Pierre Henry, or the Art of Sounds: subjective documentary says nothing about pioneer’s place in experimental music

Eric Darmon, Franck Mallet, “Pierre Henry, or the Art of Sounds” (2006)

A so-so documentary about the French experimental music pioneer, Pierre Henry, who with his mentor and early collaborator Pierre Schaeffer, helped create musique concrete, a style of avant-garde / experimental music using recordings of everyday sound as material for constructing musical works. The film’s focus is to follow Henry closely as he bustles about his routine at home, records his music in the studio or perform before a live audience. Excerpts of Henry’s music, beginning with an early gig before a bemused audience of young and old in the 1950s, feature throughout the documentary in more or less chronological order; a mix of archival material and present-day film accompanies the music.

The musical soundtrack of snippets of Henry’s work is playful and quite spacious, often energetic and whimsical in nature. One work is titled “The Love Life of the Octopus” and it is indeed a curious and humorous aural survey of how a bunch of cephalopods flirt and court each other with plenty of, erm, tentacle sex (just not of the porn kind). The early music is fairly abstract and seems deliberately provocative; the later music, especially the music composed in the period after the year 2000, turns out to be disappointingly very conventional, even a bit lazy, with wholesale looping orchestral-music samples overlaid by clicks and bits of noise. There may be rhythm (achieved with sound loops) and the music can be strongly layered and dance-oriented; even so, the sound is always sharp and clear. In one work, “Berlin, Symphonie der Grosser Stadt”, Henry uses samples of an old Jimi Hendrix piece as a major part of the opus.

Following Henry closely and featuring just his voice, the documentary is strongly subjectve: viewers learn about his work methods, what he aims to do and what he strives for. He talks about the things that have influenced and which continue to influence him (for example, his library which seems heavily swayed towards art); the sounds he heard in his childhood; his audience; his experiences as a public musical performer; and the concert as a place of ritual. We do not learn about Henry’s setbacks and failures if there were any; according to the film, Henry seems to have had a steady if not hugely successful career as an experimental music composer/performer.

Viewers get no sense of how successful, popular or influential Henry has been in the course of his career: the film could be much, much better if it had examined Henry’s place in the music world. Interviews with French and other experimental music-makers, producers, concert organisers and roadies would have been enough to convey some of the magnitude of Henry’s renown without making him look like an ageing hippie rock star. Henry’s friend Bernadette and their lady-friend stay more or less in the background; how they met Henry and what they think of him as a musician and composer of obscure experimental music are never known. The ladies are very long-suffering especially when Henry holds regular and well-attended recitals of abstract electronic music in the narrow confines of his house where the walls are positively stuffed with shelves of obscure art books!

For viewers unfamiliar with Henry’s work, the time-line of significant pieces which include ballet and music scored for operas can be confusing: overally, it is chronological with maybe jumps going back a few years before the forward pace takes over again. Curiously, Henry’s childhood experiences with sound come very near the end of the film when one would expect such influences on his music to come close to the beginning.

The music is much more melodic than might be expected from an abstract genre and is perhaps the best part of the film. Henry and only Henry talking about himself and his music can be boring – the fellow makes no concessions to viewers by trying to be entertaining and can come across as a slightly grumpy old git – and maybe something from Bernadette or the other lady-friend would have given us a different angle on Henry himself or his music. While we are fortunate to have any documentaries at all on early pioneers of experimental music who are happy to share with others their methods of working, how they approach creating a new work and how they feel about performing in public, at the end of the day I think a better and more objective documentary on Henry could have made and viewers would have a sense of his importance in the history and advancement of experimental music.

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