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Musique concrète: remembering its roots, celebrating its fruit. With Pierre Henry, Tarab, and Ingvar Loco Nordin.

The Sound Barrier : Blog

As with most things that change the world, there will always be disputes about when and how they started, and by whom. The notion that music is not just what is played by instrumentalists and sung by singers, but that it can be anything at all as long as we choose to hear it as music, has probably occurred to people everywhere since the concept of music first began. Probably in even the most ancient times, people heard music in the wind, in birds, in the sounds of the land.

The idea of actually exploiting the possibilities of this, and of capturing those sounds and then working with them, organising and structuring and manipulating them in different ways, seems to have emerged almost exactly in tandem with the progress of recording in the twentieth century. As the capacity to record things grew, so did the notion of using recorded sounds as music in the same way that musical instruments could be used: playing them, modulating them, looking for ways to extend their possibilities.

These ideas were put forward as early as the late 1920s, but it wasn't really until the middle of the century that they began to develop into full-scale musical works that collectively began to be placed under the label of musique concrète – concrete music that works with concrete sounds, as opposed to the more abstract sounds that are created by conventional musical instruments: abstract, that is, in the sense that they are sounds that have a context and occurrence that is essentially musical, abstracted from and unconnected to non-musical life.

However you might like to write the history of musique concrète, you would be sure to include two names as key figures in its genesis: Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. Pierre Schaeffer died in 1995. Pierre Henry died last Wednesday. It is in his memory that tonight's edition of The Sound Barrier was put together.

The timing for tonight's show was uncanny. Before learning of the news of Pierre Henry's passing, I had already planned to devote the show to two recent works of musique concrète, one created here in Melbourne and the other on the other side of the world in Sweden, to show just how alive and vibrant this approach to music continues to be. That liveliness and vibrancy comes, I suspect, from the creativity ears and minds of today's composers and sound artists who find so many different ways to take up John Cage's famous injunction from 1937 to listen to the sounds around us – traffic, radio static, rain – to be fascinated by them, and to use them as musical instruments.

When we do this, we are no longer limited to the compass of a violin, the notes and sounds that can be blown through a trumpet, the sonic capacities of a piano. We are no longer limited to whatever instruments we are able to afford to buy or borrow. We have an infinity of sound around us, and an infinity of ways to work with those sounds. The expanse of that infinity has become only more and more apparent to us as we develop ever-more sophisticated ways of recording sound, and working with the recordings we make.

The two composers whose work was featured in tonight's show from the outset showed how vigorously creative today's artists are at working with the sounds they find.

In the first half of the show I spoke with Melbourne sound artist Eamon Sprod, whose musique concrète project Tarab has just released a new album An Incomplete Yet Fixed Idea, built out of discarded and disregarded sounds that he collected from his local environment over a six-year period. He assembles them into a sonic montage that lies somewhere between narrative, stream-of-consciousness, and raw sensibility. It presents sound as both story and texture, a kind of sonic terrain for the mind to wander through, listen to, and touch.

Tarab's sound practice is one that reflects one of the most intriguing aspects of musique concrète: its interest in the sounds of things that have thrown out, cast off, viewed as rubbish or unwanted in regular, conventional life. It's a far cry from the focus on expensive, crafted, cultured instruments that have become so central to much Western art music: and, while often musique concrète relies on pretty pricey recording and other sound equipment, the sounds it focuses upon, like here, are often the very opposite of this – quotidian, everyday, unremarkable. Musique concrète can take those sounds and recast them – not so much in the sense of dressing them up, but rather of reframing them, compelling us to hear them differently and, through this, thinking about them, and what they once represented, differently as well. This was, indeed, at the core of what is generally acknowledged as the first real musique concrète composition, Pierre Schaeffer's Cinq études de bruis ('Five studies of noises'), composed in 1948.

Swedish composer, poet, and writer, Ingvar Loco Nordin, had initially worked late last year and early this year alongside violinist and painter Anne Friis to create a set of sonic representations of his poetry. The violin playing, all of it recorded, that emerged from this process was massive, and so Ingvar decided to then work those recordings and use sections of them to guide him in constructing separate pieces of musique concrète. Ingvar has planned a set of ten works following this process. He is calling the series DEDICATIONS, as each piece will be dedicated to people who have been important to him in different ways, and I was deeply honoured to be the first recipient of these.

FOR IAN PARSONS wanders through a vast array of sounds, that have been recorded, manipulated, and assembled, to create a huge palette of sonic colour and resonance. Sometimes Ingvar himself intervenes in the recording, commenting on what we are listening to, or directing the sounds, or even expressing his alarm at their determination to behave without his direction. It is a nice metaphor for the human relationship with sound – the dynamic ways in which we hear it, shape it, and are shaped by it. We hear the sounds of wind, of a horse, of metal balls rolling, of a drain. We hear the voice of Karlheinz Stockhausen telling us of his dreams of flying. It is like the whole world, from its sewers to its skies, is part of the same picture, the same presence, the same here and now. The sounds themselves are fascinating, and their narrative and mosaic, held together by the violin of Anne Friis, is like a symphonic celebration of what lies around us, within our reach. But Ingvar's commentary throughout the piece adds another dimension to this – giving us a sense of being both observer and participant at the same time, and delivering its message, so central to Ingvar's worldview, that life is something in which everything, in time and space, is contained at once within us. We who perceive the world, become the world. It is a view of the universe that is made palpable and touchable through the language of sound, embraced through the creative innovation of musique concrète.

These ideas are, indeed, at the core of the musique concrète of Pierre Henry, whose death earlier in the week, through tonight's show into another light, another context. I opened the show with his iconic work from 1950, in which he collaborated with Pierre Schaeffer, Symphonie pour un homme seul ('Symphony for a Man Alone'). The sounds here are, of course, recorded with more rudimentary machinery – basically just turntables and mixers – but the concept of the centrality of the human person in the creation of everything is at the core here. It is a work that proclaims that every human being is a composer – a symphony of sounds exist within us through the sounds we make and the sounds we hear. The techniques that were used to create it were, of course, limited to what could be accomplished in its day (which really only makes it all the more extraordinary) as tapes are cut and slowed down and sped up and played backwards and looped, relying more than anything on the hard labour of pair of hands and a pair of scissors.

Musique concrète demands and rewards a unique sort of creativity from its composers. It calls for an openness to sound that stretches beyond the conventionally musical, but at the same time calls for an ability of chose and work with sounds, to pick them out of the infinitely rich and always-at-hand smorgasbord of material that around us everywhere and always. It calls for a capacity to seek out the ordinary and tell the story of the extraordinary that lies within it.

We all mourn the loss of Pierre Henry, he achieved so much in all of this – from those pioneering works of the middle of the twentieth century, right through to the music he continued to create right up to the threshold of the 21st. But as the new century now chugs along, the path he helped lay, not only for music but for the way we connect with sound itself, continues way, way into distant horizons, taking us places that our ears are now ever more ready to discover and celebrate.

As always you can listen back to the show, and check out the details of the music, right here on The Sound Barrier website at PBS, Melbourne's home of little-heard music.

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