Read an interview with the late composer Bernard Parmegiani, by Rahma Khazam. First published in The Wire 176, October 1998.
Bernard Parmegiani is not the first name that springs to mind when the talk turns to musique concrète. Yet along with Pierre Henry, Luc Ferrari, Francois Bayle and other courageous pioneers who rallied to Pierre Schaeffer, the inventor of musique concrète, in the 1940s and 50s, Parmegiani led the way in transforming the early, crude experiments in sound manipulation into the rich and creative genre now known as acousmatic music.
Ever since those heady early days, Parmegiani has been expanding the limits and possibilities of Schaeffer's revolutionary invention by building bridges to other musical genres and forms of artistic endeavour: his extensive body of work comprises collaborations with jazz musicians, film makers and dance companies, as well as a number of groundbreaking pieces that have gone down in the history of electroacoustic music. Like the work of the other composers making up the GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales, the musique concrète research group founded by Schaeffer), his pieces perpetuate Schaeffer's legacy, a legacy that has become all the more valuable since the latter's death in 1995. As Parmegiani puts it: "Schaeffer and Pierre Henry were the pioneers of musique concrète, and we are discovering its possibilities: we are engaged in the ongoing exploration of [their] invention."
His latest work, Sons/Jeu, carries on that mission: this powerful, superbly crafted piece, which was premiered last June  at the GRM, commemorates the 50th anniversary of musique concrète. Pursuing a brilliant, meteoric course, punctuated by pregnant silences, train noises and dramatic vocal sequences, it shows that Parmegiani's passion for music remains unabated, despite his retirement from the GRM six years ago. For although he now lives in the south of France, he is still a frequent visitor to the sprawling Radio France building in Paris that has been the home of musique concrète since 1975, and in whose studios he composed many of his most important works.
Parmegiani's passion for musique concrète dates back to his early years, even though he grew up in an environment that was dominated by classical music. Born in Paris in 1927, he was exposed to the sound of the piano throughout his childhood. His mother was a piano teacher and taught beginners in one room of the family home, while his stepfather (his own father died when Parmeglani was six months old), who was a piano virtuoso, gave lessons to more advanced pupils in another room. But musique concrète, which emerged at the tail end of the 40s was to have a far greater impact on him. "I worked quite hard at the piano with my mother, but my musical tastes were more oriented towards musique concrète [even though] that type of music was relatively unknown at the time," he explains. "I used to listen to the first pieces by Schaeffer and Henry on the radio every Sunday, and I was very excited by what I heard."
The young Parmegiani was also attracted to the art of photomontage, a leaning that was to stand him in good stead later in life."I used to cut bits of photos out of magazines, faces or arms or whatever, and create collages, which were sometimes very surrealistic," he says. "So I already had a taste. Then there was my musical background and my training as a sound engineer, which meant that I had all the elements I needed for a career in musique concrète."
Parmegiani spent three years working as a television engineer and it was during that period that he acquired his first hands-on experience of musique concrète in a small Paris studio. Pierre Schaeffer came to listen to his work, and in 1959 Parmegiani joined the GRM as a sound engineer, working with Iannis Xenakis, Francois-Bernard Mache and other early musique concrète composers. However, the world of musique concrète had its own hierarchies, which precluded him from taking part. "There was a lot going on," he recalls, "but I couldn't participate because I didn't have experience of musique concrète, apart from which I had a terrible complex with regard to the composers – they knew a lot about music."
For the young and diffident Parmegiani, however, Schaeffer's presence made up for this sense of exclusion, and even now, he breaks out of his usual cautious reserve when the conversation turns to the GRM founder. "He was someone who had a great deal of presence and personality," says Parmegiani. "Whenever he was around he radiated a kind of charm. Some people weren't sensitive to it at all, and could even be hostile, whereas others, like me, were completely taken by him, even though he was a difficult person to work with. He frequently contradicted himself, and sometimes it could be difficult to follow his line of thought. But he was very stimulating, he was definitely a leader."
But Parmegiani's inferiority complex was soon to pass. He went on to attend the GRM training course for two years, alongside fellow student Francois Bayle, and was finally invited by Schaeffer to join the GRM as a composer. It was the early 60s, and although the GRM was sorely under-funded, it was bursting with ideas and creative energy. One of Parmegiani's most vivid memories of that early period is the Concert Collectif, an event organised by Xenakis and Schaeffer, for which eight composers were asked to create a sequence five minutes long. Each of them then prepared a piece based on their own and each other's sequences, and these pieces were presented in public on the day of the concert. The Concert Collectif also gave Parmegiani an opportunity to expand his working methods even further: "A violinist who attended the concert asked me if I would like to do a piece for tape and violin, and although I wasn't particularly keen on working with the violin, I agreed because I was curious to see what the outcome would be: Devy Erlih duly provided the solo violin passages, while Parmegiani created the tape section using violin sounds The result was the haunting Violostries, which took him two years to create and was to launch his career.
During this period Pierre Schaeffer would organise encounters between the composers, painters and film makers who gravitated around him, and Parmegiani soon had the opportunity to create music for films. As time went by he composed scores for feature films and shorts by Vladimir Borowczyck, Rene Lapoujade and a number of others, which enabled him to hone his style and experiment with the sound processing techniques that he was to use in his subsequent works, such as L'lnstant Mobile and Capture Ephemere.
The 60s were a period of all-out exploration and discovery for Parmegiani. He took part in experiments with a number of French free jazz musicians. For his mixed piece Jazzex, he created a piece of tape music for a jazz group using recordings of their music which the group then improvised over to form the final work. A collaboration with the British group Third Ear Band followed. This piece, entitled Pop Secret, was performed In London in 1970. Then there was his highly theatrical adaptation of Dante's Divine Comedy, which dates back to the early 70s. On this occasion, Parmegiani divided up the workload with his long-time colleague Francois Bayle. The episode he chose, entitled Hell, conjured up a supernatural, phantasmagorical universe, rising at times to peaks of melodramatic intensity.
Innovative though these pieces may have been at the time, Parmegiani's masterpiece remains his 1975 work De Natura Sonorum. It took a rigorous, almost scientific approach to sound, associating, in 12 brief movements, different instrumental, electronic and concrete sounds. A simple enough exercise on the face of it, yet in Parmegiani's hands, it's carefully layered textures took on a magical, musical life of their own. As its title suggests, De Natura Sonorum was an attempt to investigate the nature of sound by opposing natural and artificial sounds, and it marked a turning point in Parmeglanl's approach to sound: "In De Natura Sonorum I distanced myself from the power of sound, from what I call the power of Orpheus. Orpheus charmed the plants and animals With his lyre, and in the pieces I composed prior to De Natura Sonorum I was under the spell of the sounds I created. Sounds that evolved and that I found satisfying and I left it at that. People always used to to compliment me on the beauty of my sounds in my first pieces! But beautiful sounds don't necessarily constitute interesting beautiful or interesting pieces of music. Whereas in De Natura Sonorum I set myself many more constraints: I placed the sounds as you do letters, one after the other, so as to create forms and sequences," he says, adding almost apologetically, "That piece has since become a classic of electroacoustlc music."
By the 70s electroacoustic music was drawing larger audiences and the number of composers and studios was on the increase. Parmegiani's career too was entering a more mature phase. Ensconced from 1975 onwards in the Radio France building, where he was to work for the next 17 years, he went on to compose more future classics. His 1977 work, Dedans-Dehon (available on the 2CD set Wolostries), was conceived as a sequel to De Natura Sonorum. It highlighted what he calls "the metamorphosis of sound", which a a preoccupation that recurs in many of his works. In Dedans-Dehors, the sound of waves mutates into the crunch of footsteps or the crackle of fire, while a creaking door is transformed into a chattering insect. But then Parmegiani has always been noted for the sheer range of his sounds: his sound palette covers the entire spectrum, and over rary of sounds, obtained from a wide variety of sources.
"I have a huge collection of sounds, and I'm a little bit like Pierre Henry in that I work a lot with old sounds. I can rework them and transform them into something completely different," he remarks, adding, "Of course, there are sounds that resist all forms of treatment. You can torture them any way you like, but you'll still be able to identify their origin. It's like a fragment of Mozart: you can reverse it, halve its speed, or add echo to it, but it will always be recognisable as Mozart."
The works that followed Dedans-Dehors reflected the trend towards digital technology: as the 80s took their course, Parmegiani began to rely increasingly on computers. "It took me time to move from magnetic tape over to computers, but now I feel very comfortable with them," he observes. The suggestive power of his music remained unchanged, however, as he showed in his 1987 work Rouge-Mort. Commissioned by the Opera de Nice ballet company, its ominous soundscapes recreated the successive episodes of the tragedy of Carmen with terrifying intensity. Other works followed, ranging from Au Vif De La Memoire, a piece composed on Xenakis's UPIC (a computer-based system that transforms graphic shapes into sound), to Exercisme 3. This six-part piece opened wlth the eerie cry of a bird flying over a desert, which set the tone for what was to follow: a rich blend of whistles, gurgles and delicate, ever-shifting textures. Here, preset synthesizer sounds were treated so as to lose all trace of the origin, forming a new sonic language. "The first time it was performed, people said, that's not Parmegiani," the composer explains. "But as far as I was concerned, that meant I had been successful and that I still had something left to say."
Bernard Parmegiani's interests extend beyond music. In the 70s he spent some time in the United States conducting research into video art, and on his return to Paris he made a number of music videos including the memorable L'Ecran Transparent, which was inspired by the writings of Marshall McLuhan and broadcast on German television. More surprisingly, Parmegiani also enjoyed a successful, if short career as a mime artist early in his life: he studied under the celebrated Jacques Lecoq for three years and made several film and television appearances as he had to choose between mime artist still impacts on his approach to sound: "Sometimes, in order to analyse a sound, I act it out by means of gestures before giving it its definitive form. It enables me to diagnose sounds and see if I'm comfortable with them."
Equally fascinating were his incursions into performance art. The most recent of these whimsical and absurdist "actions musicales", as he calls them, dates back to 1988: "These were performances of electroacoustic music with actors. Michel Chion [the noted French electroacoustic composer and writer] took part in one of them: he played a type of flute and did a performance on stage in which he responded to the sounds coming out of the loudspeakers. I also staged another one in which the actors were dressed up in costumes fitted with a loudspeaker. They had a little amplifier and they could make sounds themselves by scratching their microphone. And these sounds [appeared] to emerge from their bodies! I must have done about five of these 'actions musicales'. I found it really interesting."
Musique concrète set out to emphasise the intrinsic value of sounds, effacing their symbolic or musical significance. However, a number of composers have given an added dimension to their work by participating in the intellectual developments of their time. In Parmegiani's case, contemporary philosophical and scientific thinking play an important part in his work. "I am not interested only in music, but also in ideas that can be grafted onto it. These are the influences that nourish my pieces," he observes. For instance, he has used the stylised, poetic writings of the eminent French philosopher Gaston Bachelard as a starting point for several of his pieces: Le Present Compose explores the notion of time in musical terms – its dreamlike atmosphere is punctuated by distant hums, sudden silences, abrupt clicks and dramatic bursts of sound. But his most inspired large-scale piece is La Creation Du Monde, an epic work composed between 1982–84, which tells the story of the creation of the world. Drawing its inspiration from astrophysical phenomena as described in the works of Carl Sagan and Hubert Reeves, this visionary work is divided into three sections, "Black Light", "Metamorphosis Of The Void" and "Sign Of Life". It takes as its starting point the time before the Big Bang, and moves on to the first glimmerings of light and the earliest manifestations of life on earth, conjuring images of fiery comets, distant stars and mysterious galactic phenomena.
Parmegiani's reserved demeanour and cautious, occasionally pedantic conversational style no doubt go some way towards explaining why his name means little to the public at large. However, that hasn't prevented him from influencing a host of younger electroacoustic composers, not to mention several current Electronica producers. He is genuinely surprised when I tell him that his work has had an impact on groups such as Autechre (who summed up their year in the The Wire 167 with the words: "Bernard Parmegiani - fuckin' 'ell!"). "I must admit that I don't listen to Techno or pop music," he replies. "I know that there were a few interesting experiments a while back, by German groups such as Kraftwerk, and at the time of Pink Floyd, but I don't know how these groups have evolved. A certain type of music can be interesting at a certain period in time, but then it can stagnate and three years later it will no longer be of any interest."
He is less dismissive of contemporary classical music: "It is undeniable that it has influenced electroacoustic music and vice versa, because you find composers of instrumental music whose method of writing bears similarities to electroacoustic music, even people like Boulez, or younger composers like Dusapin. I sometimes feel close to classical music, but it's really an entirely different world. Their ideas are different, and so is their very conception of music."
Parmegiani nonetheless borrows freely from these genres. In Du Pop A L'Ane he superimposed or followed up selected extracts from classical composers such as Messiaen with fragments of jazz or pop music. "For instance, I superimposed a fragment of Pink Floyd over an extract from one of Stravinsky's works, and it really worked – you'd have thought they were made for each other!" he enthuses.
His own approach to music is intuitive, in as much as he uses neither sketches nor diagrams: "When I create sounds for a work I am improvising in a way. But it doesn't remain improvisation, because afterwards I go over what I have done and touch it up. Whereas when Michel Portal [the French jazz musician] improvises, that's it, he can't do it over again." Such experimentation nonetheless plays an important part in Parmegiani's work: “It can make you change direction all of a sudden. You set out to do something and then you end up with something [else] which is really interesting but doesn't fit in with your original idea. And that can be a problem because you have to choose [whether] to keep it or set it aside. It happens to me all the time, which means that I end up with sufficient material for another three pieces."
Prolific as ever despite his age, Parmegiani is bursting with novel ideas, but at the same time he has never wavered in his attachment to musique concrète unlike Schaeffer, who subsequently turned away from his momentous discovery, claiming that it was not music. Today, Schaeffer's brilliant, if domineering personality continues to overshadow his disciples at the GRM, Parmegiani among them, but it's no small thanks to their patient, unrelenting labour that musique concrète and electroacoustic music have become the vibrant and powerful musical force that they are today.
Parmegiani now has his own studio in the south of France, in which he composes the greater part of his pieces. He is currently toying with the idea of creating an electroacoustic version of the Faust legend, as well as what he calls an "operap": "It would be an opera with words and texts [as in] rap," he explains. "But it would have to be done creatively and not just be an adaptation of rap, because it's a genre that doesn't evolve."