Caput Mortum



In 1985, I created a small company, to carry out certain tasks and research projects that I could not undertake in a professional context. I explain below why and how this came about.

The outcome of this work, some years later, was undoubtedly my opera PAN, written to texts by Christin Tarkos and directed by Pascal Rambert.

It seems to me, almost thirty years later, that nothing has moved on. Such is the grip of corporate interest! The only change I can see is that numerous composers have espoused the most overused operatic form. After Zimermann, Berio, Nono, Stockhausen, etc., nothing seems to have changed. Ours is not an adventurous time!

The following text dates from late 1999.

In 1985, I wanted to write an opera. The stage fascinated me but I found the production set-up completely outdated. A movement called “musical theatre” was trying to revitalize the genre but, in reality, this was just poor-man’s opera. Resources were limited.


« In generic terms, this term covers the various modes of expression combining theater and music, including a text which, totally or in part, gives it various denominations (…) depending on the nature of the action, the type of structure and libretto, the period, the country, etc. As a shortened form of “opera in musica”, the term can apply to singspiel, tragédie lyrique, opéra comique, buffa, seria, etc. – genres that combine singers, instrumentalists, sometimes dancers and actors (with possible overlaps between their respective disciplines), in a defined space, arranged to also embrace the fine arts and acting…”Larousse Dictionary of Music (1982)

It is revealing to see an attempt at an acceptable definition of “opera” being handled so cautiously. I have taken this effort by a specialist dictionary to demonstrate that “opera” is not a fixed form but is, like any form, in continual movement. Conflicts of ideas about the prioritizing of words or music are not the only challenge of opera, music and the stage. The form is complex since it combines voice, sound and stage, plus, in consequence, elaborate lighting effects and sets and a focus on “appearance” requiring a “production” that goes beyond the usual setting for a musical work. Forms being a mirror of the world into which they are born – and here I risk an arbitrary conception of something unspoken that cannot be resumed simplistically or explicitly – you could say, without falling into avant-gardism (!), that the 19th century conception of opera (the basis for all present thinking) can clearly no longer satisfy our desires or our contemporaneity, be it at the level of our conception of knowledge or that of the auditory and visual environment.Despite reserves about principles, opera can nonetheless be the challenge of a changing world, where language no longer occupies the place it did, where narrative does not follow the same logic and where music is not enslaved to text (Céline, Artaud, Joyce, Beckett, Grotowski, Lacan and others passed this way!), etc., and where its finances differ from those of the big houses – which, because of the way they function, stifle evolution and stifle themselves in the process.


The tools available to anyone wishing to tackle creating a dramatic imaginary world in the setting of an opera house actually prevent one from being able to imagine a different stage or a different relationship with the performers. Choosing other voices than those produced by opera (which requires extensive training) and other sounds than orchestral ones presents a handicap that is hard to overcome. The opera tool, with its rules and principles, imposes limits. Creativity requires being free to promote other ideas, other formats, other sounds and other ways of working. This is what I tried to achieve, first with Caput Mortuum and, later, Attentat.


For the audience, the physical place is about the relationship between what they will see and what they will hear. You have to take the overall relationship between stage and audience into account if you are to come up with something “unexpected” – a creative effect that will take the audience unawares. Man being by nature lazy, when someone books a seat, it is usually in anticipation of a familiar pleasure. The challenge, therefore, is to create a setting where the defined space takes the audience by surprise and wakes it up. There is no “creation” without “transformation”. Even so, it is not about excluding one or other form of relationship to Italian or other styles but about creating a “whole” – an “opera” where no component is habitual or conventional.


Most contemporary opera productions create works with singers (from the operatic tradition) and musicians – even, in the best-case (or sometimes worst-case) scenario, with electronic music. One implies the other. When you have singers from the operatic tradition and musicians in the pit (usually), you have a relationship that pre-defines the work – the singers will produce a certain type of sound but will be quite unable to achieve other types of vocal emission, such as working with multiphonics or screaming, that are at odds with their technique, etc. The vocal sounds will thus be essentially tied to an “instrumental” type of vocal production (see below). Also, work on movement – on ambulation and the forms the body will take – will be studiously ignored. The musicians will be obliged to “accompany” the voices singing the “texts”. This correlation is inevitable. The relationship between voices on one hand and orchestra on the other can only happen given a unifying intention, thus implying a sonic and visual production linked to this division of labour. This is highly important. The vocal production of the singer will be affected by the orchestral support, so the sounds produced (and the movements, as mentioned below) will not go beyond those characteristic of musical instruments. This means, in effect, that a mouth noise or a snicker, for example, will not be able to “melt into” the timbre of a violin – other than in a humorous way. The only possible difference, in a performance with orchestra, would be to get the musicians (producing music) and the singers (delivering or supporting a text) to work independently, without interrelating, as with Merce Cunningham and the music of John Cage. Rehearsal time being so costly, it will be impossible to take the time to work with a singer, seek other sounds, combine exploring movement around the stage and forms made by the body, train in several techniques (dance, martial arts, etc.) or recommence from scratch work already done, etc. (see note below on the opera PAN). In this case, money governs the creation of form, favoring established conventions and modes of functioning. The production will inevitably become simplistic, whoever the director – who will inevitably have to call for more “meaning” in the production, being unable, both materially and financially, to reinvent a whole convention, from singers to musicians.


This will be a determining factor. Either you start with the idea of “opera” as having a text conveying meaning (like the orchestra “accompanying” the singers) and a narrative, serving as a link between the music and the stage, or you consider that “opera” can be a multitude of other things and that the form offers you as many possibilities as the cinema has shown us, in recent years. Here, several possibilities emerge:

1/ The narrative need not follow a progressive and discursive “order”

2/ (and/or) the nature of the writing introduces as much signifier as signified

(for example, in the word “table”, the signifier is expressed by the phonemes t-a-b-l-, while the signified concerns the concept and what it evokes: a table).

So, a text that works more on the signifier implies adifferent type of vocal or instrumental writing

3/ (and/or) the “vocalizing” of these texts is not linked to a historical vocal “skill” (an operatic voice) and, in consequence, you can have other performers than singers and thus other sounds, other possibilities and a different conception of the use of the voice. Here too, the less conventional points 2 and 3 can only give an original work if you take something other than 19th century opera as your starting point. Indeed, you must be most vigilant, since the pernicious effects of modernity can always give the illusion of being new.


If you have instrumentalists, you have:

1/ a certain type of sound (see above)

2/ a certain type of working relationship

It is virtually impossible for you to change these predetermined factors on-the-spot and, above all, at the moment of rehearsals.

The musicians will feel (as in most opera orchestras) depreciated in their role, since anything visual and related to the stage will take precedence over their work as musicians. The placing of the musicians is always a problem, too, since they are off-stage and outside the action and it is impossible to use them as actors – it is not their function and they are very bad actors. If you have only electronic sounds (by which I mean exclusively new, non-natural sounds), the problem of a “split” between what may be “spoken” on-stage and the action will soon become intolerable (unless you apply “real time” – added 2012).

The only option left is to develop a different relationship between the sounds and the performing, without musicians or electronic sound, where the performer uses his body as much as his voice and controls the noises or sounds he produces, which are processed directly, by machines that he may control alone. With current technology, it is possible to create interesting spatial distributions of certain types of sound (amplified or synthesized), which can be integrated into the “meaning” of the staging. The sound or sound phenomenon would no longer be one of a weighty and all-embracing orchestral presence, in the pit, “accompanying” what is going on and creating an unequivocal and highly directive listening experience. It will be interesting to extend the limits of perception by greatly refining a way of listening (as in chamber music) that only today’s resources can make possible (including the artifice that certain techniques represent), by “processing” directly, onstage, the sounds made by the actors/performers. While the orchestra pit used to be the best way of amplifying the orchestra and blending it with the voices, according to known acoustical data, today we can consider other ways of playing with several sound sources, even onstage.


It seems to me coherent – given multiple texts or multiple ways of voicing the language (in the broadest possible sense), even non-essential and noise-based – to use people experienced in stage work (either actors, singers open to other vocal possibilities or people free of learned approaches), combining speech and sounds with physical actions linked to the language or to noises. So, it is no longer a matter of one character moving towards another, as in standard opera, following the meaning (or non-meaning, which comes to the same thing) of the text, in a simplistic or stagey fashion. It is about integrating matching sounds into the movements and ambulations of the body, thus creating a language of the body, of the sound of the language or of the sound of the body – the exact definition being elusive. You can say that it is about creating a score by taking as your material not a purely musical conception based on a text, to which you add staging, but by creating music fashioned entirely by conceiving the opera by means of oral work with the performers, combining unfettered vocal work with movement and avoiding narrative (other than that of the theme) as a starting point. The “meaning”, the “narrative” and the “signified” are thus automatically bypassed, in favor of a sound-based and totally unbridled performance, achieved by means of rigorous technical training.


The type of work described above regarding text, sounds and the body, entails another way of occupying the space and different relationships between individuals – which directly affect the “work”. It is not a matter of starting at the end or, in other words, setting up the subject of the narrative in the space, but one of occupying the space according to what will be created by the voice (in the broad sense of the term). It will therefore be desirable to work in all possible ways on the relationship between the body onstage and the text – not necessarily simultaneously, since there must be no systematization. The text may consist only of phonemes (the signifier not automatically aligning with the physical action in an obvious relationship, despite the fact that the such use of the language and the body involves unconscious foreknowledge). I would add that creating an “opera” does not entail a continuous alignment of vocal and instrumental sounds – or in our case synthesized sounds. We also need loud or silent moving around (where noise replaces the voice and silence highlights the body’s presence). The use of space can no longer be seen in terms of complete exploitation of the entire surface area. Consistency starts by accepting inconsistency. Why should we occupy all the area that the place offers? The performance involves, above all, huge amounts of energy and production effort, to bring out its essential craziness and shake people up – either in their expectations or their sense of the apparent comfort of their life. Indeed, partial use of the space can also help underline and reinforce a sense of how the body is made to move, with or without sound.


For all the reasons given above and below, it was important to have a tool flexible enough to explore a different organization of the onstage relationship of noise, sounds, bodies, texts, spatial movement, etc. Hence, the CAPUT MORTUUM company and, later, Attentat came into being.The company’s flexibility makes it possible to respond rapidly to the continual transformation of the work in progress. What is valid today will not necessarily be valid tomorrow. Not trying to establish anything for the future, we are concerned only with the next creation. At the moment, the working method is as important as the score.

For INVENTIONS, PROLOGUE and A CORPS ET A CRIS, we started from nothing. I began by indicating to performers chosen from various disciplines (theatre, dance, trapeze, mime, etc.) some working processes: jumps, bodily trembling, short narrations (telling a story with no text and no story!) – and this always combined with a sound. A movement = a sound, and vice versa (see I picked performers with various backgrounds other than musical, who were willing to experiment with the voice, trying to break with certain “conventions” of expression and sound produced by the “classic” voice, even in contemporary music. The result is sometimes harder to control but it makes it possible to enrich the sound palette with less “codified” timbres and melodic or rhythmic invention. It also provides choice. What interests me is working on making sounds with the help of the whole body – jumping, falling, running, etc. The greatest risk, for me, has been to go from the written score to a more oral way of working. I experienced this as a huge risk but I realized that every practice has its limits and the absence of something written leads to other types of work that are just as innovative. It is important not to have any illusions and to bear in mind that the goal is not to produce innovation as such but to rethink the journey so as to be able to produce “differently.” There remains the problem of how to set down this work, since it is essential to create something reproducible to pass on. Currently, the only way is by recording, since the majority of the sounds produced cannot currently be rendered in symbols. So, via rehearsals and shared adventures, “sentences” take shape – usually short sentences of a few seconds to, sometimes, two minutes maximum duration. After around six weeks of individual work between the each former and myself (which considerably increases my rehearsal time), I bring all the performers together. At this time, they find out about each other’s work, not having been present for my individual sessions with the others. I will have kept performers isolated from any temptation to imitate. This isolation also helps liberate strengths that might have been held back in a group situation, through a simple sense of awkwardness. Then we start to construct the shape of the performance, with all its tensions and constraints.

Works by Marc Monnet created with Caput Mortuum:

  • Inventions

  • Prologue

  • Commentaires d’inventions

  • Fragments (in collaboration)

  • Chaînes (film – electronic part)

  • A corps et à Cris

  • Abcetera

  • Probe

  • Premier regard (new music and video series)

  • Troisième regard (new music and video series)

  • Bibilolo (entirely electronic)

  • Pan (in collaboration)


For the first performance of PAN, at the Opéra national du Rhin, the choir, which had a major role in the work, demanded extra money for being recorded so that I could work on the voices at Ircam – although the choir is salaried. This clearly shows that certain social rules can hinder work.

Attentat, which followed on from Capt Mortuum for a while, started from a utopian idea which did not really work. In fact, feeling that I had done all that I could with Caput Mortuum, I wanted to generate new impetus. I asked three composer friends (Philipe Hurel, Marc-André Dalbavie and Philippe Leroux) to come together to create a new movement. They responded favorably but things soon became impossible, due to individualism. I nonetheless liked the differences between these composers and I am sure that an opportunity was missed here.