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PARIS — Pierre Henry, aged father of electronic music, lives in a small house that also serves as his studio, in the twelfth arrondissement of Paris. I recently went there with a small group of people to hear one of his magnificent musique concrète concerts that he performs live from his studio mixing board. It was an incredible and rare experience, similar in audio effect to his Intérieur/extérieur CD that contains the concert series Pierre Henry chez lui (“Pierre Henry at his place”) organized by the Festival d’Automne in Paris in 1996.
Speakers had been intricately placed throughout the different floors of the small house, and we took up seated positions among them so as to better get immersive satisfaction from this master’s mind-blowing art music. Comfortably seated, my eyes could not but help but wander over the walls, many of which were covered in Henry’s artworks, rather complex assemblages of existing objects and images. The art on the walls matched the structural conditions of his music perfectly, as it too is an art that is assembled from recorded sounds and noises, woven together into a (somewhat) coherent flowing whole. This is an art of sound montage and mixing. A lot of mixing: take for example Henry’s “La dixième symphonie de Beethoven” (1979–1988), where he mixes together some extracts from nine symphonies of the German composer.
For those unfamiliar with this type of noise music, let me recap it briefly here. In Paris, during the late 1940s, Pierre Schaeffer worked out and coined the term musique concrète to refer to the peculiar nature of recorded sounds on tape — sounds separated from the source that generated them initially. They are concrète because they are real world sounds that have been abstracted and used as musical material. These are in turn mixed into a form of electroacoustic music that is made up in part from acousmatic sounds derived from recordings of musical instruments, voices, and the natural environment (as well as those created using synthesizers and computer-based digital signal processing). Compositions in this idiom are not restricted to the normal musical rules of melody, harmony, rhythm, and meter. This means a great deal of freedom for the composer, as we can see from Henry’s writing in his notebook Journal de mes sons (“Journal of my sounds”) when he says:
I never liked notes. I need qualities, reports, forms, actions, characters, materials, units, movements …
In 1949, Henry met Schaeffer at the French public broadcaster RFT (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française), and it was with him that he composed the first work belonging to the category of concrete music, the “Symphonie pour un homme seul” (1950) (Symphony for One Man Only), mixing the piano with different sounds: from voices and breath to unidentified mouth noises and sounds of steps. (A recording can be accessed here.)
In 1951, Henry and Schaeffer together wrote “Orphée” (1953) and presented it at the Donaueschingen Festival in 1953. That same year Henry headed RTF’s Research Group on Concrete Music (GRMC), and his musical conceptions, focusing on sounds recorded by the microphone, have prevailed in electronic music.
Following this marvelous concert, people strolled through the house and took photographs. Here are some of Henry’s assemblages.
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