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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Crosscurrents of Musique Concrète

My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.


I’ve been thinking about the pioneering tape works known as musique concrète mostly made by its French creators at the GRM studio in Paris under the guidance of Pierre Schaffer. I was trying to imagine what it was like to be there at that special time when the very fabric of musical sound was being so daringly challenged, and, as a consequence, advanced. This class of French electronic music was composed quite freely and relied on modifying and re-contextualizing naturally occurring sounds into montages that defied any stylistic precedent. No recorded sound was off limits, although in its earliest years and up until about 1964 these French composers avoided using purely electronic tones as the Germans were doing and sought to disguise the identification of a sound through extreme processing and editing. One worked directly with the modification of sound material, often obscuring beyond recognition the identity of the original source. Schaeffer was so fixated on the transformative nature of musique concrète that he apparently expelled one of his own understudies, Luc Ferrari, from the Paris studios in 1964 for having allowed many of the natural sounds in his material to remain recognizable. Schaeffer’s stubborn insistence on a rigid doctrine for musique concrète ultimately led to the disuse of the term by most other studios by about 1970. Schaeffer himself displaced the term musique concrète with the term acousmatique to embrace a wider variety of sound sources and treatments.


In this episode of the Archive of Electronic Music, I want to explore some examples of musique concrète that may not be familiar to you. My goal is to trace the variety of this style from about 1950 through to 1970. Each of the works featured here will represent a kind of landmark, small as that may be, that would reverberate perhaps much longer in the history of electronic music than the composers could have imagined. Most of the work heard in this podcast are classic tape compositions. Two works by Pierre Henry, from 1950 and 1951, primarily used turntable lathes to capture, edit, and re-record the final mix of sound. This was just before the GRM studio had upgraded its technology from turntables to magnetic tape.


A few of the later works featured here were not strictly musique concrète in every respect because they employed an electronic musical instrument such as an organ, the Moog synthesizer, the Ondes Martenot or a small orchestra. But even in these selections, the approach taken with such instruments was largely to disguise their true nature and focus on the concrète aspects of sound.


These selections vary in style often because of the way they were edited, some in a more typically frantic manner that is often associated with the style. But listen to the contrasts and you can imagine what it was like for the composers to craft these pieces by hand, using magnetic tape to build up sequences, combine sounds, create sounds, modify sounds, and reorganize them in a sequence to fit their purpose. None of these materials were auto-generated using sequencers, repeaters, or computers to duplicate or extrapolate musical passages. It was all composed painstakingly in the studio, building each piece moment by moment.


The playlist notes for this podcast provide the details for each of the works. I am presenting them in chronological order so that you can observe advances in the style over the years 1950 to 1970. But I also want to point out a few works that stand out in different ways.


Mireille Kyrou was one of the only women composers to work at the GRM during that time. It was, by and large, an environment dominated by opinionated white men. Her work “Étude I” from 1960 was also the only piece composed by a woman to have a commercial record release. In style, it’s slowly unfolding structure contrasts sharply with typical musique concrète and is a fascinating contrast in form. We will also hear what could be called an early example of industrial music, “Turmac” by Philippe Carson from 1961. In this work, Carson used the sounds of a factory as his sound source and the vibe of this work seems very modern to me. The piece by Henri Pousseur, “Trois Visages De Liège” from 1961 is a reissued version of Pousseur’s work from 1961 and originally released on a Columbia disc in 1967. I first heard this work on this Columbia disc and was immediately impressed by the vivid sound imagery that flows like a narrative. It also revealed some of the limitations of working with tape, such as sudden tape cuts and moments of extreme stereo separation. This version is several minutes longer than the Columbia release. This version comes from a recent reissue that also features the bonus track we are currently hearing in the background, of sound elements used for the work before being fully composed.


Finally, I am playing an extended work by Bernard Parmegiani, one of the most prolific composers at the GRM who was often working on music for films, radio and TV, commercials, and stage productions in addition to his own work. This piece is in two parts. “Outremer” and “Trois Canons En Hommage À Galilée” date from 1968 and 1969. In this work, he uses the sound of the Ondes Martenot played by Arlette Sibon-Simonovitch as the primary source material and used four tracks of magnetic tape and musique concrète editing techniques to craft this experience. Parmegiani application of instrumental sounds from the ondes martenot to material for tape composition is truly transformative.


Episode 96

Crosscurrents of Musique Concrète

Playlist


1. Pierre Henry, “Final Du Concerto Des Ambiguités (Final Of The Ambiguities Concerto)” (1950) from 1er Panorama De Musique Concrète (1956 Ducretet Thomson). Composition, tape editing, and audio production by Pierre Henry. Work realized in the studios of Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (RTF). Published with funds supplied by Conseil international de la musique (UNESCO). 3:15


2. Pierre Henry, “Expressionisme (1951) Musique Sans Titre – 5e et 6e Mouvements (Untitled Music – 5th and 6th Movements)” from 1er Panorama De Musique Concrète (1956 Ducretet Thomson). Early piece of musique concrete during a time of transition at the RTF, when the composers were moving from using turntables and disc lathes to magnetic tape as a composition medium. This work has evidence of both. Composition, sound editing, and audio production by Pierre Henry. Work realized in the studios of Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (RTF). Published with funds supplied by Conseil international de la musique (UNESCO). 2:59


3. Philippe Arthuys, “Boîte À Musique (Musical Box)” from 1er Panorama De Musique Concrète (1956 Ducretet Thomson). Composition, sound editing, and audio production by Philippe Arthuys. Work realized in the studios of Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (RTF). Published with funds supplied by Conseil international de la musique (UNESCO). 2:53


4. Mireille Kyrou, “Étude I” (1960) from Musique Concrète (1964 Philips). Composition, sound editing, and audio production by Mireille Kyrou. Realized by the "Groupe de recherches musicales du Service de la recherche de la radiodiffusion-télévision française", directed by Pierre Schaeffer. Kyrou is the rare example of a woman composer using the French studio. This is her only work released on record. However, according to Hugh Davies’ International Electronic Music Catalog, I find several other compositions dating from this period that, hopefully, will one day be released by the GRM. There were three additional works from 1960-61, all done for film, totaling in time to about 31 minutes. 5:09


5. Henri Pousseur, “Trois Visages De Liège” (1961) from Early Experimental Electronic Music 1954-1961 (2018 Fantôme Phonographique). This is a reissued version of Pousseur’s work from 1961 and originally released on a Columbia disc in 1967. But this version is several minutes longer than that release. This album also features a bonus track of sound elements used for the work before being fully composed. Composition, tape editing, and audio production by Henri Pousseur. Pousseur was Belgian and worked in the Studio de Musique Electronique de Bruxelles in a musique concrète style. 20:32


6. Bernard Parmegiani, “Danse” (1961) from Musique Concrète (1969 Candide). Composition, tape editing, and audio production by Bernard Parmegiani. Compositions realized in the studios of Groupe de Recherches Musicales, O.R.T.F., Paris, France. Parmegiani was one of the GRM’s most prolific composers, working on individual works but also numerous pieces for stage, dance, and, most importantly film and commercials, producing early music videos, soundtracks, and commercials for companies like Renault. His music was inventive and imaginative, and he became a chief craftsman of electronic music for decades. Until 1992, he produced most of his music at GRM, but was frequently on commission to work at institutions in other countries. In 1992, Parmegiani left the GRM and set up his own studio in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. 4:08


7. Luc Ferrari, “Tautologos I” (1961) from Musique Expérimentale 2 (1972 BAM) Recordings realized in the studios of Gravesano (directed by Hermann Scherchen). Reissue of 1964 release. Composition, tape editing, and audio production by Luc Ferrari. 4:19


8. Philippe Carson, “Turmac” (1961) from Musique Expérimentale 2 (1972 BAM) Recordings made by Le Groupe de Recherches Musicales du Service de la Recherche de l'O.R.T.F. Reissue of 1964 release. Composition, tape editing, and audio production by Philippe Carson. 9:43


9. Luc Ferrari, “Tête Et Queue Du Dragon” (Second Version) (1962) from Musique Concrète (1969 Candide). Composition, tape editing, and audio production by Luc Ferrari. Compositions realized in the studios of Groupe de Recherches Musicales, O.R.T.F., Paris, France. 9:07


10.François-Bernard Mâche, “Terre De Feu (Second Version)” (1963) from Musique Concrète (1969 Candide). Composition, tape editing, and audio production by François-Bernard Mâche. Compositions realized in the studios of Groupe de Recherches Musicales, O.R.T.F., Paris, France. 6:52


11.François Bayle, “Vapeur” (1964) from Musique Expérimentale 2 (1972 BAM) Recordings made by Le Groupe de Recherches Musicales du Service de la Recherche de l'O.R.T.F. Reissue of 1964 release. Composition, tape editing, and audio production by François Bayle. 4:44


12.Bernard Parmegiani, “Récession” (1966) from Bernard Parmegiani – Mémoire Magnétique, Vol 1. (Compilation De Bandes Magnétiques Inédites (1966-1990) (2018 Transversales Disques). Composition, tape editing, and audio production by Bernard Parmegiani. First release of this track, created for theatre. 2:25


13.Bernard Parmegiani, “La Ville En Haut De La Colline II” (1968) from Bernard Parmegiani – Mémoire Magnétique, Vol 1. (Compilation De Bandes Magnétiques Inédites (1966-1990) (2018 Transversales Disques). Composition, tape editing, and audio production by Bernard Parmegiani. First release of this track, created for film. 1:30


14.Bernard Parmegiani, “Outremer” (1968) and “Trois Canons En Hommage À Galilée”(1969) from Arlette Sibon-Simonovitch Avec Le Concours De Sylvio Gualda Œuvres De: Parmegiani, Mestres-Quadreny – Espaces Sonores N°1 (1975 La Voix De Son Maître). Ondes Martenot, Arlette Sibon-Simonovitch. Composition, tape editing, and audio production by Bernard Parmegiani. Work for Ondes Martenot and four tracks of magnetic tape. 21:02


15.Bernard Parmegiani, “Je Tu Elles” (1969) from Bernard Parmegiani – Mémoire Magnétique, Vol 1. (Compilation De Bandes Magnétiques Inédites (1966-1990) (2018 Transversales Disques). Composition, tape editing, and audio production by Bernard Parmegiani. First release of this track, created for film. 2:59


16.Roger Roger, “Le Type Beurré” from Musique Idiote (1970 Neuilly). Another experiment with the Moog Synthesizer by composer Roger Roger, maker of broadcast library music. 1:38


17.Roger Roger, “La Nana Siphonée” from Musique Idiote (1970 Neuilly). Enter the Moog Synthesizer. Here are some early works for Moog by composer Roger Roger, maker of broadcast library music. 1:39


Opening background music: Henri Pousseur, “Éléments De Trois Visages De Liège” from Early Experimental Electronic Music 1954-1961 (2018 Fantôme Phonographique). Composition, tape editing, and audio production by Henry Pousseur. 3:10


Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.

Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.

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NOISE AND NOTATIONS

Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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