The life of Pierre Henry in 5 works

A seeker of sounds, pioneer of electroacoustic music, and inspiration for the electro movement, Pierre Henry was a composer turned entirely towards modernity. Come discover this explorer of sounds through five unique works!

The life of Pierre Henry in 5 works
The life of Pierre Henry in 5 works, © Getty / Raphael GAILLARDE

Through his unique musical experimentations, Pierre Henry influenced not only the world of "contemporary" music but also that of popular music, relentlessly exploring the infinite possibilities of electronic music.

"Symphonie pour un homme seul"

It is impossible to discuss Pierre Henry without mentioning another Pierre: Schaeffer (1910-1995). A key figure of French radio broadcasting in the mid-20th century, he was president of the GRMC (Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète). In 1949, he hired Pierre Henry following a recommendation from his professor Olivier Messiaen, first as a percussionist for his musical experience, then as a composer. The young musician, only 22 years old, quickly stood out and soon became Schaeffer's principal collaborator.

A year later, their collaboration resulted in a collective work, the Symphonie pour un homme seul. Deemed an immediate success, the work was considered as the foundation of musique concrète (music created using recorded sounds). The version for ballet created by the choreographer Maurice Béjart in 1955 firmly rooted its reputation.

"Le Voyage"

In 1958, following a dispute with Schaeffer, Pierre Henry resigned from the GRMC and founded his own studio, the APSOME (Applications de Procédés SOnores en Musique Electroacoustique). The limited technical means at his disposal resulted in a simplification of his method of work. Through this new style of composition he created Le Voyage (1962), a refined electronic creation destined to accompany a ballet by Maurice Béjart, commissioned by the Cologne Opera.

The work's scenario is drawn from the Bardo Thödol (the Tibetan Book of the Dead), a text that also inspired, in a completely different genre, John Lennon's Tomorrow Never Knows in 1966.

"Variations pour une porte et un soupir"

Composed shortly after Le Voyage, the Variations pour une porte et un soupir were inspired by a sound discovery, rather than a literary one: the squeaking of a door in an old attic. Provocative, the work pushes the limits of the musique concrète genre by reducing it to a music composed entirely of a "squeaking door". The door thus becomes the principal instrument of the work, which lasts no less than 45 minutes!

Conceived as a theme and variations, the work is divided into 25 movements which represent the progression of a typical day ("Sommeil"/"Sleep", "Eveil"/"Awakening", "Gymnastique"/"Exercise", "Ronflement"/"Snoring"…). Very gestural, the work lends itself perfectly to the world of dance. In 1965, Béjart, yet again, therefore imagined a choreographic improvisation in which each dancer chooses at random the part that he or she will perform, thereby representing the renewal of the circle of life.

"Messe pour le temps présent"

If the two previous works marked an important milestone in the career of Pierre Henry, his most famous work is unquestionably the Messe pour le temps présent, including the hit "Psyché rock". 150 000 copies of the LP recording were sold, a record-breaking number for a hitherto marginal musical genre! Such was the work's success that "Psyché rock" has since been used in various films and advertisements, covered and remixed by countless artists, and even used in the opening credits of the animated series Futurama.

The work was a collaborative one, written with Michel Colombier (1939-2004) following a commission by Béjart for the 1967 Avignon Festival. The ballet is built as a dance suite: an old form, therefore, but updated with more modern and popular styles of dance: a rock, two jerks and a slow.

"Le Fil de la vie"

As can be guessed by its title, Le Fil de la vie (The thread of life) is a "aural biography" as described by Pierre Henry himself. Announced as his final work, it is the composer's musical testament. He evokes his studies, his first experimentations with musique concrète, and his collaborations with Pierre Schaeffer and Maurice Béjart.

Due to the one-hour work's very personal character, its gestation was much longer than that of his previous works (a year and a half). Also worth noting, the work's creation relies upon a physical notated support, though not a score in the conventional sense - no musical notes appear on the page - but rather a conductor's score with marking points to make its public performance somewhat easier.