des-illusions: no illusions about the end of the world, in gradual sonic disintegration

Bruno Duplant & David Vélez, des-illusions, Belgium, Unfathomless, U79 CD (2023)

Both French composer / musician Bruno Duplant and Colombian sound artist David Vélez (specialising in field recordings) have been prolific in releasing recorded works as solo artists and in collaboration with others since about 2007 at least so choosing where to start digging into their respective discographies can be a bit challenging. Perhaps it’s best to start with their recent recording “des-illusions”, their third studio collaboration for Daniel Crokaert’s Unfathomless label and probably their seventh full-length collaboration together. (I did try counting the number of albums the two have done together on the Discogs website.) The idea behind “des-illusions” – in French, the expression may mean to raise one’s hopes and in Spanish, the title may mean disappointment – came from a conversation Duplant and Vélez had about currently creating and recording music in times of social and environmental crisis. Duplant acknowledges his pessimism about the current state of the world in his musical output while Vélez contends that Duplant’s abundant output and frequent collaborations are themselves evidence of a resistance to pessimistic thinking and that Duplant might actually be an optimist of sorts. From this conversation both artists recognised the paradox that they and indeed all other artists find themselves in, when making music in challenging times: what is the role of the artist, or what should the artist do, if things are looking so bad that trying to cheer up audiences or looking for silver linings in storm clouds might be seen as pointless or even downright deceptive and manipulative? One answer is to challenge oneself as an artist to challenge one’s own negative thoughts and feelings when confronted by crises and potentially traumatic events to preserve one’s mental health.

The actual album itself, created from studio recordings made by Duplant in northern France and from field recordings by Vélez in indoor and outdoor locations in West Yorkshire (UK), is an ever-changing collage of noise, drones and various sound textures that include background traffic noises, factory and machine clunk and rhythms, and the ambience of people’s conversations. The album divides into two parts of equal length. Snippets of melody might appear in the far distance and the sound of flowing water can be heard as the music slows down and becomes serene and a bit more settled (in Part 1). People seem to be going about their lives as usual, and this may be reassuring to those of us anxious about what the future may bring; no matter how dire the situation might become, there are those everyday activities that continue still, and which have to be done. Even when the music does become quite tranquil, ghostly waves that might even be mysterious voices can rise out of the night-time ambience and cast a chill over calm meadows and rivers.

The mysterious, otherworldly dimension to the music and found sound recordings continues on Part II for much of that track’s length, as though humanity has been cast into a veritable grey zone where neither bad nor good really exists and everything can be interpreted as one or the other depending on one’s mood. There’s definitely a feeling of battening down and preparing for the worst, whenever that comes.

It’s definitely not a cheerful work and you may feel the air around you grow rather chilly – even if the sky outside your window remains defiantly brilliant blue – as the musical journey tails off into the far distance where none returns from. What began as familiar if busy soundscapes of life going about its usual business slowly but surely disintegrates until all dissolves into gloomy nothingness. Yet even in the album’s last few moments, a spirit, a feeling in the soundscape still stands against the gradual breakdown, as if still defying what it knows to be inevitable, yet insisting on prolonging its life.