Pierre Henry The Art of Sounds
Written and Directed by Eric Darmon and Franck Mallet
DVD 109 minutes
Ideale Audience, distributed by Naxos
Executive Summary: A metaphor on what was the Avant Garde.
Pierre Henry was one of the pioneers in the use of the then new medium
of magnetic tape as a tool for the manipulation of recorded sound. The
manipulation of recorded acoustic sounds, a technique that came to be
known as Musique Concrete, through the medium of the disc, had previously
been done by others like Hindemith and Wolpe. However, it was magnetic
tape that afforded an ease of manipulation heretofore impossible by the
use of any other medium. With the invention of inexpensive means to
synthesize sound, most composers of electronic music abandoned the
manipulation of natural acoustic sounds for the new opportunities afforded
by the development of that low cost sound generating equipment. Henry,
however, still seems to be interested in the manipulation of recorded
acoustic sounds, even if, as it appeared in the film, through the use
of the digital recording technology.
This film gives us a glimpse at his life, mostly via images of recent
vintage. This is not a poignant film. It is not touching, nor is it
an homage The bulk of the words come from the composer. He says little
about the techniques he employed, nor does he give us any substantive
insight to his creative process. There is little history of electronic
music. We are given images, dance and film, that made use of his music.
We see the composer walking through a park, gathering sounds. He sits
in his home and talks about his world of sound. Most importantly, for
me, throughout most of the film, we are given an almost constant soundtrack
of his music.
It was over 40 years ago when I first encountered his compositions.
In those days, such music was the object of great debate. Was it music?
Was it noise? Was it even "organized?" Watching the excerpts of dance
and film with the music of Henry, I wondered to myself, why did these
questions seem so important to us back then? In comparison to the over
modulated sound effects tracks on films of today, coupled with the machine
sounds of our environment, those remarkable manipulations of Henry seem
to me almost quaint by comparison. Dare I say it; they seem almost
beautiful from time to time. True, his manipulations still have an edge
to them, but they seem far tamer to me than I remembered. I wondered
if the "problem" with his music, and with much of electronic music, is
that it is difficult to quantify. Can I follow a logical chord progression,
a clear sense of form; no. However, with Henry's music, I can find a
shape to the music; somehow it seems "right" or logical. Can I explain
my reaction? I can't give you an analysis of the harmonic rhythm or a
chart of the form. Perhaps my perception of shape is merely a reflection
the notions of Gestalt psychology; my brain's tendency to find shape and
logic in whatever might come my way.
Beyond the obvious value of preserving the spoken word and images of
this remarkable man, this film had a profound effect on me. I thought
of the current state of "modern music." I remember when music could be
"shocking" to an audience. While it may be true that even today there
are those who question the validity of any music written after Brahms,
it seemed to me that I cannot imagine anything a composer could do to
"shock" an audience these days. I wondered if we, as suggested by Leonard
B. Meyer in his book, Emotion and Meaning in Music, have indeed gone
as far as is possible to expand the vocabulary of music. I was left
thinking that maybe such a notion might be good for music. Perhaps now
that the shock value is gone, we can just listen to, and for the music,
assuming we choose to do so.
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