Bernard Parmegiani, who passed away on the 21st November, was a major figure in the development of electronic music in the post-war period, working at the GRM (Groupes de Recherches Musicales) studios of RTF (Radiodiffusion-Television Francaises), the French national broadcasting station. He had long been an admirer of GRM’s founder, head and the inventor of musique concrète Pierre Schaeffer. After 3 years of working as a sound engineer for television he finally gained entry to the hallowed, tape-bedecked halls when Schaeffer invited him to join in 1959. The hierarchies in place at GRM, plus the two years training course he was obliged to take, meant that it was some time before he could get down to any serious work of his own, however. One of his first significant pieces was Violostries, which he composed in 1962 for the violinist Devy Eplih. It set Eplih’s playing against his own tape manipulations of violins sounds, and set the pattern for his fascination with the electroacoustic blending of natural and synthetic or transformed sounds. This early work shares the stringency of much post-Webern modernist music of the time. But Parmegiani was to develop a more natural and sonically sensual approach as his style matured. Lengthy pieces such as De Natura Sonorum (1975) and La Creation du Monde (1982-4) evoke the sounds of the natural world or of the cosmos, and have passages which create a sensation of rapid movement or kinetic, molecular flux.
De Natura Sonorum is an encylopaedic collection of sounds which are subjected to microscopic study, but the music never becomes dry or clinical. The eleven sections are like a taxonomical division of sounds into distinct compartments. There are the struck sounds of cymbals and bells; echoing sounds and sounds with little reverberant afterlife; high pure pitches and low bass rumbles; whispering, susurrant sounds and squelchy or fiery ones. These sounds are subject to transformations and metamorphoses which highlight hidden connections between seemingly wholly disparate qualities. The division between the natural and the artificial becomes difficult to distinguish, and the nature of the sounds analysed, compared and reconfigured frequently end up resembling the sounds of nature. We hear the sonorities of air, fire, water and rumbling earth. A rich drone is filled with the humming pulse of abundant life and the final section is composed of the descending whistles of electronic tones sounding like birdsong (some birds indeed having the uncanny ability to produce calls which sound electronic).
La Création du Monde sets out with the modest ambition of creating a sound picture of the formation of the universe, the Earth and the emergence of life. It’s a creation story informed by Carl Sagan and his popularisation of cosmology rather than by any religious origin myths. But there is something distinctly mythic about its poetic evocation of cosmic forces and the poetic language used to cue us to the stages of creation we’re witnessing: Lumière Noire (black light), Moins L’infini (before the infinite?). Métamorphose Du Vide (transformation of the void) and Jeux De Configurations (play of forms). This grandly Romantic programmatic narrative makes it clear that Parmegiani saw his music in terms of creating vivid, widescreen pictures in the listener’s head. The section headed Instant 0 (ie the big bang) presumably lent its name to the Instant 0 studio which Stereolab set up in France, where they recorded their Instant 0 in the Universe EP. The music of La Creation du Monde is full of the sounds of rushing, colliding objects and roiling, elemental motion which whirl around and create a sense of space and expanding dimensionality, placing the listener at the very heart of the unfolding cosmic processes. It’s a great headphone experience, and would be amazing with a corresponding planetarium show, or something resembling one of Iannis Xenakis’ Polytope arrangements of light and ritualistic spectacle.
The same could be said for Chronos, which comprises three separate pieces created for the RTF, and which uses a more familiar palette of electronic sounds. The title of the lengthiest piece, L’Oeil Écoute (the eye listens), hints at the synaesthetic effects which the music can induce in the mind’s eye. The train sounds with which it opens could be seen as a tribute to Pierre Schaeffer, whose own Etude aux Chemins de Fer, the opening section of his Etudes de Bruits, the foundation work of musique concrete, took its sound sources from recordings of trains made at the Batignolles station in Paris. Chronos was one of two LPs of Parmegiani’s music released in the Philips Prospective 21e Siecle series, the other containing Violostries alongside Bidule en Ré and Capture Éphemère, pieces from the late 60s. In their reflective silver foil covers with eye-dazzling op-art designs, these are highly desirable objects for the record collector, and Parmegiani’s work sits in proudly shimmering glory alongside that of his GRM colleagues Iannis Xenakis, François Bayle, Pierre Henry and the father figure Pierre Schaeffer.
Parmegiani at GRM with Pierre Schaeffer and Iannis XenakisParmegiani’s portrayal of his music in poetic, narrative and visual terms makes it more approachable than some of the more hardline musical abstractionists of the time. He was also open to collaborations which took him outside of the academy (or the radio studio) and made connections with the currents of experiment and exploration running through various forms of music in the late sixties. His pieces Du Pop À L’Âne (1969) and Pop'ecletic (1968) are musical collages, harking back to his youthful love of making visual collages. They use fragments of the pop and rock music of the day alongside extracts of pieces of classical and modern music, which emerge from merge back into Parmegiani’s electronic soup. In Du Pop À L’Âne, The Doors’ Spanish Caravan and When the Music’s Over are counterpointed by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with Jim Morrison’s climactic yelp also deflated by what sounds like the lengthy uncoiling of a single tone in Stockhausen’s Kontakte. Even earlier electronic sounds are unearthed through Parmegiani’s incorporation of Ondes Martenot glides from Messiaen’s music. Pop'ecletic extracts various elements from Pink Floyd’s Piper At the Gates of Dawn: a bass line fro Lucifer Sam, a one chord guitar thrash from Astronomy Domine, a chordal organ crash from Matilda Mother and indeterminate sounds from Interstellar Overdrive. He also uses the phased organ and guitar from the instrumental intro to the Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake as a recurring motif. He evidently liked this sound, since it also crops up in Du Pop À L’Âne and L’Oeil Écoute. The juxtaposition of different musics served to highlight just how much interaction there was between them at this time. Pop and rock musicians were drawing from the ideas of avant garde composers, and the less insular of these composers (Parmegiani amongst them) were also tuning in to these new and innovative collisions of the popular and the experimental. Later musicians filled with a similar border hopping spirit were also inspired by Parmegiani’s refusal to be bounded by musical compartmentalisation. I first heard Pop’eclectic as part of a mix on the old website of the band Broadcast, and the collagist collision and merging of disparate elements was a distinctive part of their style, reaching an experimental peak on their Witch Cults of the Radio Age collaboration with The Focus Group.
This openness on Parmegiani’s part led to all kinds of collaborations. In this, he was similar to his GRM colleague Pierre Henry, and as a result, both composers have reached a far wider modern audience than many of their contemporaries. He worked with the Third Ear Band on a performance at the Round House in 1970, and with a quartet of French free jazz musicians on the piece Jazzex in 1966. This was a kind of feedback loop which involved him recording and transforming their sounds, the resultant tape of which they would further improvise over. Et Après, from 1973, is another meeting with an improvising jazz musician, this time Michel Portal, who plays over Parmegiani’s tape of treated bandoneon sounds.
This collaborative spirit extended into the sphere of the screen arts. He produced a number of soundtracks for TV and cinema over the years, including A, a short 1965 film by the Polish animator Jan Lenica, and his fellow countryman Piotr Kamler’s remarkable 1969 animation Le Labyrinth. For this, Parmegiani produced a study in vocal sounds, ranging from Tibetan and football terrace chants to cries and whispers. It’s completely sympathetic to the images it accompanies, and adds greatly to the nightmarishly claustrophobic quality of the film, the sense of being watched and commented upon at all times. He also provided the soundtrack for a film by another Polish animator, Walerian Borowczyk. His Jeux des Anges (1964) is a chill, bleak piece of surrealism which clearly evokes the spirit of the concentration camps set up in Poland by the Nazis. Parmegiani’s music draws on chants sung in those dark places, and begins with more train sounds, which in this context take on a terribly ominous cast. He worked again with Walerian Borowczyk on his early 80s movie Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes.
Parmegiani also made a few films of his own, perhaps drawing on his own performance art background (he was even a mime for a while, the progression from that to composer/constructor of musique concrète something which probably only a Frenchman or woman could pull off). The dual-language title of his 1973 short Das Augehort /L’Ecran Transparent reflects the fact that this was a joint venture between the German WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) radio station and RTF. WDR had its own Studio for Electronic Music, set up in 1951, the same year that the GRM had come into being. Their had been significant hostility between the two in the early days, when they were passionately advocating different approaches to this new musical art. But by 1973, with electronic sounds widely disseminated across the whole spectrum of music and no longer the purview of small technocratic coteries in state-sponsored laboratories (or maverick musician/engineers in their attics or back garden sheds), such bitter aesthetic and ideological divides seemed retrospectively foolish (must their always be only one way of doing things?) The film marries image with music and experiments with new video techniques, much as Frank Zappa did in the otherwise utterly different 200 Motels. Paul Valjean appears at the start as a sort of proxy Parmegiani (he’s even got the beard), bouncing between the walls of the screen liked a ‘trapped in a box’ mime, talking about the ‘electronic human’ and speaking the word ‘information’, which is then echoed, repeated and layered in the manner of Steve Reich’s tape loop phasing piece Come Out To Show Them. It sounds like something broadcast from the speakers placed around The Village in The Prisoner. It’s a remarkable short film, well worth watching. You can also hear a number of Parmegiani’s pieces, including Violostries and De Natura Sonorum (the opposite poles of apprentice work and mature masterpiece within his oeuvre), and Pop'eclectic over at ubuweb. Lie back, open your ears and let all the sounds of the universe flood in.