New energies: Biennale Son brings sound art to Valais

Biennale Son will take place for the first time in autumn 2023, in Sion, Martigny and Sierre (as well as a few smaller venues just outside these cities) and provide the French-speaking part of Valais along the Rhône with sound installations, concerts and performances for over six weeks.

Friedemann Dupelius

The beautiful alpine lake Lac des Dix lies at an altitude of 2,364 metres, while its dam – at 285 meters above sea level – is the highest located construction of Switzerland. The dam is connected to Sion’s Chandoline power plant via pressurised pipes. Since July 2013 with no more water flowing down into the valley, the pipes have been decommissioned. Yet the modernist building continues to crackle, because of its aura. So much so that it came to the attention of three curators. Since mid-September, this power station is headquarters to the new Biennale Son, with international artists generating a new kind of energy through the dialogue between their work and the industrial architecture, supplying various locations along the river with artistic energy.

(c) Olivier Lovey
In 1934, the Ticino architect Daniele Buzzi designed the “Chandoline” power plant, which houses the main exhibition of the Biennale Son.

Biennale Son presents art forms that usually take place in Geneva or Lausanne as far as French-speaking Switzerland is concerned and yet there is a tradition and a small scene for experimental music here too. The association Dolmen has been active in the region since the 1990s, while the somewhat more pop-orientated Palp Festival is also known for its experiments.

Christian Marclay, Screenplay part 2, performed by Ensemble Babel

Sound-loving visual artist Christian Marclay also comes from Valais – as does Luc Meier, co-curator of the Biennale Son, who is delighted that he was able to win Marclay for the first edition of the festival in their shared homeland. The exiled Swiss artist is part of the main exhibition at the Kraftwerk with two works. Artists like Christian Marclay are the reason why the Biennale Son was created: “Sound and visual arts have been mutually stimulating for a long time,” says Luc Meier, “but this significantly increased in recent years, with boundaries between the disciplines becoming more and more permeable. This is also reflected in recent topics that spilled over into the art discourse, like tuning into other, non-human life forms or resonating with the environment.”

The Basilique Valère on the southern castle hill of Sion

Sky-blue river, late Gothic organ

Engaging with the landscape and its changes is unavoidable at an art festival in such an environment. In Sion, river Rhône is still sky-blue, fresh and healthy, picturesquely embedded in the angular mountain ranges of the horizon. But climatic changes are also making themselves felt here, with the Rhône glacier receding for many years. Canadian sound artist Crys Cole, for example, microphoned the Grande Dixence dam and brought the sounding spirit of the water back into the otherwise hauntingly empty power station. On an organisational level, Biennale Son tries to minimise its ecological footprint in the Alps, by keeping air travel to a minimum and paying attention to electricity as well as material waste.

In addition to reservoirs and mountain tops with crosses, churches are also characteristic of the Valais landscape. “It’s a traditionally Catholic canton and more religious than other places in French-speaking Switzerland,” says Luc Meier. Biennale Son found its venues in some of the chapels and basilicas. Meier compares them to the power station: “Without wanting to sound esoteric, there is a kind of energy in these churches that can be transformed. Just as we can make the power station vibrate, we can also make the churches resonate anew.” The Basilique de Valère in Sion is home to one of the world’s oldest organs, with its almost 600 years of age. When Judith Hamann and James Rushford are allowed to play this instrument, the concept of “transformation” becomes urgent and tangible. “Who has been allowed to enter here so far? Who was allowed to make music here?” asks Luc Meier. “What echos will such performances have? In the mountains around us, but also in the social spaces that we create in the process?”

The Schwalbennestorgel (Swallow’s Nest Organ) of the Basilique de Valère was built in 1435

Encounters in the Rhône Valley

These places of encounter are still in the process of being created. The Biennale Son team is relying on a Swiss audience with a general interest in art and music, not afraid to make the trip to the Alps. At the same time, Luc Meier also sees the potential to arouse the curiosity of a local audience. The curatorial team has made sure that the live performances take place on Fridays and Saturdays, with renowned artists such as Saâdane Afif, Félicia Atkinson, Alvin Curran, David Toop and Kassel Jaeger performing in venues such as jazz clubs and theatres. Furthermore, for those who want to delve deeper into the history of sound-based art, there is an exhibition of the FRAC Franche-Comté collection from Besançon (France) at the Médiathèque in Martigny.

The Eklekto Geneva Percussion Center performs Choeur Mixte for 15 snare drums (2018) by Alexandre Babel. Both are guests at the Biennale Son.

Last but not least, the Édhéa (École de design et haute école d’art du Valais), in the small town of Sierre, offers an artistic bachelor’s degree specifically in the field of sound. Students and alumni of Édhéa are actively involved in the Biennale Son, both behind the scenes and performing: Claire Frachebourg has created a sculpture reminiscent of a boat or a mummy across the power station’s entire basement. Frachebourg recorded the soundtrack to the object during an artist residency on a boat travelling from Iceland to Greenland. Even more sounding water, even more power for the power station, which can finally and again do what it was once built for: Generating and distributing energy.
Friedemann Dupelius

Biennale Son, 16.9.-29.10., Wallis
The Biennale Son Podcast introduces to the festival program.
Podcast on Spotify

École de design et haute école d’art du Valais (Édhéa)Klangkunst-Sammlung; FRAC Franche ComtéWalliser Musik-Initiative DolmenFestival PalpClaire Frachebourg

neo profiles:
Alexandre BabelEklektoFrançois BonnetEnsemble Babel

Mushroom meshwork of sounds and relationships

Friederike Kenneweg

The MaerzMusik festival will take place in Berlin from 18 to 27 March 2022. One of its main focusses will be the work of Éliane Radigue on the occasion of the composer’s 90th birthday. Friederike Kenneweg spoke with French-Swiss musician François J. Bonnet, who’ll be sound director for all of Radigue’s electronic works performances during the festival.


Schwarzweissbild von den abstrakten Verbindungslinien eines Pilzmyzels
Maerzmusik 2022 Artwork


When shaping the 2022 programme, curators Berno Odo Polzer and Kamila Metwaly, kept in mind both the visible and invisible relationships that hold us all together, in music and beyond. They used the mushroom mycelium’s root-like structure as a metaphor. What we commonly call mushrooms, are in fact mainly the fruiting bodies, but the fungus also includes the multifaceted interconnections of its roots, some of which extend over large areas underground. The influence that these connections have on their environment is still largely a mystery to science.

Such an unmanageable network of connections is also formed by the festival’s events, which run through districts, flats, cafés, pubs and venues, linking places as diverse as the Philharmonie, the Zeiss-Großplanetarium in Prenzlauer Berg and the Kulturquartier silent green in Wedding.


Composer Éliane Radigue will turn 90 in 2022. Photo: Éleonore Huisse

The image of a subterranean network also fits the music of Éliane Radigue, whose complete electronic works will be presented live at Maerzmusik. At first it seems like an infinite, almost static sound surface, although subtle changes take place in the various musical layers.


Engage in a different perception

Sound director François J. Bonnet recommends that those who attend the concerts fully engage with the perception of these subtle changes, as they allow open up a completely new horizon to the listeners. Bonnet is in charge of 17 events, covering the composer’s works from 1971 to the year 2000. Bonnet, who is an active musician himself under the name Kassel Jaeger, is the current director of INA GRM(Institut national de l’audiovisuel / Groupe de Recherches Musicales). He thus presides over today’s version of the legendary institution that Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer, founding fathers of “musique concrète”, brought into being in the 1940s. Radigue also worked with Schaeffer and Henry for a long time. Today, her name is primarily associated with her work with the ARP 2500 synthesiser, of which she was one of the pioneers in the 1970s.


François J. Bonnet. Ein bärtiger Mann im blauen Pullover vor einer Mauer aus brüchigem Stein. Foto: Éléanore Huisse
François J. Bonnet is sound director for Éliane Radigue’s complete electronic repertorie during Maerzmusik 2022. © Éléanore Huisse


François J. Bonnet is an expert of Radigue’s also because he published an extensive edition of her electronic works with the composer herself, leading to a close relationship of trust between the two. Furthermore, he gained a precise sense of how the composer’s procedures and what matters to her in each individual composition.


The underrated importance of sound direction

Bonnet actually decides for each venue how the playback position should look and filters out certain frequencies or emphasises them during the performance – entirely according to the room’s acoustics. Even if the works are final recorded mixes, he still enhances parts during the performance or gives them a certain sparkle. This influence can lead to the same piece sounding completely different according to the venue. Once, Éliane Radigue herself told him after a concert that she had perceived her own piece with completely different ears that day.


Acoustic music, orally transmitted

After a long period of working with the synthesiser, from 2000 onwards Éliane Radigue turned to purely acoustic music, which she developed with her respective “musician partners”. Occam Océan was created in 2015 in collaboration with Paris based ensemble ONCEIM (l’Orchestre de Nouvelles Créations, Expérimentations et Improvisation Musicales).


Éliane Radigue, Occam Occéan, Premiere 26.9.2015, Festival CRAK Paris
The extraordinary aspect is that there is no written version of the orchestral work, as the piece is transmitted orally and through listening. In a further joint transmission process, the ensemble ONCEIM passes the composition on to Klangforum Wien and performs Occam Océan in a joint performance in the Chamber Music Hall of the Berlin Philharmonie.


Furrow, groove, path

As part of this concert, the ensemble ONCEIM will also perform Sillon for 27 improvising musicians by Patricia Bosshard (2018). Sillon means furrow, groove, path. The repetitive piece is about movements from the individual voice to the overall sound and about connecting lines between various instrument groups through musical material, timbre and sound.


Patricia Bosshard’s Foumilierewith Orchestre du Grand Eustache (2018) also focuses on shared practice and listening rather than on written scores


MaerzMusik will be the starting point of tracks like Sillon to also run through people, through the city, through the world – music as a mushroom meshwork that connects us all in one way or another.

Friederike Kenneweg


Berno Odo Polzer, Kamila MetwalyZeiss-Großplanetarium Berlinsilent green Kulturquartier Berlin, Philharmonie BerlinOccam Océan, Pierre Henry, Pierre Schaefer, INA GRMEnsemble ONCEIM, Klangforum Wien

MaerzMusik 18.3.-27.3. 2022

Selected / mentioned concerts:
21.3.2022 Zeiss-Grossplanetarium: Éliane Radigue: The Electronic Works 1: Trilogie de la Mort I. Kyema (1988)

22.3.2022 Zeiss-Grossplanetarium: Éliane Radigue: The Electronic Works 4: Adnos (1974)

23.3.2022 Philharmonie Berlin: Occam Océan, Klangforum Wien und Ensemble ONCEIM


François J. Bonnet, Patricia Bosshard