Mental Space

Jean-Luc Guionnet has released another fascinating compositional work in the form of Distances Ouïes Dites (POTLATCH P416), a French phrase which roughly translates as “Hearsay Distances”. He did it with the modern chamber ensemble Dedalus, who in honour of their namesake have elected to share lodgings inside a labyrinth in Crete [1. I could be making these facts up.]. This seven-piece of talented musicians play stringed and brass instruments, with the addition of an electric guitar and a vocalist, and have appeared on this label before in 2013 performing their own music. Distances Ouïes Dites is a single work segmented into 15 index points, and it was performed in an art centre called Le Consortium in Dijon, France. The idea is that the musicians were all placed in different rooms of the centre, and the audience would be set apart in Salle 7, where they could only have sight of Cyprian Busolini, the viola player. The audience would have heard the music, but removed at some distance. If you have any trouble visualising this unusual set-up, there’s a helpful architectural plan of the layout included inside the CD gatefold, with red lines printed on yellow indicating precisely where each musician was located.

It’s evident that Guionnet likes to set “challenges” to his collaborators. In this instance, he’s quite explicit about it, and it’s something to do with negotiating the space, the distances between their fellow musicians, and the distance from the audience. It involves coming to terms with the environment, understanding the acoustics. Against these barriers, the players must work hard to “spread musical ideas in their environment”. Part of the challenge is doing it in real time; presumably the Consortium presented its own problems on the day, no matter how well composed the piece may be. The musicians meet these challenges. They play the music in a poised, deliberate fashion, perhaps exhibiting a certain amount of caution, but they hit the mark. After all, this physical separation must have denied them one of the fundamental characteristics of ensemble playing, i.e. the possibility of visual communication with your fellow players by movement, eye contact, nods, or whatever. Sealed in your cell this way, you are very much thrown back on inner resources.

The use of the word “hearsay” is therefore no accident, but indicates that music, in these circumstances, acquires some of the qualities of an elaborate game of Chinese Whispers, where meaning becomes distorted and blunted through the process of muffled hearing and sensory deprivation. Guionnet has deliberately created a situation where we only learn fragments of the story, leaking out in segments and possibly arriving in a garbled form. In today’s climate of “false news” and scrambled messages arriving by email in the form of corrupted data, the work is not without a certain resonance.

The recording of Distances Ouïes Dites also sounds splendid, making the most of the acoustical resonances and echoes of the building, as if The Consortium itself was also a musician or a player in the score. This is not unlike another Guionnet work Quelque Chose Au Milieu from 2016 [2. Noted here.], where he did it with two saxophone players and recorded them in unlikely spaces such as a public swimming pool and a bridge under the motorway. The titles of the 15 segments of Distances Ouïes Dites also contribute to the meaning, referring directly to the space of building, its rooms, its height and depth; and to waves of sound crossing the physical space itself. While all of this may appear reflexive and descriptive, Jean-Luc Guionnet’s music – and the superb performances by Dedalus – never fail to create beautiful and intoxicating music, transcending the boundaries of space. It may prove something about how great art can travel time, pass through barriers, create “l’espace mental” where communication can succeed and bring us all closer. A triumph. Received 11 November 2016.