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The Tonality of Broken Ropes

img  Tobias
Pierre Henry is in dire straits. A sound has vanished in one of the thousands of red, grey, white and blue boxes with tapes, all meticulously labelled and stacked on shelf after shelf after in his basement. “From time to time, there is a sound which disappears”, he laments, “like an insidious magic, it is nowhere to be found. I know that this morning I had the sound of a broken rope... very violent. It is indispensable to me. I’m missing this broken rope and we’re stuck.”

Henry isn’t joking. He is sitting quietly in his armchair now, but inside him, a storm is raging. Memories go back to the early days. Black and white footage from one of Henry’s earliest public concerts fly by, Spooky Tooth’s spaced-out psychedelic rock is mixed up by the hands of a man clad in black. Confused faces, Stravinsky-comparisons, enthusiastic statements and complaints about a lack of recognisable structures. Then a jump to the here and now, Henry pacing down the street in search of the mysterious, a microphone held like an ostensory in front of him, complementing a passing-by runner: “The sound of your steps is beautiful, sir!”

Dressed to the Occasion
“The Art of Sounds”, directed by Eric Darmon and Franck Mallet, is a birthday present, but it is not a regular tribute and no historical analysis in any formal kind of way. At just 50 minutes, it has the traits of sitting down with Henry over a cup of coffee and allowing him to tell his story in his own words. Or maybe just to vent some thoughts, whose scattered jigsaw pieces will, hopefully and miraculously, form a coherent entity again – just like his compositions.

Henry, of course, is a wonderful sparring partner for any journalist. Regardless of his age, he still dresses to the occasion, sporting a different stylish garment with every new camera position. And there is a quiet sort of magic at work, when listening to him monologise about the relevance of his concerts (“I’ve thought about giving them up... In the end, there are not that many people attending”), his stance towards tradition (“I am one of the last great soloists”) and his difficulties with harmony (“Every time I want to string some chords together, it ends up sounding redundant”), while director of photography Darmon slowly tiptoes down the endless flight of winding stairs which all action seems to evolve around in this house.

A tranquil tempo
You could argue that the world was not necessarily in need of more images and words from Pierre Henry – you can find plenty on the web in general and on youtube in particular, where a whole new generation of sound artists and post techno afficionados is paying hommage to their idol. But with Henry’s own work powerful and engaging, wildly associational and confrontingly sensual, it is a good thing that the authors have avoided the trapdoors of information- and sensory-overload.

Darmon and Mallet are also the team behind “Looking Glass”, an equally slow-moving Philipp Glass portrait and again, silence plays an important part in structuring and pacing their piece. The approach almost excludes themselves completely: Only once, in a scene shot in a coach heading for Amiens, Mallet’s voice is shortly heard when he interviews Henry about the influence of Wagner and Bruckner on his composing. Seconds after, Henry interrupts, jumping from his seat as the train arrives at its destination.

Here, much more than in “Looking Glass”, which one sometimes would have liked to go deeper, that tranquil tempo and the narrative reduction is part of their interpretation. “The Art of Sounds” seems to suggest that despite Henry’s brief and influential encounter with Pierre Schaeffer, his oeuvre, unlike Schaeffer’s, can not be subsumed under the Musique Concrete banner, nor will it constitute a school of its own. So there is really no point in any scientifical documentation.

“There was a really friendly period then, with Schaeffer”, Henry recollects, “It was the beginning, we were just a small group, the research group for Musique Concrete, which later became the GRM in 1958, after I left. For Schaeffer, Musique Concrete was like a musical philosophy which really should not exist as a work. As for me, I immediately wanted to create works, what’s more profitable ones.”

And he did. The film follows him from his shock-tactis to the tremendous success of “Messe pour le temps présent”, a reaction to his work turning ugly. Finally, it arrives at a performance in Paris, where a crowd is dancing to the closest thing abstract noise will ever come to techno.

Stringing broken Ropes together
Night has fallen and there is nothing but Pierre Henry and his sounds now. Each one in its raw and unprocessed state, each with an endless potential. Nothing about him seems whimsical any more, everything is pure idea waiting to be formed. This is as a man who sees a hidden meaning in sounds and is capable of awarding them an according function in his compositions.

There is something tragic about this concluding image as well, though. One can’t escape the feeling that even his greatest admirers (and there’s a lot of them, as the enthusiastic response to the release of this DVD has proven) will probably not be able to follow him all the way. “This broken rope, in fact, is important because it has the potential to be a true debut, like the sound of the three knocks in the theater”, Heny tries to explain, only further confounding the mystery, “I won’t manipulate it. It will remain a broken rope, but since I know what I want in, it must retain the overall tonality. All of these tonalities, that’s what I do.”

And the secret to what he does is contained somwhere in the shelves of brightly coloured boxes in his basement, each one of them containing endless possibilities.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Ideale Audience International DVD Productions

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