Henri Pousseur was one of those electronic music pioneers you read about but rarely get the chance to listen to. Belgian, with the look of a jovial mad scientist in need of a comb, he came up in the Darmstadt school of the 1950s, alongside new music legends Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Like much of that milieu, Pousseur composed and theorized in equal measure.
In particular for our purposes, he devoted much thought to the new sonic vistas opened up by electronic composition. In Parabolique d’Enfer, you can hear him grappling with his electronic medium and the questions it posed: What does live electronic performance mean? How do you maintain musical spontaneity when all your sounds are canned? How can electronically generated sounds evoke anything other than themselves?
When you hear someone play a Beethoven sonata in person, you hear a new creation of an old piece of music. The pianist mediates Beethoven’s fixed notes in a way that’s unique to that performance, highlighting certain phrases and making the music speak in ways that Beethoven couldn’t have predicted. Something similar happens when a pop musician covers a song live. Now, when you hear a recording of such a performance, it may strike you differently in different frames of mind, but the essence of the performance doesn’t change. Cliburn’s Beethoven recordings will always be his, and they’ll always be different from Horowitz’s Beethoven. These differences explain why some people collect so many different recordings of Beethoven sonatas, or Grateful Dead concerts, or covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, or whatever.
What if your composition is the recording? What if your music can’t be conventionally notated and played because it’s all sine waves and timbres specific to this recording, made with this equipment, on this particular day? Is that composition fixed for all time? Is there any way that, somewhere down the line, a performer will be able to reinterpret it, so that it remains the same composition but speaks in a different way?
Reggae producers of the ‘60s and ‘70s, people like King Tubby and Lee Perry, hit upon one solution: the remix. Henri Pousseur and his buddies came up with something similar: open form. Different composers made different sorts of open form compositions, depending on their media and whims. Pousseur’s idea was to record a set of source material—the “8 Etudes Paraboliques” of 1972—that he and other people could use to construct new pieces of music.
The etudes themselves are fixed electronic compositions, set in stone—or rather, tape. Unlike many electronic compositions that were built by painstakingly splicing magnetic tape, Pousseur’s etudes are real-time recordings of their composer messing around in the studio. According to Pousseur scholar John Dack, Pousseur spent several productive days recording his “sonic voyages”, which he produced using sexy gadgets like ring modulators and voltage control generators. Though always intended as source material for future works, the eight etudes can reportedly stand on their own as varied and intuitive collections of blips and bloops.
Like most of his fellow Darmstadters, Pousseur also composed for more traditional ensembles. In 1991 he wrote “Leçons d’Enfer”, a centennial tribute to the poet and gun runner Arthur Rimbaud. It was an electroacoustic musical theatre piece featuring singers, instrumentalists, electronic gizmos, and field recordings from Ethiopia, where Rimbaud lived late in life. (Conspiracy theorists should note: while in Ethiopia in the 1880s, Rimbaud befriended Ras Makonnen, father of Ras Tafari Makonnen, aka future Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, the Conquering Lion of Judah so beloved by remix pioneers King Tubby and Lee Perry. Small world.)
“Leçons d’Enfer” didn’t conquer the Great White Way, but it did provide more source material for Pousseur’s sonic voyages. In 1992, Pousseur combined bits of his etudes with recorded bits of “Leçons”, and came up with the 70+ minutes of Parabolique d’Enfer.
If you’re at all interested in electronic art music from the ‘50s on, you should hear this piece of music. For one thing, you’ve read about a similar mix, based on the same raw materials, in that dogeared copy of Björn Heile’s The Modernist Legacy on your nightstand. For another, Parabolique beautifully illustrates one solution to the problem of making old electronic works say new things. And it does so in a way that obviously parallels the contributions of reggae and rap producers, who make old recordings say new things all the time.
If you’re not interested in all that theoretical mumbo jumbo and you’re inexplicably still reading this, the 13 tracks of Parabolique are worth hearing for their sonic splendor alone. This mix is deep and layered, varied and surprising. It’s atonal and certainly nobody’s idea of easy-listening, but it’s no monolithic wall of noise either. Pure electronic squealing gives way to Ethiopian choirs, who are interrupted by angry blasts of squall, which melt into flitting synthetic insects and chimes. The music crescendos and morphs in gestures that are unpredictable but obviously intentional. At times it even settles into regular rhythms that are sort of catchy and bouncy. It’s arresting and devoid of cliché.
If you’re a Rimbaud fan, Parabolique may shed new light on the poet’s later years. If you’re not, don’t sweat it. After all, you don’t need an extensive knowledge of reggae riddims to know that Lee Perry’s dub music sounds great, and you don’t need to spot all the samples to appreciate a Public Enemy song. Those things might add to your interest, but ultimately the combination of sounds is what gets you. That fascination with sonic possibility inspired Henri Pousseur, too. Listening to Parabolique d’Enfer, you may find yourself lost in thought, pondering the implications of our brave new electronic world, or you may simply find yourself marveling at all this sound for its own sake.