by Logan Young
I use the present tense because while Pierre the Elder (i.e. Schaeffer) finally withered away from Alzheimer’s in August of 1995, Pierre Henry—the oft-ignored, yet every bit as influential jeune frère of Gallic magnetic tape—is still very much alive. A spry, but bearded octogenarian now, Pierre the Survivor lives the way any iconic acousmatist worth his speaker cones and ego should: holed up behind the mixing board of his private Parisian studio, Studio Son/Rè at 32 rue de Toul, cutting and splicing his twilight years as one of Western music’s most imaginative creators.
The funny thing about imagination, though, is that while it comes and proffers all kinds of eccentric innovation, invariably, it mostly just comes and goes. In theory, a forward-thinking composer like Henry should be at odds with his muse. After all, imagination does not usually beget profligacy. Not so with Pierre Henry. At present count, his catalog consists of over 150 works—nearly 100 more than the Teuton trio of Bach’s wohltemperirte fugues, Beethoven’s Klaviersonate and Brahms’ Symphonien combined.
In his sparsely titled, but meticulously researched study Pierre Henry, fellow Francophile (and erstwhile Schaeffer lackey) Michel Chion likens the other Pierre’s oeuvre to the torrential outpourings of yet another consistently busy Frenchman—Victor Hugo. (Interestingly enough, Henry’s one-man warhorse from 1977, Dieu, is based on the same unfinished Hugo work, while 1985’s Hugosymphonie is a much more obvious paean to the 19th Century Romantic.)
But what is quantity if the works themselves, en masse, do not hold up?
Yet again, Chion has the answer. For him, Henry’s works consistently illustrate a “fecundity, forcefulness and a wide-ranging palette, an impeccable and sumptuous technique and a taste for excess and the bold mingling of the grotesque and the sublime.” Perhaps nowhere is this palette broader, this dichotomy of grossness and awe more pronounced than in the self-described “spectacle total” of 1967’s Messe pour le temps present.
Despite its rather ecclesiastical title, Henry’s piece bears little, if any, correlation with the Catholic liturgy. Merci dieu! Not that Henry is an agnostic or antagonizer. His L’apocalypse de Jean from only a year later features recorded Biblical text that, despite its incredibly dense matrix of vocal polyphony and synthesized sound, remains completely intelligible throughout. But just as Papa Haydn’s Missa in Tempore Belli is both a reflection and a comment on the potential invasion of Austria by the better-equipped French in 1796, likewise Henry’s “Mass for the Present Time” is both contemplation and subsequent statement regarding the stylistic diversity of the musical landscape nearly two centuries later.
Just ask any Futurama fan!