Saturday, April 11, 2009

Bernard Parmegiani, a sound master

Organized by Groupe de Recherches Musicales (G.R.M.) and jointly produced with Radio France, the Présences Électronique festival explores the link between the concrete music of Pierre Schaeffer and new experiments in electronic music. One of this event’s special features is that it offers the public and performers a unique “spatialized” broadcasting and listening system in the Acousmonium.
This year, for this fifth event, Présences Electronique has moved out of the Maison de Radio France and spent three days in the various rooms of 104, the new multi-disciplinary cultural centre in Paris’s 19th arrondissement.

We were there and listened in darkness to 'De Natura Sonorum' (1974-1975), one of the best of Parmegiani's works in terms of technics-sound-harmonic-tone.

Bernard Parmegiani (1927) met Pierre Schaeffer who encouraged him to attend a training course in electro-acoustic music in 1959. Then he joined the Groupe de Recherches Musicales the next year, becoming a full member right up until 1992. Pierre Schaeffer put Bernard Parmegiani in charge of the Music/Image unit of the ORTF's Research Departement, where he went on the compose the music for both full-length and short films. The proved to be a first class training ground for learning how to deal with the problems of musical form as these relate to time, and how to overcome the constraints imposed by the medium of the cinema. He also wrote the music for several jingles, as well as songs and music written for television, the ballet or the theater. There then followed 40 years of uninterrumpted research and musical creations built out of an ongoing fight that led him to regard bodies of sound as living bodies. He took a keen interest in those areas in which the improvisation techniques used by jazz musicians meet with electro-acoustic music. Parmegiani's own output, primarily made up of sounds recordes on tape, includes more than 70 pieces of concert. Except some mixed pièces, his work as a whole take the form of music for « fixed sound », coming within the scope of the large repertoire of electro-acoustic music.

Some excerpts from the interview by Évelyne Gayou, published in full in the book "Portrait Polychromes: Bernard Parmegiani":

Can the Parmegiani's sound be defined? Some people speak of "organic sounds"...

In the past, people used to talk about a "Parmegiani's sound", a little too much to my liking, and it bothered me a lot. People would say: "Oh! Parmé, what beautiful sounds you make!!!" It's good to make nice sounds, but really, we don't compose music to produce nice sounds, but rather to compose from an idea. I'm not trying to seduce anyone with my music; I'm trying to get people interested. That's why I'm obsessed with constantly renewing myself musically. I can only exist by continuosly exploring new territories; otherwise one gets bored with one's own music. The risk is to do 'Parmegiani in the style of Parmegiani' and so on. If I must define what the "Parmegiani sound" is, then it's a kind of movement, a kind of colour, a way of starting and a way of fading the sound, a way of bringing life into it. I do consider sounds as living things. So there's, indeed, something organic, skin deep, but it's always difficult for me to define my music; what we perceive from within isn't always understood by others in the same way. We recognize ourselves in the mirror others hold up for us, to a certain extent; it's a game between the inner and outer realms.
[...] When I start a piece, I create a sound bank; I include new sounds, never used before, that might fit my intention and reworked old sounds. I listen to them and create detailed inventories; it is essential and imposed by my working method. For example, for De Natura Sonorum, I made lists of sounds classified by shape, subject, colour, etc. according to the TOM (Treaty of Musical Objects)'s typology. I like to set the sound material in my ear first, so that I can then work with these sounds to express what I want to say [...]

When performing your music in concerts, how do you see the spatial aspects? Do you want to create a show or is it a mere experience?

I'm not very happy with the word show because of its demonstrative character. I prefer for it to be an "experience" because I never project the sounds in the same way twice. When I'm in a concert, standing at the sound projection desk, I intentionally send the sound to specific speakers, I either pan to the left, to the right, along the sides or behind and I associate pairs of sounds. The sound can follow a pre-defined trajectory; remain static in a speakers area or even in a pair of stereo speakers. Some composers, especially when they start out, turn all the potentiometers up and don't vary the levels of the speakers much, the result is imperceptible. Worse than that, the sound is hindered in all directions because it is everywhere at once. Depending on the acoustics of the concert hall, you might even get reverberation or interference phenomena, and then the audience can't hear any subtlety.

You've gone through the digital revolution, what do you think these new tools have brought to your music?

I was probably the first person at the GRM with a personal digital studio. So I had to learn how to use the digital equipment by myself. By switching from the scissors to the mouse, we've improved a few things, but we've lost out on others. [...] The time it takes to put an idea into practice has shortened and, consequently, we're closer to the compositional act.

[the review of Parmegiani 12-CD box set | by Caleb Deupree]

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