Pierre Henry in The Wire, 2009...with additional visuals and commentary.
Twelve years ago, French musique concrète pioneer Pierre Henry declared his job was done: he had reached the culmination of his life’s work. But in the intervening years, he has continued to produce a stream of compositions, performances and intimate concerts in his Paris home, fusing fervent sonic research with a communion with past masters such as Wagner and Bruckner. Philip Clark enters the house of sound.
Music isn’t popular any more, it’s imposed upon us.” Has his perspective changed in the intervening years? “I think it’s a big mistake to call today’s music electronic music,” he immediately fires back. “People do things with computers and samples but it’s not the same approach as the way I work, or how Karlheinz Stockhausen worked in his electronic pieces. There is not the same craft, and it’s not progress.”
The last time Pierre Henry appeared in a feature in The Wire, in 1997 (issue 160), he signed off on a perceptibly downbeat, sombre note.
He had just completed Int érieur/Extérieur, a 60 minute synthesis of all the techniques and sonic textures he had developed since 1950, when, with fellow composer and sound engineer Pierre Schaeffer, he kick-started the musique concrète revolution. But, nearly five decades on from that eureka moment, Henry was feeling like he had reached the end of the road. “It’s very hard for me to envisage new projects because Int érieur/Extérieur was the culmination of my life’s work,” he mournfully concluded.
12 years later, I’ve come to Paris to catch up with the fortunes of this electronic music pioneer. The composer, described as a “still sprightly 70 year old” in 1997, is noticeably frailer at the age of 82, but his declamatory, basso profundo speaking voice holds physical weakness in disdain.
There are three of us sitting around the kitchen table at his home in the Bastille area: he has requested an interpreter to avoid linguistic misunderstandings, and his trademark shaggy white beard trembles with amusement at the mannered contrivance of hearing his pristine French relayed back in précise English.
I remind Henry of the desolate state The Wire found him in during the last visit, an interview which ended with him condemning commercially minded electronica. “Today I feel less inspired,” he had said. “We’re living at a time where everything is controlled, planned and codified and even popular
In the years after World War Two, Henry – then a percussionist and pupil of Olivier Messiaen – was searching for an aesthetic fit for purpose in the New Europe. Musique concrète had actually been Pierre Schaeffer’s invention, and it has often been overlooked that Schaeffer premiered tape works in 1948, some ten years before Stockhausen’s Gesang Der Jünglinge.
His goal was to define fresh expressive territory, and pieces were created in the studio through the manipulation, collage and layering of man-made and natural sounds, sometimes mixed with vocal and instrumental sources that studio manoeuvres pushed outside their natural grain.
Henry and Schaeffer’s collaborative piece, Symphonie Pour Un Homme Seul (Symphony For A Man Alone), was the moment musique concrète properly arrived, when their techniques had become malleable enough to carry the expressive language for which they were aiming.
An uncomfortable faultline in their relationship, which eventually led to a schism, was that Schaeffer was more effective as an ideas man and theoretician, and needed Henry’s composerly sensibility to realize his concepts. But those arguments were for the future: in the meantime the two men, along with their engineer Jacques Poullin, had created a music that was serious-minded and searching, but could be playful and sensuous too.
Eliminating human performers revealed a new spectrum of humane sounds and gestural archetypes that were striking precisely because they hadn’t been refracted through an accepted vocabulary of expressive hooks. But their music and concepts remained divorced from the ‘official’ French New Music scene concentrated around Pierre Boulez and his acolytes: as Henry later famously put it, “Symphonie Pour Un Homme Seul was composed by two lonely men.”
“I was much more idealistic before than I am today,” Henry comments, as I ask him if he’s still driven by a pioneer spirit. “What I wanted to explore was the phenomenon of recording – I wanted to record voices, sounds and music and put them together. I thought this way of working was going to be more important than any instrumental music.
Today I must accept history decided otherwise: I feel happy that there is instrumental music, but my music must also exist.
I’ve always felt my work should be separate from the way instrumental music is performed and presented – but there’s nothing to stop them co-existing.”