Sound travels so fast that we often perceive its arrival at our ears from its source to be instantaneous. This is not in fact the case, and playing with the distances between a sounding object and its hearers, as well as with the kinds of environment sounds pass through on their way to ears, can have transformative effects on both the acoustic properties of the sounds and their implied meanings. Jean-Luc Guionnet’s ‘Distances Ouïes Dites’, as performed by the Dedalus Ensemble at Le Consortium in Dijon and recorded for this release on Potlatch, involved placing the seven performers in different rooms throughout an arts centre, with the audience gathered in a room at the far end of building. With the exception of the viola, which was in the same room as the audience, all the instruments were heard at a distance through at least one, and sometimes several open doors. As sounds passed through the large, box-like spaces formed of hard, flat surfaces, a reverberation resulted which increased in intensity the further away the instrument was situated.
Listening to a recording of this performance is obviously a very different experience from being there in person, but I was pleased to discover that, with the help of decent speakers, a good impression of the intended effect is conveyed. The work starts with an awkward, dissonant shuffling through different tones, which tend to smear and merge due to the natural reverb; but it’s the following percussive taps, cracks, and claps scattered all over the stereo field that give the sharpest image of voluminous 3D space. Melodic refrains echo and waltz, their long reverb tails making them seem languid; the double bass growls beneath bluesy drawls from the trumpet. Following nervous twittering from the viola, a low hum steadily builds in weight and volume into a shimmering, surging tidal wave that suddenly vanishes with a loud crack. Long, driving chords form a palpable impression of depth, with the viola very close by and the trombone and double bass far in the background.
Sounds that are heard at such distances as those separating the trombone and electric guitar from the microphones recording ‘Distances Ouïes Dites’ are also perceived as coming from further away in time. This makes sense, because as previously noted sound waves do take time to cover a given distance, with the time taken increasing proportionally with distance travelled. Yet the imagination takes hold of these delays of a second or less and turns them into days, years, or decades, such that hearing a sound from a long way away feels like peering back in time; the positioning of the musicians in space transforms the arts centre into a house of memory.
So what you have is all these different traces and vibrations reaching you from different points in time and space — some near, some far — and coming together to form this time-space, this thought-moment. It’s like what happens when light sources spread out across thousands of light years come together to form a single canvas of stars. And these sounds are all inevitably changed by their journeys, their amplitudes and spectra reshaped by the metres of air and reflective surfaces they encounter on their way.
What is a listener, under this rubric? An arbitrary point at which all of these different journeys meet. This point could be somewhere else, and the coming-together, the composition, would be different. The night sky viewed from another planet has a different zodiac of constellations. And yet, as a listener I have the potential to recognise myself as the contingent nexus of these trajectories; I can also recognise in this experience a template or synecdoche for the whole of my thought, the whole of my conscious life. In an ideal situation, I would be able to wander freely from room to room, following my own inclinations or curiosity, or simply allowing myself to be led by the changing sounds around me, drawing my own unique set of constellations. As I walked, my footsteps would echo on the hard tiled floor, adding new sounds to the harmony of the composition. Isn’t this what it means to be alive?