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The sounds of musique

The sounds of musique

Recently deceased musicians offered noises for listeners on the fringe

The French avant-garde composer Pierre Henry died in July at age 89, the British guitarist’s guitarist Allan Holdsworth in April at age 70. Despite the many differences separating what they set out to do and what they ended up doing, they shared an obsession with unusual sounds that made them household names in houses inhabited by listeners on the fringe.

Henry was a pioneer and a practitioner of “musique concrète,” a subgenre of “electroacoustic music” featuring sounds extracted from their original contexts and electronically transmogrified. His body of work was as dauntingly large as it was dauntingly strange.

Perhaps the best way for novices to take the Henry plunge would be to watch Éric Darmon and Franck Mallet’s 2007 documentary The Art of Sounds. In the course of its 51 minutes, one sees Henry collecting noises while strolling through Paris, searching for an elusive sound amid his vast, meticulously cataloged library of tapes, “performing” from behind mixing boards (with speakers as the “musicians”) to small but rapt audiences, and generally coming off endearingly oblivious to the possibility that anyone might insist on referring to his works as “music” rather than music.

Viewers will be either curious or put off. The curious should investigate Henry’s most popular work next, a five-part suite created with the soundtrack composer Michel Colombier titled Messe Pour Le Temps Présent (1967). Besides containing Henry’s only appearance on the pop charts (the “Louie, Louie”–inspired “Psyché Rock”), the recording also represents his most fully realized attempt to graft his random-seeming aural-collage style onto another genre (a kind of ’60s psychedelic garage rock in this case). Paradise Lost, Henry’s 1982 collaboration with the minimalist ensemble Urban Sax, is another relatively approachable hybrid.

Then there’s Métamorphose: Messe Pour Le Temps Présent, a Henry-remix project released in 1997 by Philips Records that turns Messe Pour Le Temps Présent’s five sections over to remixers such as Fatboy Slim, William Orbit, Funki Porcini, and Dmitri from Paris. “Psyché Rock” appears in five guises, “Too Fortiche” in three, and “Jericho Jerk” in two, yet neither their iterations nor the one-off versions of “Prologue” and “Teen Tonic” congeal into tedium.

A good deal of the rest of Henry’s output will strike many as similar to spelunking at night while blindfolded: challenging, yes, and capable of inducing novel, even thrilling, sensations, but also capable of making all but the most adventurous feel as if they’d been pranked.

Investigating Allan Holdsworth is easier. Shortly before his death, Manifesto Records released two compilations, the two-disc Eidolon: The Allan Holdsworth Collection and the 12-disc, identically subtitled The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever! The more one listens to them, the more he realizes that Holdsworth was, like Henry, a “sound nut” with an anything-goes approach—in Holdsworth’s case, to the playing and recording of a fusion jazz from which every trace of the blues has been wiped away if it was ever there in the first place.

Holdsworth’s drummers, for instance, play as if they’re soloing even when they’re not, while some of the noises that Holdsworth can be heard making (sometimes melodies, often lightning-fingered solos riding hearts-of-space chord changes) don’t even sound as if they’re coming from a guitar.

Some of them aren’t. In the mid-’80s, Holdsworth went mad for something called a SynthAxe, an instrument played like a guitar that sounded like a synthesizer. It eventually went the way of the dodo (only 100 were manufactured). But had it caught on, Holdsworth might well have added “The Man Who Changed SynthAxe Forever” to his honorifics.