Designing a Cartography in Sound

A conversation with Ensemble Modern and Pascal Dusapin on his Project ›Lullaby Experience‹

Mr. Dusapin, your new project is about songs, children’s songs, lullabies – a subject close to your heart?
My relationship with children’s songs goes back a long way. It is connected directly with my musical career. Early on, when I began composing, I wrote a few little songs. Not children’s songs in the stricter sense, but the music’s structure contains a kind of baby songs. Some of my later pieces and even my first opera feature a kind of lullabies, which do not consist of quotations, but of my own creations.
I am interested in the aspect of the taboo: in contemporary music, the melody did not play a special role for a long time; it was nothing current. Melody was considered a nostalgic element, and I have always found that attitude stupid – not least because I really love melodies. I don’t know why a melody should not be something modern, and with regard to a children’s song, I see nothing antiquated or reactionary in it. quite simply, it is the essence itself of the idea of music, the emotional core of the activity leading us to music. There is a genius within these melodies, and that is always the tone. The human voice, the words, the language, they all have a profound physical, human element. A few days ago, for example, I received an Albanian melody for ›Lullaby Experience‹. I don’t understand anything about the words, and it was interesting to see up to which point the melody is substantially connected with the language itself. When I sing a French song myself, of course I can understand all the connections between the French language and music, that goes as far as Debussy, there is a natural connection between the two, and it is beautiful to be able to observe that, one can learn a lot that way.

You have listened to many of the songs that were recorded for the project. What is your impression – are they what you expected? And how did the songs from various countries differ from each other?
This project has now accompanied me for more than ten years. In the beginning, there was a commission from a museum in Houston. They wanted to work with several French artists like me and asked what could be done inside a museum. Therefore, I introduced them to my lullaby project. The project was not realized, but thanks to Ensemble Modern, it has returned to me, so to speak, and that makes me very happy. I will also tell you why: during these ten years, my own perception of the subject has changed. At this point especially, I see many things recurring, I am learning a lot, and there is much I could not have predicted. For example, and this supports what I just said about the taboo, even the censure of melody: many people are almost afraid to sing, they are extremely shy. I have experienced this in situations with friends as well. It is quite funny: when I tell them that I am doing a project about lullabies and that I have an app, and tell them, for example on the phone, oh, just sing something, then the first reaction is shyness, a slight sense of shame. I thought singing is part of all of us, but that is not true. There are many people who do not sing and have no memories of singing in their childhood either. It depends on the generation. My generation, for example, generally reacts very quickly. Younger people, including my own grandchildren, were unable to answer my request immediately. They needed time, had to think. So I learned that – if you assume that, as I said earlier, the lullaby is something like the heart of music – it remains that when we are grown up, which is also true for non-musicians. However, in a certain way it is something hidden, submerged, which moves people and makes them smile. None of that surfaces immediately and directly. The answers are not spontaneous or immediate. Especially the first recordings contain all the reactions, such as hesitation and laughter, all the psychological framework. Usually, people start over twice, even three or four times. But now I usually keep the first version. The one that has the ›hm‹ and the ›hahaha‹ and the ›no, no, no‹, and then you finally hear the song. I like that particularly. My original concept was a bit more pure, but now I like to keep all the accidents that happen in the beginning. They are so strong, psychologically, they tell so many emotional and affective stories.

How do you use the recordings? Are they all treated individually, or how should we imagine the process?
That is difficult to answer because there is a complex technology behind it. However, the idea is to create a kind of melody cloud in which a computer system creates relations. For example, that means going from one vocal sample to another by means of modifications. I am not a musico-ethnologist, I am a composer, I create music. I am interested in transformations. The system used at the Frankfurt LAB is highly complex, using 64 loudspeakers and a projection of birds flying in formation. This will create a kind of über-melody, if one can call it that. Something transient, subject to transformations, just like the natural flight of birds. That is under construction; we are working on numerous ways of transforming or preserving the melodies as they are, or to fill them with new life. The possibilities are endless.

What is IRCAM’s role in this process?
Well, we needed tools. In Thierry Coduys, I have found a wonderful engineer to work with me. At IRCAM, he and the others work on processes I have defined: they have many possibilities, but some things are not easy to solve. For example, originally I had a very simple idea which could not be realized, even with the best artificial intelligence available today. I learned astonishing things through this process, in constant dialogue with IRCAM. They are not working on this in isolation, I am always involved. They are wonderful there.

Will we recognize the songs?
I think so! But this is a kind of work I have never done. So I am in the process of inventing something and writing down the final result. The wonderful thing is that nobody knows how to do this, because it has never been done. I know how to write an orchestral piece – be it good or bad. This project, on the other hand, is truly a space for invention, for freedom. Perhaps one can compare it quite literally to a painting in which the materials and the motif may be familiar, but they are constructed in a totally new way. Mainly, however, it is a gentle project, not a wild one. People should be allowed to lie down on the floor and fall asleep. It is for children and grandparents and for everyone. But that does not make it a children’s project! The target group is everyone, let’s say from two to 100 years. That is why it is called ›Lullaby‹ and not ›Wiegenlieder‹ (cradle songs). For somebody in a Paris suburb, ›lullaby‹ might mean rap. The idea, in any case, is that the project should have a totally different sound in Paris than in Frankfurt or Tokyo. Because the cultures are different. My dream would be to create a kind of cartography in sound.

Why will it sound different in Paris than in Frankfurt?
Very simply, there are more Germans in Frankfurt than in Paris. For that reason, there will be a different sound there. My dream would be to reach out to very different people. After all, there are not only Frenchmen in Paris, but also Chinese, Arabs, even Englishmen! So if a Chinese person from Paris takes part, he might bring a Chinese melody, and thereby a different colour. Frankfurt am Main, on the other hand, presumably has more Germans, but also more Turkish inhabitants than Paris. If it were possible to reach the Turks ... that is the problem: how to find them? There will certainly be surprises. If the app for collecting the songs manages to spread widely, there will be special colours, as experience will show.

How will you combine all this with the music which is played live?
I am still working on that. The instruments are like voices to me, I do not differentiate between them. I would like to have Ensemble Modern sing with its instruments, they should play a sort of interventions around the melodies. I have a few ideas already...

And what is Claus Guth’s role in all this?
He must also invent something completely new. Perhaps something sculptural, a kind of dramaturgy of the space; this will be a collaboration with his team. I do not see it as a staging in the conventional sense, but something comparable to a sculptor’s work. Perhaps it will involve images or video. It is difficult, because we have never done it before.