Composer Profile: Francis Dhomont


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Francis Dhomont studied under Ginette Waldmeier, Charles Koechlin and Nadia Boulanger. In the late ’40’s, in Paris (France), he intuitively discovered with magnetic wire what Pierre Schaeffer would later call “musique concrète” and consequently conducted solitary experiments with the musical possibilities of sound recording. Later, leaving behind instrumental writing, he dedicated himself exclusively to electroacoustic composition.

An ardent proponent of acousmatics, his work (since 1963) is comprised exclusively of works for tape bearing witness to his continued interest in morphological interplay and ambiguities between sound and the images it may create.

The Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec has awarded him a prestigious career grant. In 1999, he was awarded five first prizes for four of his recent works at international competition (Brazil, Spain, Italy, Hungary and Czech Republic). In 1997, as the winner of the Canada Council for the Arts’ Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award, he was also supported by the DAADfor a residence in Berlin (Germany). Five-time winner at the Bourges International Electroacoustic Music Competition (France) — the Magisterium Prize in 1988 — and 2nd Prize at Prix Ars Electronica 1992 (Linz, Austria), he has received numerous other awards.

He is the editor of special issues published by Musiques & Recherches (Belgium) and of Électroacoustique Québec: l’essor (Québec Electroacoustics: The Expansion) — for Circuit (Montréal). Musical coeditor of the Dictionnaire des arts médiatiques (published by UQAM), he is also lecturer and has produced many radio programs for Radio-Canada and Radio-France.

During 1978-2005 he has divided his time between France and Québec, where he has taught at the Université de Montréal from 1980 to 1996. Since the fall of 2004 he has lived in Avignon, France, and regularly presents his works in France and abroad.

He is an Associate Composer of the Canadian Music Centre (CMC, 1989) and a Founding Member (1986) and Honorary Member (1989) of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC). In October 2007, Université de Montréal awarded him a Honoris Causa Doctorate. He is the president of the collective Les Acousmonautes in Marseille (France) and “Ehrenpatron” (Honour Patron) of the organization Klang Projekte Weimar (Germany).

He now focuses on composition and theory.

He is awarded the Qwartz Pierre-Schaeffer 2012 (Paris, France), Baiocco d’oro 2012 (Perugia, Italia), and the Grand prize of the Giga-Hertz-Preis 2013 (Karlsruhe, Germany).

[Maestro Dhomont was very busy, but was gracious enough to respond to my request for an interview and provided a  book excerpt and also an interview from September, 1998.]


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

I lived in Paris during World War Two. France was already occupied by the Nazi army who took into Germany a considerable part of the resources from the conquered countries. In the big cities, the population had almost nothing to eat, which caused serious nutritional needs which were in turn responsible for many diseases, namely among the children and adolescents.

I was fourteen at the time and there I was, with a sick eye. I was told to stop all visual activity for the period of one year: leave school, no reading, no cinema, no shows, no sports. I was supposed to live most of my time in darkness, my eyes protected against the light to avoid suffering.  Not too attractive for a young kid!

In order to be occupied, and as I had always shown some inclination towards music, my parents thought of buying a piano for our house. I started improvising intuitively on that instrument, “experimenting” with impetuosity, all day long, in darkness, for several months, using nothing but my ears. I also started going to classical music concerts assiduously, where I listened with concentration – my eyes closed – to the works of the repertoire. At home it was the radio and the 78 rpm records.

After one year, I had lost my right eye but I had found a vocation. As long as my health would permit me, I would then undertake serious musical studies and do nothing else. This is how I became a composer.

In the late ‘40s, I had the opportunity of getting acquainted with magnetic recording (on steel wire). This was with a Webster magnetophone, originally from the USA, that was being used as a Dictaphone in an office. Fascinated with the sound manipulation capabilities of this machine, however rudimentary it was, I ventured, for amusement, in some studies with noises, unaware at that time of those done by Pierre Schaeffer which would lead to the birth of musique concrete.

This is how I spontaneously discovered electroacoustic music.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time?

Regarding electroacoustic music, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry were, of course, of great importance. But also Luc Ferrari, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Luciano Berio, and others, probably . When I discovered composers GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales), François Bayle, Michel Chion, and Bernard Parmegiani have emerged because they represented three very different trends within the same family, each offering their own solutions.

But a musician mainly accounted for me enormously: Ginette Waldmeier, my first professor of music theory and harmony. I was sent home by my piano teacher, Madame de Brunhoff, best known as the inspiration for her husband to create the famous elephant Babar. Cecile de Brunhoff died there just three years, at the age of 99 years. When I met her, she taught at the École Normale de Musique in Paris and lived in the floor below me, so she was well aware if I worked my lines or not – in the first floor of the building, moreover, lived Maurice Martenot; I knew his son, Claude.  I returned to the piano later, which I had abandoned in my childhood, but I was not thinking at all to make a career as a pianist, I just wanted to compose.

The intelligence of Madame de Brunhoff is to be understood immediately and speak to one of his colleagues at the Normal School to take things from the beginning.  Ginette Waldmeier, is not well known but she was a remarkable educator and very generous; thanks to her I really understood the nature and spirit of the music.   I can say that it is she who made me a composer. She is also the one who sent me to Nadia Boulanger; with whom she had also been a pupil.

Nadia Boulanger was a fantastic musician, she had an unbeatable ear and an inexhaustible musical erudition, I drank her words … I was in heaven, Wednesday, rue Ballu, at her home, in a large room, with a large piano. There were at least forty students, it lasted four-five hours, she  reconstructed the history of music, gave examples on the piano without sheet music.  She made ​​us sing Bach, Purcell, “Les Noces” by Stravinsky. She would say, “No, C sharp! C sharp!” – hammering the note on the piano.  It was great. But it was also quite intimidating, everybody was a little afraid of “Mademoiselle”, but we also admired her, because she was admirable.

It was a bit like Schaeffer, I would say.  Like him, she was very strict and required a flawless technique.  Among her students Nadia was sometimes very critical, but if you could survive this process, it was a remarkable education.

For me it has always worked well, I never knew why.  She seemed to have some regard for me, and always I have a great memory of that time.  But as I’ve always been very independent, which probably has allowed me to be very adaptable, I did not become an complete adherent of her, as was the case for some students.

The example of Charles Koechlin, his personality and the freedom of his music left an indelible imprint.  And there was also my encounter with Andre Boucourechliev, who came to France from Sofia, Bulgaria, first as a pianist and later as a composer.  We had very stimulating discussions about the book by René Leibowitz, “Schoenberg and His School.”  He (Boucourechliev) later became a supporter of serialism.

In fact, I had the happy experience of being taught by several of wonderful people, none of whom, however I completely depended upon:  From Nadia Boulanger I focused on neo-tonal style, and modal composition from Koechlin.  I read books, e.g. Leibowitz (atonal serialism) and Messiaen’s “Technique of My Musical Language” (modes of limited transposition) but, throughout it all, I tried to develop a personal harmonic system in my compositions, all at the same time.

I learned, but selectively, from all these sources.  Each one relativized the other, none providing the whole picture.  In addition, I played a little jazz with friends and wrote songs ala, “the left bank,” to make a fortune, you know.  And it is around this time that a Webster wire recorder fell into my hands and I made my first attempts of composing with “organized sound”.

But it would be unfair not to mention also those composers who open up  music to me, even if their importance is obvious.  A few favorites: Guillaume de Machaut, Claudio Monteverdi, J. S. Bach, Arcangelo Corelli, Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, the Second Viennese School, Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, Olivier Messiaen, Giacinto Scelsi, György Ligeti, Mauricio Kagel, and jazz (although other names should be included, of course).

This eclecticism, which could be detrimental, could have been what guaranteed my freedom.

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use?

I tried once, to enter the Conservatory, but I was so put off by the the experience, that I never returned.

A long time later, already in the ‘60s, I abandoned instrumental composition completely and devoted myself exclusively to acousmatic music. What happened for me to make such a radical decision?

Among all the logical explanations that I could give, here is one which is perhaps subjective but is probably the most important one: “Acousmatique,” a derived genre from musique concrete, is the art of the audible perception, or as Francois Bayle has said, “to listen without seeing,” a music without partition and without spectacle.

I think that my unshakable love for this kind of composition, free from notation and from the limitations of instruments, can be understood in an unconscious manner solely by the aural conditions of my musical initiation.   At a time when LISTENING meant for me the only way of communicating with the world, and where music did not have any other reality than the sonic.

I never claimed membership in any school whatsoever.  Except, perhaps today acousmatic movement. At first, I did pseudo-Beethoven, like everyone else.  Then I did pseudo-Debussy and, much later, I started to imitate Schoenberg. I’ve never done pseudo-Stravinsky and yet I liked his music, but it was too difficult to do with success and there were too many Americans with Nadia Boulanger who did.

Then I composed pieces which were modally inspired.  I studied the liturgical modes, I went to Abbey Wisque in the Pas de Calais, studied the Gregorian chanting, in the tradition of Solesme. Then, after the Liberation, Leibovitz arrived with his books which I studied very methodically.

We began to hear the music of the Viennese School and I worked for a while in this direction. But then there was Messiaen, who can be thought of as an extension of Debussy-ism, which corresponded much more to my natural inclination.  I never went to his classes, but I did modal counterpoint with one of his students and I read with acute attention his Technique of My Musical Language.  I also wrote a short piece that is a little “pastiche” of his style.  At the time, I did not mean it in that way, of course, but in hindsight I can hear it.  Regardless, by the way, because we must first do things and then be able to evaluate, too attempt to avoid risks you accomplish nothing.  Finally, I ended up writing ​​a few personal works.

It was a very rich time for us, emerging out of the experience of the war, in which we had been deprived of everything, including contemporary music.  During this long period during the war, all I could hear was the “great” German classical music played by orchestras and no less formidable German interpreters at the Theatre des Champs- Elysees.  I went to the concert every day and sometimes two concerts on Sunday. This is how I learned music, listening, score in hand.  But if we could hear more modern music, it was Richard Strauss, there was very little actual contemporary music.  I remember Henri Barrault was played, who was pretty good composer, also Jean Françaix, and some others.  However all this was not upsetting.  Then suddenly, after the Liberation, contemporary music occurs for us.  We were finally allowed to play Stravinsky, Webern, Bartok, and Varese.  And it soon gave birth to the musical domain with Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono, Henze, Maderna , Berio, Barraqué , many others …

Please describe a recent work and provide a link to an audio clip.

Objets retrouvés (Refound Objects)

In memory of Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995)

Both a lamento and a funeral march, this paraphrase of Pierre Schaeffer’s Étude aux objets is not without connection to ornate, figured choral style. Three voices (in the contrapuntal sense of the term), developed from elements drawn from the first movement of the Étude, embroider and animate the long values of the original subjects that make up the “choral,” which constitutes the fourth voice of this polyphonic composition. The choice of a classical form, so important in Bach, was a conscious one that was designed to honor the memory of Schaeffer. I like to think that he would have enjoyed the allusion.

[English translation: Tom Carter]

Objets retrouvés (Refound Objects) — 1st of the 4 works in the Cycle du son — was realized in 1996 in the composer’s studio with sound material obtained from the SYTER system of Ina-GRM, and it premiered on May 31st, 1996 at the Hommage-Tombeau de Schaeffer concert as part of Synthèse, the Festival international de musique électroacoustique de Bourges (France, 1996).

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