This article is based on a interview with Pierre Henry which took place in May 1999 when he was a featured composer of the Eighth Annual Festival of Experimental Music organised by the London Musicians’ Collective. During the concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall Henry diffused both the original and remixed versions of his works Psyché Rock (1967), Teen Tonic (1967) and Jericho Jerk (1967) as well as remixes of Psyché Rock by William Orbit and Ken Abyss. In addition, he played his compositions La "Dixième" remix (1998) and Schubert 97 (1997). Some material from the interview formed the basis for an article in Diffusion (see Diffusion, July 1999). However, due to limitations on space, many topics relevant to electroacoustic musicians could not be included. The present article restores these omissions with references to subjects such as synthesis, composition, the urban soundscape, remixing and, as the title implies, Pierre Henry’s relationship with the music of Ludwig van Beethoven.

I would like to thank Pierre Henry’s musical assistant Bernadette Mangin for her invaluable assistance during the interview as well as providing additional written material. Thanks also to Marie-Josianne Agossou for the time-consuming task of transcribing the interview and advising on the English translation.

There can, of course, be no doubts regarding Pierre Henry’s status as one of the most significant pioneers of electroacoustic music. Over the last fifty years he has produced an extensive body of works which could have produced a complacent disregard for experimentation. The reality is quite different, and his experimental attitude is undiminished. His music provokes, enthrals, exasperates, delights… Henry dismantles cultural divisions between what might be described as "high" or "low" art. This is no post-modern artifice: he is a socially engaged composer who continues to explore the plurality of roles that music must assume in contemporary society. His unique perspective derives, I believe, both from his particular musical intelligence and the manner in which his ideas are realised with technology. The electroacoustic medium will not necessarily produce challenging works. It is a depressing and unsurprising fact that the most sophisticated equipment frequently results in reactionary music. The inherent limitations of software programmes impose restrictions to which some composers readily capitulate. Consequently, essential questions regarding the generation of new musical materials and structures from technology are ignored. Henry’s decision to use analogue equipment and a large collection of recordings is not an eccentric idiosyncrasy. I am certain that the practices of the analogue studios in the period between the immediate post-war years up to the nineteen-seventies encouraged that most essential skill for composers: reflective, analytical listening. It promoted "ear training" in the true sense of the term. To take editing as an example, early composers needed infinite patience, a plentiful supply of razor blades and nerves of steel! Tape splicing has no "undo" facility, no pop-down menus, no visually based graphic representations of the sound - composers had to listen and think carefully about each stage of the process. Henry admitted: "I don’t have a computer, not even for editing." and when I asked if he used forms of synthesis for any of his sound material the reply was unequivocal: "I like some electronic sounds but those are not from synthesis. They are specific and original sounds that I like to create myself. I don’t like it when sounds come from electronic instruments. I create them in my studio with my equipment; therefore, not the synthesiser."

It was a characteristic of much post-war French electroacoustic thought to regard technology as an almost transcendental means of allowing us to hear that which is normally inaudible. According to Henry: "(…) at first the basis of recording was recording so that sounds were different and new, so that the sound had never been heard before... It was something that preoccupied us, that the sounds shouldn’t remain the way they were originally recorded. They had to be transformed. But technology isn’t a great deal to me. Technology is … well, let’s say, for example, with the piano you have the pedal, you have the soft pedal, the sustain pedal, but the piano could perhaps also be just what it is. (…) The technology of acoustic music mustn't go too far, mustn't be too ambitious and complex otherwise it isn’t real music any longer but rather technical music, and I don’t enjoy this very much. I like it when music remains music. At first there is a sound and that sound is then amplified, treated, but it remains close to the original sound... in my opinion..."

Recognisable, anecdotal sounds, therefore, can play an important part in Henry’s musical language but the role of the composer is still paramount in deciding which sounds to use, how they are grouped and what long term implications can be deduced from their characteristics. "Firstly there is the ‘acte créateur’ which is choosing one sound rather than another... it’s a sort of emotional and aesthetical will... one sound is chosen which will later become longer..or will be transformed. In fact, choices are related to harmony, harmonisation and counterpoint, as well as orchestration, to me, it is close to what I learnt during my classical music training.... there is writing and, the writing of the different styles of music can also be found in my music. There is a definite research in the writing and it is this ‘acte créateur’ that will then give a continuation to that sound...a sound has becomes an ‘orchestra’, in fact my own desire to compose is to orchestrate the sounds in relation to each other, it is being a composer. It is composing." Composers compose - this might seem self-evident but composition is not necessarily synonymous with simply arranging sounds or initiating processes that are allowed to continue without any intervention. "But, to me, who has had a classical music training, I remain a classical musician doing electroacoustic music. It is linked to the kind of composition and to the composers I like."

Life and work seem inextricably linked for Pierre Henry: "I live in the house that is also my studio." and, as his musical assistant Bernadette Mangin remarked: "3 years ago he gave a concert in the house. He opened the whole house, with speakers in each room, for 6 weeks, people came every night and the whole house was a concert place." (The compact disc Intérieur/Extérieur contains the works from this intriguing event.) The subject of urban life prompted me to mention my experiences in June 1994 at the MusikTriennale in Cologne. I attended two performances in the Roncalliplatz of Henry’s work la Ville (originally conceived for radio) which accompanied the silent film from 1927 Berlin. Die Sinfonie der Großstadt by Walther Ruttmann. Subsequently, when I heard the work on compact disc I was particularly struck by the manner in which sounds were grouped together. In la Ville the sound "families" of some movements are self explanatory: Klaxons consists of an "orchestra" of car horns mixed with what appears to be music from a Kabuki theatre, Métro combines sounds of trains. Others are more subtle: in Lointain the foreground ticking of clocks contrasts with a continuous drone evoking space and distance, the vocabulary of Jeux are the sounds of children plus a simplistic drum beat and a high-pitched electronic ostinato. I naively assumed that when Henry wanted to start composing a work he went out and "sampled" the sounds of the city. His reply (obvious, now I think about it) was that he didn’t need any more sounds - he already had enough! He possesses thousands of hours on hundreds of tapes. As a Parisian, are city sounds still important to him?

"Well, I’d say that it is important only if I can create them myself. To tell you the truth I don’t listen to city noises very much, I prefer imagining them.... the image of a city." I suggested he seemed like a flâneur walking through the urban environment observing and capturing interesting sounds in order to reassemble them later. The juxtapositions thus created would reveal new and unusual relationships: "But the walk of a ‘flâneur’ happens in the studio....there is a symbolic image which is that my studio ‘crosses’ the city. It is a studio with microphones that has already got city noises, so I am only doing a task of reorganisation." And in order to have a choice of sounds, to transcend both the time and place of the original recording you need a large sound collection: "That’s exactly correct...It is like having a library filled with all the books that you treasure. It is also a collection of all sorts of things with...noises, voices, animals, instruments... and all this had been thought through a long time ago, a long time before sampling appeared, introducing the sample and all the sounds which are now available to composers. They buy sounds. No later than the 50’s , I decided to keep my sounds... There are sounds, of course, that don’t satisfy me any more, that have to be thrown away...that have to be ‘sacrificed’... but apart from that, sounds are a part of what I like around me, They are my ‘family circle’." In compositions such as la Ville and la Dixième remix as well as earlier works like Le microphone bien tempéré and Variations pour une porte et un soupir the result is often short movements centred around certain types of sounds. The work has an organic unity but consists of discrete, quasi-autonomous movements: "Yes, in a very classical way and also very close to French music that often uses the ‘suite’ form - which is a very French concept."

During the concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall I was struck by the absence of compositions such as la Ville and Variations pour une porte et un soupir. The decision to use remixes, to revisit earlier works appeared to be the consistent thread running through Henry’s concert set. His own remixes were very different to those of Orbit and Abyss. Was the remix, therefore, a phenomenon that appeals to Henry? "The remix is a musical and social fact. I never wanted to even start thinking that a large public would discover my music with the remix. It is true that nowadays the remix is what used to be arrangement. In the past, we used to do transcriptions of Beethoven, Busoni, Bach...and nowadays I think that people want to work very fast. They don’t want to make the effort to make a sound. It has to be from a library or an existing piece. When I decided to keep all my sounds, it was to build a kind of.. as Borges said, library of Babel that makes everything exist like a pyramid, like a memory. (…)"

In addition to Schubert 97, the work that left the deepest impression on me was La Dixième remix. The original composition La Dixième consisted of fragments of Beethoven’s music which were, broadly speaking, "sampled" and reassembled. However, bearing in mind Henry’s formidable musical education can the tonal implications of these fragments ever be ignored? If they are not transformed beyond recognition they retain their musical functions in embryonic form. In the accompanying notes to the compact disc of La Dixième remix Henry writes: "The notes of Beethoven have become concrete sounds (…)" So, why remix la "Dixième" at all? What were the additional processes and sounds of this remix version and how does this relate to Henry’s other works? "It was completely deliberate. La "Dixième", was first a study of the Beethovenian cells that I liked then cut and classified. From this a first two-hour version emerged where there was only Beethoven. Then I reduced this version in a more dense and ‘tight’ one but I wanted to add electronic sounds, percussions, rhythms to it and from this emerged analogies with la Ville. One can hear, in Beethoven, sounds of screams, children, and all this can also be heard in la Ville." Thus the addition of Henry’s sounds combines Beethoven’s music with Henry’s and aspects of contemporary culture. For example, in Fantasie Flipper Henry combines the rustic dance from the sixth symphony’s third movement with sounds from the Jeux and Train sections of la Ville. "It is a ‘Beethovenian rewriting’ starting from Beethoven but in my own personal dynamic." I suggested that this kind of music could only be composed by someone who loved the music of Beethoven; did he, Henry, like Beethoven’s music? He replied: "Enormément".

I commented that la Dixième remix was music about music - "metamusic" to use a common term. It seemed to be "about" structural harmony, its subject is this watershed of Western classical music: "Yes, but it is a different way to proceed from Schubert. Schubert 97 is also a tribute to Schubert but to me it’s more poetic. Like a poem about Schubert." Thus, in common with many of the sounds Henry uses in other compositions, the Beethoven "cells" retain their identity as tonal fragments. They are as charged with these tonal qualities as are sounds whose causal origins are recognisable due to the physical characteristics of their sources. The selection of tonal melodic cells and motifs cannot be neutral. Even the simplest phrases of Beethoven will have an intrinsic function. However, it needs an expert ear to understand and then subvert these relationships. From a musicological point of view the system of tonality remains one of the high points of Western musical thought. It is an infinitely flexible system allowing the ebb and flow of goal-directed motion. Beethoven’s language contains relationships at all structural levels. It is precisely at the local level, where a cadence is approached but left unresolved that Henry’s work is particularly convincing. For example, Pas Perdus contains an elongated version of the ninth symphony’s first bars. In the original version the tremolo strings and descending perfect fourths and fifths leave the listener uncertain about the chord - without the major third is it A major or minor? (In reality, of course, we know it is a dominant preparation for D minor.) Henry allows the texture to continue, with the addition of the pitch C# and drum loops and the sounds of people walking. Thus, this remix is not simply sampling the composition la Dixième and fitting the sounds into a preexisting framework. It is a genuine reevaluation of an earlier work. Jan Pasler has described musical language as "non-narrative" if the elements of a tonality are present but there is no attempt to relate one chord to another in a goal-directed motion. When this technique is added to the resonances that Beethoven’s music still evokes in many - perhaps most - musicians, the result is a powerful and complex network of cultural and musical relationships. I mentioned that I enjoyed the way one could detect a Beethovenian sound which is almost completely concealed by other sounds, often electroacoustic ones, forcing the listener to scan through the various layers of sonic activity. "That’s it, I really love sounds which are hiding behind others. One is in a forest, there are trees which are very near and those which are distant, and I would say it is interesting to make an orchestration with… a sense of distance, therefore, it’s necessary there are effects like this, of masking which reinforce the sound which is very near. It is a work… on sonic geography."

La Dixième remix is only one example of Pierre Henry’s constant re-evaluation of his own music and music in general. His capacity for posing serious questions about how we use technology to create music from all materials is an example to us all. Henry does not repudiate the past. He is able to reactivate dormant sounds and demonstrate their continuing relevance. He shows it is possible to use the electroacoustic medium and still be a classical musician in the true sense of the word.

La dixième Symphonie Philips 462 821-2

Intérieur/Extérieur Philips 462 132-2

La Ville WER 6301-2

Chion, M. (1980) Pierre Henry Librairie Arthème Fayard/Fondation SACEM.

Frisius, R. (1984) Ein unvollendetes Gesamtwerk als mehrdeutige Komposition: Journal de mes sons von Pierre Henry Melos vol.4 Mainz: B.Schott’s Söhne pp.76-103.

Programme: Tour de Crest 28-29 Août 98.

Pasler, J. (1989) Narrative and Narrativity in Music in Time and Mind: Interdisciplinary Issues (ed. J.Fraser) Madison, CT: International Universities Press pp. 233-57.

John Dack is a researcher and writer on electroacoustic music based at Middlesex University.

No part of the article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, without prior permission of the individual authors.


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