When pop culture tips its hat to latter day classical, it usually indulges in the Stockhausen syndrome – dust off ol’ Karlheinz’s name and you sound sophisticated and knowledgeable. That’s why it was heartening to see not-exactly-classical-friendly publications publish notices late last week about the passing of Bernard Parmegiani, a French composer who wasn’t exactly a household name even in the modern classical world itself. Having fans like Sonic Youth, Autechre, Matmos and Aphex Twin certainly raised Parmegiani’s profile in the indie/techno realm but there’s so much more to discover about the fascinating body of work he left behind.
Parmegiani was someone who disliked lines and separations.
Most of all, Parmegiani was someone who disliked lines and separations, whether they were dividing styles of music, mediums of communication, meanings of words or even our own senses. To him, these distinctions were artificial and false and he made it his life’s work to dispel notions of why they were even needed in the first place.
Even before he took to music, Parmegiani studied theatre and mime, learning the importance of action without sound. He then took up as a sound engineer for French television before studying at the newly formed Groupe de recherches musicales (GRM) collective which composer Pierre Schaeffer created in 1959 as a means to study – and experiment with – sound. It was here that Parmegiani thrived and found kindred spirits. Before creating his own music, he paid his dues, working as a technical assistant to the GRM composers, learning invaluable skills.
Parmegiani’s chosen platform evolved into electro-acoustic music – a paradoxical blend of the organic and inorganic where natural sounds or ordinary instruments are transformed by electronics. His breakthrough came with one of his earliest pieces, 1964’s “Violostries,” written for violin and tape manipulations, where he drew vivid sound portraits of anger, beauty and otherworldly pre-psychedelic madness. It was something of a template for his career, with majestic tunefulness always seeming to butt up against clamoring percussive cascades of noise.
Parmegiani’s three decades of work as a composer with the GRM is nicely documented on a 2-CD set from 1997, which is out of print now but worth hunting down. Starting with “Violostries,” the set presents album-side-long stretches of six of his multi-movement compositions including the gorgeous early minimalism of 1971’s “Pour en finir avec le pouvoir d’Orphée.” Titles like “Lointain-proche” (Distant Close), “Dedans-Dehors” (Inside Out) and “L’Oeil Ecoute” (The Listening Eye) also showed his love of compatible opposites. His later work was no less impressive: Witness 1987’s Varese/Tangerine Dream hybrid “Rouge-Mort Thanatos” and 1991’s transcendent, spiritual “Le Présent composé.”
I was particularly taken by “En Phase/Hors Phase,” the first movement of “Dedans-Dehors,” and included it in a box set I co-produced in 2000, Ohm- The Early Gurus of Electronic Music. When I interviewed Parmegiani about the composition, he said:
This piece is dedicated to (composer/GRM director) François Bayle, friend and companion of these musical years. “Dedans-Dehors” widens the field of the metamorphoses where the natural sounds (sounds of nature) are confronted with the artificial sounds (sounds of synthesis). These metamorphoses included passages such as from fluid to solid, and movements such as ebb and flow or breathing in and breathing out. [“En Phase” is a] succession of notes repeated alternatively located or not geographically in space.
The aforementioned GRM set does miss two important pieces from the GRM period. 1975’s well-regarded De Natura Sonorum is a triumphant extension of “Violostries” and thanks to Editions Mego, one of his few albums still in print. Pop’eclectic collected works from the late ‘60s and early 70’s including an improv sessions with a jazz group (he’d also record with free music group Third Ear Band around this time). Featured on this collection, 1968’s “Du pop a l’ane” is sublime to the point of insanity. Mounting a sampling grand theft of choirs and gross pop tunes, Parmegiani also includes huge hunks of The Doors’ “When The Music’s Over” and the Mothers of Inventions’ We’re Only In It for the Money, including a snippet of Eric Clapton yelling and Zappa’s own appropriation of a surf music record.
Along with his recorded works, Parmegiani’s multi-media background would also manifest itself in other ways with pieces he composed for radio, television and movie soundtracks, advertising jingles and (following in Eno’s footsteps) music for an airport. He would also create several (pre-MTV) extended music videos. One of them is fortunately available online: 1973’s “L’Ecran Transparent” (The Transparent Screen). The 20 minute video cuts up and juxtaposes images and sounds – people hurrying down streets, cars whizzing by, microbes, arcade lights, blinking eyes, birds in flight and a wonderful scene where Parmegiani himself wanders around a screen beneath him, seemingly trapped by its edges. In between all of this, he also presents his poetic Zen-like philosophy about the senses.
We are enveloped in the sounds without ever having to determine their origin. The sounds come from above, underneath, from the front, from behind, from the right, from the left. While the visual space is a continuum, it is organized in a uniform and coherent way. The auditory world is a world of simultaneous relations. We cannot stop the sounds automatically – quite simply, we are not endowed with ear-lids.
Post-GRM, Parmegiani would create a studio space for himself in Southern France and his compositional work slowed, though his work was revived not only through GRM-related concerts in Western Europe but also at alt-rock festival All Tomorrow’s Parties. For anyone curious or agnostic about his work, Amazon has the MP3 version of the extensive L’Oeuvre Musicale box set (over 12 hours of music). It’s a wonderful chance to revel in one of the most wonderfully eccentric and diverse characters in 20th century classical music.