Monday, April 23, 2007

Pousseur's World

For a long time, I've had a soft spot for Belgian composer Henri Pousseur. One of the Darmstadt generation along with Boulez, Berio and Stockhausen, he was introduced to American audiences on the landmark new music album from 1967, New Electronic Music, which also included Variations II by John Cage and Milton Babbitt's Ensembles for Synthesizer. Pousseur's work, Trois Visages de Liège (1961), was very seductive. The opening movement (Air and Water) is a slow movement built up from sweeping electronics (I was attracted to drones even then), but what elevated the piece above its contemporaries was the second movement (Voice of the City), composed primarily of the voices of children at play. The voices continue into the third movement (Forges), sometimes recurring without alteration, but the work's climax is a single spoken word, "Solidarité".

Later on, I acquired a Wergo release containing Pousseur's Jeu de Miroirs de Votre Faust, a work for piano and voices on tape that has only recently been issued on CD for the first time. A couple of factors converged here that drew my attention. Votre Faust was an opera, with the libretto by Michel Butor and music by Pousseur. The opera had aleatoric aspects, required audience involvement to choose how the story progressed, and as far as I know has never been successfully staged. At the time, Butor was one of a loosely associated group of writers of the so-called nouveau roman, or new novel. As a college student majoring in French in the early 1970s, the new novel was definitely the Big Thing, and I avidly read all the new novels I could find. By the 1970s, Butor had long since quit writing novels, moving more into poetry and essays, and the opportunity to hear his work on an opera was interesting. In the meantime, I had also started collecting new music piano scores, including a number of Pousseur's. The piano part of Jeu de Miroirs was a solo piano piece (with an optional soprano part) which had an interesting twist on the aleatory piano pieces that Stockhausen and Boulez had published. The score was printed in three systems, and each system included three groups, separated by double bars.

But instead of music, some systems merely had windows, which you cut out with a razor blade, and the windows permitted a view of the music behind.

The pages were all loose-leaf, which meant they were all interchangeable, and there was no predefined order. This meant that the contents of the window could change, depending on which pages and what page order the pianist used for a performance.

Since the pianist could nest windows within windows, it also meant that the pianist could turn the page and see some of the same musical groups recur, but they might have different dynamics or phrasing (this information was placed above the groups, and therefore could be overridden by the window). It was more like a game than a musical piece.

Aleatoric music on this scale is a fascinating experiment from a turbulent time, not often duplicated by composers today. I later spent nearly a year studying caractères 1a, another of Pousseur's aleatoric piano pieces. It was an unusual exercise in finding musical order from a collection of fragments, similar to Jeu de Miroirs but with a less complex sequencing mechanism. I'm surprised that nobody has recorded his complete piano works, which span his entire career, are composed in many different styles, and would be an interesting collection.

All of this background is to explain my eagerness to hear anything that Pousseur releases, and even more so when Butor's name is attached. Pousseur and Butor have the twin bill on a recent Alga Marghen release, Paysages Planétaires, a boxed set with three CDs and a sixty-four page booklet. The musical work was composed for an installation, and consists of sixteen "ethno-electroacoustic" pieces combining different musical traditions from around the world. The music reminds me a lot of another famous electronic portrait of world music, Stockhausen's Hymnen, both because of the collage effect of the different kinds of music and because both Pousseur and Stockhausen use an electronic white noise as a backdrop to the world music foreground. In Stockhausen's case, the white noise was typically shortwaves, and although I hear some shortwaves in Pousseur, I hear more straightforward field recordings as well. In addition, Pousseur uses more vocal music than Stockhausen did, and of course Pousseur's work is not primarily intended for the concert hall (and thus, not intended to be absorbed in a single sitting). Butor contributed a set of texts, one for each of the pieces, which may be read aloud when the pieces are performed in a concert setting or perused at home. It's worth noting that most of the booklet is bilingual, English and French, but Butor's poems are not translated.

Paysages Planétaires is classic musique concrète created in a contemporary digital studio. Although nothing in the booklet says so, I believe that field recordings, whose origins are easily discernable, comprise the vast majority of the musical materials. One of the chapters in the booklet describes the samples used for each piece. Pousseur wants the sounds to remain recognizable so that the listener can imagine himself and herself taking a sonic tour of the world. He includes three long epigraphs from three generations of French poets: Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Claudel, and Butor, whose themes are the simultaneity of events from all parts of the globe. Pousseur has made an audio portrait of the globe, of "all hours at once,… all seasons together" (Claudel) for our turbulent times that are so interested in pushing everyone apart.

The deluxe package is available from Forced Exposure and other fine retail outlets.

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