In his 1966 paper “Space as an Essential Element in Musical Composition,” composer Henry Brant asserted that the spatial element in concert music was an important variable to be taken into consideration when shaping a composition. Since 1950 he had been composing works calling for performers to be grouped and distributed throughout the performance space in order to exploit the effects of spatial dispersion on pitch, timbre, and instrumental interaction. Composer / instrumentalist / field recordist Jean-Luc Guionnet’s composition Distances Ouïes Dites, recorded live in March, 2013, continues in this tradition, focusing in particular on the effects of linear distribution on the sound of a small chamber group.
For this performance, a seven-piece mixed ensemble consisting of viola (Cyprien Busolini); cello (Deborah Walker); voice (Vincent Bouchot); double bass (Eric Chalan); trumpet (Christian Pruvost); trombone (Thierry Madiot); and electric guitar (Didier Aschour) was arranged in four rooms reaching from front to back on the ground floor of the Le Consortium art center in Dijon. Except for the viola, which was placed in the front room with the audience, the instruments were arranged two to a room, with cello and voice in the room closest to the viola, double bass and trumpet next, and trombone and electric guitar in the room farthest back. The titles of the composition’s fifteen parts convey something of the conceptual territory Guionnet explores—a territory encompassing combination and mixture, relationships of signal to noise, the propagation of stationary sounds from near to far, imitation, and so forth.
Much of the music’s interest lies in the interactions of the seven voices’ timbral properties as well as in the sound differentials arising from the variations in their distances from each other. The instruments’ spatial dispersal as well as the effects of architectural features on their sound quality impact their relative volume and capacity to blend with each other. This is most dramatically demonstrated when the composition calls for long, overlapping tones—often involving a dissonant collision of half- or quarter-tones—which aggregate the individual instruments into sometimes uncanny hybrid voices. The title of the work can be translated as Distances: Hearsay, which neatly conveys the rumor-like nature of the sounds it generates—half heard and half overheard as they travel back and forth echoing and diminishing, ultimately leaving behind a sonic image of continuity and loss.