On Pierre Henry's 84th birthday, it only seemed fitting to put on some of his records with my morning coffee and celebrate one of the leading innovators of the 20th century's sound. Henry learned from the greats, studying under Messiaen, Boulanger, and Passerone. With Pierre Schaeffer, Henry "founded" musique concrète. Founded might not be the proper word, as musique concrète is not a genre or a style, but rather a framework in which to explore sound -- musique concrète and the French composers who pioneered it radically opened up the way we think about music and media.
Art lived so long / with its head stuck in the myth of realism / that it got sand up its nose / that it forgot it was always abstract. / Music lived so long as an abstraction / that it forgot it could be anything else.
Pierre Henry, Variations for a Door and a Sigh, Side A - "Slumber," "Hesitation," "Song 1," "Awakening," "Song 2," "Stretching," "Gestures," "Reckoning," "Fever 1," "Yawning," "Song 3," "Wrath," "Hesitation 2," and "Breathing"
Listening this morning to "Variations pour Une Porte et Un Soupir" ("Variations for a Door and a Sigh") absolutely reaffirmed for me Henry's place as one of the greatest sculptors of sound. The idea of "sculpting" sound is a critical aspect Henry's "approach" to composition. In 1981, Henry himself said, "The origin of this music is also found in the interest in 'plastifying' music, of rendering it plastic like sculpture."
Probably best known for pieces like "Psyche Rock" (which, in turn, is probably best known because of its reworking into the Futurama theme song), Henry shines when his work is at its most stripped down. Henry, in "Variations," orchestrates a perfect series of pieces, in which the relationship between the few sound sources is radically transformed from track to track. From a track that sounds like the most killer free improv jazz trio, to piece with so much hissing it sounds like Henry was recording from a snake den, to a bell-like, dreamy piece seemingly comprised of bells and gongs, Henry makes full use of every single sort of sound that can be drawn from his voice, a warbling saw, and a creaky door.
Henry's "music" is exactly that - music. Henry is concerned with all sound, and is, as "Variations," a relatively early work for the composer, shows, not interested in distinguishing between different "forms" of sound -- every sound, every medium, could be used to capture emotion and so he utilized every sound at his disposal to make his music. Henry was a composer and a musician, and thus differed significantly from many of the other French electronic musicians of his time, in particular Schaeffer. While Schaeffer theorized on the nature of order and structure in sound, Henry was much more concerned with the actual creation of his sounds, paying less attention to the sometimes rigid "academic" constraints imposed on and by the emerging class of experimental electronic musicians and intellectuals.
Released in 1968 by Limelight (originally in 1963 in France though), "Variations for a Door and a Sigh" is pretty much exclusively comprised of the sounds of, you guessed it, vocal sighs and the creaking and slamming of a door, with the addition of a musical saw and some tape manipulation. "Variations" is absolutely astounding. The few source sounds Henry uses create such a wide range of dynamics, textures, and structures that it's easy to forget that each one of the compositions was created and then realized by Henry alone. "Variations" is a testament to how incredible our physical world really is, challenging the sphere of finely tuned orchestral instruments and the ensembles employing them to match the engrossing beauty that Henry creates with a saw, a door, and the human voice.