He entered the Lyon Conservatory in 1972, then the CNSMP (Conservatoire national supérieur de Paris) between 1974 and 1979. There he studied withIvo Malec (composition), Pierre Schaeffer and Guy Reibel (electroacoustics) and Claude Baillif (musical analysis). Malec, noting that the young man still had a lot to learn about the profession of composer, advised him to enrol first in the electroacoustic class with Reibel and Schaeffer. The future composer did not yet know what it was all about, not even knowing the word, but he immediately felt at ease in this world that was to become his own. He then collaborated withIna-GRM from 1976, the Groupe de Recherches Musicales founded in 1958 by Pierre Schaeffer, freshly integrated in 1975 into the Institut national de l'audiovisuel. This collaboration continued until 2000. His first compositions date from the end of the seventies.

In 1977, GRM director François Bayle asked Denis Dufour to co-found the GRM trio with Laurent Cuniot and Yann Geslin, which would become the TM+ ensemble, a live electronic music group:

"There was this idea of experimenting with what you could do live with synthesizers, which were not very sophisticated at the time. [...] We started with instruments that were still monodic, without keyboards, which we accessed with buttons and joysticks. We invented a way of playing and fixing in order to be able to reproduce: we didn't actually improvise on stage, even if we did practice it to work and experiment at the source of the pieces. From it, we thought about more structured compositions.

Denis Dufour is a composer and teacher (at the regional conservatories of Lyon and Perpignan, the Paris Conservatory of Music, the Paris Conservatory of Music and the Paris Boulogne-Billancourt Higher Education Centre). After TM+, he also founded the ensembles Les Temps modernes (1992) and Syntax (2004). He participated in the creation of the Futura Festival in Crest in 1992, dedicated to acousmatic music and media arts, which he directed until 2006. In 1996, he set up Motus, a publishing, production, training, concert and event organisation structure.

This fine career becomes even more impressive when we learn in Vincent Isnard's book of interviews that the young Denis Dufour was not at all fond of the contemporary music he heard while regularly attending concerts in Lyon. When he discovered Krzysztof Penderecki 's famous Thrène à la mémoire des victimes d'Hiroshima (1960) at the age of sixteen or seventeen, he found the work 'very smoky at the time, unintelligible', going so far as to say that 'it was really noise for [him]' (p. 13). However, a little later, he was surprised to recognise the piece on the radio and discovered that it had an identifiable form, and therefore an interest. He confides: "That's how I understood that this music was not just any old thing, that it was worthy of listening to and that I was going to continue my approach of going towards this music that I didn't know yet."

Among his important contributions to the world of music, Denis Dufour took part, from the 1980s onwards, in the development of the acousmonium concept, an orchestra of loudspeakers established in 1973-1974 at the GMEB (Groupe de musiques expérimentales de Bourges) and the GRM. The idea was born in 1952, when Pierre Schaeffer and Jacques Poullin drew up the first bases for reflection on the projection of sound and its use in space. The term "acousmonium" was coined by François Bayle in 1974, derived from "acousmatic music". At the beginning, the device was conceived in a frontal manner, with little spatialization, with simply two speakers at the back and on the sides, of lesser quality, in imitation of the orchestra, high and low speakers being imagined as instrumental sounds.

"I arrived in this world at the time of the birth of the acousmonium. [...] I had the idea of making it a transportable device in the early 1980s. At that time it was very heavy and very expensive to move. [...] I set up my version privately, for my class in Lyon. I developed it by putting speakers everywhere, making it totally immersive. [...] An acousmonium can have up to forty, fifty or even a hundred speakers. I made the settings evolve, so that the potentiometers of the projection console were coherent with the device, and I insisted on the importance of tuning it to the location, to eliminate parasitic resonances and buzzes, and to avoid gaps between the speakers when a sound is moved. I then taught all these techniques. One of my students, Jonathan Prager, has become one of the leading performers of acousmatic music."

Thus, the performer must have a perfect knowledge of the works he plays in order to be able to spatialise them, to reinforce the contrasts and dynamics, to play on the colours, the speed of the sounds, their density, and to be able to adapt to the rooms as well as to the audiences. Denis Dufour willingly entrusts his acousmatic works to performers, because he believes that a composer is not the best person to play this role. He will want to make everything heard, instead of digging into the contrasts.

Contrary to the image of the solitary studio work of the electroacoustic composer, Denis Dufour often works in a team and multiplies collaborations. His acousmatic music, for example, is very frequently based on texts. He has been working regularly with Thomas Brando since 1986 (their first collaboration dates back to 1981). This author, art director and graphic designer has written and produced numerous projects that Denis Dufour has then set to music based on his texts and intentions. Also present is Hamish Hossain, who was a student of the composer, a narrator on Les Cris de Tatibagan and a diphonic and throat singer on the Missa pro pueris. This creative environment is associated with a vast amount of preparatory work: a patient search for documentation and a long maturation process that aims to nourish his projects in depth. Denis Dufour takes on the image of the director, benefiting from the talent of many specialists around him, whom he coordinates to bring his film to fruition.

The acoustic music written by Denis Dufour is arranged in the same way as his acousmatic music, based on the thought of the morphology of sound and the writing of listening:

"You have to compose the perception and not the notes, and not even the sounds. Perception is what happens in the head. You see, hear, feel and touch things by what goes into your ears. When I compose, I have to think about what people will feel tactilely, sonically, visually and emotionally."

A fine example of this style is found in the transcription of Pierre Schaeffer'sStudy with animated sounds by Pierre Schaeffer (1958) that Denis Dufour rewrites for flute, alto saxophone, bass clarinet, trumpet and cello in Stele for Pierre Schaeffer (2013).

Denis Dufour, now retired from his teaching activities, has settled with his brother Hervé in the Abbey of Lanvaux, in Brittany, Morbihan. They are currently working on this site, which includes the ruins of a 12th century Cistercian abbey and a 17th century abbey house, with a view to converting it into a creative space with its own studio and archives, a concert hall and a venue for artistic workshops and residencies in music, singing, literature and yoga.

Guillaume Kosmicki

You can listen to Denis Dufour with Guillaume Kosmicki on Radio Breizh in a series of three programs(Program 1, Program 2, Program 3)

Photo © Florence Gonot.