On March 23rd 2022 my voir dans le secret was premiered at the Biennale de Lyon with musicians from the Cairn Ensemble and Totem Électrique. It was commissioned with the kind support of the Direction régionale des affaires culturelles Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and Raphaël Bourdier from Ensemble Cairn. From the original proposal submitted:

voir dans le secret will be created for three musicians playing Jean-Francois Laporte’s Totem Électrique instruments along with three musicians from the Cairn Ensemble playing electric guitar, bass clarinet, and percussion. In addition, electronics will be included, consisting of 6-channel sound files derived from processed samples from the Totem Électrique instruments along with speech recordings made by each of the six musicians.

As my new piece is to be performed by musicians from France and Quebec, from the very beginning I was attracted to using the speech rhythms and sounds of readings by the two groups of musicians from these two very different French-speaking countries/regions. I chose a text from Derrida’s Donner La Mort:

Voir dans le secret. Qu’est-ce que cela peut vouloir dire?

Avant même d’y reconnaître une citation de l’Évangile de Matthieu (videre in abscondito, en tô kryptô blepein), notons que la pénétration du secret y est confiée au regard, à la vue, à l’observation – plutôt qu’à l’écoute, au flair ou au tact. On pourrait imaginer un secret qui ne se laisse transir ou traverser, donc ne se défasse ou ne s’ouvre, comme secret, qu’à l’audition, ou en se laissant toucher, sentir, et justement parce qu’il échappe au regard ou parce qu’il est invisible – ou encore parce que ce qui en lui est visible garde secret le secret qui n’est pas visible. On peut toujours exposer à la vue une chose qui reste secrète parce que son secret n’est accessible que par d’autres sens que la vue. Une écriture, par exemple, si je ne sais pas la décrypter (une lettre écrite en chinois ou en hébreu, ou tout simplement d’une écriture manuelle indéchiffrable) est parfaitement visible mais scellée pour la plupart. Elle n’est pas cachée mais elle est cryptée. Le caché, à savoir ce qui reste inaccessible à l’œil ou à la main, n’est pas nécessairement le crypté, au sens dérivé de ce mot qui veut dire chiffré, codé, à interpréter, plutôt que dissimulé dans l’ombre (ce qu’il pouvait dire aussi en grec).

[To see in secret–what can that mean?

Before recognizing there a quote from the Gospel according to Matthew (/viderei in abscondito / en to krypto blepein/) let us note that the penetration of the secret is entrusted to the gaze, to sight, to observation, rather than to hearing, smelling, or touching. One might imagine a secret that could only be penetrated or traversed, undone or opened as a secret, by hearing, or one that would only allow itself to be touched or felt, precisely because in that way it would escape the gaze or be invisible, or indeed because what was visible in it would keep secret the secret that wasn’t visible. One can always reveal to the gaze something that still remains secret because its secret is accessible only to senses other than sight. For example, there might be some writing that I can’t decipher (a letter in Chinese or Hebrew, or simply some undecipherable handwriting) but that remains perfectly visible in spite of its being sealed to most readers. It isn’t hidden but it is encoded or encrypted. That which is hidden, as that which remains inaccessible to the eye or the hand, is not necessarily encrypted in the derivative senses of that word–ciphered, coded, to be interpreted–in contrast to being hidden in the shadows (which is what it also meant in Greek).]

Though a philosophical work, Donner la Mort is also particularly poetic in its content and expression. It speaks to perception via various senses and in particular of the penetration of open secrets by paying attention not to what is before one’s eyes but rather through what one can hear. In our media-saturated world, where image dominates, it is refreshing to turn to eternal mysteries that may be penetrated only by careful listening.

Given that the musicians surround the audience, as shown in the image above, problems of synchronisation will arise, particularly as the musicians will probably not be able to see each other so well. Furthermore, as speakers will be close to the instruments and thus the microphones, I decided to use sound files as opposed to live electronics in this piece—the technical hurdles with the new Totem Électrique instruments, amplification, and the performance situation will be difficult enough without the complexity of delicate live electronics systems that I often employ. In order to afford the synchronisation of the musicians with the sound files and with each other, I will use MaxMSP software not only to play the pre-mixed sounds but also to present the score to the musicians. Bespoke software will display the music notation, turning the pages along with a visual metronome, as well as snippets of text from the Derrida passage quoted above.

The text is then superimposed in various ways onto the (often extended) playing techniques of each of the six musicians. Some may ‘speak’ the text into the instrument, draw a drum stick across a drum head in the rhythm of the text, or, as in the example below, move the whammy bar of the guitar in the rhythm of the text. Along with the recordings of each musician’s reading of the text—cut and spliced into the electronic texture–the ‘secret’ of Derrida’s work is present at many different levels of the performance: in the foreground and in the background, at times clearly perceivable, at other times hidden.


The original plan to place the musicians around the audience turned out not to be possible in the space assigned to us at the Biennale. Instead we had to make do with a normal stage and a different loudspeaker setup. In this case I was glad to have the original sound files in 3rd order ambisonics format, as this made it possible to dispense with the 6-channel mixdown and experiment with the available speakers, mapping the ambisonics mix onto these to make the best sound possible in the given space. The recording below was made by Max Bruckert and mixed by myself.

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