The sound cosmos of Pierre Henry – an obituary of the Grandseigneur of modern electronic music

07.07.2017

A man sits amid several turntables

From 2003 onwards, Pierre Henry was a regular guest at ZKM, performing his complex electro-acoustic compositions here – including the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2007. Pierre Henry died recently in Paris at the age of 89. The ZKM will continue to build on his legacy.

With his work, Pierre Henry occupied an important interface in the world of contemporary music – between the development of modern »new music« and the wide-ranging field of research with new instruments and sounds. He was a classically trained musician: from 1938 to 1944, he studied composition (with Nadia Boulanger), harmony (with Olivier Messiaen), as well as percussion and piano (with Félix Passerone) at the Paris Conservatorium (Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique).

A man sits amid several turntables
Pierre Henry
Foto: Léa Crespi

Between 1944 and 1950, Henry worked as an orchestral musician – as a pianist and percussionist. His research work at that time also experimented with sounds. In 1948, he composed his first film music with acoustic objects: »Voir l’invisible«. In 1949, Pierre Henry founded a musical research group with the engineer and music theoretician Pierre Schaeffer: collaborating until 1958, they developed the »musique concrète«, an electro-acoustic form of music which primarily experimented with new technical instruments.

In 1958, Pierre Henry left the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GRMC) and founded his own studio in Paris, APSOME, which was the first studio to focus wholly on experimental and electro-acoustic music. In the 1960s, Pierre Henry further developed his musical research, wrote pieces for the microphone only (1962 »Le Voyage« – »Tibetan Book of the Dead«) and flirted with rock music: a much-sampled electronic pop song (»Psyche Rock«) in 1964, and the album »Ceremony« with the group Spooky Tooth in the 1970s.

At the same time, Pierre Henry also composed pieces for his friend, the choreographer Maurice Béjart, which found use in both films and advertisements. During those years, he also worked closely with the choreographers Georges Balanchine, Carolyn Carlson, Merce Cunningham, Alwin Nikolais and Maguy Marin. He also developed musical-visual performances with the artists Yves Klein, Jean Degottex, Georges Mathieu, Nicolas Schöffer and Thierry Vincens. From 1950 onwards, Pierre Henry also composed music for several films—most recently for a work by Dziga Vertov.

From 1982 onwards, at his new studio SON / RÉ, Pierre Henry created some 45 new works – including »Histoire naturelle« (1997), »La Tour de Babel« (1999), »Concerto sans orchestre« (2000), »Poussière de soleils« (2001), »Hypermix« (2001), »Dracula« (2002), »Zones d’ombre« (2002) and »Faits divers« (2003).

In 2014, the ZKM | Karlsruhe presented the pioneer of new music – and composer of the theme tune to the American TV series »Futurama« – with the Giga-Herz Prize in recognition of his life’s work. It was in this respect that Pierre Henry presented his work »Le Fil de la Vie« in the year 2012:

[Excerpts from the text by Manfred Heinfeldner, 2003]