PARIS — Isabelle Warnier, the widow of famed musique concrète (“concrete music”) composer Pierre Henry, revealed in an interview with Olivier Lamm for the October 30 edition of Libération, the fate of the Henry home studio at 32 Rue de Toul. Until recently, Warnier recounts, the walls were still covered with Henry’s musique concrète assemblage sculptures and post-cubist bas-reliefs of printed circuit boards and bolts removed from his old machines. I had the privilege of visiting for a concert in 2014 (three years before Henry’s death on July 5, 2017) and inspecting the art-filled space. But the walls are now naked. The network of speakers that had been intricately placed on the different floors of the small house to distribute Henry’s sound montages has been stripped away.
Henry’s sounds — for example, the opening movement of “Symphonie pour un homme seul” (1950) (Symphony for One Man Only), which he created with Pierre Schaeffer — are called “concrete” because they are real-world sounds that have been recorded and abstracted, then used as musical material. (Sometimes the sounds are mixed into a form of electro-acoustic music partly made up of recordings of musical instruments, voices, and the natural environment, as well as sounds created using synthesizers and computer-based digital signal processing.) Compositions in this idiom are not restricted to musical conventions of melody, harmony, rhythm, and meter.
The musique concrète movement began in the 1940s with composer and musicologist Pierre Schaeffer; Schaeffer coined the term in 1948 to describe the sculptural construction of music using all sounds as potential material. Henry met Schaeffer in 1949 and the pair began a series of collaborations that would form the musical and theoretical basis of musique concrète.
Looking forward, Madame Warnier plans to open an art gallery to show and sell Pierre Henry’s visual art, and to edit a complete catalogue of his amazing sonic works. But the magical context of the studio has now been lost for good. Besides Henry’s concrète assemblage and sound system, these treasures, reflecting a lifetime of radical invention, included his tape recorders and a rich sound library of 14,000 pieces of sonic material. Happily, they will find refuge at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which will digitize them for eternity. But the Henry home studio has returned to the hard housing market, signaling a devolution from extraordinary musique concrète to commonplace crude concrete.