Interview by Clarisse Bardiot

Musician and composer Benjamin Dupé invites his audience to the art of listening, as evidenced by his two latest creations: As I hear it (2009) is an “autobioscenic performance” that makes fun of the prejudices related to contemporary music, by using the recorded comments of novice spectators; Ghost, light rolling, and on the taut skin of our eardrum (2012) is a sensory, memorial experiment, played by automatons for a small audience. From one show to the other, a journey in listening is outlined, out of the beaten tracks of traditional concerts.

You ‘ve been an associated composer at the Phenix since the 2012-2013 season. How do you consider this collaboration as part of an institution primarily devoted to the theatre?

It is quite natural. I do not consider the tools at my disposal as only reduced to sound materials: all expressive materials have musical potential. My work is not about giving illustration to music, but rather finding what makes music in the appearance of an image, motion of a body, narration, word … From this point of view, the majority of my pieces have a dimension that goes beyond the usual concert form and ponder on the representation of music. I always try to offer a special relationship between the listener and the musical discourse, between the listener and the sound phenomenon. Often this involves the invention of forms that are not those of the traditional concert. One of these forms is the live performance.

Are you planning collaborations with other choreographers or directors, in the same way as you previously worked with artists such as Declan Donnellan and Thierry Thieû Niang?

I don’t like working alone. I need to share, hence the importance of being installed in a place, to facilitate meetings for future collaborations. For the projects that I will develop at the Phenix, I will be the artistic director, I will especially assume the issues of staging and dramaturgy. Having a free hand in these matters, I will invite a number of artists, including from other disciplines, such as dancers, writers, musicians of musics of our time … We will try to build a program that emphasizes the crossings.

What do these exchanges with literature or dance bring in your practice as a composer or performer?

When I work on a project with dancers, or with a director who has the artistic direction of the project – this is rather an exception, I generally also run my projects as stage director – my musical writing remains the same. Often, people choose me because I do not write stage music, but bring my composing to the whole of a project, which involves discussions, including on how the play is being developed, the dance built. It is a perpetual questioning about what the musical phenomenon is, on the place of music in our society.

Why is it important to appeal to the listening of the audience, and how to report it in a show?

Listening, is nowadays the place where to write. Having trained as a classical musician, I am very aware of the history of music, both classical and contemporary – in the sense of Western art music. An interesting idea is to work on listening, that is to say on the living. How is a music listener also in the process of creating music, interpreting it? How to play with the scale of one’s sensations, disturb, lose it, raise one’s memory? According to me, this is more interesting than constructing a new music, on mathematical processes, for example. All these currents from the second half of the last century obviously have their interest, but they have deconstructed the idea of a sensitive music. The representation of the world has changed, as well as the way one is able – or not – to listen to the world. The musical phenomenon occurs when there is listening to something. The place of listening is the place where I write, where I can multiply projects, experiments, including musical archetypes that play on that: what is troubling, imperceptible, disturbing, the pain threshold, the remnants of a music one can recognize … It is also very concrete from a technical and musical point of view… As a spectator of contemporary music, I am convinced that we must invent situations that encourage listening. Listening is a difficult thing. If you put me 15 metres away from a quartet that interprets the latest creation for string quartet and electronics, I’m not sure I’ll feel concerned. I feel like inventing there.

The question of the audience is absolutely essential in As I hear it. For this show, you have met your audience, and in return they gave you their own perception of contemporary music.

The starting point of As I hear is the creation of a solo, considered as we proceed in theatre or dance, ie by endangering oneself as a person, as a social being, as a citizen. For years, alongside my work, studies at the conservatory, in the small community in which I move professionally and in my projects, there was a hiatus: I was never very comfortable talking to people I met by chance through my music. I always dread answering questions such as: “? And you, what do you do?”, “What sense does it have to still devote oneself to this activity in our days”. “Is it vain, can it concern others? “With As I hear it, I put my foot in it, I made people listen to contemporary music and recorded their reactions. I reused these elements as dramatic and musical material.

One of the constants of your projects is the invention of forms distinct from traditional concerts. As I hear it can be considered as a manned installation. Have you thought of doing a sound installation of this deviceshow?

This type of thinking has led to the next show: Ghost, light rolling, and on the taut skin of our eardrum . I am not a specialist in installations in visual arts, which makes my position a bit difficult. As I hear it is closely related to a live performance : there is a huge bond between the audience, sitting around the stage, and myself, who plays the show. The voices that exist around me would be the installation. However, a triangular game occurs, with the spectators who watch my reactions when I hear those voices, which are like the global consciousness of the audience : a process of deconstructing your listening, setting to listen, mise-en- abyme of the music, that initiates a kind of journey for the spectator to arrive at an 18 minutes long piece for electric guitar and electronics. This show is about conditioning oneself to listen to music. To return to this “installation” idea, offering a small group of privileged spectators a state, both of body, consciousness, perception that is not their everyday state particularly interests me. All the details that influence it are important: the comfort of the seat, light, colour … It’s a bit contradictory: I want the listener to build by himself, as much as possible, his own imaginary world – even if the term sounds a bit bandied; at the same time. as a musician, a composer, I feel the need to build a drama, so that the spectator should start from a point, cross movements, tensions. Ghost, light rolling, and on the taut skin of our eardrum is very organized temporally. This is not a built-in loop sound installation, in which viewers can wander freely. The latter are not mobile, they are fixed and follow a story, reminiscent of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Does this course on privacy and listening find in Ghost, … a culmination ?

It is a line that also leads to the disappearance of the musician! This was not an easy task to achieve, a piece only played by small machines that move on their own . We had to develop many artistic and technological resources. The project is to reuse at least part of this Instrumentarium, and the musical techniques related to it, to invest public places, turn them into a musical scenography by injecting into the soundtrack daily traces of the places. For the moment, it’s just an idea on the paper.

Which would you be for you good listening conditions? Is proximity an important element?

Yes, it is, but perhaps by default. When we know the conditions of production of contemporary artists, the fact of being in a form of intimacy, almost face to face, ear to ear, is imperative. That does not mean it would not make sense, at least for me, to develop projects on a larger scale. I would like to make such a creation for a large audience in a natural panorama. It is a question of budget that makes you work in the intimate. On the other hand, the in-between scale does not work. To continue my example, the string quartet with electronics, 15 metres away, does not affect me much. The large orchestra, or, let us say, Heiner Goebbels performances, work thanks to the scenic large scale. The place where one comes into contact with music is a key issue. The aesthetic path covered at any given time determines that. The aesthetics of As I hear it and Ghost … work on the mellow, skimmed, texture, fairly fine materials … An intimate relationship with the audience is created. On the opposite, in 2008, I had created at the request of the GRM, a piece for electric guitar and 60 speakers(Duende eléctrico) more “demonstrative”, “performative”, presented to an audience of several hundred spectators at Radio France, in a traditional concert hall.

Lighting, set design are important elements in your shows. You quoted Heiner Goebbels, who is a composer and director. Is his work an important reference for you?

It is always difficult to talk about models. The works of Heiner Goebbels played their part in my training. At the same time, it is not crippling because we do not work exactly in the same field. For example, he dares to borrow music from other composers. For now – perhaps because I’m still young – I do not feel authorized to put the power of Bach or Stravinsky at the service of my shows. Few musical figures can invest the stage, except Aperghis, Goebbels and a few others. My culture does not proceed from a stage-directing “à la Heiner Goebbels”. I bumped into the theatre (not in the most avant-garde manner) during my studies at the conservatory, as I was playing for a show. Even though it was not very inventive, for people like me who were training in classical music, it was much richer, much more risky than a concert. Thereafter, I developed a passion for theatre and contemporary dance. Actually. I see more theatre plays and dance pieces than concerts.

What are your next projects?

I ‘d like to work from La Haine de la Musique (The hate of music) by Pascal Quignard (Calmann-Levy, 1996). This should be a less intimate form, which occupies the stage in a more frontal way. The project is to produce a piece for a music ensemble and a narrator, always seeking to provoke this rippling in listening, of which Pascal Quignard speaks beautifully . The piece is scheduled for autumn 2014.

INTERVIEW BY CLARISSE BARDIOT, November 2012