Conceived as a theatrical concert piece, Le Voyage d'Urien is an attempt to create a dramaturgical connection between two ensembles: the Neue Vocalsolisten from Stuttgart and the Parisian 2E2M, while also seeking a mise en scène for the actual, and very charismatic, performers who constitute the two ensembles. They are, in the main section, divided into five couples, each consisting of a singer and an instrumentalist, arranged on the stage in a semicircle with, at its centre, the percussionist, an ex machina presence who imposes fluidity and agogic phrasing, and who faces the conductor.
The fusion of vocal and instrumental sound is created perforce by the elaboration of an evolving two-timbre synthesis and by the real-time interaction of the two performers.
The characters are Gide's young wanderer Urien (baritone and horn), on his imaginary frenetic journey around the world, an attempted escape from life, and some of the French compulsive travellers (les fous voyageurs) at the turn of the 19th century, who were analysed by many French psychiatrists, such as Benon, Colin, Courbon, de la Tourette and Charcot, and were described in the publications of the new Ecole française de neuro-psychiatrie. The most famous is Albert, who was studied by Philippe Tissié and is represented by the fusion of countertenor and viola.
It is a heterogeneous group, unaware of its destiny and scarcely able to control the direction it takes or the impossible search it undertakes. During their parallel travels, the characters become commentators of one another, attempting to forge a connection between Gide's symbolism of initiation and the first examples of “transitory mental illness” identified by the French pioneers of psychiatry.
In the introductory section, Terminologie, all the singers and the conductor are seated around a table which is covered with sheets of paper; the atmosphere is that of a late 19th century meeting of members of one of the learned professions. They discuss definitions of the new illness, while the stage, apart from the light provided by a few table lamps, is completely dark. In the main section, Cas cliniques, the singers move closer to the instrumentalists, forming a semicircle of five couples grouped around the percussionist; they turn to their left, where the conductor appears. Each couple presents its case, and all are dominated by the hypnotist conductor-doctor, as if at parallel séances; at times they come together in choral quotations from Parsifal (he who comes) until they all again feel impelled to flee.