Pierre Henry ou l'art des sons, directed by Eric Darmon and Franck Mallet (released November 20, 2007)
La musique concrète, c'est l'art de la décision, c'est l'art du choix. On prend un son plutôt qu'un autre, et c'est là où on commence à composer.One of the events in honor of Pierre Henry's 80th birthday last month was the broadcast of Eric Darmon and Franck Mallet's documentary Pierre Henry ou l'art des sons on Arte. Made in 2006, the film has recently been released on DVD in North America, part of an intriguing series of documentaries on contemporary composers called JuxtaPositions, from Idéale Audience International. Radio engineer Pierre Schaeffer pioneered the technique of musique concrète in 1948, when he taped things like railroad noises (whistles, rattling, bells) and, manipulating those captured sounds in the studio, created pieces of music like Etude aux Chemins de Fer. Pierre Henry worked with Schaeffer at first and then went off on his own, a split he explains in this film as being motivated by a desire to make music that was more profitable, going against Schaeffer's insistence on musique concrète as a philosophic exercise.
Musique concrète is the art of deciding, the art of choice. One sound is taken rather than another, and that is where composing begins.
-- Pierre Henry, in Pierre Henry: The Art of Sounds
Darmon and Mallet's film reveals Pierre Henry as alternately demanding and avuncular, and his fascination with sounds of all kinds is abundantly clear. In the opening shots, we see Henry capturing sounds, walking with a pair of ultra-sensitive microphones on a park trail and in a tunnel. As a smiling man in dredlocks jogs past at one point, Henry tells him that the sound of his footsteps is "très beau." Henry really became famous in the 60s and 70s, when electronics crossed the border between classical and psychedelic rock music. There is wonderful footage included in the DVD of a Concert Couché in the 60s, with the audience stretched out on the carpeted floor of the hall. In footage of a pop culture TV show, Johnny Hallyday listens to some of Henry's music with admiration.
[Henry's] musique concrète contains very little "true" noise. Sure, there is the door squeaking in Variations pour une porte et un soupir but, he adds, "the door itself became a musical instrument and I played it like an instrument. I did arpeggios, scales, tremolos." The sirens heard in almost all his works, the echo of the bombing raids of the war at the end of his childhood, are also "resonances of the piano in perpetual glissando. In my music, the only sounds that have remained themselves -- and still -- are birds. Material sounds, day-to-day sounds are all recomposed with a vibrating stem, a cello string, a harp, and piano that I make tremble. They are noise-objects. [...] I am a classical composer using the technical medium of this century." (my translation)
Some of the most beautiful passages in the film are the footage and stills of Henry's ballet collaborations with Maurice Béjart. The beautiful, if slightly campy combination of Henry's fractured yet rhythmically vital music with edgy, quirky movements and psychedelic colors and lighting schemes makes one wish more of these ballets were available on DVD. If you were intrigued as I was at the tradition Henry had inaugurated, mentioned here in 2005, of premiering new works in his Paris apartment, you have the chance on this DVD to see what it was like. There is footage of a small group of listeners entering the apartment, in the Picpus neighborhood, looking around at Henry's Dada-like assemblage art, and sitting on chairs or in the stairwell to listen to the tape.
Much of the time we hear Henry's music, we see the composer at his mixing board, doing what exactly it is difficult to tell. Since everything could presumably be set exactly to the composer's specifications and then simply played back digitally, why does he have to be at his mixing board? As we watch him in various venues, including mixing a wicked techno beat in front of the Centre Pompidou at a 2003 concert, complete with people dancing, it is clear that Henry loves the interaction with his audience. Even if the idea of a performer in a concert hall seems retrogressive in the music of the electronic future.
Idéale Audience International DVD9DS43
West side, east side
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