AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Francis Dhomont – Les dérives du signe (1996; empreintes DIGITALes) Images nomades (2020; empreintes DIGITALes)

This write-up was just going to be about Francis Dhomont’s latest, Images nomades, but then it occurred to me that since I detected some changes in his overall sound from the 80’s material, of which Les dérives du signe is primarily comprised of, it may be of interest to look backward and examine the earlier album as well.  This would leave the door open to say a few words about some differences my non-professional / non-practitioner ears have heard.  Without a doubt though, both albums are nothing short of brilliant, and why wouldn’t they be coming from one of the genre’s most accomplished professionals?

Les dérives du signe was originally released as the second disc of a two-CD set called Mouvances-Métaphores in 1991 but later released as a stand-alone disc in 1996.  To quote the composer regarding the four pieces on this album, “These four works play with diversion.  The diversion: of musical discourse in Novars, of sound sources in Chiaroscuro, of sensory perception (synesthesia) in Météores (Meteors), and of nature in Signé Dionysos.”  He then further ties things together by saying that the “works are united around the common theme of movement as with virtual displacement of sound in geometric space, or metaphorical transferences of meaning into the realms of imagination”.

That last quote is telling because I consider both of the “movements” he references germane to all Acousmatic music.  The most obvious example would be in the piece Météores.  Dhomont’s use of panning techniques as well as volume manipulation and dead silent space is masterful here.  The whole sound field is used as a stage, and this stage is as big as the night sky itself.  The sense of constant movement is palatable, and the rising, and subsequent falling intensity in this work creates a sense of wonder and awe that acts as a key to unlock whatever celestial vision your mind can conjure.

Signé Dionysos, the longest excursion on the album (28 minutes) brings you back down to earth, at least for a little while.  This piece exudes a sense of the organic.  Here we have recognizable sounds such as chirping birds, children running/playing and, in a prominent starring role, frogs… possibly many frogs doing whatever frogs do down at the local pond.  All this is augmented by longer, more processed sounds of indeterminate origin (or quite possibly of the natural sounds referenced above…but does it matter?) which serve as a darkened pathway towards realms more mystical.  Suddenly the pastoral mood of nature morphs into something substantially more menacing.  Dhomont’s talent for stitching disparate moods together in a biologically pure way is on full display here.

Novars, which is actually the first piece on this album consists primarily of two sound sources; a quotation from Pierre Schaeffer’s Étude aux objets and, what was surely a big hit in ’64 (and I’m talking about 1364 here) Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame.  There is also a guest cameo appearance of Pierre Henry’s famous creaking door from Variations pour une porte et un soupir.  To me, Novars is a great example of organizing sounds within a traditional musical structure.  I hear reoccurring themes coming back to act as a prelude to another (usually lengthy) passage of dark and somewhat disturbing sound mutations only to resolve themselves back to the “safe” bridge of what occurred earlier.  The surprises happen after these short interludes and it’s these long passages that free the mind to wander within unfamiliar landscapes.

The piece Chiaroscuro is my favorite of this set.  As the title suggests, it’s the play between shadow and light.  Dhomont might be asking the question of what happens at the murky borderline where the two meet?  Using sounds plundered from some of his earlier compositions but processed in ways preventing any recognition on the listener’s part, he creates a stunning sound world that I would suspect even the most imaginative person would find challenging to navigate.  For me, every listen (and there have been many) yields a new, fresh, and completely mind-expanding experience.  Dhomont’s ability to creatively (an understatement) organize sounds leads the listener on an endless journey of changing moods, landscapes, and emotions…one that is not soon forgotten!

Jumping forward to 2020, we are treated to a new release. Images nomades seems to update and transport the listener to the potentials of what 21st-century technology can add to Acousmatic music.  To the very processed driven, this release presents a conundrum of sorts.  Just what is synthetic and what is sampled?  Frankly, it’s very hard to tell…but I’ll ask again, should we care?  After all, per the classical definition of Acousmatic music, all sounds should be separated from their origin.  For one to really appreciate the sound, where it came from is immaterial.  While this may present an interesting “game” the listener can play, I feel that at the end of the day it’s how the sounds add to your experience while listening to them that really matters.  How they were produced is of secondary consideration.

The album is split into two parts.  The first part has three lengthy pieces that the composer says fall into his “abstract” work.  Quoting him… “By abstract, I mean works that have no other subject than the music itself and which unfold solely along sonic criteria; rhythmical motifs; variations in density, intensity, material, shape; studies on how to occupy space; etc.  They do not imply any metaphor.  My figurative works, on the other hand, are those that are inspired by a non-musical theme, be it from poetry, literature, psychoanalysis, etc.”  The second half of the album are shorter pieces and are all dedicated to his fellow Acousmatic voyagers.

The first piece is Phoenix XXI, named because he once again used samples from very old recordings and “reanimated” them (the Phoenix rising from the ashes) with present-day technology.  The ambiguity of sounds here is in full force.  After Dhomont’s sonic sorcery, these “very old” recordings sound very 21st century.  There is a highly polished gleam to this piece that evokes images of a Blade Runner-esqe tableau replete with gleaming chrome androids, flying cars, alien shaped drones, and any number of Speculative Fiction tropes your brain can spin up.  It’s hard to imagine that these were once organic sounds as this piece sounds completely synthesized.  An unhinged Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schultz will get you to the general vicinity, but Phoenix XXI will take you further, much much further.  Because of this high-tech sheen, this piece and others on this album stand in contrast to anything I’ve heard from him before.  The organic way of stitching sounds together is a constant throughout his catalog but nothing sounds quite as “glistening” as Images nomades.

Here is the work being diffused on the St. Petersburg Acousmonium of all things.  If the music isn’t your thing, that’s fine…but at least geek out on the sound system rig (man)!

The second longer work is Machin de machine, dedicated to Conlon Nancarrow.  This is yet another feast for the ears.  An Acousmatic drum solo perhaps?  Maybe, but (insert favorite drummer here) would need to be neurally linked to a hallucinogenic stew to even come close to this.  The dedication makes total sense as no human, augmented or otherwise would ever be able to play this.

The third piece, Perpetuum mobile (Pluies fantômes) acts as a companion piece to Phoenix XXI and everything I mentioned above can be carried over to this towering monolith of the George Jetson age.  Taken together, these 3 pieces provide roughly 35 minutes of aural astonishment.  At this point, I certainly wouldn’t criticize you for ending the journey since your head would surely be busting with sounds and images…however, if your ears have the gumption and the backbone to continue, there are nine shorter works each dedicated to another Acousmatic composer.  Even without knowing who the dedications were on some of these (had to check the liner notes) these shorter works succeeded for me and taken as a whole, this second half of the album is very much the equal of the first.  If anything, the general mood is darker, and the concise nature of each work can barely contain the ideas that are explored within.

Images nomades is an exhausting, exhilarating, and highly rewarding listening experience. The fact that Francis Dhomont, who is now in his mid-nineties and is still advancing this sonic art form is a gift that should not be taken lightly.  He is considered a giant in this field and rightfully so.  These two albums are just a small example of his catalog.  If you are interested and want to check out more, I would suggest just spinning the wheel and throwing a dart.  Wherever it lands is a worthwhile starting place.

Mike Eisenberg