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<nettime> Pierre Henry (1927 - 2017)
nettime's keeper of time on Wed, 12 Jul 2017 09:40:02 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Pierre Henry (1927 - 2017)


The musique concrète innovator died this week at the age of 89. Boris

Pierre Henry in 2007, at the Saint-Joseph school in southern France.
The musique concrète innovator died this week at the age of 89.

Pierre Henry, a true giant of 20th-century musical exploration, died
this week at the age of 89, as reported by Le Monde. The composer
began exploring the nascent possibilities of electronic sound in the

Beginning in 1949, Henry was vital to the development of musique
concrète, a groundbreaking form of music devised in France by Pierre
Schaeffer just one year prior, in 1948. Think of musique concrète as
an early form of sampling, using sounds collected from anywhere, from
the sound of a bell to a passing train. "The technique of sampling is
at the heart of musique concrète," Henry explained to The Wire in
1997. "We invented an alphabet, and today it has become a language."
The language Schaeffer and Henry developed is still spoken in the pop
music we hear every day.

Back then, synthesizers and samplers as we know them didn't exist,
but there were a few ways to make electronic sounds, using homemade
circuits, tone generators or various contraptions. The best-known
of these electronic forebears is the theremin, invented in 1919.
Tinkerers soon realized that they could "hack" devices that already
existed — turntables, radios, reel-to-reel tape machines — to make
some of the first electronic music. One could slow down and speed up
a tape, loop it, play it backwards or cut it up, leading to worlds of
new possibilities.

Musique concrète is known as tape music, but in the early days it was
turntable music, too. Messing around with turntables was easier than
tape machines, which at the time were finicky and expensive. Henry
quickly became "a sort of turntable genius," as Schaeffer observed in
his diary, translated to English in the book In Search Of A Concrete
Music. Henry soon became adept at working with tape machines too,
chopping and splicing with skill. Even after synthesizers became
widely available, Schaeffer preferred to use his old tools instead of
the new ones.

"Musique concrète is about the art of decision," Henry said in the
indispensable documentary The Art Of Sounds. "It's the art of choice.
You select one sound over another, and that's where composing begins."
In the hands of artists like Henry, musique concrète became something
exquisite and sophisticated. A key to musique concrète's allure and
mystery was that one could "manipulate" the sounds by using various
treatments to transform them.

Henry was an incredibly prolific composer over the course of his life,
even converting his Paris home into a living musical instrument of
sorts — a quirky venue and sound installation, packed with collages
and antique machines. And Henry didn't just toil on experimental music
in the studio; he was on the pop charts, too. You can still hear
traces of Henry on TV; Futurama's theme song is inspired by Henry's
groovy "Psyche-Rock," made with Michel Colombier, from 1967.

Henry was classically trained, studying at the famous Conservatoire
in Paris under Olivier Messiaen and Nadia Boulanger. At the time,
Schaeffer predicted that Henry would soon quit the challenges of
musique concrète. "All of the musicians whom until then we had
invited to join us had practically run away from a musical undertaking
bristling with difficulties and defended by the barbed wire of
technique," Schaeffer wrote in his diary. But Henry refused to back
down, wrestling with the machines until they did what he wanted them
to. "Pierre Henry had abandoned his kettledrums and was giving all his
time to the studio," Schaeffer marveled. "Within a few months he had
acquired skills in manipulation that amazed even sound engineers."

Just as importantly, Henry's wife, Michèle Henry, was the unsung
heroine of the early days of musique concrète. She capably managed
the immense task of cataloging and organizing the thousands and
thousands of "sound objects," or samples, that Schaeffer, Henry and
others were creating.

Where Schaeffer was cool and cerebral, a theoretician with a
background in radio engineering, Henry was wild, a musician prone
to impulse and occasional flights of fancy. Henry was trained in
percussion and piano, and wanted to make songs at a fast clip.
Schaeffer, meanwhile, sought to develop a lofty philosophy of sound.

Both were geniuses, and both were stubborn. Without that push-pull
dynamic, without the tension between them, musique concrète as we
know it would not exist. Henry helped take that music out of the
laboratory and into the world. He wasn't afraid of commercial success,
or of pop music. "For Schaeffer, musique concrète was like a musical
philosophy ... for me, I immediately wanted to create works, and
what's more, profitable ones," recalled Henry in The Art Of Sounds.

Henry and Schaeffer collaborated in 1950 on the strange and beautiful
Symphonie pour un homme seul ("Symphony For A Lonely Man," or
"Symphony For A Man Alone"). In 1951, Schaeffer, Henry and the
engineer Jacques Poullin were the three forces behind a center called
the Groupe de Recherches du Musique Concrète (GRMC). Schaeffer and
Henry worked tightly together before acrimoniously parting ways in
1958 (and then befriending each other again, decades later). "As
time passed Schaeffer reproached me with spending too much time on
practical applications and not enough on research," Henry said in
1997, encapsulating the personality divide between them. "But I was
more interested in opening up musique concrète to wider audiences. We
quarreled a great deal and he ended up firing me. But it wasn't such a
bad thing because I founded my own studio."

In 1958, the famous GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales), which exists
in France to this day, was established. Henry set up his own studio,
which he called Studio Apsome, in his house. In 1963, he created one
of his enduring masterpieces — Variations pour une porte et un
soupir ("Variations For A Door And A Sigh"), inspired by sampling the
squeaky sounds on a door in an old French farmhouse. In addition to
squeaky door sounds, there was also an actual sigh, and plenty of farm
noises, too. "Occasional offstage noises intrude: Henry blocked the
stream to heighten the sound of rushing water, starved the pigs to
make them squeal, rampaged after clucking chickens, recording all the
while," wrote the critic Art Lange in his memorable primer on musique
concrète in The Wire.

Decades of memorable compositions by Henry followed, including sonic
explorations inspired by the Tibetan Book Of The Dead, a stint on
the pop charts in the late 1960s for "Psyche-Rock," cortical brain
experiments and a collaboration with the British rock band Spooky
Tooth. Henry released album after album, each different from the
previous one, and kept on creating and collecting exciting new sounds
until he died. Through it all, his childlike wonder never left him —
he always remained fascinated by new sonic possibilities.

"I think nature was my first influence, and the sounds I heard during
my childhood," said Henry in The Art Of Sounds. "I listened to them a
lot, and they remained a part of my inner landscape ... The passion
I had from the first to add sound effects to my instruments, to find
analogies to what I was doing at home and what I could hear outside.

"My childhood certainly proved to be the best beginning an innovative
musician could have."

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