Jean-Paul Dessy was born in Huy in Belgium in 1963. He was attracted very early on to the cello, though since there was no cello class in his local conservatory, he began by studying the piano for four years before at last starting the cello. The piano would henceforward serve him for his improvisations.
As a teenager he had a passion for rock and contemporary music. He discovered notably Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Palais des Congrès in Liège and met, at the age of 16, Olivier Messiaen, who encouraged him to continue in his path as a musician. He then entered the Conservatoire Royal in Liège and took advanced classes with Elias Arizcuren, Daniil Chafran, Yvan Monighetti as well as Irvine Arditti.
Jean-Paul Dessy also studied letters and philosophy at Liège University. He was then composing, as an autodidact, music for productions at the university theatre. The composer of much incidental music, he subsequently wrote for Jacques Lasalle, Denis Marleau, Anne-Laure Liégeois, David Géry, Lorent Wanson and Frédéric Dussenne, for choreographers such as Carolyn Carlson (Dialogue avec Rothko), Frédéric Flamand and Nicole Mossoux, for the films and fashion shows of the designer Hussein Chalayan and for Les Levers du soleil by Bartabas.
A cellist, exponent of unconventional chamber music works, he was part of the group Maximalist! (1986-1992) and founded the string quartet Quadro that, from 1988 to 1994, gave first performances of some 30 new works. With the pianist Boyan Vodenitcharov, he formed a duet in a repertory ranging over three centuries. He has given, solo or with orchestra, Belgian or international premieres of many works, several of which have been dedicated to him (Ledoux, Messiaen, Radulescu, Rzewski, Schnittke, Tanguy, Zhang, etc.). He also experiments with dynamic electroacoustic ‘comprovisations’ with Scanner, DJ Olive, David Shea, Fennesz and Murcof.
In 1995 he tackled the composition of non-illustrative music with Incipit for solo cello, premiered by himself during the Brussels ‘rencontres’. In 1997 his piece L’Ombre du son, for two cellos, received the Grand Prix Paul Gilson of the Communauté des Radios Publiques de Langue Française, together with the Prix Fuga of Belgian composers in 1999.
The composer of symphonic works (Serene Sirens, Into the C), of chamber music (Orée-Oraison-Hors-Raison for string quintet and two cellos, 2000; Tuor Qua Tuor for string quartet, 2008) and electronics (C Creed Secret, 1998; Kaleidoscore, 2003), he wrote the music of the opera Kilda, l'île des hommes-oiseaux (2005), that he conducted for the opening of the Edinburgh Festival in 2009.
The titles of the works by this graduate in Romance philology rarely avoid assonance or alliteration. It is sound as much as sense. For Tuor Qua Tuor, meaning in Latin ‘The gaze whereby I gaze’, he composed by observing silence, by contemplating inner space. This music invites incantation, murmuring, psalmody, enthusiasm, invocation, meditation and silence. Dessy has been particularly influenced by Giacinto Scelsi in his work on the interiority of sound, as also by Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt for his path through life and his sacred music.
His works have been performed in France (Ircam, Présences, Manca, Musica, etc.) in Italy, Spain, England, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, the USA, Russia, China, Poland, Romania, Croatia, Finland, Uzbekistan and Japan.
Conductor and artistic director of the ensemble Musiques Nouvelles, he has widened the breach the ensemble had already opened in the coded world of contemporary music, passionately seeking to erect a musical Tower of Babel, open to all creative styles of the present day.
Jean-Paul Dessy has conducted more than 100 world premieres and nearly 200 contemporary music works, exploring the diversity of sound at the fringes of the secular and sacred. His discography has received many awards: The ‘Choc’ of Le Monde de la Musique for the complete works for string orchestra of Giacinto Scelsi in 2000, the ‘Distinction’ of Classica for the complete works for string orchestra of Jean Rogister (2000) and the five stars of BBC Magazine for that of Witold Lutoslawski (2001). In 2010 he a conducted the Parisian premiere of the opera Julie by Philippe Boesmans, directed by Matthew Jocelyn.