Pierre Henry was born in Paris on 9 December 1927. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire between 1938–48 with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen. As he explained to Rahma Khazam in The Wire 160, these early years saw his introduction to the concepts he would later use in his music. “I used to play in an orchestra, and I was struck by the fact that depending on where you were placed, you would hear the prolific composer of electroacoustic music differently. And if you selected short extracts and listened to them, they took on a completely new meaning, because they were out of context.”
While studying as a percussionist under Messiaen, Henry met the musique concrete pioneer Pierre Schaeffer. He had heard Schaeffer's early works and went to meet him at RTF (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française), in the studio founded by Schaeffer some years earlier. Following a collaboration featuring Henry on percussion, the pair started to work together.
Between 1949–58 Henry worked at Shaeffer's Club d'Essai studio and in 1950 he and Schaeffer composed Symphonie Pour Un Homme Seul. Indeed, in The Wire 305, Philip Clark referred to this piece as “the moment musique concrète properly arrived, when their techniques had become malleable enough to carry the expressive language for which they were aiming”.
In 1951, Schaeffer, Henry and sound engineer Jacques Poullin founded the Groupe de Recherches de Musique Concrète, Club d 'Essai de la Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française at RTF in Paris. A purpose built electroacoustic music studio, it was used by such notable composers as Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Jean Barraqué, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse, Iannis Xenakis and others.
In 1952 Henry composed a work for Jean Grémillon's Astrologie Ou Le Miroir De La Vie, which is said to be the first musique concrète piece constructed for film. He then left RTF and alongside Jean Baronnet founded Apsone-Cabasse Studio, the first private electronic studio in France, where he furthered his explorations in electronic sounds and musique concrète. IN Henry would go on to pay musical homage to Luigi Russolo and Ludwig van Beethoven, as well as continue making solo works for ballet and film. In 1996 he composed a series of pieces Chez Henry, with Intérieur/Extérieur made specifically for performance inside his house. Talking to Philip Clark more than ten years later in 2009, he said: “Today I feel less inspired. We’re living at a time where everything is controlled, planned and codified and even popular anymore, it's imposed upon us.
“I think it’s a big mistake to call today’s music electronic music,” he continued. “People do things with computers and samples but it’s not the same approach as the way I work, or how Karlheinz Stockhausen worked in his electronic pieces. There is not the same craft, and it’s not progress.”
You can read Rahma Khazam article in The Wire 160 by clicking here, and Philip Clark's in The Wire 305 by clicking on this link.
Pierre Henry died at Saint-Joseph Hospital in Paris.