Henri Pousseur: A Pioneer of Electronic Music

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Image Courtesy of Igloo Records

All music has to start from somewhere, doesn’t it? Drums evolved from being a communication method to instruments that accompanied the human voice. Soon lyres and flutes appeared. Before long, there were fiddles and horns and cellos and mandolins and… you get the picture. Instruments are simply engineered tools to produce sound in unique ways while maximizing the users ability. When the instrument finally meets its master, a la Antonio Stradivari, virtuoso musicians of said instrument are soon to follow. The same thing happens with music theory. But music theory and composition are still dependent on the engineering of new instruments and new technology.

Enter Henri Pousseur. Born in Belgium, 1929, Pousseur survived the depths of the Great Depression and the terrors of war to attend music academies in Liège and Brussels, from 1947 to 1952. This was a highly experimental and exploratory time in near all forms of art, not the least being music. Pousseur was a member of the extremely progressive Darmstadt School, a group of composers who were met with disdain for their post-tonal ways.

Over the course of his long career, Pousseur would help mold the minds of numerous burgeoning musicians and composers. He taught in Germany, Switzerland and the US, at SUNY Buffalo, before returning to Belgium to teach at home – Pousseur died in 2009 in Brussels.

But his exploratory nature, both in composition and life would lead him down the road of the burgeoning use of electronics in music. Listen to the track above by Pousseur, “Vue sur les jardins interdits,” performed by Xasax of France.

This composition was modern for its time; avant garde and serial in its structure. But if you weren’t paying attention, it might come across as just another piece of classical music. Now listen to the track below, “Scambi,” created in 1957.

You might be wondering, what the heck was that? This experimental composition is considered one of the very first pieces of electronic music. It may seem near indecipherable at times, but the piece was as much an experiment as anything else.

Pousseur had multiple goals he sought to accomplish with Scambi. The first was to create a piece of music comprised of several different elements that would be able to assembled in a variety of manners – similar to the experimental dice dance improvisations of Merce Cunningham.

Next he wished to depart from the traditional character of what defined music’s sound. He wanted it to abandon single structures and conventionality and be unpredictable. So to create his sound, he started with white noise and sent it through a special filtering device created by Dr. Alfredo Lietti, a director of the recording studio Pousseur was using. The device enabled Pousseur tweak the attenuation, or bandwidths, of the sound being produced.

So was Pousseur successful?

Scambi was intially dismissed as nonsensical blither, even by members of Pousseur’s inner circle. It’s stuck around though, and eventually people learned its merits. Not long after, progressive music and avant garde electronica was on the horizon. Technology has made electronic modulation much easier now, but the roots of Scambi and Pousseur’s other works – and the works of his contemporaries – are still clearly heard today.

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