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Pierre Henry - Symphonie Pour Une Homme Seul / Le Voyage

In the history of musique concrete Symphonie Pour Une Homme Seul is widely considered to be ground zero. Although Pierre Schaeffer had been experimenting with the techniques for a few years before it was this landmark work with his then student Pierre Henry that really set the standards for the next decade of research. The piece is divided into twelve movements each with their own titles. The music is made up of a combination of pre-recorded manipulations of music, human sounds and atonal elements. There is also some use of prepared piano. It is remarkable to hear the first use of looping and backwards masking, the former being produced through the use of lock grooves. What’s more remarkable about this piece is that it was produced before the use of tape machines. The whole thing was composed using recording onto disks and then mixing many disks together to produce the effect of a multiple of tracks.

The first few movements particularly Prosopopee, Partita and Scherzo use prepared piano and bizarre vocal manipulations mostly using backwards masking and the occasional loop. It is basic but it still has impact and the composition sounds contempory even by modern avant-garde standard. Some of this is very funny, many of the tracks use amusing sped up childs voices among strange piano preparations and the sound is never lethargic or stands still for long. The last couple of tracks and in particular the final movement Strette could almost be described as industrial in sound. Huge waves of manipulated noise and mechanical effects dominate the mix while droning reverbed sounds build in the background. Without doubt this is an essential work, and should be the first port of call for anyone investigating the history of Musique Concrete.

The bulk of this CD is taken up by one of Pierre Henry’s classic works, the otherworldly Le Voyage. Based on the Tibetan book of the dead and recorded twelve years after Symphonie Pour Une Homme Seul the sound of Le Voyage is considerably more subdued compared with the other piece on the CD. Almost entirely composed using feedback, it swirls and drifts in a continuous mass of electronic sound and contains none of the choppy effects used on many of the concrete works of the fifties. The tracks are longer some up to ten minutes and this allows a greater exploration of the tones and atmospheres than the shorter tracks on Symphonie….

It is certainly eerie, and was clearly the influence for a lot of contempory drone work, particularly the older works of Nurse with wound and the more recent works of Coil. The second movement is the longest and is titled Apres la mort 1. The piece is dominated by high pitched electronic feedback, some bent into curious textures and sounds that seem to resemble natural elements, water, distant rain etc. Apres la mort 2 and Divinites paisibles are much more lively with a more aggressive tone to them, the electronics seem more edgy and dissonant, im sure reflecting the passages of the book which the music soundtracks. (must note that I don’t know anything about the Tibetan book of the dead and my French is really rather bad)

Divinites irritees is the shortest movement and also by far the most noisy, with the electronic feedback warped into a grating whirl of noise. Le couple is the penultimate track and is also my favourite, is builds around more subdued but no less powerful drones and storms of feedback, rising and falling with the movement of the drones like a vast ocean of sound.

The final movement Souffle 2 picks up in more aggressive fashion where the first Souffle left off with a multitude of voice like squeaks and feedback . My one criticism of Le Voyage would be that sometimes the tracks seem to pitter out and don’t really go anywhere, I can understand that with the experimental nature of this work that defined beginnings and ends may not be so practical but sometimes the tracks just seem to run out of steam and just fade out. It is a minor gripe on a otherwise rewarding work.