Premiere by the composer Jean-Luc Hervé

Music for an Exhibition - Formal Issues

Usually, the sonic space of an exhibit is not inhabited by sounds made by the works, but by the public’s murmurs and mumbles. It is usually a space in which we move. Generally, we don’t come to an exhibit to listen to music. Hearing is the sense that is called upon the least. Willingly, at least.

“We are in a civilization of images where listening to our environment, paying attention to the sounds around us, is not something we are used to doing,” notes Jean-Luc Hervé. “In order to encourage the audience to be attentive in an environment that is not completely silent, I observed what happens in nature. During a bird-watching trip near a town, even when there are parasite noises (cars or other sounds from the town), if the ear is paying attention to the birds singing, we don’t hear the background noise any more, we pay attention only to the “bird” sounds, even if they are discreet. We listen for rare sounds, the happy surprise of a song never heard.  Here, I try to intrigue the visitor, wake up their audio curiosity despite the background noise. The idea is to create a sound environment for the entire exposition, to not be totally in a gallery, but to transform the space with the sound, to give the visitors the feeling they are waking into a specific biotopia. This is where the name of the work comes from.”

On the other hand, in an exhibition, neither the listening times nor the musical discourse are the same as in a concert. The public wanders through a gallery from one work to another, decides on their path and the amount of time spent in front of each work. It is the public that imposes time constraints on the works. “This is another limitation on the musical discourse that is be built with sound forms over time,” says the composer. “It is probably for this reason that that aspect is absent from most sound installations that favor a physical approach to sound, generally associated with a visual object. Furthermore, the music is created from silence and it is obvious that continual sound material won’t work because it becomes background music, or decoration, combined with the other sounds around us that we don’t listen to.”

Here again, the bird-watching trip model is precious. “It is not by accident that composers are always interested in birdsongs. Among the “noises” that furnish our environment, they are almost the only ones that have complex temporal forms. A birdsong is a fairly short type of music, lasting only a few seconds, that is repeated with variations. Each species is characterized by its song but within a species, each individual has its own particularities. The individuals found within a single territory respond to each other, creating a polyphony where, like in counterpoint, each voice is in relation to the others. Here also, each sound agent regularly emits short sound sequences of the same type, but varied, and always renewed. Each individual listens to his closest neighbor, including his song in the ensemble. Thus, a large-scale polyphony is formed. A polyphony in which each agent has their own sound identity, their own individual variability. A polyphony that takes over the entire building, breathing an organic sound presence into the architecture.”

It is important to note that it is the form of birdsongs (and more generally animal populations: birds, insects, amphibians), meaning their temporal and polyphonic structure that is used as a model. The sound material used does not, in any case, imitate birdsongs or calls.

A Timid Biotopia - Poetic Issues

“The relationship to nature, the use of organic models in the composition until the extension of the concert music in the environment, has been a constant in my work for several years1 ” announces Jean-Luc Hervé. Suffice to say, the theme of the exhibition “La fabrique du vivant” fits him like a glove. In Biotope, the reference to the living manifests itself through its occupation of the space via multiple sound sources and through the individual and collective behavior of each source. It also manifests itself through the system’s “timid” personality. Intrigued by the sounds, visitors come closer to the loudspeakers to better hear them, trying to find out where they come from. But if there are too many visitors, or if their movements are too brusque, they disturb the “animals”. The system reacts: the sound agent, like a living being, panics, sends out an alert to its neighbors, and falls silent. If the disturbance continues, the panic becomes greater and greater. The entire population flies away, screaming, quickly along the gallery’s ceiling. Soon after this sonic “explosion”, the music stops and the entire installation becomes quiet: the frightened “animals” are silent. The music resumes when the calm returns.”

The entire gallery becomes a space in which one must be attentive and discreet to hear. The visitors must listen, their listening must become more attentive, and the must become more sensitive to the events surrounding them.

Create an Organic Sound Space - Technological Issues

Going against the grain of certain trends in contemporary music that consist of disregarding work on sound in favor of associating it with an image, a set, or a performance, Jean-Luc Hervé prefers to concentrate on the music while extending the field of musical listening to other situations beyond the concert hall. In the case of a sound environment for an exhibition everything needs to be rethought in order to take into account the architectural features and the public’s behavior. The composer has already lived similar experiences with his recent work Germination, imagined for the place Stravinsky in Paris at IRCAM, or Amplification/résonance for the Communication Museum in Berlin.

For Biotope, one of the first objectives was to make the sound system disappear—implying a collaboration, well ahead of time, with the exhibition scenographer. “Rather than create a virtual, artificial space, the project is, on the contrary, to highlight the real space we walk through—the Centre Georges Pompidou’s galerie 4—with a musical proposition.” comments Jean-Luc Hervé.

“The solution was to scatter multiple, localized sources throughout the gallery; in the walls or under the exhibition pedestals. The sound has a physical presence: we can almost touch it, but its origin stays invisible. My work (maybe as an alternative to the virtualization of our everyday lives) is generally interested in the presence of sounds and offers a music-listening experience that diffracts in multiple, clearly located, points.”
The volume is low enough that it gives the impression of a dialogue among members of a group of small animals (amphibians, insects, or birds) hiding in the building. Each sound agent in this group has its own autonomy (via a computer equipped with artificial “proto-intelligence”) that interprets the characteristic sound form (the group’s song) in its own manner and in real-time. Sensors make it possible for the system to react to the visitor’s presence and movements.

1. Anne Cauquelin, Jean-Luc Hervé, Les Jardins de l’écoute, éditions MF.

1. et 2. Ginsberg Alexandra Daisy, Agapakis Christina, Sissel ToolasThe Sublime Hibiscus Landscape (image 1) & The Sublime Hibiscus Portrait (image 2), 2018-2019
Resurrecting the Sublime: reconstruction numérique du spécimen disparu, Hibiscadelphus wilderianus, du versant sud du mont Haleakala, sur l’île de Maui, à Hawaï.
© Gray Herbarium of Harvard University © Christina Agapakis of Ginkgo Bioworks, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg & Sissel Tolaas
3. Exhibition "La Fabrique du Vivant", Centre Pompidou. Resurrecting the Sublime: Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock (smell diffusion hood, lava boulder, documentary film), February 2019.



Jean-Luc Hervé

Jean-Luc Hervé studied at the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique de Paris with Gérard Grisey (first prize in composition). His doctoral thesis in aesthetics as well as research carried out at IRCAM were the opportu...