L'Oeuvre Musicale En 12 CD
director's cut, The Wire, August 2008
by Simon Reynolds
"I don't think I had any real musical influences," Bernard Parmegiani has declared. Certainly, it's true that he started out lacking any academic training in composition. A sound engineer for French television, he caught the musique concrete bug through an experimental music radio show called Club d'Essai. In the late Fifties Parmegiani dabbled in the young form during TV studio down-time he sneaked on the sly. Then, having teamed up with composer Andre Almuro as the latter's engineer, his promise came to the attention of Pierre Schaeffer. But it took the godfather of concrete two whole years to steal Parmegiani away from TV (and a burgeoning side-career as a mime artist!). Only then did Parmegiani undergo, as a bureaucratic formality, the obligatory two-year composition course required to join the Groupe de Recherche Musicales.
Parmegiani's sideways trajectory through the French equivalent of the BBC makes for a wonderfully wonky career path: from humble tape operator to venerable composer with a grand oeuvre now neatly tied-up and boxed in this twelve-disc set. The parallel would be if Dick Mills, chief sound effects maker at the Radiophonic Workshop, had been encouraged by the Beeb to lay aside Goons Show gastric-rumbles and Dalek voices and dedicate his energies to hour-long concrete operas inspired by A.J. Ayer. By the mid-Sixties, that was exactly what Parmegiani was up to: composing long-form works sparked by the philosophical pensees of Gaston Bachelard. The imprint of the latter's classic ruminations on human perception as related to space, time, and the "poetics" of the four elements is detectable in Parmegiani titles like "L'Instant mobile" and "Capture ephemere"; often he would embark on a composition armed with nothing but a title borrowed from or inspired by the philosopher.
More suggestive, in some ways, though, is the slightly later influence on Parmegiani of another French philosopher, Clement Rosset, author of a series of books whose titles translate as Against Nature, Phantasmagorias, and Reality and Its Double. Rosset's "artificialist" sensibility--art as an exquisite lie--has an obvious fit with Schaeffer's acousmatic notion of "sonorous objects" that can't be traced back to their physical source. Concrete, in its purest form, is non-referential, constructed from sound-matter so drastically mutated, morphed and molded, it's become falsified, fantasticated.
In the booklet accompanying L'Oeuvre Musicale, Parmegiani talks revealingly about an artistic past-time that preceded his adventures in sonic fiction: photomontage. He'd cut out a large number of image-fragments from magazines--human limbs, machine parts, etc--and then glue them into surreal assemblages. His music-making would follow a similar process, starting with the building-up of a sound-bank, an inventoried miscellany of noises, before embarking on composition. Compared to the photocollages, though, Parmegiani's music has at least one extra element: life. It's analogous maybe to animators who use stop-motion film techniques to bring a queer vitality to their materials, whether three-dimensional puppets or photographic and illustrative material (as with Terry Gilliam's Monty Python collages). "I do consider sounds as living things," Parmegian has said. But with concrete as with animation, the movement in the musique is life-like but umheimlich.
This unsettling sensation is particularly vivid with the pieces that anticipate the sample-spun chimera of plunderphonics. 1969's "Pop' Eclectic" draws heavily on the heavy and proggy rock sounds of the day, spiced with Light Programme-style MOR and Radio 3-style solemnity. Much of the piece resembles pureed Soft Machine, an ivy-like mass of dissected and intertwined grooves further weirded with dizzy-making stereo pans and speaker-channel cut-outs. From the same year, "Du Pop A L'Ane is like a duet between radios that are both dialing randomly across the FM spectrum: chintzy Gallic accordions collide with severe Webern pianos and lewdly honking Dixieland, with recognizable rock showing its face every so often (the Doors--the Manzarek chug of "When The Music's Over", the mock-classical shlock of "Spanish Caravan"--being particularly favored, for some reason).
Avoiding outright referentiality and therefore closer to the purely acousmatic, 1970's "Ponomatopees" nonetheless unnerves because so much of its raw material is clearly sourced from the human voice. The first section weaves processed whispers and vocal snippets into a writhing tapestry of unlife; later on, disembodied vowel sounds recede down cavernous passages, like dead astronauts bobbing weightlessly through an asteroid's catacombed interior.
Space, in all senses of the word (outer, inner, architectural, etc), irresistibly suggests itself when listening to and thinking about the music of the post-WW2 avant-garde. Parmegiani's "experiences" have often been constructed so that sounds are directed to specific speakers in specially designed auditoriums. Even heard on plain-old stereo, many of his pieces resemble honeycombs of incompatible spatialities, or mazes build using all four dimensions rather than the usual two. Parmegiani used a similar trope when describing his intent with 'L'Oeil Ecoute", which was to guide his sounds "into our inner labyrinths". Listening to that composition (which translates as "the listening eye") and similar ones like "Pour En Finir Avec Le Pouvoir D'Orphee", Op Art springs to mind: just as the eyeball is almost physically wrenched by Bridget Riley's disorientating patterns, you can imagine ear-strain being induced by Parmegiani's perspectival distortions. "Kaleidoscope 2", the fourth of "Orphee's"'s six movements, is like a Vasarely canvas in a hall of mirrors. "L'Oscillee", the next segment, sounds like the heavenly host armed with Jews harps rather than the regular angelic kind, while the climactic "Unisson Des Voix," is a calvacade of rubbery judders that seems to tumble up a hill. 1971's "La Roue Ferris" is something of a peak. The title refers not to the fairground wheel, its literal translation, but a Mexican firework that turns as it burns. With its wheels-within-wheels-on-fire structure, the piece evokes the logical, yet perfectly senseless precision of Nature's cycles, whose apparent orderliness is actually born from the primordial violence of the cosmos, the ontological gash of the Big Bang.
The vital counterbalance to the seriousness and ambition of Parmegiani epics like "La Creation Du Monde" and "De Natura Sonorum" is his playfulness (he's said that he pursues a music that plays "with sound in the same way one can play with a ball or with words"), his child-like sense of curiosity and discovery, even the streak of puerile mischief that occasionally pops up. "Des Mots and Des Sons" takes the piss out of the concert-hall world, using soundbites from a radio presenter expounding the middlebrow ideology of classical music as sanctuary from the modern era's nerve-jangling disequilibrium. Platitudes about the relaxing, restorative power of the music's "calm and serene energy" are dropped into a progressively more turbulent slice-and-dice of orchestral and audience sounds (the faint hubbub before a concert performance, coughs, etc), which further degenerates into a syncopated flurry of glottal stops and minced vowel sounds. As lampoons goes, it's crude but hilariously on point.
Some of this Rabelaisian rawness seems to fade as Parmegiani's work enters the digital era. He was among the first at GRM to embrace the new technology, but admits that although the shift from "scissors to mouse" involved huge gains on the time-saving and hassle-reduction fronts, there were also obscure losses. Listening to "Sons-Jeux", a piece whose original 1998 version was made to commemorate musique concrete's 50th Anniversary, there are spectacular effects in terms of the transformation of material: insect sounds turn into human voices and a babble of agitated male speech gets whisked into an iridescent foam of voice-cellules
(like molecular gastronomy if human souls were its raw ingredients). Yet permeating the seemingly infinite variety of textures is a hard-to-put-your-finger-on homogeneity, like garments that are wildly different in shape yet cut from the identical fabric. For some reason, digital technology seems to exacerbate concrete's already-existing bias towards certain sound-textures--plinky liquidity, slithery sibilance (perhaps because these sorts of sounds least resemble those of acoustic instrumental provenance?).
Returning to the earlier analogy, you could say that digital sound parallels the advances in animation made by the likes of Pixar (plus all those action thrillers so CGI-riddled they are virtually animations incorporating human actors). Massive increments in terms of mindblowing verging-on-3D effects, microscopic detail and sheer density of simultaneous events are offset by the loss of analogue grain, an insidious seamlessness and sameyness. Whereas the Sixties and Seventies Parmegiani regularly provokes the I-can't-believe-my-ears of a true sound-sorcerer in action, some of the latterday pieces approach numbing overload.
Overall, though, L'Oeuvre Musicale is a bargain-price treasure chest. Like the outwardly-compact, surprisingly large-inside Tardis, this slim box contains worlds of inexhaustible spaciousness and strangeness.