Perfect Sound Forever


photo by S. Ouzounoff (Radio France)

Interview by Iara Lee for Modulations

As you could tell by the name, music concrete is a French concoction- one of its pioneers is composer Pierre Henry. Along with Pierre Schaeffer, Henry took sounds and manipulated, re-arranged and recontextualized them. In one brilliant piece, Henry took a squeaky door and a person sighing and turned these into saxophones, bells, laughter, gongs, wind gushes and other unidentifiable noises. After creating his early revolutionary work with Shaeffer in a state sponsored studio, Henry went to work on his own studio in the late '50's, further exploring this medium, which continues even now. Today, Henry's work with sound manipulation is what we usually think of as sampling. His works have included the very moving "Voile d'Orphee" (1953) (where sound sources become meditative orchestras and choirs), the above mentioned "Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir" (1963), "Le Voyage" (1961-63, based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead) and more recently "A La Recherche..." (a radio play based on a Proust work) and "Le Livre des Morts Egyptien" (1990). His work has also included assorted collaborations with poets, dancers, film makers and rock bands (Ceremony with Spooky Tooth, 1968), not to mention his foray into popular music with Yper Sound ("Psyche Rock", 1964).

Iara Lee conducted this interview for her film Modulations in September 1997 at Henry's home/studio in Paris.

Q: What time or period do you consider music concrete to be rooted in?

Concrete music is not a music of today nor of yesterday. It comes from a long way off. Many composers, artists, writers, painters imagined that one day music would transform itself into a vast opera of new sounds, unprecedented sounds, sounds that have never been heard of.

As a child, my head was filled with new sounds, sounds that couldn't be interpreted. And that is the peculiarity of concrete music. It resides in the fact that it doesn't come from interpretation nor performance. Thus imagination is the core of concrete music. And this imagination is linked to a technique, to a way of doing. So the first would be that concrete music is a music that is done differently. It's the fabrication of music and not only fabrication but also its conception and its composition.

Q: What do you mean here by "conception"?

I refer to conception because it's unwritten music. It is thought and imagined and is engraved in the memory. It's a music of memory. Usually when a musician leaves out a fragment, a chord, he leaves it out from his score. In concrete music, we can't leave anything out because it's always there. So the second posit is to isolate a sound, keep it, record it and than proceed to make manipulations, developments, imitation of old pieces, and synthetic exploration of the nature.

Because concrete music comes from nothing it has a high range of possibilities. It's a spontaneous creation and at the same time it doesn't play, therefore it keeps on being. Fortunately recording still exists. Now it's through digital recording, before it was on a tape recorder and before that on a soft record. Concrete music was born in Pierre Schaeffer's studio. Pierre Schaeffer had the idea to produce sounds by means of different tools, by splitting the attack of a sound, prolonging the sound by reverberation, repetition, a sort of alchemy that doesn't exist in orchestral music.

Q: What was the initial reaction to this music?

There weren't many reactions because it simply didn't exist. When we started it in 1948, 50 years ago, there weren't any researchers or inventors.  We were isolated. Many instruments could be considered electric. There were sophisticated organs. Electricity was fashionable. The introduction of electric guitars and other electronic instruments was certainly interesting for us. It encouraged us to use high-speakers in order to create other sounds that came from nowhere. Thus concrete music is a music that was invented based on nothing. It's a dust of sound, it's a coma of sound, it's almost nothing. In a piece entitled "Spiral," the sound came from some sort of amplified respiration that repeated itself endlessly, this continuity was of a very interesting choice in the sense that one could see that it could be performed and developed with the wrist and with fingers. This music cannot be played with instruments but with electronic tools.

Q: Did you consider this music to be a stance against any particular school of musical thought that came before it?

There weren't any reactions against any school. We came from a musical cell.  Before, I was a normal music composer. I wrote for instruments. I studied at the academy of music with Olivier Messiaen. I played percussion.  The classical approach to music led me to connect this new music to tradition.  So there wasn't any opposition to atonal music nor to serial music.

The idea was to find a new form of music, a new writing style instead of just imitating and being stuck in a trend. We essentially wanted to bring out a new music. It had nothing to do with the other kind of music. It was meant to be a revolution in connection with the state of being a musician, to the musician's function and to listening. We are different from other musicians but we are not opposed to any music.

Henri Michaux had lent me a record of Japanese music, sacred music and I started doing something with it. It was an interesting way to begin, more interesting than a flute. It had a different blow that we could play off. We could make variations out of it. Variation is the principle of concrete music. A cell becomes another and then there are combinations, associations, and many possibilities of inter-mixing, of polyphony. Current music is extremely polyphonic. It's like a grand orchestra but it's done track by track.

Q: How did the sounds that you create literally come about?

It was a day by day, in the 50s an ongoing invention, but it was also a search for brainwaves. This music was still not codified, standardized equipment such as the synthetics, before synthesizers.

All current processes were discovered at that time. The anarchy was to search for these processes but it wasn't a revolution. A composer is inevitably revolutionary. But it's not necessarily revolutionary in his writing, in the way he composes. He is a revolutionary in the mind meaning he has his own esthetic. Beethoven was a revolutionary compared to those that preceded him.

I wrote about destroying music in order to alter little by little the listening of music. But contrary to groups of painters or writers, the musician is like a monk. He has to stay in his studio and work everyday by constantly trying out, listening, starting all over a piece.  Musicians don't have time to be revolutionary.

Concrete music leads to authenticity more than the usual kind of music. It's like a photographer who makes try outs, does Polaroid, spotting. Music proceeds from photography, cinema. We set up planes, cut out the editing but also the grain of sound like the grain of photography.

It's a music that is connected to photography, to cinema, a little to literature, and less to music because the music lies within you, you don't learn it whereas you have to learn the rest. A story needs to be told with this type of music. It needs an action of gestures, a choreography of sounds, movements. Concrete music is the music of movements, of rhythm, of beat. The body needs to be linked to a musical sentence different from the one of other kind of music. This other music is thought and abstract whereas ours is concrete. It is concrete because it is related to the body, to the surrounding, to objects, to nature, to emotions.

There is an emotion. I'm currently composing a new piece in which I'm trying to bring forth an emotion that will then be experienced by a public. There is also a communication. It's a music of communication.

Q: How important is rhythm to you?

I'm interested by all kinds of rhythm, irrational rhythm and arithmetic... syncopation, jazz, rhythm, beats. There is always a beat in my music. The beat is what I find more interesting than something asymmetrical. Everything has to be natural for me. It's a music that comes from nature, there are rhythms in nature that can be qualified of elementary, surprising, aleatory, that come and go.
I don't like codified music.

Q: So do you see a connection between your work and techno?

We've been recently talking a lot about techno music, in reference to the mass of the present that sort of initiated not so much rhythmic music than music of the rhythm. It's a music that must be drawn from technique and be connected to what I'm trying to do that is inspiration, to the body, some sort of cerebral trans., though I think it's unfortunate that it is for the moment too much connected to the place it is listened to, to high volume listening where bass is powerful. It's a music far too much connected to physiological reactions and not enough to mental reaction. It has no sensitivity, it's not surprising enough and it lacks poetry. I feel music should keep its share of poetry.

Q: Do you think it should also have a soul to it?

I don't think music shouldn't have a soul. Music should consider the past as much as the future. And there are still many things to discover in the future. So we should begin illustrating this future with futurist projections such as the apocalypse, by emphasizing changes, and by pointing out the differences in each centuries, and that there is an evolution. A technical music is of no interest for me.

Q: Does it bother you to use digital equipment for your work nowadays?

No, it doesn't disturb me. It helps me keep and preserve the sound. Concrete music was precarious, very difficult because sounds were almost immediately damaged.

There are many things we can do with digital sound such as uncovering the original sound. All sounds become original sounds, the sound of the beginning. That's interesting but there is a betrayal in the sense that digital sound is not as good as analogical sound. It has less strength, less impact, less presence. Therefore it's necessary to mix analog, that is, old equipment with new equipment. We can't get rid of old equipment. We still need to have the future connected to the past. And that's what life is, this mixture slightly archeological of the laws of the past with the foresight of the future.

Q: Is it possible to create music that expresses inner thoughts and expressions?

I did that in the '50's while I was working with records and making improvisations. But I used tape recorders. I did concerts where I would improvise and perform using artificial waves. I had transmitters set on my skull so that we could hear what came directly out of my skull.  Instinct served music. The music was intuitive, instinctive.

Q: Do you find it necessary to be open to chance in your work?

It's as important as fate. Without fate, without any deviation... drifting is necessary once in a while. I often play everything together and then listen. Sometimes a strange phenomenon occurs.

We need to catch it. But that which is intuitive, instinctive, imaginary comes also from fate because fate is nature. It's always the same. There's thought and fate, the control of fate by thought, and the simulation of thought by

Q: Did you see composers such as Russolo as kindered spirits?

I can't really say that I felt close to Italian futurists. I thought of them as fascists and not as artists. Of course it was glorifying for them to say we could make noise, but there always has been noise, even classical composers would add a cannon shot in their work. Noise becomes a musical note when altered.

Real noise is very interesting. A drama should be told with noise, and then it can be broadcast. I enjoy noise in film, I dislike music in film. I like to conceive a score like a film, with noises, voices.

Q: So music concrete stood alone?

We were isolated. There was the bet. There was John Cage whom I didn't know. And Stockhausen was much younger. It all started distinctively and then similarities were discovered. I've also performed prepared piano different from John Cage's performance. Stockhausen's research was somehow slightly similar to mine. And then there was the splitting. There was a need for new music. New music meant new sounds, new ears.

Q: How do you see changes in recording technology as having an effect on music? Has it been a positive effect?

During the evolution of technique, engineers wanted to bring out finished products, standardize manufactured products. What was interesting in electroacoustic music, was to search, to find new ways, new possibilities. The automatism of finding didn't bring forth much possible aspiration. Though gradually this music evolved and became quite convenient. It has become a homemade music, the music of the new studios, the music of films. Now we can't imagine any other kind of music for those kind of work. So we play classical music, but current music is constantly invented over and over again, it has become like the sound of the sea, constantly renewed, but always the same. That's why I fear that sound will be the same everywhere, on the radio, in films.

And it's easy now for youngsters. They can get for only a few thousand francs, a box, an amp, something that makes sounds. There is no longer a formal sensitivity, meaning that music comes out. I prefer music that stays inside of us, that allows us to dream, to imagine and even perhaps to love. The music I'm referring to is the one of communication. It's a language more than an art. Now it's no longer a language. It's some sort of tam-tam constantly present. I'm not convinced by current music, the way it is done. But there are some possibilities. It's form is similar to the one of beginning of music in the Middle Age in France where it was not only just a form but it was also very boring. I don't particularly like cave music. I prefer vocal music starting with Bel canto and then with Melesande and Pelleas. Music of yesterday was linear and white. When Renoir spoke of white he meant with no colors. And music of today has no colors. That's why I try to add a little spatial effect and colors in my music.

Q: What do you mean by 'space' then?

Speaking of space means that there is already space in reactions, in music. I want music to be profound. Even in mono. At first, I was against stereo. I didn't like it. I like mono sound, the sound of a dimension and that in this dimension there is a past, a present, that it moves. I didn't like the panoramic aspect of sound. I like the sound to be enlarged and elaborate like under a microscope. The first concerts I did were in mono. First the sound came through one track. Then there were tape recorders with two tracks, stereo, which had inevitably a center. There was still mono in stereo. I thought of it as being too artificial. I then imagined concerts using a lot of mono, which created movements using specific technical tools, or gestures that would attract sound to a high speaker. Mono sound was moving and I found it more interesting then to create movements with stereo sounds. Gradually I stuck to the cinematography point of view, where sounds had various dimension, were very focused that is with a sound here, on the top on the bottom but stereo couldn't be used to give spatial effect to a concert room. I refer more in terms of specialization than of stereo.  My next creative piece for the radio will be on 16 tracks. Those 16 tracks will each go directly in a speaker.

Q: How has editing figured into your work?

It was an option because sound existed with length. With length on a record or a soundtrack, we couldn't always cut off the attack but we could place it at the end or reverse part of the sound. Cutting off the attack... well many film makers have done it way before us. Optical tools allow us to cut off the attack of sounds. Many film effect were done that way. It's not an invention. Invention is recording a sound and playing with it. That's invention. Cutting off the attack is part of the 1001 possibilities of manipulation.

Q: Is it a technique that interests you?

That's a harmonic question. It's a question of thickness of sound. It's not very  interesting. At the beginning Pierre Schaeffer cut off the attack of the piano and it gave sound. What's important is to have many possibilities of manipulation in order to give substance to the game, the game of sounds.

Sounds must play for we don't play with instruments, we play with soundtrack, with editing, filtering, reverberation. These games must use all kind of possibilities. It's about transformation, the magic of transformation of sounds is important. I've always thought of music as a way to let things come out. Many sounds, and also many ideas. It's an animation, an animation of sound talk.

Q: Do you find that your work with Sheaffer has been something of an exploration?

"Symphony for a Lonely Man" corresponds to my first step toward concrete music. Before that, I did some try outs with equipment, with instrument of sound search. When I met with Sheaffer again, we composed this piece.  It's not a research. The search had already been done. It was a continuity.  We wanted it to be like a spokesman, with an aesthetic approach. And the aestheticism was a symphony of voices, instruments with noise. "Symphony for a Lonely Man" was composed by two lonely men.

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