Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Pierre Henry & Musique Concrète

The oddest record in my vinyl collection is from 1962 (original pressing) entitled La Voyage, by Pierre Henry. When I was a teenage headhunter, I met a fellow named Chuck Haxton, an interesting and battle-scarred veteran, who gave me this record when I expressed an interest in experimental music. Back then, I thought of "experimental" as Tom Waits' Bone Machine, which, compared to La Voyage, sounds like Top 40 material.

La Voyage consists mostly of noise ranging from hissing, sucking, roaring, audible tape sounds, R2D2-like beeps, squeaks, and squawks, and other electronic manipulations. For the most part, it is utterly disturbing, much more so than any conventional horror soundtrack could be. The music - and I will call it that, for reasons I'll explain below - attempts to evoke the passages of the soul as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The interpretation is decidedly creepy.

My musical journey has, in the last year or so, led from King Crimson to Fripp & Eno to Eno's ambient and generative music albums, all of which have given me better footing (or hearing) to appreciate La Voyage. Intrigued by this fresh listen, I obtained a collection of Pierre Henry's work in the "musique concrète" genre of electronic music. It was utterly fascinating. Mostly short tracks compiled from various albums, the collection eschews formal song structure and even such things as melody, using a combination of electronic noise and acoustic "field recordings" (such as a squeaky door hinge played as a rhythmic instrument, industrial sounds, and so on). And yet they do feel like "songs" to me.

While this is certainly not everyone's cup of tea (not even mine unless I'm in the right mood), these recordings have certainly opened my mind and exploded the bubble of sounds that I've considered "music" up until now. The key for me is whether the songs have any narrative or progressive quality, in the sense that they hold together as individual pieces, are internally consistent, and have an obvious overarching sonic palette. These do, despite their weird and often haunting quality. It is certainly not relaxing ambient music - some of it is quite harsh and almost irritating (but then again, so is a lot of more traditional music). But for the jaded connoisseur of music, new frontiers are always exciting.

I look forward to exploring more music in this genre, and as I do, I'll share any standouts. As a final interesting note, I'll add that Pierre Henry also wrote a more traditional song called Psyche Rock that would later serve as the inspiration for the Futurama theme song. 

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