Sunday, 8 February 2009

Hugues Dufourt Hommage à Charles Nègre

In the mid 19th century photography was such a new medium that there weren’t any conventions to assume: Nègre and other early pioneers created the medium from scratch. Charles Nègre was a painter, who saw how photography could be art, not merely reproduction.

This picture shows doctors examining a patient in the asylum at Vincennes. The doctors stand in neat, formal poses, but notice how Nègre includes the vast expanses of emptiness that are floor and ceiling. This is part of the composition, for what this depicts is an inmate in the asylum at Vincennes. Psychiatry in those days was barbaric. Note, the patient is blindfolded, and he's rendered immobile in a straitjacket. What are these men in suits and stovepipe hats going to do to him ? Nègre’s photograph screams mute horror.

Hugues Dufourt's flute concerto Antiphysis is fairly well known, as it was commissioned for Ensemble Intercontemporain, and the recording with Boulez has been issued several times. Dufourt coined the term "spectralism" now associated so strongly with Grisey, Murail and Vivier. (See list of subjects at right for more on these composers). So it was good to hear Dufourt's Hommage à Charles Nègre included as part of the Barbican's Tristan Murail retrospective on Feb 7th.

Hommage à Charles Nègre was indeed written in connection with an exhibition of Nègre's photographs. Dufourt captures in his music the "empty spaces" and surreal angles so characteristic of Nègre's work. A photograph represents time, suspended. Dufourt's uneasy silences hang in limbo, chords held longer than expected, or suddenly curtailed. He uses low register instruments like contrabassoon to play at the top of their range, and high pitched instruments like piccolo to play at their lowest. Chords extend into space, particularly evident in the writing for electric guitar (fairly alien to classical convention), whose sounds, extended still further by electronic projection, oscillate into empty space.

That's why I chose the photo above. Like Nègre, Dufourt is deliberately distancing the observer/listener from the subject, forcing them to think past smooth surfaces. Just as photographs present a "perfect"image, this music might be heard as serene. Indeed, the elegiac pace stretches colours, so they seem as mellow and nostalgic as the faded, sepia tints in the pictures. But like Nègre's photographs, surface calm belies reality.

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