Monday, May 3, 2010

Bernard in a book

Through an accident of education I majored in French at university back in the 1970s. For several years I maintained it by continuing to read trendy French fiction and philosophy, but gave it up a decade ago and celebrated by reading Proust in the revised Moncrieff translation. Anything I might want to read would eventually get translated, I thought. Well, wrong again. In 1982 Jean-Jacques Nattiez collaborated with composer Philippe Mion and Jean-Christophe Thomas in a full-length book about Bernard Parmegiani's De Natura Sonorum entitled L'Envers d'une oeuvre. "Une oeuvre" means "a work", and l'envers generally means the flip or reverse side of something like paper, or inside out when speaking about clothes, but it's also a preposition corresponding to 'towards.' One of my last piano teachers always talked about moving towards something in music, and wrote 'towards' all over my scores, so I read this connotation in the title as well.

Bernard Parmegiani is one of the best known of the French electroacousticians who emerged from Pierre Schaeffer's pioneering studio, the Groupe de Recherche Musicale (GRM). He premiered De Natura Sonorum in 1975, crediting the work with exorcising his music of repetitive forms which had been so much a part of Pour en finir avec le pouvoir d'Orphée and Et après. "Finally it was thanks to De Natura Sonorum that I managed to emerge from my chrysalis, like an insect before its moult.… I was leaving a certain larval state, and I needed something with the rigorous character of an etude, and that was De Natura Sonorum." The work was pivotal for the GRM composers as well, one of the first that moved beyond the pure pleasure of the virtually unlimited wealth of new-found sounds available through technology. Parmegiani demonstrated a real mastery of the theoretical principles detailed in Schaeffer's massive Traité des objets musicaux and catalogued all of his sounds for De Natura Sonorum using Schaeffer's typology. Continual technological improvements permitted him precise control over the sound material to realize his visions.

The three authors interviewed Parmegiani at some length about the work, apparently split into two extended sessions over a year apart, giving them an opportunity to use the later interviews for clarification and additional detail. For each of the ten pieces on the original LP release (Dynamique De La Résonance and Incidences/Battements were added later for the CD reissue), they present relevant selections from the interviews, along with annotations, little essays on one or another aspect, a listening score, and a technical outline of the original sources, manipulations, transformations and montages. Their goal is to present Parmegiani's music on three levels:
  1. the level of fabrication ("recipes", creative thought processes, from the poetic-philosophical conception up to the point of scissors cutting tape)
  2. the musical level, of the complete work (such that Parmegiani and we can agree to describe intersubjectively)
  3. a "superior", or rather infra-level, the meaning, the "obsessive" (or recurring) themes of the composer, and, inevitably, of the man Parmegiani (his phantasms, his problems, psychological, philosophical, particularly regarding composition).

My own reading of L'Envers d'une oeuvre has been sporadic, but I feel compelled to write about it, even well before I've finished it, sort of a live-blogging event stretched over months. I'm very happy reading one chapter in between other more sustained reading, accompanied by a close listening of the piece under the current microscope. Blog posts in this series should be ongoing, may appear unordered compared to the original work (and the book). One can only hope that some enterprising, bilingual, Parmegiani-obsessed graduate student undertakes a real translation of the entire book for her thesis.

The photo of Parmegiani in his studio is by Guy Vivien and comes from the booklet inside the INA-GRM release Violostries. The insect quotation is from an interview with Évelyne Gayou, published in Parmegiani's Portraits Polychromes book, page 33. Excerpts from this interview appear in the program notes for the Parmegiani box. L'Envers d'une oeuvre was published by Éditions Buchet/Chastel in Paris in 1982, and the bulleted goal list is from the Preamble, written by Thomas, on page 32. Translations are my own.

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