Eric de Visscher: Audio arts in Belgium

text about sound art in Belgium




Eric de Visscher


Hermit Foundation


Plasy Monastery

Audio arts in Belgium

The history of experimental music in Belgium Probably starts on February 2th, 1926 in Brussels; that night a surrealist group of painters, writers and musicians, member of the group „Correspondances“ presented a fantastic performance including  recitations poems, songs as well as a dramatic „play“ entitled „Le dessous des cartes“. The author was Paul Hooreman – a wellknown surrealist and musicians André Souris. The play was a parody of all serious music in Vogue at the time: Stravinsky, Milhaud, Auric, Satie, etc. One of the pieces on the program was mysteriously entitled „Trois inventions pour orgue“, and seriously suntitled „1. grave 2. martial 3. rythimique-vif-pastoral“. In fact, the organ was a simple barrel organ with rolls of popular songs including the „Collage 1928“ – an almost cubist orchestral piece in which the most banal fragments of music were simply juxtaposed without any coherence. Souris, however, did not maintain such radical positions and ultimately in 1948 stopped composing.

The surrealist tradition and the sense of humor there involved, continued in Belgium even after World War II: in painting. Dalwaux and Magritte are of course its most well-known ambassadors. Marcel Broodthaers, for instance, is a later example: originally a poet, he gradually moved to visual arts including paintings, object, installations, films and performances. He made more than fifteen short-films, most of them making use of sound, generally concrete sounds and texts.

In the same tradition are two artists from Liège (Luttich) – Jacques Chaarlier and Jacques Lizène: The former presented his art along with rock-oriented musical performances, under the names „musíque régresive“, „desperádos music“, „roll around the plinthure“ and this from the seventies until now. Lizène (1946) names himself „artisto f mediokrity“ and has a particular interest for all insignificant and unimportant things in life. His „nonseductive music“ is made of bad and false singing and yelling mediocre songs, of several industrial sounds, or sound -objects with bicycles, construction tools, of the noises of engines of various kinds, of broken instrumentss, etc. A nice mix of post-surrealism/dadaism/futurism, a follow-up to Cage, a precursor of industraial music and a serious dosis of humor…

Of the same generation and – as many Belgians, a fierce individualist, is Jacques Bekaert: both as a profesional journalist and for his love of new and ethnic music, he travelled through the whole world nad got in touch with many experimental composers. Among these, John Cage, whom he introduced to Belgium and about whom produced a very fine booklet. During one of Cage´s travels, Bekaert stayed at Cage´s house in Stony Point and there he composed a series of semi-improvised words based on interactiones between players. Those pieces have been performer by prominent members of the American avant-garde such as Robert Ashley, David Behrman, George Lewis or Takehisa Kosugi. After 1980 Bekaert also stopped with any public astivities.

Many Members of this American avant-garde have become known to the Belgian thanks to the aktivity of Gottfried-Willem Raes (1952) – a composer, instrument builder and concert organizer in Ghent. Raes has founded his own center for new music – The Logos Foundation, which next to organising numerous concerts and events has also archives and functiones as an information center on new music. Raes compositions are marked by a particular inventiveness at building the most bizzare and exting instrument sone may think of, combining acustic sources with Electronics: from singing bikes to bellorgans, from pneumaphones (a large of horn activated by cushions of pressured air) to soundboats and crackle boxes. Recently, he has used digital technology (both in hard-and software) to create subtle and the same time impressing sound installations, whereby miniature acustic phenomena are activated by a computer and amplified to produce gigantic musical events. Raes i salso active as an improviser and tours the whole world with his wife Moniek Darges, forming the Logos Duo.

Experimental music and sound installations are also present in the work of a series of individualists, i. E. people who do not work in specific institutions, but rather on their own. Among them George Smits (1942), who started with  purely with purely visual installations (meat to create space-breaking objects) and when working with long strings, felt the need to make the vibrations of those strings also audible. From there his generalized used of styrofoam, as a neutral acousic amplifier.

He has made numerous performances and installations, exploring the acoustic qualities of this materiál and its relation to space. Guy Schraenen has elabored, through the years an impresive „Archive of Small press and Comunication“ which is a mine of information about mail art, installations and other experimentl forms. In Antwerp also, the members of the Group SEM have combined electronic music with digital images and video production. Baudouin Oosterlynck uses installations, drawings and noises to explore all aspects of sound, from spatialisation to silence and the qualitative limits of audibility, thereby presenting a true phenomenology of music and listening. Guy de Bievre has conceived many performances and pieces made for non-musical performers and moves now to more abstract compositions constructed thanks to intricated chance operations, while making use of pre-existing musical materials. Pierre Berthet is an excellent percussionist and has an incredible inventivity in building sound systems from recycled materials, he often works with others improvisers and instrument builders in a very open spirit, in which humor is never totally absent.

Maybe humor is the „missing link“ that can be traced behind most of those musical inventors: not that their work is not serious enough or is simply to be considered as a joke, but just because most o fit is without pretention. Through humor, the artists indicates the relativity of all things, even of his own work.

Erik de Visscher

After studying philosophy, linguistics and music, Eric de Visscher has been artistic director of the Ars Musica Festival in Brussels. In 1997, he joined the Institute for Research and Coordination Acoustic / Music (IRCAM), attached to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, where he served as artistic director. He participated in the creation of the Agora Festival and several exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou. In 2005, he joined the Cité de la musique in Paris, where he was appointed in 2006 director of the Musée de la musique. He has published in several magazines and exhibition catalogues, notably on the relations between visual arts and music.